What Does it Mean ‘May the Lord Bless You and Keep You’?

In 2020, Elevation Worship along with Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes released their song called “The Blessing.”

Quoted in the song are the words of Numbers 6:24-26, which is an Old Testament priestly blessing. This song garnered great success leading to translations into other languages around the world.

As a great reminder of the Lord’s blessing of His people, this song points back to the priestly blessing in the Book of Numbers, which was declared over the nation of Israel by a priest.

Some pastors or ministers declare this passage over their congregation regularly, but the question arises as to what the words in Numbers 6:24 mean.

Central to comprehending this priestly blessing is the background and context of the passage, the subject of the blessing, and what is being promised to those who are being blessed: to bless and keep.

Background and Context

Most of Numbers 6 deals with the Nazirite vow, with all its rules and conditions (Numbers 6:1-20). When an Israelite took a Nazirite vow, they were consecrating themselves to the Lord or separating themselves in service to the Lord (Numbers 6:2,21).

Required in the vow was to agree to being separated to the Lord for a set period, which means the vow was not permanent or ongoing (Numbers 6:5,13).

Following the same idea of being set apart, the priestly blessing introduced in Numbers 6:24 is the Lord’s way of reminding the Israelites that they are set apart as a holy nation in contrast to the rest of the world (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19).

Unlike the Nazirite vow, the blessing is a declaration, not conditioned on following a set of rules. Also, in contrast to the Nazirite vow, which could be freely taken by any Israelite man or woman, declaring the blessing was not a choice (Numbers 6:22-23).

The Lord specifically told Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them …” (Numbers 6:23, NIV).

In addition to being a blessing, which demonstrated Israel’s uniqueness as a nation set apart for God, the blessing contained God’s promise given through the Aaronic priesthood. The priest would declare the blessing over the nation of Israel, imparting the Word of God.

Given just before a time of hardship when Israel would be punished by wandering in the wilderness for 40 years (Numbers 14:34), this priestly blessing would serve as a reminder of God’s presence with and provision for His people.

The Passage’s Subject: The Lord

Each successive line in the priestly blessing starts with the words “the LORD” (Numbers 6:24,25,26). The passage specifically focuses on God, as His Name is the subject of the blessing. The Lord, not the priest, was the one who blessed His people.

The priest merely declared the blessing to the hearers. It is the Lord who blesses, keeps, makes His face to shine upon His people, acts graciously, turns His face toward His people, and gives them peace (Numbers 6:24-26). He is the central focus and subject of the blessing.

Central to the blessing is God’s covenant name: Yahweh. Numbers 6:24 employs the divine name, represented in the Hebrew tetragrammaton, YHWH commonly translated as LORD in English Bible translations.

God first revealed His personal, covenant name to Moses when He appeared to Him in the burning bush in the wilderness (Exodus 3:1-6). When Moses asked who he should say sent him to free the Israelites, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14, NIV).

Using His covenant name, Yahweh, God was emphasizing His close relationship with Israel. The Lord alone established the nation of Israel and He would continue to preserve His people.

As the Lord indicated, when referring to the pronouncement of the blessing, “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:27, NIV). His covenant, personal name is central to this priestly blessing.

The Passage’s Promises: To Bless

The first item in the priestly blessing, which the Lord would bestow, was “to bless.” In English, the word “bless” carries the idea of receiving special favor, gifts, or endowments from God.

For instance, a Christian may receive an unexpected bonus at work and enthusiastically declare, “The Lord has blessed me!” All good things are from God (James 1:17), but the Hebrew word “barak” used in Numbers 6:24 has a different and much deeper meaning.

Barak is a Hebrew word, which acts as a verb in this verse. Interestingly, according to Strong’s Concordance, no. 1288, the word can mean kneeling before someone. For example, barak is also found in Genesis 24:11, when Abraham’s servant had the caravan of camels kneel outside of the town, near the well.

In Hebrew, the word has the idea of people worshiping God by kneeling to Him and God bending down toward man in a relationship. Therefore, barak or bless specifically means God’s special presence with His people.

Being blessed in the English sense of the word usually carries the idea of receiving gifts or good things from God.

Although God does graciously provide mankind with good things, the words “to bless you” in Numbers 6:24 is specifically referring to the Lord’s presence with His people in a close relationship. God is the blessing the Israelites received.

The Passage’s Promises: To Keep

Although many translations, including the NIV, ESV, and KJV all translate the verse as “keep you,” there are other translations of the word in Numbers 6:24.

For example, the NLT says, “protect you,” while the ISV translates the word as “guard you.” Similarly, the GNT version says, “take care of you.”

All these translations are based on the Hebrew word “shamar.” This word is also used in Genesis and is translated as “guard,” when the Lord set cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance of Eden to protect the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24).

Within its range of meaning, shamar carries the idea of keeping, caring for, and protecting (Strong’s Concordance, no. 8104).

When the priests declared the blessing before the Israelites, the priests were affirming that God would protect them. He would keep and guard Israel.

In tying the verse all together, Yahweh promised to be present with the Israelites, divinely protecting them. They were not helpless, alone outcasts, for the Lord God was with them.

Blessed by Knowing God

Numbers 6:24-26 is a powerful promise declared in a priestly blessing. The Lord himself, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, was uniquely present with the nation Israel (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6).

Not only was He present with them in a special relationship, but He also promised to protect and guard Israel. In this way, Israel was greatly blessed by having the Lord as their God.

Similarly, Christians today are blessed by knowing the Lord in a close and intimate way. Although the church is distinct from Israel, Christians do have a special relationship with the Lord and can find comfort in the words of the priestly blessing.

Believers are more specifically blessed and kept by knowing Jesus, who is always present with His followers (Matthew 28:20) and preserves them spiritually (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

As is stated in Romans 8:37-39, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NIV).

God is still the focus of the blessing that believers receive, which is being in a saving relationship with the Lord.

For further reading:

How Do I Bless the Lord Oh My Soul?

What Does it Mean That God Is Able?

Will God Really Meet All My Needs?

Who Were the Nazarites?

Who Is the One True God?

What Is the Real Purpose of Kneeling in Prayer?

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘Take Care of My Sheep’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Natali_Mis


Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. Holding a Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry, she is passionate about the Bible and her faith in Jesus. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.   

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