Matthew 5:5 in detail,  blessed are the meek

1. The historical context

The gentle/meek in the Hebrew Bible

A link between this beatitude’s promise and Psalm 37:11 is clearly indicated (as discussed below), for not only does that verse contains the beatitude’s promise, but the LXX uses the same Greek word used in this beatitude (Ps 36:11 LXX). The Hebrew equivalent of πραεῖς (praus), as suggested by Ps 37:11, is עָנָו (`anav), a word rendered variously as poor, afflicted, humble, Lowly or meek. The historical context of ‘the meek’ is provided by passages that share that Hebrew term.

Whilst the use of עָנָו (`anav) provides relatively few clues as to its precise meaning, the rending of it as πραεῖς (praus) in the LXX is helpful. Translations vary in their approach to praus variously rendering it “meek” (KJV), “gentle” (NASB95) or “those who are humble” (ISV), yet none of these quite capture the full sense of the Greek. The Greeks used this word to describe a horse that had been broken-in. 

The only three adjectival uses of praus in the Gospels are provided by Matthew. The first is in this beatitude. The second, Matt 11:28-30, clearly keys into the image of a beast of burden as raw power, tamed to so that it can be used. Jesus advocates “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29 WEB). At times a trainer would yoke or tether a colt to a more experienced animal, thus encouraging them to comply, without making them fearful. In the third, Matt 21:5, we find the claim that Jesus’ triumphal entry fulfilled the prophecy of Zech 9:9.

A second aspect of praus comes to the fore in Matthew’s quotation, “tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your King comes to you, humble, and riding on a donkey on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matt 21:5 WEB, cf. Zech 9:9). The adjective was often used of taming a wild animal or the calming of people who were excited or irritable. By association it was therefore applied to the outcome of such taming, to the gentle, quiet and friendly who, like a well trained animal, do not succumb to bitterness or anger, whatever the provocation. As with the trained workhorse, this is not simply a matter of passive submission to a stronger force, but involves an active choice to accept instruction (Hauck and Schulz 1964, 6:650-1).

Meekness was a noteworthy characteristic of Moses (Num 12:3), of whom the analogy with a broken-in workhorse would hold true. The man who reacted out of his own anger at injustice, then fled from Egypt in disgrace, was certainly very different from the one who returned bearing God’s message to Pharaoh.

The Lord guides the meek in justice and instructs them in his way, just as he does sinners (Ps 25:8-9). He lifts them up (Psalm 147:6). They do what God says (Zep 2:3), yet their way is turned aside by men (Amos 2:7). They are people whose words remain right even when others seek to destroy them with slander (Isa 32:7). God extends grace to them (Pr 3:34) and others are commended for doing likewise (Prov 14:21)It is better to have a humble spirit like the meek than divide spoil with the proud (Pr 16:19)

They are at times described as the afflicted meek (Amos 8:4, Isa 32:7, Ps 9:12, Job 24:4) or meek afflicted (Ps 10:12, Pr 3:34, Pr 16:19), suggesting that their condition was closely related to suffering. Their cry for justice is not forgotten by God (Ps 9:12, 18)According to Isaiah, when Lebanon is restored the meek “will increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel”  (Isa 29:19 HNV). God rides out to defend the causes of truth, meekness and righteousness (Psalm 45:4).

The land in the Hebrew Bible

In the Greek γῆ (ge) there is considerable latitude in the object of this promise. It could refer to the entire surface of the earth (Matt 6:19), the ground (Matt 10:29), a national group (Matt 4:15) or region (Matt 9:26), or a cosmological realm (Matt 5:18). The context, which it inherits from the Hebrew Bible, must determine the appropriate scope. In the LXX, ge consistently replaces the Hebrew  אֶרֶץ (’erets), a term whose similar breadth of meaning also allows it to represent the entire surface of the earth (Gen 9:17), the ground (Gen 18:2), a national territory (Gen 36:6) or region (Gen 15:7), or a cosmological realm (Deut 30:19). Once again, the context of the passage determines the intended scope.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible God repeatedly allocated land to nations and people groups , which was thereafter considered the inviolable inheritance of their children (e.g. Num 26:51-53, Ez 47:13-14). Overwhelmingly the focus of this is the land of Canaan (e.g. Num 34:29, 36:2, Deut 4:21, 38, Josh 11:23, 14:1-2, Judg 2:6, 1 Sam 9:27-10:1, 1 Kgs 8:36) and Moses traces this promise of land as an inheritance back to the patriarchs (Ex 32:13), Abraham (Gen 12:7), Isaac (Gen 26:3) and Jacob (Gen 28:13), as does the chronicler (1 Chr 16:16-18).

Referring to God’s role in the conquest of Canaan, Moses said “You shall bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of your inheritance, the place, LORD, which you have made for yourself to dwell in; the sanctuary, Lord, which your hands have established” (Exod 15:17 WEB).  This is just one of many occasions when the entire nation of Israel is referred to as God’s inheritance (e.g. Deut 9:26, 29, 1 Sam 26:19, 2 Sam 20:19, 1 Kgs 8:51, 53). There is thus a sense that Israel inherits the land even whilst its original owner, their heavenly father, is still alive (cf. Luke 15:11-12) and that inheriting the land was, in some sense, a particular reward for faithful service (cf. Job 27:13, Ps 25:12-13, Ps 37:22, 28-29). The promise to Abraham involved the land he saw as he walked (Gen 12:7, 13:15-17, Gen 15:18, 17:18), but there was a sense that the boundaries were not fixed and the king of all Israel could ask for as much as he wanted (cf. Psalm 2:8). Wherever God caused his people to set their foot and claim, that was the place they would posses (cf. Deut 1:36, Deut 11:25, Ezek 36:12) and become responsible before God for the conduct of.

Whilst others received an inheritance of land in their own right, time and again it is stressed that the Levites inheritance was not amongst that of their countrymen (e.g. Deut 10:9, 18:1-2). Aaron and his descendants received the Lord as their portion (Num 18:20) and therefore benefited vicariously from his inheritance rather than their own. This included cities and land given to God, or to his servants, by the tribes (Num 35:2, Neh 11:20)

Land given by a chief to servants was held by them only up until the Jubilee, when they were released from their service and the land reverted to the chief (Ezek 46:16-18). However, land given to sons remained their inheritance.

2. The biblical precedent

Psalm 37, the meek and the way

Vermes (2004, 313) notes that this psalm echoes a refrain repeated in Psalm 37 (Ps 37:9, 11, 29). In it the psalmist counsels the righteous not to be concerned by the wicked but to commit their way to God and trust in the Lord to restore righteous judgement, those who wait on the Lord to do this will inherit the land. Those who inherit the land are later identified as the meek/humble. The psalmist writes

37:5 “Commit your way to the LORD. Trust also in him, and he will do this:
6 he will make your righteousness go forth as the light, and your justice as the noon day sun.
7 Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him. Don’t fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who makes wicked plots happen.
8 Cease from anger, and forsake wrath. Don’t fret, it leads only to evildoing.
9 For evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
10 For yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more. Yes, though you look for his place, he isn’t there.
11 But the humble [=meek] shall inherit the land [=earth], and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”

(Ps 37:5-11 HNV, annotation and emphasis is mine)

Somewhat later in Psalm 37 we encounter

37:22 For such as are blessed by him shall inherit the land.
Those who are cursed by him shall be cut off.
23 A man’s goings are established by the LORD. 
He delights in his way.

(Ps 37:22-23 HNV)

Then again, the psalm continues, “wait for the LORD, and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land. When the wicked are cut off, you shall see it” (Ps 37:34 HNV).

Thus, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matt 5:5)

This passage may appear to clarify the scope of ’erets (the land/earth), as the beneficiaries of this psalm are instructed to dwell in the land (Ps 37:3) and it is said to be the native soil of the wicked under whom they suffer (Ps 37:35). A specific region appears to be in view and, as this is a psalm of David, the natural context is the land that was promised to Abraham. However, as the region remains anonymous it can apply equally to any land for which the Son of God asks (cf. Ps 2:8).  

Psalm 25

If one concedes that the meek may be described as God-fearing, then a similar promise is linked to following the way by Psalm 25, where we find “what man is he who fears the LORD? He shall instruct him in the way that he shall choose. His soul shall dwell at ease. His seed shall inherit the land” (Ps 25:12-13 HNV)

3. Its place in the sequence

The position of Matt 5:5 is not constant within the textual traditions, the Western and Syriac texts having the order mourn then meek, as opposed to the order meek then mourn (Matt 5:4 and Matt 5:5) of other manuscripts. For this reason, some consider Matt 5:5 a later addition (Collins 1996, 1:630).

Reference to Isaiah suggests the more usually rendered order, for when good news is announced to the humble and the acceptable day of the lord is proclaimed (Isa 61:1-2), then those who mourn are comforted (Isa 61:2-3) and the ruins are restored (Isa 61:4).

4. Related New Testament texts

In Gal 5:23, Paul identifies meekness as a fruit of the spirit before going on to write about envy (Gal 5:26), then in 6:1-5 he plays upon its meaning. Brothers should restore one another in a spirit of meekness should they fall, for thereby they “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2 WEB). But in doing so they must be careful, “for if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each man test his own work, and then he will take pride in himself and not in his neighbor” (Gal 6:3-4 WEB). They are to test themselves, for they may have a plank in their own eye (Matt 7:1-5), then base their pride upon what they have achieved in themselves rather than what they have achieved in others. Paul’s reference to the “law of Christ”, suggests awareness of a body of legislative teaching that made reference to both the importance of meekness and to clear sighted judgement, for which the Sermon on the Mount provides an ideal candidate.

The horse-trainer’s object is to deliver a broken and submissive animal without alienating them from their human master, to that end they treat them gently. A similar spirit may nuance some of Paul’s pastoral instructions, such as when he tells the Galatians to correct those caught in trespass with gentleness (Gal 6:1), when he tells Timothy to correct with gentleness those who oppose him (2 Tim 2:25).

James stresses “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility [= meekness] the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas 1:20-21 WEB, annotation is mine).

The idea that God works through trials to perfect his children is encountered repeatedly in the NT letters (e.g. Rom 8:28, Heb 12:6-7, 10; Jas 1:3-4; 2 Thes 1:5-7).

5. Some church perspectives

Ignatius commends meekness in a bishop and sees it as his power (Ign. Trall. 3.2). With Ignatius, indeed with the post-apostolic fathers in general, the New Testament’s trend to consider meekness as an essential virtue becomes even clearer (Hauck and Schulz 1964, 6:650-1).

This beatitude is cited in the Didache, where the sense of trusting-acceptance comes across. It reads -

3:7 ‘But be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth. 8 Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and quiet and kindly and always fearing the words which thou hast heard. 9 Thou shalt not exalt thyself, neither shalt thou admit boldness into thy soul. Thy soul shall not cleave together with the lofty, but with the righteous and humble shalt thou walk. 10 The accidents that befal thee thou shalt receive as good, knowing that nothing is done without God.’

(Did. 3.7-10 Lightfoot)

Note again the emphasis on accepting that all things work together for the good of those who believe.

For John Chrysostom “the land” was no purely figurative inheritance that Jesus had in mind, so the beatitude provided an excuse to discuss how Jesus intermingles sensible and spiritual rewards (Chrysostom Hom. 15, 5). To support this argument he calls attention to, amongst other passages, the Sermon on the Mount’s promise of a hundred fold reward in this world (Matt 6:33).

Strong (1996, G4239) notes that the development of meekness is a work of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23), not of the human will. He sees it as that disposition of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting.” (Strong 1996, G4239).

Warren Wiersbe (1996, Mat 5:1-16), noting the Greek application of praus, suggests the meek were those whose power was under control.