BLESSED are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5 (King James Version)
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. Matthew 5: 5 (New Living Translation)
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5: 5 (New American Standard Bible)
Istifanus Joshua (not his real name) was born into a notorious tribe of fierce warriors who had battled and conquered most of their neighbours in the southeast of Nigeria, before the arrivals of the Europeans and the birth of the church in the continent of Africa. In fact, in Istifanus’ hometown, the machete dangling from the hips of males was still an emblem of masculinity and courage. As at the 20th Century; the machete was still hacking down lives whenever there was a communal dispute over farmlands. The machete was a constant feature of cultural apparels as it was waved menacingly by warriors during war dances. Istifanus was raised by his father to be brave, decisive and intolerant of injustice. Thus, when Istifanus eventually took the decision to receive Jesus as his Lord and Saviour and started attending Bible study, he did not seem to like nor understand Matthew 5:5. What was the Lord implying? Did the Lord expect his children to meekly accept bullying and all forms of maltreatment? Who are the meek and which earth would they inherit?
Like Istifanus, are you often perplexed by Matthew 5:5? At the beginning of this write-up, I listed Matthew 5:5 from three different versions of the Bible. The purpose is to establish if the word “meek” is used by all versions of the Bible. We saw that the New Living Translation uses the adjective “humble” while the New American Standard Bible uses the adjective “gentle.” In most dictionaries, the words, “humble” and “gentle” are rightly synonyms of the word “meek.”
It may amaze you that the average dictionary does not describe meekness as a virtue. Let’s take The Microsoft Encarta Dictionary for example which is available on most laptops and tablets. It describes meek as:
- mild: showing mildness or quietness of nature
- cowed: showing submissiveness and lack of initiative or will.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (International Students Edition) on the other hand describes the word “meek” as “quiet, gentle and always ready to do what other people want without expressing your own opinion.”
Matthew Henry’s Commentaries on the Bible, in an explanation that does not seem far drawn from the average dictionary’s viewpoint of the adjective, elucidates on Matthew 5: 5, as follows:
“The meek are happy. The meek are those who quietly submit to God; who can bear insult; are silent, or return a soft answer; who, in their patience, keep possession of their own souls, when they can scarcely keep possession of anything else. These meek ones are happy, even in this world. Meekness promotes wealth, comfort, and safety, even in this world.”
Albert Barnes (often referred to as “Barnes Notes”) on Matthew 5: 5, states thus:
“The meek – Meekness is patience in the reception of injuries. It is neither meanness nor a surrender of our rights, nor cowardice; but it is the opposite of sudden anger, of malice, of long-harbored vengeance. Christ insisted on his right when he said, ‘If I have done evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?’ John 18:23. Paul asserted his right when he said, ‘They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? Nay verily; but let them come themselves, and fetch us out,’ Acts 16:37. And yet Christ was the very model of meekness. It was one of his characteristics, ‘I am meek,’ Matthew 11:29. So of Paul. No man endured more wrong or endured it more patiently than he. Yet the Saviour and the apostle were not passionate. They bore all patiently. They did not press their rights through thick and thin, or trample the rights of others to secure their own.
Meekness is the reception of injuries with a belief that God will vindicate us. ‘Vengeance is his; he will repay,’ Romans 12:19. It little becomes us to take his place and to do what he has promised to do.
Meekness produces peace. It is proof of the true greatness of soul. It comes from a heart too great to be moved by little insults. It looks upon those who offer them with pity. He that is constantly ruffled; that suffers every little insult or injury to throw him off his guard and to raise a storm of passion within, is at the mercy of every mortal that chooses to disturb him. He is like “the troubled sea that cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.”
With all due respect, both Bible scholars are on track, although I will prefer Barnes’ Notes for its lengthy exposition that brings to bear the meekness of Christ and Apostle Paul. Scrutinising Barnes’ Note, we discover that the English word “meek” may not be an appropriate description for the meekness our Lord Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes. In corroborating Barnes’ elucidation, Greek scholar W. E. Vine reiterates that meekness in the Bible is an attitude toward God “in which we accept His dealing with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting.” We see this in Jesus who found His delight in doing the will of His Father. Vine goes on to assert that “the meekness manifested by the Lord and commended to the believer is the fruit of power. The Lord was “meek” because He had the infinite resources of God at His command. Thus, an index of meekness is the refusal to use available power even when provoked to do so. Meekness is the power of restraint!
To evaluate what meekness should be for a child of God, we must not look at “meekness” as defined by our dictionaries. We should rather examine the life of Christ. Wanton ascription of the character of meekness will always embed in our minds, concepts which are pale copies of reality. Orthodox Christianity’s image of Jesus which is sometimes that of a helpless baby, eternally nursed by his earthly mother is quite misleading. Our Lord Jesus was only a baby for the sake of the human growth process. Even today, a perennial baby dependent on a mother would be adjudged and esteemed an anomaly. When his ministry began, Jesus principally showed the love of God for the lost. Nevertheless, he did show fiery divine anger and took clear stances on issues that would make mere men of his time tremble. He was far from the dictionary definition of “meek.”
Although Jesus was a perfect epitome of love, he also exhibited the traits of a world-class CEO and a very successful army general who was aware of the enormity of battle that lay ahead for his troops against an evil kingdom. Jesus demanded commitment from his “troops” and not weakness. Let’s look at a few instances where Jesus stood his grounds and refused to be cowed or bullied. It is worthy of note that during Bible times of Jesus, the Roman authorities were not like our present day dictatorships in Africa, Asia, or any other modern-day totalitarian regimes. They were worse! They were akin to gods. They could torture, take lives at will and engage in all forms of ungodly and bloodthirsty acts against their subjects. Thus, don’t take it lightly that a man without any “political influence” had the nerves to stand up to the order of the day. A “troublemaker” at the local level always had a ripple effect on the entire empire. Such a man was certainly not meek in the dictionary definition of the word. Let’s enumerate a few instances where Jesus stood up against the status quo.
- Jesus publicly called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” who were “evil” and therefore couldn’t say anything good (Matthew 12:34). He publicly called them “hypocrites” (Matthew 22:18) “Sons of Hell,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “whitewashed tombs,” etc (Matthew 23: 13-17, 19, 23-32). The Pharisees were exalted amongst the people yet Jesus defied them, not secretly but publicly.
- The second chapter of John explains that during the Passover, Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem, made a whip of cords, and drove out the money changers who were doing business there. He also poured out the money and turned over the tables (John 2:13–15). Jesus said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (John 2:16). The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) also tell of Jesus entering the temple, driving out those who bought and sold, overturning their tables, and telling the crowd that they had turned the temple into a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46). Today, how many of us will have the guts to challenge an obvious wrong in our churches. I am not advocating for a spirit of rebellion because there are proper procedures for redress in the body of Christ. All I am emphasising is that it took guts (anointing) to do what Christ did in the temple.
- In Luke 13:31-35, Jesus told the Pharisees “Go and tell that fox for me . . .” after they had warned him to leave town because of Herod. Why did Jesus call Herod a “fox”? Herod was the tetrarch (meaning “ruler of a fourth,” for the kingdom was divided) of Galilee, in whose territory Jesus was active. Herod the Great, the one who was in power when Jesus was born and it was that Herod that slaughtered the innocent children after the three wise men told him about the Christ child, but Jesus was referring to his son, Herod Antipas, in this afore-quoted chapter of the Bible. Jesus did not whisper the insult. He proclaimed it. He asked to be quoted. It was this same Herod who killed John the Baptist. John had been a persistent critic of Herod for his dubious marriage and his general immorality. Herod Antipas was an unsavoury puppet ruler of the Romans and certainly not one to be trifled with. Jesus would have had every reason to have been afraid of him. Yet Jesus deliberately and publicly called him a fox (an unclean animal in Jewish culture). Jesus was in danger from Herod, and so he left for the countryside, not because he was afraid of Herod, but because “his time had not yet come.” That is another clear indication that Jesus was not a “meek coward.”
Which earth shall the meek inherit? In Barnes’ Note, he explains as follows:
“This might have been translated the land. It is probable that here is a reference to the manner in which the Jews commonly expressed themselves to denote any great blessing. It was promised to them that they should inherit the land of Canaan. For a long time, the patriarchs looked forward to this, Genesis 15:7-8; Exodus 32:13. They regarded it as a great blessing. It was so spoken of in the journey in the wilderness, and their hopes were crowned when they took possession of the promised land, Deuteronomy 1:38; Deuteronomy 16:20. In the time of our Saviour, they were in the constant habit of using the Old Testament, where this promise perpetually occurs, and they used it ‘as a proverbial expression to denote any great blessing, perhaps as the sum of all blessings,’ Psalm 37:20; Isaiah 60:21. Our Saviour used it in this sense and meant to say, not that the meek would own great property or have many lands, but that they would possess special blessings. The Jews also considered the land of Canaan as a type of heaven, and of the blessings under the Messiah. To inherit the land became, therefore, an expression denoting those blessings. When our Saviour uses this language here, he means that the meek shall be received into his kingdom, and partake of its blessings here and of the glories of the heavenly Canaan hereafter. The value of meekness, even in regard to worldly property and success in life, is often exhibited in the Scriptures, Proverbs 22:24-25; Proverbs 15:1; Proverbs 25:8, Proverbs 25:15. It is also seen in common life that a meek, patient, mild man is the most prospered. An impatient and quarrelsome man raises up enemies; often loses property in lawsuits; spends his time in disputes and broils rather than in sober, honest industry; and is harassed, vexed, and unsuccessful in all that he does. ‘Godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come,’ 1 Timothy 4:8. Compare with 1 Timothy 6:3-6.” Underlining mine for emphasis.”
The land is always inherited; it is not taken. It is not ours to take, but God’s to give. Thus we have no absolute right to it. Our “inheritance” of any land ultimately demands fidelity to God’s vision for the household, how we are to live in the land (Michael H. Crosby in “Spirituality of the Beatitudes”).
From our brief evaluation of our Lord and Saviour, meekness does not consist of justifying ourselves at the personal level. It remains a submission to the precepts and guidance of God.