Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm is entitled "A Song of Degrees of David." It is one of the four in this collection ascribed to him, and there is no reason to doubt the correctness of the inscription. As to the occasion on which the psalm was composed, however, we have no information. Perhaps there was nothing special in the occasion which called it forth, since it may have been written at any time to set forth the beauty and the power of brotherly love. It may have been composed either for the service of the people when gathered in their annual festivals, or in view of the harmony - the beauty and order - evinced when they were thus gathered together.
The psalm is an illustration, in most beautiful language, of brotherly love, particularly in regard to its calm, and gentle, and sweet influence - like the ointment which flowed down from the head of the anointed priest, or like the gentle dew on Hermon or Zion. It is a psalm applicable alike to a church; to family; to a gathering of friends.
Behold - As if he looked upon such a gathering, and saw there the expressions of mutual love. This may have been uttered in the actual contemplation of such an assemblage; or it may have been a picture of the imagination.
How good - How good in itself; how proper; how suited to promote happiness, and to diffuse good influences abroad.
And how pleasant - The word used here means lovely, charming, attractive; that which fills the mind with delight, spoken of one beloved, Sol 7:6; of a friend, Sa2 1:26; of a place, Gen 49:15; of words, Pro 15:26; of beauty or glory, as of Yahweh, Psa 27:4. It is descriptive of the pleasure which we derive from a picture, from a landscape, from sweet sounds and gentle voices, or from love.
For brethren to dwell together in unity - Margin, even together. Hebrew, "The dwelling of brethren also together." Perhaps the idea in the word "also" may be, that while the unity of brethren when separate, or as they were seen when scattered in their habitations, was beautiful, it was also pleasant to see them when actually assembled, or when they actually came together to worship God. As applicable to the church, it may be remarked
(1) that all the people of God - all the followers of the Redeemer - are brethren, members of the same family, fellow-heirs of the same inheritance, Mat 23:8.
(2) There is a special fitness that they should be united, or dwell in unity.
(3) There is much that is beautiful and lovely in their unity and harmony. They are redeemed by the same Saviour; they serve the same Master; they cherish the same hope; they are looking forward to the same heaven; they are subject to the same trials, temptations, and sorrows; they have the same precious consolations. There is, therefore, the beauty, the "goodness," the "pleasantness" of obvious fitness and propriety in their dwelling together in unity.
(4) Their unity is adapted to produce an important influence on the world, Joh 17:21. No small part of the obstructions to the progress of religion in the world has been caused by the strifes and contentions of the professed friends of God. A new impulse would be given at once to the cause of religion if all the followers of the Lord Jesus acted in harmony: if every Christian would properly recognize every other Christian as his brother; if every true church would recognize every other church as a church; if all ministers of the Gospel would recognize all other ministers as such; and if all who are Christians, and who walk worthy of the Christian name, were admitted freely to partake with all others in the solemn ordinance which commemorates the Saviour's dying love. Until this is done, all that is said about Christian union in the church is a subject of just derision to the world - for how can there be union when one class of ministers refuse to recognize the Christian standing, and the validity of the acts, of other ministers of the Lord Jesus - when one part of the Christian church solemnly refuses to admit another portion to the privileges of the Lord's table - when by their actions large portions of the professed followers of the Redeemer regard and treat others as having no claims to a recognition as belonging to the church of God, and as left for salvation to his "uncovenanted mercies."
It is like the precious ointment upon the head - That is, which was poured upon the head of the high priest, when consecrated to the holy office. The Hebrew is, "the good ointment." For a description of the ointment which was used in the consecration of the high priest, and the holy things of the sanctuary, see Exo 30:22-30. Compare the notes at Isa 61:3, on the phrase "oil of joy." Anointing with oil was common on festivals and joyous occasions (see the notes at Psa 23:5), and hence, it became an emblem of anything joyous, happy, beautiful; and the idea seemed to be carried to the highest degree when it was connected with the anointing of a high priest to the sacred duties of his office. There is no other resemblance between the idea of anointing with oil and that of harmony among brethren than this which is derived from the gladness - the joyousness - connected with such an anointing. The psalmist wished to give the highest idea of the pleasantness of such harmony; and he, therefore, compared it with that which was most beautiful to a pious mind - the idea of a solemn consecration to the highest office of religion. The comparison is one which would not unnaturally occur to a Jew.
That ran down upon the beard - Descending from the head upon the long, flowing beard. The idea here is that of copiousness, or abundance - as if so much ointment was poured forth as to descend on the whole person, consecrating the entire man.
Even Aaron's beard - The word "even" here, introduced by our translators, weakens the force and beauty of the comparison. The psalmist had the simple image of Aaron before his mind, without intending to compare him with any other.
That went down to the skirts of his garments - literally, "to the mouth of his garment." The idea is that the anointing oil was abundant enough to flow down so as to fall on his entire robe, diffusing a sweet fragrance all around. It is possible, though it may seem like a conceit, that the psalmist may have had an idea of unity in this, as if in the anointing of the high priest the whole man was consecrated, or was "united" in the consecration. It was not merely the head, but the beard, the raiment, the entire person, that partook of the fragrance of the anointing oil. Thus love in a Christian community is so abundant - so overflowing - that it spreads over all the spiritual body, the church; the same sweet and holy influence, represented by the oil of anointing, pervades all, and combines all in one.
As the dew of Hermon ... - On the situation of Mount Hermon, see the notes at Psa 89:12. The literal rendering of this passage would be, "Like the dew of Hermon which descends on the mountains of Zion." According to our version two things are referred to: the dew of Hermon, and the dew on the mountains of Zion, But this is not in the original. There no dew is referred to but that which belongs to Hermon. It has, of course, been made a question how the dew of Hermon, a remote mountain, could be said to descend on the mountains of Zion, and our translators have sought to solve the difficulty by inserting the words "and as the dew." Some have supposed that the proper interpretation is to refer the comparison in the passage to the dew of Hermon, and that all which follows is an application of the thought: "Like the dew of Hermon is the influence which comes down upon the mountains of Zion," etc.
The most probable and plausible interpretation, however, it seems to me, is, that the mind of the poet was turned to the dew of Hermon - to the gentleness, and the copiousness, and the vivifying nature of that dew - diffusing beauty and abundance all around - and that he thought of that dew, or dew like that, as descending on the mountains of Zion. Not that the dew of Hermon actually descended there; but when changing the comparison, in illustration of brotherly love, from oil to dew, he most naturally thought (perhaps from some former observation) of the dew of Hermon, and immediately thought of Zion as if that dew descended there: that is, love, unity, and concord there would be as if the dew of Hermon should descend on the barren hills of Zion or Jerusalem, there diffusing beauty, abundance, fertility. The comparison of the influence of brotherly love, or unity, with dew is not a forced or unnatural one. So calm, so gentle, so refreshing on the tender grain, on the young plants, on the flowers, is dew, that it is a striking image of the influences which produce brotherly love and harmony.
For there the Lord commanded the blessing - He appointed that as the place of worship; as the seat of his residence; the source of all holy influences. See Psa 78:67-69, note; Psa 87:2, note.
Even life for evermore - literally, "Life to eternity." That is, such influences go from that place as to lead to eternal life, or as to secure eternal life. It is in Zion, in his church, that he has made known the way to eternal life, and the means by which it may be obtained. To the end of the world this beautiful psalm will be sung in the church alike as expressing the charm which there is in unity among brethren and in the church; and as tending to promote that unity whose beauty it is designed to commend. Happy will be that day when the church shall be so united that it may be sung everywhere, as expressing what is, and not merely what should be.