Psalm 133: Lesson Plan
Psalm 133 NJPS Translation
- A song of ascents (Shir ha-ma’alot) Of David. How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together
- It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard (ha-zakan), the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar of his robe (middotav);
- It is like the dew (tal) of Hermon that falls upon the mountains of Zion. There the LORD (YHWH) ordained blessing, everlasting life (hayim ad-olam).
:שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד
.הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים– שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד
–כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב, עַל-הָרֹאשׁ
:יֹרֵד, עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן
.שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
:כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן– שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן
–כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה
Questions for Reflection
- Are there particular words, images, or phrases in this psalm that call to you?
- Have you experienced something of the joy of community described by the psalmist? When, where, with whom?
- How do you hear the call for solidarity today in the midst of so much human suffering?
- What is one thing you can do now—small or large—to help bring this beautiful vision of tranquility and unity closer to reality?
Reflections on the Artwork
Reflections on Psalm 133
I cannot read Psalm 133 without picturing the Benedictine Abbey I visited for years, first as a young doctoral student doing fieldwork and then as a new mother looking for a place for rest and renewal. The nuns chant Psalm 133 every night to end the service of Compline—the last in their cycle of eight daily communal prayer services collectively known as the Liturgy of the Hours. The Book of Psalms provides the text for these daily services as prescribed by St. Benedict’s Rule for Monks written in the sixth century.
What does this ancient rite still performed at the Abbey and in many other monastic communities have to do with us in these days—these days when COVID-19 has thrown into question the wisdom of dwelling together, without masks and six-foot buffer zones? What relevance does it have in these days following George Floyd’s murder, when protesters have taken to the streets demanding an end to police brutality against black and brown people and to structural violence 400 years in the making? The psalmist’s vision of unity, in which people dwell together as siblings, safe and secure, is not easy to hold even in the best of times. During a global pandemic and in the midst of an uprising, it seems almost naive.
But what strikes me when I read Psalm 133 today and think about the nuns gathering in their choir stalls, is the importance of regular reminders that dwelling together in unity should be our daily goal and aspiration. Whether we pull it off or not on a given day, we need rituals that invite us to really see one another and say: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!” Such moments of true recognition are, as the psalmist states so eloquently, like being anointed with fine oil; they are like dew coming down on parched mountains. The closing words of Psalm 133 are the last words the nuns sing to one another before they retreat into the Great Silence, broken only by Matins in the early hours of the morning: “For there the Lord ordained the blessing—life forevermore.” It is right there, in that sacred space and time, when we are able to glimpse a life in unity as equals, that we experience eternal blessing. May it be so.
I read this psalm for the first time while marchers walked by my apartment building, shouting the same words that have been echoing throughout my city: “No Justice. No Peace.”
As I put these two together—the echoing chants and Psalm 133—I understood our human impulse for justice more deeply. We value justice and peace so much because together they give us a taste of life’s sweetness. Being denied these values-in-action is being denied the sweetness of life itself.
This is why so many protestors are willing to risk their health and safety for justice and peace – because without these virtues enacted, our lives are inevitably fractured and our communities left suffering from the age-old disease of racism.
The closing lines of Psalm 133 give us even more to think about: In peaceful societies, life flows one generation to the next, despite hardships, even calamities. What do we make of this? I understand the text to be saying that true peace—just peace—is life-giving, sustaining across lifespans.
… Life is good when we live together in peace, and societies that do so endure and thrive. The opposite is also true: societies that do not live in peace are destined to fall. As the protestors have been reminding us loudly and clearly, justice is a precursor to peace. If we truly want to taste the sweetness of life, and if we want to do so in a way that is sustainable and lasting, we must recommit ourselves to peace and justice.
O how sweet to see
Living without strife
Like oil that anoints
like salve like balm
Like morning dew
like fragrance rising
to perfume the air
like clouds that float
and bless the hills