The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Numbers 6.22-27.
The first thing to say about the wonderful words of blessing that are found in this morning’s reading is that although they were to be spoken to God’s people collectively — “you shall bless the people of Israel” — every “you” in the blessing is singular. Applying this to now, the Lord blesses his church today by blessing meand countless other me’s, here and throughout the world.
The Israelites over whom these words of blessing were to be spoken would, of course, understand them in largely materialistic terms. The Hebrew word barak — “to bless” — always then had the meaning of “to endue with power for success, prosperity, fecundity, longevity etc”. There was little of the spiritual about it. And there was little of the spiritual about the “and keep you” bit either. Shamar means to build a hedge around something … “to protect”; and the protection sought for the children of Israel when Aaron and his sons spoke these words over them was material protection from accident, illness, plague, natural disasters and hostile neighbours. Today, we tend to spiritualise everything — including a blessing such as this; but is it wrong to seek the Lord’s empowerment for us to succeed in our work, to have a good marriage, to do well in raising our families, and for the Lord to keep us and those we love safe and well? Surely not. I can pray for the Lord to “bless me and keep me” and include all such things in those words without at all embracing the “prosperity gospel”. They are just as much part of all that the Lord wants for me as my spiritual health and protection.
The phrase “make his face to shine upon you” is, of course, a reference back to what had happened earlier on the wilderness journey. “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34.29). The glory of God’s presence had shone on Moses so that Moses’ face was still reflecting that glory as he returned to the people. And the revelation that Moses had received had been a revelation of grace. God had introduced himself as, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34.6-7). Now Moses instructs Aaron to pray that each of the children of Israel should be similarly touched by God’s glory and know his grace. “The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
The closing phrase of the prayer is a prayer that each of God’s people should experience God’s shalom. “The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” As I have often said in these blogs, shalomis far more than the absence of war; it is utter and total well-being of body, mind and spirit; it is inner and outer harmony of a person with himself, his neighbour and with God. And that comes about when God “smiles on you”. To “smile” is the force of the Hebrew expression “lift up one’s countenance”. It is a turning of the face to someone in both love and pleasure.
May the Lord empower me this morning so that all will go well with me. May he protect me and look after me and those I love. May he touch me with his glory and clothe me in his grace. May he smile at me and bring everything in my life in harmony with himself and his purposes for me. Amen.