When the Last Are First

Blessed are the meek:
For they shall inherit the earth.

   AS WE MOVE further into our study we are discovering the need for inward discipline. The Beatitudes, we find, are really "hard sayings"; they are flexing muscles that we have not used for a long time, and we are not sure whether the struggle is worth it. Especially do we feel discouraged when we come to the third Beatitude, for while the words say, "Blessed are the meek," we are semantically conditioned to think, "Blessed are the weak." The Sunday school hymn couplet went, "Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon this little child," and so we say that we know what meekness is: it is weakness, softness, gentleness, docility; to be meek is to be something less than a man, it is to be tame, passive, yielding. It is to be womanly, as woman is of the weaker sex.

   Does not the "meek little man" bring up immediately the spineless

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image of Caspar Milquetoast? Does not the "meek little wife" turn out to be the one who lets her husband "get away with murder"?

   We could not be more wrong. The meek are not weak: they are so strong, says Jesus, that they shall inherit the earth. They are mightier than any breed the human race has produced from blood and soil. They control more power than is found in interplanetary space, for they have access to the Creator. Their battle cry is the song of Deborah against the Canaanite host under Sisera (Judges 5:20, 31): "They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera . . . So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord." The men who have written history's most impressive pages have been meek men, and when the latest tyranny to afflict the earth's surface is removed, it will be meek men who will do it.

   Who are these men? What is the trait that Jesus Christ is describing in them? How can we gain it for ourselves?

   Let us move out into full view of the Cross and begin from there. Calvary presents a grim historical picture of an itinerant carpenter and teacher being executed on trumped-up charges of sedition and heresy. To the eye of faith, however, there is evident also the deliberate self-sacrifice of God's only-begotten Son, who was seeking to obey His Father's will. The Gospels teach that He laid down His life not because He was trapped by a false apostle or lynched by wicked men, but because He wished to fulfill the Scriptures by atoning for the sin of

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the world. "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!" (Luke 12:50) It was His own decision, arrived at only after much agony of Spirit; He literally "learned obedience by the things that he suffered." He obeyed, He underwent the discipline, and He finished the work, and throughout He exhibited  meekness.

   Thus the meek man is not necessarily a passive personality at all. The meek of whom Jesus speaks are those who have chosen to heed the voice of God and to place themselves in the center of His will. They have followed their Savior to the Cross and have put their lives upon the block. In their obedience they have shown the capacity to take it. Meekness, says Archbishop Trench, is "an in-wrought grace of the soul, and the exercises of it are first and chiefly towards God." At the Cross we see the God-centered quality of meekness. Jesus Christ, who seized the initiative from Herod, from Pilate and even from John the Baptist, now obeys His Father's will to the yielding up of His life.

   The Cross teaches us a definition of meekness that will keep us from ever being bothered by this word again: we must be nothing, that God might be everything. Thus the meek are not simply the jaunty, as some would attempt to derive from the French translation of our Beatitude: "Heureux les débonnaires; car ils hériteront de la terre." Nor are they those who possess a vague "faith in the friendliness of the universe" (Ligon). First and foremost, the blessed meek are those who have given over their lives to the Savior that He might live in them.

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*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   Does the Bible confirm the view of meekness we see from the Cross?

   It is a fairly simple process to take the original tongues of Scripture and to read back into the Hebrew and Greek an interpretation of a word or phrase that fits our presuppositions, not to say our prejudices. It is not so easy to approach the Bible objectively and meekly, and to ask what it is seeking to teach us. In fact, one of the real hurdles for the modern Christian is the Bible itself.

   Many of us are modest enough in our daily walk, but our attitude toward the written sources of the Christian faith can become quite patronizing. The men who wrote the Bible were not moderns, we say, they were ancients; and how can they teach us? Our intellectual hauteur exudes when we acquire a little background of Bible history. We approach the sacred page with condescension; whatever the problem the text poses, we can "explain" it. How sharply the scalpel of this Beatitude severs the root of our criticism, for it tells us that our pride has neutralized its own argument! Only the scientist who sits down before the facts as a little child learns the secrets of nature; and only the meek have an inheritance in Scripture. "Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls," advises James. Received any other way, the salt has lost its savor; the Bible is stripped of its life-giving power.

   By comparing Scripture with Scripture we make remarkable discoveries

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about this Beatitude. Like several others its roots are found in the Psalms. The very wording of the 37th Psalm is significant:

Those who wait upon the Lord shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while, and the wicked shall be no more: you will look diligently for his place, and he will not be there (Psalm 37:9-11).

Further in the Psalms we read:

The meek shall eat and be satisfied (Psalm 22:26).

The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way (Psalm 25:9).

The Lord lifts up the meek (Psalm 147:6).

Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises . . . with the timbrel and harp. For the Lord takes pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation (Psalm 149:3-4).

   Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses' authority by asking, "Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?" (Numbers 12:2) The text then relates that "Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth." There is no suggestion that Moses was subservient to his brother or sister; his attitude was rather one of forbearance, while his humility was directed toward God. To see Moses meek, see him standing barefoot and wordless before the Lord on the rocks of Sinai.

   When the churches of Galatia are instructed by Paul (Galatians 6:1)

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how to administer church discipline to a brother found in error, they are warned, "Restore such a one in the spirit of meekness." Again, Peter tells the Christians of Asia (1 Peter 3:15) to be "ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with meekness and reverence." Both verses suggest that the man of meekness is under divine authority. He is humble because he realizes that his own spiritual standing lies in the Grace of God and not in any achievement of his own. He is meek because he is submitting to the discipline of the hand of God the Father. Jesus Christ Himself submitted to that discipline, and left the pattern.

   Perhaps one of the clearest illustrations we can find in Scripture is in Ezekiel. The Hebrew prophet of the exile was given a vision of the holiness of God which he describes in these words: "I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about . . . This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face." Blessed are the meek! Ezekiel, prone, heard a voice of One that spoke: "And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee. And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him" (Ezekiel 1:27, 28; 2:1-2). God did not leave Ezekiel prostrate on the ground, but raised him up that he might speak boldly to the house of Israel.

   Clearly there are set forth in all these passages characteristics that we do not ordinarily associate with

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the concept of meekness. Even stronger than the promise of blessings to come is the note of discipline and teachableness. As Christ Himself expressed it, "Learn of me, for I am meek."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   As a young university graduate I was eager to make a name for myself, to catch the eye of the nation in some sensational way. Depression days were propitious for dreaming, and out of my wool-gathering there emerged a new "beatitude": "Blessed are the colorful, for they shall make the world their oyster." Richard Halliburton, going round the world on a shoestring and writing his way to fame, seemed to hold the answer to life. I yearned to be a "creative personality" who would trip his way in sprightly fashion with a tip of the hat to anyone, even to God.

   One stereotype perhaps above all others that I wished to avoid was the species known as "Jesus-lover" or as we contemptuously referred to them the "Christers." Their lives seemed to be dipped in pastel shades; their words sounded utterly dreary. What could be more undesirable than to surrender one's vitality and aggressiveness for a bland "goodiness," to immerse one's individuality in an ocean of piety? I would have laughed gaily at the fun that J.B. Phillips has since poked at a hymn which he says is "still sung in certain circles":1

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Oh to be nothing, nothing,
Only to lie at His feet,
A broken and emptied vessel
For the Master's use made meet.

   Today I am not so willing to ridicule another man's faith. Today I am not so sure that the "colorful" are blessed, or that they are even colorful. When one has stood spiritually destitute alongside blind and ragged Bartimaeus, pleading with Jesus that he might receive his sight, and has felt the scales dropping from his eyes, he sees things differently. To my new eyes the creative personalities are those who radiate the love of their Lord. The Frank Laubachs, the Eugenia Prices, the Joy Ridderhofs, the Albert Schweitzers, the Billy Grahams, the "broken and emptied vessels" whom God has put together and used — in short, the meek: these are the ones who seem to hold the secret of life. The gallant Halliburton is lost on a daring but pointless adventure at sea, while the meek inherit the earth.

   Who are the meek? If a man is willing to take Jesus Christ as his Savior and give up trying to save himself, he is meek. If he is willing to ascribe full glory to God and to give himself absolutely none, he is meek. If he is willing to desist trying to pit the spirit of man against the Spirit of God in contention, he is meek. God tells the meek man, "You shall be dead to every grade and rank among your fellow men. You shall seek the lowest place for yourself, and you shall seek it every day. You shall continue to dwell in it until you would not exchange it

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for a throne in heaven. You will rejoice every time that you are ignored and every time that your name is passed by."

   If the man protests that this is a bit rough, God replies, "You will stay until it becomes smooth."

   It makes no difference to the Lord whether a man be an extrovert or an introvert; whether he be aggressive or retiring; whether his intelligence quotient be high or low. God the Creator is not looking for creative personalities at all, but for people that He can use, clay that He can mold, dust that He can breath upon and cause to live.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   To anyone who has read Thucydides, the present world struggle seems to be a replay of the Peloponnesian War. America, with her luxuriant culture and her traditions of freedom, wishing at all costs to preserve her way of life, is Athens redivivus. Soviet Russia is Sparta with her tight dictatorship, her allies among the have-not nations, and her total orientation toward combat. It was the fate of Athens to sink in the midst of her glory. The same fate, Toynbee reminds us, has overtaken scores of proud civilizations in the epic of man.

   But if Athens was proud, certainly Sparta was not meek, and history records that the Spartan empire quickly fell apart. What the outcome of the present battle of titans will be, no one knows, but what we learn from the Greeks only reinforces the teaching of our Beatitude. The meekness that inherits the earth is compounded of more than discipline. It includes an element

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best described as the fear of the Lord. The Spartan knew nothing of this fear. His gods were made of plaster; he gave them the veneration of superstition. And when the clay gods fail to produce, as Pearl Buck shows us in The Good Earth, man turns on his idolatrous objects of worship and makes baseballs of them.

   The fear of the Lord imparts a strange power to the believer. There is a suggestion of it in Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The Psalms are full of it. The character of Martin Luther was formed by it. It created Cromwell's "New Model Army," the best-behaved and most invincible force of men the world has ever known. The iron in the Puritan soul was tempered with it, and the Declaration of Independence was the result. In the Book of Proverbs we read that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." It could be said that this was the first statement of the theory of the survival of the fittest, for the God-fearing man is not easily intimidated by his fellows. It is also another way of saying that the meek shall inherit the earth.

   Quite evidently we are discussing an element that is not too prominent in the twentieth century, and it is doubtful whether a crash program of nuclear construction in America is an adequate substitute. Unless the missile men and muscle men are also meek men, their labors are doomed: this is the plain teaching of the Word of God. In Charles Rann Kennedy's drama, The Terrible Meek,2 the Roman centurion points out the flaw that eventually destroyed his empire:

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"We go on building our kingdoms—the kingdoms of this world. We stretch out our hands, greedy, grasping, tyrannical, to possess the earth. Domination, power, glory, money, merchandise, luxury, these are the things we aim at; but what we really gain is pest and famine . . . dead and death-breathing ghosts that haunt our lives forever . . . Possess the earth? We have lost it. We never did possess it. We have lost both earth and ourselves in trying to possess it."

   Standing in the shadow of the Cross, the centurion utters the prophecy of the Beatitude:

"I tell you, woman, this dead son of yours, disfigured, shamed, spat upon, has built a kingdom this day that can never die. The living glory of Him rules it. The earth is His and He made it . . . Something has happened up here on this hill today to shake all our kingdoms of blood and fear to the dust . . . The meek, the terrible meek, the fierce agonizing meek, are about to enter into their inheritance."

   The men of Sparta conquered and fell. They conquered because they were hardened warriors; they fell because they were not meek, and only the meek are blessed.

Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be.3

   Four centuries after Sparta there stood on Mars Hill in Athens a man named Paul who taught the worship of the one true God. Had the Athenians learned that lesson in Pericles' day, who knows what might have happened?

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The meek survive because they are fit to survive. Nothing can destroy them, neither angels nor principalities nor powers nor ICBMs nor cobalt bombs. They are invincible.

   Meekness is like the surface of the water that is tossed by wind and storm, but when the tumult dies it invariably returns to its calm reflection of heaven. Meekness is a food soft to the palate, but it produces sinews of steel. Before God it bends to a humiliation beyond humility; before man it endures beyond endurance.

   Were we to be sojourners in ancient Palestine and to discover Abraham, lying on his face before the altar of an unseen God, would we not question his balance and good judgment? Yet this same meek Abraham was given an inheritance like the sands of the seashore.

   We learn from Jesus Christ that there is a meekness that we are to bear toward our brother, and even toward our enemy, and that it is subject to a daily conditioning by God Himself. It cannot be trusted to maintain its own level. When I attended the Chaplain School at Fort Devens during World War II, our instructor at the first session opened his Bible to Galatians 6:1 and read the words, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering yourself, lest you also be tempted." It does no good to prostrate ourselves before the Lord if we then proceed to be overbearing and arrogant toward our neighbor. The spirit of meekness is to be a

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continuing conditioner in teaching us to accept reproof and to face criticism objectively.

   Perhaps the best way to relate the Beatitude to our daily lives is to consider driving in traffic. If there is one place where our century needs to understand the meaning of meekness, it is behind the wheel of an automobile. The qualities of patience, endurance, and courtesy make up the difference between life and death; and the Christian on the highway is God's representative under discipline.

   Remember that meekness does not mean servility and the meek man is not a door mat. Look again at the Gospel portrait of our Lord. Even in the washing of Peter's feet He maintained a dignity that transfigured the scene. There was a noble quality to His manliness that drew young and old. The compassion of His healing ministry flowed not from weakness but from strength. On the Cross where He took the worst that man could give Him, He held His head so high that even the admiration of a Roman legionary was kindled.

   Meekness can best be contrasted with timidity, as well as with aggressiveness by the figure of a door. Three men wish to go through the door; one is aggressive, one is timid, and one is meek. The aggressive man does not wait to see whether the door is locked, but hurls his weight against it and forces the latch. The timid man stands outside the door, dreading what is on the other side, afraid to try to enter. The meek man approaches the door and tests the knob to see whether the Lord has unlatched it. If He has, this man proceeds to walk in.

   It is true in personal relationships and it is true of our nation

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as a whole that we are short-rationed in this quality. God lets us toot our horns all we please, but He never blesses the result. What Jesus Christ is suggesting in this Beatitude is a measure long overdue: a revival of meekness. Today the world is weary of boasting; yet with the resurgence of nationalism there is little relief in prospect. How welcome would be a prophet who would speak for our time the words of Isaiah: "Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob . . . yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed, and behold it together. Behold, you are of nothing, and your work is of nought" (Isaiah 41:21, 23-24).

   No one can lead another closer to Christ than he stands himself, and no nation can make another nation behave better than its own example. It is time to pray in our land for a spiritual awakening that will create a national meekness. We know that when it comes it will be of God and not of man. It will not be a contrived phenomenon. It may use the modern mass media and it may not. It may well take the form Shelton Smith suggested, of "a hard-bitten, psalm-singing band of religious revivalists." It may come through national suffering and disaster; certainly it cannot be expected to arrive on pillows of luxury. We can, if we will strip ourselves of some of the accoutrements of padded living, begin to prepare for the divine visitation.

   In the book of Genesis we are told that God gave man "dominion . . . over all the earth." Man has not used that prerogative according to the rules; he has made

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his own rules, and the bully-boys have usurped the power wherever they could. now we know that their day is doomed. The meek shall come into their own, not because they are deserving but because God has promised them a blessing. No gold stars are passed out in heaven for meekness, for it is by Grace we are saved. The Beatitude is, from beginning to end, simply an outpouring of divine Grace through Jesus Christ "so then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" (Romans 9:16).


1. J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small, The Epworth Press, London, 1952.

2. Harper & Brothers, New York, 1922.

3. Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 1850.

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