Unity — Its Aesthetic and Practical Value

By Wayne Jackson

There is, perhaps, no greater exhortation to unity, anywhere in the Bible, that surpasses that of Psalm 133.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. It is like the precious oil upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard; that came down upon the collar of his garments; Like the dew of Hermon, that falls upon the mountains of Zion: For there Jehovah commanded the blessing, even life forevermore.”

The song is identified in the superscription (which is not a part of the inspired text) as having been authored by David. Further, it is characterized as a “song of ascents.”

Scholars differ as to the background out of which the composition arose. Some suggest that it was a song sung by the tribes on those festive occasions when they would leave their respective homes and travel up to Jerusalem. Perhaps it was intended to remind them that though they were separated by distance most of the year, they were to be united always in spirit, in their service to Almighty God.

Others opine that David penned the piece after the tribes of Israel unified under his leadership, and God had given him Jerusalem (cf. 2 Samuel 5:1-10).

Some Terms Defined

The psalm has a two-fold thrust: it illustrates the aesthetic aspect of brotherly unity; and, it stresses the practical value of oneness as well.

First of all, a consideration of certain words is in order. David affirms that when brothers “dwell together in unity” it is a “good” and “pleasant” experience.

The term “brother,” used some 630 times in the Old Testament, can denote sons of the same father, near or distant kinsmen, or, in a metaphorical sense, solidarity or affection.

To “dwell together” denotes proximity, association.

“Unity” [not in the text, but implied] reflects togetherness, a concerted action — as when a chorus sings in unison (cf. Job 38:7).

“Good” has to do with the intrinsic character of the unity; it is that which promotes happiness and results in an efficacious influence.

“Pleasant” appeals to the senses; it is that quality which exudes beauty, and thus pleases (cf. Song of Solomon 7:6).

The Illustrative Images

The psalmist employs two examples to illustrate the nature and effect of brotherly concord.

When brothers “dwell together” it is like “precious oil” — especially that used in anointing the high priest at his consecration. This mixture of olive oil, combined with aromatic spices, e.g., myrrh and cinnamon (cf. Exodus 30:22ff), produced a delightful fragrance in an odorous environment of blood and burning flesh.

The prevailing idea in the symbol probably is that of sweetness, pleasantness. The oil was poured upon the head and then ran down to the collar of Aaron’s priestly robe. Some writers feel that the oil united the man with his vestments, thus suggesting a unity in one body. Both the priest and his garments were hallowed (Exodus 29:21).

Second, there is the reference to the dew of Mount Hermon. Hermon, which marked the northern limit of Joshua’s conquest (Joshua 11:17; 12:1), is the highest peak in Israel, some 9,232 feet in height. Its dew bathes the hills below.

In his valuable volume, The Land and the Book, W. M. Thompson remarked that during his travels the dew rolled off his tent like rain (London: Nelson, 1863, p. 491). Even the small mountains of Zion were blessed with this morning moisture.

The expression “dew of Hermon” may be proverbial for the plentitude of divine blessings. Dew was a real gift in a land where the rainfall varies from 60 inches annually near Hermon, to 8 inches south of Beersheba.

In this connection one cannot but recall God’s drought-judgment upon the land in the days of Elijah, when there was neither rain nor dew for three and one-half years (1 Kings 17:1; cf. James 5:17). This, of course, was an indictment of the futility of Baal-worship (a god that supposedly controlled the weather).

Let us now develop the thoughts of these two illustrations.

The Fragrance of Brotherly Love

It is an unfortunate circumstance that the lofty concept of brotherly love frequently has been tarnished in history. The very first murder was committed by a “brother” upon his “brother” (Genesis 4:8). The earliest written prohibition against murder argues that there is a human sense in which all men are brothers, made in God’s image (Genesis 9:5-6).

Subsequent narratives reveal further animosity between brothers. Ishmael “mocked” Isaac (Genesis 21:9), which appears to have been a preview of things to come (16:12). Jacob “cheated” Esau (27:36, ESV), and the latter “hated” him for it (27:41). Joseph’s brothers, moved with jealousy, sold him into Egypt (cf. Acts 7:9). The “bad blood” between David’s sons is well known. Absalom had Amnon killed (2 Samuel 13:28), and Solomon did the same to Adonijah (1 Kings 2:13-25).

The concept of brotherly love — so essential to unity — is a forceful theme in the New Testament. The Greek word is philadelphos, affection for a brother.

In secular Greek the term was used exclusively for feelings between blood brothers; in biblical literature it soars beyond that. In the New Testament, the word is employed always of the love that Christians are to have for one another because of their common relationship to the heavenly Father by virtue of the “new birth” process (see Romans 12:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22; 3:8; 2 Peter 1:7).

There is a sweet aura that bathes the social terrain when men love one another as brothers should. It attracts the attention of others who long for it in their hearts. Brotherly felicity was reflected in the relationship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:17).

When the Jews observed Jesus’ tears at the tomb of Lazarus, they interpreted them as drops of love (John 11:35-36). The special bond between Christ and John was noteworthy (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20).

Just as the foreground of a painting is sometimes accentuated by the starkness of the background, even so, the pleasantness of brotherly unity is perhaps most vivid when seen in contrast to the ugliness of division.

Both Testaments speak to the bitterness of divisiveness. Solomon bluntly says that God hates the one who would sow “discord among brothers” (Proverbs 6:16ff). A perverse person causes strife and separates friends (16:28), and the scoffer generates quarreling and abuse (22:10). In the New Testament, division is an offense worthy of discipline (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10).

One of the most compact admonitions for unity in the entire NT is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The apostle instructs these saints to “make full my joy” by being "of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind, doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself. . . " (Philippians 2:2-3). Note the repetitious use of “same” and “one.” What a magnificent formula for brotherly unity!

The Utilitarian Nature of Brotherly Love

Familial oneness is not only flavorsome to the environment, it is capable of facilitating much wholesome fruit.

Brotherly unity is an antidote to infidelity. Jesus made this very point in his prayer to the Father in those dismal hours prior to the cross. He petitioned that his disciples might all be “one,” just as unity prevailed between him and his Father. The design expressed was “that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

It is very difficult, apart from divine influence, for unbelief to explain how the early Christian community could represent such a diverse group of people — and yet be so united.

When the infidel Edward Gibbon wrote his memorable work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), he discussed a number of factors as to why the primitive Christian movement made such an impact in the ancient empire. One of these was the solid “union” that prevailed among the disciples of Christ.

By way of contrast, skepticism finds a great ally in the divisions that now are characteristic of the professed followers of Jesus. True devotees of the one God strive for the oneness that is a reflection of that glory.

Unity within the family of God also has a tremendous evangelistic thrust. Bible students have long sought to explain the remarkable success of the early church — a movement that revolutionized the antique world (cf. Acts 17:6).

There are numerous and diverse factors, and not the least of these is described explicitly by the sacred historian of that period. “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). The surrounding context is punctuated with references to the rapid growth of the Lord’s people conjoined with allusions to unity (see 2:44,46-47; 4:4; 5:12-13, etc.).

And while this circumstance might be easily explained in a group composed strictly of Jews, the phenomenon continued when the Gentiles were “grafted” in — though such was an explosive situation potentially. But when the Jewish Christians became convinced that an unsegregated church was Heaven’s will, “they glorified God” on behalf of their Gentile brethren (Acts 11:18), and subsequently multitudes turned to the Lord (v. 21). When brothers dwell together in love, it is a powerful teaching tool!

A third factor that underscores the value of brotherly unanimity is the fact that such concord enhances fidelity to the Lord. Solomon once wrote of the value of united companionship, as opposed to isolationism.

“There is one that is alone, and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches. For whom then, saith he, do I labor, and deprive my soul of good? This also is vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up. Again, if two be together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone? And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:8-12).

The principle herein contained is clear. Faithful companionship provides strength, comfort, and protection.

Precautionary Considerations

While we extol the values — both aesthetic and utilitarian — of unity, we must likewise observe that a “unity at all costs” is not biblically mandated, nor even approved. In fact such would be nothing more than a pseudo-unity. Consider the following:

Unity must never be sought at the expense of compromising truth. Though the early chapters of the book of Acts stress the oneness of the early disciples, as noted earlier, the same document also affirms that the followers of Jesus “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching” (2:42).

And yes, Paul did admonish the beloved Philippian brethren to be of the “same mind” (2:2-3); he likewise warned them to: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers beware of the concision. . . ,” a variety of false teachers who were a threat to the faith.

The book of Ephesians places considerable emphasis on “oneness” (4:4-5), yet the epistle warns: “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them” (5:11). This balance between true unity, and soundness of teaching, was a deathblow to the ancient idea of “syncretism” (the mixing of religions) — so egregiously adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in its attempt to appease the masses, by combining elements of Judaism, Christianity, and paganism into an amalgamated system. It also strikes at the modern “ecumenical” philosophy — both without and within the church!

While every informed and conscientious Christian would never budge from the word of truth for the sake of a false unity, the wise person acknowledges that perfect agreement will never be achieved in all matters — nor is it required.

Recall, for example, the difference of opinion that arose between Barnabas and Paul, when the latter proposed revisiting the churches planted on the earlier campaign in which the two had cooperated so graciously (Acts 15:36ff). When Paul advanced the idea, Barnabas insisted (so the force of the imperfect tense verb “was minded”) on taking John Mark along.

But Paul persistently objected (“thought” otherwise — again an imperfect — see NASB), because Mark, who had been on the previous trip, for some reason failed to complete the mission, returning home (Acts 13:13). It is obvious that Paul thought the departure was unjustified whereas Barnabas wanted to provide Mark with a second chance.

The disagreement was so “sharp” that Paul and Barnabas parted company. That rift, however, did not destroy their fundamental unity in the Lord; Paul later commended Barnabas as being worthy of support (1 Corinthians 9:6), and eventually, John Mark, the “bone of contention,” proved “useful” to the noble apostle (2 Timothy 4:11).

Hindrances to Unity

In this discussion it is not inappropriate to call attention to a couple of those hindrances which short-circuit the brotherly comradeship desired by Heaven.

Many experienced leaders in the church would affirm that one of the foremost factors in the divisiveness that has tormented the Lord’s people for almost two millennia is the spirit of egoism.

Time and again men have arisen who, more than anything else, had a passion for notoriety, a lust for fame, hence, they either created an issue, or seized upon one, in order to thrust themselves into prominence. Factions orient themselves mainly around men, not issues. The “issues” are just the baggage carried along en route to someone’s journey to exaltation.

Diotrephes, the enemy of the apostle John, was cut from such a fabric (3 John 9); he loved “preeminence” among the brethren. And his kinsmen are not all extinct.

This is the primary thrust of Titus 3:10: "A factious man after a first and second admonition refuse. . . " The Greek word for “factious” is hairetikos, the basis of our English “heretic.” It alludes to the one who rallies a “party” around himself, thus creating division by pressing his unscriptural opinions.

There appear to have been some at Corinth of this disposition, whom Paul rebukes (1 Corinthians 1:10ff), though he disguises their identities by a common rhetorical device of employing pseudonyms (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:6).

Another contributor to disunity is the self-willed individual. This is why a candidate for the eldership must be carefully screened; no “self-willed” man must be appointed (Titus 1:7). The term describes the arrogant person who “canonizes” his opinions and cannot he budged. It is “his” way or “no” way. He will rule or ruin; boss or burst!

Most every church that has been forced to take care of its affairs in the “men’s business meeting” format has encountered headstrong creatures of this temperament, and on occasion, churches have been divided as a result. These attitudes are evil.

The Blessedness of Zion

As the psalmist concludes his song, he mentions “Zion.” He observes that it is there, in Zion, that Jehovah has “commanded the blessing.” Blessings are, in a manner of speaking, poised, awaiting bestowal, being dispensed at the command of the Lord (cf. Leviticus 25:21; Psalm 42:8).

Literal Zion was Jerusalem. It was the place of the Lord’s presence (Psalm 132:13; Matthew 5:35). However, in the Scriptures, the term takes on a higher spiritual sense. It is the place of the Messiah’s rule (Psalm 2:6); it is immovable (Psalm 125:1). It is the birthplace of God’s elect (Psalm 87:5).

Zion is the domain of the “everlasting covenant” (Jeremiah 50:5; cf. Isaiah 2:2-4). It is “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. . . the general assembly and the church of the firstborn [ones] who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:22-23). It is the place of “life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3).

It is difficult to resist the idea that the Spirit of God did not have the New Testament era in view in this composition. Regardless, this glorious composition speaks eloquently to the people of God today.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.