So far in the Beatitudes, there seems to be a progression of thought. The Poor in Spirit are those who recognize the paucity – the nonexistence – of their spiritual resources apart from God which leads to Mourning for their sin and also for the state that sin’s entering had brought the creation. In Matthew 5:5, Jesus declares blessedness on the Meek, a seeming logical step in the progression.
The word “meek” needs some defining. Our English word really does not appear to be up to the task, given the confusion and all the jokes over this Beatitude. The recent blog at Internet Monk, for example, paraphrases this as “all are welcome to share in the Kingdom blessings … Even if you are the kind of person who doesn’t stand up for yourself or assert your rights”. Often, the picture is of one who is so passively unassertive so as to be ineffective. On the other hand, looking at Bible translations, despite some experimentation with “gentle” or “humble”, the majority keep on translating the Greek word praus (πραuς) “meek”.
To the Greeks, praus was a great virtue. Aristotle wrote that praus was the perfect balance between the one who is never angry and the one who is always angry. This word would be used to describe a gentle wind or a well-tamed horse. It is a word of controlled, rather than wild, strength; of energy focused constructively rather than blasted out indiscriminately. Biblically, meek is how the Christian should study the Bible (James 1:21); keep unity in the Body (Ephesians 4:2); instruct those who oppose the Gospel (2 Timothy 2:25); witness to unbelievers (1 Peter 3:15); restore fallen believers (Galatians 6:1); and walk in front of the world (Titus 3:2). Moses is called meek (Numbers 12:3), as is Jesus (Matthew 11:29)
Matthew 5:5 is unique of the Beatitudes as it alone is a direct quote from the Old Testament (Psalm 37:11). In this Psalm, there are repeated references to inheriting the land (vv 9, 11, 22, 29, 34). I believe that this Psalm is a key to understanding the righteous characteristic of meekness. For brevity’s sake, I will look at the first 11 verses, but the other “inherit the land” verses also add to the picture.
Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 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 act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. (Psalms 37:1-11) There is an obvious Hebrew parallelism between verse 9 and verse 11. Meekness is stacked up with “those who wait on the Lord”. So, meekness can be at least partly defined as waiting on the Lord. In a previous entry (Poor in Spirit) I quoted the example of Jesus who would do nothing and say nothing unless it was given to him by the Father. Jesus, though God incarnate, did not assert himself but waited on the Lord.
Looking at the verses leading up to verse 11, I think that Psalm 37 describes other characteristics which flesh out what Jesus meant by meek. These verses say that the one who inherit the land do not fear those who oppose the Lord (vv 1,7,8) or envy them (v1). They trust in the Lord and do good (v 3). They delight in the Lord (v 4) and commit their ways to him (v5). Resting from their struggles they patiently wait for God to act (v 7). They restrain their anger and leave off wrath (v8 see Romans 12:19-21). The opposite of the meek man are the evil (v 9) and the wicked (v 10).
I’ve mentioned two biblical examples of Meekness. The context in which Moses was called “the meekest man on earth” (Numbers 12:3) was that his brother and sister stood up against him to claim equality with Moses in leadership. Moses’ meekness in that situation played out in him not defending himself. Rather, it was the Lord who heard and acted to defend Moses. Even with God’s action, Moses did not rejoice in the punishment of his opposers but pleaded for mercy for them (v 13).
Though the word “meek” is not in the contexts, other examples include Abraham (Genesis 13:8,9) who when confronted by the dispute between his flocks and Lot’s allowed Lot to choose where he would go and took the other way. It was a living out of Abraham’s trust in the Lord. Note that in giving this choice to Lot, the Lord protected Abraham from moving his flocks to the well-watered valley which was the home of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Another example is David (1 Samuel 24 and 26) who spared Saul’s life. David’s life was threatened by Saul, he knew God had promised him that he would be king and yet did not take it into his hands to accomplish it. He explained, As the LORD lives, the LORD himself will strike him down. Either his day will come and he will die, or he will go down into battle and be swept away. But may the LORD prevent me from extending my hand against the LORD’s chosen one! (1 Samuel 26:10-11) Also significant is David’s statement in the earlier incident as to why he would not kill Saul, May the LORD judge between the two of us, and may the LORD vindicate me over you, but my hand will not be against you. It’s like the old proverb says: ‘From evil people evil proceeds.’ But my hand will not be against you. (1 Samuel 24:12-13) Twice, David says that his hand will not rise against Saul. For David, to take matters into his own hand would be an act of evil and evil is what evil people do (a bit of a tautology there but it matches the antonyms in Psalm 37:9&10).
One more example and contrast draws a significant distinction. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul writes, At my first defense no one appeared in my support; instead they all deserted me — may they not be held accountable for it. (2 Timothy 4:16) Paul, like Moses, confronted with personal affront and a situation which must have caused great hurt, pleads for mercy and forgiveness for those people. Yet, a few verses before this writes Alexander the coppersmith did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him in keeping with his deeds. (2 Timothy 4:14). This response seems contradictory from the other. No mercy. No forgiveness. What’s the difference? From 1 Timothy 1:20, we see that the harm Alexander did to Paul was in hindering the work of the Gospel. So we see that the mind of Paul was focused on the mind of God. Paul’s anger was God motivated, not self. What determined the energy of the response was the focus under which that energy was placed.
Meekness is the righteous characteristic of the one living as God created him to live. It is energy and resources directed by the will, mind and heart of God rather than self. This Beatitude, while it certainly has an internal component, also involves an outward application to how we view and treat others. Being poor in spirit there should be no self-aggrandizing. No defense for what we know to be indefensible. We also recognize the universality of our state. They too are spiritual beggars, whether they recognize it or not. They too are in a state that is truly mourn-worthy, no matter what they are doing to occupy themselves.