“The poor in spirit the meek they that mourn”: such is the opening description of those whom Jesus says are blessed in his Sermon on the Mount. They appear strange terms, for do they not suggest that the faithful should be depressed and sorrowful? But in fact they are terms with a long history in Israel’s experience of serving God and they represent a whole vocabulary of faith in Old Testament times. The poor, the afflicted, the meek, the humble, the lowly: these are the true servants of God, as the psalms constantly affirm. They cry to God and He hears them and will come to their aid:

“Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me Make haste to help me, O Lord. Let them be ashamed and confounded together Th at seek after my soul to destroy it But I am poor and needy; Yet the Lord thinketh upon me: Thou art my help and deliverer; Make no tarrying, O my God” (Psa 40:13–14, 17).

But the interesting thing is that this description of the faithful as poor and meek and lowly is a later development in the Old Testament scriptures; there appears to be little trace of it in the books of Moses (one more indication of their antiquity?) but it emerges in the psalms and the prophets. Why is this?

The Ground of Mercy

Under the law God gave him, the Israelite was to treat with mercy those of his fellows who were in any need of protection: the deaf and the blind were not to be abused, the widow and the fatherless were to be defended, the poor brother was to be treated with sympathy (“Thou shalt not harden thine heart”); the stranger too who chose to dwell among them was not be oppressed. Th e reason for this clear obligation which God was laying upon the Israelite is given: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing” (Deut 17:7; 24:19–22).

Israel’s morality was not therefore primarily a social or humanitarian code, but was a command, the direct result of a redemption accomplished on their behalf; in other words, it was religious (a remark which applies equally to the morality of the Christian). God went so far as explicitly to warn them that if they neglected this duty of love to their fellows, they would bring upon themselves His judgment: “If thou afflict (the widow, fatherless, stranger) in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath shall wax hot ” (Exod 22:23–24). Clearly the poor and the defenceless were the special concern of God in Israel. Why was this?

There are two reasons. In a state of human injustice and oppression the defenceless have no help on earth among men and so, if they are real worshippers of God, they turn to Him in a cry for aid: they see Him clearly as their only salvation. In other words they have been brought to realize that there is no help in man but only in the Lord. Further their state of need should have called forth from each Israelite the right reaction: a recognition of his own redemption and of grace received. To ignore or deny this obligation towards his needy ones was to repudiate his obligation to God, to refuse to recognize the mercy he had received and by which alone he had inherited the land; in New Testament terms it was “to do despite unto the spirit of grace”. The striking resemblance to the case of the Christian and his obligation of love hardly needs stressing.

Corruption and Recovery

The eight centuries of Israel’s occupation of the land were divided into two major periods of growing corruption interrupted by one of spiritual recovery. In the days of the Judges the administration of the law seems to have broken down: “In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did that which was right in his own eyes”, a state of aff airs which was bound to breed moral anarchy as well as political. There was evidently some recovery under the firm and devout leadership of David and to a lesser degree of Solomon; but after the latter’s death idolatry rapidly developed in the northern kingdom and inevitably so did immorality. The leaders failed to teach the people the way of God, having abandoned it themselves. The powerful used their power for oppression and did not shrink from attaining their ends by violent and corrupt means. In such circumstances it was the weak who were bound to suffer. Hence the denunciations of Hosea and Amos, directed against the northern kindom, and those of Micah against Judah, for greed, coveteousness, self-indulgence, and immorality, idolatry, oppression and murder—all the gross sins of the pagan nations. In the words of the prophets it is the “poor” who are the victims: “Thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, yea, for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes: that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek” (Amos 2:6–7). Th e needy (ebyon) are those in want, oppressed, so wretched; the poor (dallim) are the weak or low; the meek (anawim) are the affl icted, the miserable. But, and this is the striking point, in this passage the needy, the poor, and the meek are classed with the righteous. So, by a kind of transference, because only among the poor and the oppressed were found those fearing God and hoping in Him, these terms became parallel terms for the righteous, the faithful, those who trust in God and wait patiently for Him; and they are constantly opposed by the wicked, the proud, the scornful and sinners.

Spiritual Worlds in Conflict

The psalms aff ord numerous examples of these two attitudes in conflict.

“The Lord will be a high tower for the oppressed

They that know thy name will put their trust in thee;

For thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee …

(The Lord) forgetteth not the cry of the poor …

The needy shall not always be forgotten,

Nor the expectation of the poor (the meek) perish for ever” (Psa 9:9–10; 18).

Here the poor and the needy are classed with those who seek God’s name and put their trust in Him. The next psalm gives a detailed portrait of the opposite attitude to God:

“The wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire In the pride of his countenance he saith, (God) will not require it.

All his thoughts are, There is no God He saith in his heart, I shall not be moved

God hath forgotten; he hideth his face, he will never see it

Wherefore doth the wicked contemn God, And say in his heart, Thou wilt not require it?” (Psa 10:3–4; 6, 11–13).

Here are two spiritual worlds in conflict: that of the meek and humble, devoted to God, lamenting the sins of men, and that of the proud, self-sufficient, preoccupied with their own desire and satisfactions, assuming that God can safely be ignored: “He will never see it.”

The Spirit of the Humble”

Psalm 34 is valuable for its fuller portrait of the poor and the meek. Th e one who cries to God is “this poor man”; but in the course of the psalm he is classed with “those that fear God”, that “trust in him”, that “seek the Lord”, the “righteous”, God’s “servants”. An important feature of the poor and meek is given in the declaration of David that “the Lord is night unto them that are of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit”, a description of the faithful servants of God which will reappear in the prophecy of Isaiah. Th eir consciousness of their own unworthiness is the feature which marks them out from the proud and commends them especially to the saving mercy of God. So in the opening verses of his psalm David declares that he will make his boast in the Lord, but that the ones who will be glad when they hear of it are the meek. To them David now addresses himself: “O magnify the Lord with me, let us exalt his name together” (Psa. 34:6–10, 18, 22, and verses 2–3). Th is psalm is a wonderful expression of the true religion of the Old Testament, with its fear of the Lord, mingled with complete humility and faith.

Two striking passages in Isaiah reinforce the same view of the servants of God. Although God is the high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity and whose name is holy, and although He dwells in heaven, yet He will also dwell “with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the spirit of the contrite ones”. Or again: although God is Creator of the heavens and the earth (so what can man really build for Him?), yet He will look to “him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and that trembleth at my word” (Isa 57:15; 66:1–2). Th e contrite and the humble, the poor and the meek are now the essential terms which differentiate the man who faithfully serves God from the one who does not.

The Pressure to Conform

There were several factors which made the task of the humble and the faithful in Israel more and more diffi cult as the years went by. The monarchy in the line of David had become established in Jerusalem. Was it not the very sign of the covenant which God had made with His chosen? How then could it be overthrown? Was it not the kingdom of the Lord? To criticize the monarchy, as some of the prophets were doing, was therefore (it would seem) to commit a kind of spiritual treason. In the same way the ceremonies of the law took on with time a sanctity of their own, their mere observance being suffi cient to guarantee acceptance with God. To attack the priests, which some of the prophets were doing, was therefore, it seemed, to undermine the authority which God had Himself set up through them; no true Israelite would do this.

So the poor and the meek would be under pressure to conform. Th ey were under pressure, too, to adopt the standards of “civilization” like the surrounding nations. Israel itself was changing; the people were increasingly becoming town dwellers, seeking the benefi ts of material progress; better houses, more refi ned food and entertainments. Amos sums it up: “Ye lie upon beds of ivory eat lambs out of the fl ock and calves out of the stall; (ye) sing idle songs to the sound of the viol” (6:4–5). Th ere was a general increase of evil in the life of Israel, both in public and private matters; and to this evil, fi rst committed by the Israelites themselves in imitation of their pagan neighbours, was added the evil brought upon them by God in judgment, in an endeavour to cause them to return to Him as Amos 4 so clearly declares: the desolation, the disaster, and the foreign invasions.

The Basis of Strength

In these times of growing materialism and neglect of God, the poor and the meek, their soul grieved by the adultery, the robbery and the murder becoming common even in the people of God, sometimes no doubt physically threatened by oppression, were urged by the prophets to put their trust only in Yahweh: “Thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” But the leaders of Israel “would not”, so judgment must come and the Lord “will wait, that he may be gracious unto you blessed are all they that wait for him” (Isa 30:15, 18). Quietness, rest, waiting for this was to be the basis of their strength! In a time when the Lord’s anger was about to bring judgment, they are exhorted: “Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment (that is, who have sought to know the will of God and tried to obey it); seek righteousness (the salvation that God alone can give), seek meekness (humble submission to His will) But I will leave in the midst (of Israel) an afflicted and poor people (the humble and the contrite of Isaiah 57 and 66), and they shall trust in the name of the Lord. Th e remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity” (Zeph 2:3; 3:12–13). So the poor and the meek are assured that it is they who are the true remnant and that God will deliver them.

The Way to Humility

How have they attained to their humble submission to the will of God? The answer is always the same: by experience of the evil issuing from the human heart, their own and that of others. “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now I observe they word It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are righteous and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me” (Psa 119:67, 71, 75). Affliction is the means by which the truly humble have drawn near to God.

Jeremiah cries, conscious that God alone is the “fountain of living waters”: “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for thou art my praise” (17:13–14).

David, made conscious of his own weakness by his transgression, becomes one of the truly poor and meek when he will not allow the ark to be taken with him out of Jerusalem in fl ight before Absolom’s rebellion, but sends it back and humbles himself publicly before all: “If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me again; but if he say thus, I have no delight in thee; behold, here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him” (2 Sam 15:25–26). Even kings in high places may be of the truly poor and meek.

Micah, fully conscious of the judgments which must deservedly come upon Judah because of inquity, defi nes his own attitude: “As for me, I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me.” The “waiting” of Micah implies acceptance of the coming judgments, for the prophet, speaking in the name of his people, adds: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him.” The affliction of the people and his own experience have brought him to trust only in God and to have confidence that He will hear and save.

Perhaps one of the finest expressions of the attitude of the poor and the meek is found in Psalm 37. Do not fret, says David, because evil men prosper in the earth, but trust in the Lord and do good. “Commit thy way unto the Lord”; more literally, Roll thy way upon the Lord; like the burden carrier who, at the end of the day, leaned backwards and rolled his enormous burden off on to the shoulders of another porter. “Rest in the Lord”, but again more literally, Be silent unto the Lord: that is, do not make any demands for yourself, but “wait patiently for him”, for in the end it is the meek and they that wait upon the Lord who shall inherit the earth (Psa 37:1–11).

The Greatest of the Meek

But the greatest representative of the poor and the meek was Jesus himself. Centuries before, the prophet had said he would be “oppressed and affl icted” and led like a lamb to the slaughter. The apostle describes how he suffered the contradiction of sinners against himself and so learned obedience by the things which he suffered. He humbled himself, says Paul in Philippians 2, and uses the verb from the very word translated “meek” in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament: he made himself meek. It is Jesus himself in his call to those who labour and are heavy laden who describes himself thus: “I am meek and lowly in heart.” When such a one as this, and he the Son of God, declares: “Blessed are the poor in spirit they that mourn the meek ”, he does it with full consciousness of all that the Old Testament reveals about them in their humble acceptance of the will of God and their trembling at His word; and this is surely an indication that the conditions of spiritual service of God are to be the same in essence in New Testament times.

The whole of the Old Testament revelation about the life of the poor and the meek is therefore a rich store of spiritual instruction for us, who not only hear his blessing pronounced upon them but receive his invitation: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden Come, learn of me” In our willingness to learn of the Lord, who truly was meek and lowly in heart, in that alone shall he find the rest which endures: the rest unto our souls.