A prominent concern of both Old and New Testaments is that men and women should lead holy lives. God said, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’, a command given to Moses (Leviticus 11:44), and appealed to by Peter as the norm for the New Testament believer (1 Peter 1:16).
This, essentially, is the concern of the fourth Beatitude: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled’ (Matthew 5:6). As with all the Beatitudes, this has to do with the character and blessedness of the disciple of the Lord.
We must take careful notice of the wording: blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The emphasis here is on the desires and actions of the believing soul.
The fact that the hungering and thirsting has righteousness as its object points to the spiritual nature of this activity. It is the duty of the believer to seek to live righteously, and to encourage righteousness in others.
Why such hungering?
What is the real importance of this hunger and thirst for righteousness? It has to do with something central to spiritual life, namely, a right relation with God. Man is by nature unrighteous. He is sinful, fallen, depraved by nature.
This is stated explicitly in Isaiah: ‘We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags’ (64:6). Or, as Paul puts it in the New Testament (quoting the Old Testament): ‘There is no one righteous, no, not one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is no one who does good, no, not one’ (Romans 3:10-12).
Paul’s conclusion is the teaching of all of Scripture: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Obviously, the righteousness in question, and which is to be the object of our hungering, is a righteousness not of man, but of God.
What righteousness do we need and obtain from the Lord?
Imputed and imparted
If we are to be accepted by the Lord we need a righteousness wrought for us and imputed to us, that is to say, put to our account. This can be found only from one source, Christ. By his perfect conformity to the law of God during his life on earth, he accomplished a perfect righteousness for his people.
This righteousness is put to their account, so that they are ‘justified’ before God, as they receive Christ through faith. However, this imputed righteousness is not what is uppermost in the context here.
What is primarily in view in the Beatitude is a subjective or personal righteousness. This has to do with the lifestyle of the believing soul. Although it flows from (and is based upon) the imputed righteousness of Christ, this is a practical righteousness imparted to the believer through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The righteousness in question, then, comprises the fruit of the Holy Spirit, as outlined for example in Galatians 5:22-26. As we consider the practical implications of this Beatitude, there are several things to notice.
Serious about God
Firstly, God requires this desire of us. Thomas Watson puts it this way: ‘God does not require rivers of oil, but sighs and tears’. When you are invited to supper your host will not expect you to pay for it, but will expect you to have a good appetite! Similarly, the believer does not earn salvation, but God expects him to have an appetite for righteousness, its fruit. Watson puts this powerfully.
‘What apology can any man make on the day of judgement, when God shall ask that question, ‘Friend, why did you not embrace Christ? I set Christ and grace at a low rate. If you had but hungered after righteousness, you might have had it, but you slighted Christ.
‘You had such low thoughts of righteousness that you would not hunger after it. How do you think to escape who have neglected “so great salvation”? The easier the terms of the gospel are, the sorer punishment shall they be thought worthy of who unworthily refuse the offer’ (The Beatitudes, p.123).
Secondly,it demonstrates the seriousness of the soul for godliness. The person who is serious about God and heaven will have this character; he will hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is a mark of grace, of having a real interest in Christ and glory. This seriousness will, of course, be pursued with reference to the Word of God and prayer.
Professing believers should test themselves concerning the possession of a hunger and thirst for righteousness, asking such questions as these.
Is there a desire for Christ himself? Is there a desire to know him and love him? There will surely be a desire to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Saviour (2 Peter 3:18). The older divines were wont to speak of a felt Christ. The believing soul should desire conformity to him.
Is there a concern for nothing but the best in my life? There ought to be an appetite for worship, both in private and in public, and for hearing faithful preaching. There should be a love for the Lord’s Day as offering a special opportunity for spiritual improvement week by week. A desire to be better in love and faith will indicate the desire expressed (and expected) in this Beatitude.
Are there real aspirations after holiness? God demands it. ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. The gospel demands holy living. Believers are to reflect the character of their Lord, who was ‘holy, harmless and undefiled, separate from sinners’. The believer is to walk as he walked (1 John 2:6).
Sinless perfection is not attainable in this life, but there should be a desire for it. Believers are not to be so earthly-minded that they are no heavenly use! Holiness is not an option.
Hebrews puts it in its proper context: ‘Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord’ (12:14). The practice of godliness, in some measure, and the desire for it, surely fulfil the spirit of this Beatitude.
It goes without saying that, if there is no desire for a holy life, no such life will be attained. It is rare for an athlete to succeed who has no desire to win! So, surely, is the case of the Christian believer.
A basic incentive to hunger and thirst for righteousness is that, if we do not do it here below, we will hunger and thirst too late. The nineteenth-century Scottish evangelist, Brownlow North, said this on one occasion to a stunned audience: ‘He who never [did] thirst for God here will thirst for him before he has been dead a minute’. Alas, that is a thirst never quenched, a hunger never satisfied.
Thomas Watson pleads with the unsaved: ‘Heat increases thirst. When men shall burn in hell and be scorched with the flames of God’s wrath, his heat will increase their thirst for mercy but there will be nothing to allay their thirst. O, is it not better to thirst for righteousness while it is to be had, than to thirst for mercy when there is none to be had? Sinners, the time is shortly coming when the drawbridge of mercy will be quite pulled up’ (The Beatitudes, p.133).
The promise is that those who ‘hunger and thirst’ for a life of conformity to the Lord ‘shall be filled’. This is a promise of spiritual satisfaction. The Lord satisfies the soul that hungers and thirsts for the right things.
No doubt the agent in view here is the Holy Spirit. After all, believers are exhorted to ‘be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). It is the Spirit who produces such fruit as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
It is surely such fruit that comprises ‘righteousness’. Worldly things never satisfy. They are passing, uncertain riches. They fade, decline, and die. But righteousness satisfies because it is at the heart of a right relationship with God.
It is at the heart of what it means to lay up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:20). In a sense it is the ‘atmosphere’ of heaven itself. Lost souls have no righteousness, and they will experience perpetual emptiness. But for those who are found hungering and thirsting for righteousness, there is the promise of being ‘filled’. No doubt this satisfaction will be partly experienced in this life, but it will be fully enjoyed hereafter.
As the psalmist anticipates: ‘As for me, I will see your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in your likeness’ (Psalm 17:15). The righteous, both here below and in eternity, will sing: ‘For he satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness’ (Psalm 107:9).