Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.’ So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. Numbers 6:23-27 (NIV).
This is the birkat kohanim – the “priestly blessing” – which was traditionally pronounced each morning in the Temple (and before that, in the Tabernacle) after the morning sacrifice. Still today it forms part of a Jewish Orthodox synagogue service, being pronounced in a ceremony called nesiat kapayim – the “lifting of hands” – where the fingers of the hands lifted in blessing are arranged to form a lattice through which the divine presence can shine like the sun. In fact, in 1970, the words of this blessing became the earliest authenticated text of scripture we possess, for that is when archaeologists working in Jerusalem discovered a silver amulet dating back to the seventh century BC on which the blessing had been inscribed.
For the Christian, the blessing takes on even greater significance than it has always had for the Jews; and that is because it is a threefold blessing (three times the divine name Yahweh – “the LORD” – is used) and each successive part is redolent of each successive person of the Trinity.
“The LORD bless you and keep you.” To “bless” is the Hebrew word barak which, according to the Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, means “to endue with power for success, prosperity, fecundity, longevity etc”. It is from the root word berek meaning “knee” and the image is of someone kneeling before God and having God’s hands laid on him so that power for all things good is poured in. “Keep” is shamar which literally means “to hedge about” – to guard and to protect. And all this – love that longs to fill us with good things and to keep us from harm – is something we particularly associate with the Father. Jesus prayer to the Father for his followers is “not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17.15). So we might say that the first blessing is particularly the blessing of the Father.
“The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” The psalmists clearly loved this part of the blessing – “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. (Psalm 31.16); “Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3, 7); “Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:135). And why wouldn’t they? The shining of God’s face is an entirely benevolent thing. Today, we talk about the “sunshine” of someone’s smile and we delight in the fact that someone has “beamed” at us. And here’s the point – we see the sunshine of God’s smile, God’s beaming face, God’s totally accepting and unquenchable love for us, in Jesus. In fashion terms, Gwyneth Paltrow might once have been “the face” of Estée Lauder, but Jesus is eternally “the face” of God. “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 the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6). And Jesus is “full of grace” (John 1.14) so that he can be, and always is, unfailingly “gracious” to us. Thus we might say that the second blessing is the blessing of the Son.
“The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” The Hebrew phrase here is literally “lift up his face upon you” but clearly the NIV translators couldn’t see the sense in that so they wrote “turn his face towards you” instead. The Hebrew does make perfect sense, however, if the image is of God holding a small child high above his head and beaming up at it. A nesiat kapayim – “lifting of hands” – indeed! What a picture of how God regards us and delights in us. And that love and regard is accompanied by the giving of peace. This is associated especially with the Holy Spirit. “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! … And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” (John 20.21-22). Peace (shalom) is not, of course, primarily about absence of conflict or even absence of noise, but it is about wholeness, health and well-being. It is about that wonderful sense of everything being harmonious and right that we get once the Holy Spirit is dwelling in our hearts. So the third blessing is, we might say, the blessing of the Spirit.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit – one God – telling us that, this day and every day, he will bless us and keep us; that he will make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us; and that he will lift up his face upon us and give us peace. How wonderful! To such a blessing we can surely say a loud Amen!