Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
I think the most important question that we can ask of every beatitude is: What does this beatitude have to do with God? So today the question would be: What does meekness have to do with God?
The reason this question should be uppermost in our minds is that if we don’t have an answer to it, we will not be able to fulfill the aim of our Lord in this sermon. He said in verse 16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount so that his Father would get the glory for the way the disciples lived. His aim was to create a lifestyle in his disciples that would make people think about the value of God. And so, if meekness is what some people are like just because they always got beat down as a kid or because their parents never raised their voices or because they have some peculiar metabolism, then how would meekness call attention to the glory of God?
Jesus does not care about the reformation of manners or the transformation of personalities for their own sake. The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, which stands at the center of this sermon, is, “Hallowed be thy name!” This was the passion of our Lord’s life. Therefore it is the passion of ours. And we must ask this: What does meekness have to do with God? How does becoming meek and being meek promote the hallowing of God’s name?
In answering this question we will in fact discover that meekness is a very beautiful thing even though it may be very painful.
An Allusion to Psalm 37
Probably the best place to begin is in Psalm 37 because it is almost certain that this beatitude is a quotation or allusion to Psalm 37:11. It says, “The meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” In the Greek Old Testament, the words of Psalm 37:11 are almost identical with Matthew 5:5. It says, “The meek shall inherit the land.” And the word for “land” in Greek and Hebrew also means “earth.” So let’s try to see what meekness means in this Psalm and what it has to do with God.
The Meek Who Wait for the Lord
Notice the parallel between verse 11 and verse 9. Verse 11 says, “The meek shall possess the land.” Verse 9b says, “Those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.” So I would conclude first that the meek are people who wait for the Lord. But what does it mean to wait for the Lord?
“The meek are people who wait for the Lord.”
We get a picture of those who wait for the Lord, that is, the meek, if we read verses 5–8:
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your vindication as the light,
and your right as the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
A Portrait of the Meek
What are these people like who, according to verse 11, are meek and, according to verse 9, wait for the Lord? Well, verse 5 says they commit their way to the Lord and trust in the Lord. Verse 7 says they are quiet or still before the Lord and do not fret over others who prosper. And verse 8 says they refrain from anger and forsake wrath. So let’s try to put all this together into a portrait of the meek.
1. They Trust in God
Meek people begin by trusting God (verse 5b). They believe that he will work for them and vindicate them when others oppose them. Biblical meekness is rooted in the deep confidence that God is for you and not against you.
2. They Commit Their Way to God
Next, meek people commit their way to the Lord (verse 5a). The Hebrew word for “commit” means literally to “roll.” Meek people have discovered that God is trustworthy, and so they roll their “way” — their business, their problems, their relationships, their health, their fears, their frustrations — they roll all this onto the Lord. They admit that they are insufficient to cope with the complexities and pressures and obstacles of life, and they trust that God is able and willing to sustain them and guide them and protect them.
3. They Are Quiet Before God and Wait for Him
Next, according to verse 7a, meek people are quiet or still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. First, they discover that God can be trusted. Then, second, they commit their way to him. And then, third, they wait patiently in stillness for the work of God in their lives.
This doesn’t mean they become lazy. It means that they’re free of frenzy. They have a kind of steady calm that comes from knowing that God is omnipotent, that he has their affairs under his control, and that he is gracious and will work things out for the best. Meek people have a quiet steadiness about their lives in the midst of upheaval.
4. They Don’t Fret over the Wicked
And so the fourth thing about them (in verse 7b) is that they don’t fret themselves over the wicked who prosper in their way. Or, as verse 8 says, they refrain from anger. Their family and work and life are in God’s sovereign hands; they trust him; they wait patiently and quietly to see how his power and goodness will work things out; and so the setbacks and obstacles and opponents of life do not produce the kind of bitterness and anger and fretfulness that is so common among men.
So the portrait we have of meekness so far, based on the closest biblical parallel (in Psalm 37:11) to the third beatitude, is that it begins by trusting God. Then it commits its way to the Lord in the confidence that he will use his power and mercy to do good for us. Then it waits patiently and quietly for the outcome. And, finally, it does not give way to anger and fretfulness when faced with opposition and setbacks.
So it is clear already, in this preliminary sketch from Psalm 37, that meekness has very much to do with God. It consists in a peaceful freedom from fretful anger and is based on trusting God and rolling all our ways onto God and waiting patiently for God. Meekness has very much to do with God.
The Meekness of Moses
Now let’s add some detail to our portrait with some other biblical instances of meekness. Numbers 12:1–4 describes an occasion when Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses severely:
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman; and they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.”
What happens in the following verses is that the Lord rebukes Miriam and Aaron and vindicates his servant Moses.
Meekness Between Opposition and Vindication
Now, what is the point of calling Moses meek right here in this context — right between bitter opposition and God’s vindication? I think the point is that meekness means committing your cause to God and not needing to defend yourself. Just where we would expect the text to tell us what Moses said to justify himself against the charge of Miriam and Aaron, the text says he was the meekest man on the earth. Moses doesn’t say a word. Instead, he waits patiently for the Lord. He frets not over these critical words. And God comes to his defense.
Meekness Refrains from Revenge and Defensiveness
So we can add to our portrait of meekness this: not only does it trust God, and commit its way to God, and wait patiently for God, and refrain from anger; it also refrains from revenge and defensiveness. Meekness loves to give place to wrath and leave its vindication with God. Meekness is the power to absorb adversity and criticism without lashing back.
Receiving the Word with Meekness
To see another feature of the portrait of meekness let’s turn to the book of James. We will read James 1:19–21:
“Meekness is the power to absorb adversity and criticism without lashing back.”
Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
Two Kinds of People
James has in mind two kinds of people here. He pictures, on the one hand, a person who does not like to listen to what other people have to say, especially if they speak with authority. This person is quick to speak and quickly becomes angry if the words of others cross his opinion or call his behavior into question. He is not receptive to the word of God. He filters it through his own desires and receives it selectively, if at all.
On the other hand, James pictures another kind of person. This person is slow to speak, and quick to listen (verse 19). This person recognizes the limitations of his knowledge and the fallibility of his thinking, and so is eager to listen and learn anything valuable that he can. If he hears something new or contrary to his own view, his first reaction is not fretful anger. He is slow to anger. He listens and considers. And when it comes to the word of God, he receives it with meekness.
Meekness Is Teachable
So the new feature of our portrait of meekness is teachability. To receive the word with meekness means that we don’t have a resistant, hostile spirit when we are being taught. It doesn’t mean we are gullible. It doesn’t even mean that we will never get angry about what some people teach. Verse 19 says that we should be “Slow to anger,” not that we should never experience anger. Jesus said in Matthew 11:29, “I am meek and lowly in heart.” But in Mark 3:5 it says he became angry and grieved at the hardheartedness of the Pharisees; and in Matthew 21:12–13. He drove the merchants out of the temple and turned over their tables.
Meekness does not mean the absence of passion and conviction and even indignation for the glory of God. But it does mean that we don’t have hair-triggers. It does mean that our disposition is one of readiness to listen and learn. It does mean that we are slow to write a person off, slow to condemn, slow to anger. Let us be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves in discerning what is meekness and what is pride.
The Meekness of Wisdom
This becomes even clearer in James 3:13, 17. Verse 13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” This is a very beautiful phrase, “the meekness of wisdom.” The truly wise people are also the truly meek people. Why?
Look at verse 17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason. . . .” Notice that the reason the truly wise person is also the truly meek person is that true wisdom is peaceable, gentle, and open to reason. But these are the marks of meekness! Isn’t it remarkable that the marks of biblical wisdom and biblical meekness are the same?
Wisdom in the Bible is never a merely intellectual affair. It is a disposition of the heart as well as ideas in the head. And therefore, in a sense, meekness and wisdom are one thing. They are both peaceable, gentle, and open to reason.
You can see how that ties back into James 1:19–21. Back there we saw that meekness meant being quick to listen and slow to criticize and condemn. Here meekness is open to reason. What a beautiful thing it is to sit on a board of deacons where, when a man speaks, the others listen and then deal reasonably with what was said instead of just blurting out something irrelevant or making a quick judgment without thinking through the reasons for it.
Meekness and Reasonableness
Does not this Scripture teach us that there is a correlation between meekness and reasonableness? And is not reasonableness basically the willingness to listen to another person’s reasons for his opinion and the willingness to give reasons for yours? If I put forward my opinion without giving any reasons for it except that it is my opinion — I would not be acting in meekness, no matter how soft-spoken I might be. On the contrary, I would be acting in an authoritarian way, because I would be appealing to nothing outside myself.
There is, I think, a good deal of confusion at this point about the meaning of meekness. And this is very important for the way we do our business together here at Bethlehem as well as elsewhere. We must beware of confusing certain temperaments with meekness or with the absence of meekness. A conversation between two people may become passionate and heated and still be marked by meekness, if both of these people are speaking reasonably, that is, if they are defending their opinions by appealing not to themselves but to a standard of truth that is over them and of which they are humble servants.
But on the other hand there could be a very soft-spoken, laid-back conversation between two people in which they express their different opinions, but instead of arguing for them with reasons, and submitting themselves together to a higher standard of truth, they give the impression of being very self-effacing by saying that they just want to give their opinion and not argue about it. No one has to accept my opinion and I don’t have to accept anyone else’s. Live and let live.
Too often we think this is the spirit of meekness. Two people making no claim on the other person’s opinion, refusing to submit their own opinion to an independent standard of truth, unwilling to make themselves vulnerable to the claims of truth and the possible need to admit error — that is not the spirit of meekness, no matter how soft-spoken or self-effacing it looks on the outside. It is not self-effacing. It is self-protecting and truth effacing. What could be more serviceable to the spirit of pride than the view that neither you nor I have to give an account of our opinions before any standard but our own private selves?
Modern Culture’s Dislocation of Humility
Sixty years ago G.K. Chesterton spoke about the dislocation of humility. He said,
What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert — himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason . . . We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. (Orthodoxy, 31.)
“Wisdom in the Bible is never a merely intellectual affair.”
We are no longer on the road. We have arrived. The most seminal thinkers of our day would call the multiplication table a way of using language to help us get what we want. That’s all. You know that the secular world in which we live is populated by people who do not make their choices on the basis of an ultimate standard of truth. All truth has become relative.
The Doctrine of Twentieth-Century American Culture
Robert Bellah, in one of last year’s best sellers, Habits of the Heart, described the basic doctrine of twentieth-century American culture like this:
It is an understanding of life generally hostile to older ideas of moral order. Its center is the autonomous individual, presumed able to choose the roles he will play and the commitments he will make, not on the basis of higher truths but according to the criterion of life-effectiveness as the individual judges it. (Bellah, 47)
That is the world we live in. That is the spirit of this age. It is the very atmosphere we breathe. And unless we are extraordinarily alert we will breathe it right into the church as so many have already. And one of the ways it will make its way into the church is if we are so naïve as to mistake it for meekness.
Meekness Cares About the Truth
So let me say it again: the meekness of wisdom is open to reason — it is quick to listen to the reasons given by others for their opinions, and it is willing to give reasons for its own opinions. It cares about truth and whether others agree. And therefore it may become passionate and forceful. But it is always a servant. It is always submissive to a higher standard of truth. It is always willing to change to bring its opinions into line with truth. Meekness knows its own fallibility. But for that reason it takes debate and argument so seriously. It wants to discern its own errors and forsake them.
But the soft-spoken conversation in which two modern people defer to each other’s opposite opinions, not feeling the need to submit his opinion to a standard of truth higher than himself, and thus not exposing himself to the possibility of error and repentance — that is not the spirit of meekness.
Meekness and the Knowledge of Fallibility and Sin
Let’s look at one other feature in the portrait of meekness. It is found in Galatians 6:1–2:
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of meekness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Not only is meekness slow to speak and slow to anger, but when it decides that it must speak — even words of correction as we have here in Galatians 6:1–2 — it speaks with the deep awareness that it is fallible. More specifically when meekness reaches out to bring back a person overtaken in sin, it first takes the log out of its own eye and then admits that apart from grace — free and undeserved — it would fall to the very sin it is now trying to correct. “Look to yourself lest you too be tempted.” “Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
The Full Portrait of Biblical Meekness
Now let’s stand back and see if we can see the portrait whole. Meekness begins when we put our trust in God. Then, because we trust him, we commit our way to him. We roll onto him our anxieties, or frustrations, our plans, our relationships, our jobs, our health. And then we wait patiently for the Lord. We trust his timing and his power and his grace to work things out in the best way for his glory and for our good.
The result of trusting God and the rolling of our anxieties onto God and waiting patiently for God is that we don’t give way to quick and fretful anger. But instead, like Moses, we give place to wrath and hand our cause over to God and let him vindicate us if he chooses. And then, as James says, in this quiet confidence we are slow to speak and quick to listen. We become reasonable and open to correction. Meekness loves to learn. And it counts the blows of a friend as precious. And when it must say a critical word to a person caught in sin or error, it speaks from the deep conviction of its own fallibility and its own susceptibility to sin and its utter dependence on the grace of God.
Meekness begins with God and ends with God. And therefore whenever we see a person like that, we give God the glory and the aim of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is fulfilled.
They Shall Inherit the Earth
Now let’s turn our attention to the second half of the beatitude:
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
The Effect Jesus Wants This Promise to Have
What effect does Jesus want this promise to have on the disciples? I think the answer is that he wants the promise to give them strength to continue in their meekness. This is the way the promise works in verse 12: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, the promise of great reward gives the disciples strength to endure persecution with joy.
So I think the promise that the meek shall inherit the earth is intended by the Lord to give us the strength to endure in meekness when the natural inclination would be to defend ourselves or retaliate or give way to fretful anger.
All Things Are Yours
There is a passage in 1 Corinthians 3 that has helped me see how the promise of inheriting the earth gives strength to our meekness. In verses 18–23 Paul tries to help us overcome pride. The Corinthians were boasting in different teachers and in their worldly wisdom. So Paul says,
“Meekness begins when we put our trust in God.”
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.
Now notice the logic in verse 21: Let no one boast of men, for all things are yours. And one of the things mentioned is the world. Don’t boast, because the world is yours. Does that make sense to you?
Isn’t it this: you don’t need the vain pleasures of one-up-manship because God has already made you an heir of the world. Would I feel the need to brag that my house is bigger than your house if I knew that my Father owned the city and I was the beneficiary in his will?
Against Our Sinful Nature
The quietness and openness and vulnerability of meekness is a very beautiful and a very painful thing. It goes against all that we are by our sinful nature. It requires supernatural help. And that help is available, thank God!
If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, sitting at his feet on the mount this morning, that is, if you trust him and commit your way to him and wait patiently for him, God has already begun to help you and will help you more. And the primary way that he will help you is to assure your heart that you are a fellow heir of Jesus Christ and that the world and everything in it is yours. He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not freely give us all things with him? All things! No good thing will he withhold from those who walk uprightly. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”