[K:NWTS 25/2 (Sep 2010) 36-42]

The Aaronic Benediction

Numbers 6:22-27

James T. Dennison, Jr.

These are familiar words; they have been pronounced on numerous occasions from numerous pulpits as the finale to morning or evening worship. They are words reprised in the 67th Psalm (v. 1). There is no question that the Mosaic version here in Numbers 6 takes precedence over that found in the Psalter—at least to those of us who hold to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Liberals reject the premise that Moses is the author of these words; liberals reject the premise that Moses ever existed—he is a myth, invented by the Jews—even as the words of this benediction were invented by the Jews during the era of the Babylonian Exile and later.

The words of Aaron's benediction are placed among a host of details relating to the responsibilities of the Levitical priests—responsibilities which the priests of the tribe of Levi had for the tabernacle of the Lord from the sojourn in the Wilderness of Sinai up to the entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan and beyond to the era of Solomon's Temple. In our text, we find the peculiar privilege of the Aaronic priests—Aaron and his sons (v. 23). They are permitted to bless the children of Israel—to invoke God's name in benediction upon the people of God. This privilege belongs to the office of the priest—it is not a privilege that belongs to lay members of the congregation of Israel. It is now the ordained minister who raises his hands to bless you with the benediction. It is a privilege of his office. This privilege is not given to the elders or deacons or to the ordinary members of the congregation. This privilege belongs to the priests alone—to the ministers of the flock of God.

What a privilege! A privilege more wonderfully experienced by the New Testament pastor than by the Old Testament priest; more wonderful because Christ, the great High Priest, has performed the blessings of salvation once and for all for his people. The beloved of the Lord Jesus are pressed down into his grace, his unmerited favor and love, his perfect work of interceding on their behalf, of being not only a mediator of better things than Aaron and his sons, but of being the sacrifice itself which once and for all puts an end to the Levitical priesthood, the Levitical ritual, the Levitical office. The benediction of Christ Jesus is richer by far than that of Aaron because it is the blessing of God the Son whose riches far surpass in reality the shadows of the Levitical priesthood. As poignant as this benediction of Numbers 6 is, it is far richer to the sons and daughters of the eschatological Israel of God—the congregation of the people of God of the end of the age—the wandering children of God gathered under the benediction of the eschatological priest, Jesus Christ, whose eschatological mediation brings us near unto God—whose eschatological sacrifice puts an end to the sacrifices of the Levites. Indeed, the benediction of Numbers 6 is sweeter by far to us—we who would see Jesus as the eschatological benediction of God for his sons and daughters.

Now, there are a few details to note about Numbers 6:22-27. First, there is a ring structure here in verses 23 and 27. Next, there is a numerical progression in verses 24-26. Finally, there is a positional symmetry in verses 24, 25 and 26. By positional symmetry, I mean there is a directional posture which places the one blessed in front of the one blessing. Let me elaborate on these various details.

Ring Structure

The ring structure which sets Numbers 6:23-27 apart from the rest of this portion of the book of Numbers is found in the poetic nature of this benediction. This is Hebrew poetry; it is the first poem in the book of Numbers, but it is not the last. The ring around the benediction proper encloses verses 23 and 27. The terms "bless" and "sons of Israel" occur in both these verses. The opening and closing of this blessing is ringed by the balanced expression "bless the sons of Israel." The jewel at the center of the ring is the benediction itself in verses 24-26. Notice how the ring structure features the gem of blessing at the center. The ring is around the benediction proper—the gift of blessing pronounced on the people of God. As if God were to say, "I will ring you around with blessings; I will surround you as my people with benediction; I will be the circle, the loop, the coil which enwraps you—which surrounds you—which embraces you in blessing, my children." The blessing of God upon his children is the circle of his embrace; the ring of his affection; the enwrapping of his goodness—his delight—his grace, in love around you—you!—who are his sons and daughters.

Numerical Progression

This poem of benediction is also a marvelous numerical progression. If you remember your days in math or algebra, you learned about simple numerical progressions, such as 2+2=4, 4+2=6, 6+2=8: a progression of even numbers by a factor of two. Here in Numbers 6:24-26, we have a numerical progression of odd numbers by a factor of two. Now, you will say to me: but there are no numbers in the text. And you are right! But I am referring to the poetic Hebrew text which you do not have in front of you. However, I want to point out this feature of the original Hebrew text because it is theologically significant. Verse 24 in the Hebrew text has 3 words; your English version has 7 words, but the original, inspired text, by an economy of composition, has only 3. Verse 25 has 5 words in the original Hebrew text. Notice the progression: the 3 words of Hebrew in verse 24 plus 2 equals 5 words of Hebrew in verse 25. By now, you are anticipating me and by the rule of numerical progression, you are expecting verse 26 to have 7 words in the original Hebrew text—and you are correct; verse 26 does indeed have 7 Hebrew words. 3-5-7: a numerical progression of odd numbers by a factor of two.

Now this exercise in numerical progression is not just an intriguing numbers game. The benediction of the Lord becomes longer and longer as it moves from beginning to end; or may we say that God's blessing becomes richer and richer as we move from verse 24 to verse 26. From his blessing which keeps us (v. 24) to his blessing which shines his face upon us in grace (v. 25) to his benediction in the beaming of his countenance upon us and giving us Shalom (peace) in verse 26. Such is the progression of God's blessing—opening more fully, more wonderfully, more sweetly from beginning to end.

Are you not wrapped around by the circle of this precious progression of God's blessing, God's shining face, God's grace, God's countenance, God's Shalom? Surely, you would take refuge within the circle of blessedness; surely, you would take your place at the center of this longer yet longer, richer yea richer coil of benediction! And how much more when you know the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ; the benediction of your precious Savior, your beloved Lord, your God! The benediction of the Lord Jesus is the ring of God's embrace around you.

Word Order

The next thing to observe about the form of this benedictory poem is the order of the words. In the original Hebrew text, there is one word in the same place in each verse 24 through 26. That word is the name Yahweh, Jehovah, Lord. In each verse, 24, 25 and 26, the name for the Lord is in the second position in the Hebrew text of each line. Now, many of your English versions show the same feature because of the definite article (the English word "the") and the fact that in English, we prefer to put the subject of a sentence in the beginning of the clause. Not so in the Hebrew of these verses. Verse 24 reads literally: may he bless you (one Hebrew word) the Lord (second Hebrew word). Verse 25: may he shine (one Hebrew word) the Lord (second Hebrew word). Verse 26: may he lift up (one Hebrew word) the Lord (second Hebrew word). In each case, the first Hebrew word is a verb—a word of action. And who is the source of this action? The Lord, the Lord, the Lord. He is the repeated source of the action of blessing in each line of this poem. The structure of the poem tells you so—God the Lord is always at the same place in each verse. His is the unchanging position in the text because not only is he himself unchanging, his blessing, his benediction, does not change either.

Positional Relation

Now, I would like to direct your attention to the positional relation or posture in the poetic structure. The Lord blesses you (v. 24). The relational posture is God towards you—the Lord's blessing towards you. You, the object of the Lord's blessing. Now in verse 25, we discover more of the Lord's positional relationship towards us. In this beautiful line, the Lord's face is positioned towards us. The Hebrew text literally reads: "make shine the Lord his face unto you." Here is the Lord's shining, glorious, heavenly face radiating, beaming, glistening towards you—you! What a blessing!

And verse 26, the Lord's countenance—once again his face (verses 25 and 26 are duplicates at this point)—the Lord's facial countenance is lifted up towards you. The Lord positions his face towards you and lifts up his countenance in your direction. The Lord of all eternity, who dwells in unapproachable light, whose sinless perfection cannot bear even the sight of iniquity—the Lord deigns to lift up his face upon you. What wondrous grace is this! What matchless love is this! The Lord all-holy, all-glorious, all-gracious would let his heaven-radiant, his heaven-beaming face shine upon you—upon me—we who deserve his scowl of wrath—his frown of rejection—his glare of condemnation. Out of his grace, from the riches of his eschatological shalom—his beaming face shines out upon you—upon me. Are you not dumbstruck! Lord, what mercy; Lord, what grace; Lord, what benediction is this, O Lord, my Lord, my God, my Savior, my Sanctifier. Do you see? This benediction places you in positional relation to the Lord. Your posture towards him; his posture towards you is one of relational benediction—relational blessing: he blesses; you are blessed.

The Lord blesses you. Do you not bless the Lord! "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name." The Lord Jesus Christ blesses you. Do you not bless the Lord Jesus Christ? "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing." Does this language flow up out of your heart? Do you talk this way; do you pray this way; do you live this way? The Lord God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—blesses you. Do you not bless the Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Do you not bless the Triune God, taking his blessed Triune name upon your lips, in your prayers, in your life? Then let us hear it. Let us hear this conversation fill your mouth as it fills your soul as it fills your heart as it fills your life. Let us hear—let us see your lips—let us see your lives bless the Lord.

The Lord makes his face shine upon you. Do you not turn your shining face to the Lord? The Lord Jesus Christ makes his face shine upon you; do you not turn your beaming face to the Lord Jesus Christ? Does this language come from your lips, from your heart? Do you talk this way; do you pray this way; do you live this way? The Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, shines his heavenly face upon you? Do you not reflect his shining face in your beaming countenance—your face shining before the face of your Lord?

The Lord gives grace to you. Do you not treasure the grace given by the Lord? The Lord Jesus Christ gives grace to you; do you not delight in the grace given to you by the Lord Jesus Christ? Does this language come from your lips; does this feeling arise from your heart? Do you talk this way; pray this way; live this way? The Lord God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—gives grace to you—undeserved, unmerited grace to you. Does your mouth not testify to his grace to you; do your prayers not overflow with gratitude for his grace to you; does your life not show the effect of his grace to you?

The Lord lifts up his countenance upon you and gives you peace. Do you not lift up your countenance upon the Lord and give him peace—or are you always at war with the Lord, at odds with those around you; a source of tension, stress and conflict wherever you go, in whatever circles you move—bringing suspicion, distrust, argument, self-centeredness, intransigence, stubbornness. The Lord Jesus Christ lifts up his countenance upon you and gives you peace. Do you spurn the peace that passes understanding being more interested in alienating others, playing the 'big shot', bringing a dark cloud into relationships, being continually hard to get along with because you—you—are the person that calls the shots, wears the pants, runs the show (and you make sure everyone knows it). The Lord God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—lifts up his face upon you and gives you shalom. Let this peace flow like a river from your mouth, from your heart, from your life.

Let the rich fullness of the Aaronic benediction draw you within the circle of the Lord's own blessedness—a gracious benediction made richer still in these last days through the priestly work of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ—a benediction that places you before the face of the Lord, in Christ Jesus; a benediction that grants you the grace of the Lord, in Christ Jesus; a blessing that gives you the peace of the Lord, in Christ Jesus. A heavenly benediction pronounced in an earthly venue placing your face before the eschatological benediction that never ends—the eschatological benediction in the eschatological priest, Jesus Christ. A heavenly blessing from a heavenly high priest with heaven's grace and peace beaming upon you.

And now, blessed sons and daughters of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, let these riches of Christ's benediction change the way you speak, the way you pray, the way you live.