THE LORD BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU
by Warren Bird
Grace, peace, blessing, keeping. God desires wonderful things for His faithful people! Blessing is a term that gets misused a lot – this sermon explores what it really means.
Have you ever noticed how the apostle Paul opens every one of his letters by wishing his readers “grace and peace”? It is also present in both of Peter’s letters, one of John’s and Revelation.
When they said, “grace and peace” these Biblical writers were not merely using a polite form of words to start a letter. In fact, they are very special words. To wish someone “grace” and “peace” is to desire for them something wonderful – it is to pray that they will be as close as possible to the heart of God.
When they said, “grace and peace”, Peter, John and Paul were also carrying on a tradition that dated back almost 1500 years; a tradition that started during the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings between the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. God used this time to prepare Israel for life as His people in His land. One of the important things He did was to establish the role and ministry of the priests, who were to offer the sacrifices and lead the people in worship.
And an important part of their ministry was to “bless” the people. In Numbers 6 we read of God’s instruction for the priests to say these 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 peace.”
And it adds that in this way “they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them”. I’m not going into detail what “putting my name on them” means, but the essence is this. Pronouncing this blessing affirmed the people of their special relationship with God and of the special place they had in His world.
We learn from Leviticus that the priests were to say these words with their hands held up above their heads. This was to signify that the words weren’t just being uttered by the priests, but were coming from God Himself to the people. The priest was the mediator, not the initiator. When the people gathered for worship, the priest would offer the sacrifices to establish them in fellowship with God, then he would raise his arms and pronounce the blessing.
What did it mean to say, “The Lord bless you”?
The Hebrew word literally means “on bended knee”. It describes a servant kneeling out of respect for his master or a lover kneeling to ask his beloved for her hand in marriage. There is a wonderful moment near the end of “The Return of the King” when the four hobbits are stunned that the newly crowned king of men, Aragorn, kneels to honour them. That is something like what this passage has in mind. In this blessing, God is offering to come to His people “on bended knee” – that is, to come to serve them, to love them, to share Himself with them.
The second part of the first phrase of the Aaronic blessing calls upon God to “keep” His people. What do you think “and keep you” might mean?
The Hebrew word for “keep” is used to describe the way shepherds would use thorn bushes to build a protective enclosure for the sheep, to keep them safe from predators. “To keep” literally means “to build a hedge around”. Thus, the key idea is that of protection from harm, putting around you and your life a sort of fence to keep out enemies that would snatch away the blessings that God has given you, and to keep you from wandering off.
Are these not staggering thoughts? That YHWH, the supreme and almighty God, who dwells in eternity, the creator of and ruler over all things, would get down on one knee as a servant to sinful and rebellious people like us! That He would then take the trouble to build a protective hedge around us to keep us safe? Yet that is exactly what the Bible says he instructed the priests to call on Him to do.
Most people do not think of God like this. In fact, I believe that many Christians don’t think of God like this. Yet, even more than the people of Israel, we should be able to see that this is how God has revealed Himself. His coming “on bended knee” was most completely put into action in the incarnation of God the Son. Jesus in the manger is God on bended knee; Jesus eating with sinners is God coming on bended knee; Jesus living as one of us, then giving His life on the cross is God on bended knee. Jesus ascending to heaven and sending His Spirit as our Comforter is God at work keeping our us secure, for as Peter wrote, “we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you.”
Truly, God has shown Himself to be a God who has a heart to bless and keep His people!
What sort of blessings does this prayer have in mind?
If you peruse the many other references to “blessing” in the Old Testament you will find that the sort of things most often referred to are:
• material needs being met, so that you will have sufficient to live on and to be generous to others;
• a happy family life;
• a good reputation in the community where you live and work;
• good health and a long life;
• the defeat and scattering of your enemies;
• fruitful labour, that their daily work would go well and be rewarded;
that they would be the head and not the tail – i.e. to be able to make decisions about their life rather than merely being followers, dragged along by others.
In short, these are the sort of things that the prayer of General Thanksgiving calls “all the blessings of this life”. Life, health, safety, power to work and leisure to rest, as the current version puts it. These are great things not only to be thankful for, but to pray for on behalf of others.
But the Bible also teaches that the greatest blessing is that of a faithful relationship with God, issuing in obedience to Him. The Aaronic blessing also goes much deeper than “blessings of this life”. It goes on to the two ideas that I mentioned at the beginning of this talk – it seeks from God the great spiritual blessings of His grace and His peace.
The second phrase asks for God’s grace:
“The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
The best way I can explain God’s face shining on us is to think about the difference between rainy days and sunny days. I work in the city and try to get out at lunchtimes to walk in the Botanic Gardens. I distinctly remember one day after a period of rain and wind that had made being outside quite unpleasant; however, the sun came out and when I went walking I noticed several things about the sunny day:
– it was much brighter – the grass seemed greener, the harbour sparkled, the flowers were all wide open with their colours showing off to maximum effect;
– it was much warmer – pleasant on the face, indeed it sort of cheered up my whole body to have the sun shining again;
there is much more life and activity – more people are out and about, they are involved in a range of activities that often don’t take place on wet days. The city was more alive!
How good is it, then, when in the midst of the stormy weather that we often encounter in life, when our spirits are dampened by the sadness of this world, to have God’s face shine upon us? His light helps us to see clearly, brightening our understanding of what is going on in the world and how He is in control working out His purposes. His love warms us and heals our soul’s wounds. When we are weighed down because of our own inadequacies and the contributions that we make to the sadness of our world, it is wonderful to know that God is gracious. We don’t deserve it, but He is on our side. God is for us – who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from God’s grace and love in Christ.
What a great thing that is to pray for someone – that they will know the grace of God in their lives! What a great thing for someone to pray for you! “The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
The third phrase of the Aaronic blessing asks for the reality of God’s peace in the lives of His people:
“The Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace.”
Have you ever been looking for someone in a crowd? Perhaps you’ve been to pick someone up at the airport, or been met yourself when you’ve gone to visit someone you haven’t seen for a long time. Think of the moment when you finally make eye contact with the person you are looking for. Suddenly, out of all the people gathered in that place at that time you make a personal connection with someone that you know and who knows you! You run up to them and embrace them. Any doubts – would they be there? Would they know you? – all such questions disappear as they turn their face towards you.
That’s what the Aaronic blessing asks for between us and God. When God turns His face towards you, it is a moment of recognition that you matter to Him and are special to Him. The one who turns His face towards you also opens His arms wide to embrace you as you meet. You are at peace in that embrace, you are secure in the knowledge that your relationship with God is real; you know that He knows you and that your relationship with Him cannot be shaken.
Is that not a wonderful thought?! It is not just a thought – it is our reality as Christians. Jesus said that His sheep hear His voice; He knows them and they follow Him; He gives them eternal life and no one can snatch us from His Father’s hand. God is for us – and neither life, nor death, nor calamity, nor things or people from our past, nor anything in the future can ever separate us from Him and His love for us. Truly this is peace that passes all understanding!
God gave this prayer to the priests of ancient Israel because His desire is to bless His people. He wants to come to us on bended knee to bring us great things from His heavenly storehouse of treasures. He wants to shine His face on us, to pick us out from the crowd and embrace us, to build a protective hedge around us so that nothing can deprive us of His grace and peace. This is the heart of God for us and He gives these blessings to all who come to Him through faith and serve Him faithfully throughout their lives. When Jesus hung on that cross, God came to us on bended knee to give us far more than we could ever imagine or ever deserve. He gave us Himself. There can be no greater blessing than this.
At the end of Luke’s gospel we read that one of the last things Jesus did before returning to heaven was to raise His arms and bless His disciples. I believe that Jesus prayed this prayer for them, as the great high priest who gave Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for us.
Furthermore it is now our role to be priests who pass on God’s blessing to others. As Peter says in chapter 2 of his first letter, everyone who believes in Christ is part of His royal priesthood. He speaks of us declaring God’s praises – which includes praying and working for the spiritual well-being of others. As someone has put it, we are blessed to be a blessing.
The apostle Paul knew this, which is why every one of his letters commences with his own shortened version of the Aaronic blessing – “grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He blessed them as he shared God’s word with them, as he travelled around risking his life to help them to know the gospel, and as he prayed for them and sought their spiritual well-being.
We also have the opportunity to be instruments of God’s blessing in this world – to minister grace and peace to our neighbours, our work colleagues, our classmates, our families and our friends. We can do this by how we treat them and by what we say to them and about them. The things we say to people can be a powerful force for good or ill in their lives. In a world that so often sets out to curse people, to put them down and keep them down, a positive word, an affirmation that God desires good for them, can be profound.
Let me illustrate what I mean by reading to you a true story. Writing in his book, “Life of the Beloved”, Henry Nouwen tells of a time when he was working with disabled people. One of the handicapped women in the community asked him for a blessing, but when he started to do the ritual signing of the cross she said, “no that doesn’t work. I want a real blessing!”. He realized something special was needed and promised to do something when the community was gathered together later.
He tells of how later on when about 30 people were present he said that Janet had asked for a special blessing. I continue in his own words:
“As I was saying this, I didn’t know what Janet really wanted. But Janet didn’t leave me in doubt for very long. As soon as I (started speaking) Janet stood up and walked toward me. I was wearing a long white robe with ample sleeves covering my hands as well as my arms.
Spontaneously, Janet put her arms around me and put her head against my chest. Without thinking, I covered her with my sleeves so that she almost vanished in the folds of my robe. As we held each other I said, ‘Janet, I want you to know you are God’s beloved daughter. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.’”
Nouwen relates how Janet’s smile assured him he’d hit the mark and that before long many of the other handicapped people had also come forward for a blessing. “The most touching moment, however, came when one of the assistants, a 24-year old student, raised his hand and said, ‘And what about me?’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘come’. He came and, as we stood before each other, I put my arms around him and said, ‘John, it is so good that you are here. You are God’s beloved son. Your presence is a joy for us all. When things are hard and life is burdensome, always remember that you are loved with an everlasting love.’ As I spoke these words,” writes Nouwen, “he looked at me with tears in his eyes and then he said, ‘Thank you, thank you very much’.”1
My dear brothers and sisters, blessing and being blessed are very important parts of being a Christian. Blessing is the work of God.
Let me conclude, then, by praying this prayer for you.
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace.”
(Footnote: quotes are from “Life of the Beloved” by Henri Nouwen, Hodder & Stoughton 1992, p 57-59.)
(Second footnote: During June 2006, a scholar of ancient languages challenged my use of the definition ’to kneel’ for the word bless. He suggested that it’s only a primitive root meaning and not necessarily a good translation when used in the Bible. He particularly argued that my statement about coming on bended knee being like a lover making a proposal of marriage was conjecture and that he’s unaware of the word ’barak’ ever being used in that way in Hebrew literature. I take these points and acknowledge his greater expertise. However, I also believe that, in their contexts, the usages of ’bless’ that I’ve referred to in this sermon are perfectly consistent with the notion of kneeling in service and humility. I don’t believe anything needs to be changed, but I felt that I should note my friend’s technical point for the record.)