The Old Testament word translated countenance, as in the Aaronic Blessing ‘the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace’, is pānim. This is a common word in the languages of the Ancient Near East to mean face, front part. Its sense is dynamic: “turned towards”. It is interpreted ‘presence’, but the choice of the word ‘pānim’ or ‘face’ has more detail to reveal.
The word is interesting because it is a plural form denoting the face of the singular God. This implies what was later to become clear through the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one God who exists in the threefold relationality of Love. Our experience of his presence is textured in being towards the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. It seems right that the word denoting God’s presence be dynamic in the sense of ‘turning to face’, and plural in form, a plurality symbolised by the threefold natural phenomena shown to Elijah at Horeb as part of God’s self-revelation.
The New Testament unveils the full extent of the glory revealed in our word. We look upon the face of God not as under the Old Covenant, where the Presence is accompanied by wind, earthquake, and fire. In the New Covenant God comes to us personally, and as tenderly as a Bridegroom looks upon his bride. We stand transparent and receptive to the love and forgiveness that shine upon us in the Face of the Bridegroom. Thanks to Jesus we are welcomed into the presence of Almighty God as a young woman is loved by her husband, and into the assemblies of his people as a bride is welcomed into her newly-wed’s family, with tenderness and understanding and the grace of the love that covers and heals.
The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”