“Let the light of your face shine upon us, Lord” Psalm 4
Like all of us, Moses’s brother Aaron stumbled through a life that was less than perfect. Because he conceded to the Israelite mob that demanded an idol to worship, Aaron was almost single-handedly responsible for the his brother’s wrathful smashing of the God-inscribed stone tablets, not to mention the display of God’s wrath on his own chosen people. No one ever mentions Aaron in a roll call of the saints.
Yet, Aaron’s words ring throughout millions of church fellowships around the world every week. The Lord told Moses (see Numbers 6) to have Aaron bless the Israelites with words that you can still hear almost any place two or three are gathered to worship God: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. . .”
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times. King David likely did too.
And maybe that’s why the line itself has lost its visual character; simply said, I’ve heard it so often. Just for a moment, it’s helpful, I think, to create the picture this famous benediction offers. Penitents, millions of them through the ages, are on their knees (it’s almost impossible not to see them in some kind of supine position physically) and in some kind of darkness, waiting for a brightening glance of Godliness, just a glance.
Now delete millions of those people from that image and picture just one penitent. Put yourself there, on your knees, eyes slightly arched but staring downward in helplessness, a nervous shakiness in hands and arms and legs in anticipation of a passing glance, and repeat: “Let the light of your face shine upon me, Lord.”
I dare say that the only people who can effortlessly create that image of themselves are those who, for whatever horrifying reason, have spent time themselves in that position. Those who, like me, have never suffered significant bouts of abandonment or grief or despair have trouble creating an image of so great a helplessness. After all, I might say, I’ve got fairly substantial bootstraps to prove my internal strength. What I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.
It seems so medieval almost, doesn’t it?—the image behind the blessing; so, well, Islamic: hoards of people, face to the floor, hoping for a fleeting glance from the King of Creation. Good capitalists create their own fates, after all; we seal our own successes with the sheer tonnage of our personal industry. We make our fate.
But the line we repeat so often—and hear repeated as a blessing to us—offers a wholly different portrait. There isn’t a dime’s worth of self-sufficiency in David’s abject request here: “Just a glance, Lord.”
Embedded in the old line is something of the sun, of course—God Almighty as iridescent force whose rays bless abundantly. And what David wants, as has each and every one of us who’ve been in that prostrate position, is but a glance of divine favor, a glimpse of light in the darkness. We’re not even asking to meet God’s eyes; the line begs for something to take away those heavy shadows, just a glance.
It’s so medieval, so lords and serfs and country manors. It’s so impotent, so paralyzed, so defenseless. It’s so blasted un-American.
And yet I know—I really do—that such helplessness is what He wants.