Rev. Travis Fentiman
The Biblical Argument
The Benediction is a Special Prayer,
per Scripture and Westminster
Rev. David Silversides of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland has a very helpful sermon drawing attention to the significance of the Benediction in Christian Worship, entitled ‘Why do We have a Benediction?’ (2007, 45 min.).. He makes a sustained argument, often from the grammar of the original languages of Scripture, that the Benediction by the minister in Christian worship is an effective, discriminatory, pronouncement, or declaration, of the promises of God therein to his true people.. This is often contrasted in the sermon to the Benediction being a prayer.
While Rev. Silversides seems to allow that the Benediction is a prayer in some respect, yet he so downplays this that the matter is left rather ambiguous¹ and it would be easy for a person to be left with the impression that the Benediction is not a prayer.
¹ On Isaac’s benediction: “In this instance, this was more than prayer, it was not simply a prayer, and if it was prayer at all, it was far more than that, it was pronouncement…” (5:43)
On Jacob’s benediction: “Not a prayer, but a pronouncement of what the Lord should surely bring upon them” (9:02)
On the Benediction in Christian Worship: “Fourth point: Discriminating pronouncement rather than general prayer” (17:20) “It is not simply a prayer, it is a declaration of the mind of God” (29:24) “It is the minister declaring what God promises to those who are his. It’s not simply an expression of his hear-felt desire, though no doubt he does pray for these blessing upon the people often, but it is a declaration of the promise of God, that these blessings will be upon the people of God who are truly his.” (38:53)
Dr. Ryan McGraw, the professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in his very helpful article, ‘The Benediction in Corporate Worship’, has at times affirmed that the benediction is ‘more than a prayer’, and yet in other places, has seemed to say that the benediction is not a prayer,² he also leaving the matter ambiguous.
² ‘The blessing itself is not a prayer…’, ‘The benediction is not a prayer; it is a pronouncement.’
We agree that the Benediction is a pronouncement or declaration in that the visible people of God are declared to be in a blessed status before God (Num. 6:26-27; 22:12).. We also agree that the Benediction is discriminatory, not equally applicable in every respect to all (Lk. 10:5-6; Eph. 6:24), and that it effectively confers (through the sovereign working of God’s will having respect to his own Word and Name, and through the mediation of Christ) the blessings it pronounces to the Lord’s true people in an upright state (Ps. 133:3; etc.).
Charles Herle, a leading presbyterian, articulated this viewpoint at the Westminster Assembly:
“Blessing [the Benediction] is not prayer, for one is in [the] stead [place] of God, and if not a prayer, then it conveys, and that by a promise, so that it can’t be but a ministerial conveying act, conditional, if they walk so and so.” Leishman, Westminster Directory, p. 104
Perhaps Herle, Rev. Silversides and Dr. McGraw in the best light could be interpreted as meaning that the Benediction is not simply a general prayer.. To that we agree.
However, it will be argued here that the Benediction does have the nature of a special prayer, conveying the will of Christ through the pronounced wish, desire and prayer of the minister as the ordained representative of Christ, and that this is a very important aspect of the Benediction.. The answer is both/and, not either/or.. That the Benediction is a prayer, and fundamentally a prayer (more so than it being a reading of the Word), will be argued from Scripture (especially from the grammar of the original languages) and it will be seen, self-evidently, to be the fundamental viewpoint contained in the Westminster Standards.
One verse proves our whole thesis.. God’s Word expressly calls the Levitical benediction a ‘prayer’: “Then the priests the Levites arose and blessed the people: and their voice was heard, and their prayer³ came up to his holy dwelling place, even unto Heaven.” (2 Chron. 30:27)
³ It is not likely that the ‘prayer’ refers back to the people’s ‘confession’ of sin in v. 22, as (1) the Levitcal blessing is the most immediate and closest antecedent, (2) the previous ‘confession’, or confessions, were made over a week earlier, and (3) as the repetition of similar terms in v. 27 is characteristic of Hebrew and usually denotes the use of synonyms.
Walter Steuart of Pardovan, an important Scottish presbyterian in the early-1700’s, probably reflected the general understanding in the Church of Scotland (which had adopted the Westminster Standards) about the Benediction when he conceived of it to be a prayer:
“The minister uses [is accustomed] to dismiss the congregation with a solemn blessing, or prayer to God for them…” Collections, p. 86
The purpose of this essay is not to contend over words (1 Tim. 6:4), but to reveal a greater clarity and fullness upon the Word of God and our historic, reformed tradition which has been faithful to the minute texture of God’s Word.. Through this we hope to give a greater appreciation for the Lord’s Benediction in positively adding to Rev. Silversides’ and Dr. McGraw’s significant contributions to the subject..
It is hoped, and perhaps likely, that our esteemed friends, Rev. Silversides and Dr. McGraw, would agree with much of what is further expounded below, especially as the Holy Spirit through his Word persuades us. The flow of this article will in general follow the outline of Rev. Silverside’s treatment.
The Biblical Argument
What does ‘Benediction’ mean?
The English word ‘benediction’ derives from the Latin word ‘bene-dictio’, which means a ‘good-word’, or a blessing.. This concept is found throughout Scripture.. For example, the stated purpose of the Aaronic benediction in Num. 6:24-26 is to ‘bless’ (v. 23) the people of God.
Prayers convey the requests, desires and wishes of a person.. The language of prayer, though, does not so easily correspond to one grammatical tense, mood or voice in most languages.. The most appropriate grammatical categories to express prayerful requests, desires and wishes are the optative or jussive moods.. However, most languages use a great variety of tenses, moods and voices for the direct speech-language between persons (often who are not equals), especially for prayer.. Thus, the subjunctive, imperative and future, along with the imperfect, perfect and other grammatical categories are often used in prayerful requests.
The Latin ‘dictio’ (in bene-dictio) comes from the root ‘dicere’ which may mean ‘to speak’ (an infinitive), though it is also capable of bearing a passive-subjunctive or a passive-imperative meaning, which expresses a wish or a desire.. Hence, ‘benediction’ in the Latin, which has come into English, may convey a person’s desire, or prayer, that the other person be blessed.. This reflects the Scriptural usage in that prayer is designed to, and often does confer a blessing for the person or thing prayed for (1 Cor. 14:15-16).. Hence, prayer is often simply called a ‘blessing’ (2 Chron. 30:27; Mt. 5:44; 14:19; 26:26; Mk. 10:16; Lk. 6:28; 24:30; 1 Cor. 10:16; etc.).
All the examples of ‘benedictions’ that Rev. Silversides references in Scripture, along with the ones cited below, are implicitly prayers, as the speech is either to God or before God, as God is the only one that can fulfill those blessings and as God is the One trusted in to do so.. As all the references to benedictions in Scripture are explicitly said to involve a blessing, or the substance thereof, and as ‘blessing’ is used synonymously with ‘prayer’ in Scripture (per above), so the inference cannot be avoided that benedictions have the nature of prayer.. This actually should be obvious in that Scripture (in the English King James Version, KJV) never uses the word ‘benediction’.. Rather, special prayers of blessing in Scripture have been recognized and called ‘benedictions’ for (legitimate) theological and ecclesiastical purposes.
Benedictions are Prayers:
The Old Testament
The Aaronic Benediction (Num. 6:24-26) was specially inspired and given by the Lord for the High-priestly family to pronounce (as all verbal prayers are pronounced) upon God’s people throughout their generations:
“Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, on this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them:
‘The Lord bless thee,
. and keep thee;
The Lord make his face shine upon thee,
. and be gracious unto thee;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee,
. and give thee peace.'”
As such a prayer is worship, and this benediction had a public, corporate character, this benediction was warranted for, and routinely occurred in Israel’s regular, stated, public worship (Lev. 9:22; Deut. 10:8). This is seen in the original institution of it being closely connected with the finishing of the construction of the Tabernacle and the inception of its worship services (Num. 7:1).
The meaning of the Aaronic Benediction may be legitimately derived from the English reading itself:
‘The Lord bless thee,’ is short-hand for, ‘May the Lord bless thee.’ This use of language is not the same as making the declarative pronouncement, in either the past or present tense, that ‘You have been blessed by the Lord’ or that ‘You are blessed of the Lord’.. Nor is it grammatically equivalent to making a pronouncement that will be made effective, which sense would involve a future indicative, that ‘You will be blessed by the Lord’.
Rather, the English word ‘may’ in such a grammatical context is in the present-subjunctive, which connotates not an actual state of affairs, but a possible state of affairs (possibly contingent on something else).. In prayer, this state of affairs of the other person being blessed is willed or wished by the pronouncer.. It may, or may not, come to pass, being dependent and contingent upon the sovereignty of God’s Will to co-act and fulfill that prayer.
This understanding of the Aaronic Benediction as a prayer from the English is an accurate reflection of the original Hebrew:
Five of the six Hebrew verbs are in the qal-imperfect.. However, C.L. Seow’s Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Abingdon, 1995, p. 209) says that ‘for most [Hebrew verbal] roots there is no distinction [in inflection] between the jussives and the corresponding imperfect forms.’ That five of the Hebrew verbs in the Aaronic benediction take a jussive meaning is clear, not only from the context, but also as the sixth verb, ‘shine’ in v. 25, is explicitly in the hiphil-jussive.. The hiphil form is one of the few forms that has a distinct jussive inflection (Seow, p. 279).
This is the grammatical background as to why Beall, Banks & Smith’s Old Testament Parsing Guide (Broadman, rev. 2000, p. 110) says that the five other verbs are exemplifying a jussive meaning.. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford, 1910, p. 321) defines the Hebrew jussive as conveying ‘a command, a wish (or a blessing), advice or a request’ and explicitly interprets Num. 6:26 as such a wish or a blessing.
As all six of the verbs of the Aaronic benediction have a jussive meaning, so the Aaronic benediction expresses the wish, desire, prayer or requestª that God would bless, keep, shine upon and give his peace unto Israel.
ª The word ‘pray’ has been historically synonymous in English with ‘request’, such as in the phrase, expressing a request, ‘I pray you to…’ See the KJV: Gen. 12:13; 13:8-9; 16:2; 18:3-4; 19:2,7-8; etc.
John Owen agrees that the Aaronic Benediction contains the nature of prayer:
“Their putting the name of God upon the people, was their praying for, and pronouncing blessings on them in his name, by virtue of this institution.” (Exposition of Hebrews, 3.425, in 4 vols., on Heb. 7:1-3, Obs. 19)
In the blessing, or benediction, which Melchizedec gives to Abram (Gen. 14:19-20), the two relevant verbs are qal-passive participles.. A wooden (but inaccurate) translation of this would be: ‘Abram is being blessed of the Most High God’.. Grammatical forms, however, are not to contort a meaning which is established by the context.. Rather, the context determines the legitimate breadth and usage of grammatical forms.
The context is prayer, which is universally understood through cultures and languages.. While the meaning may not exclude the present tense (the imperfect may be timeless in Hebrew), yet a benediction (and this prayer), was to add something (a blessing) to the state which Abraham was in.. Thus the meaning of the passive-participles in this discourse is: ‘May Abram be blessed by the Most High God’, which is the meaning that the KJV gives in abbreviated form.
Rev. Silversides uses the example of Isaac blessing Jacob against his intention and not being able to retract the blessing conveyed (Gen. 27:25-29) as a proof that a benediction is inherently an effective conveyance of the blessing spoken.. This effective conveyance, though, was not due to the generic nature of prayerful benedictions as such (and in all cases), but was rather due to the special circumstances of the unique situation.. Specifically, this particular blessing of the long, awaited-for physical and spiritual inheritance which was to be passed down through the called-out line of the patriarchs in the Covenant of Grace, involving the very Covenant-promise of God itself (Gen. 27:29), was understood to be a seal to that legal inheritance.. Once the seal, or property right of that legal inheritance was given, it could not be retracted.
Jacob blessing his twelve sons at the end of his life (Gen. 49) was of a similar nature, only more pronounced in that he said upfront that what was about to roll from his lips was a prophecy (Gen. 49:1).. Naturally a prophecy would seal the certainty of the events it foretold, effectively conveying the thing spoken to their posterity.
However, are these things of the essential characteristics of benedictions generally? Boaz gave a benediction to his employees daily (Ruth 2:4, ‘The Lord be with you’) and yet he evidently didn’t have the best opinion of some of his male workers (Ruth 2:9; 3:10). His benediction was a prayer, the expression of his desire, yet it did not inherently, necessarily and effectively convey the substance of the benediction.
David blessed his household (2 Sam. 6:20, see also 13:25) and yet was not something of this retracted when he prayed against Absalom, his son (see the title of Ps. 3): “Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For You strike all my enemies on the cheek; You break the teeth of the wicked!” (NRSV) Numerous examples could be quoted throughout Scripture where benedictions are simply prayers, the expressed wish to God of the pronouncer (1 Sam. 15:13; 23:21; 25:33; 26:25; 2 Sam. 2:5; 8:10; 19:39; 1 Kings 1:47; etc.).
The New Testament
As the constrictions of grammatical forms in language (often imperfectly) reflect patterns of human thought, and as all people fundamentally have, or are capable of, the same or similar human thought, especially in relation to calling upon God, they being made in the image of God, so the meaning of prayer is fundamentally the same throughout various languages even though different grammatical forms are often used.
Thus it is not surprising that in the Greek New Testament the same phenomenon as is found in the Old Testament is evidenced.º The verbs in the benedictions of 1 Pet. 1:2 and 2 Pet. 1:2 (‘Grace and peace be multiplied unto you’) are in the aorist, passive, optative (which Rev. Silversides affirms).. The optative in these verses expresses ‘an obtainable wish or a prayer’ (per Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Zondervan, 1996, p. 483).
º The literal word for benediction in Greek, eulogia, is not so relevant for our purpose (as it often means other things for other contexts). The meaning of benedictions comes out much more clearly in the various benedictions in the New Testament itself. However, for a survey of the usage of eulogia in the New Testament, see ed. Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1975), p. 206 ff., ‘Blessing, Blessed, Happy’.
The Apostle John, in 2 John 3, says, ‘Grace be with you, mercy and peace, from God the Father…’ The verb ‘be’ is a future, middle, indicative.. As Rev. Silversides notes, the future tense may indicate an effective declaration that something will happen.. However, in Greek, the future tense can also indicate the subjunctive mood (Wallace, p. 571), and hence is used regularly for prayer, it being fitting for this.. This subjunctive meaning of the future tense is what, in fact, the King James translators chose to translate the verse with.. They did not translate the verse as “Grace will be with you”, but “Grace be with you,” that is, “May grace be with you.”
This interpretation is confirmed where John, in 3 John 2, explicitly uses a verb meaning ‘wish’ in order to express a similar sentiment: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Yet, from the context of this letter it is clear that this wish was a wish (as the person was in ill-physical health), and not something that was likely to be immediately, effectively fulfilled.
Rev. Silversides (but not him alone) interprets the opening benedictions in Paul’s letters, which have no verb in the Greek (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3, etc.) as implying a more pronounced, present, effective, blessing upon the receiving hearers.. However, omitting the verb (and especially the verb ‘be’) in sentences is not uncommon in Koine Greek, as may be seen by noticing such verbs being italicized throughout the KJV New Testament (which designates that they are not in the Greek original, but are supplied by inference).
Such an omission of verbs also naturally happens in English.. When someones writes at the end of a letter or email, in abbreviated form, “Grace to you,” what he means is, “May God grant grace to you.” This phrase is in the optative, and so are Paul’s opening benedictions by implication (corresponding to Peter’s explicit use of this mood in 1 Pet. 1:2 & 2 Pet. 1:2), as well as John’s blessing at the end of his letter, 2 John, ‘Peace to thee’ (v. 14).. Hebrew likewise often omits the verb in prayerful blessings (Ruth 2:4 is one example: ‘The Lord with you’).
While more examples from both Testaments could be analyzed, the general principles of language, and of Hebrew and Greek in particular, should be evident enough that benedictions are the expressions of a person’s wish, desire or prayer, and are not simply a pronouncement.
The Benediction is Not Always Effective
While Rev. Silversides qualifies his formulation that the Benediction is discriminatory, and hence it does not apply to all equally, nor is effective to all (namely those who are reprobates), yet his emphasis is that it is a declaration or pronouncement, which is more than a wish or a desire, the benediction actually taking effect in God’s true people.. This emphasis may be appropriate and helpful for God’s saints in Rev. Silversides’ context, however there is another side that is also emphasized in Scripture which is not thoroughly reflected in the sermon: when the blessing of the Benediction does not take effect for God’s outward people.
The Aaronic Benediction was regularly pronounced upon God’s people in Israel’s public worship from the time of their sojourning through the wilderness with the Tabernacle through the period of the kings in their Temple worship.. Yet, much of Israel was unfaithful to the Lord and went, over and over again into a downward spiral throughout the Old Testament history.. The blessing of the Benediction week after week, of God’s favor, grace and spiritual strength with his people, was largely not effectively communicated.
While we have better hope for the New Covenant era with Christ at God’s right-hand pouring out a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit upon us, yet How is it that so often so many persons called by Christ’s name can sit under the Benediction of Christ for so long, for so many years and not find the blessings of it taking effect in themselves? This is a pastoral problem of the highest degree that we should be keenly sensitive to, ready to instruct and exhort Christ’s sheep regarding, for their eminent spiritual welfare.. The Apostle Paul is the minister’s faithful example in so pleading with God’s people: “We… beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain!” (2 Cor. 6:1)
While the Lutherans emphasized the total and complete effectiveness of the outwardly proclaimed Word, yet the Reformed, with both a more Biblical and realistic viewpoint, qualified this so as to describe the outwardly proclaimed Word as sometimes not taking the effect it called persons to (see Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, on media gratiae, vocatio and inefficax vocatio).
Rather, the ordinances of the Word, including the Benediction, are means of grace: they are not always effective, nor are they always not-effective.. They are means, the instrument by which creatures may, by their use of them in faith, lay hold on the sovereignly dispensed grace of God flowing therein..† However, even where creatures seek within the means, the promise of the Benediction will not take effect apart from the sovereignty of God willing it so.
† Dr. McGraw agrees and has helpful words to this effect in his article.
The Benedicton is a Special Prayer, Specially Effective
Prayers are often effective for their design, God co-willing to confer his blessing through them.. This is especially true of a Covenant-prayer, or benediction, which has been inspired and given by God the Son,† reflecting his Will, to his Church ministry as his (fallible) vice-regency speaking in the name,ª place and authority of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20; Mt. 16:19; 18:18),‡ it being ordained as a regular ordinance of God’s worshipping Covenant-people.
† As the Second Person had a special prominence in God’s redemptive governance and shepherding of his people in the Old Testament (Ps. 23:1; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Eze. 34:23; 37:24; Zech. 11:16; 13:7; Jn. 10:11).. The giving of the inspired Benediction to the Aaronic priesthood (representative of Christ’s priestly office) came at the same time as God had separated the Levites out from the rest of the people for Himself (Num. 4), a specifically redemptive event, for the ministry of redemption.
ª The 1647, Westminster Directory of Church Government (which came two years after Westminster’s Form of Presbyterial Church Government and is more polished) on p. 8 adds that the Benediction involves “blessing the People in the Name of God”, per Dt. 21:5, “And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near… to bless in the name of the Lord…“
‡ See William Binnie elaborate in The Church, pp. 92-3.
These additional aspects make the Benediction to have a special character and efficacy beyond normal prayers or general benedictions.. This is how we believe Calvin’s words on the Aaronic Benediction (quoted by Rev. Silversides) are harmonious with the view presented here:
“The word to ‘bless’ is often used for to pray for blessings, which is the common duty of all pious persons; but this rite (as we shall see a little farther on) was an efficacious testimony of God’s grace; as if the priests bore from His own mouth the commandment to bless.” (Commentary on Num. 6)
It is not a distinctive linguistic grammar that evidences a special efficacy for the Benediction,ª but rather it is the Lord’s revealed Covenant-ordinance that does this, especially insofar as, in his gracious, sovereign pleasure, He has tied and promised his effectual grace to be communicated, at his pleasure, to all those inwardly and inseparably in the Covenant of Grace.
ª Though what Rev. Silversides says is true, that the optative mood may signify an effective communication of what is spoken, such as in Christ cursing the fig-tree (Mk 11:14,20).. With respect to benedictions in the optative mood in Scripture, this should be an encouragement to us and it is the case that prayers often do convey (by the sovereign pleasure of God) the thing we desire and request of Him.
The special effectiveness of the Benediction is pronounced in Ps. 133:3, which gives the Benediction the force of a command: “…as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion, for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.”
The Benediction is a means that God uses to bless his people.. Thus, directly after giving the Aaronic Benediction, God says that through this means, the ministers “shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” God puts his Name upon his people and seals this with his blessings in the benediction.
The strength of this blessing is seen in that even unbelievers outwardly in the Covenant of Grace partake of many non-saving, Covenant-benefits in this life (some known to them, and many not) due to the Benediction being pronounced upon them.. Thus, when Balaam would have cursed Israel, God disallowed him and contradicted him:
“And God said unto Balaam, ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed.'” (Num. 22:12)
For persons sitting in churches today, and especially for youth growing-up in the Household of God with no saving-faith, yet God has placed his name upon them through the Benediction pronounced over them by his ministers.. Here was a constant support to God’s visible, Covenant people through the Old Testament, that though they were unfaithful, God’s blessing prayed by his ministers brought much common, Covenant-grace to them, though the Benediction did not attain its full spiritual effect, it not being mixed with faith in the people (Heb. 4:2).
While Rev. Silversides implicitly, if not explicitly, expects listeners to have faith, by the warrant of God’s Word, that the Benediction is an effective, discriminatory pronouncement, we would seek to articulate more clearly that trusting in what is promised in the Benediction is much of the means to those blessings taking effective root in us.. This, we believe, ought to be a key-note.. The Westminster Larger Catechism, #155, states (near the end) that faith in the Word (such as the Benediction) is the means of saints being built up in grace and being established in holiness and comfort unto salvation:
“The Spirit of God maketh the reading… of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
God’s Revealed Will Prayed for Unbelievers in the Church
If the Benediction is only a pronouncement¹ for God’s true (elect) people, then it can have no meaningful signification for persons who have not been elected by God unto eternal salvation.
¹ Rev. Silversides seems to allow that the Benediction expresses, in some respect, by the optative form in 1 Pet. 1:2 & 2 Pet. 1:2, a wish or desire.. Though it would seem by the larger context of the sermon that that is still only for God’s true people who will eventually be saved by the Covenant of Grace.
On the other hand, if the Benediction is a prayer expressing through revealed language and an ordained, human instrument a wish or desire, then it reflects something of the nature and revealed will of God for all that it is spoken to.. The Benediction, as a public ordinance for God’s visibly-Covenanted people, is not simply for the elect, but for the whole visible-Church which is called by his name (as professing Christians are called so after ‘Christ’, Acts 11:26). Hence, above we have noted a few (of many) Scriptural blessings that the outward-Covenant people of God partake of, which the Benediction confers and seals upon them.
As prayer is to be founded upon God’s Will (compare 1 Timothy, ch. 2, v. 4 with v. 1) and is presumption without it, and as it is Christ’s will for his visible-Church to be reconciled to Him in salvation (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2), so the Aaronic Benediction reflects, not simply God’s decree to effectuate salvation to the proper recipients of it (the Lord’s true people), but it also reflects an aspect of God’s gracious nature and general benevolence, He willing the good of his creatures, as He ‘will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth,” (1 Tim. 2:4),² especially as He has outwardly drawn persons dearly close to Himself in his Covenant.
² It is likely that Rev. Silversides would agree with much of this, per his excellent book, The Free Offer: Biblical and Reformed Buy
This aspect of God’s revealed will, expressed to human creatures in nearly the only way that it can be, by the language of purpose and ‘desire’, is found throughout Scripture, especially in heightened intensity towards his visible-saints who are so near to Him:
There are several places in the Old Testament where God speaks to us (Heb. 3:7,8-11 with Ps. 95:7-11), his Covenant-people, in the optative voice in Hebrew that we would walk in his ways (Deut. 5:29; 32:29; Ps. 81:13-16; Isa. 48:18; 55:1-2). The optative, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), expresses ‘a wish or desire’. Thus, God reveals His will as a wish: “O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them!” (Dt. 5:29)
Likewise, in various grammatical forms, God expresses his revealed will and purpose that his Covenant-people should come to Him through his freely offered gospel in order to be saved, through numerous purpose clauses in the Holy Spirit’s own words in Scripture:
Dt. 30:14 “But the word is very near unto you, in your mouth, and in your heart, **that** you may do it. See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil.”
2 Chron. 24:19 “Yet He sent prophets to them, **to bring them** again unto the Lord; and they testified against them: but they would not give ear.”
Neh. 9:28-9 “Many times didst Thou deliver them according to thy mercies; and testifiedst against them, **that thou mightest bring them again unto thy law**: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments…”
Isa. 5:1-4 “My Well-Beloved has a vineyard… and He looked **that it should bring forth grapes,** and it brought forth wild grapes.”
Hosea 7:1 “When **I would have healed Israel,** then the iniquity of Ephraim was discovered, and the wickedness of Samaria”
Matt 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… **how often would I have gathered thy children together**… and ye would not!”
John 5:34,40 “But I receive not testimony from man; but **these things I say, that ye might be saved**… And ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.”
Acts 3:26 “Unto you first [the Jewish nation] God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.”
Rom. 2:4 “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing **that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance**?”
Neither God’s Revealed Will, nor the Benediction in the jussive mood expressing purpose, can be divested of its teleological purpose for the persons it is spoken to.
The larger theological context of Scripture being established, it is clear that the Aaronic Benediction is not only a pronouncement for those God has elected to salvation, but it is the desire and prayer of Christ’s ministers expressing God’s revealed will and purpose, grounded upon his benevolent nature, that his Covenant-people may receive his saving light, grace and peace, though this outward calling of God (which is an aspect of his will) may remain ineffectual (per the Reformed orthodox of the 1500’s & 1600’s, as summarized by Dr. Richard Muller).
Is this additional aspect of the prayerful Benediction to the unsaved in the congregation important? It is Christ’s Will calling you every single week to savingly look with heart-felt trust upon Him who turns his Face so often and so kindly towards you in his abundant light and melting mercies.. And if you be so weak and dull as not to hear Christ’s voice speaking to you in his Word (Jn. 10:27; Eph. 2:13,16-17) in the Benediction, then hear the voice of his minister who is calling upon Christ to save you!
“May the Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
May the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace!”
By the bowels of Jesus weeping (Lk. 19:41), O’ look “in this your day [to] the things which belong unto your peace!” (Lk. 19:42) O’ that there would be more prayer in the pronouncement of the Benediction!
Conclusion of the Biblical Argument
Not only is the Benediction a prayer, but it is fundamentally a prayer, more so than it is a reading, or pronouncement, of the Word. One can have a general benediction in common life by prayer without it being the inspired Word of God. It is still a benediction. However, if one pronounces the Word of God, but the text is not a prayer, then it is not a benediction. Though Melchizedek’s benediction upon Abraham is in Scripture (and therefore canonical) and came from his office as a priest of the Most High God, yet there is no evidence that this benediction was immediately by the direct inspiration of the Spirit or a quotation of Scripture which they then had. Yet it was still a benediction, and an ecclesiastical benediction at that.
What was Melchizedek’s warrant to give such a benediction? It was not from Scripture. Rather, as the Westminster Confession teaches (21.1), “The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be… called upon…” That the light of nature teaches us to call upon God in prayer is proved by, not only nature itself, but also Gen. 4:26; Ps. 18:3 & Rom. 10:12 (the latter two verses being proof-texts of the Confession). As Melchizedek was a priest of God (this office being appointed by God Himself in his directions to the family of Adam, Gen. 3:21; 4:3-5), it was natural for him to call upon God, praying God’s blessing upon Abraham with the authority of his office.ª
ª Owen agrees that Melchizedek’s benediction was both a prayer and from his authoritative office (Ibid., p. 426).
When God came to further call out a people unto Himself in a more orderly, close and specific way, He took an aspect of worship which was in some ways natural and further regulated it and limited it by his Word. Prescribing and giving the very words‡ of his special Benediction to the family of Aaron has since, in principle, limited the ecclesiastical benediction, as an ordinance for the regular, public worship of the Church, to the inspired benedictions given by God in his Word, whether that be that of Aaron or those of the apostles.
‡ The Hebrew of Num. 6:23 is literally, ‘Thus shall ye bless the children of Israel, saying unto them.’ This is more specific than the phrase, ‘after this manner, therefore pray ye’ (Mt. 6:9) regarding the Lord’s Prayer, the outline of which may be used as a guide for prayer. That the sons of Aaron were to use those exact words is clear from the careful, poetic structure of the benediction and its theological significance.
Thus, the Benediction is not simply a general blessing that proceeds from any prayer to God or for us, or any reading of the Word, but it is rather God’s own special, covenantal blessing prayed for us and placed upon us: “In all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.” (Ex. 20:24)
The Benediction in Christian worship is a means of grace, it being the Christ-appointed prayer of Christ’s ordained minister and representative, expressing the will of Christ, to bless all of his visibly-Covenanted people, this taking effect, or not, in various ways and degrees in the people according to God’s willing-sovereignty, especially as persons trust in and improve this promise for themselves.
All other prayers in the divine, public worship of the Church are those of the people via their mouth-piece, the minister, to God the Father, through Christ by the Spirit.. The Benediction, though, is special and stands alone as Christ’s prayer, pronounced and prayed by his ministerial representative for the good of his people.. This earthly-executed prayer of the 2nd Person of the Trinity, interceding bodily for us in Heaven, must be special and have an efficacy, out of the Father’s respect for his Son, more than any other of the common prayers which we pray.. For this Prayer is an appointed ordinance of Christ, not simply as prayer is ordained generally among creatures, but as the very words of this Prayer in particular are appointed and inspired, being a revelation of Christ’s own Will.
We hope that between Rev. Silverside’s qualifications and our own, our views are closer than they are divergent (especially as the constraints of a sermon limit all that one might say), and that more light has been unearthed on the topic.
Westminster on the Benediction as Prayer
As both the Westminster Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government refer to the Benediction as a ‘blessing’, it has caused some wonderment as to why the Benediction is not listed in Westminster Confession of Faith 21.4-5, which lists out the elements of worship.. This has led many in our day to conclude that the list in WCF 21.4-5 is not exhaustive, and hence persons can add to that list as they see fit, with whatever Biblical pretexts they determine upon.
However, it would be awfully strange for the Westminster Assembly, so knowledgeable and careful in the Scriptures, to leave such an important matter undetermined and the door open to all kinds of innovations (which the assembly was seeking to curtail on every side).. As will be seen, as the Westminster Standards conceive of the Benediction as a prayer, hence all of the elements of worship the Assembly intended to put in the list, are in the list,¹ and therefore the list in WCF 21:4-5 is exhaustive, excluding all innovations in worship (being pre-texted with Bible verses or not).
¹ A call to worship, mentioned in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, is also not in this list, which has further encouraged persons to add to the Confessional list of elements of worship at their own discretion.. However, the Directory’s language is consistent with the Biblical and traditional practice of the Scots (who held a significant sway at the assembly) who considered the Call to Worship not to be a distinct element of worship, but a human exhortation to the congregation to worship God.. The traditional Scottish formula used was: ‘Let us worship God.’ A Biblical defense of the Confessional and Scottish teaching and practice will be argued in detail on this website in the days ahead.
Rev. Silversides, rightly understanding the exhaustive nature of the list of elements of worship in WCF 21.4-5, said with regard to the Benediction, “to boil it down, it must either be Ministry of the Word or Prayer.” (28:50) Rev. Silversides’ answer to this question is that the Benediction is to be classed under the Ministry of the Word.
There is some truth to this, in that the Benediction *is* a reading of the Word, which God has given to be a special prayer of the minister, praying in the prescribed will of God, for the Covenant-people of God.. Hence, the Biblical prescription in Westminster Larger Catechism #156 and in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship (in ‘Of Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures’) that only those who are pastors or teachers, or who intend the ministry may read the Word (if the latter are allowed thereto by the presbytery), applies also to the Benediction.. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government further limits the Benediction to the office of the minister (without mention of those in training for the ministry.²
² This was the Church of Scotland’s practice (which adopted the Westminster Standards), having the probationer read ‘be with us’, instead of ‘be with you’ (Steuart, p. 86), signifying that theirs was a prayed for blessing, the probationer being on par with the people, and it did not come with the authority of the ministerial office.
The reading and preaching of the Word, while requiring the talents of interpreting Scripture and being under the oversight of governing authority, would not so much seem to necessitate a specific bond between the preacher and the congregation, but the conferral of the Covenant-blessing, as the mouth-piece of Christ with his authority (Dt. 21:5; 2 Cor. 5:20), to the specific sheep of that flock in the Covenant, would seem to require this.
William Binnie, of the Free Church of Scotland, quoted Heb. 7:7, (“without controversy the less is blessed of the better”) and said that the Benediction “cannot with propriety be pronounced except by one who is a superior in age or station.” (The Church, p. 91)
Roland Ward infers from the Scottish practice that ‘the Benediction is not a prayer’ (Scripture and Worship, 2007, p. 125).. However, Steuart and Binnie, who practiced the Scottish custom, said that the Benediction was a prayer.. The Scottish practice only means that the Benediction was a special ministerial prayer that probationers could not perform.
However, that the Benediction is a reading of the Word does not change, as is documented below, that the Westminster Standards fundamentally and clearly, according to the Biblical usage, conceived of the Benediction as a prayer.. The Westminster Standards do not use the term ‘benediction’, but always refer to it as a ‘blessing’.†
They use the term ‘blessing’ synonymously with ‘prayer’ in numerous places (within short-compass of speaking of the blessing of the Benediction).. If ‘prayer’ and ‘blessing’ are interchangeable, then the minister giving the ‘blessing’ is virtually equivalent in meaning to the Benediction being the minister praying a blessing on the people.
This is why the list of the elements of worship in WCF, 21.4-5 does not enumerate the benediction as an element of worship, because it was understood by the documents of the Assembly to be a prayer (with special regulations, as described by the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government under ‘Pastors’).
The evidence follows:
1. The Benediction is Never Called a ‘Benediction’, but is Always called a ‘Blessing’
2. ‘Prayer’ is used Synonymously with ‘Blessing’
3. Prayer Normally Confers a Blessing
1. The Benediction is Never Called a ‘Benediction’, but is Always called a ‘Blessing’
…it belongs to his office:
To bless the people from God Num. 6:23-26 compared with Rev. 1:4-5 (where the same blessings, and persons from whom they come, are expressly mentioned [q]); Isa. 66:21, where, under the names of Priests and Levites to be continued under the gospel, are meant evangelical pastors, who therefore are by office to bless the people.[r]
Of the Ordinances in a particular Congregation
The ordinances in a single congregation are, prayer, thanksgiving, and singing of psalms, the word read, (although there follow no immediate explication of what is read), the word expounded and applied, catechising, the sacraments administered, collection made for the poor, dismissing the people with a blessing.
The Rules for Examination [of candidates for the ministry] are These:
…And so by prayer commending both him and his flock to the grace of God, after singing of a psalm, let the assembly be dismissed with a blessing.
Of Prayer After Sermon
The prayer ended, let a psalm be sung, if with conveniency it may be done. After which (unless some other ordinance of Christ, that concerneth the congregation at that time, be to follow) let the minister dismiss the congregation with a solemn blessing.
Concerning the Observation of Days of Public Thanksgiving
And so, having sung another psalm, suitable to the mercy, let him dismiss the congregation with a blessing, that they may have some convenient time for their repast and refreshing.
Of the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day
That all the people meet so timely for public worship, that the whole congregation may be present at the beginning… and not depart till after the blessing.
Westminster Directory of Church Government 1647
Ordinances in a particular congregation are Prayer, Thanksgiving, singing of Psalms, Reading of the Word, Preaching and Catechizing, Administering the Sacraments, Blessing the People in the Name of God [Dt. 21:5], and a Collection for the Poor.
2. ‘Prayer’ is used Synonymously with ‘Blessing’
The Rules for Examination [of candidates for the ministry] are These:
8. …the presbytery, or the ministers sent from them for ordination, shall solemnly set him apart to the office and work of the ministry, by laying their hands on him, which is to be accompanied with a short prayer or blessing, to this effect:
9. This or the like form of prayer and blessing being ended, let the minister who preached briefly exhort him to consider of the greatness of his office and work… And so by prayer commending both him and his flock to the grace of God, after singing of a psalm, let the assembly be dismissed with a blessing.
Q. 129. What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?
A. It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors…
Of the Celebration of the Communion
Let the prayer, thanksgiving, or blessing of the bread and wine, be to this effect:…
3. Prayer Normally Confers a Blessing
…First, it belongs to his office,
To pray for and with his flock… The office of the elder (that is, the pastor) is to pray for the sick, even in private, to which a blessing is especially promised… [i]
[i] 1 Cor. 14:15-16, “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?”
The Rules for Examination [of candidates for the ministry] are These:
5. Upon the day appointed for ordination… a solemn fast shall be kept by the congregation, that they may the more earnestly join in prayer for a blessing upon the ordinances of Christ…
Of the Assembling of the Congregation
The congregation being assembled, the minister… is to begin with prayer. In all reverence… humbly beseeching Him for pardon, assistance, and acceptance, in the whole service then to be performed; and for a blessing on that particular portion of his word then to be read…
Of Public Prayer before the Sermon
To pray for all in authority, especially for the King’s Majesty; that God would make him rich in blessings… that God would pour out a blessing upon the ministry of the word, sacraments, and discipline…
“Of Prayer After Sermon
…as at this time it is our duty to pray for a blessing upon the Assembly of Divines, the armies by sea and land…
Of the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day
That there be private preparations of every person and family, by prayer for themselves, and for God’s assistance of the minister, and for a blessing upon his ministry…
That what time is vacant, between or after the solemn meetings of the congregation in public, be spent in… holy conferences, prayer for a blessing upon the public ordinances…
The Solemnization of Marriage
…because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of… the blessing of God upon them therein, we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnized by a lawful minister of the word, that he may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them.
And because all relations are sanctified by the word and prayer, the minister is to pray for a blessing upon them, to this effect:…
…and so conclude the action with prayer to this effect:
“That the Lord would be pleased to accompany his own ordinance with his blessing…
Concerning the Observation of Days of Public Thanksgiving
The day being come, and the congregation… being assembled, the minister is to begin… with a short prayer for God’s assistance and blessing…
Due Right of Presbyteries, Part 2, p. 322
“Fifthly, says the Author [Thomas Hooker, a congregationalist], ‘The elders have power to dismiss the people or Church, and that with a blessing, Num. 6:23-26, which is an act of superiority, Heb. 7:7.
[Rutherford’s] Answer: This [his use of ‘elders’] is but an empty title also. For:
1. The pastor, only and one, dismisses doctor, elders, deacons and the whole congregation…
2. A majority or superiority [by the pastor, in some sense] is one thing, and a power of jurisdiction is another. Blessing of the Church at their dismission is nothing but a prayer of the whole Church (the minister being [the] mouth) who blesses all, and is no act of superiority of jurisdiction… And I much doubt if the priest’s blessing of the people, Num. 6, was moral, and if it was not typical, he not taking in himself but as a type of Christ [in] pronouncing the whole visible Church blessed, so typifying Christ our Priest, in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed, Gal. 3:8,14…”