1. Sorting Out the Psalms
I’d like to begin with the first line of Psalm 133: See how agreeable and delightful it is for brothers to live united together. (133:1)
Now I‘ve had good reason to look at this psalm. For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on my second book in the series A Twenty-First-Century Bible – translations intended to make the bible easier to understand. And what I’ve been trying to do is to put the psalms “Of David”, of which there are 73, into their historical context.
The idea behind this, is so that I can include in the narrative the psalms which relate to the specific events described, whilst placing the psalms of a more general nature, or where the specific historical events cannot be identified, into a special section on their own.
2. The Chronology of David
Of course sorting out David’s life into some sort of chronological order has not been an easy task. There are two versions of David’s story – one in 1 & 2 Samuel, and the other in 1 Chronicles. Both have their differences, and there are problems with the order of events. So getting David’s chronology in reasonable order has been a challenge in itself.
3. Psalm 133
But let’s get back to Psalm 133. Where does it fit into David’s chronology? When were the people living together in unity? And what are the things that we can learn by even attempting this exercise?
B. HISTORICAL SETTING
1. Historical Criteria
Well to answer the questions the first thing we need to look at is the historical criteria detailed in the psalm. Because the psalm doesn’t just describe the unity of the people, but something of the circumstances behind that unity. And what we can see is: in verse two we have a reference to the anointing with oil; at the beginning of verse 3 we have a reference to Mount Zion; and at the end of verse 3 we have a reference to God blessing his people from the mountain.
So how does this all fit together?
2. Clue 1: David Anointed King
Well in regard to the anointing of oil, in the days of David there were only two people who were anointed with oil – The High Priest, and the King. And they were anointed with oil as part of their commissioning or appointment for the task. Now David probably wasn’t even born when Saul was made king. And yet the anointing with oil was evidently a very important part of his memory. Indeed the psalm suggests this anointing may have been recent and personal.
The trouble is that when we look for a time in David’s life when he was anointed with oil, we discover that he was anointed three times. The first time, when Samuel anointed him successor to King Saul; the second time when he was made king over the tribe of Judah; and the third time when he was made king over the whole of Israel.
And were the people united at any of these times? No! Because at the first time, aged about 15, Saul was still king, and at that time Saul was having great trouble keeping the people together. The second time was when David was 30. But he may have been made king of Judah, but the rest of Israel had appointed their own king – one of Saul’s descendants. And the third time was when David was 37, and had been made king over Israel. But the people were far from united. Indeed as far as Israel was concerned it was a very uneasy alliance. And with a number of Saul’s descendants still being around, who could be considered potential kings, David had to tread very carefully indeed.
So the unity of the people did not coincide with any of these three events. As a consequence we need to look further into the events of David’s life, after his third anointing, but whilst his anointing was still fresh on his mind.
3. Clue 2: The Capture of Jebus
So if the anointing of David wasn’t the event that united the people, then let’s move on to the second clue: the reference to Mount Hermon and Mount Zion. Now Mount Hermon in Syria is visible from many parts of Israel. It is also known for its dews, which are refreshing and invigorating. So the connection with the idea of life on Mount Zion in the context of a united people makes a lot of sense.
But how does this fit in to David’s chronology? Well at the time that David was made king over Israel, Mount Zion was not even in the hands of Israel or the tribe of Judah. Indeed the town, “Jebus” as it was known at the time, was still part of the Promised Land that needed to be conquered.
But David, having been made king of Judah and Israel, needed a base to work from. And with the uneasy alliance, he needed a place that was neither part of Judah nor Israel – somewhere neutral where he could base his administration and his army. Somewhere in which none of the people had a vested interest.
So he organized the combined armies to attack Jebus. They took the city, and David renamed it the “City of David”. (Of course we know it as “Jerusalem” (“foundation of peace”), but that name was only adopted later as the city expanded).
So then is this the point that we can say that the people were truly united? Well the answer is still no. The taking of Jebus may have helped unite the people, but there were still tensions between Israel and the tribe of Judah. And that wouldn’t have been helped by the Philistines, who were used to occupying parts of the land, being very threatened by David being made king over all of Israel.
4. Clue 3: God on Mount Zion
So how are we going…? What was it that united the people? Well we only have one clue left. That is God blessing the people from Zion.
Now for David, being king, and having an administrative and military centre was one thing. But the City of David was not the spiritual centre of the land. Indeed the place where all males were required to go three times a year, and where the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were located, was still in Kiriath Jearim, 23 kilometres north-west of the city. As a consequence, from a political point of view, to bring everything together, it needed to be moved to the city.
Of course you could say that God is everywhere, he doesn’t need physical representation in the city. But as far as the people were concerned, God had instructed them to worship in the one central place, and had provided the structure necessary for that to happen. So very early on, having become king and having conquered Jebus, David moved the Ark into the city.
Now if you want to read the story of the Ark coming into the city, I suggest you need to read both versions of the story – the one in 2 Samuel and the one in 1 Chronicles. Because only when you combine the two versions do you really get that sense of enthusiasm, and excitement, as the Ark is brought into the City.
Now for me, this was the first time that all aspects of psalm 133 fit together. A new king had been anointed; the kingdom had its base on Mount Zion, and God was now physically and spiritually present on the mountain. For the first time under David’s rule, the people were truly united.
5. What Happened Next
But did it last?
Well there were a few hiccups early on – any new king had to be careful about the security of his throne. In particular there were tensions with the descendants of Saul, but they were quickly dealt with. But by far the biggest problem in his first 10 years as king was the problems David faced from without – from the surrounding nations.
But having established his throne, and having achieved relative peace within Israel, that unity was then shattered. David’s sons vied for the throne; tensions re-emerged between Judah and Israel; on occasion David had to flee for his life; and at times his own behaviour had much to be desired.
In the last 20 odd years of his life, there was all the talking behind his back, secret meetings, back-stabbings, intrigue, and even the out-and-out rebellion. One thing after another went wrong as people sought to put their own wants and desires before the needs of others.
So what went wrong? Why did the people move from being united to tearing each other part?
Well to answer that, we don’t have to go any further than the day David brought the Ark into the city. Because after the enthusiasm, and the excitement of the day, David returned to his home in the city, and he was confronted by his first wife, Michal. She expressed her great displeasure at his apparent over-enthusiastic welcome of the Ark. And she demonstrated a hatred and bitterness towards David, and a contempt for God.
Michal took her eye of the ball. She completely lost sight of what it meant to have God as the central focus of life. And in that one instance, we have a hint of what was to come.
What we have with this psalm then is a celebration of the unity of the people, based on David’s kingship, with its administrative centre on Mount Zion from which the people could receive God’s blessings. A good, positive, and uplifting psalm. But what we find from the context is that that unity was totally dependent upon the people keeping their eyes firmly focussed upon God.
C. A SONG OF ASCENTS
Now that’s all very well, but as I said, the unity didn’t last. People took their eyes off God. Which is why we need to look at something else about this psalm. Because having worked out its historical context, we need to examine how it was later used.
Now historically this psalm is noted as being “A Song of Ascents”. Now that probably wasn’t a title that David gave it, but one it acquired later. But what it means is that it was used by pilgrims going to Jerusalem to participate in one of the major festivals: i.e. the Feast of Passover/Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Tabernacles. And what would happen is that as the pilgrims got closer to the city, and start to ascend Mount Zion, they would sing these “Song of Ascents”.
Now, over the next few hundred years, the pilgrims to Jerusalem would not always have been happy with their king. Indeed most of the kings that followed David were not nice people. As a consequence the people would not always have been united either.
So what was the psalm used for? Well in one sense it would have been used to remind the people of happier times. But in another sense it would have been used as a reminder of something to strive for – unity under a common leader; unity with common goals; but most importantly, and those two things depend upon it, unity based on a central focus upon God.
So having solved the mystery, having placed the psalm in its historical context, and having looked at its ongoing use, what can we learn?
1. Human Leadership
Well, how often do we hear on TV, or elsewhere, about how someone would be a great leader? How often are we introduced to someone with a charismatic personality – someone who could truly unite the people? And yet, one of the things that we learn from this psalm is that unity cannot be obtained by simply placing our trust in a human leader.
Indeed, David, considered the greatest king of Israel, was unable to unite the people based on his kingship alone. And yet when he was working as a military commander under Saul, he was the people’s hero. At that time, in the people’s eyes, he couldn’t do anything wrong. Yes, King Saul had a problem with him, but then he was jealous of David, and wanted his own son, Jonathan, to inherit the throne. But even when Saul’s died, David could not gain the unity of the people on his own.
2. Common Goals
How often do we hear the idea of becoming united by pursuing the common ground, or something neutral to which we can all agree? And yet, another thing that we can learn from this psalm is that unity cannot be achieved simply by agreeing to common goals, or neutral bases, either.
Indeed, David was unable to unite the people by having a common, but neutral administrative, and military base – somewhere to which all the people could belong, and have their focus. Yes, it might have helped him bring the people together for a while, but it did not truly unite the people.
3. A Focus on God
What this psalm teaches is that there is only one thing that can truly unite people. And that is people having their eyes focussed fairly and squarely on God.
But does that mean, we should abandon the idea of having a common leader, and abandon the idea of having common goals? No! But what it should mean is that we should pursue a godly leader, and godly goals, with our eyes very firmly focussed on God. Because without God as our central focus everything will just fall apart.
What we see by placing this psalm in its context, then, is the reality that without God we can do nothing. We might be able appoint ourselves a great leader, we might even come to an agreement on a common focus. But without God, we will not be truly united, and what we have, in the end, will simply fall apart.
Now I started today with a psalm, and a mystery. But what we have discovered is that it is a psalm of David which is a snapshot of a moment in time when everything came together. The psalm was also a reminder for pilgrims to Jerusalem to pursue a time when all those things would come together again.
And for us? Well, like the pilgrims, it should also be a reminder for us to pursue a unity under God. Because it is also a warning of how easy it is for that unity to break down.
So, let us be united under a good godly leader. Let us have all things in common. Let us strive for those things. But let us do so the only way that those two things can become possible – with our eyes firmly fixed on our God.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis