What does Jesus mean by “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)?
I haven’t been too clear on the meaning of this Beatitude, despite long being familiar with it. However, a recent study of Psalm 37, which it’s quoted from, sheds a lot more light on Jesus’ meaning.
Psalm 37 is a contrast between two ways of life, the evildoer and the righteous, and the two very different outcomes of these lives.
The wicked man appears to flourish and prosper, despite flagrantly carrying out his evil plans. He plots against and attacks the righteous and takes what he desires by force. Justice never seems to touch him. He grows richer and more established and never seems to suffer the consequences of his underhanded deeds, despite disregarding God completely. He receives honour from those around him.
When faced with this reality, there are several natural temptations we fall into, especially when we are the victim of one of these people.
We’re tempted toward anger, bitterness, and resentment.
We’re tempted to take revenge.
We’re tempted to think that if those who act wickedly prosper, what point is there in serving God and doing what’s right? We may be tempted to stop acting with integrity and do what others do to gain earthly advantage.
In light of all that, Psalm 37 reassures us that God’s judgement is indeed coming against the wicked. He may appear to be untouchable, but like a great tree cut down, his day will come and he will be no more.
In contrast, the psalmist advises us to be patient, to put our hope in God, to wait for him, to faithfully continue to do good, and to not grow angry. Those who follow this way of life will see their reward from God.
The psalmist cites several promises of God acting on behalf of the righteous, but the central promise, repeated five times in the Psalm (vv. 9, 11, 22, 29, 34), is that of inheriting 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. (v. 10-11)
In other words, although the unscrupulous and the godless appear to be untouchable and to win all the games of this life, this will not last forever. A day of reckoning will come when God calls them to account. By contrast, those who faithfully trust God and continue obeying him, will be established forever and their righteousness made publicly apparent. The apparent losers will be the winners in the end. The last shall be first, and the first, last.
In the Old Testament context of the psalmist, the land in view was the physical land of Israel. In Jesus’ fulfillment, it’s the eternal, perfect new earth he promises to those who trust him.
This theme runs throughout Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings. Jesus tells us to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45); Paul urges us not to take revenge on those who mistreat us but instead to show them kindness (Romans 12:19-21); Peter counsels us to endure unjust suffering patiently while trusting in God, following the example of Jesus (1 Peter 2:23).
This is what meekness looks like.
So who are the wicked, the opposite of the meek?
They’re those who, instead of trusting God and obeying him, use their power to get ahead, gain wealth, and to mistreat, take advantage of, or remove those who cross them. They don’t hesitate to use underhanded, unethical, and dishonest means to achieve their objectives. They will be nice to people and play by the rules when it serves them; but when it doesn’t, they’ll throw the rules, and anyone in their way, under the bus. They take whatever they can to build their wealth and are stingy with everyone but themselves. Instead of humbly consulting God for wisdom and following his ways, they consult no one but themselves and do whatever seems right to them.
Who are the meek?
They’re those who trust God in all of their ways, if imperfectly, and seek to obey his directives about how to live life. They treat others with fairness and kindness, including those who can provide them with no personal advantage. They strive to do what’s right always, even when no one’s watching, and even when they suffer for it. When mistreated and cursed, they forgive and bless. They don’t take revenge or use force to gain an advantage, but humbly and patiently trust God to take care of them.
It’s a uniquely Christian ethic, and one that is uniquely difficult—in fact impossible—to live out, humanly speaking. It’s not our natural instinct to forgive, to bless, to pray for, and to show kindness to those who mistreat us and subject us to injustice. It’s not natural instinct to continue doing what’s right even when we suffer for it. But it is what Jesus calls us to. And we can do so trusting in him that he won’t let us down—that following him really will result in the eternal inheritance and blessedness that he promises, no matter what it may cause us to lose in this life.