Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .
Blessed are the peacemakers. . .
Blessed are the pure in heart. . .
Blessed . . . Blessed . . . Blessed.
So begin the Beatitudes, one of the most quoted, most familiar passages from the whole Bible. These eight short verses have inspired and comforted—and challenged and convicted—countless people through the ages. So moving are they, in fact, that even Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, have pointed to them as a source of wisdom and guidance.
And who wouldn’t be touched by the way of life Jesus describes here? We all would like to be peacemakers, to be pure in heart, and to be merciful. We may not immediately appreciate the idea of being poor in spirit, or the benefits of mourning, but we sense something attractive in the humility and selflessness that these virtues depict. Yes, the Beatitudes describe a way to Christian perfection that we all, in our heart of hearts, long to achieve.
But there is more to the Beatitudes than the recipe for a good—or even a perfect—life. Even if that is how we usually read these verses, there is something even more important in the Beatitudes—something that we tend to overlook, but that is crucial to our understanding of the life Jesus came to give us. What’s ironic is that this vital “something” is hidden in plain view. It’s right there, at the start of every Beatitude: Blessed are. . . . This statement of blessing is at the heart of Jesus’ message, both in the Beatitudes and in the gospel itself. So let’s take a look at what these blessings are, and how we can receive them in our own lives.
Israel: A Blessed Nation. From the very beginning, the Israelites lived under the promise of abundant blessings. God’s very first words to Abraham included the promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
It was this promise of God’s blessings that sustained Abraham and Sarah as they made the long journey from their home in Mesopotamia to the Promised Land in Canaan. It was the promise of children after long years of barrenness that encouraged them to hold on to their faith, even when it seemed no child would ever come. And it was the promise of a future full of peace and prosperity that preserved them during times of war and conflict.
Centuries later, as Abraham’s descendents were finally preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses offered them these words of encouragement and direction: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God . . . loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments . . . the Lord, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy” (Deuteronomy 30:16).
The blessings still held. After centuries of slavery, after decades of wandering, after the ups and downs caused by the people’s weak but growing faith, God still wanted to bless his people. Of course, he also warned that if they turned away from him, they would suffer the consequences. But even this warning was surrounded by the promise of rich blessings—blessings that God promised would be easy for them to receive. After all, the words of his promise were already on their lips and in their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:14). All they had to do was stay close to the Lord, and the blessings would flow.
The Blessings Are Questioned. At first, it seemed that the blessings God wanted to shower on his people were material benefits, especially the benefits of a new kingdom founded by Yahweh. First, God gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. Then, in the person of David, he gave them a king, a man whom God himself had enthroned on his own “holy mountain” (Psalm 2:6). And finally, he gave them a Temple, his own dwelling place and a source of national pride. No other nation could make such claims, and it was all because of God’s blessing:
The Lord has chosen Zion, desired it for a dwelling:
“This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I desire it.
I will bless Zion with meat; its poor I will fill with bread.” (Psalm 132:13-15)
This was the people’s heritage, and it came to full flowering around the time of King David and his son, Solomon. During this eighty-year period, Israel enjoyed peace on its borders and unprecedented prosperity at home. Everything was going so well that it was obvious that God was blessing them abundantly. The land, the king, and the Temple were signs to the people and to the surrounding nations that God had chosen the children of Abraham as his very own.
But over time, especially as the people experienced the triumphs and tragedies of any nation, the idea of Israel as God’s special people—and special in its material prosperity—began to be tested. Was God really behind all their good fortune?
These questions came to a climax around the sixth century before Christ, when Israel experienced its greatest national trauma. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonian Empire, overran Jerusalem. He burned the Temple to the ground and took the king as his prisoner. What’s more, he forcibly removed most of the people from their homes and relocated them to Babylon as exiles. In one fell swoop, the people lost their king, their land, and their Temple. Where it once looked as if God was blessing them abundantly, now it appeared that he had cursed them.
It took about seventy years for a new generation to gain permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. But no matter how much they wanted it, the people could not recapture the “glory days” they had under David and Solomon. Israel was no longer a sovereign nation. Instead, it was just one of many provinces under a pagan emperor. The Temple was rebuilt, but it was slow going, and it never rivaled the original building. And there was no more king, just a minor functionary administering the laws of the foreign emperor. The mighty nation of Israel, a nation blessed by God, had been brought low, and the people were left to wonder if God had abandoned them altogether.
New Heart, New Mind. But God always writes straight on crooked lines. For it was in this climate of lost glory and broken pride that the people came to a new understanding of God’s promise of blessing. With the help of the prophets, they came to see that the kingdom of Israel was not the end of God’s purposes for them. No, the kingdom was meant to foreshadow something greater.
The prophets of this time announced that a time was coming when God himself would be their king. All of Israel’s enemies would be defeated, and the people would live in constant peace. This new era was called the “Day of the Lord” (Jeremiah 46:10). It was a day of vengeance on Israel’s foes and a day of exaltation for the faithful of the land. God would create a “new heavens and a new earth” on that day (Isaiah 65:17), and his kingdom “shall be everlasting: All dominions shall serve and obey him” (Daniel 7:27).
What’s more, God’s blessing would be upon each individual, not just upon the people as a whole. Those who remained faithful to God and kept his covenant, those who didn’t give up their faith in the midst of hardship and exile, would be blessed with a new heart and a new mind. They would have an attitude of humility and reverence for God: “This is the one whom I approve: the lowly and afflicted man who trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
United by their faith and trust in God and their care for one another, these people would make up the core of the new kingdom:
I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord. . . . They shall do no wrong and speak no lies; Nor shall there be found in their mouths a deceitful tongue; They shall pasture and couch their flocks with none to disturb them. (Zephaniah 3:12-13).
That day was coming, and the people began to long for it, preparing themselves for this new age.
Toward Even Greater Blessings. From material blessings to spiritual blessings. From crops and land and prosperity to humility, compassion, and covenant love. This is the way God formed his people Israel, and it is the way he wants to form us as well. Our Father wants to bless each of us deeply, just as Jesus promised in the Beatitudes. He wants to see all of us live as citizens of his kingdom—the kingdom that Israel foreshadowed. Like the Israelites after the exile, we may not live in the most opulent of homes. We may not have the finest of clothes or pantries bursting with food. But we will have something much more important and much more satisfying. And that’s what we will look at in our next article.