Psalm 133 is an ascent psalm to be sung while going to Jerusalem at the three required yearly festivals designated in the Mosaic Covenant (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Refusal to make the pilgrimage invited national curses; obedience resulted in national blessings. Verse 1 is vital to a correct interpretation of this Psalm.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (NIV)
Two Hebrew terms in this verse are not translated by the NIV, הנּה and גּם. These words affect the interpretation of the Psalm and its application.
The Hebrew interjection “behold!” (הנּה) makes an important point—it draws the hearers’ attention to the coming statement much like pointing a finger (Harris, Archer, Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 220, TWOT; The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 243, BDB). The NIV’s exclamation point may be an attempt to reflect the Hebrew term, but it does not exactly parallel it. The English exclamation point focuses the hearer primarily on the emotion tied to the statement whereas the Hebrew word focuses the hearer primarily on the content and secondarily on the emotion. This is an important interpretive element in the text.
The adverb גּם is also critical to the interpretation. Syntactically it represents an addition and is to be translated also or even (BDB, 168-69; Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 61-62). The adverb coupled to the following noun translated “together” (יחד) focuses the covenant idea of corporate togetherness at the required festivals. Individual worship is good but the divine mandate requires community worship. As the pilgrims see God’s people gathered in obedience to the divine law, they can be encouraged that the nation is obedient to God and, therefore, in a position to experience His covenant blessings (cp. verse 3b).
Finally, the translations would do better to rephrase the term unity since the Hebrew word יחד means “together, of community in action, place, or time” (BDB, 402; TWOT, 372-73; Holladay, Lexicon, 132). The ethical concept of unity so prominent in the English word is not the primary Hebrew idea in יחד. A paraphrase which captures the full force of verses 1 and 3b reads like this:
“Look! How good and how pleasant it is when the nation gathers at the designated place and time in obedience to God’s Covenant requirement. Because there and then Yahweh has commanded the Covenant blessing.”
The illustrations in verses 2-3a highlight community togetherness and portray promised spiritual and national blessings. Ross explains (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, I, 888):
“David compared the unity mentioned in verse 1 to the oil that consecrated Aaron (cf. Lev. 8:12). This imagery from the priesthood was appropriate because of the pilgrims being in Jerusalem. The oil poured on Aaron’s head flowed down on his beard and shoulders, and onto the breastplate with the names of all 12 tribes. The oil thus symbolized the unity of the nation in worship under their consecrated priest. As the oil consecrated Aaron, so the unity of the worshipers in Jerusalem would consecrate the nation under God” (Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, I, p. 888).
This interpretation of Psalm 133 contradicts the typical ethical-oriented sermon application—“Let’s all get along!” Rather, a message for a congregation in conflict is better served by Romans 12:18 with its clarity and directness, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” ( NASB).
The primary application growing out of this Psalm as interpreted above, however, focuses on a different peril—a lack of commitment to the Christian community demonstrated by absenteeism in church. Hebrews 10:24-25a represents a New Testament parallel to Psalm 133, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (NASB). This divine command cannot be obeyed by absenteeism.
Of the two application directions Psalm 133 can take, ethical unity or corporate togetherness, the latter represents the Hebrew text best and provides a necessary community-oriented activity for accomplishing the former!