Blessing or Thanks?

by Lois Tverberg

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits!” Psalm 103:1-2

From Jesus’ day until the present, the Jewish people have had a tradition of saying numerous short prayers throughout the day called “blessings.” The idea is not to bless objects and people, in the sense of conferring holiness on them, but to bless God, with the understanding that we are focusing on him as the source of all blessing. The word for bless, “barak” also means to kneel, suggesting that when we bless God, we mentally bow on our knees to worship him. Even Jesus prayed these prayers of blessing, following the customs of his day.

In the most ordinary things they found ways of praising God. When the first flowers were seen on the trees in the spring, they said, “Blessed is he who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy!” When they heard thunder they also blessed God by saying, “Blessed is he whose strength and power fill the world!” This pervasive act of prayer kept God’s presence and love continually on their minds.

A blessing is very close to a prayer of thanks, but it actually is not, and in some ways it is better. For instance, when we see a rainbow, we can praise and bless the Lord for his creativity, and the beauty he designs into creation. But to thank him for it implies that God gave it to us as a gift, or that our approval is required. Thankfulness requires God to have personally done something for us, but blessing is simply a prayer that glorifies him and reminds us of his supremacy in all things.

In my own experience, I have found that the practice of these prayers of blessing changes a person’s entire inner attitude. Continually praising God for his good gifts reminds us that the world is saturated with God’s presence and that we are under his constant care.

Barak – Bless

by Lois Tverberg

When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.  – Deuteronomy 8:10

Paul tells us that we should “always be giving thanks for all things” (Ephesians 5:4). This sounds impossible to us, but prayers of thankfulness at all times of day were part of Paul’s Jewish context. Each one of them is called a blessing (berakah), and they are brief prayers that acknowledge God as the source of every good thing.

From before Jesus’ time until today, Jews have “blessed the Lord” for every good thing. In Psalm 103 it says, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name.”

This seems strange to us, because it seems that God should do the blessing. However, the word bless, barak, in Hebrew, tells us something about the idea behind this custom. The word is related to the word “knee” (berek) and the verb can also mean to kneel, as even a camel does (Genesis 24:11)! The idea is that when we bless God, we mentally bow on our knees to worship him, and we are acknowledging him as the source of all blessing. As with many words, the meaning of it has expanded so that the same word, barak, bless, is used when we thank God in prayer and when he gives us good things.

Before the time of Christ, the Jews developed a number of short blessings to be said whenever the occasion arises, in addition to saying longer prayers in the morning and evening. In the Gospels it says Jesus “took the bread and blessed.” (The NIV says “gave thanks” but more literal translations use the word “blessed.”) We know what words he said – most likely, “Blessed is He who brings forth bread from the earth.”

We read that when Jesus did miracles, the people “glorified God” – probably exclaiming, “Blessed is He who has performed a miracle in this place!” It was customary to pray the blessing before leaving the site where a miracle occurred, or to return to the place to say it. So when Jesus heals ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan, comes back and loudly blesses God, Jesus wonders why the other nine haven’t returned to do the same thing (Luke 17:12 -19).

(If you would like to read more about prayers that Jesus prayed, and how other Jews pray even today, see The Richness of Jewish Prayer.)