Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Some of the most evocative words in the Old Testament come from Ecclesiastes 3:11:

God has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

What does this mean, that God has put eternity in man’s mind and yet has withheld from us the vision of what he has done from everlasting to everlasting?

Restlessness and Longing

St. Augustine said,

Thou madest us for Thyself,
   and our heart is restless,
until it rest in Thee.

Restlessness and longing are universal traits of the human heart. George Herbert, one of the poets I came to love during my college days, wrote a poem called The Pulley which goes like this:

When God at first made man,
   Having a glass of blessings standing by —
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can;
   Let the world’s riches which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
   So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
   When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone, of all His treasure,
   Rest in the bottom lay
For if I should (said He)
   Bestow this jewel also on My creature,
He would adore My gifts instead of Me,
   And rest in nature, not the God of Nature: So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
   But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least
   If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.

“God has put eternity in our hearts and we have an inconsolable longing.”

God has put eternity in our hearts and we have an inconsolable longing. We try to satisfy it with scenic vacations, accomplishments of creativity, stunning cinematic productions, sexual exploits, national sports extravaganzas, hallucinogenic drugs, ascetic rigors, managerial excellence, etc., etc. But the longing remains.

Isaiah put it like this in 55:2–3:

Why do you spend your money
   for that which is not bread,
and your labor
   for that which does not satisfy?
Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in abundance.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
   hear that your soul may live.

And Jeremiah, like this in 2:12–13:

My people have committed two evils:
    They have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
    and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Many of you here this morning are like this. Your soul is hungry and your heart is thirsty. You feel an insatiable longing for something. You are restless. Almost everywhere you turn, the grass is greener than where you stand. And the great tragedy for some of you is that even though this is the Spirit of God beckoning you to himself, you turn away again and again to short-run, temporary, backfiring pleasures of R-rated video cassettes or movies, or drugs or alcohol or tanning parlors or a new toy.

And everything turns to ashes in your hands. The thrill of lust leaves the sediment of guilt and loneliness. The drugs and alcohol can’t keep you from waking up in the real world again and again with your messed-up relationships. The tan looks so artificial and fades so quickly. And the new toy is so boring in just a few weeks.

We drink at broken cisterns. And we eat bread that does not satisfy. And the words of C.S. Lewis ring more and more true. He said,

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Jesus Has Something to Say About Longing

Jesus has something to say to us this morning about this universal experience of an inconsolable longing. He has something to say about the insatiable hunger of the human heart, and about the relentless thirst of our soul.

His words are found in Matthew 5:6 where he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

What I would like to do is simply meditate with you on two things:

  1. the nature of the righteousness that Jesus has in view, and

  2. the nature of our hunger and thirst for it, and how that hunger turns into the satisfaction which he promises.

1. What is the righteousness Jesus is talking about?

First, then, what is this righteousness? “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Last week we explained the meaning of meekness by going back to Psalm 37:11. The reason was that Jesus seemed to be quoting that psalm almost verbatim in Matthew 5:5. And, besides that, the word “meekness” does not occur again in the Sermon on the Mount.

But today’s Beatitude is not a quote from the Old Testament and the word “righteousness” occurs five times in this sermon (Matthew 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33). So the best way to catch on to Jesus’s meaning in this sermon is to look at these other instances of the word righteousness. But we will only have time to look at a couple. So let’s look at the ones that are closest.

Persecuted for Righteousness

The next use is found in verse 10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does righteousness mean here when it says, “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”?

The Structure of the Beatitudes

To answer this, it helps to see the structure of the Beatitudes again. You recall that there are eight Beatitudes with verse 10 as the last one and verse 11 as an expansion of it. The first Beatitude (verse 3) and the last Beatitude (verse 10) give the same words of assurance: “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It looks like a kind of sandwich: the top piece of bread and the bottom piece of bread both say, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What we didn’t notice yet is that there are two groups of four, and the first four and the second four end with a reference to “righteousness.” The first group of four ends with verse 6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And the second group of four ends with verse 10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted the sake of righteousness.”

Emptiness and Longing for Fullness

The more you ponder it, the more significant this becomes. Notice that the three Beatitudes leading up to hunger for righteousness in verse 6 are descriptions of emptiness or passivity: poverty-stricken in spirit (verse 3), mourning over our sin and our misery (verse 4), meekly accepting criticism without retaliation or defensiveness (verse 5). These are not characteristics of overflowing fullness. They are beautiful and good in their proper place, but they are not yet the richness and fullness and overflowing activity of goodness that we long for. And so isn’t it natural that following these first three B eatitudes the Lord would say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” — who long to be filled with righteousness?

In other words, after pronouncing a blessing upon those who recognize their emptiness and grieve over it and don’t try to justify or defend themselves, Jesus now makes a transition from emptiness to fullness by saying that hunger and thirst for righteousness is also blessed.

Fullness and Persecution

Then look at the next three Beatitudes. This is just what we find. After hunger and satisfaction in verse 6 comes, “Blessed are the merciful” (in verse 7). Now the blessed person is full and overflowing in mercy. He is not merely broken and sorrowful and meek. He is now active and overflowing with deeds of mercy. Verse 8 says that he is pure in heart and verse 9 says that he is not just peaceful, but a peacemaker.

Then this second group of four Beatitudes ends with another reference to righteousness. Only this time it is not a hunger for righteousness which we were lacking, but a persecution for righteousness with which we are overflowing.

A Definition of Righteousness

Do you see the structure? The first four Beatitudes describe the broken, grieving, quiet person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. And the next four Beatitudes describe the merciful, pure peacemaker who gets persecuted for his righteousness. Doesn’t this structure, then, give us the definition of righteousness? If we were hungering for righteousness in verse 6 because we were empty, and then we get persecuted for righteousness in verse 10 because we’ve been filled, isn’t it proper to define righteousness as that with which we have been filled, namely, mercy, purity, and peacemaking?

Righteousness Exceeding That of the Pharisees

Well, let’s look at one other use of “righteousness” in the sermon to see if it confirms this understanding.

In 5:20 Jesus says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then what follows in the rest of chapter 5 are six illustrations of how our righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the scrupulous law keepers of the day.

  • In verses 21–26, we must not only not kill, but more, we must not sustain anger against a brother but seek peace.

  • In verses 27–30, we must not only not commit adultery, but more, we must not look upon a person lustfully.

  • In verses 31–32, we should not condone divorce just because there is a legal provision for it in the Old Testament. We should surpass the righteousness that makes peace with hardness of heart, and keep our covenant commitments and not marry those who don’t.

  • In verses 33–37, we should not only keep our oaths, but more, we should be the kind of people who do not need to take oaths in order to be believed.

  • In verse 38–42, we should not only not poke out an eye because one of ours was poked out, but more, we should turn the other cheek and return good for evil.

  • And in verses 43–48, we should not only love our neighbor, but more, we should love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us.

“Righteousness is being pure in heart before God who alone can see the heart.”

So it is pretty clear what Jesus meant back in Matthew 5:20 when he said that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. It has to do with showing mercy, and being radically pure in your heart, and making peace instead of retaliating. So our understanding of righteousness from the structure of the Beatitudes is indeed confirmed. Righteousness is showing mercy to other people; and righteousness is being pure in heart before God who alone can see the heart; and righteousness is the effort to make peace.

Now there may be much more to it than that. But that seems to be the focus of these verses and this chapter, and so we will leave our focus on this: mercy, purity and peacemaking.

2. What Is the Nature of Our Hunger and Thirst?

The second thing we want to meditate on briefly is the nature of hunger and thirst and how they turn into satisfaction. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Astonished by Reality

Let’s think about children for a moment. We can learn much about ourselves by watching the children. You children listen to this too. See if you don’t find yourself in what I have to say. Let me read from G.K. Chesterton who wrote these words 80 years ago:

We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales — because they find them romantic . . . This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. (Orthodoxy, 53)

I know this is true because I have been telling stories to my sons for thirteen years. We have some imaginary boys named Quintle, Quingy, Quabe, and Quarney. I can remember holding two-year-old Karsten spellbound with a narrative that would go something like this:

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Quintle. One morning he woke up very early. He got out of bed and put on his red slippers and his blue bathrobe and came downstairs to breakfast. There on the plate was a hot egg that mommy had just cooked. Smoke curled up in the air from it. It was yellow in the middle and white around the edges, and tasted sooo good. After breakfast Quintle got dressed and went outside in the sunshine to play, and had fun all day.

That’s all it took. He was spellbound by the romance of reality. But now, I have to produce accurate descriptions of monsters and weapons with complicated plots and sound effects. But not with Barnabas, the two-year-old. He still thinks sunshine and smoking eggs and red slippers are really amazing.

Longing for Absolute Reality

What does this mean? Does it mean that the longings we all feel for greener grass are really longings to go back to that two-year-old simplicity when we were awed by the fact that rivers run with water and giraffes have long necks and eggs are yellow in the middle?

No. That would be like a man who looked at my photograph of the Reformer’s wall in Geneva and said, “Oh, to return to the day that you stood there and took that picture! Oh, to be there like you were there and to see those great towering figures of Calvin and Luther and Zwingli in Geneva!” No. That is not what we really want. We want the real Calvin and Luther and Zwingli. We want to be swept up in the realities they were swept up in. We don’t want a great statue. We want the flesh and blood reality of these men and their cause.

So it is with the world. We don’t really want the first thrill of wonder that rivers run with water. We want the eternal reality behind the river. The reason the river awakens wonder in us and then leaves us thirsty again is because the river is just a picture. It is just a pointer. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. It flows with the water of life, bright as crystal from the throne of God and from the Lamb.

The hunger and the thirst of your life that cannot be satisfied by anything in this world is the constant beckoning of God to remember that you were made for another world, you were made for God.

Not Withdrawal from the World

But let us be very careful at this point. For just here we could make a very dangerous mistake. We could withdraw from the world. We could become monks or nuns or forest rangers. But just here is where the words of Jesus become all-important — to keep us from making that mistake.

Jesus says that the people who will be satisfied in the end are not people who have gone off into the woods to find solitary communion with God. Rather they are the people whose hunger and thirst has been for righteousness, people who have craved for the grace to be merciful, people who have yearned for radical purity of thoughts and feelings, people who have passionately desired to make peace.

Why Not Simply Hungering for God?

And if someone should ask why the promise of satisfaction is made to those who hunger for righteousness and not to those who simply hunger for God, there are two reasons.

1. God’s Righteousness in View

One is that Jesus surely means God’s righteousness — a righteousness like God’s, and a righteousness that God gives. Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Surely that is basically the same as saying, “Hunger and thirst for righteousness.” When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we don’t look to the broken cisterns of our own resources. We look to God. So it is not either-or: we hunger for righteousness in God.

2. How the Sermon Ends

But there is a deeper reason why Jesus promises satisfaction to those who hunger for God’s righteousness instead of promising satisfaction to those who simply hunger for God. The Sermon on the Mount ends in 7:22–23 with these words of Jesus:

On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”

They called him Lord. They seemed to have the charismatic gift of prophesy. They were engaged in exorcisms of demons and miracles in Jesus’s name. And he turned them away at the last day saying he never knew them, because they were doers of evil and not righteousness.

“The great tales of the future will be written of those who were committed to one thing — the righteousness of God.”

They thought they knew him. They thought he knew them. But they were strangers: “I never knew you.” Why? Because they had not hungered and thirsted for his righteousness. They had been religious! They had gone to church. They had gotten involved in many religious activities. But the passion, the hunger, the thirst of their lives was not righteousness. And therefore they will not be satisfied, neither in this age nor in the age to come.

Deep and lasting satisfaction for our souls comes not from the delights of the world nor from a merely religious or vertical relationship with God. Satisfaction comes from God to those whose passion in life is to know him in the struggle to be like him in the world (Matthew 5:48).

Make Righteousness Your Passion and Be Satisfied

So to children this morning I would say: Don’t just make believe that you are that prince who leads his army out against the forces of evil and risks his life to do what is right and to save the kingdom. Don’t just pretend that you are that captive princess who escapes from the villain’s dungeon and crosses swollen rivers and snake-infested deserts to warn the king of danger. Don’t settle for the desires of make-believe! Be that prince someday! Be that princess someday! The great tales of the future will be written about real men and women who were passionately committed to one thing — the righteousness of God.

Make it the passion and the hunger and the thirst of your life to do great acts of righteousness. Don’t settle for the little half-hearted satisfaction of being a millionaire.

And to the rest of us grownups, I would say: it is never too late to change your diet. Do you plan to eat tomorrow? Then why not plan to eat righteousness? Do you plan to drink tomorrow? Then why not plan to drink righteousness?

Could it be that one of the reasons the grass is greener everywhere you look is that your life is not devoted to the central pursuit of righteousness, but to the pursuit of other things? Let us consider with what regularity and perseverance and strong urges we pursue food and drink day after day. And let us make it our prayer that we will hunger and thirst in that same way to establish righteousness — in our own souls and in all our relationships and in our land and in the world.