Like the poor in spirit in the first beatitude, those who mourn (πενθέω) can refer to those who are literally mourning a death. But the verb is used for any kind of sadness or grief. For example, 1 Corinthians 5:2, Paul suggests the church ought to be mourning over the sin of a member of their church (rather than having pride in their acceptance of the man who has been caught in sin).
This beatitude may allude to Isaiah 61:1-4, specifically verse 3 (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 41). When the anointed one (messiah) comes, he will comfort all who mourn and will give them a “crown of beauty” instead of ashes (mourning), and an oil of joy instead of mourning. In the context of Isaiah 61, those who have returned from the exile live under oppression still, and are in a state of despair over the delay of the kingdom. When messiah comes, he will turn their state of despair into comfort and joy.
If this beatitude is an allusion to Isaiah 61, then the saying is tied to Second Temple messianic hopes. The speaker Isaiah 61 is “anointed by the Lord to preach good news.” According to Luke 4:14-29 Isaiah 61 is the text Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth and applied to himself at the beginning of his ministry.
For the original audience, then, “those who mourn” would be the Jewish people still living in the exile who were looking forward to the coming of the anointed one to restore Israel’s kingdom. John Nolland says, “Again, the state of ‘exilic’ suffering of Israel is evoked” (Matthew, 201). Instead of shame and disgrace, Israel will receive a double portion of their inheritance and have “everlasting joy” (61:7). In fact, the transformation of Israel’s mourning to joy is a regular metaphor for the eschatological age in the prophets. In the very next chapter of Isaiah Zion is like a woman who has been left desolate and deserted after the loss of her husband and children. But God will turn her mourning to joy and happiness, “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). As with the first beatitude, Qumran community considered themselves to be living in a state of mourning. 1QH 23:14-15 likely alludes to Isaiah 61 when it describes the role of the community “to proclaim to the poor the abundance of your compassion, 15 […] … from the spring [… the bro]ken of spirit, and the mourning to everlasting joy.”
The ones in this state of mourning will be comforted (future passive of παρακαλέω). Although there is a future-ness to this comfort (the end of the exile and return of Israel), Jesus immediately begins to comfort those who are mourning in Matthew 8-9. He heals a man with leprosy, a servant with paralysis, and frees the demon possessed from their bondage. In Matthew 9:23-24 he raises a young girl from the dead, literally turning the sound of mourning into rejoicing.
Even though there is an eschatological edge to this verse, the saying certainly has a contemporary application for those who are in a state of mourning today. I do not want imply here that this verse does not mean those who are mourning the loss of loved will not comforted by God’s gracious Spirit. But by reducing it to only personal comfort in our own individual suffering may distract us from living out this saying as followers of Jesus. Just as reducing the first beatitude’s “poor in spirit” to some inner spiritual discipline, limiting this saying to personal comfort in a time of loss overlooks Jesus’s own activity: he goes to the poor and the sick where they are and he does things wo alleviate their pain and suffering.
How can a disciple live out this second saying by being the comforter in our communities? How can we go beyond the common application of comforting someone in a personal loss to proactively reaching out to the poor who are suffering right now?