Running down – a thought for underappreciated Psalm 133

By Aian Macpherson

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to go on a retreat (a time to seek God). It was ‘guided’, which means that someone is there leading or pointing you through the process. My friend Fr. Andrew who led the retreat based it on the Psalms of assent, Psalms that we think where used by pilgrims going to Jerusalem 1000’s of years ago. I ended up with Psalm 133. A short Psalm that is little used for teaching, but verse one is often quoted at well-meaning ecumenical events. ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!’ – it does sound nice.

The chapel window at St Oswald’s retreat centre

But here is what happened when I dug in.

Psalm 133 – NIVUK – The starting point

A song of ascents. Of David.

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life for evermore.


I found that there are several play on words.

‘Kindred’ or ‘brothers’ in verse one sounds like ‘life’ in verse three. (’a·ḥîm, ḥay·yîm)

‘Zion’ and ‘ordained’ in verse three sound like the same word (though in noun and verb forms). (ṣî·yō·wn, ṣiw·wāh)

And finally the English adds variety in verse two and three, translating yō·rêḏ as descended, ran down, went down, falling and other variations. But the consistency adds something!

Head can mean top, or authority, but it can also be the source. The head of the riving is its source.


The snow on Mount Hermon, in modern day Syria, is the source of the Jordan river, which runs down past Jerusalem (and therefore Mount Zion which signifies Jerusalem).

History and context

Precious oil was poured on Aaron at his consecration as high priest (Exodus 30:30, 40:12-16) when the glory of the Lord came down on the Tabernacle, which it’s self was replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was meant to signify the unity of the nation of Israel; it was to be the corner stone of culture and religion – the one place with the one temple to worship the one God.

But with the split of Israel – the north kingdom – from Judah and Jerusalem in the south, Jerusalem became a sign of division.

psalm 133 Heptic
My Haptic

My translation/interpretation based on the above

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together as one.

It is like fragrant oil from the head.

Running down upon the beard,

on Aaron’s beard,

Running down over the collar of his robes,

It is like the water of Hermon,

which is Running down to the mountain ordained

For there the Lord ordained his blessing

Life for ever more.

Some thoughts inspired by an obscure Psalm  

Jesus prayed that his followers would be one, that our love for one another would be a sign to the world that we are his. This is based on Jesus own perfect unity with the Father and the Spirit. Kindred living together as one, the divine joy and the good life we are invited to share. How very good it is!

Jesus is our one high priest who made the one perfect sacrifice. He is our anointed one, who had precious oil poured on him and from whose head ran down water and blood, and from whose wounded side ‘sorrow and love flowed mingled down’. This is not cheap unity. This is not nice words. It is the final reality of the church. One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4). We need to get with Gods program!

Jesus is ‘the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning’ (Colossians 1). Jesus is the source of our common life. He came down from heaven and was poured out on the mountain of Zion at Jerusalem. It was there that ‘the Lord ordained his blessing, life for ever more’ ‘by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross’ (Colossians 1).

Jesus is the cornerstone, the one in who we find our unity, who is poured out and is running down as a blessing for the world. He is the true high priest and the true temple, and the foundation of the New Jerusalem. Jesus is the tabernacle (dwelling) of God among his people and the place where the glory of God is seen.

Jerusalem became a sign of division, how can we do that same thing to our Lord?

In the end…

I am not sure this is exactly a blog, more a ramble. I also doubt these reflections would score highly in an Old Testament essay even if written up in the right way. It is an unashamedly New Testament reading of the Psalm. For all that, I think it is better to have read creatively with an eye to Jesus than to have left my reading at that point of obscurity. I can now with confidence pray more than the first line.


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