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God's Smile


Four years at Chapel Field Christian High School forever altered my ability to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Every morning, in patriotic duty, we stood, placed our hands on our chests, and recited the well-known declaration of devotion. Then, in Christian duty, we remained and renewed our religious loyalty: “And, I promise to live my life always, in His presence, under His authority, and for His glory. Coram deo.” The Church sometimes mocks or belittles regular repetition as mere religiosity, but overlearning certain truths and overstating certain commitments has lasting value.

For example, Presbyterian parents have asked their children, what is man’s chief end? for hundreds of years. Even toddlers can know their life’s purpose. For thousands of years, nearly every corner of Christianity has recited the brief profession of faith known as the Apostles’ Creed. The very old and the very young can know the essential truths of saving faith. For even longer, pastors and priests have proclaimed to God’s assembly divine blessings according to the poetic pattern given to Moses in Numbers 6:24-26:

             The LORD bless you and keep.

             The LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

             The LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.  (ESV)

 

This declaration is not an empty ritual and it is not the words of mere men. Rather, this statement communicates God’s promise to possess and bless His people. He tells Moses that an oral publication of three couplets of favor puts His name upon the people, guaranteeing their well-being (Numbers 6:27). God claims His people and blesses them whenever His servants declare His Benediction. 

Usually, God’s people are slow to believe His promises. In times such as the present, believing God’s guarantee of the Church’s well-being can be exceptionally difficult. In America, brutal infanticide (aka “abortion”) makes God’s promise that Christians will see their children’s children (Psalm 128:6) seem unattainable. The even more prolific plagues of divorce, domestic abuse, pre- or extra- marital sex, and pornography have reached a plateau known as “normal”. Sexual deviancy is the new frontier and the moral corruption rotting the foundations of human civilization (marriage and family) long ago took up residence in American homes. Who would believe that a fruitful wife surrounded by her loving husband and children (Psalm 128:3) could ever be seen in America again? Is there really any hope that God lets hard workers eat the produce of their labors (Psalm 128:2) in an America where both political and personal debt spirals endlessly toward the invention of new numbers? Fiscal responsibility is out of fashion. Amidst this decadence and decay, the Christian voice is less welcome than ever. America laughs at biblical economics as outdated and irrelevant, but she bludgeons biblical ethics as dangerous and primitive. The prosperity of Jerusalem (Psalm 128:5) seems long past in a land where being Christian increasingly means being un-American. It may seem like fearing the LORD does not pay out the happy life envisioned (Psalm 128:1, 4).

The challenges of modern America make the promises of Psalm 128 appear quaint and unlikely. How does the Church maintain her hope that in this part of the earth families will again flourish in peace and stability, as God promised in Psalm 128? In part, by the faithful, even repetitive, publication of the priestly benediction. To hush fears, God gave His Church the words of Numbers 6:24-26 to be reapplied. Repeatedly publishing God’s promise to prove His love emboldens the Church to endure her season of suffering and rebuild her ruins.

The encouragement of the priestly benediction appears weak at first. After all, this blessing is merely a verbal activity. Can words stand up to guns, dollars, or the convictions of more than a quarter of a million people? In a word, yes. No human word can. But, a divine word created everything from nothing (Psalm 33:6; Hebrews 11:3). That same word can entirely remake the world, no matter how great the ruin (Isaiah 40:6-9). The Church must recover her belief in the power of God’s Word – read, sung, and preached. She must remember that audible proclamations of divine words give birth to saving faith (Romans 10:17). She must remember that to hear the Word of God is to hear Jesus (John 1:14). To pronounce the priestly benediction is to announce and apply Jesus to ruins.

The priestly benediction represents the person and work of Jesus Christ in three couplets, in the manner of good Hebrew poetry. The priest tells God’s people that He will bless and keep them, make His face shine upon them and be gracious to them, lift up His countenance upon them and give them peace. In the first couplet, God promises to deal kindly with His people and to preserve that kindness regardless of their circumstances. He will bless them, that is, speak good things into their lives. When God’s people bless Him, they acknowledge the good He has done but when God blesses His people, He effects the good His intends for them. This kind regard is not fleeting. Knowing the feeble faith of His people, God adds an assuring promise to maintain this warm affection. He will keep them. He will preserve and guard them.    

In the second and third couplets, God strengthens His promise of a favorable disposition by adding a commitment to demonstrate that favor in a concrete way. The God who cannot lie and despises all deceit promises to prove His words of love are true! Through His priest, God says that He will “make His face shine” and “lift up His countenance”. In a more modern expression, the Church can say that God has promised to smile upon her. Faking a smile is tough; escaping the warmth of an authentic smile impossible. The Church will see a personal expression of God’s favor. This smile is clearly a metaphor since God is a spirit and does not have a body like men (Children’s Catechism 9). How can the faceless God smile? God’s favor takes flesh. God’s love incarnates and in Him, God’s smile can be seen (John 1:18). In short, for centuries, Levitical priests proclaimed that God would send His smile into the world, confirming that He did love His people.

The Church now proclaims that divine smile, that concrete token of divine love, by His name – Jesus. The priestly blessing remains relevant not as a promise of the coming smile of God but as the fulfilled hope that God has smiled. Numbers 6:24-26 is not published as a future intention but a possessed promise. When America frowns upon the Church, corrupting her morals, murdering her children, and silencing her witness, the Church answers with her priestly blessing: God gave Jesus. God smiled.

God gave this blessing to the mouth of the priest, Aaron and his descendants. The Church today hears this benediction, almost exclusively, from the pastor in the pulpit, but the proclamation of this hope belongs properly to the office of priest not the office of pastor. Jesus alone is the great High Priest now; He is Aaron perfected. But, who are Aaron’s descendants today? Who announces this great smile of God to the ruins of this world? Everyone who believes in Christ. The Church is a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6) and so every Christian possesses the prerogative to proclaim God’s favor repeatedly. Every citizen of America should hear of God’s smile from every member of the Church. Let the Gospel refrain echo in a million quiet conversations, you sin but God smiles in Jesus. Let every priest proclaim it.

Biblical authors took this privilege seriously, returning to this promise of a divine smile, particularly in the Psalms. In fact, other than the Psalmists, only the prophet Daniel employs this metaphor. He believed in the power of God’s smile during some of the darkest days of the Church’s history. Days not unlike our own. For generations, the Church split their time between the True God and ones they made, and they actively cultivated innovations in worship without God’s consent. After years of prophetic complaint, God delivered the promised response: Israel was torn from the land of plenty. Daniel adjusted unusually well to life as an exile, heeding the counsel of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:5-7). In reading that great prophet, Daniel also realized that Israel’s ruin would not be brief. He deduced a 70 year exile (Daniel 9:2).

Realizing that the Church’s season of shame and scattering would endure for some time drove Daniel into grief-stricken prayer. According to the custom of the Hebrew people, he faced God with pleas, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. His penitence was profound. Daniel confessed that the Church ignored God. He acknowledged that while God keeps covenant and loves the obedient, they were disobedient (Daniel 9:4-5). The Church invalidated God’s love. She did not listen to the prophets who warned (Daniel 9:6). She ignored the God of mercy and forgiveness (Daniel 9:9-10) earning the shame (Daniel 9:7-8) she now suffered. For this disobedience and willful ignorance, the Church received the anger God promised (Daniel 9:11-14). To summarize all his grief, Daniel confesses that God graciously saved but the Church wickedly sinned (Daniel 9:15).

Daniel knew the Church’s ruin well and confessed it boldly, but he also believed in the transformative power of God’s smile. Though he knew the intensity of God’s wrath and confessed it was deserved, Daniel still asked God to forgive (Daniel 9:16). He actually begged God to turn away His justifiable anger. In addition, Daniel returned to the priestly blessing and even asked for a tangible proof of forgiveness and undeserved favor. He asked God to smile (Daniel 9:17). Daniel not only expected God to hush His righteous anger, He anticipated God demonstrating love to His ungrateful rebels. What made Daniel so bold? What prophet could vindicate such reckless courage before an angry deity? Daniel bet the Church’s future on one thing: God’s great mercy (Daniel 9:18). Convinced God loves sinners, Daniel boldly begged for forgiveness and concrete proof of His favor. Daniel prayed for God’s smile, His proven promise, His incarnate Word. 

The Church must own her sin and confess it boldly, but she must also believe in God’s power to reverse her ruin. Repentance atrophies in the hearts of the proud and it withers in the souls unpersuaded of God’s loving favor. Certainty of God’s smiling face ignites sorrow for sin. The days of Daniel are not so distant and so the prayer of Daniel should echo in the hearts and homes of Christians who are convinced God’s love is still sovereign. Let this Gospel hope sink into a million prayers, we sinned but God smiles in Jesus. Let every prophet pray it.

Even as Daniel prayed the sovereign smile of God upon the ruins of an exiled people, so Psalm 80 sings for such a smile. Asaph, the son of Berechiah, descended from Levi and he stood among the chief musicians (1 Chronicles 6:39-43). When the Ark of the Covenant came into Jerusalem, he became the chief musician, the choirmaster (1 Chronicles 16:5-7). Asaph did not just lead in the singing of David’s songs, for he also wrote some of his own under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Asaph and his sons prophesied with King David (1 Chronicles 25:2; 2 Chronicles 29:30), contributing to the Church’s Psalter. Psalm 80, one of Asaph’s songs, was given without an immediate context. Perhaps he sang of far-off events (the Exile) or perhaps he sang of recent times (Absalom’s rebellion), but whatever he had in mind, the Holy Spirit has put this song on the Church’s lips for all her seasons of suffering.

Asaph remembered well the glory days when God’s mighty hand brought His people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the promised land (Psalm 80:8-11). Sadly, he was now an eyewitness to the Church’s ruin (Psalm 80:8-11). Before, God uprooted nations and cleared the land for his precious vine, but He removed His protection and predators have had their way. Asaph knew the source of this ruin. He knew the sovereign hand which dealt this severe mercy (Psalm 80:4-6). So, he fled to the God big enough to get the Church into ruin and out again. The days of decay came from an offended God and help could come from Him alone.

Asaph sang repeatedly for God’s smile. First, he called for God to “shine forth” (Psalm 80:1). Then, three times, he asked Him to “let His face shine” (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19). With salvation fading like dusk and enemies pillaging unchecked, Asaph threw his final hope upon the priestly blessing of old. To his mind, the only confidence left was God’s own desire to prove His love to His people. Even to a devastated, defenseless Church, God yearns to make His favor known. So, Asaph wrote a song that believers could sing like a sweet but sovereign lullaby. But, Asaph did not hope in the poetic sound of a metaphor but in the man behind the metaphor. He sang of God’s right hand man, His strong Son who keeps the Church from wandering from His Father (Psalm 80:17-18). Once again, the ancient hope bound up in republishing the promise of God’s smile pointed to an Incarnate Christ. The smile of God, the shining of His face, was Jesus.

Although this song came from Asaph’s pen, it belonged to the Church’s lips. Asaph’s opening words are “to the Choirmaster”. He wrote a song, a Psalm for God’s people to sing. The Church soothes her fearful, doubting heart by putting her priestly blessing to song; her enemies cannot silence the melody of God’s smile. She sings about Jesus the mighty Son who keeps her close to God. She sang of old in the hope of coming Incarnation but she sings now in the confidence ofsalvation accomplished. The ruins that troubled Asaph have returned and so the song of Asaph should be renewed. Let this Gospel hope ring from a million voices; we are ruined but God smiles in Jesus. Let every prophet sing it.

The Church does not sing for herself alone and the Psalmist did not limit the restorative power of God’s smile to the Church. He believed that God’s sovereign smile possessed global implications. In Psalm 67, the shining of God’s face upon the Church reveals salvation to the world, causing them all to rejoice. God’s people hope to overcome their sin and endure their enemies, but they also anticipate God’s love conquering the world. Psalm 67 is a song for preserving and even augmenting such expectation.

The anonymous author penned this song for the Church to sing, as did Asaph with Psalm 80. Both are addressed to the choirmaster; both are meant for the lips of the choir. But, this song includes an unusual introductory note. If most English translations are correct in rendering the opening line, “with stringed instruments” the reader faces a rather irrelevant redundancy. Nearly all Psalms were sung with stringed instruments in the Temple. The Hebrew points another way. The word in question merely means “tune” or “melody” but the culturally-conditioned connotation is also embedded. A quick survey of parallel texts exposes the type of tune associated with Psalm 67: 

    With the fall of Jersualem, elders leave their gates and youth leave their song (Lam 5:14)

    With the LORD’s salvation, we play songs on strings (Isaiah 38:20)

    With abounding trouble, Asaph asks to remember his songs (Psalm 77:6)

    With joy in the LORD’s strength, Habakkuk gives his song (Habakkuk 3:19)

Other texts can be examined but the pattern of use is clear with these four: tune referenced in Psalm 67 is not instrumental but ecstatic. The Hebrew word does not speak accompaniment but exuberance. The melody to which the Church sings these words is enthusiastic optimism. 

The Psalmist’s desire for God’s glory ignites his energy and his conviction about the power of God’s smile inspires his ambition. A prayer for universal praise surrounds the heart of the Psalm. “Let the peoples praise you …let all the peoples praise you!” (Psalm 67:3, 5). In turn, the heart of the Psalm gives the motive for such a command: God judges and rules. The unmitigated reach of God’s dominion justifies a call for the whole world to worship (Psalm 67:4). The Psalmist wants every slice of humanity to recognize the divine oversight and care they enjoy andreturn the thanks and praise warranted. What then will enlighten the ignorant? What will soften the hearts that calcified in the cruel clutches of this world? This Psalmist publishes the smile of God as the antidote. A concrete, visible demonstrate of divine love exposes the worthiness of God to receive all praise in all places. Grace and justice roll like swollen rivers into the Church, soaking the souls all around and revealing to them God’s willingness and His ability to save (Psalm 67:1-2). The Psalm ends by confirming this conviction. The world’s increase is a token of divine favor. An abundance of food, victory over old sins, an increase in membership can all confirm in shaking hearts the steady beat of God’s love. The fear of the LORD will spread a surely as the blessing of the Church has come in Christ. The confirmed hope of God’s smile Incarnated launched the expectant hope that His smile will radiate to the farthest reaches of the earth. The triumphant march of King Jesus has not come to end. Let the Church again publish with fervent persuasion that divine love does conquer all. Let every believer sing it.

The Church needs a tangible token of their Lord’s love to persist in repentance, endure their persecutors, and remain convinced their call to worship is not in vain.  The Church’s need for God’s sovereign smile echoes Her Savior’s need for the same luminous countenance. Even Jesus repeatedly published the promise of His Father’s favor. In both Psalm 31:16 and Psalm 119:135, the LORD’s Servant asks for the shining face of God. Needing salvation and sanctification, God’s servants turn to His smile for both. 

David’s enemies and sins left him ripe for ruin (Psalm 31:9-13).  He has no allies and plenty of danger. Yet, God remained his hope. David asked God to deliver him from his enemies’ hands (Psalm 31:14-15), certain God saves from enemies’ hands (Psalm 31:7-8). His trust in the LORD (Psalm 31:6, 14) led him put his life in God’s hands (Psalm 31:5) and look for a smiling face (Psalm 31:16). David’s surrender to a sovereign smile amidst suffering foreshadowed the heart of Jesus. On the cross, at the climax of His agony, Christ sang Psalm 31:5 (Luke 23:46), remembering the store of goodness awaiting Him (Psalm 31:19; Hebrews 12:2). The Lord’s Servant, in both Testaments, bet his life on God’s willingness to smile. If Psalm 31 could remind the crucified Christ that His Father was still smiling, then surely the Church should revisit Psalm 31 to keep alive the conviction that God’s smile is unbroken. 

Psalm 119, specifically “Pey” (verses 129-136), likewise gives a snapshot of the heart of Christ in His agony. Here the Psalmist suffers the temptation to sin (Psalm 119:133-134) and the heartbreak of others’ disobedience (Psalm 119:136). While this song belongs in the mouth of every believer, their claim depends on their union with Christ. Only Jesus can sing Psalm 119:129 in integrity, everyone else has to sing it in union with Him or become a liar. Only Jesus and those bound to Him know great value of the Bible and long for it to be opened (Psalm 119:130-131). Such righteous zeal for God’s Word depends on a generous supply of God’s gracious smile (Psalm 119:132, 135). Obedience, like the rest of the Christian life, only exists in the warmth of God’s love. Proof of divine favor awakens and energizes a compliant heart.

The sustaining strength of the Lord’s servants lies in their experience of His goodnesstoward them. Jesus breathed His last, confident His lifeless eyes would see His Father’s smile. Jesus wept over disobedience but completely resisted its power, sustained by His Father’s shining face. Those who are united to Him by faith share the same hope, the same confidence in the shadow of death and the grip of sin. God’s love outlasts sin and God’s love outlasts the grave and God’s people know it because they are eyewitnesses of His favor. By faith, they have seen the love of God become flesh. Incarnate love ignites obedience to the point of death. In a season of faltering faith and rampant rebellion, the Church must recover an unshakeable certainty of God’s love. The Church must renew perpetual republication of the Gospel as God’s favor made manifest in the world. Let everyone in union with Christ sing it, preach it, and pray it. 

The multiplication of sins requires bold, persistent repentance which can only be sustained by the conviction that God is smiling (Daniel 9). The proliferation of persecutors demands authentic, ancient songs of hope which persuade the Church that God is smiling (Psalm 80). The seemingly unachievable goal of global worship of God depends on infectious songs proclaiming that God smiles (Psalm 67). The power to endure death andresist sin pours from a persistent return to God’s smile (Psalm 31 and 119). Repeatedly publishing God’s smile makes His people know they are loved (Numbers 6:24-26). A mother’s smile may change a child’s disposition, but God’s smile changes the Church’s circumstances. Jesus is His smile. In Him, in His story, God gives His most tangible proof that He loves His people. Jesus is the shining face of God, transforming the Church and her world by the glorious, grace-filled glow of His presence. The Church must repeatedly publish that Gospel in her conversations, her prayers, and her songs.

The American Church probably never needed a tangible token of divine favor more than she does presently. Thus, American Christians never needed God’s sovereign smile more than they do now. But, what must be recovered is the transformative conviction that God is smiling. God smiled in Christ. His face now shines unalterably and irresistibly upon His Church. Certainty of this truth renders Her peace, joy, and willingness to work impervious to the storm clouds and shadows of this world. The Church’s labors of self-sacrificing love cannot be slowed or stopped by any force so long as she boldly publishes the promise of God’s sovereign smile. She lives in His presence, under His authority, and for His glory so may she live like she is coram deo.