God’s Word for You
Numbers 10:33-36 A benediction
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, August 3, 2021
33 They set out from the mountain of the LORD on a three-day journey. The Ark of the LORD’s Covenant set out before them for that three-day journey to find a resting place for them. 34 The cloud of the LORD was over them by day, when they set out from the camp.
While we contemplate the rising of the cloud and the departure of Israel from Mount Sinai, a question comes into my mind: Did they camp every night? Of course, the people would have set up their tents or at least bedrolls, but did the tabernacle get set up every single night while they marched for three days? If not, was it a matter of the cloud remaining in the sky and not settling that told them this was only a single night? We have an answer.
In Numbers 9:20 we were told that sometimes they camped “only a few days,” and in 9:21 we were told that sometimes the cloud only remained stationary “from evening till morning.” This is the passage that answers our question. Surely the Ark would not remain out in the sand with only it’s blue cloth covering it for a night. The tabernacle was meant to be portable, to be set up almost as quickly as any household tent of the people. The bases and poles were always ready for use. When the sun began to set each day, each Levite hefting his portion of the Lord’s wooden and canvas sanctuary would think to himself: “I will allow no sleep to my eyes, no slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Psalm 132:4-5).
35 Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, “Rise up, O LORD, and may your enemies be scattered! May those who hate you flee before you!” 36 When it came to rest, he would say, “Return, O LORD, to the countless thousands of Israel!”
Moses’ prayer was for the nation and God’s protection. It was a blessing from prophet and people to God, that his will would be done. It is precisely the same thought we express in the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” The devil, his demons, and the unbelieving world are our enemies. When it comes to the gospel, unbelievers are our mission field, but we must not forget that some unbelievers, perhaps many, will not see it that way, and will seek to harm us, to thwart the ministry, and to turn aside all our efforts to proclaim Jesus and forgiveness through his holy name. We must not be surprised when those masses inflict every possible evil and misfortune and grief upon us. The devil always wants to kick us when we are down. Luther adds: “Where God’s Word is preached, accepted or believed, and bears fruit, there the blessed holy cross [that is, burdens for us to bear] will not be far away.”
To have a prayer or blessing like this one to remind the people of God and God’s care is a blessing we should remember to appreciate and meditate upon. David used part of this prayer in his writing: “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered, may his foes flee before him” (Psalm 68:1), and again: “Rise up, O Lord, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might” (Psalm 132:8). Sometimes prayers and blessings of this kind go without explanation in our liturgies, and pastors need to contend with the question: How often should we explain the liturgy? If we did it with every service, it would burden the people, create a barrier to the worship experience, and be far too much. On the other hand, if there is never an explanation, it will, at least in some cases, become an unappreciated rite. There will be members who will question whether it should be done. So an occasional explanation (Every five years? Every ten years?) would seem in place.
Take, for example, the opening sentence of the communion service, known in ancient times as the Pax (pax is Latin for “peace”). The minister says, “The Lord be with you.” The people respond, “And also with you” (or, “And with your spirit”). This is more than a statement of facts. It’s a prayer and a blessing. In fact, it’s the place in the service in which the minister blesses the people and the people respond to the minister, which does not otherwise happen. Consider this: Throughout the service, the minister is feeding the people and being fed by the word, but he is also laboring to do this as well as he can, and he is concerned about speaking clearly, whether the technology is working today, and trying not to rush, not be garbled in his speech, etc., etc. But for a moment right before communion, for the space of four spoken words, the congregation blesses him: “And also with you.” This has been a part of Christian worship for 1,800 years, and someone might argue that being old doesn’t make it meaningful. But my hope is that the meaning of a benediction or blessing from minister to people and then from people to minister has a meaning and a significance that is well worth preserving in any worship setting. When I stand at the altar and speak those words, I do not imagine myself in the shoes of Paul, or Peter, or St. Augustine, or Martin Luther, or even Pastor Henning who was my predecessor here at St. Paul’s in New Ulm, Minnesota. In the moment, I am thinking only of the people before me and the Lord who is in our midst; a blessing given, and a blessing received. That this is something we share going back a very long time is good, but the blessing is the point.
When Moses spoke the benediction for the Glory of the Lord, it was also for the people there, the congregation at hand. But later generations (such as David’s) appreciated and remembered it. We still do, today. Moses’ prayer forms part of the historic introit in place of the Psalm on Pentecost Sunday: “Let God arise; let his enemies be scattered; let them also that hate him flee before him” (The Lutheran Lectionary, n.d. [ca. 1941] p. 121). We pray that God will indeed scatter his enemies, since he does this for our benefit. His holiness is unapproachable except through the grace of Jesus our Lord, but through Jesus we have been brought close to God within his holiness, onto his very lap, and there he hears our prayers and receives our praise for all eternity. What a blessing it is to be a redeemed child of God!
Pastor Timothy Smith