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. (Numbers 6:24–26)
Tucked away in an otherwise inconspicuous place in the book of Numbers, we find one of the great poems in all the Bible. There God instructs Moses to speak to Aaron (his brother, the high priest) and to his sons, saying, “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them . . .” (Numbers 6:23).
Then follows what we now know as the great “Aaronic blessing,” not only one of Scripture’s best-known verses but also one of its oldest. Many Christians today are familiar with it from the echoes in our songs and benedictions. In fact, some of us are so familiar with the blessing that it’s easy to take what it says for granted.
Whether the blessing is new or old to you, consider what makes this blessing great, why it assumed such a place of prominence in Israel, and why many today, even in the church age, still treasure and rehearse these three lines.
The Lord Blesses and Keeps
To begin with, the three lines of the blessing have been carefully crafted. Each line increases by two words — from three, to five, to seven — and by two syllables — from twelve, to fourteen, to sixteen. The number of Hebrew consonants steadily builds as well, from fifteen to twenty to twenty-five. Each word was chosen meticulously.
Most conspicuous of all is the repetition of God’s covenant name, Yahweh, which is represented by “the LORD” in all caps in English (and appears six thousand times in the Old Testament). The repetition here — the Lord, the Lord, the Lord — serves to emphasize him as the source of true blessing.
Each line in the blessing begins with God’s name, and is followed by two verbs. The first line captures the heart and sum: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Then line two expands on bless, while line three expands on keep.
His Face Shines with Grace
What would the ancient Israelites have assumed this “blessing” meant? How spiritual and eternal and divine were their hopes? How many would be content with just physical, temporal, and merely human provision in their everyday lives?
Leviticus 26 shows how multifaceted the Lord’s blessing would have been in their minds. Included would be the earthly and temporal: rains, harvest, and produce (Leviticus 26:3–5), peace in the land and victory in battle (verses 6–8), being fruitful and multiplying through offspring (verse 9), and plenty of stored resources (verse 10). However, we should be careful not to sell God’s ancient people short on all they longed for in God’s blessing. The culminating blessing — that which was most important — was God’s own presence:
I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Leviticus 26:11–12)
And so too for us today. Temporal supplies, earthly peace, and human offspring are not insignificant. They are the real needs and hopes of life in the world God has made. They can be precious gifts, and expressions of God’s fatherly favor. But they are not the heart of the blessing. In fact, God might lovingly take them away, not as the removal of his blessing but as an expression of it. The center and apex of God’s blessing is the presence and person of God himself.
Line two (verse 25), we noted, expands God’s action to bless his people. “Making his face to shine upon them,” pictures God’s movement toward his people in his goodness, seeking them out with his favor, to be gracious to them.
His Face Turns for Peace
The third and final and longest line (verse 26) then expands God’s action to keep his people. “Lifting up his countenance upon them” pictures God guarding and protecting his people, taking notice of them and paying attention to them, giving and preserving their peace.
We all have witnessed those who started well but did not finish. They tasted blessing, so it seemed, but they did not endure. They were not kept. And here the blessing invokes not only God’s giving but also his guarding. Not just his provision but his protection.
The blessing ends with emphasis on “peace.” The divine name has been repeated three times, and the lines have built in length, and it all concludes on the powerful Hebrew word shalom, which expresses “peace” in a more holistic sense than we may be used to. This peace is not simply the absence of war, but total well-being.
What does it mean for one to be blessed by God himself, to be kept by God himself, and to dwell with God himself? It means peace — the kind of deep and generous peace he made our souls to long for.