We have before us this evening the text in the book of Numbers that Christians are most familiar with having heard it, in many cases, literally thousands of times at the conclusions of their worship services. It is found at the end of the worship services of all kinds of Christian churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, liberal and evangelical, high and low.
This short section on the priestly blessing of the people is linked by its introduction “The Lord said to Moses…” to the regulations for the purification and the holiness of the camp. We find that same introductory phrase in 5:1, 5:5; 5:11; and 6:1, in other words in the introduction of the four preceding paragraphs. This in turn suggests that the Lord intends to bless his people in particular in this context as they make their way to the Promised Land and as they live there in faithfulness before him. What is more, immediately after the section dealing with the Nazirite vow, we have this reminder that the Lord’s blessing is to rest not simply on Nazirites, but upon all the people of Israel.
- The priests are to bless the people, though, as will be made clear in the form of the benediction itself, the blessing comes from the Lord. The priests are only the conduit. But it must be the priests; those who are authorized to perform this act and speak these words in Yahweh’s name. In the Bible benedictions of this kind, actual bestowals of blessing, are always performed by men authorized or commissioned to do so. The “This is how you are to…” indicates that the priests are not to fashion blessings of their own devising. This is the Lord’s act. It must be done according to his will.
“…the Israelites” indicates that the blessing is to be pronounced when the people are assembled for worship. In Lev. 9:22 we have an instance of Aaron pronouncing the blessing of God upon the people at the end of a service of worship. We don’t know that it was these words that he spoke but it was a benediction that he gave.
The word “bless” has little content in our usage. It was a much more important word in biblical Israel. Today people long for success. In those days they longed for blessing and they knew what blessing meant. [Wenham in Brown, 35] What it means is now worked out in the form of the benediction that the priests are to repeat.
- For the Lord “to make his face shine” is for him to smile upon his people, to look benevolently upon them. It is the opposite in the Bible of the Lord “hiding his face” from his people, indicating his anger (e.g. Deut. 31:18). [Milgrom, 51-52] You know how children thrive when they feel the love of their parents, when they know that their parents approve of them and are proud of them. How much more to feel the smile of Yahweh himself!
- For the Lord to “turn his face” toward his people or, as the KJV has it, “to lift up his countenance upon you” is to pay attention to and so to keep watch over.
“Peace” is shalom, which means much more than the absence of strife. It is the fullness of life: peace, prosperity, happiness, fulfillment, salvation, the sum of all good things and all of God’s gifts to his children. [Wenham, 90]
This benediction is echoed in many Psalms. For example in Ps 4:6 we have the writer praying that the light of the Lord’s face would shine upon them and in Ps 121 we read what it means for the Lord to watch over his people and to keep them in these words:
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. [vv. 5-8]
That is what it means for the Lord to turn his face toward his people and give them his peace. The poem – and this text is in the form of Hebrew poetry – is thought to be one of the oldest in the Bible. It is more interesting in Hebrew even than in English translation. First it has a form that gives it a rising momentum: the first line has 3 words, the second 5, and the third 7. Thus the impression is given of a stream of blessing that begins small and ends as a flood. If you omit the Lord’s name, Yahweh, repeated three times for emphasis, there are only twelve words left, thought by some to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel.
Interestingly, the blessing itself is given in the singular you; but the framework of the blessing, such as we have it in vv. 23 and 27 is in the plural. [Milgrom, 51] Once again, as so often in the Bible, we have the interplay between the individual life and the life of the church: the church is made up of individuals; but the individuals belong to the community and both are equally important and necessary in the will of God.
- The blessing thus given is the guarantee of God’s blessing upon his people. The last statement places the “I” in the emphatic position. It is the Lord who will bless his people; it is his blessing however much the priest may pronounce it or be the conduit of it. The priest may be holy in a special way, as one who works near to the Lord in the sanctuary, but there is to be no confusion on this point. The priest has no power of his own to bless anybody. He trades in the blessing the Lord himself gives and must give. He is only an instrument, what Calvin would later call a nuda persona, a bare person. Of course, that blessing is not without conditions. We have already read of the emphasis being placed in this book on the people’s faithfulness to God’s covenant.
Now the benediction can be termed a form or kind of prayer. It is even called a prayer elsewhere in the Bible (2 Chron. 30:27); but if we think of it as an ordinary prayer we will mistake the meaning of this text. We must immediately remember that it is joined to an explicit promise that God will hear and answer. It is not a prayer like other prayers. As Calvin points out the benediction is more than intercession. It is a prayer of intercession by someone whom God has sent to proclaim that God has granted that very benediction for which the minister prays. Or, to put it another way, the benediction is an explicit declaration, on Yahweh’s authority, that he will bless his people. The phrase “I will put my name on them” as well as earlier, “this is how you are to bless the Israelites” reminds us that this is not a typical invocation, as if the priest were merely asking God to do something, but a performative act, an act that produces the divine blessing in its being done, assuming, of course, faith and covenantal faithfulness on the part of the people who are being blessed. The benediction is, in this sense, as much God’s Word as it is a prayer to God. Hughes Old, one of our Reformed scholars of worship, tells us “It might better be classed as a type of sermon than as a type of prayer.” [H.O. Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, 331-332] That is why it is inappropriate for a congregation to bow their heads at the benediction; rather they should lift their eyes and receive the blessing the Lord is granting them. It is to emphasize this point that I have not, as a rule, raised my hands when pronouncing the benediction a posture that is sometimes, though not always associated with the pronouncing of blessing in the Bible. We associate the raising of hands with speaking to God rather than with God speaking to us.
The placing of Yahweh’s name on the people suggests that they belong to him and, therefore, he will care for them.
It is hard for us to admit that our beloved Reformed tradition is defective in any way but in fact a real weakness is that, on the whole, it has never paid proper attention to the Lord’s Day worship of the church. The origin of the Presbyterian practice of worship – especially in the English speaking world – is found far too much in its early reaction to the worship practices of enemy Christians. The Puritan worship service – a few psalms, a very long prayer by the minister, a long sermon and an infrequent Lord’s Supper, with the congregation sitting stolidly throughout – was simply what was left when the magisterial Reformation worship service was shorn of everything that enemy Christians – Episcopalians especially – did in their Sunday services. This Puritan service was very definitely not the worship service of John Calvin, nor was it the service of early Christianity, but, for certain somewhat predictable historical reasons, it became the worship service of the English speaking Presbyterian Church and eventually the worship service of American Presbyterianism. The changes that have been introduced into that service over the past 150 years or so have happened piecemeal and with little careful thought. They were certainly not the result of any concerted effort on the part of the Presbyterian Church to reform its worship according to Holy Scripture and the historic practice of Christendom.
A service so simple, a service that left the sermon the real reason for coming to church – in my growing-up-days, everything before the sermon was referred to by congregation and minister alike as “the preliminaries” – I say, a service so simple and so sermon-oriented did not require a great deal of thought and Presbyterians did not give much thought to it. Presbyterian ministers are carefully trained in biblical studies and theology, but they receive, and have received for generations only a cursory preparation in the history, the biblical theology, and the historic Christian practice of worship.
For these long centuries the Presbyterian Church has practiced a theological standard of conformity. In examining a prospective minister to see if he conforms, to see if he can belong to the Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery seeks to determine his level of mastery of the Bible, his knowledge of Christian theology, and his agreement with the doctrine of the church. All of that is, of course, very important and all to the good. But he is rarely asked anything about the other principal dimension of his responsibility, that of his understanding of and convictions concerning the worship of the congregation.
So far as I am aware, in the entire history of the new world, there has never been a professor of worship in any Presbyterian seminary, at least during the period of its orthodoxy. The worship service is the greatest moment in the church’s weekly life; it is, as the Scripture teaches in so many different ways, the great engine of Christian discipleship; it is the church’s primary means of public witness to the world; it is the one time when the entire church is gathered together; it is one of the great means by which the principles of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God are instilled in the hearts of the church’s children and reinforced in the mind of Christian adults, it is the center of the church’s life and work, but the nature and purpose of that service, the principles that govern it, its parts and order, have always been taught quite superficially in the Presbyterian Church.
If you want proof of that assertion, consider this: still today, not one of our conservative, Reformed seminaries has a professor of worship. None even has a single faculty member professionally trained in the subject of Christian liturgy. We would never allow our young men to be taught biblical studies or theology or church history by teachers who were not properly and professionally equipped to teach those subjects. Ordinarily we require graduate degrees in those specific disciplines before we allow a man to teach our prospective ministers New Testament or Old Testament or Systematic Theology. But anyone can teach worship and anyone does. No special training is required; no graduate degree in the field. Too often, frankly, the job is given to the faculty member who has the space in his schedule. No wonder the practice of worship has been so susceptible to fads over this last generation; few ministers have any informed convictions about Christian worship because they have never been taught the subject in any depth or with any serious scholarship.
That fact never troubled me until I noticed how much teaching about worship there actually is in the Bible and how much emphasis is placed upon it and until I discovered that other Christian traditions are not nearly so cavalier about the minister’s preparation for directing public worship as has been our own Presbyterian Church. I also discovered, and this floored me, which shows you how little I really did know, that the literature of Christian worship – its history, its controversies, its principles and practices and its Biblical theology – is fully as sophisticated, as complicated, and as immense as is the literature of theology. Our men know the one literature; they do not know the other. There is a reason why no Presbyterian has ever written a really important work on Christian worship. Presbyterians have written many great works on Christian theology and in the various areas of biblical study Presbyterians have also excelled; but not in Christian liturgics. For those books we Presbyterians must turn to the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Orthodox, the Lutherans, and the Methodists.
Ask any well-read PCA minister to name five good books on the doctrine of election and he will give you off the top of his head five solid recommendations. He will know a lot more about election and about many other doctrines of the Bible than the typical minister of other denominations. Ask him to name five valuable books on the Lord’s Supper and he will not only have difficulty coming up with five, the few he is likely to mention will be small, insubstantial books not to be compared with the theological tomes he is familiar with. But those substantial, valuable books on the Lord’s Supper do exist. Presbyterian ministers, however, have, by and large, not read them. They are not well trained; they are hardly trained at all in Christian worship. If they are, they trained themselves. Nowadays our ministers are not even taught that it is their responsibility to be overseers of the worship of God’s house. No one ever taught them they were such overseers and no one took the time – and it takes a great deal of time – to instruct them in what that means: what worship is, how ritual functions in the life of God’s people, how worship is to be offered to God, what are its parts and in what order are they to be arranged, for what purposes do we come to God’s house for worship, how are those purposes best to be realized in the experience of God’s people, how the Lord’s Day service is to be conducted by the minister, what various places minister and people occupy in that service, and so on. The Bible and the history of the church has much to teach about all of that. A Presbyterian minister who realizes that this worship is his sacred responsibility must, to a considerable extent, go outside his tradition to learn what he needs to know. Otherwise he is quite likely to feel perfectly comfortable handing his responsibilities over to a worship committee as large numbers of PCA ministers have done in our time.
I say all of that in introducing this particular point to explain why it is that a great many PCA services nowadays end with what is called a benediction but which is not a benediction at all and nobody recognizes the difference. I have encountered this again and again and often even at General Assembly where worship services are supposed to be conducted strictly according to Hoyle.
I remember on one occasion a service at a General Assembly at Chattanooga concluding with such a faux-benediction – it was some biblical text exhorting us to love and good deeds – and, after the service was over a couple behind me gushed about it: “Have you ever heard that text used as a benediction before?” “No, wasn’t it great!” Which demonstrated only that neither the committee that put the service together nor a good many of the people who participated in the service even knew what a benediction is! A benediction, as we read here, is a placing of the blessing of God upon his people, it is God granting his blessing to his people, smiling upon his people through the minister appointed to speak and act on his behalf. A benediction does something for the people of God!
I don’t know how many times I have been in services that have ended with a minister raising his hands and reciting the final two verses of Jude.
“To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”
A magnificent text; but, again, it is not a benediction. It is an ascription of praise to God not God’s blessing of his people. But the pastor thought he was giving the benediction and what the bulletin called that act was “the benediction.” “Benediction” has come, through widespread ignorance uncorrected at seminary, to mean simply a pious form of words with which to end a worship service. The idea that God is actually extending his blessing to an expectant people, that goodness and help and care is actually being transferred from heaven to earth, that fact that something is being done and that something is happening at the end of the service has been utterly lost to the church’s mind because it has been lost to the minister’s mind. Few ministers have studied the benediction and its place in the life of God’s people and its place in Christian worship in large part because they were never trained to think about these things; but this neglect is also part of that general devaluation of worship that continues in our generation when the service becomes in almost everyone’s mind, including the minister’s, less and less an encounter between God and his people and more a meeting of the people of God for spiritual purposes.
Now it is important to say that this is something ministers ought to be expert in; they are supposed to know exactly what a benediction is; they are supposed to know where it comes from and why it has the importance it has in the order of worship. The blessing of the people was one of the principal duties of the priests of the ancient epoch. In Deut. 10:8, recollecting Israel’s time in the wilderness, we read:
“At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister, and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today.”
And a similar thing is said again in Deut. 21:5:
“The priests, the sons of Levi, shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord…”
And such authoritative declarations of divine blessing continue into the New Testament indicating that it continues to be one of the ways God extends the blessing of his favor to his people. The Lord Jesus blessed his disciples before he ascended into heaven, we read in Luke 24:50. Again, this was not a prayer, nor an invocation, obviously in that case, but a performative utterance, a granting of blessing. And Paul, as you may remember, sometimes ends his letters with benedictions, the most well-known of which comes at the end of 2 Corinthians.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
The NIV turned it into a prayer, but the ESV gives it rightly as a blessing bestowed.
The history of the Christian ministry bears witness not only to the universal practice of bestowing God’s blessing upon his people this way as the conclusion of services of worship but of ministers understanding very well that they were, in so doing, communicating God’s blessing and favor directly to his people. Here is Charles Simeon, the great Anglican pastor in 18th and 19th century Cambridge.
“I feel that in pronouncing [the benediction] I do not do it as a mere finale, but that I am actually dispensing peace from God and at God’s command. I know not the individuals to whom my benediction is a blessing; but I know that I am the appointed instrument by whom God is conveying the blessing to those who are able to receive it.” [Moule, Charles Simeon, 85-86]
I spoke last week of the way worship allows us every Lord’s Day to reenter reality and to have that reality – that counter-reality to the imagined reality that so many accept and believe and which we ourselves are so sorely tempted to accept – I say to have that reality impressed afresh upon our minds and hearts. Here, in the benediction as part of that worship, we are reminded that God alone is the source of all that we long for; he and he alone can give it to us and keep it for us; and that, therefore, the hope we place in other things, in other people is misplaced, futile, and bound to disappoint us, a very important thing to hear and understand as we leave the church and reenter our daily life. We are also reminded that the Lord stands ready to bless his people; that he will bless them if only they are faithful to him. The three-fold repetition of the Lord’s name, the emphasis placed on the Lord’s blessing being in the priests mouth in vv. 23 and 27, all of that is no doubt necessary precisely because we are so inclined to look for our blessing in all the wrong places and because the Devil will be very happy to give us a kind of blessing from other sources that can distract us from looking for real blessing from the only one who can give it to us.
In Jeremiah 2:13 the Lord laments this very tendency on the part of his people.
“My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water.”
In other words they looked elsewhere for their blessing and found only the cheap and temporary imitation. [Duguid, 88]
In any well-ordered worship service, everything that is done is important and valuable. Everything renews faith, hope, love and our lives in some way. Everything addresses our need in some significant way. But not everything, every Sunday, has subjective power over our hearts. Our sins may be forgiven because we have asked for that forgiveness in Jesus’ name – and that is the truly important thing – our sins may be forgiven but we may not feel the freedom from sin and guilt that is the appropriate consequence of such forgiveness. We may have sung God’s praise and glory – and that is absolutely important for us to do – but we may not have felt the divine majesty in our hearts. Sometimes we come to the end of the service and still our hearts have not been lifted up and our spirits raised, however we may have heard the Word of God and traversed the gospel ground once more. And for the real believer, whose faith is often downcast because of his own sins and failures or because of the afflictions of life, that blessing being granted to him at the end of the service and resting upon him, the Lord’s name being put upon him in that way, is a matter of the greatest conceivable importance whether or not we feel the effect of that blessing in our spirits. Who can possibly say what difference it would make to our lives not to have the blessing that has come to us from the sermons we have heard, the prayers we have offered, the Lord’s Supper’s we have participated in. We cannot know how God pours his help, his forgiveness, his strength, his provision into our hearts by the means that he has appointed to communicate his favor – so many of which are concentrated as parts of the service of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day. And the benediction is another of those parts. No one can say what a difference it has made to countless multitudes and generations of Christian people through the ages to have the Lord blessing them, to have that benediction granted them in that divinely appointed and ordered way, that way the Lord himself promised would be his way of smiling upon, keeping, being gracious to, and blessing his people. Must we not believe, can a believer of the Bible here in Numbers 6 not believe that this benediction as often as it is offered by a minister and received by a congregation is a means of some blessing granted by God to his people every time it is uttered? Have you so much of that blessing that you care to have no more? Are you sated with God’s blessing? Or, rather, do you want as much of it as you can possibly obtain and so are jealous to take the fullest advantage of every opportunity to obtain more of that blessing?
Even if we leave the service unmoved; our hearts not yet stirred with a sense of the Lord’s favor, kindness, smile, and peace, the benediction is at least the objective reminder that such blessing is coming to us and must come to us because God will be true to himself. This benediction is both, therefore, an objective means of grace and a subjective reminder that the Lord will not fail to smile upon and to keep his children, no matter the trials they must face and the disappointments they must endure. The great English poet, John Donne, put it this way:
Though thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face; yet through that mask[e] I know those eyes,
Which, though they turn[e] away sometimes,
They never will despise.
[Cited by Brown from “A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s
Last going into Germany]
Such is the confidence of one who hears the Lord say over and over again to him or to her: “I will keep you, my face will shine upon you; I will be gracious to you; turn my face toward you; and give you my peace.”
Young people, a special word to you. Ask yourself: where do I hope to find my blessing, my success, happiness and fulfillment in life? What am, who am I really counting on? Take the time to examine yourself, here’s the way to do it. Think about what makes you angry; what causes you anxiety. Consider your daydreams, what you think about, imagining yourself to be happier later than you are now. And from there work back to find what you are really hoping for and counting on. I am now much nearer to the end of my life than to its beginning, unlike you, and I can tell you for a certainty that the world and the things of this world can neither give nor take away the shalom that comes alone from God and is the gift of his love.
Our Savior made a point of saying the same thing. “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full;” that’s shalom. It is from him that human beings obtain the fullness of life, both here in this world and supremely in the world to come. The benediction is an every Sunday reminder of that fact and in a way we cannot trace or calculate a means of God’s blessing coming to pass in our lives. Maybe someday in heaven we will learn how different our lives would have been in how many different ways and how much poorer, if God had not bestowed his blessing upon us Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day at the end of the service of worship. Christ has, as we read in Eph. 1:3 “blessed us with all spiritual blessings…” And he gives those blessings to us, bestows them upon us in many different ways. The benediction is but one of them but an important one upon which much emphasis falls in Holy Scripture. Remember his blessing the children who were brought to him in Luke 18. Surely none of us thinks that blessing was nothing more than a wish for good luck! It was a power in their lives.
Just imagine that it didn’t have to be experienced by faith. That the Lord Jesus himself was present and that he stood before you, looked you in the eyes and with his hand on your shoulder and said these words to you:
“I will bless you and keep you; I will make my face shine upon you and be gracious to you; I will lift up my countenance upon you and give you my peace.”
What if you heard him say those words to you and watched him as he spoke them? You would not doubt, you could not doubt that something very grand had been said to you and done for you and that your life could not be the same. And so it is every Lord’s Day in this house; the last thing the Lord says to us every worship service and the last thing he does for us as we leave.