The meek shall inherit the land: an exercise in hermeneutical restraint

Read time: 5 minutes

Why do we assume that in his sermon on the mount Jesus addresses the whole church throughout the ages? Much of the teaching has to do with what it means to fulfil the Law of Moses, which Jesus categorically says he has not come to abolish—at least, not until heaven and earth pass away (5:17). The unrighteous are threatened with the same fate (corpses thrown into Gehenna) that Jeremiah prophesied for Jews in Jerusalem ahead of the Babylonian invasion. Jesus borrows metaphors from the prophets (two roads and a house swept away by a storm) to describe the dilemma faced by first century Israel under Roman occupation. He speaks as a prophet to Israel about Israel.

So why are we so eager to read Matthew 5-7 as a compendium of classic Christian wisdom or a manifesto of radical Christian ethics? Presumably because we find in it such powerful and enduring sentiments as “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “You are the light of the world”, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent, etc.”, “Love your enemies”, “You cannot serve God and money”, “seek first the kingdom of God”, and so on.

That’s fine, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the sermon as a whole, in context, just four chapters from the end of Malachi, is directed at a revolutionary movement within first century Israel. The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) is not prescribed as a piece for routine liturgical recitation. It’s a prayer for the direct intervention of YHWH in the affairs of Israel. To seek his kingdom and his righteousness—to hunger and thirst for righteousness—is to believe that he will redeem his people from trouble, that he will bring them back from their various forms of exile (Matt. 5:6; 6:33; cf. Ps. 107). [pullquote]The sermon on the mount is a manifesto for immediate eschatological renewal.[/pullquote]

The sermon on the mount is like a beautiful old car. We strip off the shiny bits—the bonnet ornament, the hub caps, the bumpers, the grill, the head lamps—and display them round the house to show off our taste in retro motor chic. But we leave the car—the real substance of the matter—to rust away on the scrap heap of history. We have no further use for it.

Here’s another example of how we massage the text to suit our own perspective. Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land (tēn gēn)” (5:5). Most translations will have “earth” for gēn, which is a legitimate sense of the word. But Jesus is quoting Psalm 37, which is an exhortation to the righteous in Israel, who suffer at the hands of the wicked, to persevere. They will not be put to shame. The Lord “laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming”.

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. (Ps. 37:10–11)

In the Beatitudes Jesus tells a Jewish story. The “poor in spirit”, whether or not they are also materially poor, are not the world’s poor. They are the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, who wait for YHWH to restore Jerusalem (Is. 61:1; Matt. 5:3). Those who mourn, who will be comforted, are those who mourn over the wretched condition of Zion (Is. 61:2-3; Matt. 5:4). Jesus speaks, likewise, to those Jews who are waiting for YHWH to bring on his “day of vengeance” (Is. 61:2), when he will put the world of his people to rights.

Then, these poor, these broken-hearted, these captives, who mourn in Zion, will be “called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord”; they will be called “the priests of the Lord”; they will consume the wealth of nations; they will no longer suffer shame and dishonour; and “in their land they shall possess a double portion”.

The meek shall inherit the land.

Hagner notes ‘The “earth” (tēn gēn) originally referred to the land of Israel’, but argues that

in the present context of messianic fulfillment it connotes the regenerated earth (19:28; cf Rom 4:13, where kosmos, “world,” replaces ), promised by the eschatological passages in the prophets (eg, Isa 65–66).1

But in the context of the Gospels that is an overstatement of messianic fulfilment. Three quick points: 1) Josephus uses palingenesia (“regeneration”) for the “restoration” of Israel, which makes perfectly good sense in the context of Matthew 19:28; 2) Paul is not interpreting Psalm 37:11 in Romans 4:13, he uses kosmos arguably to avoid the ambiguity of , and things have moved on; and 3) the language of “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65-66 is figurative for the regeneration of Israel following judgment.

I think that Jesus would have been closer to the Qumran community than to Paul regarding the broad application of Psalm 37:1, though he would have disagreed over the identity of the “poor” or “meek”:

And the poor shall inherit the land and enjoy peace in plenty. Its interpretation concerns the congregation of the poor who will tolerate the period of distress and will be rescued from the snares of Belial. (4QpPs 37)

So it’s not about God’s people inheriting the whole earth. That comes later—after the revolution. It’s about the meek in Israel inheriting the “land” from the current unrighteous leadership. It’s the message of the parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14). The invited guests go off to attend to their farms and businesses; some of them even fatally assault the king’s servants. So the king sends his servants out into the streets and they “gathered all whom they found, both bad and good”.

The poor and meek, both good and bad, shall inherit the land. And we need to exercise a little hermeneutical restraint. It’s not all about us.

  • 1D.A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (Word Books, 1993), 92-93.
Mark Edward | Tue, 03/11/2014 - 13:59 | Permalink

I just did my own blog series in the sermon, and I’m glad to see others recognize the need to keep it in the context of a prophet of Israel speaking to Israel about Israel. This exact point – the meek inheriting the land – was what convinced me of this. That idiom, ‘inheriting’ the ‘land’ is used all throughout the Torah for Israel living in the land promised to Abraham.

Jesus ends the sermon in 7:21-29. From that passage there seems to be a universality to it. He is using the same standards in his sermon to judge people. everyone who hears these words of Christ are expected to live by them. So i am not sure why you need to limit the sermon only to the audience of his time.


Sam, I disagree that 7:21-29 has a universal aspect to it. I would argue that the teaching here has the same restricted historical or eschatological focus. See “The parable of the two houses and the apocalyptic storm”. The teaching in the sermon on the mount is about how to survive the coming storm of God’s wrath against Israel, not how to live in the new world, the palingenesia, that will come after it—though, of course, that doesn’t mean that nothing of what he says in these chapters will have lasting value.

Yes, Jesus is discussing the fulfillment of the Jewish prophets that God will restore the land to Israel. And the sermon describes the ethical characteristics that people will live by in this new earthly Kingdom ruled by God through his Messiah.

So in one sense it is universal, but it also describes a situation (the coming Kingdom of God) that has not been fulfilled. 


See my response above to Sam. It seems to me that whatever accidental enduring value the teaching may have, it fundamentally addresses a crisis in Israel and what that crisis means for those who choose to follow Jesus down the narrow path leading to the life of the age to come. There is plenty of guidance elsewhere in scripture about how we should live in the post-eschatological age.

And I firmly think that the coming of the kingdom of God was fulfilled in the outworking of the historical facing national Israel. We now live with the consequences of that fulfilment—notably, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. We are not still waiting for the kingdom to come. But the renewal of all creation—now that’s another matter.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 03/12/2014 - 12:00 | Permalink

I came looking for a car-crash, and then saw you interpreted the picture slightly differently.

Tom Wright says something very similar to this in ‘The Challenge of Jesus’. It may not be directly about the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, but it is about the content of Jesus’s teaching in the gospels generally.

But I liked your emphasis earlier on in this piece, when you say of reading Matthew 5-7 as “a manifesto of radical Christian ethics”:

That’s fine, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the sermon as a whole, in context, just four chapters from the end of Malachi, is directed at a revolutionary movement within first century Israel.

If it’s fine, why go on to set the one reading against the other? What Jesus did uniquely in 1st century Israel is hugely important, and laid a foundation for what followed which will never be repeated. Beyond this, why disallow the ethics, attitudes and lifestyle of 1st century believers from being those of believers throughout history, interpreted in later and different contexts?

I think the format of the gospels encourages such an approach, and we are enriched by taking both readings, rather than either/or.

We are particularly enriched when we take the gospels as determinative for the meaning of the letters, rather than the other way round — but that’s another matter altogether.

Still enjoying your website, as ever.

@peter wilkinson:

Thanks, Peter.

Beyond this, why disallow the ethics, attitudes and lifestyle of 1st century believers from being those of believers throughout history, interpreted in later and different contexts?

It’s not really a matter of not allowing later believers to apply the sermon on the mount to their own context. It’s more to do with not allowing later and different contexts to obscure or subtly distort Jesus’ teaching to first century Israel, which I think inevitably happens as soon as we start reading it as a text for us. Also, I would argue that the sermon on the mount is actually more valuable to us as Jesus’ teaching to first century Israel than as the direct Word of God for the twenty-first century church. I think that the narrative, when properly worked through, gives us more than fine-sounding verses taken out of context.

@Andrew Perriman:

fine-sounding verses taken out of context

That’s a bit of a put-down. How about “radical principles on which to build our lives”?

Granted a viewpoint of the Sermon on the Mount, gospels etc from within OT Israel’s horizon. For me that provides a broader view of the “good news” than that provided by the post-Reformation gospel.

I don’t see the need to set the one reading against the other. The “modern” reading (it isn’t really modern, but goes back at least to Isaiah 53) sits within the “narrative historical reading”. The former has tended to obscure the latter, however.

Hence the value of a reading which has the OT horizon as its starting point. 

@Andrew Perriman:

It strikes me that one reason many do not want to abandon the process you describe is that they have come to believe that only “direct truth” — i.e. Jesus meant this to apply directly to my life — is actual truth.  Modern evangelicals (and other traditions as well) have come to see a direct application of scripture as the process of the Christian life.  Any attempt at contingency or indirect messages and truths to be gleaned from history and narrative are distrusted as postmodern attempts to undermine absolute truth and water down scripture, etc.

They see history and narrative as simply a collection of facts whereas God’s Word speaking directly to them as absolute truth that can’t be denied or avoided.

That is why those sympathetic to your analysis of scripture want to keep their tried and true interpretations and applications.  That is the walk of a Christian in their mind: read the bible and apply it to your life.

Perhaps I am being overly-broad but I find this to be true.

If the “meek inheriting the earth” means the meek within Israel inheriting it from corrupt religious officials, when did they inherit it and in what way did they?

Matt Colvin | Sat, 03/15/2014 - 11:54 | Permalink

Hi Andrew! I am greatly enjoying your book on Romans right now, and have been looking through your Heaven and Hell book too. (Not quite persuaded on a couple of passages, but generally persuaded on most.) I’m Anglican clergy (REC, actually) currently serving as a missionary in Davao City, Philippines. I come to the Bible from the background of a classicist. (I have a PhD in Greek, but no seminary training.) Like you, I have found NT Wright very helpful.

But to the matter at hand: I independently came to the same conclusions as you about the beatitudes, and blogged about it here: The New Perspective on the Beatitudes. (When I wrote this, I hadn’t discovered you yet. Otherwise I might have been more careful about doing what Hagner to broaden the scope of ten gen.)

@Matt Colvin:

Thanks, Matt. I read your excellent piece. We seem to be very much on the same page.

Andrew, one reason I have thought that the SoM goes beyond Jesus being “a prophet of Israel speaking to Israel” is that the Gospel of Matthew appears to be organized as a catechism for the early church. I wrote about this on Internet Monk in a post called The Torah of Jesus.

I wonder if you have considered Matthew in this light, and if so, what implications does that have for what you are saying here?

@Mike Mercer:

Mike, I replied here. I don’t really see that viewing Matthew as a catechism for the early Jewish church conflicts with the argument that Jesus’ eschatological perspective was limited. But see what you think.