Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

46. The Beatitudes - Blessed are the Meek (Matthew 5:5)*

It is only to the man of God that this beatitude makes sense. To the average worldling it is a paradox of foolishness. This is because he has no appreciation of the strength of character which true meekness expresses. The world esteems self-assurance and self-assertiveness. The Jews in Christ’s day honoured those who were ready to rebel and struggle and fight against the power of Rome. Today the psychologist bids a man resolve his inner conflicts by giving expression to his personality (the man of true meekness is too much ashamed of his to feel that he ought to do anything of the sort). Even the churches have a firm belief in the power of organization; regardless of principle, they seek to unite and stand shoulder to shoulder, presenting a strong front to the world. They forget Gideon and the whittling down of the mass of recruits he had at his back.

What, then, is this meekness which Jesus seeks in his followers - or rather, what is it not, for it has its counterfeits? One may rule out flabbiness of character and lack of personality such as endears itself to neither God nor man. Nor is it indolence. There is nothing spiritually admirable about laziness. Nor is it to be confused with gentleness, for this often-charming trait of character is usually inherited, not acquired; it springs from the genes of one’s parents, not from a new birth in Christ. And even when acquired, it is not infrequently assumed, for respectability’s sake.

Wherein does meekness differ from being “poor in spirit”, the first beatitude? The relationship between the two virtues is obviously close, but one is subjective and the other objective. To be poor in spirit is to know frankly and honestly one’s own natural worth -- or, rather, lackof it-in the sight of God. Meekness is the practical expression of this attitude of mind in the situations of daily life. Many of the manuscripts put these two Beatitudes together (as verses 3, 4). This seems to be right, for in Hebrew “poor” (‘an!) and “meek” (‘onav) are almost the same. They often come together in the Old Testament and are not infrequently confused in the manuscripts.

The “meekness” of Moses

It is doubtful whether the familiar passage about the meekness of Moses should be read in that way- more likely: “suffered travail, was afflicted” (Num. 12:3). But the fact remains that meekness showed very wonderfully in him when, already galled and goaded to desperation by the repeated murmuring of the people, he had to endure the bitter criticism of his own brother and sister. The record suggests no hint of hot rejoinder from Moses. Instead, he pleaded for the restoration of his stricken sister.

The sorry antithesis to this is seen in the second smiting of the rock. Then, openly despising his brethren and at the same time exalting himself to a pseudo-equality with the Almighty, he cuttingly addressed them: “Hear now, ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Thus he stored up retribution for himself.

David, Paul

Or consider David at the time of Absalom’s rebellion. Fleeing from his splendid capital in helpless misery he was made to drink the dregs of wretchedness when Benjamite Shimei followed him with curses and reviling. Yet opportunity for retaliation was ready to hand. Hot-headed impulsive Abishai needed only a nod, and in two minutes he would have been across that wild ravine, and his hands choking the life out of Shimei. Instead: “Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day” (2 Sam. 16:11, 12). What a man!

There are things written by and about Paul which make the reader hesitate in assessing his character; for example, the rather high and mighty attitude he adopted when the magistrates of Philippi sent ordering his release (Acts 16:37) - there was, of course, a reason for this. And even though he softened his Corinthian self-vindication with “I speak as a fool”, would a man of true meekness have stretched out that long awe-inspiring catalogue of things done and endured for Christ’s sake (2 Cor. 11:21-30)? And was not his thorn in the flesh “lest he be exalted above measure” (12:7)?

The fact has to be faced-for the total accumulation of evidence is not to be said nay-that at one period of his apostleship Paul was near to undoing everything through a vainglorious satisfaction, however excusable, in all that he had endured and achieved in the gospel.

Nevertheless through this most trying ordeal of all this man of God came through unsoiled. Witness the following triad of passages:

“For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).

A few years later he wrote: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given” (Eph. 3:8).

And a few years later still: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15).
As he grew nearer to Christ, so his self-esteem declined. In this especially his exhortation may well be heeded: “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).


And the imitation of Christ sets a standard from which many recoil in hopelessness: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being (as Adam was) in the form of God, thought equality with God (such as the serpent temptingly whispered) not* a thing to be grasped (by the seizing of the forbidden fruit), but he emptied himself (of self), taking the form of a servant, becoming obedient unto death (not disobedient unto death, as Adam) even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).

What this meant is made clear in greater detail by Peter: “When he was reviled, reviled not again: when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself (them?) to Him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).

There is nothing in life harder to bear than being flagrantly misjudged or being made to endure ill treatment, which is altogether undeserved and grossly unfair. To put up with experiences of this sort without bitterness, self-pity or savage resentment is the very acme of the Christian spirit of meekness.

How is this to be reconciled with the appeal of Jesus? “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek, and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Mt.l1:29). The fact is that when one has learned the meekness of Christ, there is a relaxed attitude towards these trials which is rest for the soul. The meek see all the experiences of life as overruled by God. They accept and rejoice in this divine Providence, and have nothing to fear or fret about. In their attitude to people, there is no need for suspicion or self-justification, no need to be prickly, constantly on the defensive. The headaches of life are endured without vexation or self-pity. And this because the “rights” of the individual have been renounced. The man of meekness has abdicated from his status as a human being. He is well content to be instead a son of God.

The most difficult trait of all to acquire is the meekness that “trembles at God’s word” -- “receive with meekness the engrafted word” (Jas. 1:21). There is no student of the Bible who has not committed this sin of refusing to believe just what Scripture says, substituting instead the interpretation to which his own inclination leads him. This has doubtless happened already a number of times in the course of these studies. All readers of these words are guilty of it.


Meekness is, here and now, its own reward. When there came that altercation between herdmen, Abraham, with all right on his side could have bluntly told Lot to clear off elsewhere. Instead, knowing himself to be one to whom much heavenly graciousness had been extended (recall that unsavoury transaction in Egypt!), he renounced all rights and calmly left Lot to sort things out. No sooner had his kinsman gone off in the direction of Sodom, than Abraham’s meekness inherited the earth: “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art...” Such meekness in the seed of Abraham inherits the same covenanted blessing.

“Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him - fret not thyself...Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.” (Ps. 37:7, 8). Such a placid unassertive attitude to life is possible only for the meek of the earth. They inherit this tranquil philosophy now, and they inherit the earth forever.

Notes: Mt. 5:5.

  1. The following definitions of the meek may or may not be helpful: “Men who suffer wrong without bitterness or desire for revenge” (Expos. Gk. Test.) “The meek man is one who ... bows at once to the will of God ... Meekness commonly means a disposition towards men, but what is meant here and in Ps. 37:11 ... is a disposition towards God” (Plummer). Is he right in this?
  2. One commentator actually explains how the meek inherit the earth by citing the persecuted Puritans who emigrated and took to themselves the American continent (and in the process shot nearly all the Red Indians out of it!
  3. It is past present understanding why Luke -- Luke, of all people!- should not find room for this Beatitude in his chapter 6.

Previous Index Next