The Beatitudes speak of spiritual characteristics, particularly in man’s relation to God. The order in which they are given is not arbitrary. The first characteristic, poverty in spirit, is fundamental to the exercise of the other qualities described. Next, whoever is not truly humbled before the Lord will scarcely be a mourner over sin.
What then will be the character of those who exhibit these first two qualities? It will hardly be self-confidence. ‘ Blessed are the meek’, we read, ‘for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5).
This is a powerfully challenging aspect of the character of a disciple of the Lord. After all, we live in a world which emphasises assertiveness. Politicians and managers are trained in it. Education encourages it as it seeks to instil ‘confidence’. In the modern world, deference is scarce, and seen as a weakness. Modern life is largely about power and influence, not least at a personal level.
Of course, to understand this characteristic, we must look at Christ. When Christ invites the sinner to himself he says, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls’ (Matthew 11:29).
What is meekness?
In a man’s relations with the Lord, it is an attitude of submissiveness. As Dr. Lloyd Jones put it, ‘Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others … The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do’.
The believer submits to the revealed word and will of God. As James puts it, we are ‘to receive with meekness the implanted word (which is able to save your souls)’ (James 1:21). In this sense it is a particular form of poverty in spirit. We have an illustration of the opposite of this in the case of Jonah at Nineveh. He complains to the Lord about the sparing of Nineveh from judgement. He is angry with the Lord. His attitude is a contrast to the spirit of meekness and submissiveness to the will of God.
In relation to other men, this meekness (as the Puritan Thomas Watson describes it) is ‘a grace whereby we are enabled by the Spirit of God to moderate our passions.’ In other words, whoever has a quick temper, or gets easily inflamed about issues, is not exercising this quality, and requires to mortify such anger or vindictiveness.
Meekness is a check on harshness or maliciousness. Displays of anger are all too common among professed followers of the Lord, not least in formal church meetings. These things ought not to be. They bring disrepute on the cause of Christ.
But meekness, or a gentle spirit, sheds a lustre on a Christian profession. Meekness is what we might call a principled gentleness, in which a person’s own ‘rights’ are not pressed. There is trust that the Lord will vindicate.
We need not have the ‘last word’. Meekness is a corrective to pride and self-assertion. It is a jewel in a Christian’s character. What is the nature of meekness, scripturally speaking? Thomas Watson is very helpful on this. Much of what follows owes a great deal to his thoughts on the Beatitudes.
Meekness in practice
First of all, meekness bears hurts. It is the opposite of anger without cause. There is such a thing as anger against sin. That is a holy or righteous anger against the disregard or perversion of truth. But the disciple should not be quick to be angry, but should rather keep in check any flashes of temper.
Christ was meek, but was zealous for truth and right, as when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13). Meekness is also opposed to maliciousness. Malice has been defined as ‘mental murder’. The meek will not bear malice towards others, wishing them harm or hurt.
Meekness, moreover, is opposed to vengeance. Malice and revenge are related. ‘Malice is the scum of anger,’ says Thomas Watson, ‘and revenge is malice boiling over’. Revenge is forbidden in Scripture (Romans 12:19). The meek do not ‘get back’ at others.
Someone will say: ‘I’m not going to let anyone walk all over me!’ Now, the Christian is not feeble and unprincipled, blown about by any wind of doctrine. The believer will ‘dig his heels in’ over truth and right. But there will be no seeking of revenge.
Meekness also stands in contrast to evil speaking. The meek person has his or her tongue under control. What damage the tongue can do! The meek do not slander with the tongue, or assassinate anyone’s character. Meekness, then, bears hurts. To react to people, even offensive people, by a reproachful spirit ‘is to pay a man back in the devil’s coin’ (Watson).
Meekness shows a forgiving spirit. It is, unhappily, rare. People will say: ‘I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget’. That is contrary to the teaching of the Lord, when he answered Peter’s question about how many times people may be forgiven (Matthew 18:21). Seven times? No, seventy times seven, says the Lord (v.22). Every occasion for forgiveness is to be treated as a fresh start.
After all, God does not forgive us and then hold all our faults against us. But we are often guilty of holding past faults against people. It ought not to be.
But will this not encourage others to take advantage of you? Perhaps, but that will be their problem. The meek believer is to be genuine in forgiving offences, as and when forgiveness is sought.
Meekness seeks good
Meekness, furthermore, repays evil with good. This is a repeated theme in the New Testament. In his ‘practical application’ of the gospel in Romans 12, Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22: ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire upon his head’ (Romans 12:20).
As John Calvin put it, the effect here is that ‘either our enemy will be softened by kindness or, if he is so ferocious that nothing may assuage him, he will be stung and tormented by the testimony of his conscience, which will feel itself overwhelmed by our kindness’.
Peter speaks in this vein when he writes: ‘love as brothers, be tender hearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing’ (1 Peter 3:9).
To render evil for evil is demonic. To render good for evil is Christian. But does this make us soft on sin? No! Rather it is an impressive mark of grace.
Consider how often David could have seen off his enemies. But hear how he responds: ‘They rewarded me evil for good, to the sorrow of my soul. But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting; and my prayer would return to my own heart’ (Psalm 35:13-14).
Why be meek?
We should be meek because it is commanded by God and exemplified by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also a powerful witness, in that such a disposition melts the hearts of those who oppose the Lord.
Besides this, though, there is the promise made to those who exhibit this quality, that ‘they shall inherit the earth’. This is from Psalm 37:11.
There is irony here. Normally it is the assertive, pushy and dominant who rule the earth. That may be the case here and now. But in the final analysis, in the new heavens and new earth, there will be found only those with this quality of meekness or gentleness. That is the inheritance of the saved when Jesus comes again. The godless may throw their weight around now, but ultimately they will have no part on the new earth.
A quality to seek
This, then, is a characteristic we should seek, for it is the character of the Saviour (1 Peter 2:23). It is not ‘natural’, but an evidence of grace. It is not weakness, but practical reliance on the grace of God.
‘Put on…meekness’, says the apostle Paul (Colossians 3:12). Moses is an example of a man who was meek yet obviously of great moral and spiritual strength (Numbers 12:3). The meek person is gentle, but not lacking in conviction, or weakened by compromise.
There is no meekness, of course, apart from the work of the Spirit of God. It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). The better we understand the character of the Lord, the more we will see the nature of biblical meekness.
We will therefore look to the Lord Jesus and learn from his example, seeking by grace to be conformed in that respect to him. We will pray earnestly that the Lord would work such a spirit in us. Bitterness, hardness, vengefulness and the like must be mortified. We will not compromise truth, but the believer is always to display a meek, gentle, contrite spirit, which trembles at God’s Word. This is pleasing to the Lord. This is a blessed state indeed.