1 How excellent a thing it is, how pleasant and how good, When brothers dwell in unity and live as brothers should!
2 For it is like the precious oil, poured out on Aaron’s head, That, running over, down his beard, upon his collar spread.
3 Like Hermon’s dew, upon the hill of Zion it descends. The LORD bestows his blessing there— the life that never ends.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland sing this to the tune Bishopsthorpe here.
Some sociologists and political scientists encourage us to think of communities, societies and political unions in terms of three dimensions. A healthy community has demos, ethos and telos.
The members of a community recognise each other as members of a common body, in commitment and imagination they together constitute a demos, a people. The community shares common values, commitment to certain ways of relating to each other. This is the ethical dimension through which groups become ‘communities of values’. Finally, the group shares a common purpose or end, a telos.
In the central assertion of this Psalm there are two concepts that jump off the page (or the screen). The later imagery of beards and oils, mountains and dew, enthralls. But the two ideas that challenge are these: brothers and dwelling in unity.
To think of ‘brothers’, though we are really far better to read ‘kindred’, remind me that closeness and intimacy are inherently challenging. It is often easier to love humanity, than it is to love the humans most closely connected to me in family, church, workplace or school.
‘Dwelling in unity’ speaks of an ongoing engagement from which I cannot easily withdraw. It contrasts with the sort of encounter from which there is escape. Despite the frictions of proximity there is unity and peace. This is ethos, but it is also a good, an end in itself.
This Psalm of ascent may have been sung by pilgrims as their paths converged and the crowds became a throng. Their end, as a gathering moving people, was the holy mountain and the worship of the true God, the God of Truth.
As we gather towards our houses of worship today, O God! Put this song on our lips too. In imagination remind us of the joys of community in right relationship. Make us a people equally committed to The journey towards our Kingdom destination and to journeying well together. In the name of the one who is always before and always beside. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr John McNeil Scott, Principal of the Scottish United Reformed & Congregational College
Sing Psalms! (C) Psalmody and Praise Committee, Free Church of Scotland, 15 North Bank Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2LS