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 He 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).
Ever since famine drove Joseph’s brothers to Egypt in the second millennium b.c. (and probably also before that time) crop failures, and consequent hunger and starvation, have been a chronic problem of mankind. Drought, wars, and plant disease have swept through history, leaving behind a trail of misery and death. Often little could be done to stop them.
Famine came to Rome in 436 b.c., causing thousands of people to throw themselves into the Tiber River and end their lives. Famine struck England in 1005. All Europe suffered in 879, 1016, and 1162. Even in the nineteenth century, with its great advances in technology and commerce, hunger stalked many countries—Russia, China, India, Ireland—and many died. Today, in India, thousands die of malnutrition and its accompanying diseases, and hundreds more perish in the nations of Latin America and the other emerging nations. Hunger, like war and pestilence, has always been a bellicose neighbor to large sectors of the human race.
Unfortunately, the physical hunger of some men is only a pale reflection of a far more serious hunger that affects all mankind. It is a spiritual hunger, which is satisfied only by God through the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Augustine spoke of this hunger when he wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” (Confessions, I, 1). Jesus showed how this hunger could be satisfied. He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). This statement of Jesus Christ’s is the fourth beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount. It is God’s answer to man’s spiritual longing.
This beatitude follows in a very definite order upon the first three of Christ’s beatitudes, and there is a sense in which it stands at the heart of this short compendium of Christ’s teachings.
The first three verses of the Sermon on the Mount have all pointed to man’s need and have shown the type of approach that is necessary if a man is to be made spiritually happy by God. First, the man who comes to God must be “poor in spirit.” He must recognize that he is spiritually bankrupt in God’s sight and that he has no claim upon him. Second, he must “mourn.” This does not refer simply to the kind of sorrow experienced for the sick or dying. It is sorrow for sin. And it implies that the one who sorrows must come to God for comfort. Third, the man who would experience God’s salvation must also be “meek.” This refers to his taking a lowly place before God in order that he might receive God’s salvation. These beatitudes have all expressed man’s need. Now in the fourth beatitude there comes a solution: if a man will hunger and thirst after righteousness, God will fill him with righteousness and will declare him righteous. That man will be justified before God, and he will embark upon the blessed and effective life outlined in the remainder of Christ’s sermon.
Does this verse touch your heart as an expression of all that is most precious in the Christian gospel? Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes of this verse, “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.” The verse is precious because it offers the solution to man’s great need by pointing to the offer of God’s greater remedy in Christ.
The verse is most specific about how one can obtain this happiness, but the reason why so many people are unhappy spiritually is that they will not accept God’s remedy. What must man do? First, he must desire righteousness. Second, he must desire a perfect (and, therefore, a divine) righteousness. Third, he must desire it intensely. That is, he must desire it enough to abandon all hope of achieving salvation by his own efforts, and cling instead to the efforts made for him by God. Each of these points is suggested explicitly in the beatitude.
In the first place, the man who would be happy must come to God seeking righteousness. So many come seeking anything and everything else. Some seek happiness itself. But the verse says that the happy people are those who seek, not happiness primarily, but holiness before God. Some people seek happiness through other things, such as fortune or fame. Some seek it through sex and marriage. The Bible teaches that happiness comes only through righteousness.
A moment’s reflection will show why this must be so. God is the source of all good things: fortune, fame, sex, success, happiness, and other things besides. James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). But God is also holy, and, because he is, he can have no dealings with those who are not holy. Men are sinners. Sin breaks the fellowship that should exist between men and God; it makes all who are sinners God’s enemies. The only way that man can enter again into fellowship with God and find the happiness and blessing he longs for is to possess a righteousness and holiness that will commend him to God.
Can this be done? Not by man, certainly. But God can and will do it. The heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that in him God has obtained our redemption and provided all who believe in Christ with that righteousness. The Bible says that Jesus Christ “has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). And those who hunger and thirst after his righteousness shall be filled.
Moreover, Christians must hunger and thirst after righteousness. For that which enters into their becoming a Christian must also characterize their life. Dr. Lloyd-Jones writes, “There are large numbers of people in the Christian Church who seem to spend the whole of their life seeking something which they can never find, seeking for some kind of happiness and blessedness. They go around from meeting to meeting, and convention to convention, always hoping they are going to get this wonderful thing, this experience that is going to fill them with joy, and flood them with some ecstacy. They see that other people have had it, but they themselves do not seem to get it. … Now that is not surprising. We are not meant to hunger and thirst after experiences; we are not meant to hunger and thirst after blessedness. If we want to be truly happy and blessed we must hunger and thirst after righteousness. We must not put blessedness or happiness or experience in the first place.”
What is the case in your life? Do you put righteousness first or do you seek after something else, even something quite good in itself? Do not forget that righteousness must come first. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
A Perfect Righteousness
The second point of the fourth beatitude is that the one who would know true happiness must desire not merely righteousness but perfect righteousness, and this means desiring the righteousness of God. It is necessary that we see this and see it clearly, for you and I are always ready to settle for something less than God requires, and if it were possible, we should always rush to substitute some of our own goodness for God’s.
In order to understand how this point emerges from the text it is necessary to point out a fact of Greek grammar. In the Greek language it is a rule of good grammar that verbs of hungering and thirsting are followed by nouns in the genitive case. This is the case that is expressed by the proposition “of” in English. An example of a genitive would be the last words in the phrases “peace of mind,” “love of God,” “object of faith,” and so on. The Greek would express a feeling of hunger by saying something like this: “I am hungry for of food” or “I am thirsty for of water.”
This particular use of the genitive case has an unusual characteristic on the basis of which it is called a partitive genitive. This means that it has reference only to a part of the object that occurs in the sentence. Thus, when the Greek would say, “I am hungry for of food,” he would be saying that he was hungry only for part of the food in the world, not all of it. And similarly, when he would say that he would like some water, the genitive would indicate that he did not want all the water the world has to offer, but only some of it. In more modern times the same grammatical structure appears in French. When seated at the table, you would never say, “Passez le pain, s’il vous plait”—that would mean pass all the bread there is. Instead to say, “Passez du pain,” for that means, “I would like some of the bread, please.”
The significance of this point for interpreting the fourth beatitude lies in the fact that the normal Greek usage is entirely abandoned in this verse. Instead of the word “righteousness” occurring in the genitive, as it should, it occurs in the accusative. And the meaning is that the one who hungers and thirsts as Christ intends him to hunger and thirst must hunger, not after a partial or imperfect righteousness (either his own or God’s), but after the whole thing. He must long for a perfect righteousness, and this means, therefore, a righteousness equal to and identical with God’s.
Of course, this is exactly what most people will not do. Most men and women have a desire for some degree of righteousness. Their self-esteem demands at least that. Thieves will have some code of honor among themselves, however debased. A murderer will strive for some small spark of nobility. A good man will take great pride in his philanthropy or good deeds. But the problem comes from the fact that few (and none unless God has prodded them) seek for the perfect goodness which comes only from him. If I were to rephrase the verse in order to recapture this flavor of the language, I would say, “O how happy is the man who knows enough not to be satisfied with any partial goodness with which to please God, who is not satisfied with any human goodness. He alone is happy who seeks for the divine righteousness, because God will certainly provide it.”
Hunger and Thirst
The third point of advice in Christ’s statement about how to discover God’s righteousness is that a man must desire it intensely. In Christ’s words, he must “hunger and thirst for righteousness” if he is to be filled. How quickly these words pierce to the spiritual heart of a man! And how quickly do they separate real spiritual hunger from mere sentimentality and vaguely religious feeling!
Since there is almost nothing in our experience today to suggest the force of Christ’s words, we must put ourselves in the shoes of his listeners if we are to fully understand them. Today almost none of us knows hunger. And few of us have ever known more than a momentary thirst. But it was not that way for Christ’s contemporaries. In the ancient world men often knew hunger. Wages were low, if they existed at all. Unless men were of the aristocracy they seldom grew fat on the fruit of honest labor. Many starved. Moreover, in a desert country where the sun was scorching and sand and wind storms were frequent, thirst was man’s constant companion. To such a world hunger meant the hunger of a starving man, and thirst, that of a man who would die without water.
It was against this background that Christ’s words were spoken. And they were, in effect, “So you think that you would like to be pleasing to God, that you would like to taste of his goodness. Well, how much do you want it? Do you want it as much as a starving man wants food or a parched man wants water? You must want it that desperately in order to be filled. For it is only when you are really desperate that you will turn to me and away from your own attempts to earn that goodness.”
Several years ago an article appeared in Eternity magazine by Dr. E. M. Blaiklock on the significance of water in the Bible, part of which is quite relevant here. The article was one in a series of articles on Bible imagery, and in one part of it Dr. Blaiklock referred by way of illustration to a book by Major V. Gilbert called The Last Crusade, an account of part of the British liberation of Palestine in World War I. Dr. Blaiklock wrote of the book: “Driving up from Beersheba, a combined force of British, Australians and New Zealanders were pressing on the rear of the Turkish retreat over arid desert. The attack out-distanced its water-carrying camel train. Water bottles were empty. The sun blazed pitilessly out of a sky where the vultures wheeled expectantly.
“ ‘Our heads ached,’ writes Gilbert, ‘and our eyes became bloodshot and dim in the blinding glare. … Our tongues began to swell … our lips turned a purplish black and burst …’ Those who dropped out of the column were never seen again, but the desperate force battled on to Sheria. There were wells at Sheria, and had they been unable to take the place by nightfall, thousands were doomed to die of thirst. ‘We fought that day,’ writes Gilbert, ‘as men fight for their lives. … We entered Sheria station on the heels of the retreating Turks. The first objects which met our view were the great stone cisterns full of cold, clear, drinking water. In the still night air the sound of water running into the tanks could be distinctly heard, maddening in its nearness; yet not a man murmured when orders were given for the battalions to fall in, two deep, facing the cisterns.’
“He describes the stern priorities: the wounded, those on guard duty, then company by company. It took four hours before the last man had his drink of water, and in all that time they had been standing 20 feet from a low stone wall, on the other side of which were thousands of gallons of water.
“ ‘I believe,’ Major Gilbert concludes, ‘that we all learned our first real Bible lesson on that march from Beersheba to Sheria wells.’ If such were our thirst for God, for righteousness, for His will in our life, a consuming, all-embracing, preoccupying desire, how rich in the fruits of the Spirit would we be.”
Christ, Our Satisfaction
The conclusion of this study is that where there is this desire for righteousness there will be filling. And the filling will be Christ himself.
In this first sermon, given early in his three-year ministry, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; for they will be filled,” but he did not elaborate further on the filling. Later, when his teachings began to make their impact on the small circle of his listeners, he did. He said to the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. … Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 13–14). To the disciples who had witnessed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves in Galilee he added, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
Have you drunk deeply at that spring and fed on that bread? Or are you still feeding on things that do not satisfy? When the prodigal son left home he expected to find complete satisfaction. He wanted to live; and life to him meant money, clothes, food, companionship, and gay times. Instead of these things he found poverty, rags, hunger, loneliness, and misery. When he was hungry he turned to feeding swine. It was only when he was finally starving that he turned back to his father. In his father’s company he found all he had thought to find in the world. His father clothed him, fed him, welcomed him, and rejoiced in his return.
How sad if you should turn from the One who guarantees satisfaction in life to things that will never satisfy for long! How blessed for you to return to the Father through the way in which he has told you to come, through the Lord Jesus Christ!
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).
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (6)
Already in the Virgin Mary’s song, the Magnificat, the spiritually poor and the spiritually hungry have been associated, and both have been declared blessed. For God ‘has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away’. This general principle is here particularized. The hungry and thirsty whom God satisfies are those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’. Such spiritual hunger is a characteristic of all God’s people, whose supreme ambition is not material but spiritual. Christians are not like pagans, engrossed in the pursuit of possessions; what they have set themselves to ‘seek first’ is God’s kingdom and righteousness.7Righteousness in the Bible has at least three aspects: legal, moral and social.
Legal righteousness is justification, a right relationship with God. The Jews ‘pursued righteousness’, Paul wrote later, but failed to attain it because they pursued it in the wrong way. They sought ‘to establish their own’ righteousness and ‘did not submit to God’s righteousness’, which is Christ himself. Some commentators have seen such a reference here, but this is scarcely possible since Jesus is addressing those who already belong to him.
Moral righteousness is that righteousness of character and conduct which pleases God. Jesus goes on after the beatitudes to contrast this Christian righteousness with pharisaic righteousness (20). The latter was an external conformity to rules; the former is an inner righteousness of heart, mind and motive. For this we should hunger and thirst.
It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that the biblical word ‘righteousness’ means only a right relationship with God on the one hand and a moral righteousness of character and conduct on the other. For biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well. And social righteousness, as we learn from the law and the prophets, is concerned with seeking man’s liberation from oppression, together with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honour in home and family affairs. Thus Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God.
Luther expressed this concept with his customary vigour: ‘The command to you is not to crawl into a corner or into the desert, but to run out, if that is where you have been, and to offer your hands and your feet and your whole body, and to wager everything you have and can do.’ What is required, he goes on, is ‘a hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end. If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.’2There is perhaps no greater secret of progress in Christian living than a healthy, hearty spiritual appetite. Again and again Scripture addresses its promises to the hungry. God ‘satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things’. If we are conscious of slow growth, is the reason that we have a jaded appetite? It is not enough to mourn over past sin; we must also hunger for future righteousness.
Yet in this life our hunger will never be fully satisfied, nor our thirst fully quenched. True, we receive the satisfaction which the beatitude promises. But our hunger is satisfied only to break out again. Even the promise of Jesus that whoever drinks of the water he gives ‘will never thirst’ is fulfilled only if we keep drinking. Beware of those who claim to have attained, and who look to past experience rather than to future development! Like all the qualities included in the beatitudes, hunger and thirst are perpetual characteristics of the disciples of Jesus, as perpetual as poverty of spirit, meekness and mourning. Not till we reach heaven will we ‘hunger no more, neither thirst any more’, for only then will Christ our Shepherd lead us ‘to springs of living water’.3More than this, God has promised a day of judgment, in which right will triumph and wrong be overthrown, and after which there will be ‘new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’. For this final vindication of the right we also long, and we shall not be disappointed.
Looking back, we can see that the first four beatitudes reveal a spiritual progression of relentless logic. Each step leads to the next and presupposes the one that has gone before. To begin with, we are to be ‘poor in spirit’, acknowledging our complete and utter spiritual bankruptcy before God. Next we are to ‘mourn’ over the cause of it, our sins, yes, and our sin too—the corruption of our fallen nature, and the reign of sin and death in the world. Thirdly, we are to be ‘meek’, humble and gentle towards others, allowing our spiritual poverty (admitted and bewailed) to condition our behaviour to them as well as to God. And fourthly we are to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’. For what is the use of confessing and lamenting our sin, of acknowledging the truth about ourselves to both God and men, if we leave it there? Confession of sin must lead to hunger for righteousness.
In the second half of the beatitudes (the last four) we seem to turn even more from our attitude to God to our attitude to our fellow human beings. Certainly the ‘merciful’ show mercy to men, and ‘peacemakers’ seek to reconcile men to each other, and those who are ‘persecuted’ are persecuted by men. It seems likely therefore that the sincerity denoted by being ‘pure in heart’ also concerns our attitude and relation to our fellow human beings.
5:6. Hunger and thirst are characteristics, again, of the oppressed and downtrodden. Jesus again clarified that the realm of which he spoke is the spiritual, not the physical. A person who is starving for righteousness, whether in one’s own life or in one’s environment, is not a happy person, if that person is focused on his or her immediate circumstances. Happiness comes from the assurance that all righteousness will some day be fulfilled. The believer will personally become perfected, never to sin again, and the kingdom will be purged of all unrighteousness.
Skeptics of Christianity argue that the Bible cannot be true because of all the evil in the world. “Why has not God done anything about that?” they sneer. One Christian responded, “Your skepticism only seeks to excuse yourself. For the moment, let us set aside the evil ‘out there.’ The question you should be asking is, ‘What shall we do about the evil in you?’ ” For kingdom servants, there should certainly be a hunger and thirst for righteousness to be restored in our surrounding world. But there must be an even deeper hunger that such restoration begin within our own heart. (Old Testament parallels include Pss. 32; 37; 51; 73; 139:23–24; Prov. 8:22–36.)
The Bliss of the Starving Spirit
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be ﬁlled.’
Words do not exist in isolation; they exist against a background of experience and of thought; and the meaning of any word is conditioned by the background of the person who speaks it. That is particularly true of this beatitude. It would convey to those who heard it for the ﬁrst time an impression quite different from the impression which it conveys to us.
The fact is that very few of us in modern conditions of life know what it is to be really hungry or really thirsty. In the ancient world, it was very different. A working man’s wage was one denarius, not a wage on which anyone ever got fat. A working man in Palestine ate meat only once a week, and in Palestine the working man and the day labourer were never far from the borderline of real hunger and actual starvation.
It was still more so in the case of thirst. It was not possible for the vast majority of people to turn a tap and ﬁnd the clear, cold water pouring into their house. A traveller might be on a journey, and in the middle of it the hot wind which brought the sandstorm might begin to blow. There was nothing for him to do but to wrap his head in his hooded cloak and turn his back to the wind, and wait, while the swirling sand ﬁlled his nostrils and his throat until he was likely to suffocate, and until he was parched with an overpowering thirst. In the conditions of modern western life, there is no parallel at all to that.
So, the hunger which this beatitude describes is no genteel hunger which could be satisﬁed with a mid-morning snack; the thirst of which it speaks is no thirst which could be quenched with a cup of coffee or an iced drink. It is the hunger of someone who is starving for food, and the thirst of someone who will die unless given something to drink.
Since that is so, this beatitude is in reality a question and a challenge. In effect, it demands: ‘How much do you want goodness? Do you want it as much as a starving person wants food, and as much as someone dying of thirst wants water?’ How intense is our desire for goodness?
Most people have an instinctive desire for goodness, but that desire is wistful and vague rather than sharp and intense; and when the moment of decision comes they are not prepared to make the effort and the sacriﬁce which real goodness demands. Most people suffer from what the author Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘the malady of not wanting’. It would obviously make the biggest difference in the world if we desired goodness more than anything else.
When we approach this beatitude from that side, it is the most demanding, and indeed the most frightening, of them all. But not only is it the most demanding beatitude; in its own way it is also the most comforting. At the back of it, there is the meaning that those who are blessed are not necessarily the people who achieve this goodness, but the people who long for it with their whole heart. If blessedness came only to those who achieved, then none would be blessed. But blessedness comes to all who, in spite of failures and failings, still clutch to themselves the passionate love of the highest.
The writer H. G. Wells somewhere said: ‘A man may be a bad musician and yet be passionately in love with music.’ Robert Louis Stevenson spoke of even those who have sunk to the lowest depths ‘clutching the remnants of virtue to them in the brothel and on the scaffold’. Sir Norman Birkett, the famous lawyer and judge, once, speaking of the criminals with whom he had come into contact in his work, spoke of the inextinguishable something in every individual. Goodness, ‘the implacable hunter’, is always at their heels. The worst of all people are ‘condemned to some kind of nobility’.
The true wonder of human beings is not that we are sinners, but that even in our sin we are haunted by goodness, that even in the mud we can never wholly forget the stars. David had always wished to build the Temple of God; he never achieved that ambition; it was denied and forbidden him; but as the Revised Standard Version has it, God said to him: ‘You did well that it was in your heart’ (1 Kings 8:18). In his mercy, God judges us not only by our achievements but also by our dreams. Even if we never attain goodness, if to the end of the day we are still hungering and thirsting for it, we are not shut out from blessedness.
There is one further point in this beatitude, a point which only emerges in the Greek. It is a rule of Greek grammar that verbs of hungering and thirsting are followed by the genitive case. The genitive case is the case which, in English, is expressed by the word of; of the people is the genitive case. The genitive which follows verbs of hungering and thirsting in Greek is called the partitive genitive, that is the genitive of the part. The idea is this. When a Greek said: ‘I hunger for of bread,’ it was some bread that was desired, a part of the bread, not the whole loaf. When a Greek said: ‘I thirst for of water,’ it was some water that was desired, a drink of water, not all the water in the tank.
But in this beatitude, most unusually, righteousness is in the direct accusative, and not in the normal genitive. Now, when verbs of hungering and thirsting in Greek take the accusative instead of the genitive, the meaning is that the hunger and the thirst are for the whole thing. To say I hunger for bread in the accusative means I want the whole loaf. To say I thirst for water in the accusative means I want the whole pitcher. There, the correct translation is:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the whole of righteousness, for complete righteousness.
That is in fact what people seldom do. They are content with a part of righteousness. Some people, for instance, may be good in the sense that, however hard one tried, one could not pin a moral fault on to them. Their honesty, their morality and their respectability are beyond question; but it may be that no one could go to them and pour out a sorry story to them; they would freeze if one tried to do so. There can be a goodness which is accompanied with a hardness, a censoriousness, a lack of sympathy. Such a goodness is a partial goodness.
On the other hand, people may have all kinds of faults; they may drink, swear, gamble and lose their temper; and yet, if anyone is in trouble, they would give the last penny out of their pocket and the very coat off their back. Again, that is a partial goodness.
This beatitude says that it is not enough to be satisﬁed with a partial goodness. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the goodness which is total. Neither an icy faultlessness nor a faulty warm-heartedness is enough.
So, the translation of the fourth beatitude could run:
o the bliss of those who long for total righteousness as the starving long for food, and those perishing of thirst long for water, for they will be truly satisfied!
6 In keeping with the preceding, the fourth beatitude names the literally hungry and thirsty, i.e., the downtrodden and oppressed, who especially hunger and thirst after the justice associated with the coming of God’s eschatological rule. There is, then, no significant difference between the Matthean and Lukan versions of the beatitude, despite the additional words καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην, “and thirst for justice,” in Matthew. That δικαιοσύνη here means “justice” rather than “personal righteousness” is clear from the context. The poor, the grieving, and the downtrodden (i.e., those who have experienced injustice) are by definition those who long for God to act. They are the righteous who will inherit the kingdom. Yet this interpretation does not altogether exclude the sense of δικαιοσύνη as personal righteousness. The justice of God’s eschatological rule presupposes the δικαιοσύνη of those who enjoy its blessings (cf. 2 Pet 3:13). Thus, albeit to a slight degree, this verse may anticipate the stress on δικαιοσύνη in v 20 and 6:33. This beatitude seems to reflect the language of Ps 107 (LXX: 106), where, after a reference to the hungry and thirsty (v 5), the psalmist writes, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (v 6), and then a few verses later continues, “For he satisfies the thirsty and the hungry he fills with good things” (v 9), where the LXX contains the same verb χορτάζειν, “to fill,” as in Matthew. This is the language of messianic fulfillment: he has filled the hungry soul with good things (cf. Luke 1:53). It is the language of those who at long last have been “redeemed from trouble” (cf. Ps 107:2; for a similar sense of “thirsting” for salvation, cf. Pss 42:1–3; 63:1). In the first instance it is God’s righteousness that satisfies (cf. the “divine passive”) these hungry and thirsty souls (cf. John 6:35; Rev 7:16–17). (On “righteousness” in Matthew, see Comment on 3:15.)
6. Happy are they who hunger. To hunger and thirst is here, I think, used as a figurative expression, and means to suffer poverty, to want the necessaries of life, and even to be defrauded of one’s right. Matthew says, who thirst after righteousness, and thus makes one class stand for all the rest. He represents more strongly the unworthy treatment which they have received, when he says that, though they are anxious, though they groan, they desire nothing but what is proper. “Happy are they who, though their wishes are so moderate, that they desire nothing to be granted to them but what is reasonable, are yet in a languishing condition, like persons who are famishing with hunger.” Though their distressing anxiety exposes them to the ridicule of others, yet it is a certain preparation for happiness: for at length they shall be satisfied. God will one day listen to their groans, and satisfy their just desires: for to Him, as we learn from the song of the Virgin, it belongs to fill the hungry with good things, (Luke 1:53.)
Ver. 6. Hunger and thirst after righteousness.—A figurative mode of indicating a desire so intense as to be painful. Wetstein. (The substantive is here in the accusative, τὴν δικαιοσύνην, though commonly in the genitive.) Δικαιοσύνη, with the article, the only genuine righteousness, the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven; but, above all, righteousness not as a work of our own, but as a gift,—a fact not of the outer, but of the inner life. Hence the expression refers neither to the Christian religion (Kuinoel) nor to uprightness, the restoration of which was, according to Meyer, the grand object of Christ. Righteousness is correspondence to the law; the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, that to the law of the Spirit.
They shall be filled, i. e., with righteousness.—This promise applies neither exclusively to justification by faith, nor to final acquittal in judgment; but includes both justification, sanctification, and final acquittal,—all of which, indeed, are inseparably connected with justification.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 177–185). Chicago: Moody Press.
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 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.
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