The Beatitudes are not a recruitment poster, and that’s a good thing because no one would naturally want to be what Jesus is telling us his disciples look like. It takes the grace of God opening our eyes to see what we truly are and who he truly is before we will want to emulate these virtues. By nature, no one wants poverty of spirit. No one wants to mourn over their sins. And it is especially true that no one wants to be known as meek. In fact, of all the Beatitudes, this one is probably poked fun at more than any of the others. The meek shall inherit the earth? Yeah, right! The opinion of many is mirrored in the magazine that displayed a Harley-Davidson advertisement with a picture of a leather-clad biker on a black bike with the caption, “The Meek Inherit Nothing.” That’s the world’s view of our Lord’s words here, and it pretty much captures the perspective of the popular culture.
The world does not admire meekness. It admires men and women who are anything but meek. We are constantly told to stand up for ourselves. We are told to grab life by the horns – and woe to the person who gets in our way. We are told to push our way through life and up the corporate ladder. If someone keeps you from moving up, just push them out of the way.
The world admires men like Alexander the Great. Between the ages of 20 and 30, he carved out an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from Greece in the west to India in the east. You could say that he “inherited the world.” He did what the meek certainly couldn’t do! And he never lost a battle – except with himself. Though he was a master tactician and general on the battlefield, Alexander was known to lack self-control; he was given to a violent temper and he had a rash and impulsive nature that led to some bad decisions. He was also given to drunkenness. Though no one knows for sure, it very well could be that he died as the result of a drunken feast in his 32nd year. The man who ruled the world in the end couldn’t rule himself and died because of it.
Alexander is a great contrast to our Lord’s teaching because here was a man who for a very short time inherited the world but who was anything but meek. And yet, his lack of meekness was in the end his downfall. In the end, he had alienated many of his loyal soldiers and generals, and if his own lack of self-control didn’t get him his rashness did – it is thought by some that he was poisoned by his own men. Yes, he may have stood at the top of the world for a couple of years, but in the end he lost it all.
This is exactly the contrast our Lord wants us to consider. He does not promise temporal glories that last only a few years. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” our Lord asks us. Let’s be honest: if there is no soul and no heaven and no God above, then being meek is stupid. Let’s all be like Alexander the Great. But if what our Lord says is true, then no prospect of earthly gain – however gained – is worth getting if we lose the promise of inheriting the earth in the age to come. But the only ones who get that promise are those who are meek. And therefore meekness is nothing to wink or laugh at. It is the indispensable quality of those who inherit eternal life.
No one likes meekness now. It’s not in fashion. But there is coming a day when everyone is going to wish they had paid a lot less attention to the fads of the age and more attention to their conscience and to God’s word. When we all stand before the Throne of thrones, we will no longer care what other people think about us. We will only care about the thoughts of the Sovereign of the universe and where we stand with Him. What He cares about in this verse is what he will care about at the Last Day. Meekness is not a quality for losers. It is the quality of those who will one day rule with Christ, who will judge angels. Meekness is therefore a royal quality.
What then is meekness?
It’s a notoriously difficult word to define. But part of the difficulty is that we often attach meanings to it that don’t belong. For example, meekness is often equated with weakness, resulting either from physical or psychological defects. But that is certainly not what our Lord himself meant by this. He is not talking about people who lack courage. In point of fact, Jesus Christ was one of the most courageous men who ever lived and yet he described himself as “meek and lowly in heart” (Mt. 11:29, KJV). We must not therefore think of a meek person as someone who shirks their responsibility or who shrinks back from some great task. That is not meekness.
Nor is meekness to be compared with spinelessness – an unwillingness to confront wrong, retreating from confrontation with evil. Jesus was meek and yet he had no problem calling a spade a spade. He had no problem pronouncing woes on the Pharisees and scribes. He had no problem overturning the money-changers’ tables in the Temple, at great risk to himself. He had no problem calling certain wicked men poisonous snakes. He didn’t avoid calling out sin. And he was meek.
Nor is it indolence, or carelessness about oneself or others. There are some people who are never confrontational at all, but it is because they just don’t care about that much. They are spiritually and intellectually lazy people. We must not think of meekness in that way.
Nor is it niceness. This perhaps is the commonest mistake. Meek people are nice people, but it does not follow that all nice people are meek. We must remember that what our Lord is doing in these Beatitudes is painting for us the picture of a person who walks before the living God, who has been touched by his grace and had his or her heart changed. This is not a description of someone who has a nice personality. This is a description of a trait that is there because of God’s work in their heart. As Lloyd-Jones put it, some dogs are nicer than other dogs; some cats are nicer than other cats. But that does not make them meek. No, these are not biological traits. They are a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
So if meekness is none of these things, then what is it? I think a good place to start is to look at how the Bible uses this word. Depending on what translation you use, the word “meek” is translated in a number of different ways. But we can also see its meaning in the words it is associated with in Scripture.
Thus, in Scripture, meekness is associated with lowliness and humility. We’ve already seen it in Jesus’ self-description of himself, as meek and lowly in heart. You see it also in Paul’s words to the Ephesians, at the beginning of chapter four, where he tells them how they are to conduct themselves with respect to other believers: “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (4:2, KJV).
This makes sense, because we would expect there to be some sort of progression in the Beatitudes. Our Lord begins with poverty of spirit, seeing oneself as empty before God, having nothing to offer him, and in fact needing God to replace the wickedness that is within us with his grace. And those who truly see their sinfulness in the light of God’s truth will mourn over their sins and the sins of others. This cannot but produce humility in the heart. So meekness certainly includes humility. A meek person does not have an inflated view of themselves; they seek to see themselves not as the world sees them but as God sees them. They are not “high-minded.”
But meekness is more than just humility. Also in Scripture, meekness is associated with gentleness. In fact, in many translations, that is how the word is often translated. For example, in 2 Cor. 10:1, Paul speaks of “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” In Titus 3:2, the apostle exhorts believers “to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.” (The ESV translates this last part of the verse: “and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”) A meek person is a gentle person. They don’t run rough-shod over others. They are considerate. They don’t just think of themselves and of their own needs, but of the needs and desires of others.
Further, a meek person is opposed in Scripture to those who cannot control themselves, and especially their temper. In James 1:20-21, we read that we are to be “slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
A meek person is therefore that person who knows what they are before God, and is therefore humble before both God and man, whose humility leads them to be gentle with respect to others, and who has mastered himself/herself for the sake of serving others. A meek person is someone whose God-centeredness leads them to deny themselves for the sake of others. They are not sensitive about themselves, always looking out for his or her own interests. They are not always on the defensive. They are not thinking about themselves; they are thinking of others. And they are willing to endure the perversity of others for the sake of serving them.
What are the qualities of such a person? Well, for one, this kind of person is the kind of person who will sit down and listen to you, and to others – and you know they are genuinely interested in what you have to say. I have been recently reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt; there is a description in this book of him visiting with important officials, jotting stuff down in his notebook as they talked – giving the definite impression that he considered what they had to say as important – but he was only scribbling the names of his children over and over again. No, listening is not sitting quietly in front of a person while they talk and thinking of other things. The type of person our Lord is describing here is not so infatuated with himself or herself that they are not interested in what others have to say. They care about the needs of others and their point of view. So they listen.
They are also willing to be rebuked by others. It is easy for us to say to ourselves that we are sinners; it is much harder to hear others say it. Lloyd-Jones writes in his commentary on this verse: “I say of myself that I am a sinner, but instinctively I do not like anybody else to say I am a sinner. . . . So far, I myself have been looking at myself [in the first two Beatitudes]. Now, other people are looking at me, and I am in a relationship to them, and they are doing certain things to me. How do I react to that?” Naturally, when we are accused of something, our first response is to defend ourselves, to protect ourselves. Or perhaps even to wallow a little in self-pity. But if by the grace of God meekness kicks in, I stop defending myself. I listen to the rebuke, knowing that since I am a sinner there is almost certainly some truth in what is being said about me. In fact, if I am a meek person then I am thankful that others do not know me as God knows me – for then they could say worse things about me.
And if I am persecuted wrongfully, and there is nothing I can do about it, I give it up to God. I don’t seek revenge. I don’t plunge into bitterness. For it is not about me in the end anyway. It is not my honor that matters, but God’s. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). I think of Spurgeon’s response to the tidal wave of criticism he received during the Down-grade Controversy: “I am willing to be eaten of the dogs for the next fifty years, but the more distant future will vindicate me.”
That’s all well and good, you might say, but surely no one can be expected to live like that? At least, not in this world! That’s exactly how we are expected to live. The Beatitudes, remember, do not describe a select group of believers; they describe all of them. And as we look in Biblical history, we see that the great men and women of God were meek. They were not weak. They were not fearful. In many cases they were very strong, both in personality and physically.
For example, consider Moses. He is explicitly described in Numbers 12:3 as the meekest man on the earth. Here was a courageous, bold, strong, and wise leader of men. Here was a spiritual giant. Yet as the leader of God’s people, he was not always the most popular. He was constantly abused by the people he led. And yet he never stopped caring for them. When he was opposed, he didn’t appeal to God to defend his name, but rather that the honor of God’s name be preserved. Even when God offered to start over, Moses pleaded for the very people who had made his life so difficult. It was never about Moses, it was always about God. That’s meekness.
Or consider King David. He had been promised the throne of Israel by God himself through the prophet Samuel. And yet as he is unjustly persecuted and cruelly driven from his home into the wilderness by King Saul, David recoils again and again from exacting revenge on this man who wanted him dead. During one episode, after David actually keeps his men from taking Saul’s life, he tells him that he will not try to kill him, because he is God’s anointed. “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. . . . After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! May the LORD therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand” (1 Sam. 24:12,14,15). Again, that’s meekness.
However, the great example of all is that of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the example that the apostle Peter labors for his listeners to pay attention to. Here were Christians who were suffering for their faith, and Peter puts Jesus as the great pattern of how to do this:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23 ESV)
You see it in Paul’s words to the Philippians 2:4-8. Jesus gave up his divine prerogatives in coming in the form of a servant and to humble himself and become obedient to the point of death – for his people. He came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. That’s meekness.
Well, how to you get like this? How do you cultivate this grace? Here are some helps.
First, I need to try to get a clear picture of what I really am before God. I need to revise my perspective of myself in light of God’s word.
Second, I need to try to get a true view of the glory of God. If God is at the center of our moral, intellectual, and emotional universe – if he is the chief end of my being – then I will not have myself in his place. I will not be constantly going on the offensive for my name and place in the world.
Third, I need to try to get a firm grasp on the promises of God. You’re not going to be meek if you don’t believe that it is blessed to be so. You’re not going to be meek if you don’t really believe that the meek shall inherit the earth. Jesus is quoting Psalm 37:11 here. But the context is crucial here. Read the whole chapter, and you will see that the psalmist is encouraging those who are opposed by the wicked. How does he encourage them? He does so by reminding them again and again that the wicked will not prosper forever. Their day will end – and when it ends, it ends forever. Just as “the meek shall inherit the land” forever, and “delight themselves in abundant peace.”
It is so important that we get this in the church, in our families. We need courageous, gentle people who are forgiving and longsuffering, who model the gospel not only with their lips but with their lives.
We need meek, approachable people. Jesus is the King of kings, and yet he rebuked his disciples when they tried to keep people from bringing their infants to him. He was so approachable, even to sinners. We need people like that. Sinners came to Jesus – not to be comforted in their sins, but because they knew that he loved them and would love them right through their repentance.
We need people who are meek, who provide their homes with a safe, welcoming environment, where genuine relationships can flourish. Where children can feel safe, where children can come to mom and dad with their problems because they know even if they are wrong and need to be rebuked, and the rebuke comes with gentleness and love and mercy and forgiveness.
Does that describe us? Should it not, since this is the very way God deals with us? I love the way Psalm 18:5 puts it: “You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.” You and I do not deserve God’s favor; we deserve his wrath. And yet he has given us salvation through Jesus Christ. May we know and show that salvation to others in meekness.