Wednesday, 29 April 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 2 of 5)

On a Galilean slope near Capernaum, the Lord Jesus delivered his celebrated discourse traditionally known as “the Sermon on the Mount,” recorded in chapters 5–7 of Matthew’s Gospel.1 In his mission of “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (4:23), Jesus would have been speaking in the Aramaic language to a large gathering of Aramaic-speaking Jews, inclusive of but not limited to his disciples (4:25; 5:1; 7:28; cf. 10:5-6; 15:24). The message, having been preserved in Greek translation, uses imagery and comparisons with which the Lord’s immediate audience would have been familiar (5:13-15, 21-22, 25-27, 31, 33, 38, 43, 46-47), addressing topics particularly relevant to them (5:20, 23-24, 28, 32, 34-37, 39-42, 44-48), while preparing for the advent of God’s spiritual kingdom (3:2; 4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). 

As part of the lengthy address, Jesus quotes, alludes to, and echoes multiple passages from the Hebrew scriptures.2 In the present study our focus is on the segment recorded in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land,’” a quote from Psalm 37:11a.3 While the Greek noun gē can be used in various senses (“land,” “ground,” “earth,” etc.; see BDAG 196), most English translations inconsistently render it “earth” in this passage but “land” in the OT text from which it is quoted.4 As observed in our previous post, “the land” of Psalm 37:3, 9, 11, 22, 29, 34 is contextually the promised land of the Israelites. To “inherit the land,” from an ancient Hebrew perspective, is idiomatically synonymous with God’s providential care, provision of needs, security, peace, empowerment, averting shame, and salvation (or deliverance), offering the psalmist’s Hebrew audience assurance and hope. From this initial layer of context, we move on to the next.

Contextual Layer #2: Jesus and His Listening Audience

Speaking to a crowd of Jewish contemporaries still amenable to the old-covenant system of Moses (Matt. 5:17-19), the Lord pronounces blessings (“beatitudes”) on those exhibiting certain virtues (vv. 2-11). Included is the quote from Psalm 37:11a. What would be a reasonable expectation for how this statement would have been received by this particular audience?

Those whom Jesus addressed were already residing in the land of promise, albeit under the occupation and control of a foreign power (Matt. 22:17; Luke 2:1; 3:1). When Judea was annexed as a Roman province in AD 6 (incorporating Samaria, Idumea, and at times Galilee), the local Jews begrudgingly transitioned from an autonomous nation to a subjugated and suppressed people. It was in this environment that the defiant Zealot movement was born,5 prompting Jesus to observe on another occasion, “but from the days of John the baptizer until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent forcefully seize it” (Matt. 11:12).

In his epic sermon Christ repeatedly challenges the status quo of his day and promotes an alternative way of thinking (“but I say to you …”).6 When he affirms, “blessed are the meek” (Matt. 5:5a), to what kind of persons is he alluding? The standard lexical definition of the Greek adjective praüs is “gentle, humble, considerate, meek” (BDAG 861). It would be the opposite of angry hostility (vv. 21-26), lack of self-control (vv. 27-32), lack of integrity (vv. 33-37), retribution (vv. 38-42), and hatred (vv. 43-48). In the original context of Psalm 37, from which Jesus draws the allusion, the description applies to those oppressed but still showing mercy, generosity, righteousness, and faithfulness, trusting in Yahweh, practicing goodness, and obeying his will. 

The quoted blessing, “they shall inherit the land,” is poetry, not theology.7 For a Jewish person in antiquity this was a comforting affirmation of divine favor. Anticipating improved circumstances (cp. Psa. 25:13), the expression was “emblematic of the better prosperity and happiness of life.”8 But what kind of prosperity? With the provision of physical needs understood (Matt. 6:11, 25-34), note Christ’s weighty emphasis on the heavenly nature of God’s kingdom (5:3, 10, 19, 20; 7:21), the priority of heavenly treasures (6:19-21), and the heavenly reward (5:12) in the presence of the heavenly Father (5:16, 34, 45, 48; 6:1, 9, 26, 32; 7:11). The greatest benefits are by far spiritual in nature (6:1, 4, 6, 9-10, 12-14, 18). A clear distinction is consistently made between the materialistic cares of the world and the loftier ways of God (6:19-24, 33; 7:6, 13-21, 24-27, 29). 

To isolate and literalize the statement in Matthew 5:5 to advocate a literal, futuristic, earthly habitation is a form of “physicalism” that runs contrary to the rest of the Lord’s teachings. Focusing on the temporal to the virtual disregard of the heavenly was characteristic of the vain externals of hypocrites (6:1, 5, 16), the empty ritualism of the heathen (6:7), the materialism of pagan Gentiles (6:32), and the deceptive appeal of false teachers (7:15). It ignores Christ’s persistent contrast between physical and spiritual realities (5:3, 10, 12-16, 34-35; 6:9-10, 19-21). 

Concluding Thoughts

Known for his emblematic and parabolic teaching style, Jesus routinely used earthly examples to convey spiritual truths, particularly with regard to “the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:24-27; 9:12-17; 16:6-12; 18:23-35; 20:1-16; 21:28-45; 22:1-14; 24:45-51; 25:1-30), a.k.a. “the kingdom of God” (19:23-24). It is also helpful to remember the common usage of physical types from the OT to illustrate spiritual antitypes in the NT, e.g., Jonah, Nineveh, Solomon, Elijah (12:39-42; 16:4; 17:10-13), to name a few.9 To “inherit the land” (5:5b), as a historical symbol, does not replace or counter the spiritually-explicit affirmation, “for great is your reward in heaven” (v. 12b).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 The traditional site is Mount Eremos, just northwest of the Sea of Galilee and west of the Jordan River on the southern slopes of the Korazim Plateau in northern Israel, also known as the Mount of Beatitudes (cf. Matt. 14:23; 15:29; 28:16; Mark 3:13). Seeing that the material in the first thirteen chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is arranged more topically than chronologically, this sermon was likely delivered at the height of the Lord’s Galilean ministry, as indicated by the large crowds. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 See Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” in Commentary on the NT Use of the OT, eds. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007): 20-30.
     3 That this is a direct quote from Psalm 37:11 is seen by comparing Matthew’s Greek translation of Jesus’ words with the LXX version of the Hebrew text, showing parallel usage of the nominative masculine plural hoi praeîs (“the meek [ones]”), the future active indicative klēronomēsousin (“shall inherit”), and the accusative feminine gēn (“land”). Also note the inclusion in Matt. 5:5 of the conjunction hóti, which is functionally equivalent to quotation marks. See BDAG 732; H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek NT (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955): 252. 
     4 The Douay-Rheims Bible, New American Bible (revised), Young’s Literal Translation, Orthodox Jewish Bible, and Easy-to-Read Version render the word “land” in Matt. 5:5, while the King James and New King James Versions employ “earth” in both passages.
     5 See K. L. Moore, Ancient Terrorists, Barabbas, Historical Background: Jewish Subgroups, Historical Background: Roman Authority. It has also been suggested that the idea of a separate, organized group of rebels was invented by Josephus in order to divert the hostile attention of the Romans away from the general Jewish populace (see M. Smith, “Zealots and Sicarii,” HTR 64.1 [1971]: 5). It is true there is little evidence of the Zealots as an organized group prior to the revolt of AD 66 (see Josephus, War 4.129-62). Nevertheless, the earlier presence and activities of these freedom fighters, whether organized or not, are evident in passages like Mark 15:7; Luke 6:15; 23:19, 25; Acts 5:36-37; 21:38.
     6 Matt. 5:20-22, 27-28, 31-34, 38-39, 43-44; cf. also 6:2, 5, 7, 16, 32; 7:15, 29.
     7 See Douglas Stuart, “The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours,” in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by G. D. Fee and D. Stuart (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014): 215-16. 
     8 Al Novak, Hebrew Honey: A Simple and Deep Word Study of the Old Testament (Houston, TX: C & D International, 1987): 140.
     9 Discussed further in Part 5. We could add to the discussion the emblematic appeal to “the shepherd” and “the sheep” (Matt. 26:31), or the emblems of the Lord’s Supper representing far greater spiritual concepts (26:26-29).

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