Happy Are the Meek
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. (5:5)
Like the first two beatitudes, this one must have been shocking and perplexing to Jesus’ hearers. He taught principles that were totally foreign to their thinking.
Jesus’ audience knew how to act spiritually proud and spiritually self-sufficient. They were proficient in erecting a pious facade. They actually believed that the Messiah was coming soon and would commend them for their goodness. He would, at last, give the Jewish people their rightful place in the world—a position above all other people, because they were the chosen of God.
They eagerly anticipated that the Messiah would deal gently with them and harshly with their oppressors, who for nearly a hundred years had been the Romans. After the Maccabean revolution that freed them from Greece, the Jews had a brief time of independence. But Rome’s rule, though not as cruel and destructive, was much more powerful than that of Greece. Since 63 b.c., when Pompey annexed Palestine to Rome, the region had been ruled primarily by puppet kings of the Herodian family and by Roman governors, or procurators, the best known of which to us was Pilate.
The Jews so despised Roman oppression that sometimes they even refused to admit it existed. One day as He taught on the Mount of Olives, Jesus had one of His strongest exchanges with the Pharisees. When He said “to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,’ ” the Pharisees’ response was strange. “We are Abraham’s offspring,” they said, “and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free?’ ” (John 8:31–33). The fact was, of course, that Israel’s history was one of repeated conquest and oppression—by Egypt, Assyria, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and, at that very time, Rome. Apparently pride would not allow those Pharisees to acknowledge one of the most obvious facts of their nation’s history and of their present situation.
All Jews hoped for deliverance of some sort, by some means. Many were expecting deliverance to come through the Messiah. God had directly promised the godly Simeon “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ,” that is, the Messiah (Luke 2:26). Simeon’s expectation was fulfilled when he was given the privilege of seeing the true Messiah as an infant. Others, however, such as the Pharisees, expected the Messiah to come with great fanfare and a mighty show of supernatural power. They assumed He would miraculously throw off the yoke of Rome and establish a Jewish state, a revived theocracy and holy commonwealth that would rule the world. Others, such as the materialistic Sadducees, hoped for change through political compromise, for which they were despised by many fellow Jews. The monastic Essenes, isolated both physically and philosophically from the rest of Judaism, lived largely as if Rome and the rest of the world did not exist.
The Zealots, as their name implies, were the most vocal and active proponents of deliverance. Many of them expected the Messiah to come as a powerful, irresistible military leader who would conquer Rome in the same way that Rome had conquered them. They were not, however, waiting passively for their Deliverer, but were determined that, whenever and however He might come, they would do their part to make His job easier. Their numbers, influence, and power continued to grow until Rome brutally attempted to crush Jewish resistance. In a.d. 70 Titus totally destroyed Jerusalem and massacred over a million Jews. Three years later Flavius Silva finally succeeded in his long siege against the stronghold at Masada. When Jewish rebelliousness continued to frustrate Rome, Hadrian swept through Palestine during the years 132–35 and systematically destroyed most of the cities and slaughtered the Jews living there.
In Jesus’ day the aggressive, rebellious Zealots were not many in number, but they had the sympathy and moral support of many of the people, who wanted Rome to be overthrown, however it was done.
Consequently, in whatever way various groups of people expected the Messiah to come, they did not anticipate His coming humbly and meekly. Yet those were the very attitudes that Jesus, the one whom John the Baptist had announced as the Messiah, was both teaching and practicing. The idea of a meek Messiah leading meek people was far from any of their concepts of the messianic kingdom. The Jews understood military power and miracle power. They even understood the power of compromise, unpopular as it was. But they did not understand the power of meekness.
The people as a whole eventually rejected Jesus because He did not fulfill their messianic expectations. He even preached against the means in which they had put their hope. They first rejected, then hated, and finally killed Him because, instead of approving their religion He condemned it, and instead of leading them to independence from Rome He disdained revolutionary acts and offered a way of even greater subservience.
In their minds Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah, and the final evidence was His crucifixion. The Old Testament taught that anyone hanged on a tree was “accursed of God” (Deut. 21:23), yet that is exactly where Jesus’ life ended—ignominiously on a cross, and a Roman cross at that. As He hung dying, some of the Jewish leaders could not resist a last taunt against His claim to be Savior and Messiah: “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. He trusts in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’ ” (Matt. 27:42–43).
In the early days of apostolic preaching, the death and resurrection of Christ were the greatest hindrances to belief in the gospel. The ideas were foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). The gospel was foolishness to those Gentiles who considered the body to be inherently evil and thought it absurd that the Savior of the world not only would allow Himself to be killed but would come back from the dead in bodily form. To the Jews the gospel was a stumbling block because the idea of the Messiah dying at all, much less on a cross, was unthinkable. How could a Messiah who taught for a few years, accomplished absolutely nothing as far as anyone could see, and then was rejected by the religious teachers and put to death be worth believing in? (cf. Acts 3:17–18).
But rejection of Jesus started long before His crucifixion. When He began the Sermon on the Mount by teaching humility, mourning, and meekness, the people sensed something was wrong. This strange preacher could hardly be the deliverer they were looking for. Great causes are fought by the proud, not the humble. You cannot win victories while mourning, and you certainly could never conquer Rome with meekness. In spite of all the miracles of His ministry, the people never really believed in Him as the Messiah, because He failed to act in military or miracle power against Rome.
The Jews were not looking for the Messiah that God had told them was coming. They disregarded such parts of His Word as Isaiah 40–60, which so clearly and vividly portrays the Messiah as the Suffering Servant as well as the conquering Lord. They could not accept the idea that such descriptions as, “He has no stately form or majesty.… He was despised and forsaken of men.… He was oppressed and He was afflicted … like a lamb that is led to slaughter … that He was cut off out of the land of the living,” and “His grave was assigned with wicked men” (Isa. 53:2–3, 7–9) could apply to the Messiah, to the coming great deliverer of the Jews.
Jesus’ teaching seemed new and unacceptable to most of His hearers simply because the Old Testament was so greatly neglected and misinterpreted. They did not recognize the humble and self-denying Jesus as the Messiah because they did not recognize God’s predicted Suffering Servant as the Messiah. That was not the kind of Messiah they wanted.
The Meaning of Meekness
Gentle is from praos, which basically means mild or soft. The term sometimes was used to describe a soothing medicine or a soft breeze. It was used of colts and other animals whose naturally wild spirits were broken by a trainer so that they could do useful work. As a human attitude it meant being gentle of spirit, meek, submissive, quiet, tenderhearted. During His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was hailed as the coming King, though He was “gentle, and mounted on a donkey” (Matt. 21:5). Paul lovingly referred to the “meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1) as the pattern for his own attitude.
The essential difference between being poor in spirit and being meek, or gentle, may be that poverty in spirit focuses on our sinfulness, whereas meekness focuses on God’s holiness. The basic attitude of humility underlies both virtues. When we look honestly at ourselves, we are made humble by seeing how sinful and unworthy we are; when we look at God, we are made humble by seeing how righteous and worthy He is.
We again can see logical sequence and progression in the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit (the first) is negative, and results in mourning (the second). Meekness (the third) is positive, and results in seeking righteousness (the fourth). Being poor in spirit causes us to turn away from ourselves in mourning, and meekness causes us to turn toward God in seeking His righteousness.
The blessings of the Beatitudes are for those who are realistic about their sinfulness, who are repentant of their sins, and who are responsive to God in His righteousness. Those who are unblessed, unhappy, and shut out of the kingdom are the proud, the arrogant, the unrepentant—the self-sufficient and self-righteous who see in themselves no unworthiness and feel no need for God’s help and God’s righteousness.
Most of Jesus’ hearers, like fallen men throughout history, were concerned about justifying their own ways, defending their own rights, and serving their own ends. The way of meekness was not their way, and therefore the true kingdom was not their kingdom. The proud Pharisees wanted a miraculous kingdom, the proud Sadducees wanted a materialistic kingdom, the proud Essenes wanted a monastic kingdom, and the proud Zealots wanted a military kingdom. The humble Jesus offered a meek kingdom.
Meekness has always been God’s way for man. It is the way of the Old Testament. In the book of Job we are told that God “sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety” (5:11). Moses, the Jews’ great deliverer and law-giver, “was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). The Jews’ great King David, their supreme military hero, wrote, “He [the Lord] leads the humble injustice, and He teaches the humble His way” (Ps. 25:9).
Meekness is the way of the New Testament. It is taught by Jesus in the Beatitudes as well as elsewhere and is continued to be taught by the apostles. Paul entreated the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love” (Eph. 4:1–2). He told the Colossians to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12). He told Titus to remind those under his leadership “to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (Titus 3:1–2).
Meekness does not connote weakness. The word was used in much extrabiblical literature to refer to the breaking of an animal. Meekness means power put under control. A person without meekness is “like a city that is broken into and without walls” (Prov. 25:28). “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city” (Prov. 16:32). An unbroken colt is useless; medicine that is too strong will harm rather than cure; a wind out of control destroys. Emotion out of control also destroys, and has no place in God’s kingdom. Meekness uses its resources appropriately.
Meekness is the opposite of violence and vengeance. The meek person, for example, accepts joyfully the seizing of his property, knowing that he has infinitely better and more permanent possessions awaiting him in heaven (Heb. 10:34). The meek person has died to self, and he therefore does not worry about injury to himself, or about loss, insult, or abuse. The meek person does not defend himself, first of all because that is His Lord’s command and example, and second because he knows that he does not deserve defending. Being poor in spirit and having mourned over his great sinfulness, the gentle person stands humbly before God, knowing he has nothing to commend himself.
Meekness is not cowardice or emotional flabbiness. It is not lack of conviction nor mere human niceness. But its courage, its strength, its conviction, and its pleasantness come from God, not from self. The spirit of meekness is the spirit of Christ, who defended the glory of His Father, but gave Himself in sacrifice for others. Leaving an example for us to follow, He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21–23).
Though He was sinless, and therefore never deserved criticism or abuse, Jesus did not resist slander or repay injustice or threaten His tormentors. The only human being who did no wrong, the One who always had a perfect defense, never defended Himself.
When His Father’s house was profaned by moneychangers and sacrifice sellers, “He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables” (John 2:14–15). Jesus scathingly and repeatedly denounced the hypocritical and wicked religious leaders; He twice cleansed the Temple by force; and He fearlessly uttered divine judgment on those who forsook and corrupted God’s Word.
But Jesus did not once raise a finger or give a single retort in His own defense. Though at any time He could have called legions of angels to His side (Matt. 26:53), He refused to use either natural or supernatural power for His own welfare. Meekness is not weakness, but meekness does not use its power for its own defense or selfish purposes. Meekness is power completely surrendered to God’s control.
The Manifestation of Meekness
The best way to describe meekness is to illustrate it, to see it in action. Scripture abounds with instructive accounts of meekness.
After God had called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans to the Promised Land and had made the marvelous unconditional covenant with him, a dispute about grazing lands arose between the servants of Abraham and those of his nephew Lot. All the land of Canaan had been promised to Abraham. He was God’s chosen man and the Father of God’s chosen people. Lot, on the other hand, was essentially a hanger-on, an in-law who was largely dependent on Abraham for his welfare and safety. Besides that, Abraham was Lot’s uncle and his elder. Yet Abraham willingly let Lot take whatever land he wanted, thus giving up his rights and prerogatives for the sake of his nephew, for the sake of harmony between their households, and for the sake of their testimony before “the Canaanite and the Perizzite [who] were dwelling then in the land” (Gen. 13:5–9). Those things were much more important to Abraham than standing up for his own rights. He had both the right and the power to do as he pleased in the matter, but in meekness he gladly waived his rights and laid aside his power.
Joseph was abused by his jealous brothers and eventually sold into slavery. When, by God’s gracious plan, he came to be second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, he was in a position to take severe vengeance on his brothers. When they came to Egypt asking for grain for their starving families, Joseph could easily have refused and, in fact, could have put his brothers into more severe slavery than that into which they had sold him. Yet he had only forgiveness and love for them. When he finally revealed to them who he was, “he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard of it” (Gen. 45:2). Then he said to them, “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.… Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (vv. 5, 8). Later he told them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (50:19–20). In meekness Joseph understood that it was God’s place to judge and his to forgive and help.
Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating some Hebrew slaves; faced up to Pharaoh to demand the release of his people; and was so angry at the orgy that Aaron and the people were having around the golden calf that he smashed the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments. Yet he was called “very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). Moses vented his anger against those who harmed and enslaved his people and who rebelled against God, but he did not vent his anger against those who abused him or demand personal rights and privileges.
When God called him to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses felt completely inadequate, and pleaded, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). After God explained His plan for Moses to confront Pharaoh, Moses again pleaded, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since Thou hast spoken to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). Moses would defend God before anyone, but he did not defend himself before God.
David was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to replace Saul as Israel’s king. But when, in the cave of Engedi, he had the opportunity to take Saul’s life, as Saul often had tried to take his, David refused to do so. He had such great respect for the king’s office, despite that particular king’s wickedness and abuse of him, that “David’s conscience bothered him because he had cut off the edge of Saul’s robe. So he said to his men, ‘Far be it from me because of the Lord that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the Lord’s anointed’ ” (1 Sam. 24:5–6).
Many years later, after David’s rebellious son Absalom had routed his father from Jerusalem, a member of Saul’s family named Shimei cursed David and threw stones at him. When one of David’s soldiers wanted to cut off Shimei’s head, David prevented him, saying, “Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite? Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him. Perhaps the Lord will look on my affliction and return good to me instead of his cursing this day” (2 Sam. 16:5–12).
By contrast, King Uzziah, who began to reign at the age of sixteen and who “did right in the sight of the Lord,” and “continued to seek God” (2 Chron. 26:4–5), became self-confident after the Lord gave him great victories over the Philistines, Ammonites, and other enemies. “When he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God, for he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (v. 16). Uzziah thought he could do no wrong, and arrogantly performed a rite that he knew was restricted to the priests. He was so concerned with exalting himself and glorying in his greatness, that he disobeyed the God who had made him great and even profaned His Temple. As a consequence “King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death; and he lived in a separate house, being a leper, for he was cut off from the house of the Lord” (v. 21).
Of the many examples of meekness in the New Testament, the greatest other than Jesus Himself was Paul. He was by far the most educated of the apostles and the one, as far as we can tell, that God used most widely and effectively. Yet he refused to put any confidence in himself, “in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). He knew that he could do all things, but only “through Him who strengthens me” (4:13).
The Result of Meekness
As with the other beatitudes, the general result of meekness is being blessed, being made divinely happy. God gives the meek His own joy and gladness.
More specifically, however, the gentle … shall inherit the earth. After creating man in His own image, God gave man dominion over the whole earth (Gen. 1:28). The subjects of His kingdom are going to come someday into that promised inheritance, largely lost and perverted after the Fall. Theirs will be paradise regained.
One day God will completely reclaim His earthly domain, and those who have become His children through faith in His Son will rule that domain with Him. And the only ones who become His children and the subjects of His divine kingdom are those who are gentle, those who are meek, because they understand their unworthiness and sinfulness and cast themselves on the mercy of God. The emphatic pronoun autos (they) is again used (see vv. 3, 4), indicating that only those who are meek shall inherit the earth.
Most Jews thought that the coming great kingdom of the Messiah would belong to the strong, of whom the Jews would be the strongest. But the Messiah Himself said that it would belong to the meek, and to Jew and Gentile alike.
Klēronomeō (to inherit) refers to the receiving of one’s allotted portion, one’s rightful inheritance. This beatitude is almost a direct quotation of Psalm 37:11—“But the humble will inherit the land.” For many generations faithful Jews had wondered, as God’s people today sometimes wonder, why the wicked and godless seem to prosper and the righteous and godly seem to suffer. Through David, God assured His people, “Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place, and he will not be there” (v. 10). The wicked person’s time of judgment was coming, as was the righteous person’s time of blessing.
Our responsibility is to trust the Lord and obey His will. The settling of accounts, whether in judgment or blessing, is in His hands and will be accomplished exactly in the right time and in the right way. In the meanwhile, God’s children live in faith and hope based on the certain promise, the divine pronouncement, that they shall inherit the earth.
Paul both warns and assures the Corinthians, saying, “So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor. 3:21–23). Because we belong to Christ, our place in the kingdom is as secure as His.
It is also certain “that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). One day the Lord will take the earth from the hands of the wicked and give it to His righteous people, whom He will use “to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishment on the peoples; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute on them the judgment written” (Ps. 149:7–9).
Our inheritance of the earth is not entirely future, however. The promise of the future inheritance itself gives us hope and happiness now. And we are able to appreciate many things, even earthly things, in ways that only those who know and love the Creator can experience”.
In the beautiful words of Wade Robinson,
Heav’n above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in ev’ry hue
Christless eyes have never seen!
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His and He is mine.
Nearly a century ago George MacDonald wrote, “We cannot see the world as God means it in the future, save as our souls are characterized by meekness. In meekness we are its only inheritors. Meekness alone makes the spiritual retina pure to receive God’s things as they are, mingling with them neither imperfection nor impurity.”
The Necessity for Meekness
Meekness is necessary first of all because it is required for salvation. Only the meek will inherit the earth, because only the meek belong to the King who will rule the future kingdom of the earth. “For the Lord takes delight in His people,” says the psalmist; “he crowns the humble with salvation” (Ps. 149:4, NIV). When the disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom, “He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ ” (Matt. 18:2–4).
Meekness is also necessary because it is commanded. “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth who have carried out His ordinances; seek righteousness, seek humility” (Zeph. 2:3). James commands believers, “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). Those who do not have a humble spirit are not able even to listen rightly to God’s Word, much less understand and receive it.
Meekness is necessary because we cannot witness effectively without it. Peter says, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). Pride will always stand between our testimony and those to whom we testify. They will see us instead of the Lord, no matter how orthodox our theology or how refined our technique.
Meekness is necessary because only meekness gives glory to God. Pride seeks its own glory, but meekness seeks God’s. Meekness is reflected in our attitude toward other children of God. Humility in relation to fellow Christians gives God glory. “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5–7).
Some time ago I heard of a person who had been converted to Christianity because, as he said, he needed “an easy religion.” I was amused by the incongruity of his statement. An easy religion! If he wanted an easy religion, he should not have become a Christian. As it was, he was a little like a bartender at a Methodist Sunday school picnic or a comedian at a funeral—he had come to the wrong place.
The preceding studies on the Sermon on the Mount should already have made this fact clear. Christ’s statements are intended to teach, among other things, that the kind of life he requires actually is impossible for men. And it remains impossible until men first come to Christ acknowledging that they cannot live it and asking him to live it in them. The poor in spirit are blessed, not the proud. And the comfort Christ promises is for those who first mourn for their sin and for the sin of others. At this point, however, Jesus makes his description of the happy life even more difficult, for he goes on to show that the way of blessing is also through meekness. He says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). According to Jesus it is the meek—not the haughty, forward, arrogant, or aggressive—whom God blesses.
A Difficult Statement
This third beatitude must have been received in shocked silence by Christ’s listeners. But they could not have been much different from the people we know today. To most men and women the association of an earthly inheritance with meekness seems incredible. The world associates happiness with worldly possessions, and it believes that the way to gain them is through ability, strength, hard work, self-assurance, and at times, even through self-assertion and conquest. The religious leaders of Christ’s day sought happiness through a materialistic and militaristic kingdom. Christ’s statement would have been a shock to them. We seek it through homes and their contents, success and the praise of men for it, power and the stature it confers. So it is a shock to us also. Against all these outlooks on life and these ambitions Jesus teaches that meekness must be a characteristic of those who are to share his kingdom.
Moreover, the other biblical writers say this also. James writes that meekness is to characterize our initial response to God’s truth: “Wherefore, put away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21 nsb). Peter says that Christians are to witness to others in a spirit of meekness: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15 nsb). Paul lists meekness as one of the fruits of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23 nsb). Several times Paul speaks of meekness as the spirit of mind in which one was to deal with problems in the early Christian congregations (Gal. 6:1; 1 Cor. 4:21; 2 Cor. 10:1), and in Colossians he writes, “Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering” (Col. 3:12 nsb).
Taken together these verses teach that meekness is a characteristic by which God promises to bring blessing in the lives of Christians and through them to others, and that it is not a natural characteristic in man but is the result of the supernatural working of God’s Spirit.
What Is Meekness?
Now we shall never get far in understanding Christ’s statement until we realize that in the Bible meekness does not mean what most people think it means. It does not mean spiritlessness. It does not mean weakness or indolence or cowardice. Actually, it is compatible with high spirits, courage, and great strength.
The first clue to the biblical meaning of meekness lies in the discovery that the word it translates was one of the great words in Greek ethics. The word is praus, and it is defined with great care in Aristotle’s work on ethics. For Aristotle the virtues of life were always defined as the mean between an excess of the virtue and a deficiency in it. For instance, courage is a virtue because it is the mean between cowardice (which is a deficiency in courage) and foolhardy actions (which result from too much). Generosity is the mean between stinginess and a profligate waste of one’s resources. To Aristotle meekness was also a virtue because it was the mean between excessive anger and the inability to show anger at all. He describes as meek the man “who is angry on the right occasion and with the right people and at the right moment and for the right length of time.”
On the basis of this definition it would be possible to translate the beatitude fairly as Barclay does in his excellent commentary on Matthew: “Blessed is the man who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.” And we could look to the example of Jesus Christ for insight into such a controlled and righteous anger.
Barclay adds, “If we ask what the right time and the wrong time are, we may say as a general rule for life that it is never right to be angry for any insult or injury done to ourselves; that is something that no Christian must ever resent; but that it is often right to be angry at injuries done to other people. Selfish anger is always a sin; selfless anger can be one of the great moral dynamics of the world.” Thus does Aristotle provide part of the picture.
A second sense of the word comes from the fact that praus also was used of animals to designate those that had been domesticated. These were animals who had learned to accept control by their masters and who were therefore properly behaved. By extension, the word was then used of persons who also knew how to behave. And the word came to refer to those who were of the upper classes because they were well-mannered, balanced, or polite. This sense of the word “meek” is far better preserved in English by the related word “gentle” from which we get our compounds: gentlefolk, gentlewoman, and gentleman. Gentleness is a soft and loving behavior, the opposite of awkwardness or rudeness. In this sense the Christian is also to be meek. He is to be loving, well-mannered, polite, balanced, and well-behaved. He is to be God’s gentleman.
A final sense of the word “meek” comes from the fact that in biblical language the word is used most often to indicate a subservient and trusting attitude before God, and this makes meekness generally a vertical virtue rather than a horizontal one. It is the characteristic that makes a man bow low before God in order that he may stand high before other men; it makes him bold because he knows that his life has been touched by God and that he comes as God’s messenger.
I believe that this was the primary sense in which Christ used the word “meek” in this beatitude, because the beatitude itself is quoted from a context in which that thought is prominent. I know that someone will say, “What? I thought Jesus originated the Beatitudes, that he made them up.” Well, it is true that he did make most of them up, but not this one. This beatitude actually comes from the thirty-seventh psalm. And it comes at the end of a long list of commands that encourage a person to place his trust in God. The psalmist writes:
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
He then closes the section by saying:
A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.
Psalm 37:3–7, 10–11
Who then are the meek according to the thirty-seventh psalm? They are those who trust in the Lord, who delight themselves in the Lord, who commit their way unto the Lord, who rest in the Lord. It is these who are happy, according to Jesus Christ; and it is these who shall inherit the earth.
The Meekest Man
All of this is illustrated in a remarkable story from the Book of Numbers. One sentence embedded in the midst of the story tells us that the main character was, in God’s sight, the meekest man who ever lived. The man was Moses. And the sentence says, “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men who were upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3 nsb). The story is about a rebellion against Moses led by Miriam, his sister, and Aaron, his brother, the first high priest of Israel.
This is the story. When Moses had fled from Egypt forty years before God used him as the deliverer of his people, he had gone to Midian where he had settled and married Zipporah, the daughter of Reuel, a priest of Midian. Zipporah was of the same stock as the other Israelites and had borne children to Moses. But she had died by the time of the story recounted in the twelfth chapter of Numbers, and Moses was marrying another wife. This new wife was a Cushite, a name given to the inhabitants of ancient Ethiopia. And the point of the story lies in the fact that the Cushite was black. She was not a Semite. And those who were closest to Moses, his sister and brother, felt that the stock of Israel was being compromised by the mixed marriage.
I have noticed in preparing this study that not all of the commentators on Numbers are willing to accept this understanding of the story; in fact, most of them simply ignore the girl’s racial characteristics. But we have every reason for believing that this was the case and that the rebellion was based purely on racial prejudice. Some conservative commentators would dismiss this view on the grounds that the people of Israel were later forbidden to marry among the Canaanites, who inhabited the land of Canaan before their conquest under Joshua. But this was later, and it was based in the debased religion and sexual malpractices that characterized the people of the land (Exod. 34:16). At this time there were no such injunctions. Joseph had married an Egyptian girl, Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. And many persons of other oppressed nations had left Egypt with Israel at the Exodus and presumably were incorporated into the newly emerging nation (Exod. 12:38). It was one of these whom Moses married, and it seemingly was against her racial characteristics and skin color that Miriam and Aaron rebelled. The Bible says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ And the Lord heard this” (Num. 12:1–2).
Now if there are still doubts about this interpretation of the story these should be dispelled by the sequel. For God gave a punishment to Miriam, the instigator, that was frighteningly appropriate to her prejudice. The Bible says, “At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.’ So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, he said, ‘Listen to my words: When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’ The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam—leprous, like snow” (Num. 12:4–10).
In other words, God said to Miriam, “You’re brown, this girl is black; and you think white is better. All right, have more of it.” So she became a leper, as God used the incident to teach that there was to be no racial prejudice in Israel.
As we come to the end of the story we find that Moses prayed for Miriam, and she was healed. But we ask, “What was the conduct of Moses through the incident? What was the conduct of the man whom God says was the meekest man who ever lived? Did he fight back? Did he seek to defend himself against his accusers?” Not at all. Moses submitted himself to God. That was his meekness. He bowed low before God and was vindicated. Thus, in this response Moses became a forerunner in conduct of Jesus Christ, “ ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22–23). Meekness of this sort will take off its shoes before the burning bush, yet will obey God by walking up to the mightiest ruler of the day and demanding, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go’ ” (Exod. 5:1).
To Inherit the Earth
The second beatitude goes on to teach that the meek “shall inherit the earth.” What does this mean? Well, it is not a promise that the children of God will own oil wells, or blocks of downtown Manhattan, or orchards in southern California. It is a promise for the future.
Yet there is a sense in which the meek shall inherit the earth now. For the meek man is the man who is satisfied and is therefore content. Paul was such a man. He owned very little, yet he spoke of himself as “possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10). He wrote to the contentious Corinthians: “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:21–23). With such a spirit I can cross the Alps, gaze upon the Bay of Naples, visit a museum, cross the wide expanses of the American continent, attend a concert, listen to the teaching of the Bible, or do anything else, and I can know that these things are mine as much as they are anyone’s. And I can thank God for the people who maintain them for me.
At the same time I can know that Christ’s promise has a future reference also, for it falls in line with Paul’s reminder that “the saints will judge the world” (1 Cor. 6:2). You shall judge the world if you are a Christian, for you are God’s heir and a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. There may be sorrow now. There may be suffering. But when Jesus returns, we shall reign with him (2 Tim. 2:12).
Now you may be saying, “All that is wonderful, but for me it is in the area of fantasy. It is a beautiful thought, but it is not possible. I am not meek, and I shall never become meek by any amount of effort.” The answer is that of course it is impossible by your own effort. This characteristic is not in man. But it can be created in a man by Jesus. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29). Jesus can do what you think is impossible. He can teach you meekness, and you will find rest to your soul.
5 This beatitude and those in vv. 7–10 have no parallel in Luke. It would be wrong to suppose that Matthew’s beatitudes are for different groups of people or that we have the right to half the blessings if we determine to pursue four out of the eight. They are a unity and describe the norm for Messiah’s people.
The word “meek” (praus, GK 4558) is hard to define. It can signify absence of pretension (1 Pe 3:4, 14–15) but generally suggests gentleness (cf. 11:29; Jas 3:13) and the self-control it entails. The attempt to understand a “meek” person to be nonviolent and law-observant (Michel Talbot, Heureux les doux, car ils hériteront la terre: (Mt 5:4 ) [Paris: Gabalda, 2002]) is unconvincing in its methods and doctrinaire in its conclusions. The Greeks extolled humility in wise men and rulers, but such humility smacked of condescension. In general, the Greeks considered meekness a vice because they failed to distinguish it from servility. To be meek toward others implies freedom from malice and a vengeful spirit. Jesus best exemplifies it (11:29; 21:5). Lloyd-Jones (Sermon on the Mount,1:65–69) rightly applies meekness to our attitudes toward others. We may acknowledge our own bankruptcy (v. 3) and mourn (v. 4). But to respond with meekness when others tell us of our bankruptcy is far harder (cf. Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 43–44). Meekness, therefore, requires such a true view about ourselves as will express itself even in our attitude toward others.
And the meek—not the strong, aggressive, harsh, tyrannical—will inherit the earth. The verb “inherit” often relates to entrance into the promised land (e.g., Dt 4:1; 16:20; cf. Isa 57:13; 60:21). But the specific OT allusion here is Psalm 37:9, 11, 29, a psalm recognized as messianic in Jesus’ day (4QpPs 37). There is no need to interpret the land metaphorically, as having no reference to geography or space; nor is there need to restrict the meaning to “land of Israel” (see Notes). Entrance into the promised land ultimately became a pointer toward entrance into the new heaven and the new earth (“earth” is the same word as “land”; cf. Isa 66:22; Rev 21:1), the consummation of the messianic kingdom. While in Pauline terms, believers may now possess all things in principle (1 Co 3:21–23; 2 Co 6:10) since they belong to Christ, Matthew directs our attention yet further to the “renewal of all things” (19:28).
5 “Meek,” like “poor in spirit,” speaks not only of those who are in fact disadvantaged and powerless, but also of those whose attitude is not arrogant and oppressive. The term in itself may properly be understood of their relations with other people; they are those who do not throw their weight about. But “meek,” as well as “poor,” is used to translate ʿanāwîm in the Psalms, where the emphasis is more on their relationship with God. It is the ʿanāwîm who according to Ps 37:11 will inherit the earth (or “land”) when the “wicked” who have oppressed them have been cut off. They are further described in Ps 37:7–9 as “those who wait for the Lord” instead of fretting and scheming to right their own wrongs. In echoing this psalm so closely Jesus clearly intended to promise a reversal of fortunes such as the psalm envisages, but whereas the “inheriting of the land” in the psalm seems to be understood in terms of earthly reversal, the overall tone of these beatitudes does not encourage us to interpret his words here quite so literally (see above p. 164). Cf. Isa 61:7 where the “poor” and “mourning” of 61:1–3 (see on vv. 3–4) are promised inheritance of the land; if the promises to them in the first two beatitudes apply to the kingdom of heaven, the same should presumably apply to their inheritance. There is a general tendency in the NT to treat OT promises about “the land” as finding fulfillment in non-territorial ways, and such an orientation seems required here too. The focus is on the principle of reversal of fortunes rather than on a specific “inheritance
The Bliss of the God-Controlled Life
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’
In our modern English idiom, the word meek is hardly one of the honourable words of life. Nowadays, it carries with it an idea of spinelessness, subservience and mean-spiritedness. It paints the picture of a submissive and ineffective person. But it so happens that the word meek—in Greek praus—was one of the great Greek ethical words.
Aristotle has a great deal to say about the quality of meekness (praotēs). It was Aristotle’s ﬁxed method to deﬁne every virtue as the happy medium between two extremes. On the one hand there was the extreme of excess; on the other hand there was the extreme of defect; and in between there was the virtue itself, the happy medium. To take an example, on the one extreme there is the spendthrift; on the other extreme there is the miser; and in between there is the generous person.
Aristotle deﬁnes meekness, praotēs, as the balance between orgilotēs, which means excessive anger, and aorgēsia, which means excessive angerlessness. Praotēs, meekness, as Aristotle saw it, is the happy medium between too much and too little anger. And so the ﬁrst possible translation of this beatitude is:
Blessed are those who are always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.
If we ask what the right time and the wrong time are, we may say as a general rule for life that it is never right to be angry for any insult or injury done to ourselves—that is something that no Christian must ever resent—but that it is often right to be angry at injuries done to other people. Selﬁsh anger is always a sin; selﬂess anger can be one of the great moral dynamics of the world.
But the word praus has a second standard Greek usage. It is the regular word for an animal which has been domesticated, which has been trained to obey the word of command, which has learned to respond to the reins. It is the word for an animal which has learned to accept control. So the second possible translation of this beatitude is:
Blessed are those who have every instinct, every impulse, every passion under control. Blessed are those who are entirely self-controlled.
The moment we have stated that, we see that it needs a change. It is not so much the blessing of those who are self-controlled, for such complete self-control is beyond human capacity; rather, it is the blessing of those who are completely God-controlled, for only in his service do we ﬁnd our perfect freedom and, in doing his will, our peace.
But there is still a third possible side from which we may approach this beatitude. The Greeks always contrasted the quality which they called praotēs, and which the Authorized Version translates as meekness, with the quality which they called hupsēlokardia, which means lofty-heartedness. In praotēs, there is the true humility which banishes all pride.
Without humility we cannot learn, for the ﬁrst step to learning is the realization of our own ignorance. Quintilian, the great Roman teacher of oratory, said of certain of his scholars: ‘They would no doubt be excellent students, if they were not already convinced of their own knowledge.’ No one can teach people who know it all already. Without humility there can be no such thing as love, for the very beginning of love is a sense of unworthiness. Without humility there can be no true religion, for all true religion begins with a realization of our own weakness and of our need for God. True humanity can only be reached when we are always conscious that we are the creatures and that God is the Creator, and that without God we can do nothing.
Praotēs describes humility, the acceptance of the necessity to learn and of the necessity to be forgiven. It describes the only proper attitude to God. So, the third possible translation of this beatitude is:
Blessed are those who have the humility to know their own ignorance, their own weakness, and their own need.
It is this meekness, Jesus says, which will inherit the earth. It is the fact of history that it has always been those who possess this gift of self-control, those with their passions, instincts and impulses under discipline, who have been great. Numbers says of Moses, the greatest leader and the greatest law-giver the world has ever seen: ‘Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth’ (Numbers 12:3). Moses was no milk-and-water character; he was no spineless creature; he could be blazingly angry; but he was a man whose anger was on the leash, only to be released when the time was right. The writer of Proverbs has it: ‘One whose temper is controlled [is better] than one who captures a city’ (Proverbs 16:32).
It was the lack of that very quality which ruined Alexander the Great, who, in a ﬁt of uncontrolled temper in the middle of a drunken debauch, hurled a spear at his best friend and killed him. We cannot lead others until we have found our own direction in life; we cannot serve others until we have put aside self; we cannot be in control of others until we have learned to control ourselves. But those who give themselves into the complete control of God will gain this meekness, which will indeed enable them to inherit the earth.
It is clear that this word praus means far more than the English word meek now means; it is, in fact, clear that there is no one English word which will translate it, although perhaps the word gentle comes nearest to it. The full translation of this third beatitude must read:
o the bliss of those who are always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time, who have every instinct, impulse and passion under control because they themselves are god-controlled, who have the humility to realize their own ignorance and their own weakness, for such people can indeed rule the world!
5. Blessed the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. There is very little difference between being “poor in spirit” and being “meek.” Nevertheless, there is a slight distinction, namely this, that the first designation describes the man more as he is in himself, namely, broken-hearted; whereas the second pictures him more definitely in his relation to God and the fellowman.
What is said here about the meek individual is an echo of Ps. 37:11 (see also verses 22, 29, 34 of that same psalm). In order therefore to learn what is meant by the expression “the meek” we do best to derive the content of this concept from that psalm. It describes the person who is not resentful. He bears no grudge. Far from mulling over injuries received, he finds refuge in the Lord and commits his way entirely to him. All the more does he do this because he has died to all self-righteousness. He knows that he cannot claim any merit before God (cf. Ps. 34:18; 51:17). Since God’s favor means everything to him he has learned to take joyfully “the plundering of his possessions, knowing that he has a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34). Yet meekness is not weakness. Meekness is not spinelessness, the characteristics of the person who is ready to bow before every breeze. It is submissiveness under provocation, the willingness rather to suffer than to inflict injury. The meek person leaves everything in the hand of him who loves and cares.
The blessedness of those who are meek consists in this, that “they shall inherit the earth.” In a sense they inherit it even now, and this for several reasons: a. by not paying undue attention to enriching themselves but rather to doing their duty before God and fulfilling their task on earth; in other words, by first and most of all seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness, “all these things” (food, clothing, etc.) are graciously bestowed upon them as an extra gift (Matt. 6:33). The law of indirection is by no means a dead letter. b. Their very meekness makes them a blessing to their fellowmen, some of whom will bless them in return (Mark 10:30; Acts 2:44, 45; 16:15; Phil. 4:18). c. They may possess only a small portion of this earth or of earthly goods, but a small portion with God’s blessing resting upon it is more than the greatest riches without God’s blessing.
Except in a very formal or legal sense, does a man whose soul is racked by the fear of the coming judgment really possess his earthly goods? Does he possess them in the sense of enjoying them? Of course not! It is not he who has them: they have him! A comparison of two passages from the book of Isaiah shows who are really the ones that inherit the earth:
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee” (26:3).
“There is no peace, says Jehovah, for the wicked” (48:22). Not the men of the world but the meek are those who know that Rom. 8:28 is true. Therefore, they, and they alone, are the ones who possess the earth.
But the most complete fulfilment of the promise is reserved for the future, when at Christ’s return in glory the meek will inherit the new heaven and earth, the rejuvenated universe from which every stain of sin and every remnant of the curse will have been removed and in which righteousness will forever dwell (Rev. 21:1 ff.).
To inherit the earth indicates the following:
- By grace the citizen of the kingdom has a right to this possession;
- He will certainly receive it as an inalienable treasure;
- He will not need to—cannot even—earn it himself.
5:5. The “gentle” or meek are those who are powerful, but who have the maturity and grace to use their power for constructive rather than destructive purposes. The term Matthew used here is much misunderstood. Meekness is not weakness. Quite the opposite; it is “strength under control.” Southern horse breeders used to have a phrase—”the meekest horse wins the race.” The meek horse is the one who has most responded to his training. All his obvious and inherent strength is harnessed and brought under focused control. Moses was referred to as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). This is hardly a description of weakness when you consider the incredible personal strength required to lead over a million people on a camping trip through the wilderness for forty years.
The inheritance of the earth here looks ahead to reward in the coming kingdom reign with Christ, which will be the grand climax of history. Notice that future rewards, hinted at here, will be a consistently recurring theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Note the progression thus far. Jesus’ kingdom servants are those who: (1) recognize they are spiritually bankrupt; (2) are deeply sorrowful for it; and (3) have begun to respond humbly to their trainer. (Old Testament parallels for the concept of meekness-gentleness include Ps. 37:7–11; Isa. 57:15.)
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