The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:5

Matthew 5:5

The third Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:5) has no counterpart in Luke:

Maka/rioi oi( praei=$, o%ti au)toi\ klhronomh/sousin th\n gh=n
“Happy the meek/gentle (ones), (in) that they will receive the earth as (their) lot”

This saying is virtually a quotation from Psalm 37:11 (indicated by the underlined words above): “But the lowly ones [<yw]n`u&] will possess the earth/land and will delight themselves upon an abundance of peace”. In the Septuagint (LXX), the first portion of Psalm 37:11 [36:11] reads:

oi( de\ praei=$ klhronomh/sousin gh=n
“But the meek/gentle (ones) will receive the earth as (their) lot”

There are two basic points of interpretation in this Beatitude:

    • The precise meaning and significance of the adjective prau+/$
    • The expression klhronomh/sousin [th\n] gh=n

oi( praei=$

Prau+/$ has the meaning “gentle, mild, meek”. The adjective itself occurs only three times elsewhere in the New Testament (Matt 11:29; 21:5 [quoting Zech 9:9]; and 1 Pet 3:4); however, the related noun prau+/th$ (“meekness, gentleness”) is found more often (1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 10:1; Gal 5:23; 6:1; Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:25; Tit 3:2; James 1:21; 3:13; 1 Pet 3:15). Jesus’ saying in Matt 11:29 is fundamental for and understanding of the Beatitude here:

“Take up my yoke upon you and learn from me, (in) that [o%ti] I am meek/gentle [prau+/$] and lowly in the heart, and you will find rest/quiet anew for your souls”

Here we find the same adjective (prau+/$) connected with an expression (tapeino\$ th=| kardi/a|, “lowly in the heart”) which is similar to that in the first Beatitude (ptwxo\$ tw=| pneu/mati, “poor in the spirit”).

An examination of the context of Psalm 37:11 shows the following details related to the Beatitudes:

    • Contrast of the righteous and the wicked (cf. the model Beatitude of Psalm 1)
    • Theme of trust in the Lord (vv. 3-6) which is related to righteousness (v. 6, 16, 25, 30, 37, 39)
    • The righteous as poor and needy (vv. 14, 16, 25), but sustained by the Lord (v. 19, 40)
    • The differing fates of the righteous and wicked (v. 2, 9ff, 37-38)
    • The righteous will be happy and “blessed” (v. 4, 11, 22)

For other instances of the word in the Old Testament (LXX) with the sense of humility and meekness, see Psalm 25:9; 34:2; 45:4; 76:9; 146:6; 149:4; Isa 66:2; Sirach 1:27; 3:17-20; 10:28; 36:23, etc.

In Greek philosophy, meekness/gentleness is seen as a positive virtue, often contrasted with anger and brutality (Plato Phaedo 116c; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 4.5.1-4; Epictetus Enchiridion 42; for other references and bibliography, see Betz, Sermon, pp. 126-127). In Jewish tradition, Moses (like Socrates) was an ideal sage who possessed the virtue of meekness and humility (Num 12:3; Sirach 45:4); and the word could also be related to the mercy of God (i.e., his gentle chastisement, cf. Philo The Worse Attacks the Better §146). It was in early Christianity especially that meekness/gentleness came to be extolled in ethical instruction (1 Clement 13:1-4; Didache 3:7-8; 5:2; 15:1; Ignatius Trallians 3:2; Ephesians 20:2; Polycarp 2:1; 6:2; Hermas Commandment 5.2.6; Diognetus 7:4, etc.), largely as a result of Jesus’ saying in Matt 11:29 and here in the Beatitude.

klhronomh/sousin [th\n] gh=n

The verb klhronome/w (klhronoméœ) means “to have/hold by lot [klh/ro$]”, especially to receive (something) as a possession, i.e., to inherit. The reference in Psalm 37:11 [36:11] is colored by the idea of the allotments of land for the twelve Israelite Tribes (see Num 26:55; 33:54; Josh 14:1-2; 16:4, etc.). Also the Hebrew verb vr^y` (y¹raš, “possess”) in Ps 37:11 can have the sense “take possession of” or “dispossess”, and is used in relation to the Israelite conquest of Canaan; clearly, then the idea of possessing/inheriting the (promised) land is present (Hebr. Jr#a#, like Grk. gh=, can be rendered “land” as well as “earth”). Currently the “wicked” (i.e., the wealthy, powerful, ambitious, unscrupulous and violent) possess the “land”, but in the end (the age to come), it is the righteous (the meek and gentle ones) who will inherit. But how exactly should we understand the “earth/land” here in the Beatitude?

First it is necessary to look at the verb klhronome/w as it is used in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament.

So the verb—along with the related nouns klhronomi/a (“inheritance”) and klhrono/mo$ (“heir”)—is almost exclusively used in reference to inheriting the kingdom of God (and eternal life). One might assume it carries the same meaning here in the beatitude; however, the distinction between heaven and earth here (cf. also the Lord’s Prayer, Matt 6:10), suggests that “inherit the earth” is not entirely synonymous with “kingdom of God/Heaven”. The difficulty stems, in large part, from differences in eschatological imagery and conception related to the “Age to Come”. The Old Testament Prophets often used concrete images of earthly blessing—long life, health, wealth, prosperity, etc.—to describe the future Age (cf. Isaiah 65:17-25 as a prime example among many). This symbolism came to be wrapped up with the idea of the restoration of Israel and the Messianic Age in later Jewish (and early Christian) thought. At the same time, the kingdom of God in terms of the eternal presence and dwelling-place of YHWH (in heaven) continued as a fundamental eschatological theme. That early Christians could conceive of both an earthly (Messianic) and eternal (Heavenly) Kingdom is apparent especially in the book of Revelation (chapters 20-22); earnest and devout believers have struggled to harmonize and relate the two concepts ever since.
(For a similar difficulty within the New Testament itself, see the parallel saying of Jesus in Mark 10:29-30 / Matt 19:28-29 / Lk 18:29-30)

The ancient context of the Beatitude form (on this, see the earlier article) suggests an eschatological afterlife setting throughout. It would, I think, be a mistake to interpret Matt 5:5 as referring to a concrete earthly (this-worldly) blessing. For the righteous (believer), to “inherit the earth/land” is a distinct aspect of the eternal heavenly reward, drawn from traditional (Scriptural) language. The idea that believers even now realize something of this inheritance is not specified by Jesus in the Beatitude, but it will become an important dimension of Christian teaching—cf. especially the Pauline teaching clarified in Eph 1:11-14: the promise of inheritance is preserved by the presence of the Spirit in us.