Matthew 5:6 in detail,  blessed are those who hunger and thirst

1. The historical context

Hunger and thirst in the Hebrew Bible

The words used here describe physical hunger and thirst, but, thanks to the addition of “for righteousness,” their use is clearly  metaphorical. France (1995, 110) offers, as examples of such metaphorical hunger and thirst, the deer panting of Ps 42:1-2 and the call to seek bread that satisfies in Isa 55:1-2.

Psalm 42:1-2 links the panting of the thirsty deer with the psalmist’s yearning for godly wisdom, whilst the psalmist’s insubstantial food of tears is the direct result of a paucity of God’s manifest presence. At their root, this metaphorical hunger and thirst is experienced by those with unrequited yearnings for God.  A thematic parallelism in Nehemiah links physical yearnings with the proper objects of their spiritual equivalents, as follows -

  • 9:13 “You came down also on Mount Sinai
    • and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments,
        • 14 and made known to them your holy Sabbath,
          •  and commanded them commandments, and statutes, and a law, 
  • by Moses your servant, 
    • 15 and gave them bread from the sky for their hunger, 
        • and brought forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst, 
          • and commanded them that they should go in to possess the land which you had sworn to give them.”

(Neh 9:13-15 WEB, layout mine)

The manna from heaven and the spring from the rock both became abiding symbols of God’s spiritual provision for his people and the wilderness experience became archetypical of God’s ability to provide (cf. Ps 107:4-5, 9).

For Isaiah, this hunger and thirst could be misdirected, its object could be food that does not satisfy (Isa 55:1-2), or is positively harmful, as when the hunger and thirst of the blacksmith who fashions an idol sap his strength and render him faint (Isa 44:12)

From Isa 32:6 we discover that the foolish, by speaking folly, behaving profanely and harbouring a heart of iniquity, “empty the soul of the hungry” and “cause the drink of the thirsty to fail” (Isa 32:6 WEB). The hunger and thirst of those surrounded by fools will only get worse. By contrast, Isaiah brings the promise that it will not always be so, for when God’s flock are led by him, they shall feed in the ways and will experience no such hunger and thirst (Isa 49:10)

In the preceding events of Jesus’ life

The events described in the earliest chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, for those who accept their historicity, provide part of the historical context for the Sermon. During Jesus temptation we find him responding to physical hunger by affirming his choice of food that would satisfy over physical food (Deut 8:3). In the Magnificat, Mary cites Ps 107:9 (Luke 1:53), see below, in thanksgiving that God has filled the hungry.

2. The biblical precedent

Isaiah develops the theme of hunger and thirst, whilst linking it to both satiation and the promise of the previous beatitude (for in this case inheriting the desolate heritage equates to inheriting the land), when he declares -

49:8  ‘Thus says the LORD, “In an acceptable time have I answered you, and in a day of salvation have I helped you; and I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the people, to raise up the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritage: 9 saying to those who are bound, ‘Come out!’; to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves!’
 “They shall feed in the ways, and on all bare heights shall be their pasture. 10 They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun strike them: for he who has mercy on them will lead them, even by springs of water he will guide them. 11 I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted.”’

(Isa 49:8-11 HNV)

When God makes a way and his people inherit their heritage, then there will be not more hunger and thirst. 

Whilst Isaiah places removal of hunger and thirst in the context of restoring the way of righteousness, it is in Psalm 107 that we find the promise of fullness in its clearest form. The psalmist describes the hunger and thirst of those who once wandered in the wilderness and cried out to God, who received the bread from the sky and water from the rock, those whom God led by a straight way and whose souls He has satisfied. The text reads

107:4 “They wandered in the wilderness in a desert way.
They found no city to live in.
5 Hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted in them.
6 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them out of their distresses,
7 he led them also by a straight way,
that they might go to a city to live in.
8 Let them praise the LORD for his loving kindness,
for his wonderful works to the children of men!  
9 For he satisfies the longing soul.
He fills the hungry soul with good.”

(Ps 107:4-9 HNV)

Thus when a straight way is restored those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are filled (Matt 5:6).

With regard to thirst, this observation is supported by Isaiah 41:17-18 in which the poor seek water and are thirsty, so in response God creates an environment of streams and pools (Isa 41:18). This echoes the stream and pool creation of an earlier reference to restoring the wilderness (Isa 35:6-7) in which it is associated with the appearance of a way in the wilderness (Isa 35:8).

3. Its place in the sequence

Isaiah 49:8-11 provides a natural link from the third Beatitude, with its promise of inheriting the land (Isa 49:8) and that none will hunger or thirst (Isa 49:10), for the passage associates both with the restoration of the way (Isa 49:11), as discussed above.

Psalm 22 would also seem to support this order. The psalmist declares “Of you comes my praise in the great assembly. I will pay my vows before those who fear him. The humble [= meek] shall eat and be satisfied. They shall praise the LORD who seek after him.” (Ps 22:25-26 HNV, annotation is mine). Thus, when the meek are blessed (Matt 5:5) then they eat and their hunger is satisfied (Matt 5:6).

4. Related New Testament texts 

In the Gospel of Luke

The difference between this beatitude and its parallel version in Luke (Luke 6:21), which refers simply to those who hunger, is covered under discussion of the Sermon on the Plain.

In the Gospel of John

In John’s Gospel Jesus, addressing the topic of bread from heaven, explains “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33 WEB). He then goes on to offer satiation, saying “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 WEB).

In Revelation

The promise of Isa 49:8 appears again in Rev 7:16-17, applied to those who have come through the great tribulation.

5. Some church perspectives

France (1995, 110) sees this hunger and thirst as “a personal aspiration, not a desire for social justice”, and, concerning being filled, “the ultimate satisfaction of a relationship with God unclouded by disobedience is chiefly in view.”

Lloyd-Jones (1962, 84) finds in this beatitude a perfect statement of the doctrine of salvation by grace only.” For him, hunger and thirst are “the only way of blessing” and “a  test of our doctrine” (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 84). If we say that all that is necessary is the desire to be right with God, then people err if they say that is too easy, if say that righteousness involves being like God, then they err if they say that is too hard (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 84-85). Righteousness is impossible by human effort, but because those who If we hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled with it righteousness they are right with God (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 86-87). Hunger and thirst are not simply a mental state but they manifest themselves in our actions and our priorities (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 90)

Beasley-Murray (1987, 157-158) notes that Jesus’ use of Isa 61:1-2 at Nazareth slips a quote from Isa 58:6 into the text. As Isa 58:7 concerns feeding the hungry, he offers this as evidence that Matt 5:3-4 and Matt 5:6 naturally belonged together.

Vermes (2004, 313-4) sees in this passage a link with the promise of Matt 6:33, which he interprets as Jesus’ promise that seeking the kingdom and righteousness would result in the disciples physical needs being met.