The Aaronic Blessing is the blessing that Aaron and his sons were to speak over the people of Israel, recorded in Numbers 6:23–27:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
“‘“‘The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.’”’
“So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
Because of the simple elegance and profound sentiments expressed in this blessing, it has been used throughout the centuries long after the sacrifices of the Aaronic priesthood ended. It is commonly used today in Judaism and known as the Priestly Blessing, the Priestly Benediction (birkat kohanim), the Dukhanen, or the “raising of the hands,” although the specific time and method of pronouncement differs within the various groups of Judaism. The Aaronic Blessing is also used in Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgy. It is also spoken over the congregation regularly in less liturgical services of many Protestant congregations.
A closer analysis of the blessing shows that the emphasis is upon God. God originates the blessing—it was God who instructed Aaron on the proper form of the blessing and gave instructions for it to be spoken over the people to begin with. The blessing itself emphasizes that it is the Lord who blesses the people and does for them what they cannot do for themselves.
The Lord bless you and keep you. A blessing from the Lord is requested; it’s not just a general blessing but the specific protection of the Lord as we ask Him to “keep you,” words that have the sense of guarding or watching over someone. For Israel, this would have had a very practical application as they were surrounded by enemies, and God had promised to protect them as long as they were faithful to Him. For the New Covenant believer, the protection of God has a somewhat different connotation. While believers hope and pray for physical protection from enemies, we know that God has not promised this. In fact, He has promised persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). However, God has also promised that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:36–38). Paul, sitting in a Roman prison awaiting his execution, was confident that God would rescue him and bring him safely to the heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18). The way Paul was safely transported to that kingdom was by the executioner’s blade!
The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. This line of the blessing has to do with experiencing God’s favor. When a person sees a loved one, his or her face “lights up.” God’s “face” radiates divine favor. Ancient Israel could expect God’s loving, gracious response to their calls for help. New Covenant believers have the promise of God’s never-ending love (Romans 8:26–38, mentioned above) and have already experienced God’s gracious response to save us from our greatest enemies—sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:56–57).
The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. This line of the Aaronic Blessing continues the theme of the “face” of God and has the idea of His people receiving His full attention. The nations surrounding Israel believed in gods who could be distracted by other things (much like human beings) and had to be summoned, awakened, or roused to action. (This is the background for Elijah’s taunts to the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27–28.) Many pagan religious rituals were designed to attract the attention of the gods and put them in a proper mood to act on behalf of their worshipers. This is all foreign to the Israelite religion. When the people were faithful to God, His “face” was toward them with the result that they would have peace. Peace (shalom) is more than just an absence of warfare but a completeness or wholeness and maturity. Judges 2 records what happened when God turned His face from His people for a time and they lost shalom, but He quickly turned to them again when they repented.
The New Covenant believer has been granted peace with God though Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1), and we can also access the peace of God by trusting Him to take care of us. Prayer is the active means by which we can experience this peace (Philippians 4:6–7).
For ancient Israel, the Aaronic Blessing expressed the highest state of blessing that the nation would enjoy as they were faithful to God. The application is slightly different for the New Covenant believer. Jesus Christ has already granted us all of the things that are asked for in the Aaronic Blessing, and they have been granted on a permanent basis. Our direct experience of these things can fluctuate over time. For the believer, this blessing should be a reminder of what one has in Christ. It should also be a prayer for a fuller understanding of God’s blessings in Christ and for the corresponding feelings that should accompany that understanding.