Beatitudes (in the Bible)
BEATITUDES (IN THE BIBLE)
The beatitudes in the Bible may be treated under three headings: as a literary form; as they are found in the Old Testament; as Our Lord used them in the sermon on the mount.
The beatitude is a literary form. It begins by pronouncing someone happy (Gr. μακάριος; Heb. 'a šrě, literally,
"the happiness of"). It then states the reason for his happiness and sometimes goes on to mention the reward he will receive.
The Old Testament beatitudes are found mainly in the sapiential literature. They usually praise the man who enjoys God's friendship. At times, they cite God's initiative, e.g., "Happy is he whose fault is taken away" [Ps 31(32).1]. At other times, they stress the response a man gives to God, e.g., "Happy are they who observe what is right" [Ps 105(106).3]. The rewards are usually in terms of a full life on earth, although the nearness of God is the source of such happiness. In Proverbs, wisdom as a source of beatitude is praised: "Happy the man who finds wisdom" (Prv 3.13). Sirach has the only extended list of beatitudes, ten in number (Sir 25.7–11).
In Matthew, the first beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," sets the keynote for the whole group of nine. The Old Testament helps us to identify the poor, the ’nāwîm (Heb.). Since the poor, the materially destitute, were often unfortunate victims of the rich, the prophets taught that God would intervene in their favor. Especially in the Psalms, the concept gradually became spiritualized to represent those who acknowledged their deep need and dependence on God. These "poor" looked only to Him as a savior and not to men or material things. Consequently, the later prophets looked to the messianic times for God's intervention to save His ’nāwîm (Zep 3.12; Is 61.1, 2).
The first beatitude, then, announces that these last times have come: God has finally taken up the cause of His poor and will soon bring on the final stage of the messianic kingdom. "Blessed are the meek …" has the same sense as the first beatitude, but with emphasis on the patience of the poor. "For they shall possess the land…" [from Ps 36(37).11] is parallel to the possession of the kingdom in Mt 5.3, since the promised land is a symbol of messianic hopes. "Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted" (the second and third beatitudes are in reverse order in most of the Greek texts) explains how those who are oppressed look for God Himself to be the consolation of the new Israel (cf. Lk 2.25). "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst …"—hunger and thirst are often figures of intense desire for God [e.g., Ps 41(42).2–4]; "for justice"—for God's coming regime of justice, a pure gift now anticipated in His grace and friendship; "for they shall be filled"—the figure is that of the coming joyful messianic banquet, which will completely satisfy all the elect (cf. Is 25.6).
The next three beatitudes concern the Christian's response to God's mercy. "Blessed are the merciful …" who reflect to others the generosity they themselves have received from God. "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God"—Psalm 23(24) describes the single-hearted man in his relations to his neighbor; he alone can ascend to see Him, i.e., to experience the joy of His presence. "Blessed are the peacemakers …"—peace is the totality of blessings, including especially harmony among men, that results from the gift of God's friendship. It will be a great characteristic of the messianic age (Eph2.14). The blessing is on those who spread the messianic kingdom, not by violence, but by love: "they shall be called children of God." In Hos 2.1 it is said: "they shall be called children of the living God." This most intimate union with God, a loving Father, was to be the great privilege of the messianic era.
The last two beatitudes are addressed to the Church under persecution. They can rejoice and exult since they are undergoing the final sufferings of the last age that will precede the parousia, when their reward will be great.
In Luke, there are four beatitudes followed by four maledictions (6.20–26). While Matthew emphasizes the moral and eschatological viewpoint, Luke leans more to the present and social aspects: "Blessed are you poor…, but woe to you rich! for you are now having your comfort" (Lk 6.20, 24). The messianic community is composed of those who willingly share their goods with those in need, thus becoming poor in fact as well as in spirit.
Bibliography: j. dupont, Les Beatitudes (Bruges 1958), with extensive bibliography. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 215–217. n. j. mceleney, "The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981):1–13. u. luz,, Mathew 1–7: A Commentary (Minneapolis 1989).
[j. a. grassi]