Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

45. The Beatitudes - Blessed are They That Mourn (Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21, 25)*

Since the word “blessed” means “happy”, this beatitude presents one of the most unlikely paradoxes in all the Bible. Yet Jesus did not say that they who mourn ore happy, for this would be worse than any modern example of crazy double-speak. His beatitude gives firm assurance of comfort to come. Yet at any given moment there are thousands in the world who are delivered over to grief and who are bereft of real solace of any kind. The cruel hand of death, sudden and violent, the loss of home or health, the savage “indiscriminate” heartlessness of war, famine, plague or cataclysm-such common experiences leave a long trail of misery and mourning across the world. What comfort for such?

The answer must be: none at all, except they mourn over other things even more fundamental.

A quick review of a wide field of Old Testament passages, which must be regarded as the background to this Beatitude of Christ, shows other mourning besides personal stroke or bereavement. Here are examples:

  1. There is mourning for Zion, because the purpose of God with His ancient people seems as yet to have gone awry: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept, when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1).
  2. Akin to this is the grief of mind which looks out on a weary sin-stricken world without God. There is the sickness of heart that the vindication of God is so long delayed: “the thing was true, but the time appointed was long... In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks” (Dan. 10:1, 2). There is a problem here. Should those in Christ afflict their souls with fasting because the Bridegroom is taken away from them (Mt. 9:15), and is long returning? Or is such grief out of place because he is with them now and to the end of the world?
  3. There is the fret and heaviness which laments the indifference and sin of those who bear the name of the Lord unworthily: “Ezra did eat no bread, nor drink water: for he mourned because of the transgression of them of the captivity” (Ezra 10:6), just as -- the commonest of all mourning -- a man laments for the dead and the dying, those he holds in affection but seems helpless to help.
  4. Most devastating of all is the utter loss of spirit in those who grieve over their own sins-the “broken spirit”, the “broken and contrite heart” grieving in wretchedness past describing over the collapse of personal self-dedication to God.
All of these have their counterpart in the experience of Jesus and his New Testament saints:

  1. “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12, 13). Here is comfort of a very real kind. “We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” (Lk. 24:21). Those who set out for Emmaus mourning returned in an ecstasy of joy.
  2. Simeon, waiting for the consolation of Israel, was able to rejoice at the sight of a baby: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Lk. 2:25, 29, 30).
  3. Jesus wept over Jerusalem: “If thou hadst known, even thou, in this thy day the things which belong unto peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes” (Lk. 19:41, 42). And Paul lamented the lack of a contrite spirit in the ecclesia at Corinth: “Ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned” -- concerning the evil way of life present in their midst (1 Cor. 5:2).
  4. James bade his readers: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (4:9, 10). If a saint like Paul could so lament his own unworthiness by exclaiming: “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24), can there be any question that all saints in Christ should similarly castigate themselves?
This last, most of all, must have been the chief reference of the Lord’s words. When a man is bowed down with dejection at his own spiritual condition, there is hope for him. When he goes with a heavy heart because of the meagre success attending his conscientious dedicated aspirations after godliness, then the happiness Jesus has promised is within his grasp. For what has proved to be futile and hopeless because of his own powers will be done for him through the grace of Christ.


The reassurance is positive: “they shall be comforted”. The Lord’s own message in the synagogue at Nazareth was: “to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning.” There is a charming paronomasia in the Hebrew of that phrase: “Sashes for ashes”. It is an invitation to weddings instead of funerals. It happened this way when the disciples “mourned and wept” over the loss of their Lord, and Mary Magdalene came with incredible news (Mk. 16:10)

The version of this beatitude in Luke is most striking: “Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh”.

Jesus himself wept over the hardness of Jerusalem’s golden limestone (Lk. 19:41); he wept-a strange mystery this! -- at the grave-side of a dear friend whom only a few minutes later he was to restore to his mourning family (Jn. 11:35). He wept-can anyone grasp it? -at the inclination born with him to set his own will before that of his heavenly Father (Heb. 5:7). And never, in all the four gospels, is there a hint that he smiled, much less that he-this man of sorrows--laughed out of inexpressible gladness. But in these respects it was surely a different Jesus who encountered disciples on the day of resurrection. Would he not then prove to them the truth of his own Beatitude? (Ps. 30:11).

This transformation should have been the experience of the disciples when Mary Magdalene burst in on them “as they mourned and wept”. But “they, when they heard... believed not” (Mk. 16:10, 11). A strange reluctance to rejoice in good news! But before that day was out, they were different. When -- and no one knows how soon -- even better news comes to those who now mourn in Zion, will the reaction be the same?

Woe! Mourn and Weep!

The converse of this beatitude is stated in Luke just as forthrightly: “Woe unto you that laugh nowl for ye shall mourn and weep” (Lk. 6:25). Whether this be the mocking of the scoffer deriding the simple faith and piety of the disciple, or the empty laughter of the fool which is “as the crackling of thorns under a pot” (Ecc. 7:6), the miserable end of that mirth is the same heaviness (Pr. 14:13). A man whose life is not conditioned by a frank recognition of his own true state before God (that is, who is not “poor in spirit”), and who is not led thence to a contrite mourning because his life and his world are as they are, has no prospects at all. He can never know the genuine comfort and solace of soul which the Truth of God imparts through Jesus Christ.

Notes: Matthew 5;4; Luke 6:21, 25

  1. All the elements of this beatitude are included in Jas. 4:9 - another of the copious allusions in this epistle to the Sermon on the mount? Or, an allusion to the Day of Atonement?
  2. Jesus promised a Comforter to his mourning disciples. The effect of it is readily traceable in Acts. 2:41, 46; 4:24, 31, 32; 5:41; 8:39 etc.
  3. In A.D. 70 the devastation of Jerusalem by the Roman armies was celebrated by a special coin issue showing a woman, representing Jewry, mourning under a palm tree. The inscription is “Judaea capta”. For “laughter” - Jewry had to wait till 1948. There is yet to be a more intense mourning and a finer gladness for modern Israel.
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