So far in the book of Numbers we’ve seen how Moses counted the Israelite men and it became clear that they had become a great nation, just as the Lord had promised Abraham. We’ve also read about their camp and how they were to arrange their tents in a square around the tabernacle. We’ve also read about the Levites who were to assist the priests by setting up and taking down the tabernacle and transporting it from place to place on their journey to the Promised Land; and they also assisted the priests by guarding the tabernacle and by preventing anything unclean from coming into the presence of the Lord.
Then there were instructions in chapter 5 about what should happen whenever the people in the camp sinned against one another or when they were suspected of having sinned against one another. And just before the summer, we spent our time learning about the Nazirites who took a vow to separate themselves from the rest of the people and for the whole time of their separation they were to abstain from anything made from grapes and they were not to cut their hair and they were to avoid contact with dead bodies.
And we’ve seen how each of these things points in one way or another to the good news of the gospel and to the hope God gives us of everlasting life in the new creation to come. So, just as the Lord blessed and multiplied the Israelites so that they became a great nation, so he’s now building his church on the earth through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and in the end, the number of the redeemed around his throne in heaven will be a great multitude, too many to count.
Their camp, arranged in a square, was an earthly representation of the church in glory, because in Revelation 21 we’re told that the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the glorified church, is also a square. The Levites were to guard the purity of the tabernacle so that nothing unclean could enter it; and in Revelation 21 and 22 we’re told that nothing unclean will enter heaven; however, through faith in the Saviour, sinners can be washed and cleansed so that they’re able to look forward to coming into the Lord’s presence forever.
And the instructions from chapter 5 about paying compensation to those they wronged speak of Christ who has made up to God for our sins. And just as the Nazirites were set apart from the rest of the Israelites, so the Lord Jesus was set apart from us, because he alone was without sin and he alone was able to pay for our sins by his death on the cross; and he gives us his Spirit to set us apart from an unbelieving world so that we might serve God all the days of our life.
Uses and Structure
Everything we’ve read so far points in one way or another to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the great hope God gives to all who trust in his Son. And today we turn to verses 22 to 27 of Numbers 6 where we have what has become known as the Aaronic Blessing.
In the Presbyterian Church, we sing this blessing on special occasions, such as when someone is baptised and the people ask the Lord to bless this baptised person; or we sing it when elders and minsters are ordained and installed and the people ask the Lord to bless this person who is entering into this new office. We sing it on special occasions. There are some denominations where this blessing is pronounced at the end of every service of worship. Whereas we typically use the words of 2 Corinthians 13:14, other churches use the Aaronic Blessing so that before the people leave the service and go back out into the world to love and serve their neighbours, their minister asks the Lord to bless them and give them peace.
In the blessing, God’s name is repeated in each of the three lines: the Lord, the Lord, the Lord. This threefold repetition of his name emphasises the truth that the Lord their God is the source of every blessing; he’s the one the people are to turn to for every good thing they need; and he’s the one they’re to look to to keep them and to be gracious to them and to give them peace and everything else they need. Whereas the other nations looked to their idols, the Israelites were to look to the Lord their God. And believers in every generation must learn the same lesson; we must remember and believe that every good thing comes from him; he’s the fountain of all blessing; he’s the source of all good; and so we should turn to him and trust in him for all that we need.
The commentators point out that this blessing, which is a kind of poem, is structured in a very careful way. The first line contains three words; the second line contains five words; and the third line contains seven words. Then, the first line contains 12 syllables, the second line contains 14 syllables and the third line contains 16 syllables. Furthermore, I mentioned one Sunday night recently that Hebrew texts are written using consonants only; and in this blessing the first line contains 15 consonants and the second line contains 20 consonants and the third line contains 25 consonants.
In other words, the lines of the blessing lengthen, one after the other; and just as a piece of music might become louder and louder and louder until a clash of cymbals forms the crescendo at the end, so this blessing builds up, line by line, until there’s a kind of crescendo at the end on the word ‘peace’.
And each line contains two parts: the first part of each line is about the Lord’s attitude towards his people: his willingness to bless his people; his willingness to make his face shine on his people; his willingness to turn his face towards his people. And then the second part of each line is about what he will do for his people: he will keep them; he will be gracious to them; and he will give them peace.
Let’s now look at each line in turn. And in the first line the priest calls on the Lord to bless them and to keep them. Well, when the Lord blessed someone in the Old Testament, it meant he was willing to bestow on them one good gift after another: he would give them many descendants and land and wealth and long-life and good health. Blessing his people meant he was willing to do good to his people. And being willing to do good to his people meant he would keep them. In other words, he would watch over them and protect them from their enemies and from danger.
The Lord had already kept the Israelites, by protecting them from the Egyptians and from other enemies they faced in the wilderness; and by providing them with food to eat and water to drink. He was their faithful shepherd, who watched over them and guarded them. And by this blessing, the priest called on the Lord to continue to good to his people and to keep them safe as they made their way to the Promised Land.
In the second line the priest calls on the Lord to make his face shine on the people and to be gracious to them. Well, how can you tell when someone is angry with you? You can tell by the expression on their face — can’t you? — because instead of smiling at you, there’s a dark scowl on their face. Well, the priest was calling on the Lord to look at his people, not with a dark scowl, but to look on his people with a warm and bright smile. And when the Lord smiles on his people, and looks upon them with his favour, he’s prepared to be gracious to them, which means he’s prepared to show kindness to his people even though they do not deserve it.
In the wilderness, the people often rebelled against the Lord and they were disobedient and ungrateful. But the Lord was gracious to them, and he continued to provide for them and to show them kindness even though they did not deserve it. And by this blessing, the priest called on the Lord to continue to look on his people with favour and to show kindness to them at all times.
And in the third line the priest calls on the Lord to turn his face on them. When we sing the blessing, we sing:
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you.
It means turn his face to you. In some ways, calling on God to turn his face on his people is very similar to calling on him to shine his face on them. Both are about smiling on his people and being pleased with them. However, turning his face to his people also conveys the idea of paying attention to his people. So, the priest is saying to the Lord:
Don’t look away from your people, but turn to us. Turn to us and give us … what?
Give us peace. And ‘peace’ in the Bible means possessing a sense of well-being and satisfaction. The person who has peace is enjoying a life which is not spoiled by enemies or worries or troubles.
And, of course, the people were hopeful that the Lord would lead them to the Promised Land, that land flowing with milk and honey, that land like the Garden of Eden, where they would enjoy peace and rest in the presence of the Lord. And so, by this blessing, the priest called on the Lord to turn towards his people and to give them what they were longing for, which was a life of peace and rest.
As with everything else in the book of Numbers, what we read here points us to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the great hope God gives to all who trust in his Son. Everything we read here is fulfilled in Christ. So, the priest called on the Lord to keep his people as they made their way to the Promised Land. Well, we too are a pilgrim people: the Lord has delivered us from this present evil age, he’s delivered us from our sin and misery; we’re now on the narrow way that leads ultimately to everlasting life in the presence of God.
But there are dangers on the way: there’s the Devil who wants to lead us astray; there’s our own sinful flesh that can make us stumble; the world may tempt us to forsake the narrow way either by persecuting us or by enticing us. There are many dangers on the way. And so, we should look to the Lord to keep us. And he will keep us. Doesn’t he promise in 1 Peter that he will shield us by God’s power until the coming of our salvation? That is, he promises to protect us and to keep us until we’re brought into the presence of the Lord in the world to come. And the Lord Jesus himself promised that no one will snatch us from his hands. We’re to look to the Lord to keep us.
And the priest called on the Lord to be gracious to his people. Though they were often rebellious and hard-hearted and ungrateful, though they deserved nothing from him but condemnation, he continued to show them kindness. And we too are rebellious and hard-hearted and ungrateful, but we can trust in the Lord to be gracious and to forgive us our sins every day when every day we go to him and confess them. And isn’t he gracious towards us in the way he ministers to us every Sunday? We gather in his presence and we hear the reading and preaching of his word and we pray to him and we celebrate the sacraments; and he graciously uses these things to help us grow in the faith and to become like him. We don’t deserve it, because we’re sinners, but he’s so kind to us.
And the priest called on the Lord to give his people peace. And so, they looked forward to coming into the land of Canaan to enjoy peace and rest in that Eden-like land. And the Lord promises to give us everlasting peace and rest in the world to come, where there will be nothing to disturb us or to upset us or to hurt us, but where we’ll have perfect peace and joy and where we’ll enjoy rest from all our labours in this world.
So, we can look to the Lord to keep us and to be gracious to us and to give us everlasting peace in the world to come. And we can count on him to give us these things because of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who became a curse for us when he died on the cross so that we might receive the blessing of God.
And we can count on the Lord to give us these things because of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who endured darkness while he hung on the cross so that God now looks upon us with his favour.
And we can count on the Lord to give us these things, because of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who on the cross was forsaken by his Father so that we might come to God, and when we come, he turns his face to us and accepts us as his children.
Because of Christ, God is willing to bless us and to make his face to shine upon us and to turn his face towards us. And knowing that, believing that, we can look to the Lord our God and count on him to keep us and to be gracious to us and to bring us at least to that perfect peace and rest which God has prepared for us and for all who trust in his Son.