Matthew 5:5

THE BLISS OF THE GOD-CONTROLLED LIFE

Matt. 5:5

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

In our modern English idiom the word meek is hardly one of the honourable words of life. Nowadays it carries with it an idea of spinelessness, and subservience, and mean-spiritedness. It paints the picture of a submissive and ineffective creature. But it so happens that the word meek–in Greek praus (GSN4239)–was one of the great Greek ethical words.

Aristotle has a great deal to say about the quality of meekness (praotis = GSN4236). It was Aristotle’s fixed method to define every virtue as the mean between two extremes. On the one hand there was the extreme of excess; on the other hand there was the extreme of defect; and in between there was the virtue itself, the happy medium. To take an example, on the one extreme there is the spendthrift; on the other extreme there is the miser; and in between there is the generous man.

Aristotle defines meekness, praotes (GSN4236), as the mean between orgilotes (see orge, GSN3709), which means excessive anger, and aorgesia, which means excessive angerlessness. Praotes (GSN4236), meekness, as Aristotle saw it, is the happy medium between too much and too little anger. And so the first possible translation of this beatitude is:

Blessed is the man who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.

If we ask what the right time and the wrong time are, we may say as a general rule for life that it is never right to be angry for any insult or injury done to ourselves; that is something that no Christian must ever resent; but that it is often right to be angry at injuries done to other people. Selfish anger is always a sin; selfless anger can be one of the great moral dynamics of the world.

But the word praus (GSN4239) has a second standard Greek usage. It is the regular word for an animal which has been domesticated, which has been trained to obey the word of command, which has learned to answer to the reins. It is the word for an animal which has learned to accept control. So the second possible translation of this beatitude is:

Blessed is the man who has every instinct, every impulse, every passion under control. Blessed is the man who is entirely’ self-controlled.

The moment we have stated that, we see that it needs a change. It is not so much the blessing of the man who is self-controlled, for such complete self-control is beyond human capacity; rather, it is the blessing of the man who is completely God-controlled. for only in his service do we find our perfect freedom, and in doing his will our peace.

But there is still a third possible side from which we may approach this beatitude. The Greeks always contrasted they quality which they called praotes (GSN4236), and which the King James Version translates meekness, with the quality which they called hupselokardia, which means lofty-heartedness. In praotes (GSN4236) there is the true humility which banishes all pride.

Without humility a man cannot learn, for the first step to learning is the realization of our own ignorance. Quintilian, the great Roman teacher of oratory, said of certain of his scholars, “They would no doubt be excellent students, if they were not already convinced of their own knowledge.” No one can teach the man who knows it all already. Without humility there can be no such thing as love, for the very beginning of love is a sense of unworthiness. Without humility there can be no true religion. for all true religion begins with a realization of our own weakness and of our need for God. Man reaches only true manhood when he is always conscious that he is the creature and that God is the Creator, and that without God he can do nothing.

Praotes (GSN4236) describes humility, the acceptance of the necessity to learn and of the necessity to be forgiven. It describes man’s only proper attitude to God. So then, the third possible translation of this beatitude is:

Blessed is the man who has the humility to know his own ignorance, his own weakness, and his own need.

It is this meekness, Jesus says, which will inherit the earth. It is the fact of history that it has always been the men with this gift of self-control, the men with their passions, and instincts, and impulses under discipline, who have been great. Numbers says of Moses, the greatest leader and the greatest law-giver the world has ever seen: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num.12:3). Moses was no milk and water character; he was no spineless creature; he could be blazingly angry; but he was a man whose anger was on the leash, only to be released when the time was right. The writer of Proverbs has it: “He that rules his spirit is better than he who takes a city” (Prov.16:32).

It was the lack of that very quality which ruined Alexander the Great, who, in a fit of uncontrolled temper in the middle of a drunken debauch, hurled a spear at his best friend and killed him. No man can lead others until he has mastered himself; no man can serve others until he has subjected himself; no man can be in control of others until he has learned to control himself. But the man who gives himself into the complete control of God will gain this meekness which will indeed enable him to inherit the earth.

It is clear that this word praus (GSN4239) means far more than the English word meek now means; it is, in fact, clear that there is no one English word which will translate it, although perhaps the word gentle comes nearest to it. The full translation of this third beatitude must read:

O the bliss of the man who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time, who has every instinct, and impulse, and passion under control because he himself is God-controlled, who has the humility to realise his own ignorance and his own weakness, for such a man is a king among men!

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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