Wednesday, 13 May 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 4 of 5)

The biblical affirmation, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’” (Matt. 5:5),has been communicated through at least three layers of context: the 37th Psalm, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s historical record. To accurately discern the meaning of this enigmatic statement, all three layers, via Hebrew poetry, Aramaic speech, and literary homily in Greek translation, ought to be considered.

The original saying in its original setting is directed to Israelites faced with the age-old question of why the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous suffer. The reassuring response is that godless prosperity is only temporary, whereas righteousness leads to divine beneficence. Evildoers will ultimately be cut off. Those whose trust is in Yahweh are the ones truly blessed, with recurring emphasis on the covenantal land inheritance (Psa. 37:3, 9b, 11, 18, 22a, 29, 34a). Contextually the statement in question, “but the meek shall inherit the land” (v. 11a), offers comfort and peace as a proverbial expression of Yahweh’s favor and providential care.

This single line from the poem’s sixth stanza is then incorporated into Jesus’ message preached to a gathering of early-1st-century men and women of Abrahamic descent, subjugated and oppressed in their own homeland. The sermon begins with eight beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), where the six blessings of vv. 4-9 are bracketed between the repeated blessing of vv. 3 and 10: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (4:23) with projected fulfillment in the near future (3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 16:18-19, 28). In this environment, where God’s kingdom takes precedence over temporal distractions (6:33), what would it have meant to these particular listeners to hear, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’”? Familiar with the poetic imagery of the psalms, those influenced by Christ’s teachings would have had greater awareness of an everlasting inheritance and its spiritual significance (19:29; 25:34; cf. Mark 10:17; Luke 10:25; 18:18).2

Matthew is the only Gospel writer to employ the expression “the kingdom of heaven,” synonymous with “the kingdom of God” (19:23-24), underscoring the transcendental nature of the long-anticipated kingdom “not of this world.”3 At the time of writing, the resurrected and exalted Christ was presently reigning as king (Acts 2:30-36; 1 Cor. 15:23-25; 1 Tim. 6:14-15). Matthew, his reading audience, and all other mid-to-late-1st century Christians were citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom as members of Christ’s church (Matt. 16:18-19; Eph. 1:22; 2:19; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:13, 18), anticipating a future inheritance in the eternal heavenly realm (Matt. 5:12; 25:34; 1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Tim. 4:1, 18; 2 Pet. 2:11).

Contextual Layer #4: Our Contemporary World

Present-day readers should be attuned to what any speaker or writer in the biblical record was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they were meant to understand the message in the context in which it was first communicated.4  Before any biblical text says anything to you or me or anyone else far removed from the ancient Mediterranean world, it has already spoken to those to whom it was first addressed. Keeping this in mind places modern interpreters in a much better position to grasp the intended meaning and make application to our 21st-century environment.

Missing the Point With Faulty Hermeneutics

Following chiliastic interpretations of the 2nd century and beyond, the 18th-century reformer John Wesley believed “the Third Beatitude, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth,’ refers to the Millennial Age.”5 In more recent times advocates of premillennial eschatology, viewing “the land” of Psalm 37:11 and Matthew 5:5 as the entire world, conclude: “Considering the physical and material character of the promise, the fulfillment must similarly be physical and material. When Abraham’s descendants, that is, all believers alive at the parousia, rule over the earth in the millennium with their Messiah, God’s promise of blessings will be materialized physically on this earth.”6 Robert Alter, on the other hand, offers an apt reminder: “In great works of literature, almost always more is going on than one initially realizes, and this is especially true of the Bible, to which readers are likely to come with a baggage of preconceptions and habits of automated or inappropriate response.”It is reasonable to ask that if the fulfillment must be “physical and material, how is it that Abrahams descendants are spiritualized as all believers” rather than consistently understood in the physical and material sense

A More Contextual Approach

As we analyze this seemingly perplexing beatitude through all its layers of context, the poetic nature of the original statement in Psalm 37 should caution against literalization. One of the most common features of Hebrew poetry is symbolism. An underlying truth or insight is conveyed with greater effect by employing expressive metaphors that strike the emotions of a particular reading audience.8 Jesus borrows familiar imagery from the ancient Israelite hymnbook that would resonate with his Jewish audience, which Matthew records in Greek translation for a Jewish Christian community.

It is helpful to observe Matthew’s copious usage of a form of the word ouranós (“heaven”): eighty-two occurrences, more than any other NT writer. With the distinction understood between the atmospheric heavens and the Godhead’s eternal abode (e.g. Matt. 5:16, 18),9 that which is earthly and physical is contrasted throughout the Gospel with the heavenly and spiritual. “Be glad and rejoice exceedingly, for your reward is great in heaven …” (5:12). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures upon the land, where moth and corrosion destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, but you store up yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion destroys, and where thieves do not break in nor steal, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21). “For what will a man profit if he gains the whole world but loses his soul, or what will a man give as an exchange for his soul? (16:26). “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for the sake of my name, will receive a hundred times, and will inherit life everlasting” (19:29). “Come, those having been blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom having been prepared for you from the world’s foundation” (25:34b).

Concluding Thoughts

Awareness and appreciation of these spiritual truths has often been clouded by a poetic verse wrenched from its context and interpreted through the distorted lens of elaborate eschatological theories. The message is much clearer and more meaningful when the words of the psalmist, quoted by Jesus, then recorded by Matthew, are viewed from the vantage points of their respective audiences, leading to a more fitting application in different times and settings.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 This emphasis carried on beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus: Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50; 2 Cor. 5:1-2; Gal. 3:14, 18, 29; 5:21; Eph. 1:13-14, 18; 5:5; Col. 3:24; Heb. 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4; 3:9; Rev. 21:6-7.
     3 See K. L. Moore, The Kingdom of God (Part 1).
     4 See K. L. Moore, Biblical Exegesis (Part 1).
     5 Nathaniel West, John Wesley and Premillennialism (Wilmore, KY: First Fruits, 2018): 25. The concept of a literal messianic kingdom on earth can be traced as far back as Jewish apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental period and the first couple of centuries of the common era (e.g. I EnochApocalypse of Baruch2nd & 4th EsdrasTestaments of the 12 Patriarchs), as well as prevalent misconceptions during the Lord’s earthly ministry (Matt. 11:12; Luke 24:21; John 6:15; Acts 1:6). Within the Christian movement, the gnostic Cerinthus (ca. 100) was among the earliest proponents of this view, along with the late 2nd-century Ebionite and Montanist sects. The 2nd-century writings of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr and the 3rd-century writings of Tertullian also referenced a 1000-years’ earthly kingdom at Christ’s return. The view was revived in the mid-19th century as biblical interpretation became less concerned about historical context, and the expression “premillennialism” replaced older descriptive terms like “chiliasm” and “millenarianism.” 
     6 Sung Wook Chung, “Toward the Reformed and Covenantal Theology of Premillennialism: A Proposal,” in A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to ‘Left Behind’ Theology, eds. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009): 133-46. Other contemporary theologians espousing some form of premillennial eschatology include Craig L. Blomberg, D. A. Carson, Wayne A. Grudem, Robert H. Gundry, Craig S. Keener, Douglas J. Moo, Robert H. Mounce, Grant R. Osborne, and Ben Witherington III. Premillennialism relies on the literal interpretation of figurative language and a materialistic concept of the Lord’s spiritual kingdom. The book of Revelation, a major focus of these proponents, is highly symbolic (apocalyptic) and should not be taken literally.
     7 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, Rev. and Updated (NY: Basic Books, 2011): xi.
     8 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): 212-16; and David G. Firth, “The Teaching of the Psalms,” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, eds. D. Firth and P. S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005): 163.
     9 Both the singular and plural forms of ouranós are used in scripture, sometimes in the same context, to describe the spiritual realm of deity, as well as the future home of the righteous. The former is worded in the plural (Matt. 5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21; 10:32, 33; 12:50; 16:17, 19; 18:10, 14, 19; 24:36) and the singular (Matt. 5:34; 6:10; 11:25; 18:18; 21:25; 22:30; 23:22; 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:47; Col. 4:1; 1 Pet. 1:12; 3:22). The latter is also conveyed in the plural (Matt. 5:12; 19:21; 2 Cor. 5:1) and the singular (Matt. 6:20; Luke 6:23 [plural parallel, Matt. 5:12]; Rom. 1:18; 2 Cor. 5:2). In Phil. 3:20 ouranoîs is plural (lit. “heavens”), while the corresponding relative pronoun hoũ, in the prepositional phrase “from which,” is singular.

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