Unity is hard to dislike – at least in theory. And so the first verse of this Psalm is a popular one: How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” 

But it’s an odd verse to read just after an election. While in our democracy there’s a lot that unites us, an election is where our divisions are set out in stone-cold statistics. We find out whether we’re broadly in agreement or severely out of step with our nations, our communities, our families – and, yes, our churches. 

After a result which not all will welcome, to quote this Psalm may seem like rubbing salt in the wounds rather than pouring oil on them. It may also have felt this way to the original pilgrims in Old Testament Israel. Like us, they would have grappled with disunity as they went up to Jerusalem, and then as they returned.

In fact, ultimately Israel failed to maintain its unity. 1 Kings 12:1 – 24 describes a lasting split which occurred between Judah and Israel. This political divide was rapidly reinforced in worship, as King Jeroboam built an alternative temple for those on his side (1 Kings 12:25 – 33). And this disunity meant that God’s people stopped hearing all of God’s word – for Jeroboam’s partisan temple did not like politically inconvenient truths (Amos 7:10 – 13). As politics becomes more polarised, Jeroboam’s policy remains a risk for the people of God.

In complete contrast to this, Psalm 133 uses the image of united worship in Jerusalem to express hope for the unity of God’s people. The precious oil… running down on Aaron’s beard” (verse 2) recalls Aaron’s ordination in Leviticus 8:12, to serve all Israel as priest.

Just as the Israelites looked to the temple for this unity, so we look to Jesus, our great high priest. Just as Aaron was anointed with oil, so the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the Church, Christ’s body. And just as the Israelites worshipped together, so we join together with Christians of different views from our own – views we may even despise. What does this look like?

Firstly, as we come together for worship, we don’t pretend to a unity we do not have – any more than we pretend to be sinless. Instead unity, like worship, is when our future hope breaks into the present, even – especially – when it seems unwelcome or unrealistic. It’s where we recognise our present fragmentation of all kinds, but also where we wait for Christ to come and heal us. This means we can be open about our divisions, and grieve bitterly over them. But as with other kinds of grief, we do not grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Secondly, worshipping together may challenge our divisions. This is a prominent theme in Jesus’ teaching: he tells us to leave our gift on the altar and be reconciled (Matthew 5:23 – 24), and he calls us not to look down on our neighbour in the Temple, as the Pharisee did to the Publican (Luke 18:9 – 14). Jesus, the son of David, preaches the opposite of Jeroboam’s division. And so he challenges us to hear all of God’s word on the lips of our brothers and sisters. 

This is unity: looking to the future rather than sanitising the present; listening to hard words while knowing that they come from a loving God. And though deeply painful at times, it is good and pleasant indeed.