Recently it seems that everyone is talking about wellbeing. It’s the fashionable way to refer to a person’s all-round good health, whether mental health or emotional, physical or spiritual health.
Actually, the Hebrew language had a word similar to wellbeing way back in the days of Moses – shalom – that got translated into King James’ English simply as ‘peace’. But it really means more than ‘calm contentment’ or ‘tranquility’. The idea of ‘harmony’ is nearer its meaning. A good example of shalom is when my car has been serviced and has passed its MOT, it will purr along happily because it has all its mechanical parts in place and working together in harmony, giving it – and me – shalom. It’s a healthy vehicle, in a state of peaceful wellbeing.
And shalom is a key word in the Old Testament benediction. Here’s how a well-known paragraph of six verses reads in the King James’ Version. It is the traditional way to end a church service or a time of Christian fellowship with a benediction by quoting three of these familiar half-a-dozen sentences from Numbers 6:22-27.
(22) ‘And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
(23) Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them,
(24) The Lord bless thee and keep thee;
(25) The Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee,
(26) The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace [shalom].
(27) And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.’
Now, let’s ask ourselves a few practical questions about this paragraph of Scripture.
Question 1. Why quote the Authorised Version?
Because it highlights the old-fashioned word ‘thee‘ [singular] that contrasts with the plural ‘ye’. When God decided to bless the entire nation of Israel he blessed them individual by individual, family by family, home by home.
Question 2. What is a blessing?
I love the story of a priest in his clerical collar who was asked by a homeless man, ‘Will you give me half-a-crown, please, father?’ Maybe the beggar’s breath smelled strongly of alcohol, and he would probably only spend the money to buy himself some more. So the minister answered, ‘No, I won’t even give you a brass farthing. But if you kneel down, I’ll give you a blessing.’ The beggar replied, ‘No, thank you, father. If your blessing isn’t even worth a farthing I’d rather not bother!’
At the beginning of human history, ‘God created human beings in his own image . . . male and female. . . . The God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it” (Genesis 1:27-28). And when God speaks a blessing over anyone, that person can bear fruit in things they say and do.
Question 3. How did God say he would bestow blessing?
He did so by speaking and good things resulted. Think about how you speak to people – neighbours, shop assistants, visitors etc.
I visited one church years ago where a fellow at the door tried to greet everyone individually as they left after the service in groups, by shaking as many hands as he could and, sounding like a machine gun he sputtered out, ‘God bless you . . . bless you . . . bless you . . .’ I staggered from the church to my car feeling like a dying pheasant full of grapeshot!
By contrast, I also remember back in the 1970s phoning a pastor of the United Reformed Church in Middleborough to apologise that I would be unable to attend his induction service. His reply filled me with bliss from head to toe as he warmly replied in three simple words, ‘Peace, my brother.’ Now that’s a priestly blessing indeed!
And let’s remind ourselves what the word benediction literally means. It comes from Latin originally. ‘Bene’ means well – as in words like benefit and benevolence and, of course, when we write the letters N.B. – also Latin: ‘Nota Bene‘ is note well. And ‘diction’ refers to speech, of course. So, a benediction is speaking blessings over others, to wish them well.
Now, Aaron and his sons were the exclusive tribe of priests in Israel before Christ came, and they were all male!
Question 4. Who are God’s priests nowadays?
The apostle Peter in his first letter wrote of his fellow-Christians as people who, in ‘coming to Christ . . . are his holy priests’ and adds: ‘You are royal priests . . . God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2: 4, 5 and 9).
Question 5. Does the Bible ever say that God smiles?
Strictly speaking the literal answer is no. However, the Hebrew language tends to use concrete words rather than abstract words. The King James Version has the two phrases: ‘lift up his countenance upon thee’ and ‘make his face shine upon thee’ That word ‘face’ could be translated ‘presence’. When ‘Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the tree of the garden’ (Genesis 3:8). In the Hebrew text ‘They hid from the face of the Lord God.’ They did not want to see God scowl at them. Later, their eldest son Cain murdered his brother Abel and ‘went out from the presence [the face] of the Lord’ also (Genesis 4:16).
My mother-in-law was a lovely woman, but when her face was at rest she could look slightly threatening and unwelcoming. Her three other sons-in-law were somewhat in awe of her, but I could easily make her laugh, and her face would break out into the warmest smile like sunshine when the clouds parted. Eric and Ernie used to sing, ‘Give me sunshine in your smile.’
In Psalm 16:11 King David testified about God: ‘In your presence [your face] is fullness of joy.’
Human beings are the only creatures who can smile. And that is because the human race was created ‘in the image of God.’ So, if we can smile, surely it’s because smiles too?
So I’m glad to be able to tell you that in the New Living Translation – the Bible version we mostly use in our home church – the word smile is used in the benediction:
(24) ‘May he Lord bless you and protect you.
(25) May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you.
(26) May the Lord show you his favour and give you peace.’
Now, for one last question:
Question 6. Why did the priest have to repeat God’s name three times?
Well, obviously this was because it is a threesome name. The Jewish creed to this day is Deuteronomy 6:4, ‘The Lord our God is one Lord.’ And, very interestingly, Hebrew has two ways of expressing ‘one’. The word that is not used here means ‘one solitary individual.’ But this word here is the one you would use to say in Hebrew ‘one team of players’, one hand of bananas’ or ‘one bunch of grapes’.
Allah, worshiped by Muslims seems to be a solitary deity. But Yahweh [‘the LORD] is a corporate God who was never lonely throughout eternity. God is love. God the Father loves God the Son in God the Holy Spirit. God in himself was always complete and had no need to create a single atom to feel satisfied! But because of that divine fellowship of love and joy and peace, God said: Let us make humanity in our image.’ Creation was the overflow of a totally satisfied God!
Since Jesus came, died and rose again, we nowadays bless one another in the words of the New Testament benediction found in 2 Corinthians 13:14,
‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Amen