“Hine Mah Tov” is a Jewish hymn traditionally sung at Sabbath feasts and whose lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133.
1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.
This three-verse song, or poem, is traditionally referred to as a “Song of Ascent”. Some Scholars believe that these ‘Songs’ (Psalms 120-134 in my bible) were called Songs of Ascents because pilgrims sung them as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the pilgrim feasts. Other scholars believe that these were songs sung by the temple priests in Jerusalem as they ascended the fifteen steps of the temple.
Who would think that a three-verse poem could capture such simple beauty and stand among the greatest poetic celebrations of all time?
The Psalmist begins with an exhortation: Behold, the goodness, and pleasantness, of unity. A direct request. It begs the question: What are we ‘beholding’? Are we ‘seeing’ the shortcomings in others? There shortcomings and faults galore in all of us, but what do we see? The ancient poem echoes…… Behold the goodness [in others] – an appeal to regard others through the lens of grace. As the old song goes:
I love you with the love of the Lord
Yes I love you with the love of the Lord
I can see in you
The glory of my King
And I love you with the love of the Lord.
We cannot work towards unity until we behold the good in others. This verse reminds me of the several times that the creation account in Genesis 1 repeats this refrain. ”And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10; 1:12)
“Seeing” (Beholding) and “goodness” appear together at each and every step of God’s creation. Could it be that the writer is saying that God is up to something in Psalm 133?
When kindred dwell together in unity.
This is a word that Christians have historically held to mean the Church. The writer is extolling the virtues of the church ”dwelling” together. Church is more than a building. Church is more than meetings. Church is more than programmes. We are encouraged to “dwell” or “do life” together. I am not so interested in growing a congregation or an impressive ministry as I am learning how to journey through life together with a bunch of people who have been redeemed, who have felt the call to follow the Lamb of God, or have been quote washed” and reconciled through the cross of Christ.
The unity that is enjoined here is the opposite of our fractured humanity – That ”scattered-ness” of relationship, so masterfully depicted in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. It is a unity that rests on three pillars: “and the Lord said, ”look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do, nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” In Genesis 11 God scatters mankind as the downward spiral that began in the fall of Genesis 3 reaches its natural conclusion. The unspoken nod towards the principles of unity and achievement here are worth noting: The writer says that nothing is impossible for people when these have Unity (one people), Communication (One language), and Vision (nothing that they propose to do…).
This unity is “the light of the world. A city built on a hill [that] cannot be hidden” (Mat. 5:14). Having established how good/pleasant this is, the writer then introduces imagery of the Holy Spirit.
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the colour of his robes.
Aaron the High Priest could not enter the holy place to minister to God unless he has been consecrated and anointed with the holy anointing.
Can the writer be pointing towards the preeminence of unity among believers? Could unity be a precondition to our ministry? Could this unity be “like the precious oil” that had to be applied before ministry unto God was acceptable?
The precious oil in Scripture is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The verse says that this anointing runs down from the High Priest’s headed to the edge of his garments.
In the New Testament we are taught that Jesus is our High Priest: “Therefore, since we have a great High Priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus, the son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Hebrews 4:14)
We are also taught that we, the church, his body, are to remain “connected” to Jesus Christ, the anointed one: “They have lost connection with the head, From the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and see news, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Colossians 2: 19).
The picture here is the precious anointing oil of the Holy Spirit flowing from Jesus, our High Priest, downwards, covering his body, the church, and producing a beautiful unity.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
I have always read this verse in a very linear fashion. In my mind, the dew would somehow descend from a towering Mount Hermon, to those mountains of Zion that lay beneath it. A cursory glance at an atlas put paid to that idea. You see Mount Hermon is nowhere near the mountains of Zion (Jerusalem). Hermon is situated in northern Israel, right at the Syria/Lebanon border, whereas Jerusalem is more towards the southern part of Israel. My point is this: The dew of Mount Hermon does not fall anywhere near the mountains of Zion. In my view, the Psalmist must be trying to tell us something using figurative language.
Two possible interpretations of this verse immediately come to mind:
- The dew (symbolic of the presence of God–Or Holy Spirit) is covering everything, sweeping across all the land from the north (Hermon) southwards (Zion).
- Mount Hermon is a very ordinary/mundane mountain in Israel whereas the Mountains of Zion, pregnant with spiritual and national meaning, are of great importance. The meaning of the dew falling from Hermon to Zion could indicate a reversal of values and priorities. It could also be that the Holy Spirit is working His goodness and pleasantness in a body of redeemed believers as these journey through life – from the very mundane things to the very important ones. Nothing will be left untouched, from the ordinary to the spectacular.
The writer of Psalm 133 says that living together in unity is good and pleasant, and then he uses language to describe this that can only be taken to mean the Holy Spirit being poured out. In the book of Acts, Chapter-2 begins by dramatically depicting the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Church – Indeed, this event was like precious oil being poured out from the Heavens, or like the dew of God’s presence falling – and at the very end we are shown that this Divine Presence produced a good and pleasant unity:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” –Acts 2:44-47
Indeed, behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity! There the Lord has ordained His blessing, even life forevermore!
This article has been written using the author’s notes from a talk at Living Waters Church.