Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Yahweh Bless You!

Numbers 6:22-27
Aaron's Blessing 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.”

This text is located in the middle of a major section of Numbers (1:1-10:10). It describes Israel's preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai (where the people were camped for almost a year) and the continuation of its journey through the wilderness to the land of promise. This blessing is designated for Israel's time of departure from Sinai, and was to be used daily throughout their journey. This is a blessing for a journey!
The placement of this benediction seems unusual. It is preceded by specifications for the vocation of Nazirites (6:1-21). These were men who took a vow of consecration for a special vocation among the people of God. Perhaps the theme of consecration is the primary link with our text. The text that follows (7:1-88) describes the consecration of the tabernacle, standing in the center of the community, wherein God was believed to be present. The link with our text probably associates the benediction with God's presence among the people.
This benediction in some form was widely used in ancient Israel, especially at the conclusion of worship (see Lev. 9:22; Deut. 21:5; 2 Chron. 30:27; Ps. 67:1; 121:7-8). Note also that the word commonly translated Lord is Yahweh, the primary name of God in the Old Testament.
Each line of verse, with God as subject, is progressively longer (three, five, seven Hebrew words). Besides three occurrences of the name Yahweh (a very Trinitarian structure), the remaining twelve Hebrew words may signify the twelve tribes. God is the actor in all six clauses: bless, keep, make the face shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace. The six verbs together cover God's benevolent activity from various angles and state God's gracious will for the life of the people.
The second verb in each line gives greater specificity to the divine action of the first verb and emphasizes the more concrete effects of God's activity. Interestingly, the "you" is singular, perhaps with the idea that each person who hears this blessing will make it his/her own (without taking away the communal context and character of the blessing). My prayer tonight is this will in effect ignite a zeal for prayer among us due to the promised blessing of God.
1.      The commitment of God to bestow 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.
The word "bless" in 6:23 refers to the entire blessing that follows and hence that word covers all dimensions of the benediction. To "bless" testifies most basically to the work of God, both within the community of faith and beyond. It signifies any divine gift (spiritual, earthly, and bodily) that directly or indirectly serves the life, health, and the well-being of individuals and communities. The verb covers the spheres of both creation and redemption, from gifts of fertility and posterity to spiritual and bodily health. No conditions are attached.
The blessings of God, spiritual and physical, ought never to be taken for granted. This benediction recognizes the source of all good things as being God (cf. James 1:17). No doubt the people under Moses' leadership thought of the blessings God had promised them if they would continue to obey Him faithfully. He had promised that "if you will diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments..." that "... all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you." (Deut. 28:1,2). Then the blessings are described. They would be blessed in city and country; in their offspring and the offspring of their flocks and crops and in protection from their enemies. The Lord would make them "abound in prosperity" (Deut. 28:3-14).
Jesus' blessings for us today emphasize the spiritual rather than the physical. While He gives certain assurances in the physical realm, His sacrifice on the cross had to do with restoring us to spiritual life and giving us spiritual bread and water so we need never hunger or thirst again (John 6:27-35). Jesus makes a point that the world often overlooks. He could have made it His business to provide physical blessings the way Moses had (vv. 31, 32) but Jesus was providing something better. This is because those who emphasize their physical needs and desires over their spiritual needs will only grow hungry again and ultimately perish whether they have something to eat or not. But those who partake of the bread of life will live forever.

2.      The Lord Himself 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.
God's "face/countenance" (the same Hebrew word is used twice) is a common anthropomorphism, especially in Psalms (see Psalm 4:6; 31:16; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3; 89:15). The lifting up of the Lord's face/countenance signifies a gracious movement toward the other (see Gen. 32:20; 40:13). The word "peace" (shalom) is the climactic word of the benediction and has wide-ranging connotations. Its richness includes "prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Ps. 128:6), safety, security (Ps. 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Ps. 38:4), friendship (Jer. 38:22), and general well-being." It suggests His interest as well as His readiness to help. It is a look of approval that the Lord gives to those who live by faith.
The concluding statement in 6:27 ("I will bless them") returns to the opening theme, only with greater specification that it is God who blesses through the words spoken by the priests (the "I" is emphasized in Hebrew). Note the promise here: "I will bless them"; the translation of 6:24 that is sometimes used, "May the Lord bless you...," could be understood to take the edge off this promise.  
The Lord's face shines with a tremendous radiant glory, instilling awe in His creatures. We recall how even Moses' face once shined after communicating with the Lord. However, there is more to it than that. The blessing asks the Lord to make His face "shine upon you." This suggests a pleasure or warmth of association with the Lord. Awareness of God's presence brings comfort to the faithful. This is what has been called Coram Deo. We also recall how Jesus was transfigured in the New Testament. Peter, James and John were awe-struck when the beheld the Lord. The Bible says, "And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light." (Matthew 17:2). Paul, in encouraging faithful living on the part of Christians and a warning against being lulled back into the world, later wrote "Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." (Ephesians 5:14)
The Lord watches His people today as well. Again, it is a look of approval that the Lord gives His people. He knows what we endure for His namesake. He will not forget our work and love (Hebrews 6:10) and will one day welcome the faithful home with the words; "Well done!" It is a wonderful thing to know that the Lord approves of the way we are using our talents, opportunities and lives.

3.      The Great Blessing of being Special Covenantal  people of 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 the blood of His own Son. That gift is efficaciously conferred on His people in the pronouncement of these gracious words of benediction.
The idea of "keep you" is divine protection. In Moses' time, this would refer to protection from hostile invasions and drought and things chiefly of a physical nature. To "keep" is a specific blessing given to those with concerns for safety, focusing on God's sheltering the people from evil and its effects, especially pertinent for wilderness wandering. The verb "keep" occurs six times in Psalm 121 and covers a wide range of life's journey. But it shows a community highly favoured of the Lord than all others (from whom they are protected).
However, again the emphasis shifts in the New Testament and deals more with spiritual protection. One good example of this is the figure of speech that Jesus uses to describe His relationship with His disciples. He is the "Good Shepherd" and we are His sheep. He knows His own, and His own know Him. He lays down His life for his sheep so that they may be protected from the robber or the wolf. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him, and as long as they do, He keeps them safe promising them eternal life (John 10:1-16; 27,28).
Putting God's name on the people (supremely by means of the word) emphasizes the divine source of all blessings. It is as if the people now wear God's name, and that it should be worn so that all will see and believe. Putting the name of God on the people may have been understood literally, given that the blessing is inscribed on two cigarette-sized silver plaques found near Jerusalem, dating from the 7th-6th centuries BCE -- the earliest known fragments of a biblical text[1].
That this text is chosen for the "name of Jesus" is well fitting, as we pray in Jesus Christ, the "name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9), the Christian community encounters the gracious face of God in an unsurpassable way. This benediction is a deeply appropriate way to conclude the service of Christian worship in God's name.

4.      This is a promise of taking possession of the great inheritance
For the people of Israel it was a preparation to taking possession of the Promised Land But this also 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.
The shining face of God signifies God's benevolent disposition toward the other, here in gracious action, for which Israel can make no special claims. The shining face is to be contrasted with the hiding face of God (see Psalm 13:1): You get to see God's face glowing, not glaring! This is a gracious move on God's part to those who are undeserving. Moreover, the whole world is brought into view to experience the effects of God's shining face (see Psalm 67:1-7). In today's idiom, we might say: God smiles on you!
The reference to "shining" draws in elements of light and brightness from the nonhuman world, with the contrasting idea of darkness in full view here on earth. This shining is what is called glory of God in which His infinite holiness is displayed in splendor that no human eye has seen. It is shown in magnificent grandeur. The glory of God called Shekinah is such a wonderful beauty, and sparkling radiance of God that we cannot comprehend as at now but look forward to its revelation.
Moreover, here is the divine promise of the Lord's Peace - "...And give you peace." (Numbers 6:26b). This peace denotes stability and calmness. Isaiah wrote, "The steadfast of mind Thou wilt keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in Thee. Trust in the Lord forever, for in God, the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock." (Isaiah 26:3,4). And finally we read of the Lord's Graciousness "...And be gracious to you" (Numbers 6:25b). Certainly God favored the faithful of Moses' era with mercy and blessings. Our God is happy to give good things to His children. The nation of Israel never did better than during those times when it was loyal to God. Neither will our own nation, and the same thing applies to individuals.
Text Box: 6Text Box: 5The supreme example of God's graciousness is not found in the sun or rain or crops, money or education, family or plum jobs, big estates or good education or physical prosperity. We thank God for these things; but as wonderfully sweet and pleasurable as they are, they fail when compared to the favor God bestows upon us through His Son Jesus. It is this inner wealth that is most important; the blessings of the Spirit who God abundantly gives. "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)
Jesus is our Rock, and gives peace as well. A solid foundation is needed for stability, and there is none sounder than that of the Living Word of God. Jesus promises peace, and since He is the Prince of Peace we can be sure of His promise. In this mad, crazy world, we are sorely in need of this calm assurance and peaceful confidence. Your friends, family and neighbors need it as well. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6,7).
Peace and grace are common blessings promised upon the new covenant people as we have it at the beginning of the letters of the New Testament. The point is that we enjoy them now on earth as our inheritance. Yet more is coming that Peter simply describes as follows:
Born Again to a Living Hope Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
This familiar benediction has long been used by the church (and Jewish communities) to conclude services of worship. But it is wise to remember that this blessing stands at both the beginning and end of our life with God and in the world. 
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. We tap into this divine blessing when we pray to Him and seek His help.

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1990] 360-62)

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Praying Leadership!

Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, O Lord GOD, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?”
We must never think that our safety is the glory of God. God’s glory is our security and when we dishonor God we leave ourselves with this security. In this case we have a case of breaking faith with God and so facing divine wrath. When we think that we can far from God and still enjoy His blessings we lose faith. When we think God will reward disobedience, we must come to this passage.
But this passage is the most telling about how we are to come to God in prayer. But what is prayer? Prayer is the immense privilege of communing with God. It is a close personal worship, praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. It is a display of dependence on God, for things pertaining to this life as well as for the one to come. Prayer also discloses sins before God, self-accusing looking for God to show mercy and pardon abundantly. Prayer is also unburdening other people’s problems to God.
There was a double tragedy –
1.     The immediate problem was the loss of 36 men by a very tiny community called Ai.
2.     The compound problem was that God had withdrawn His support to these people. Clearly God’s invincible and omnipotent hand was not with them, when they were routed by a little city of Ai.
What lessons do we learn here especially on corporate prayer?
1.    Corporate prayer is to be led by the leaders
Prayer was done by the leaders of Israel led by Joshua, on behalf of the people and so they pray in first person plural – “we…us” and not “I…”. The elders were representatives of each of the tribes of Israel. We read that each of them, led by Joshua spent the whole day with torn clothes, with ashes on their head, and their heads on the ground, crying to the Lord. Talk about taking prayers seriously! Do we as your leaders take prayers this seriously? Do we portray ourselves as men who take communing with God as solemn? They rent their garments as an act and attitude of his not only expressed an humbling of himself beneath the mighty hand of God, an unsparing self judgment for his failure, but it also betokened a spirit of hope.[1] Doesn’t this remind us of the prostration of our Lord in Gethsemane for our sins and trespasses? How our Lord bore our burden of sin, and took the wrath for us? Compare with Matthew 26:39
But it is for this reason that the church and any other gathering of God’s people have to have a serious leader take up this matter. Choice men have to lead in these serious prayers! You notice that Joshua did not ask any of them to pray as many people do these days – when the food is served by their wives they are so quick to delegate the responsibility for their wives and children to “pray for the food!” Such is unbecoming when we realize that prayers are serious moments of communion with God and we should show leadership by praying in the most reverent manner. Remember the New Testament command in 1Timothy 2:8“I desire that in every place the men ought to pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling…” This is a NT command that we disregard when we delegate the privilege of prayer to others.
In this story also is the failure of the leadership of Joshua: why did he need to send more spies, especially when God had not said so? Why did Joshua listen to the counsel of the spies on how he was to lead the people – taking orders from his juniors, being led in stead of leading was wrong. But it was also a failure on the people’s part giving counsel to Joshua and in him heeding it instead of respecting and submitting to his leadership. If he had requested for their suggestions it would have been reasonable, but he had not. Their suggestions were full of over-confidence and divisive – only three thousand men will do the job, they are tiny! The result is catastrophic. Moreover, Joshua was to take orders only from the Lord. It is very interesting that this event is so closely related with what had happened after the spies came from spying the land in Numbers 14:2-4 and 20:3-5. The only way to remedy this failure was to go to the Lord in prayer. The Lord who appointed him a leader had to hear of his failure and give him fresh orders. Then the Lord answered his prayer by saying, “Get up!
Do we offer a prayer like this to God or are we too casual in prayer? Do we delight in being led by our pastors in prayers? Shall we take corporate prayers seriously by having men who will seriously think about what they will say to God before men?
2.    Leaders have to pray with simplicity
In this passage we do not see Joshua employ eloquence of speech or of decorum (he does not mention any of God’s promises). We have here a very spontaneous unburdening of himself before God and in a sense this may appear to be a very faulty prayer. It is a prayer of a desperate leader, he is overwhelmed by the implications of being without God – and so without hope.
How would God uphold His holy Name before the world when His people had been defeated by such a small community of Ai? This in effect meant that when other communities like the Canaanites among others in the land heard of this unfortunately terrible incidence they will all come out to annihilate this people, bring dishonor to the Lord who brought them from the land of Egypt promising them land. In other words, God’s promise to the forefathers to give them the land was at stake, so that His name could be blasphemed among the heathens but also His own people could they continue to trust Him? Clearly, Joshua expected God to give them victory always. This may help us to understand his despair when he tore his clothes – it meant solemn mourning in repentance. We commend them that their despair led them to immediately turn to God and not to their own schemes. Prophet Joel (2:13) says that we rend the hearts and not the garments but here is a company of who rends both the hearts and the garments signifying that their hearts were already rent. Yet according to John Calvin, something I also observe here is that,
Joshua oversteps the bounds of moderation when he challenges God for having brought the people of the desert, but he proceeds to much greater intemperance when, in opposition to the divine promise and decree, he utters the turbulent wish, “Would that we had never come out of the desert!” that was to abrogate the divine covenant altogether. But as his object was to maintain and assert the divine glory, the vehemence which otherwise might have justly provoked God was excused[2], since he turned to God rather than to men – God is indeed God, slow to anger, full of compassion and abounding in love (Exodus 34:6,7).
Clearly we do not know how to pray. Our prayers are mean and weak – were God to grant us our wishes we would forever sink in the mire of our own perdition. But God is gracious – He answers our prayers far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV) Yet this is not a license to overstep the boundaries set by God in His Word. We must always aim to pray according to the will of God and for His will to be done (the content and motive of our prayers must correspond). Only when the will of God is accomplished in our lives can we experience the liberating delight in the glory of God.
Our prayers have to be simple, humble and modest because we cannot impress God by our eloquence. This is the antidote to hypocritical prayers. No words will surprise God, no manner of praying will take God aback and so we better approach God with in simplicity because He knows our hearts. We are instructed not to pray like the Pharisees do – they pray to be seen and heard by men, their reward is earthly from men – those whose art is in composing prayers. Neither are we to pray like people of this world for they multiply unnecessary words, like the Charismatics who are loud and repetitive (Matthew 6:5-8)
3.     Prayers must always be most sincere and earnest
“Alas, O Lord GOD…O Lord, what can I say…? It was not because Joshua was short of words because he went on to pour out his mind and heart to God. It was because he was at anguish of soul for what had befallen the community that he was tasked to lead. More over in saying this, he knew that what he was just about to say could be answered back with a strong rebuke from God, since it was in a sense implying that God had not thought of the honor of His name when he allowed this defeat on His people. He justly complains that he is left without an answer. Now in his prayer he seeks understanding from God and hence the question, “Why…?” Surely Joshua was not seeking to find fault with God! The “Why …?” question can only be explained as an utterance of supreme grief.[3] Yet in this prayer we see him expressing bewilderment at what had happened to be God’s breach of the covenant…because the problem at hand here is not a willful disobedience (as it was in Numbers 14:13-19) but ignorance of a hidden transgression.[4]
Joshua’s prayer contains a complaint in vv.8&9 that could have amounted to murmuring where it not directed to God. But it was very different from the murmuring of the people on that occasion against guidance of God, for it by no means arose from unbelief, but was simply the bold language of faith wrestling with God in prayer, - faith which could not comprehend the ways of the Lord, and involved the most urgent appeal to the Lord to carry out His work in the same glorious manner in which it had been begun, with firm conviction that God neither relinquish nor alter His purposes of grace.[5]
For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?” From this statement of prayer is Joshua’s main petition. This displays the heart of Joshua’s prayer and this is what I call most sincere and earnest prayer. It acknowledges that our hope is in yielding all glory to God as this is the purpose for which He created us. Joshua was so concerned for the glory of God to be manifestly glorious not just to him and the Israelites but also to the people with which they were in contact. Our number priority in prayer must be to seek the glory of God and in our lives. Obviously when we live like the world, the Lord is not glorified.
It should cause us to tremble when we see how the sin of Achan was imputed to the whole of the nation of Israel because God saw them as an organic unity and so one man’s sin defiled the whole nation[6] just as the Lord says that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. One man’s failure is the failure of the whole church, the whole nation. The whole nation had acted unfaithfully before God (v.1) thus all Israel suffer punishment for the sins of one person. But Joshua did not know this, did he? He did not have Joshua 7:1 for his instruction. He did not have the same knowledge we have as read this passage and so he prays with a sincere heart. He intensely pray without knowledge.

Thankfully we have the Lord Jesus Christ who intercedes for us on the right hand of God who is not finite in knowledge as we are. Yes, the One who intercedes for us in not ignorant of the will of God, nor of the sins of men. Christ Jesus the righteous does not depend on men to tell them that they have coveted and lusted in the last week. He does not depend on our confession that we have stolen or we have lied – he knows it all. And so He faithfully represents us with both the sins we have admitted and the ones we haven’t. He pleads for us not with words but by His merit and by His blood. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. (Hebrews 2:16 ESV) and we know that even Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God's house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (Hebrews 3:5-6 ESV)

Christ has also given us the Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26 ESV) Therefore we have all reasons to be prayerful as in the same way Adam’s sins was imputed to us and we also sin daily so that the need for prayer is even greater.

[1] A.W. Pink, Gleanings on Joshua, Moody press, 1973 reprint, p.186
[2] J. Calvin, Joshua and the Psalms, AP&A, Grand Rapids, Michigan p. 44
[3] M. H. Woudstra, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The book of Joshua, Eedermans Grand Rapids Michigan, 1988 reprint, p.124
[4] Richard s. Hess, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries on Joshua, An Introduction & Commentary, IVP, 1996, Leicester, England, p.149
[5] Keil & Delitzsch, Commentaries on the Old Testament, Joshua Judges and Ruth , Eedermans, 1970 reprint, Grand Rapids Michigan p.77
[6] C.J Goslinga, Bible Student Commentary Joshua, Judges and Ruth, Regency Zondervan © 1986, p. 75