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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” (Num. 6:23–26).
These familiar words constitute one of several scriptural forms most commonly used by Reformed pastors as a benedictory pronouncement upon the congregation at the conclusion of a Lord’s day worship service. For reformational churches, the use of the Aaronic benediction can be traced as far back as the Genevan Psalter of 1542. However, it is often the case that we yield but a cursory consideration to familiar words when we hear or read them. Indeed, such words can become so familiar to us that we are able to recite them with scarcely any mental effort, and thereby run the risk of drawing from them little or no benefit beyond a passing thought of nostalgic reflection and/or ephemeral good feeling. I can still recall and appreciate the warning of my systematic theology professor, Dr. John R. de Witt, who often admonished us as seminary students against the tendency of becoming so familiar with holy things in an academic or ministerial setting, that we begin to regard them no longer as being particularly holy. Familiarity can breed not only contempt, but it can inculcate an indifference that lulls us into a spirit of unresponsiveness, where the words are still embraced with a form of godliness. Nonetheless, bankrupt of the effect, calculated under the blessing of God, to produce good for our souls. Now, to be sure, familiarity can result in great help to the people of God by calling to our minds afresh God’s blessings to His people and renewed hope in His mercies. Thus, I speak of familiarity here in the negative sense, and in a way that Bishop J. C. Ryle cautioned us against when he wrote: “The regular return of the same voice, and the same kind of words, and the same ceremonies, is likely to make us sleepy and callous and unfeeling. Here is a snare into which too many professing Christians fall. If we would grow, we must be on our guard here” (Holiness, p. 89). With this caution in mind, let us consider afresh these wonderful words of biblical benediction, taking heed to the admonition of Bishop Ryle.
These words were first given in the context of a book written at the end of Israel’s wilderness wanderings and as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. It is a book that looks backward and forward, reminding God’s covenant people of their past blessings, as well as encouraging them concerning God’s future promises.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, import of these words underscores the intent of God to confer blessings on His covenant people. The Aaronic benediction begins and ends with this motif: “The Lord bless … I will bless them.” Thus everything enclosed by these two phrases is to be understood as God’s intention to bless His people. In verses 24–26, the second part of each verse accents the meaning of the first. To bless is to keep; the radiance of the Lord’s face indicates His gracious will for us, and the lifting up of His countenance is the sign and pledge of His peace toward us. God’s covenant people are the bull’s-eye, as it were, of His targeted kindness and love.
Secondly, it is the Lord Himself who speaks and commands this benediction. Thus when the priest utters these words, it is not He who confers the benediction, but the God in whose name He speaks. The pronouncement of this blessing is God’s own gracious word to His people. The God who spoke worlds into being ex nihilo, out of nothing, likewise calls into being the very benediction that He commands.
Thirdly, this benediction, according to verse 27, is the placing of God’s name upon His people, marking them out with His special covenant name Yahweh. He binds Himself to His people in covenant mercy by placing His name upon them. To invoke the covenantal name of Yahweh is a constant reminder to the people of God of their salvation in Him; and so cried the Psalmist: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). It is Yahweh who gives Himself to His people in giving them His name, and in covenant mercy He has marked them out with His own blood (see Ex. 24:8; Heb. 9:19–20, 25–26). Yahweh’s blessing is the gift of His name to His people, and it is signed with His own blood. That gift is efficaciously conferred on His people in the pronouncement of these gracious words of benediction.
Fourthly, as the conferral of God’s name upon His ancient people prepared them for taking possession of the Promised Land, so it prepares His new covenant people for taking possession of the new heavens and new earth as joint heirs with Christ. For in that day, “they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4), and which, to be sure, eternity itself shall never erase.
These are the gracious words of the Aaronic benediction. It is a benediction, moreover, that should never cease to move and amaze us, and which should leave us always lost in a posture of wonder, love, and praise that God would ever be pleased to bless and mark us with His own name.