Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6
Search as you might, you will not find the word “beatitude” in the Scriptures. It is rather a word theologians assign to eight sayings of Jesus, the first eight sentences of the Sermon on the Mount. “Beatitude” means “a state of utmost bliss, the highest fulfillment.”
We each want this bliss. Witness how we strive for it materially– clothes, cars, trips, looks, job, house. Bliss comes in the next purchase! That’s the problem with materialistic bliss. As a local farmer put it, “Worldly riches are like nuts. Many a clothes torn in gathering them. Many a tooth broken in breaking them. But never a belly full in eating them.”
In their quest for bliss, others turn to the irrational– alcohol or drugs. This is a quick fix, a chemically-induced euphoria.
Then there are those who seek refuge in fantasy. Take for example the romance novel. Before the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee was an Army officer on post out west. He wrote his wife with concerns about his children’s education, giving detailed instructions. “Let him never touch a novel. They print beauty more charming than nature, and describe happiness that never exists. They will teach him to sigh after that which has no reality, to despise the little good that is granted us in this world and to expect more than is given.”
So it is in one’s quest for fulfillment, we stretch our hands out for things, for some narcotic, or even yearn through romance novels. All this, and we’re still unfulfilled.
In the beatitudes Jesus gives us the aim and the proper attitudes which bring ultimate bliss. In the first three beatitudes we are told being poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness start us off in our relationship with God. Now, in the fourth beatitude, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
What It Means
Words never exist in isolation. They have context on the printed page as well as in history. When Jesus discussed “hunger and thirst” he did so in a day when there was no corner grocery store, no faucet to twist to draw water, nor any refrigerator in which to store food. By far, the major portion of the population earned low wages, barely enough for today’s food needs. It was what we call today a “hand-to-mouth existence.” With no stockpiles of food a famine or theft could lead quickly to starvation.
I’ve read stories of travelers by camel caravan who were trapped in a sandstorm. Unable to see, they hunkered down in the desert, wrapped themselves in their cloaks, and waited it out. Some storms lasted for days! The travelers ran out of food and water, and when the storm ended, the group crawled out of the desert, more dead than alive.
Such persons had only two things on their minds: Food! Water!
When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” he was not describing a genteel hunger, a mere urge to nibble, a craving for a snack. He was describing the hunger of a starving man, the thirst of a desperate man.
Thus, this fourth beatitude asks the questions, “How much do you want God? Is there an intense desperation in your appetite for Christ? Do you only nibble at Jesus or is it your only desire to gulp him all down?”
There is, furthermore, in this beatitude an oddity in the Greek grammar. The sentence doesn’t just read, “O the happy fulfillment of the man who is ravenously hungry and thirsty for righteousness.” It says more.
I may say, “I want a piece of bread and a sip of that drink.” Or I may explain, “I’m so hungry I want the whole pitcher and the entire loaf of bread!” The latter is what Jesus said in the beatitude. There is in the phraseology a sense of craving the entirety. “Blessed is the man with an overpowering hunger and thirst for all of God’s righteousness.”
Contrast such a mind-set with today’s lukewarm attitude toward God.
When Andrew Young’s daughter graduated from college she decided to live in Africa as a missionary. Her daddy hugged her good-bye and complained, “Baby, I just wanted you to have enough religion to be respectable, not enough to go to the poorest continent and be a missionary.”
If we’re honest, most of us would pray, “Dear God, I’d like to buy a $2 bag of Jesus. Just enough to be saved, but not enough to make me stand out in a crowd. Enough to go to heaven, but not enough to get really involved, if you know what I mean. I just want $2 worth. Enough to make me a Christian: loved, respected, well-treated, and comfortable. This small bag full, please, so I can keep it in my pocket and have a little taste when I please.”
Yet this fourth beatitude will have none of that! It insists on the prayer, “God, I want all of you! Now! I’m desperate! Please!”
So, how does one best translate the fourth beatitude? “O the blessedness, O the happy fulfillment of those who are ravenously hungry, who’ll just die unless they’re fed the whole of God’s righteousness. They shall be satisfied!”
In the first four beatitudes, one finds a sort of logical progression.
The first one teaches that a disciple’s relationship with God begins with poverty, a sense of one’s lack of everything which pleases God.
Some there are who recognize this about themselves but fail to care. I’ve had hard-bitten businessmen say to me, “Stephen, I don’t know a thing about religion, God, or the Bible. And I don’t care! I’ve more important things to pursue!”
The disciple, however, recognizes his spiritual poverty and mourns over it. He cares. He learns to feel as God feels.
And this leads to the third beatitude– meekness. The disciple is not proud, but teachable, humble, willing to be helped.
Now we come to the fourth beautiful attitude– that of spiritual questing. The disciple sees God’s offer of imputed righteousness and hungers and thirsts after the whole of it.
These four attitudes are like an avalanche. A small piece of snow and ice breaks off atop a mountain and begins to tumble downward, gathering momentum as it goes, until there is a veritable crescendo of thundering snow sweeping away all in its path. Likewise, poorness tumbles into mourning which tumbles into meekness and soon one has an irresistible hunger and thirst for Jesus consuming his life and sweeping away all obstacles to the knowledge of God.
What It Looks Like
In Psalm 42, the poet prays, “As a deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Where can I go and meet with God?” The Hebrew word for pant is awrag, meaning “to breathe heavily after.” It did not escape the notice of the ancients that when a man and woman fell in love and embraced, they began to pant, to breathe deeply. Hence, their word for love and pant were much the same. So, “as a deer loves the waters, or breathes heavily after the waters, so my soul pants after thee, O God!”
Hunters used to take advantage of this situation and lie in wait for deer at watering holes. A deer’s single-mindedness for water coupled with its heavy breathing made him less vigilant. He’d walk right into danger just to get water.
This has the Gospel in it. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world” (so breathed heavily after us) “that he gave his only Son.” He didn’t even see the danger of the cross, he wanted us so!
And, as God loves us he asks that we love him in return.
Certainly there is not much panting after God in our society today. Oh, we breathe heavily after sex or money or fun or more, bigger, newer things. But when it comes to Jesus our culture suffers what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the malady of not wanting.”
Thankfully, I have seen such hunger and thirst for God from time to time.
I remember Beverly. She was 19, unmarried, and pregnant. Her boyfriend was insanely jealous and abusive. Beverly came to the church to talk over what choices she still had, became a Christian, and for months afterward just couldn’t get enough of worship, Scriptures, and fellowship. I well recall a cold, rainy winter Sunday when attendance was low. There Beverly sat in the front row and she was soaking wet! It seems her car wouldn’t start so she’d wrapped her baby in her raincoat and walked one-and-a-half miles to church!
When I first moved to Burlington I sat down with the elders and the people and we debated when we as a church were going to meet and why. The issue of a Sunday night Bible study came up. It would mean more work, more time and energy. It was pointed out that most churches had long ago quit their Sunday evening meetings. Yet someone pointed out if we had a night Bible study we could all grow twice as fast in our understanding of Scripture. So we called the meeting. And for 15 years I’ve watched many in that crowd come regularly, bringing their Bibles, pens and paper, and hungry minds. This when they could be out boating or watching television!
Some years ago I preached during spiritual emphasis week at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Young students came to Messiah from all across the nation and even some foreign countries. A young man from the rural poverty of Bolivia was there. Carlos was his name. I watched him the first time he walked into the library. An expression of awe filled his face. “You mean I can read all these books for free?” The librarian assured Carlos it was so. Carlos immediately sat down and said eagerly, “Well, I’m ready! Please bring me the first one!”
Well, these are just a few pictures of true hungering and thirsting after righteousness I’ve seen over the years.
But what is “righteousness”? The Old Testament prophet Hosea best explains what it is. It seems Hosea was concerned about God’s people. They’d lost their zeal for God and were panting like harlots after other idols, things, and themselves. The result was bad behavior.
Hosea diagnosed the problem as twofold. One: there was no knowledge of God among the people. Wise in worldly ways, they were ignorant of truth. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
Two: Since there was no knowledge of God, there was no
acknowledgment of God. What there was was bad behavior– lying, theft, adultery, greed, murder, idolatry, and so forth. “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of harlotry is within them, and they know not the Lord” (Hosea 5:4).
What is unrighteousness? Not knowing and not acknowledging God in one’s behavior. What is righteousness? Knowing God and acknowledging him in one’s behavior.
I’ve a friend who is a college president. He tells me that anyone who becomes a Christian and joins a good church and attends it with a hungry attitude for 40 years will have gained the equivalent of ten college educations.
Think of it! If you are hungry for God just look at the banquet he has spread before you in his church! Within these walls are tapes, small groups, videos, fellowships, concerts, books and worship events.
Here one may learn history, music, conflict resolution, loyalty, ethics, joy, sorrow, poetry, theology, but most of all– Jesus Christ! It’s a never-ending adventure open to all who consider themselves as not yet having arrived.
Jesus, you are God the Lord of me. Help me to stand up tall and straight for you this hour. Amen.