How Beautiful the Sight

James Montgomery, 1822
Based on Psalm 133
Addressed to anyone
How beautiful the sightPs. 133:1; 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 2:2
   of brethren who agreeGen. 13:8; 1 Cor. 1:10; 6:6–8; 2 Cor. 13:11
in friendship to unite,1 Sam. 18:1; John 17:20–23
   and bonds of charity;Col. 3:14; Philem. 16; James 4:1–2
’tis like the precious ointment, shedPs. 133:2; Ex. 30:22–25; Ps. 141:5; Prov. 27:9
o’er all his robes, from Aaron’s head.Ex. 28; 29:7; Lev. 8:12; 21:10
’Tis like the dew that fillsPs. 133:3; Hos. 14:5–7
   the cups of Hermon’s flow’rs;
or Zion’s fruitful hill,
   bright with the drops of show’rs,Is. 26:19; 1 John 1:7
when mingling odors breathe around, Gen. 27:27; Song 2:13
and glory rests on all the ground.Ps. 50:2
For there the Lord commandsPs. 128:5
   blessings, a boundless store,Col. 2:19
from his unsparing hands,1 Kings 8:15; 2 Chr. 6:4
   yea, life forevermore:Is. 4:3
thrice happy they who meet aboveHeb. 12:22–23
to spend eternity in love!

Christian fellowship is a natural topic for congregational singing in that the medium promises to be a vivid picture of the message. A congregation sincerely singing a worthy text can be said, in those moments, to be of one mind. Many members work together as one body, and whether the resulting music be in unison or in harmony, either way the parallels to Christian community and mission are obvious. It is no small embarrassment, then, when hymns under headings like “The Communion of Saints” or “The Family of God” flop. But they often do, for the opportunity to sing about the love humans can have for each other seems to draw out our every inclination to sentimentality (“let us sing now, ev’ry one; / let us feel His love begun”), vagueness (“knowing and caring, feeling and sharing”), pop psychology (“oh, let us live transparently”) and trendy political agenda (“oh, for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways”). The influence of a world full of poisoned affection and eros, and nearly void of true friendship, has left us with little sense of what we should be singing about. If we suffer from an inadequate understanding of, or little appetite for, the biblical doctrine of fellowship, that’s all the more reason to conform our songs to the message, wording, and aesthetic values of those sections of the Bible that teach it. Since they say much, so should we.

Do not think that the poetic—indeed, flowery—text of Montgomery’s “How Beautiful the Sight” makes it sentimental or vague. In good poetry, the whole point of poetic devices is to increase its capacity to communicate: to make ideas more precise and clear. This hymn employs two similes, likening brotherly love to the anointing of Aaron and the falling of dew. Thus we say, first, that fellowship is pleasant. It legitimately gratifies some of our most basic desires. Although we may initially puzzle at the foreign and seemingly messy image of precious ointment running down over the old priest, with a little biblical literacy and coaching from the pulpit anyone (with any experience with fine lotions or perfumes) can appreciate the nearly voluptuous joy pictured here. Remind the congregation of the fine textiles, describe as best we can the smell of the oil, and then the interested congregation will be able to find pleasure in the scene. The other simile requires no translation. Even Christians far removed from the agrarian world of the Psalmist can well imagine refreshment found in condensed moisture on cool surfaces. Montgomery’s line about mingling odors breathing around heightens the parallel between similes, describing, as it does, the fragrant airs of fruitful, bedewed Zion in terms reminiscent of the perfume of the anointing oil.

Second, through these similes we say that Christian fellowship is holy. The anointing oil was Yahweh’s property, to be blended according to his instructions, and to be used only as he directed (Ex. 30:31–33). Zion’s hill was his “holy mountain, beautiful in elevation” (Ps. 48:1). So, too, fellowship has a specific purpose: to glorify God.

Third, we say that the pleasures of fellowship come from above. Just as the anointing oil is poured over the priest’s head and as dew is said to “fall,” so, too, the delights of Christian community are a gift from God above and a manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. More specifically, they come through Jesus. He is the high priest for whom Aaron was merely the type. He mediates “a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15), including membership in the body of Christ, the heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:33). By mentioning heaven in his closing couplet, Montgomery makes all the connections clear. Four lines earlier, the equivocal “for there he commands blessings” sets up a significant double meaning. Where does the Lord command blessings? (Note that they fall, like the ointment and the dew, from his unsparing hands.) Do we encounter the Lord’s blessings in the sight of brethren who agree? Or on Zion’s fruitful hill? It could be read either way, and should be, for the two are identical. Genuine unity (in friendship and bonds of charity) is possible only in the church and will be fully realized in heaven.

The poem’s metrical structure, its rhyme scheme, and the tune to which it is wed, ST. GODRIC, work together to animate and expand—like an emanation from the flowing ointment or from the dew hydrating the flora of arid Jerusalem—the closing idea (lines 5–6) of every stanza. At first the tune seems tame enough, with mostly stepwise motion in lines 1–4 and a placid rhythm of quarter notes. But the stepwise gestures follow one another in interesting ways. And the one innocuous, descending leap in line 1 spreads to something larger in line 3 and again to something even larger in line 4. There, at the bottom of the song, we begin an ascent that, by design, takes all the breath we have. Alto, tenor, and bass sing scales in contrary motion that swell and offset the distinctive mix of repeated pitches and upward leaps in the soprano’s melody.

ST. GODRIC phrase