I’m often asked for concrete illustrations of biblical flourishing. One of my favorites is found in Numbers 6:24-26:
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.
This “priestly blessing” has often been described by biblical scholars as the perfect Hebrew poem. That’s why it’s worth quoting Art Lindsley’s explanation of Hebrew poetry at length to understand how these verses illustrate flourishing.
Looking to Biblical Poetry for Clues
In English we often use rhythm and rhyme when we write poetry. Hebrew poetry focuses primarily on thought parallels or images. One form is called synonymous parallelism. This is when the same concept is repeated in one or more lines, but in different words. For instance, in Amos 5:24, it says:
But let judgment run down like waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Another example is from Micah 4:3:
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
In both cases the second line restates the idea in the first line, only with different words or images. One classic instance of synonymous parallelism is in Numbers 6:24-26 – the ancient Aaronic blessing:
The Lord bless you and keep you,
the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace (shalom).
Notice the pairs of words. “Bless” and “keep,” “face shine” and “gracious,” “lift countenance” and “give peace.” If you want to understand the somewhat archaic word “bless,” you look at all the other words and images as ways of amplifying your understanding.
Lindsley then explains how the structure of Hebrew poetry is the key to understanding this passage from Numbers:
If you want to know the biblical meaning of “peace,” or “shalom,” just look at the other phrases in the parallelism. When we do this, we notice the following insights:
1. Peace, or shalom, is not just an absence of conflict, but a positive presence of the Lord’s blessing.
2. To know shalom is to know God’s favor. His face will shine with pleasure on you. His face will look in your direction. He is noticing you with approval.
3. To know shalom is to know God’s gracious presence in all areas of your life.
There is more to the structure of this “priestly blessing” that offers insight into flourishing.
Three, Five, and Seven Important Words
The blessing is composed of three sentences. Each sentence is a separate blessing, which is composed of two parts.
In the original Hebrew, the first sentence is only three words, the second sentence is only five words, and the final sentence is only seven words.
The numbers three, five, and seven have significant meaning in the Bible:
Three is the number of completion or perfection and unity:
- Three is the number of persons in the Trinity.
- Many significant events in the Bible happened “on the third day” (see Hos. 6:2, for instance).
- Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (Matt. 12:40).
- Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted three years (Luke 13:7).
- The name of God is used three times in this priestly blessing.
Five is the number associated with grace:
- Five types of offerings are detailed in Leviticus 1-5.
- David chose five smooth stones as he went to meet Goliath (I Sam. 17:40).
- Jesus feeds the 5,000 with five loaves of barley (Matt. 14:17).
Seven is the number of God, divine perfection, or completeness:
- God created the earth in seven days (Gen. 1).
- God’s Word is pure, like silver purified seven times in the fire (Psalm 12:6).
- Jesus taught Peter to forgive 70 times seven (Matt. 18:22).
- Seven demons went out from Mary Magdalene, symbolizing total deliverance (Luke 8:2).
Looking at the structure of this priestly blessing, we see God’s grace (symbolized by the number five) surrounded by his perfection (symbolized by the numbers three and seven).
How This Biblical Blessing Illustrates Flourishing
There is even more to this blessing:
- “The Lord bless you and keep you”: Here we see a blessing for material success or flourishing. Not only does the blessing ask to grant material prosperity, but also that it be protected. The blessing asks that God not only give you an increase, but that this increase should be protected from loss.
- “The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you”: This goes beyond physical blessing and asks for spiritual flourishing. This part of the blessing requests that God grant you enlightenment, that you may understand the correct path to choose. It embodies the very essence of the Gospel. The last part of this sentence is often translated “and give you grace.”
- “The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace”: This is the request for the ultimate blessing, that of shalom. While the first two lines deal with blessing in this temporal realm, this last line points to the eternal realm. Perfect shalom existed in the Garden before the Fall and will be completely restored by Christ at his return. We who have tasted the grace of the Prince of Shalom will live forever in a new heaven and new earth where once again perfect shalom will be restored.
Of the three blessings in this poem, material flourishing is fairly easy to come by. That is why its blessing consists of only three words. The spiritual blessing of grace is more difficult, and therefore it requires two more words.
These blessings in the temporal realm only give us a taste of true shalom, which is the most difficult to realize and comes at great cost. Therefore the final blessing requires the most words, a total of seven, and the ultimate sacrifice. This is the ultimate blessing.