This is an entry in the “Acrostic Contemplations.”
“Bless your heart!” It is a phrase heard often in the Southern United States. Often said with great sincerity, often an older person expressing genuine sympathy, it can also cut against the grain, suggesting mockery or condescension. As the site “It’s a Southern Thing” so aptly puts it, “The phrase ‘bless your heart’ is like chicken and waffles [another southern thing] … It can be sweet, it can be spicy and it’s perfect for any situation.” It seems odd that a “blessing” can also be a put-down, but many cultures do it in their own way. The American South is so steeped in Christian church culture that here such sentiments are expressed with pious platitudes. The far more sincere iteration, that I am always grateful to receive, is the simple statement often uttered by a cashier at my local Kroger, “Be blessed.”
It is a term we use often enough and, possible sarcasm aside, we mostly know what it means. When someone blesses you, they are wishing you well, hoping that you will have some joy and peace in your day. If they are more religious, it might stand in for a prayer to God, asking God to send that peace and comfort to you. Offering or receiving blessing is about the intention of kindness and beneficence being conferred upon someone. I have always wondered though, how can we bless God?
This was the benediction most often used, when I was growing up, by our pastor, Richard C. Halverson. Once I learned Hebrew I discovered that “face” and “countenance” are translating the same word,1 but this phrase probably shaped my conception of “blessing” as much as anything. It seems clear from this passage that it is God, the LORD who blesses us. We can find numerous other passages in the Bible with a similar sentiment and that made sense to me. God is God, after all, and a blessing is the consecration of something (making Israel God’s holy people) or an unmerited gift that we receive. So the minister of Christ blesses the couple who are getting married or the one who is baptized. This benediction found in Numbers is actually prescribed by God, “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them….'” It is fairly straight forward then, God blesses or works through an agent (priest, minister) to bless his people. Yet we are also called to “bless the LORD.”
If blessing someone is to wish them happiness or prosperity and if blessing objects sanctifies or makes them holy, how can we bless God? God does not need anything and is already holy. In fact, implicit in blessing, at least within Jewish and Christian contexts, is that any blessing that we do, such as Aaron and his sons, is as agents of God. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, once blessings shifted from being said of God to people, it was “generally with an implication of their conferring instrumentally a divine blessing.” So, what can it mean that we bless God?
A little Hebrew and etymology does help here. The Hebrew term *ברך, when used in what we call the “Qal” or the simplest form, it means “to kneel.” So in 2 Chron. 6:13, when Solomon prays at the dedication of the temple, he kneeled on his knees וַיִּבְרַךְ עַל־בִּרְכָּיו נֶגֶד כָּל־קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּפְרֹשׂ כַּפָּיו הַשָּׁמָיְמָה׃, “Then he knelt on his knees in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven.” When that verb is in Qal passive participle or the Piel, which is an intensifying form of the verb, it means “to bless.”
Kneeling is, of course, the posture of worship, but also humility and surrender. When Solomon kneels on his knees, he is worshipping God and entreating God to fulfill his promises to Israel and to David, he is asking God to bless them, even as they kneel in surrender and adoration. When we bless God, then, we are worshipping God, bending our hearts and souls, if not our knees, in adoration and humility before God.
Bless your heart and may God bless us all, even as we bless the LORD.
- Every English translation offers some similar variance for the sake of the English cadence. The JPS is different yet again: “The LORD bless you and protect you! The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you! The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!” I tend to prefer more literal translations, but certainly it gets to the sense of the phrases יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ and יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ ↩︎