There is an old story about an old rabbi who said, “In olden days there were men who saw the face of God.”
“Why don’t they anymore?” a young student asked.
“Because nowadays, no one stoops that low,” he replied.
Who wants to stoop down? Who wants to be a lowly person? In the focus of our study, we want to look at Matthew 5:3-4, which begin a section known as the beatitudes of Jesus. Many spend their lives trying to pull themselves up. Society teaches us to walk tall. But according to our Teacher, God blesses those who are lowly – those stooped low. In our limited space, I wish to share with you three things: (1) What is the history of the word translated “blessed”? (2) What does it mean to be broken? (3) And what does it mean to have heartache?
The History of “Blessed”
How Jesus uses the word “blessed” (makarios) runs against His Hellenistic culture. In ancient Greek times, the blessed ones (makaroioi) referred to the gods. These blessed ones received happiness and contentment in life that surpassed all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones lived in a different world, free of the cares, problems, and worries of ordinary people. Thus, in Greek culture people only considered the gods as blessed (makarios).
An alternative meaning of makarios in Hellenistic culture refers to death. Humans, through death, reach the other world of the blessed ones. They were beyond the cares, problems, and worries of an earthly life. Thus, in Greek culture you had to die before people considered you blessed. This is the origin of the Catholic Church teaching of individual saint days – remembering saints on the date of their death. “All Saints Day” was for all the saints they did not know.
In Jesus’ day, makarios came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. It referred to those who had riches and power, putting them above the cares, problems, and worries of the lesser people – those who constantly struggled, worried, and labored in life. Thus, in Jesus’ day people considered you blessed if you were rich and powerful.
In all these meanings, being blessed referred to a higher plane than the common people. They were either gods, humans who went to be with the gods via death, or humans who had accumulated many possessions. They were people who lived above the normal cares, problems, and worries of the common people.
Jesus uses makarios radically different to its historical usage. God does not bless the elite, but those who have realized their brokenness. He does not bless those without problems, but those who openly ache in their hearts.
The Blessing of Brokenness
The term translated “the poor” (ptōchoi) means “to crouch as a helpless beggar.” Scolding the Galatian Christians, Paul asked, “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless (ptōcha) elementary principles of the world?” (Gal. 4:9). This is not a man who struggles to make a living. This is utter bankruptcy, “a poverty beaten to its knees” as William Barclay put it in his Daily Study Bible’s comments on Matthew 5. Thus, in this context, to be poor means total dependence on others for help. The “poor in spirit” are those who are painfully aware of their personal standing and their need for help from God.
Such receive the kingdom of God. Those who are poor, downtrodden, and oppressed. Those who have no influence, power, or prestige. When men close their resources to the poor, they can only look to God. These are those who have nothing on earth, who have come to put complete confidence in God. Those who see their spiritual emptiness and poverty. Those who sense their irremediable brokenness and need for God’s restoration. To these, God gives the treasures of His grace and He lays up crowns of joy for them in heaven.
As the “Man of Sorrows” (Is. 53:3), Jesus understands the language of our pain. He was constantly amid the hurting, the forgotten, and the rejected. When the religious leaders complained against Jesus, He answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Lk. 5:30-32). Unless we become as little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3). As the psalmist said, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).
The Blessing of Heartache
The word for mourn is penthountes. This mourning refers to that sorrow which pierces the heart and expresses itself in loud, audible sobs and visible in large streams of tears. According to HELPS Word Studies, it is to “grieve over a death” or figuratively to “grieve over a personal hope that dies.” Barclay comments that this is “the kind of grief which takes such a hold on a man that it cannot be hid. It is not only the sorrow which brings an ache to the heart; it is the sorrow which brings an ache to the heart; it is the sorrow which brings the unrestrainable tears to the eyes.” When the brothers told the fake news to their father about how the wolves killed Joseph, Jacob mourned (epenthei; LXX; Gen. 37:34). When Mary of Magdala told the disciples that Jesus had risen, they were mourning (penthousi; Mark 16:10).
Blessed are those who are mourning… over what? Jesus does not specify, but it seems the overall sense of heartache over present circumstances and over stubborn sin. Paul scolded the Christians in Corinth for their lack of distress (epenthēsate) over their erring brother (1 Cor. 5:2), and he knew that if he had to come to Corinth again that he would mourn (penthēsō) because many of them had not given up their old sins (2 Cor. 12:21).
Mourning is the expression of care, the voice of pain, the sorrow of a broken heart. Those who mourn care deeply; they feel the weight of loss; they grieve over sin. In grieving over sin, there is no place to hide or rationalization – just the raw realization of our fatal condition apart from God and the sincere appeal for God’s mercy. Mourning over our sins draws us to God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). Truly, God’s Word is the ultimate source of comfort. The psalmist knew that amid his conflict that God’s Word had kept him alive (Ps. 119:50). Another source of comfort is that, “I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Even in the “shadow of the valley of death” (i.e., this broken and declining world), the Lord is with us with His presence (Ps. 23:4). When we mourn, God will comfort us, literally “to come alongside.”
In these two blessings, brokenness and heartache, we can see the paradox when compared to the values of the world. Even though we live two thousand years removed from Jesus’ words, the world we live in still lives by the iron rule that might makes right. Yet these words of Jesus are meant to give us hope…that in His upside-down kingdom, true strength comes from dependence on Him as the source of our salvation.
“For You would not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it, nor be pleased by burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
— Psalm 51:13-19
Stephen is a 2012 alumnus of the Memphis School of Preaching in Memphis, TN. He is currently living in Dublin, GA, where he is seeking to further his education in ministry. He is married to Rebekah and they have two children, Emmett and Edison.