“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:5)
“I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the Lord.” – Zephaniah 3:12
“…the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” – Psalm 37:11
The lexicon definition for meek is something like lowly, gentle, humble, considerate, kind, mild and friendly of disposition, “the older sense of strong but accommodating.” In the book of Numbers, Moses is described as the meekest man on earth. This is a man who had led battles, presided over divine judgment, stood up to the most powerful emperor of his time, and had done many other things that most people would not consider meek. Jesus also, the Messiah, as he came into Jerusalem rode on a donkey. The book of Zechariah prophesied this, and showed that it meant to demonstrate that our king would come to us meekly. That even in his triumphant entry while here on earth the first time, Jesus was meek. And yet, there are numerous places where Jesus is bold. He turns over tables in the temple. He asks the Pharisees how they think they can escape the damnation of hell. He confronts people that seek to manipulate him or silenced him.
So what should we make of meekness? How important is it in a culture that sees assertiveness as critical to health and maturity? I believe that meekness actually represents a family of virtues we are meant to pursue by faith, and that meekness is the opposite of a family of vices that destroy faith, dishonor God, and greatly harm people.
Take the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:5. The first question studying Scripture is, “What is the immediate context?”. The Beatitudes begins a section referred to as the Sermon on the Mount which covers Matthew 5-7. Jesus also gives a similar set of teachings in Luke 6:21-26, which includes four Beatitudes and four woes. In Matthew’s Gospel, he says that those that are blessed are “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” He says that you are blessed “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” In this context, none of these descriptions require us to interpret the state of the listener as financial poverty. In some ways, it would be strange to interpret these characteristics as particularly characteristics of financial poverty. It is important to remember that class is not of nearly as much interest in the Bible as in the minds of people who lived after Karl Marx, and other writers during and since the Industrial Revolution.
These can all be seen as characteristics of spiritual character. Yet, what holds them all together? They are not all passive. They are not all weak. They’re not particularly subject to circumstance. It may seem too simple a description, but one could say that these are people who “love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves.” Then you would add something like a strong dose of humility, as well as being on Jesus’ mission of reconciliation.
“Meekness” here then doesn’t primarily mean “of too low a status to own land.” And it doesn’t seem to mean the opposite parallel of “will inherit the earth.” There seems to be a different reason why these people would inherit the earth. In fact, there could be a warning to the poor here. If your poverty of spirit, or meekness, is only a product of your station—the necessary fact of your financial poverty—it may not be part of your character, it may only be part of your situation. If your environment forces a behavior on you, you may find if that environment changes, the behavior changes also; it may, in fact, reverse. If you were powerful, would you still be meek? If everybody had to move on your command, would you still be “poor in spirit”? If you didn’t need people to show you mercy, would you still be merciful? Are you really like Jesus?
Is meekness “low position”?
There is a way in which meekness is a kind of “behaving as though you are of low position.” In Luke 14:7, Jesus comments on people sitting in more and less important places at a dinner party. He says in verse 10: “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he will say to you, ‘friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” Here, Jesus explains the natural consequences of self promotion versus assuming a lower position for yourself. It is reminiscent of Philippians 2:3, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Fundamental to humility (which is part of meekness) is behaving as though others are more important than yourself. This treats them with honor and sacrificial love—while attacking the flesh that is brewing our selfish ambition and is how our vanity easily becomes conceit. However, this would not mean that meekness is to be in a low position, but that meekness chooses a low position in the humble service of others.
If not “low position,” is meekness being a pushover?
Besides being poor, the next most common American fear related to meekness is that we will have to be unassertive. Among many modern Americans, especially in the middle and upper classes, being assertive is seen as fundamentally necessary for good health and keeping oneself from being taken advantage of by others. However, this is the common fallacy of presuming that a virtue is a vice. Fundamental to knowing virtue and vice is having the wisdom to apply them to a particular situation. Meekness includes the virtue of knowing when to be deferential. Being a “pushover” is a vice of being deferential when we shouldn’t. One version of this is sycophancy, defined as “being obsequious, fawning or differential toward someone important in order to gain an advantage.”
In the lexicon definition above, the old English definition defined meekness as “strong but deferential.” Meekness, by this definition, is deference that does not come from weakness but is chosen in the presence of strength. This is consistent with the biblical usage.
What is the opposite vice to the virtue of meekness?
If being a pushover, or sycophant, isn’t the opposite of meekness, then what is? In traditional moral theology, the opposite of meekness is wrath. Wrath can be defined as “consisting and exciting oneself about something at which one is displeased.” It assumes a kind of self-centered view, and a selfishness of spirit. It leads to a lack of restraint and an outflow of rage. The selfishness of wrath is also displayed in disrespect and irritability. Wrath is distinguished from “zeal” when the exercise of emotion is truly focused on the purposes of God and true virtue. The expression of zeal is called “just anger,” and it is displayed in Scripture when Jesus cleared the temple, or when Moses returned from Mount Sinai to see the people worshiping the golden calf. Rightly conceived, just anger flows from true charity and love informed by a zeal for the glory of God, and comes forth in a desire to set things right and to reconcile people to God and each other—which is the end goal of love and worship. Read here for more.
So what is the real meaning of biblical meekness?
Throughout Scripture, meekness is used in a range of contexts. In a couple of passages, as in Psalm 34:2, the emphasis seems to be on being in a low station. In others, as 1 Peter 3:4, it means something more like proper modesty. In contexts like Zephaniah 3, it is either parallel with or a close synonym to humility.
Psalm 37 is perhaps the most important text, because the beatitude in Matthew 5:5 is nearly a direct quotation of Psalm 37:11. The only difference is that the translators use the word “land” instead of “earth.” However, in Hebrew, it is the same word. In Psalm 37, there are also two other verses that claim that people will inherit the land. Verse 9 says, “those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” Verse 22 says, “those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…” Verse 29 says, “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” And verse 34 says, “he will exalt you to inherit the land…” “You” in this context refers to “the righteous” from a couple verses earlier. So, in the Old Testament parallel passage that contains five references to “inheriting the earth/land,” the universal parallel of “meek” is a kind of righteousness willing to trust God and wait for him. In fact, if one goes through the first 10 or 12 verses of the Psalm, it is easy to come up with a profile of those who are referred to as “the meek.”
There are those who are meek because they are: trusting the Lord, doing good, delighting themselves in the Lord, committing their way to the Lord, hoping in the Lord, seeking righteousness, waiting patiently for the Lord, etc.
And there are those who are not meek, because they are: envious of evil, fretting at evil even if it succeeds, wickedly scheming, releasing their anger and wrath, plotting, gnashing their teeth, etc.
So how should we define meekness? First, I believe that meekness is something like a family of virtues. Meekness is closely associated in its contexts with the fear of the Lord, spiritual patience, faith, humility, gentleness, deference, temperance, forbearance, prudence, hopefulness, and more.
If love is something like the center hub of how we conceptualize the virtues, meekness is something like the umbrella under which we express the virtues. It at least must exist in the presence of many other virtues, and seems to be something like their controlling principle. Meekness is motivated by a fear of the Lord, a willingness to wait on the Lord, and a humility before the Lord. It is motivated by a fundamentally God-centered heart. Faith and a love for the glory of God is fundamental to expressing meekness from the heart. Then, it is the application of principle for gentleness, deference, temperance, forbearance, prudence and the other improvisational and situational virtues we express towards others. How do we love others with these virtues? We express them with meekness.
A close relationship with gentleness and humility.
Last, it is important to focus strongly on the relationship of meekness to both humility and gentleness. Meekness, as opposed to wrath, is always humble and self-forgetful in nature. Wrath is always arrogant and self-centered in its perspective. Without a God-glorifying and God-centered view of who and what we are, meekness is impossible because humility will be absent. But even in the presence of that theology, meekness, like humility, is a practice of the heart. It must be continually chosen, and wrath continually put to death. In faith, and by the present power of the Spirit, the virtue must be chosen and the vice shunned. And when we fail, faith demands an open repentance: that we should have chosen the virtue and shunned the vice, that we are ashamed we didn’t, and that we endeavor with the help of God to do differently in the future. And we make, in meekness, whatever restitution we can to build trust again with the person we harmed.
So when should we be hard, strong and unyielding?
As said above, charity and love, motivated by a zeal for the Lord, may demand from us responses that do not seem “meek.” The Bible confirms that both Jesus and Moses, as well as people like Nehemiah and others, rose up and did ferocious acts and marshaled strong defiance and resistance among God’s people. John and Peter in Acts 4, for example, are not obviously “meek” when they tell the ruling authorities of Israel that they will not obey them, because they must obey God, nor is the apostle Paul when he confronts military men and rulers.
However, these actions are still chosen with meekness, and even expressed with meekness. That is, they are chosen by men who consider whether virtue allows them any other choice. If you read the most defiant moments of God’s holiest men, you will often still find palpable meekness. David will not raise his hand against Saul. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (their Babylonian names) answer directly to the king, but not with taunts. They, and Daniel, do not show more disrespect than is necessary through their disobedience to the Eastern Kings. The apostles are very direct with the rulers that they face, but not overly bold.
Jesus seems to have no love for aggressive confrontation, and is always seeking a meek and peaceful interchange. He only turns up the heat when the obstinance of his adversary leaves him no other choice, if the truth is going to come down upon them. And he brings that truth down upon them so that the wrath that would otherwise descend can be escaped.
Even Moses, who came down very hard on the people for worshiping the golden calf can be defended in this way. All that he makes the Israelites do can be seen as a meek deference to the glory of God and a necessary medicine to their orgy-filled idolatries. Even more, when God tells Moses that he plans to destroy the people, Moses intercedes for them and begs for their survival. He even begs for God not to send them up out of the desert if he will not go with them himself, and so, Moses begs for the presence of God among the people. He is their true and perfect advocate, even in their worst sins. He is meek. He is never thinking about his own position in himself. None of these men seem to be doing that. They are all concerned with God’s glory, what is good, the truth, what love demands. Doing nothing out of selfish ambition and the conceits of vanity, in meek humility, they consider all others better than themselves, and the glory of God the greatest pursuit of all humanity. May we submit to this same work of God in our own hearts and actions, becoming like Jesus in his ferocious meekness.
For further study
A list of verses that contain the Greek word translated “meek”: Numbers 12:3; Psalm 24:9, 33:3, 36:11, 75:10, 146:6, 149:4; Job 24:4, 36:15; Joel 4:11; Zephaniah 3:12; Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 26:6; Daniel 4:19; Matthew 5:5, 11:29, 21:5; 1 Peter 3:4
A very close cognate word for “meekness” or “humility/gentleness”: Esther 5:1; Psalm 44:5, 89:10, 131:1; 1 Corinthians 4:21; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23, 6:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 2:25; Titus 3:2; James 1:21, 3:13; 1 Peter 3:16