Text: Numbers 6:22-27
Are you a fan of country music? When I was a young child in Missouri, before I was introduced to Beethoven and Mozart, I thought that country music was the only kind of music that existed. And when I went to college in Nashville, before it was Country Music USA, one of my school chums was Ray Walker who became a part of the Jordanaires. He would invite me on Saturday evenings to the Grand Old Opry at the Ryman Auditorium where he was performing. There, sitting back stage, he introduced me to Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, and all the other country music singers I had listened to in my youth. What a fun time!
The reason I like country music is because many of the songs seem true to life. They describe the feelings of ordinary people who live down-to-earth lives. Because of that fact, I often feel that I can relate to these songs and that the writer is someone like me. Take, for example, the song by Martina McBride, “Blessed.” In the song she describes the simple things in life that bring her pleasure, such as the feel of a hardwood floor under her feet or hearing the sound of her children at play, and she concludes “I am so blessed.” That surely is a universally desired feeling. We all want to be able to say of our lives, “I am so blessed.” Yet how do we find that life of blessing? In this often troubled world, where is true blessing to be found? That is what this passage in the book of Numbers is about: the life of blessing and how we may receive it. This brief portion of Scripture gives us three foundational truths about blessing: where blessing comes from, what blessing is, and how we can receive it.
The first truth of the passage is where blessing comes from: it comes from the Lord. It doesn’t come from having hardwood floors – speaking from experience I can tell you that they can be a mixed blessing, unless like Martina you have a maid to keep them spotless! It doesn’t even come from having happy children. Blessing comes from the Lord. That notion is central to the passage. Three times the Lord reiterates it: 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.” The Lord, Jehovah, the personal name of God, is identified three times as the one from whom blessing comes. Then, at the very end of the passage, just in case you somehow missed it earlier, the Lord sums it up by saying to Moses “I myself” – literal translation, the Hebrew is emphatic here – “I myself will bless them” (v. 27).
Why is there so much emphasis here on where our blessing comes from? Surely it is because of our natural tendency to look for blessing in all the wrong places. In Jeremiah 2:13 the Lord laments this tendency on the part of his people: “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Instead of going to seek blessing from God, the one from whom all blessings flow, they tried to find their own blessings in places where there was no true blessing to be found. Instead of the fresh springs of the living water of blessing that flow from the Lord, they scratched around in stagnant, muddy pools of their own making. For Israel that often meant looking to other countries like Egypt and Assyria to protect them from their enemies instead of going to the Lord. It meant worshiping the idols of the nations instead of the true and living God. It meant making golden calves out of the plunder of Egypt instead of devoting it to the worship of God in the tabernacle.
We too have tried to dig our own cisterns and to find blessing in all the wrong places. We have our own muddy pools from which we drink. Some of us have tried to find blessing in possessions: we have tried to find significance by acquiring everything on our want list. Perhaps your list included a beautiful house, a luxury car, fine clothes and fur coats, or possibly the latest computer and electronic toys. You felt that if you just had those things, then you would be blessed. Or perhaps you sought blessing in relationships: you wanted to have a wife or a husband (or perhaps a better husband or wife); you longed for a son or a daughter. If you just had those relationships, you thought, then you would be blessed. Or maybe you sought blessing in being respected by your colleagues at work or admired by your friends at home or at school. When you have these things, then you will feel blessed, you think.
How do we know where we are finding our hope of blessing? The answer is to follow our feelings back to their source. Tracing back the smoke of our strong desires will lead us to the smoldering fire of the altar we have erected to our idol. Examining carefully our anger and our despair, along with our daydreams and our anxious fears, will provide a map for us that will uncover where we are finding our hope of blessing. For example, if our hope of blessing lies in possessions, then we will feel greatly blessed when we get new things, yet we will also be extremely anxious about losing them. We will get angry when the object of our blessing seems threatened and are overjoyed when it seems to be within our grasp. Our strong emotions will show us the inner recesses of our heart, if we take the time to study them.
What we will invariably find, if we study our strong emotions carefully, is that we’ve been seeking blessing in all the wrong places.
What is blessing though? If blessing does not lie in having it all – not in having abundant possessions or wonderful relationships or even being judged “really useful or smart” – what is it? The priestly benediction tells us. It is very simple: blessing lies in a face-to-face relationship with the Lord, experiencing his protection and favor. First, the benediction simply states, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” In other words, may the Lord provide us with what we need and protect us from harm. The Lord knows that we need food and drink to sustain our body. He knows that we need clothes to wear and a house to live in. He knows what our future holds, and he has crafted it to fit the work he is doing in our hearts and through us in the lives of others. The Lord’s blessing includes and encompasses all of those things given to us in exactly the right measure with fatherly wisdom. There is nothing wrong with desiring all of these things and asking him to give them to us. The Lord’s protection and keeping of his people is a wonderful and reassuring truth.
However, God’s blessing on his people is so much more than having enough in our cupboards to eat and nothing to cause us to worry. Otherwise many of us would have to conclude that in reality we are not so very blessed right now. There must be more to God’s blessing than that – and there is. The priestly benediction unpacks the deeper aspects of the Lord’s blessing in two vivid and related images: “The Lord make his face to shine upon you” – “the Lord lift up his countenance upon you.” True blessing is knowing God face-to-face. The idea of having God’s face shine when he looks at us is a wonderful image. This is the heart of blessing: to have the Lord delight in us so much that it is as if his face shines whenever he sees us. Blessing is not just that our faces shine when we look at the beauties of God, but that he delights to turn his face toward us and look at us. Blessing is our heavenly Father’s face beaming as he looks upon us. Can you imagine God delighting in you in this way?
God wants you to feel his blessing today: he wants you to feel his pleasure, to feel that his face shines when he looks upon you. In the award-winning movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell justifies the importance of his running in the Olympics by saying “God make me for a purpose – he made me for China. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” In the same way, the Lord wants you to know that his face is turned toward you in grace and in peace. He wants you too to “feel his pleasure.”
God thus wants our relationship with him to be one where we not only know his protection and his keeping, but also where we know his presence. This is blessing indeed, to know that the Lord’s face is turned toward us and that we know his favor. We have no claim on that favor, as if it were ours by rights. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a matter of grace. But the Lord commanded the priests to remind the people daily that by his grace they could know that he delighted in them. Do we know the blessing of that kind of relationship with our heavenly Father?
The third aspect of the passage, though, is how to receive this blessing. The answer is that the Lord gives it to his people freely, out of his grace and mercy. That’s not how most people back in ancient times thought about the gods. They thought you had to twist the arm of the deity to get his blessing. They had to manipulate good things for themselves from the gods. That was usually why they went to the priest, because the priest was the person who had the connection and knowledge that would enable them to get what they wanted.
We are like Jacob. We think we need to steal a blessing from the Lord (Genesis 32:22-31). So we seek to wrestle a blessing from his reluctant grasp to twist God’s arm into giving us his blessing. We are sure that he doesn’t really approve of us at all, but maybe, if I am really a “good” person he will smile on my efforts. But what do we see in this passage? God is the one who initiates the blessing. There is no magic or trickery or wrestling with God in the priestly benediction: the Lord initiates it because he wants to bless his people and give his peace.
God’s blessing is undeserved. Yet God is nonetheless determined to bless me! The Lord wants his blessing and his name placed on me. The people that Jesus came to seek and to save are the sinners, for we all keep on falling short of God’s perfect standard. God is able to bless faithless people like me because he sent his Son to be completely devoted to Him in my place. Jesus Christ came and lived a life of perfect devotion to God. He was bruised for our iniquity, he was broken for our sin; he was abandoned for our faithlessness; he was cursed for our blessing.
But he himself is our peace. In Jesus we now receive God’s blessing. As a Christian, I have the name of Jesus written indelibly on my soul, and so the Father delights to bless me in Christ with every spiritual blessing, for his sake (Ephesians 1:3). God’s face is turned toward me in Christ, and no matter what I encounter in life, it can never, ever be turned away from me.