Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5
When the above verse is read during a Lord’s Day service, no doubt, every extrovert in the room thinks to himself, “Well, that rules out me.” After all, the meek folks in the room are the ones you hardly ever hear laugh out loud. They are the people who have to be called on to answer or else their voice won’t be heard. The meek are the shy, the timid, the quiet, and the soft. Right? Not necessarily.
If one were to follow the cartography of how we get the word meek according to the traditional routes of the Dutch via the Proto-Germanic, we would see it navigating its journey through a word that means “soft.” If the even further back commonly surmised Proto-Indo-European origin is to be accepted, it comes to us from an etymological home that means “slimy” or “slippery.” When the Vulgate translates the word for those who are blessed in Matthew 5:5, it takes an entirely different route. It arrives at the term via two words that mean something like “to habituate the hand.” This will later be summed up in the English as mansuetude, tameness, or, as we know, meekness. The concept of tameness, in fact, introduces us rather well to the heart of meekness much better than softness or slipperiness, because a learned virtuous restraint is at the center of what it means to be meek.
The image used by commentators is that of a warhorse that has learned to not be spooked on the battlefield. It is approachable. It is not loud. It runs the risk of going unnoticed, which is not a problem for the meek. They have learned to function within the perimeter of their reins. These things could easily be attributed to the soft or even to the cowardly, but a “habituation of the hand” rules out both the soft and the cowardly. This is a trained pattern of self-restraint. It is not aversion. We need only consider meekness in relation to Christ’s attribution of it to Himself:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. – Matthew 11:29
Why is Christ’s yoke light for those who are joined to Him? It is a condition that is secured for the one in union with Him specifically because of Christ’s meekness. The yoke He offers the sinner is light because He Himself is meek. The apostles teach us plainly that Jesus has carried the true weight of our sin on Himself in order that our yoke might be light. It is my burden of sin that He has carried. The relationship between these parts not only means that His burden for me is light but also that He is extremely strong. He has carried the weight of the world on behalf of the world. Those united to Him by faith ought to quake at such strength manifested on our behalf; but that strength is not used against us and so we often don’t feel the need to quake.
Proverbs tells us that a man who controls himself, even if only himself, is greater than a man who could take many cities.
He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city. – Proverbs 16:32
This is not merely a quiet man. It is a man who is slow to anger. This is not someone who simply doesn’t rile easily. This is a man who rules his own spirit. Meekness is not a natural disposition. It is a characteristic of God and therefore a fruit of the Spirit.
There is no obvious glory in governing oneself. Unlike being a world conqueror, there is not much of the world’s recognition to be had in ruling one’s own spirit. The only glory is one that is discerned through the eyes of wisdom. A ruler takes many cities by pointedly not restraining himself. This, the Scriptures inform us, is actually a job for weaklings. The greater accomplishment is to govern oneself according to righteousness. According to this schema, the true warhorse may not be visibly obvious, but it is undoubtedly a great feat of strength to be meek. Far from passivity, fear, or inhibition, meekness is an inward strength that is only outwardly manifested when it would be virtuous to do so. Meekness knows that true strength does not abide in muscle. The warhorse has nothing to prove on the battlefield other than its faithfulness to having been habituated to its master’s hand. Its station is to serve within the bounds of its reins and it does not desire to break out beyond them. All of its muscle serves this purpose.
Imagine for a moment that a man has taken the day off from work in order to escort his three homeschool children on a field trip to the maximum security prison in a nearby town. After passing through all the electronically bolted doors, the little family find themselves in a hall of sorts with a temporary plexiglass room in its center, a sort of box big enough to contain a man seated in a chair. Inside the box, a man is constrained by chains and speaks through a small metal grate in the glass. Hollywood has taught us that this kind of man, a man who needs such lengths be taken in order to restrain him, deserves a certain kind of reverence. He’s the thing of which nightmares are made. We may be tempted to think that this is the man we ought to fear, even more than the mountain of a man who might raging down the hallway against the iron bars. The problem that Scriptural wisdom points out is that external restraints are actually a dime a dozen. A man of this stature hasn’t done anything special at all. He may be the type of character to rule the world in fantasies, but in reality that job has been given to the meek. Their names have already been etched into the will. A man requiring great external restraints has only lived in such a way as to render himself powerless. The homeschooling father, on the other side of the glass, who has lived in such a way as to restrain any proclivity for recklessness and complete abandon, has earned the greater reverence. He walks the earth as a free man and will continue to do so into eternity. Anyone is capable of violent absurdity. Anyone is capable of misapplied dominion. It is the meek neighbor, not merely the security guard, who gives his community a reason to not fear chaos erupting all around them at any given moment.
The story of Samson, as well, teaches us that true strength does not belong to those who would earn the obvious superlatives signifying strength. The mystery surrounding Samson was where the secret of his strength might lay. At no point did anyone even bother to offer up, “What about his enormous biceps?” This means that the Sunday School coloring pages are guilty of not having read the text. If a man is twice as tall as his enemy, there’s no mystery as to why everyone’s afraid of him. But that would be the Goliath story, not the Samson story. Similarly, the small but cocky guy will not be described as meek just because he isn’t obviously strong in a visible manner. Arrogance of any size denies room and board to meekness.
Meekness is the demeanor of a warhorse following only the instruction of his master’s hand. We do great disservice, not only to the process of discipleship but to the Name of Christ, when we think of it as a natural characteristic of those who are introverted. By definition, weakness is liable to break under pressure. This is the opposite of meekness, when taking the etymological root into consideration. A trained warhorse will be calm in the presence of the gunfire. It will carry the load because it has been trained to carry the load. The meek, in following the pattern laid out by Christ, will take a yoke upon themselves in order for the burden of others to be lighter. Praise God that they are the ones who will inherit the earth. Praise God that He sees meekness not only as a qualifying characteristic of Godly leadership, but as the very shape of the mold.
Garrett Soucy lives in Maine with his wife and nine children where he is the pastor of Christ the King Church in Belfast. He is also a writer and musician.
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