Above my desk is a stunning print of the so-called “Aaronic Blessing” that we just read in Numbers 6.
The print was given as a gift on my ordination.
It is – without a doubt – the best-known blessing in all of Judaism and Christianity – except, perhaps, for
“Bless you!” uttered after someone sneezes.
Over the centuries, countless blessings and benedictions have been composed, but when God gave this one to Moses to pass along to Aaron and his sons, it appears to be the only one God intended for them to use:
“This is how you are to bless the Israelites …”
And the words are worth using over and over again – because they declare the heart of our faith. They are an affirmation of our faith in Jesus Christ, first delivered to God’s people about 1450 years before Jesus was born!
So let’s look at this remarkable blessing – this confession of faith – line-by-line.
The LORD bless you and keep you.
The LORD – God’s own name for Himself which human beings did not dare to say out loud. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses – and us.
To bless – to provide every good thing for His people. Like the manna and the quail on the 40-year journey to the Promised Land. We call a prayer of thanksgiving before a meal “The Blessing” – because God’s provision of everything needed to sustain our lives is a blessing – and we bless God with our praise and thanks for His blessing us. God wants to bless His people, so it only makes sense that God would command the priests to invoke His blessing on His people.
To keep – to protect, to hold close. Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would be the Good Shepherd: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
The LORD make His face to shine upon you – No one dared to look at the face of God, because that would mean death. Moses was allowed to see the glory of God, but only from behind – not face-to-face. In Jesus Christ, however, we have seen God’s glorious face. Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
And be gracious to you – God was unbelievably patient with His rebellious people in the wilderness, and He is remarkably gracious to us. As we read from Psalm 103 today, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”
The power of the next line is usually lost in translation. The most familiar is “The LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Countenance is an older word for face. Perhaps the translators didn’t want to say “face” in two successive verses and opted for a synonym. But it still doesn’t make much sense to us: “May the LORD lift up His face upon you”.
But the New International Version – which is the one in our pew racks – catches the real meaning of the words. The verb used here means “to turn”. So when God wants Aaron and the other priests to ask Him to bless the people, they were asking God to turn his face toward them.
To turn your face toward someone is a kind gesture, a gesture of friendship.
You turn toward someone to greet them, to speak with them, to kiss them.
God had to turn His face away from human beings after their first sin in the Garden. He said in Deuteronomy 32: “I will hide my face from them, and see what their end will be; for they are a perverse generation, children who are unfaithful.”
But God promised in the Garden – and confirms in this blessing – that the day would come when He would redeem His people and turn His face back toward them. At the cross, all that changed. Again, from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
By the sacrifice of Jesus, we were made right with God – so He could turn His face back toward His people, with pleasure and affection in His face. And in doing so, the last line is fulfilled:
And establish peace with you – most translations say “give you peace” or “grant you peace.” Those are wonderful expressions, but they’re not what God included in the blessing. The usual translations suggest that God gives us peace – sets our hearts at ease, or makes us calm – and those are by-products of what God does.
But the word God uses here means to set or establish something. To create a new state of being. So the blessing ends with the idea of God’s making peace with us, or establishing peace between us and God.
Peace – “shalom” in Hebrew – which is more than just the absence of conflict. It is wholeness and well-being. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, things are good between God and us again. The peace between God and His people was shattered in the Garden, but was re-established on Calvary.
Today’s New Testament Lesson from Ephesians 1 echoes the same prayer for God’s blessing. It is filled with words of His blessing, His provision for us, His tight grip on us, His grace toward us.
[READ Ephesians 1:3-10]
The last part has not yet come to pass – because everything in heaven and on earth is not yet at peace with God. God’s heart breaks at the rebellion of the people who bear His image. God is angered by hatred and conflict, abuse and neglect, greed and misuse of God’s good gifts, sadness, sickness, and death – and all those will continue until Jesus returns and fulfills the final part of the blessing in Ephesians 1: “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head”, and that is Jesus Christ Himself.
What a day that will be, when Shalom shall prevail over all the earth. Until then, may we continue to use this hybrid blessing and confession of faith – believing that in Jesus Christ, God has made everything right between Him and us.