Today’s Question: Hi Bob, I hope you are doing well. Can you explain (if you have the time) the line from the Bible that goes “the meek shall inherit the earth?”
My Answer: Friend, I love your question! And I will make the time to answer it! It’s based on something Jesus said. Matthew told us about it when he quoted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the actual passage:
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5, ESV)
This passage has been the starting point for many explanations which are the verbal equivalent of gymnastic contortions. It’s a problematic passage for any Christian who is unwilling to accept the plain Biblical truth that meekness is a virtue. Many of the classic explanations for this passage use the same illustration over and over again, and go something like this: “A wild horse that has been tamed is meek. This doesn’t mean the horse is timid or weak; rather, it means the horse is now obedient. Therefore, we may describe meekness as ‘power under control.’”
Commentators go to great lengths to say, explicitly, that “meekness is not weakness,” and “being meek doesn’t mean being timid.”
Uh, there’s a problem here! Because Jesus explicitly talks about turning the other cheek. Jesus is described as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy when, during his trial, he “opened not his mouth.” Jesus chose weakness. Do you get that? He chose it. On purpose. And, in some situations, weakness is exactly the response that God requires of you, if you intend to follow his son, Jesus.
Personally, I don’t like the “tamed horse” illustration at all. Do you know what else we call a tamed horse? Broken. Newsflash: Jesus wasn’t broken. Nobody tamed Jesus. So, if you’ve got one of those Bible commentaries that describes “meek” as being like a tamed horse, cross out that section and write in the margin, “This is a terrible example!”
The other explanation – “power under control” – is well-intentioned, but inadequate and inaccurate. To be more accurate, recall that Jesus gave up his power. Jesus chose to be powerless. He let the High Priest, the Governor, and the Roman soldiers have both control and power. The Apostle Paul described Jesus’ choice to be crucified this way:
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8, ESV)
Jesus humbled himself. Did you get that? James Strong, in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, uses three synonyms to define “meek.” Those three synonyms are: gentle, mild, and humble (Abingdon Press, Thirty-third printing, 1975, Greek dictionary appendix, entries 4235 & 4239).
Let’s be clear: the virtue of meekness means becoming so weak that you give up control. Now, this was not always Jesus’ mode of operation. Refer to Ecclesiastes 3, and observe that there is a time for everything. There is a time for meekness, and there is also a time for power. Just don’t let human pride or shy Bible commentators keep you from recognizing the immeasurable value of meekness at the right time, in the right situation. No, Christian, you cannot always stick up for your rights. Jesus didn’t always stick up for his rights – are you more privileged than Jesus?
When Jesus said what he said about the meek inheriting the earth, did you know that he was quoting from the Old Testament?
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.
(Psalm 37:8-11, ESV)
Meekness is well-defined for us here in this Psalm of David. David plainly describes the characteristics of the meek. They choose not to get angry, they abandon the path of wrath that they formerly walked on, they wait patiently for the Lord, and they delight in peace. More specifically, their meekness is what leads them to peace – abundant peace!
And, by the way, as we look at the words of David that Jesus was quoting in the Sermon on the Mount, we see what it means to “inherit the earth.” The angry people and the evildoers don’t win in the end. Their power and success are temporary. Don’t be fooled. Ultimately, they lose everything. The meek will find themselves the winners, and “winners take all.”
The word “meek” hasn’t been used too often in the more modern English translations. In the King James Version, it is used in the New Testament exactly four times: Matthew uses “meek” three times, and Peter uses it once. The references are:
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
We’ve already talked about Matthew 5. Jesus is the one who said it. Meekness is a good thing, so don’t try to soften or alter what the word means.
“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.”
In Matthew 11, Jesus describes himself as meek. Meekness is a good thing. Don’t let human pride cause you to avoid it.
“Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”
The passage in Matthew 21 is a quote from a prophecy about Jesus in Zechariah 9:9. The word “meek” is used in the King James Version. Almost all modern versions, including the Revised Standard Version (RSV), New American Standard Version (NASB), New International Version (NIV), and English Standard Version (ESV), translate the word as “humble.” It’s a virtue. And it was good enough for Jesus. Don’t let pride cause you to try to make the word more palatable.
I Peter 3:4
Describing a Christian woman’s inner beauty, the Apostle Peter, who wrote in Greek, is translated this way in the King James Version: “even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” In this passage, “meek” is translated as “gentle” in the RSV, NASB, NIV, and ESV.
To summarize all this, we need to do two things: (1) understand the word “meek,” and (2) understand the phrase, “inherit the earth.”
Meek: gentle, mild, humble. It does not include the concept of control or power, but it does include the concept of choice. When Jesus chose meekness, he gave up power and control. He turned the other cheek. And he tells his followers to do the same. There are times when surrender, gentleness, humility, are the right choice.
Inherit the earth: Jesus was quoting David in Psalm 37. David’s passage does not contain any explicit reference to the end times. David wrote that the successes of the wicked, the successes of the angry, are transient. Ultimately, the evil fail, and the righteous prevail. Of course, there is an implicit reference to the end times in this passage: because this is what the end times will bring. Evil will be brought to a permanent end, and peace will be the permanent destiny. But in Psalm 37, David is taking a much shorter-range view, and saying, “live your life this way today, and you’ll be better off – throughout your life!”
And now, I urge you…
So, Friend, I urge you to put away your pride. Yes, there are times when bravery, courage, and action are called for. Remember Solomon’s lesson in Ecclesiastes 3. But when you must fight, you must fight without pride. You must fight because it is right, regardless of reputation.
And likewise, I urge you to accept meekness, humility, gentleness. Solomon also taught us in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time to give up control, to choose weakness. Jesus demonstrated weakness every bit as much as he demonstrated power (“Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”) When meekness is called for, embrace it, regardless of reputation.
When you follow Jesus, all things are yours, because you are his.
Books by Bob Young