The Gospel of the Priestly Blessing
Speech given at the 2011 Convocation, of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. In keeping with the popular character of Clarion, technical footnotes have been omitted.
Board of Governors, Senate, brothers and sisters,
At the end of our Sunday worship services, the minister concludes the service with a blessing. One of those services typically ends with the priestly blessing taken from Numbers 6. It is a beautiful blessing. Listen to the familiar words:
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
But what exactly does all this mean? It can happen that when we hear the same words often, we do not always take the time or effort to think about what we are hearing. After these words have been spoken we are typically ready to leave the church auditorium and go home.
This evening I would like to pause for a few moments at this blessing to help us appreciate anew the gospel that is found in these words.
The text of the blessing
There are several things to note here. The form of this blessing as we find it in verses 24-26 is beautifully structured. There are three lines and the covenant name Yahweh (Lord) occurs three times, once on each line. Each line consists of two parts. The first part is consistently longer than the second part. However, as a group, the first line is the shortest, the second is longer, and the third is longest. In the Hebrew text, the first line consists of fifteen consonants, the second of twenty and the third of twenty-five. The first line consists of three words, the second of five and the third of seven words. The entire blessing amounts to fifteen words. If you take away the name of the Lord, you have twelve words left, which is the number of the tribes of Israel. The cumulative effect of the lengthening of the lines results in a tremendous climax ending with the word "peace."
While Israel undoubtedly appreciated this beautiful structure and sensed the climax that it engendered, the New Testament church has seen in this threefold blessing an allusion to the holy trinity of God. The early Christian church considered the first line to refer to God, the Father, the second to God, the Son, and the third to God, the Holy Spirit. Although one could dispute whether this is really correct, it does not appear to be unwarranted to see a reference here to the trinity. After all, the Lord himself commanded that this blessing be given and this is the true God who would in due time reveal himself to be triune.
The meaning of blessing
What exactly is a blessing or benediction? Is it a wish, a prayer, a new reality? What is it? It is certainly not a magical formula which automatically works and changes things simply by being spoken by the right person. The New International Version gives a good translation of this blessing. It does not say: "The Lord blesses you and keeps you" etc., a statement of fact. But "The Lord bless you and keep you" etc. That is like saying "May the Lord bless you," etc. It can therefore be interpreted as a prayer. But at the same time it is much more.
In Numbers 6 the Lord himself defines what the action of blessing does. When God instructed Aaron and his sons to bless Israel (Num 6:23), then after giving the actual text of the blessing, he said: "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them" (Num 6:27). Blessing is putting God's name on his people. What does that mean?
This means that when the priest lifts up his hands (Lev 9:22) and pronounces God's name over the people that people is then brought into a close association with the Lord. The name speaks of God's presence. With the name being placed on the people, the covenant God claims them for himself. The clear implication is that he, the Lord, will then indeed be favourably disposed to them and bless them. As Numbers 6:27 indicates: "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them." The priest invokes the blessing, the prayer if you like, but God is the one who actually gives the blessing. As the text says: "And I will bless them." The Hebrew is very emphatic here. God is the one who does it, and not the priest. When God claims his people as his own, he will take care of them. He will bless them! This truth is emphasized by the Lord's name being mentioned three times.
The benediction is thus a declaration of divine blessing. At the same time it is also a prayer that such a blessing materialize (2 Cron 30:27). How do we relate the two? How can this blessing be both a declaration and a prayer at the same time?
On the one hand, it is a declaration for God lays his name on his people and reaffirms the relationship which he has with them. He is their God. Let there be no doubt about that! The blessings that God mentions through the priest are not just a wish. They are real and God gives these gifts. At the same time, the words which the priest speaks are not some magic formula so that simply by speaking the words, the priest is able, as it were, to give by his very act of speaking the blessings enumerated in the benediction. The blessings declared by the priest are in effect God's sure promises. But receiving them from God is not automatic. The response of faith is needed (cf. Deut 28:1-2; Ps 24:4-5). That is why the priest says "the Lord bless you and keep you" rather than "the Lord blesses you and keeps you." In that sense, the benediction is a prayer. "May the Lord bless you."
When the priest pronounces the blessing, it is a prayer which is guaranteed to be heard when those receiving it trust in God and obey his word. After all, the living God wishes to place his name on the people and reaffirm the close covenantal bond which he has with them. And the blessings he gives are rich. Let us consider them.
The context and the text of the blessing
The first line reads: "The Lord bless you and keep you." It is striking that although this blessing is directed to the entire nation, the pronoun "you" in Hebrew is in the singular. This emphasizes the Lord's concern for each and every Israelite. They are all equally dear to him. He does not treat the nation as one mass of undefined individuals. No, the Lord is interested in each and every person as an individual precious to him.
What does the term "bless" mean in the phrase "the Lord bless you"? When God blesses he shows his liberality and favour by being the abundant source of all good things. More specifically, one could say that when the Lord blesses he endows with strength and empowers. In practical terms this means much offspring, abundant prosperity, and peace (Deut 28:2-14). Thus one who is blessed is able to function and produce at the optimum level. That was also the intent of God's blessing creation at the beginning of the world (Gen 1:22, 28).
The one whom the Lord blesses, he also keeps. "The Lord bless you and keep you." This initial blessing is all comprehensive. "Keep" means "to protect, watch over, guard, preserve, take care of." All this speaks of God's faithful care. Psalm 121 uses this word for "watch" and "keep" six times and it is a wonderful commentary on the term.
I lift up my eyes to the hills where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
The next line of the priestly blessing is a bit puzzling in today's culture. "The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you." What does to "make one's face shine upon you" mean? The idea is that a shining face is a friendly face, a face that looks favourably towards you. That is why David in distress prayed: "Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord" (Ps 4:6; cf. 31:16). For the same reason, the proverb says: "When a king's face brightens, it means life; his favor is like a rain cloud in spring" (Prov 16:15). The shining face of the Lord means that his presence and nearness speak of his help and favour and that he is gracious to help those in need. The shining face of the Lord thus speaks of his blessing and is synonymous with it. As Psalm 67:1 puts it: "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us."
The second line of the blessing concludes with "the Lord be gracious to you." Being gracious denotes God's free, unmerited goodness, love, and mercy. The light of God's shining face, which was just mentioned, exposes our sin. As Moses put it in Psalm 90: "You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence" (Ps 90:8). Only God's grace can overcome these sins (cf. Ex 33:19). And with this blessing, God promises to do just that.
The final line is "the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace." More literally, the first part reads: "The Lord lift up his face toward you." The thought of the Lord's making his face shine is further developed here. By lifting up his face, "God is in fact looking directly at his people so that they may receive the benefit of his full attention." This action is the opposite of God hiding his face. Then he is angry (e.g., Deut 31:1718; Ps 104:29). So when the Lord turns his face toward his people then it is for good. In this case the promise is that he will give his peace.
The term for peace, shalom, is very comprehensive. It is far more than the outward cessation of hostilities and a peace treaty with former enemies. Ultimately it is the full and true peace with God and the neighbour that impacts all of life. When there is true peace with God then sins have been forgiven, righteousness has been established, and God's grace is being enjoyed to the full. Ideally such a peace shows itself in prosperity and a holistic well-being and sense of fulfillment in all of life. In short it is the covenantal peace and fulfillment that only God can give. In a very real way this points to the eschatological hope of God's people. This part of the blessing is thus a fitting climax to the Aaronic benediction.
This brings us to the significance of this benediction for us today. But to do that, we first need to go the very first official Levitical service recorded in Scripture in Leviticus 9.
The use of the benediction today
At the end of this service, "Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them" (Lev 9:23). There are two things to note. First, we also receive the blessing at the end of the worship service. That is significant. It ties the blessing to going out of church. The blessing does not just signal the end of the worship service, but it also connects that worship and blessing to life outside the church. We can go into the fullness of life with the sure knowledge of God's blessing. His name, his presence, has been placed in our lives.
The second notable aspect of Aaron blessing after the worship service becomes clear by asking the question: How could Aaron do this? On what basis was it possible for him to declare God's blessings for the people to receive in faith? The blessing was possible because it was based on the atoning blood of the many sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins made that day. Aaron actually stood on the edge of the altar when he gave the blessing, for Scripture informs us that after the blessing he stepped down (Lev 9:22). The blood of the covenant made the blessing possible (Lev 9:9-18; Ex 24:8). Today too the blessings that end our worship services are based on the blood of reconciliation - only now the blood of Christ, the blood of the covenant (Matt 26:28). We live in a time after the great once-for-all sacrifice made on Golgotha (Heb 9:26) and that is very significant for the blessing.
God's blessing over our lives stands on the foundation of the completed work of our Saviour. That means that we never need to doubt his Word of blessing. His blessing does however require our obedience of faith if the promises are to be realized and the prayer of the blessing is to be fulfilled. Psalm 24, for example, tells us that it is the upright person who "will receive blessing from the Lord" (Ps 24:5; also, e.g., Deut 28:2; 30:15-16). But what a comfort for faithful children of God to know that the Christ has died and has secured the blessing! It is a sure thing!
It is remarkable that in the Aaronic priestly blessing the face of the Lord is mentioned two times. Why this heavy emphasis on God's face in such a short blessing? Clearly God wants to stress that in this blessing he shows his face, meaning, he will be near to his people (as also indicated by putting his name on the people). When one thinks of God showing his face, one cannot but think of how that was fulfilled in our Saviour. After all, whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9). In Christ God has come near and showed his face up close. What was not seen in the Old Testament time was revealed in the New Testament dispensation. God showed his face and had it shine on the church as never before (2 Cor 4:6)! Yes he turned his face toward his people to give the peace that surpasses all understanding. He did so in Christ crucified and resurrected.
And that was not all. After Christ finished his work of bringing himself as the atoning sacrifice, he not only rose for our justification but he also ascended into heaven as our only high priest where he makes intercession for us (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:35). But in ascending, he blessed. He stretched out his hands and as he departed he blessed his disciples (Luke 24:50-51). That was surely a moving scene. The high priestly figure of our Saviour saying farewell to his disciples and as he leaves them he blesses them (Luke 24:50-51). And as he rose higher and higher the reach of his blessing hands spread further and further. It spread across the Roman province of Judea, as he went higher the reach of his hands spread westwards across the Mediterranean Sea and eastwards to the Euphrates and Asia. His hands of blessing eventually spread over the whole world. We today, as those who love him, may live in the realization that we are under his blessing. The blessing at the end of the worship service confirms us in this reality every week again. It is a blessing that goes with us all week long - God's face shining on us and turning to us for peace. This benediction places God's name on our lives. He gives himself to us. Surely, we can rejoice in the gospel of the blessing! It encompasses our life and directs us to the time when we, according to his promise, will actually see his shining face. We will see him, face to face (2 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2).
In conclusion, since this is my final speech as a member of the faculty, allow me a few closing comments. I wish to thank the Lord our God for the opportunity for service that he has given and the blessings of health and strength he has given. I pray that I may still continue to be of service to the praise of his glory.
Furthermore, I wish to thank the Board of Governors and so the churches for the trust they have exhibited in giving me such a responsible duty for so many years. It is hard to believe that thirty years have gone by and yet so it is. I was privileged to serve with founding faculty members: Dr. J. Faber, Prof. L. Selles, and Rev. G. Van Dooren at the Queen Street address and Rev. W.W.J. Van Oene who had just replaced Rev. H. Scholten. Others followed in the course of the years. I also wish to thank the Board and the churches for the support and care which they provided over the years. For those who are not involved, it is hard to imagine the tremendous amount of work done by the Board, usually alongside their fulltime tasks. I have great appreciation for the enormous work they do.
It has been a tremendous joy to have excellent colleagues and a great working environment through the years and the same goes for the current senate. It is a wonderful thing to be united in faith, in purpose, and commitment in training students for the holy ministry and I will miss that daily interaction. Thank you colleagues for the support, friendship, and collegiality that we can experience together. I wish you all the continued blessing of the Lord in your ongoing work and in particular my successor, Dr. Smith. It is a great joy to know that the Old Testament work will continue and that it is in very capable hands.
As for the students, it has been a singular privilege to be teaching the Old Testament disciplines to, those aspiring to the ministry of the gospel. The Old Testament is rich and even after so many years one has the feeling that there is still so much more to learn and discover. Thank you students past and present for your interest, work, and questions, and for bearing with me.
My thanks also go to our Librarian, Ms. Margaret VanderVelde and our Administrative Assistant Ms. Catharine Mechelse, as well as Mrs. Rose Pol, for the cheerful and competent assistance over the years.
I would also like to acknowledge the phenomenal support from my wife, Joanne, during all these years. I could not imagine a better support and encouragement for the work I was called to do. It has been wonderful. The Lord has blessed us richly. We also give thanks that our son Carl, together with his wife Lisa, may serve in the ministry and that our mothers can both be present for this occasion.
In conclusion, thank you all, and may the Lord our God bless you abundantly! Remember, we may live under the blessing hands of our Saviour. May we all experience the holy joy this gives to our lives!