Happy Are the Hungry
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (5:6)
This beatitude speaks of strong desire, of driving pursuit, of a passionate force inside the soul. It has to do with ambition-ambition of the right sort-whose object is to honor, obey, and glorify God by partaking of His righteousness. This holy ambition is in great contrast to the common ambitions of men to gratify their own lusts, accomplish their own goals, and satisfy their own egos.
As no other creature, Lucifer basked in the splendor and radiance of God’s glory. The name Lucifer means “star of the morning” or, more literally, “the bright one.” But he was not satisfied with living in God’s glory, and he said in his heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:13–14). His ambition was not to reflect God’s glory but to usurp God’s sovereign power-while forsaking righteousness. Therefore when Satan declared his intention to make himself like the Most High, the Most High responded by declaring to His adversary, “You will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit” (v. 15).
As king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar ruled over the greatest of all world empires. One day as he walked on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, “the king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?”’ (Dan. 4:29–30). Nebuchadnezzar lusted after praise just as Lucifer lusted after power. God’s reaction was immediate: “While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes’ ” (vv. 31–32).
Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer whose crops were so abundant that he did not have enough space to store them. After planning to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones, he said, “ ‘I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16–21).
Lucifer hungered for power; Nebuchadnezzar hungered for praise; and the rich fool hungered for pleasure. Because they hungered for wrong things and rejected God’s good things, they forfeited both.
Jesus declares that the deepest desire of every person ought to be to hunger and thirst for righteousness. That is the Spirit-prompted desire that will lead a person to salvation and keep him strong and faithful once he is in the kingdom. It is also the only ambition that, when fulfilled, brings enduring happiness.
The American Declaration of Independence asserts that citizens have the right to the pursuit of happiness. The founding fathers did not presume to guarantee that all who pursue it would find it, because that is beyond the power of any government to provide. Each person is free to seek whatever kind of happiness he wants in the way he wants within the law. Sadly, most US citizens, like most people throughout all of history, have chosen to pursue the wrong kind of happiness in ways that provide no kind of happiness.
Jesus says that the way to happiness, the way to being truly blessed, is the way of spiritual hunger and thirst.
The Necessity for Spiritual Hunger
Hunger and thirst represent the necessities of physical life. Jesus’ analogy demonstrates that righteousness is required for spiritual life just as food and water are required for physical life. Righteousness is not an optional spiritual supplement but a spiritual necessity. We can no more live spiritually without righteousness than we can live physically without food and water.
Since the great famine in Egypt during the time of Joseph, and probably long before then, the world has been periodically plagued by famines. Rome experienced a famine in 436 b.c., which was so severe that thousands of people threw themselves into the Tiber River to drown rather than starve to death. Famine struck England in a.d. 1005, and all of Europe suffered great famines in 879, 1016, and 1162. In our own century, despite the advances in agriculture, many parts of the world still experience periodic famines. In recent years Africa has seen some of the most devastating famines in the world’s history. In the last 100 years tens of millions throughout the world have died from starvation or from the many diseases that accompany severe malnutrition.
A starving person has a single, all-consuming passion for food and water. Nothing else has the slightest attraction or appeal; nothing else can even get his attention.
Those who are without God’s righteousness are starved for spiritual life. But tragically they do not have the natural desire for spiritual life that they do for physical. The tendency of fallen mankind is to turn to itself and to the world for meaning and life, just as “ ‘a dog returns to its own vomit,’ and ‘a sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire’ ” (2 Pet. 2:22; cf. Prov. 26:11).
The heart of every person in the world was created with a sense of inner emptiness and need. Yet apart from God’s revelation men do not recognize what the need is or know what will satisfy it. Like the prodigal son, they will eat pigs’ food, because they have nothing else. “Why,” God asks, “do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isa. 55:2). The reason is that men have forsaken God, “the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Though God has created men with a need for Himself, they try to satisfy that need through lifeless gods of their own making.
Again like the prodigal son, men are prone to take good things God has given-such as possessions, health, freedom, opportunities, and knowledge-and spend them on pleasure, power, popularity, fame, and every other form of self-satisfaction. But unlike the prodigal, they are often content to stay in the far country, away from God and away from His blessings.
People are warned not to “love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15–17).
Seeking satisfaction only in God and in His provision is a mark of those who come into His kingdom. Those who belong to the King hunger and thirst for the King’s righteousness. They desire sin to be replaced with virtue and disobedience to be replaced by obedience. They are eager to serve the Word and will of God.
Jesus’ call to spiritual hunger and thirst also follows logically in the progression of the Beatitudes. The first three are essentially negative, commands to forsake evil things that are barriers to the kingdom. In poverty of spirit we turn away from self-seeking; in mourning we turn away from self-satisfaction; and in meekness we turn away from self-serving.
The first three beatitudes are also costly and painful. Becoming poor in spirit involves death to self. Mourning over sin involves facing up to our sinfulness. Becoming meek involves surrendering our power to God’s control.
The fourth beatitude is more positive and is a consequence of the other three. When we put aside self, sins, and power and turn to the Lord, we are given a great desire for righteousness. The more we put aside what we have, the more we long for what God has.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “This Beatitude again follows logically from the previous ones; it is a statement to which all the others lead. It is the logical conclusion to which they come, and it is something for which we should all be profoundly thankful and grateful to God. I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture, you can be quite certain you are a Christian. If it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 1:73–74).
The person who has no hunger and thirst for righteousness has no part in God’s kingdom. To have God’s life within us through the new birth in Jesus Christ is to desire more of His likeness within us by growing in righteousness. This is readily clear from David’s confession in Psalm 119:97, “O how I love Thy law.” Paul echoes David’s passion for righteousness in Romans 7:22, where he testifies, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” The true believer desires to obey, even though he struggles with unredeemed flesh (cf. Rom. 8:23).
The Meaning of Spiritual Hunger
Most of us have never faced life-threatening hunger and thirst. We think of hunger as missing a meal or two in a row, and of thirst as having to wait an hour on a hot day to get a cold drink. But the hunger and thirst of which Jesus speaks here is of a much more intense sort.
During the liberation of Palestine in World War I, a combined force of British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers was closely pursuing the Turks as they retreated from the desert. As the allied troops moved northward past Beersheba they began to outdistance their water-carrying camel train. When the water ran out, their mouths got dry, their heads ached, and they became dizzy and faint. Eyes became bloodshot, lips swelled and turned purple, and mirages became common. They knew that if they did not make the wells of Sheriah by nightfall, thousands of them would die-as hundreds already had done. Literally fighting for their lives, they managed to drive the Turks from Sheriah.
As water was distributed from the great stone cisterns, the more able-bodied were required to stand at attention and wait for the wounded and those who would take guard duty to drink first It was four hours before the last man had his drink. During that time the men stood no more than twenty feet from thousands of gallons of water, to drink of which had been their consuming passion for many agonizing days. It is said that one of the officers who was present reported, “I believe that we all learned our first real Bible lesson on the march from Beersheba to Sheriah Wells. If such were our thirst for God, for righteousness and for His will in our lives, a consuming, all-embracing, preoccupying desire, how rich in the fruit of the Spirit would we be?” (E.M. Blaiklock, “Water,” Eternity (August 1966), p. 27).
That is the kind of hunger and thirst of which Jesus speaks in this beatitude. The strongest and deepest impulses in the natural realm are used to represent the depth of desire the called of God and redeemed have for righteousness. The present participle is used in each case and signifies continuous longing, continuous seeking. Those who truly come to Jesus Christ come hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those who are in Him continue to know that deep longing for holiness.
The parallel passage in Luke says, “Blessed are you who hunger now” (6:21). Desire for righteousness is to characterize our life now and in the rest of our earthly existence.
When Moses was in the wilderness, God appeared to him in a burning bush. When he went back to Egypt to deliver his people, he saw God’s might and power in the miracles and the ten plagues. He saw God part the Dead Sea and swallow up their Egyptian pursuers. He saw God’s glory in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire which led Israel in the wilderness. He built a Tabernacle for God and saw the Lord’s glory shining over the Holy of Holies. Over and over Moses had sought and had seen God’s glory. “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). But Moses was never satisfied and always wanted to see more. He continued to plead, “I pray Thee, show Thy glory” (v. 18).
Moses never had enough of the Lord. Yet from that dissatisfaction came satisfaction. Because of his continual longing for God, Moses found favor in His sight (v. 17), and God promised him, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you” (v. 19).
David declared, “O God, Thou art my God,” but continued, “I shall seek Thee earnestly; my soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1).
Paul had great visions of God and great revelations from God, yet he was not satisfied. He had given up his own righteousness “derived from the law” and was growing in “the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” But still he longed to “know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:9–10). Peter expressed his own great desire and hunger when he counseled those to whom he wrote to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
John Darby wrote, “To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in God’s heart toward me. When the prodigal son was hungry, he went to feed on the husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father.” That is the hunger of which the fourth beatitude speaks, the hunger for righteousness that only the Father can satisfy.
Several years ago someone told me of a friend who had begun coming to a Bible study but soon gave it up, explaining that she wanted to be religious but did not want to make the commitment that Scripture demands. She had little hunger for the things of God. She wanted to pick and choose, to nibble at whatever suited her fancy-because basically she was satisfied with the way she was. In her own eyes she had enough, and thereby became one of the self-adjudged rich whom the Lord sends away empty-handed. It is only the hungry that He fills with good things (Luke 1:53).
The Object of Spiritual Hunger
As with the other beatitudes, the goal of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is twofold. For the unbeliever the goal is salvation; for the believer it is sanctification.
When a person initially hungers and thirsts for righteousness he seeks salvation, the righteousness that comes when one turns from sin to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In poverty of spirit he sees his sin; in mourning he laments and turns from his sin; in meekness he submits his own sinful way and power to God; and in hunger and thirst he seeks God’s righteousness in Christ to replace his sin.
In many Old Testament passages righteousness is used as a synonym for salvation. “My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth,” the Lord said through Isaiah (51:5). Daniel wrote of the time when “those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).
When a person abandons all hope of saving himself, all confidence in self-righteousness, and begins to hunger for the salvation that brings God’s righteousness and the obedience that God requires, he will be blessed, be made divinely happy.
The Jews’ greatest obstacle to receiving the gospel was their self-righteousness, their confidence in their own purity and holiness, which they imagined was created by good works. Because they were God’s chosen race, and as keepers of the law-or, more often, keepers of men’s interpretations of the law-they felt heaven was assured.
The Messiah told them, however, that the only way to salvation was by hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness to replace their own self-righteousness, which was really unrighteousness.
For believers, the object of hungering and thirsting is to grow in the righteousness received from trusting in Christ. That growth is sanctification, which more than anything else is the mark of a Christian.
No believer “arrives” in his spiritual life until he reaches heaven, and to claim perfection of any sort before then is the ultimate presumption. Children of the kingdom never stop needing or hungering for more of God’s righteousness and holiness to be manifest in them through their obedience. Paul prayed for believers in Philippi that their love might “abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9–10).
In the Greek language, verbs such as hunger and thirst normally have objects that are in the partitive genitive, a case that indicates incompleteness, or partialness. A literal English rendering would be: “I hunger for of food” or “I thirst for of water.” The idea is that a person only hungers for some food and some water, not for all the food and water in the world.
But Jesus does not here use the partitive genitive but the accusative, and righteousness is therefore the unqualified and unlimited object of hunger and thirst. The Lord identifies those who desire all the righteousness there is (cf. Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15–16).
Jesus also uses the definite article (tēn), indicating that He is not speaking of just any righteousness, but the righteousness, the only true righteousness-that which comes from God and, in fact, is God’s very own righteousness which He has in Himself.
It becomes obvious, then, that we cannot possibly have our longing for godliness satisfied in this life, so we are left to continually hunger and thirst until the day we are clothed entirely in Christ’s righteousness.
The Result of Spiritual Hunger
The result of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is being satisfied. Chortazō was frequently used of the feeding of animals until they wanted nothing more. They were allowed to eat until they were completely satisfied.
Jesus’ divine pronouncement is that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be given total satisfaction. The giving of satisfaction is God’s work, as the future passive tense indicates: they shall be satisfied. Our part is to seek; His part is to satisfy.
Again there is a marvelous paradox, because though saints continually seek God’s righteousness, always wanting more and never getting all, they nevertheless will be satisfied. We may eat steak or our favorite pie until we can eat no more, yet our taste for those things continues and even increases. It is the very satisfaction that makes us want more. We want to eat more of those things because they are so satisfying. The person who genuinely hungers and thirsts for God’s righteousness finds it so satisfying that he wants more and more.
God’s satisfying those who seek and love Him is a repeated theme in the Psalms. “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good” (Ps. 107:9). “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing” (34:10). The best-loved of all psalms begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” and later declares, “Thou dost prepare a table before me … my cup overflows” (23:1, 5).
Predicting the great blessings of Christ’s millennial kingdom, Jeremiah assured Israel that in that day, “ ‘My people shall be satisfied with My goodness,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:14). Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). To the crowds near Capernaum, many of whom had been among the five thousand He fed with the five barley loaves and the two fish, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
The Testing Of Spiritual Hunger
There are several marks of genuine hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. First is dissatisfaction with self. The person who is pleased with his own righteousness will see no need for God’s. The great Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “He has most need of righteousness that least wants it,” No matter how rich his spiritual experience or how advanced his spiritual maturity, the hungering Christian will always say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).
Second is freedom from dependence on external things for satisfaction. A hungry man cannot be satisfied by an arrangement of lovely flowers, or beautiful music, or pleasant conversation. All of those things are good, but they have no ability to satisfy hunger. Neither can anything but God’s own righteousness satisfy the person who has true spiritual hunger and thirst.
Third is craving for the Word of God, the basic spiritual food lie provides His children. A hungry man does not have to be begged to eat. Jeremiah rejoiced, “Thy words were found and I ate them, and Thy words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16). The more we seek God’s righteousness, the more we will want to devour Scripture. Feeding on God’s Word increases our appetite for it.
Fourth is the pleasantness of the things of God. “To a famished man any bitter thing is sweet” (Prov. 27:7). The believer who seeks God’s righteousness above all other things will find fulfillment and satisfaction even in those things that humanly are disastrous. Thomas Watson comments that “the one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness can feed on the myrrh of the gospel as well as the honey.” Even the Lord’s reproofs and discipline bring satisfaction, because they are signs of our Father’s love. “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6).
A final mark of true spiritual hunger is unconditionality. When our spiritual hunger and thirst are genuine they will make no conditions; they will seek and accept God’s righteousness in whatever way He chooses to provide it and will obey His commands no matter how demanding they may be. The least of God’s righteousness is more valuable than the greatest of anything we possess in ourselves or that the world can offer. The rich young ruler wanted only the part of God’s kingdom that fit his own plans and desires, and he was therefore unfit for the kingdom. He thirsted more for other things than for the things of God. His conditions for God’s blessings barred him from them.
The spiritually hungry do not ask for Christ and economic success, Christ and personal satisfaction, Christ and popularity, or Christ and anything else. They want only Christ and what God in His wisdom and love sovereignly provides through Christ-whatever that may or may not be.
The spiritually hungry cry, “My soul is crushed with longing after Thine ordinances at all times” (Ps. 119:20), and they confess, “At night my soul longs for Thee, indeed, my spirit within me seeks Thee diligently” (Isa. 26:9).
6 “Hunger and thirst” vividly express desire. The sons of Korah cried, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:2; cf. 63:1). The deepest spiritual famine is hunger for the word of God (Am 8:11–14).
The precise nature of the righteousness for which the blessed hunger and thirst is disputed. Some argue that it is the imputed righteousness of God—eschatological salvation or, more narrowly, justification: the blessed hunger for it and receive it (e.g., Grundmann; McNeile; Zahn; Barth [“Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” 123–24]; Bultmann [Theology of the New Testament, 1:273]; Schrenk [TDNT, 2:198]). This is certainly plausible, since the immediate context does arouse hopes for God’s eschatological action, and hungering suggests that the righteousness that satisfies will be given as a gift.
The chief objection is that dikaiosynē (“righteousness,” GK 1466) in Matthew does not have that sense anywhere else (cf. Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew, 96–98). So it is better to take this righteousness as simultaneously personal righteousness (cf. Hill, Greek Words, 127–28.; Strecker, Weg der Gerechtigkeit, 156–58) and justice in the broadest sense (cf. Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 190–91; Turner). These people hunger and thirst, not only that they may be righteous (i.e., that they may wholly do God’s will from the heart), but that justice may be done everywhere. All unrighteousness grieves them and makes them homesick for the new heaven and new earth—the home of righteousness (2 Pe 3:13). Satisfied with neither personal righteousness alone nor social justice alone, they cry for both. In short, they long for the advent of the messianic kingdom. What they taste now whets their appetites for more. Ultimately they will be satisfied (same verb as in 14:20; Php 4:12; Rev 19:21) without qualification only when the kingdom is consummated (see discussion in Gundry).
5:6 Next, a blessing is pronounced on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: they are promised satisfaction. These people have a passion for righteousness in their own lives; they long to see honesty, integrity, and justice in society; they look for practical holiness in the church. Like the people of whom Gamaliel Bradford wrote, they have “a thirst no earthly stream can satisfy, a hunger that must feed on Christ or die.” These people will be abundantly satisfied in Christ’s coming kingdom: they shall be filled, for righteousness will reign and corruption will give way to the highest moral standards.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 177–185). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 164). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1216). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.