The Bible is a book of many metaphors. Almost all of its most precious truths are taught through vivid word pictures. Even a brief look through its pages will turn up hundreds of them—God as shepherd, his people as sheep; Jesus as head, the church as his body; the Bible as nourishment, its words as honey and water. On and on it goes.
One metaphor that has always intrigued me is at the center of one of the shortest psalms—Psalm 133. The purpose of the psalm is made obvious in its opening line: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” This is a poetic celebration of brotherhood, of harmony. It is good—objectively right—when there is unity between brothers, between those who are children of a common Father. And it is more than objectively good, it is also experientially pleasant, pleasing to the hearts of both God and man. It is good in every way when God’s people experience unity.
It is not enough for the psalmist to simply state this as fact. He is a poet who knows he can emphasize the facts with an illustration, and, as is so common in the Bible, does so through a metaphor. “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” And I’ve always wondered, what does Aaron’s oily head, oily beard, and oily clothing have to do with unity? It’s probably not the metaphor I would turn to—in fact, it’s kind of repulsive to me—, yet it’s the one David used. Why?
What’s clear is that David has in mind the anointing of the high priest, a ceremony that involved oil. “You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him,” said God through Moses. This oil was both liquid and fragrant—it would flow and it would smell, and it seems that both properties included an element of symbolism. Yet it’s the liquid property David has most in mind here. The repetition of the word “down” helps unlock the metaphor. The oil was poured on Aaron’s head and flowed downward, from the top of the head, to the beard, to the collar, and beyond. This downward movement demonstrates that the source of unity is above and beyond the priesthood—it is extrinsic to them. In the same way that oil was poured onto Aaron by someone else, unity was poured onto the people by God. In the same way that oil spread from Aaron’s head to his beard to his clothing, unity was to flow from God to the priest to the people. The oil, after all, would drip onto the breastplate which bore a stone for each of the twelve tribes. Unity was God’s gift to his people given through the mediation of the High Priest. It was an objective reality they needed to understand, enact, and foster.
God’s people today, like God’s people in that day, have been given his gift of unity. It was objective reality for them and it is an objective reality for us. God poured out his Spirit on the great and final High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church. Like oil flows from hair to beard to collar, the Spirit flows from Head to body, from Christ to church. And oh, how good it is when we embrace that unity, when we practice it, when we foster and treasure it. The lesson of Aaron’s oily beard is a lesson of unity. It is so good, such a blessing to us and such a pleasure to God, when we diligently and deliberately live like children of a common Father. How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!