Numbers vi. 22—26.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
Such, my brethren, was the blessing which Aaron and his successors, the Jewish priests, were to pronounce by the Lord’s appointment over the people of God; and I know no words of pious greeting better suited to this day. New Year’s Day so seldom falls on a Sunday, that, when it does, it would be a pity to let it slip, without wishing you all a happy new year, according to the good old English custom. But, as Jesus Christ once said to his disciples, “Not as the world giveth give I unto you,”—meaning that his gifts are very different from those of the world,— so it becomes the minister of Jesus Christ to say to you on this occasion, “Not as the world wisheth, wish I unto you;” meaning thereby, that the happiness he wishes for you is something very different from what the world commonly esteems such. The world’s notion of happiness, and the gospel notion of happiness, are very different; and therefore the world’s wishes for your happiness, and the preacher’s wishes for your happiness must be very different also. The world, when it wishes a man happiness, means a long life, and strong health, and plenty of money, and a good name, and a thriving family. The preacher, on the other hand, when he wishes you happiness, as I wish you all now, means something very different thereby. What? (you will perhaps ask,) do I not then wish you life and riches? Yes, my dear brethren, I wish you, and pray God to give you these things, and that far more abundantly than the world can wish them for you—even a life without end, and an inheritance more to be desired than gold, a crown eternal in the heavens. These are the wishes of the preacher, these are his prayers in your behalf,—everlasting life and everlasting glory after your departure out of this world; and, during your stay on earth, a sound body, a healthy soul, a name in the book of life, and a household affectionate and dutiful, lovers of God and of his will. Such is the difference between the good wishes of the world and the good wishes of the preacher. The world’s good wishes are like itself, worldly: they look chiefly to the body: they reach not beyond earth, and the things of earth; while the good wishes of the preacher are chiefly for your souls: he looks, and by his office is bound to look, first to the one thing needful: his desires for your welfare are guided by the gospel, and like that would raise you up to heaven. Even with regard to this world, the preacher knows full well that the greatest happiness we can any of us enjoy in it is a peaceful mind, a quiet conscience, the feeling that God is reconciled to us, and loves us, and cares for us, and watches over us, and will so order and arrange whatever may befall us, that all things shall work together for our good.
These, I say, are the very best gifts,—they are the truest good, which any man can have in this life; and they are all contained in the text. Therefore what the Jewish priests were commanded to say to their people at seasons of joy and blessing, the same words do I now utter as a new year’s prayer for the whole of my parishioners and my people. To every one of you, my friends, I say, in the words of Moses: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” This is my prayer now in your behalf: may each of you, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, may each of you take the words home to your hearts! and may God Almighty hear the words, and bring them all to pass to your great, and endless good!
But let us look at the text a little more in detail; and let us keep in mind, that this solemn blessing was of God’s own appointment, and that therefore we may expect to find mention in it of all those things which he knows to be best for his people. The first words of it are, “The Lord bless thee!” that is, the Lord give thee every good gift, and pour down upon thee in due abundance whatever is wholesome and profitable for thy soul first, and also for thy body. “The Lord keep thee!” that is, the Lord watch over thee for good, and shield thee from every kind of evil. Here then we have already prayed for every thing that is good for you; and have also called on the Almighty (think of that word) to be a guard to you against your enemies of every kind, and to defend you from all sorts of dangers. Is not this enough? Can we wish for any thing more? We perhaps might have thought it enough; but God in his bounty does not: at least he is pleased to shew forth the overflowings of his loving-kindness by heaping up blessing upon blessing. So the text goes on thus: “The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee.” You all know the difference of feel there is between a sunshiny and a cloudy day. The real heat may be the same; nay, the cloudy may be warmer than the sunshiny. In point of fact we know it often is; for we often have bright sunshine in the clear frosty days of winter, and dull clouds in the middle of summer. But though the real heat may be the same on both days,—though the thermometer, as it is called, or the glass which measures heat, may tell us that the cloudy day is the warmer of the two,—yet to our feelings it may be quite the contrary. There is something so enlivening in the sun, that I have often known persons come in from a walk on a bright winter’s day, and speak of it as very pleasant; while the same persons, on a damp cloudy evening in July, would be the first perhaps to shiver, and to wish for a fire. Now the same difference which it makes to a man’s body, whether the sun is shining upon him, the same difference does it make to his soul, whether God’s face is shining on him or no. Let God’s face shine on the soul, it walks in the brightest sunshine: let God veil his face and cloud it over, the soul feels chilled and is discomforted. Thus it is written, “Thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.” (Psalm xxx. 7.)
Think not, my brethren, that this is a small blessing. I said, that we often feel the cold on a sunshiny day in winter less than on a cloudy day in summer. Now is not something answering to this often met with in the world? Do we not see many a man there disquieted and ill at ease in the midst of riches and luxuries; while his poor neighbour, who lives in some sorry hovel, may look always cheerful and contented? What is this difference owing to? Not to the health and strength of the poor man: for he may be old, and often a sufferer from cold and wet; and he cannot afford to buy himself the little comforts proper for his years and infirmities. The rich man, on the other hand, may be still young: his disease, if it can be called one, is more of the mind than of the body: he can consult the best physicians: he can travel from place to place in search of pleasure: he is not obliged to deny himself any one earthly thing necessary to his ease and enjoyment. Yet with all this, in spite of his youth and his riches, and his having no outward ailment, and his possessing every comfort and luxury that heart could wish for, he may be always growling and grumbling; while the dweller in the old hovel, with the pinching frost of poverty and age, and sometimes sickness to boot, sharp upon him, may be ever making the best of his condition, and finding out something or other in it to thank God for. This is no mere dream of what might be. Those who mix much with the rich and with the poor, may see instances such as I have been describing, of discontented rich men and contented poor men, in every part of the land. What then, I ask, is this difference owing to? To what cause must we trace the gloomy spirit of the one, who has every worldly good to satisfy him, and the blithe-hearted contentedness of the other, whose lot in the world’s eyes is so hard and wretched? The cause is simply this, that the poor man I have been speaking of—for what I have said is true only of such— has led a Christian life, or at least has turned to God in earnest and repented of his sins betimes; and so God has allowed his face to shine upon him and to cheer him: while his rich neighbour has been led astray by the deceitfulness of riches, and has been so taken up with his pleasures, or with the cares which riches brings with it, that he could not spare time to think about God. He has turned his face away from God: therefore God has turned away his face from him, and left him in clouds and heaviness. O, my brethren, that you might but know and feel the joy and gladness which the light of God’s face can shed sceptre to us, as King Ahasuerus held his out to Esther, when she presented herself before him,— this surely is the highest privilege a son of Adam can enjoy. It is true, God does not in reality sit, like an eastern king, on a visible throne: for he dwells in glory unapproachable, and in light which no eye can pierce. Nor does he really lift up his head, any more than he holds out a golden sceptre. But a child may understand, that, when such things are said of God Almighty, it is only for the purpose of bringing down what is declared concerning him to the level of our poor weak minds. If heavenly things were spoken of after a heavenly manner, how could we creeping earthworms understand them? Therefore it has pleased God in Holy Writ to speak of himself in words and images borrowed from earthly things, that so we may be enabled to form some notions, however dim, and to gain some knowledge, however scanty, of his infinite power and goodness. Thus in some places of Scripture God is called a king, and in others a father. Not that he is like an earthly king, or an earthly father: but we all know what a king is, and what a father is: therefore, in compassion to our ignorance, God suffers himself to be thus spoken of, that we may in some measure understand the duty, and the obedience, and the love, which we owe him, and the protection, and the benefits, and the mercy, which we may hope for from him. So we read too in Scripture of God’s hands, and God’s eyes. Not that God, who is a spirit, either has, or is believed to have, hands and eyes, as we have: but this is said, to teach us that he sees and knows all our most secret actions, just as if he had eyes to see them with, and that he can punish us for our sins, and smite us down, just as if he had a strong right hand. You must not therefore be surprised by the expressions,” The Lord make his face shine upon thee,” and ” lift up his countenance upon thee:” for these things too are said in compassion to our weakness, to make us understand that God’s favour is as cheering to the soul, as sunshine is to the body; and that they who are reconciled to him, and are living in his love, have the same quiet trust and confidence that no real harm can happen to them, as you and I should have, if we knew ourselves to be countenanced and befriended by the king. If we had the king’s countenance, if he had looked favorably upon us, and assured us of his friendship, we should expect to receive some honour or preferment from him; or at least we should feel certain that, so far as he could hinder, he would not suffer any one to harm us. So is it with those who have God’s countenance, but in a far, far higher degree. For the king, great as he is, is only a man. His power is cut short in a thousand ways, and at the very best can only follow us to the grave. When dust to dust is thrown upon our coffins, we are beyond the sway of every earthly prince. But God is the King of kings: his power is bounded by nothing, but his own wisdom and goodness and will: whatever he pleases to do, he can do: above all, in the grave, where all human rule is at an end, his rule and sovereignty are doubled. Here he leaves us in a great degree to our own devices: he governs us by human means: he rules us by viceroys and by stewards: but the moment the soul leaves the body, it passes into his immediate kingdom: it goes to a place where the government is given in charge, not to any earthly prince, but to the only begotten Son, who there reigns and judges in person with a boundless power to punish and to reward. My brethren, the friendship and protection of the King of kings is surely well worth having. May he be pleased, as the Psalmist expresses it, to ” give us everlasting felicity, and to make us glad with the joy of his countenance!” (Psalm xxi. 6.)
Since God however does not really sit like a king upon a throne, nor shew himself to man face to face, how are we to know whether his countenance has been lifted up upon us? The last blessing mentioned in the text will furnish an answer to this question: “The Lord give thee peace.” For peace is the fruit of God’s favour. He who is at peace, and feels himself at peace with God, he who knows himself to be reconciled to his heavenly Father through the sufferings and merits of Jesus Christ, he who knows that he has been admitted and adopted into Christ’s family, and feels that obedient reverence and love toward God, which every true son must feel for the best of fathers,—such a person may be quite sure that God has indeed smiled upon him and lifted up his countenance upon him. “The effect of righteousness,” in both senses of the word,—the effect of justification by faith in the blood of Christ, and of our living thereupon a good and christian life, both which things in Scripture are often termed righteousness,—the effect of this righteousness, the prophet Isaiah says, ” is peace.” Peace then is the offspring of righteousness. If we know we are forgiven for Christ’s sake, we are at peace, because we know that nothing can hurt us. If, out of gratitude and love to our Master and Saviour, we are living in obedience to his holy laws, then too we have every ground and reason to be at peace: for, as the apostle exclaims, “If we are followers of that which is good, who is he that will harm us?” (1 Peter iii. 13.) Here I should conclude, but for one caution most necessary to be given. Some may think, that, because they are at peace, because their conscience does not prick or pain them, therefore all must be well with them. My brethren, it is not every sort of peace that is to be desired, but only that true peace, which is the effect of righteousness. There is a false peace, a peace arising out of recklessness and carelessness and the never thinking about God. Let me warn you against this false peace. Would you say, a man was at peace, who was dropping into a deadly slumber? Would you say that Sampson was at peace, when he lay sleeping in the lap of Delilah? Such, so dangerous, so deadly is,—the peace shall I call it? or rather, the false security of the self-righteous and the wicked.
Rouse yourselves then, I beseech you, from such fatal slumbers, if any of you have hitherto been sinking beneath them. Awake! the flames of the fiery lake are flashing in your eyes, and you see them not, but are sliding sleep-bound toward them. Awake! behold, the face of the Lord does not shine, but frown upon you. Any fear, any woe, any sting of conscience will be a blessing to you, which can but save you from the wrath of a disregarded and offended God. As the old year has fallen into its grave, and the new year has just opened its eyes to the light of this morning’s sun, so let the days of your ungodliness have come to an end, and let this be the first day of a new year of godly fear and hope. This is my prayer for you: this is my new year’s blessing. I cannot wish you peace yet, your false dead peace must be broken up, the crust of hard ice which covers your hearts must be broken up, before you can enjoy anything like true living peace, before the waters can flow gently and calmly, basking in the sunshine of heaven.
My brethren, you can now understand a little better how precious was the blessing which the priest of God among the Jews called down upon the people of God. Let me repeat the words again, as I do from my heart: my brethren, the Lord bless you this year, and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace, now and evermore.
source: Sermons to a country congregation; by Augustus William Hare 1836