The word beatitude comes from a Latin word meaning “happiness” or “bliss,” translating the Greek word μακάριος. The following verses (5:3-12) form an introduction to the whole Sermon on the Mount. “Happy is the one who is….” is the form, this is a very basic instruction on how to have a happy successful life. The earliest macarisms (“blessed are”) in Greek literature is from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (480–83), “Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries” (Collins, ABD 1:629). The idea of each of these statements is as opportunity or chance to be happy. As Scot McKnight says, get this word right, the rest falls into place; get it wrong, the whole thing falls apart” (Sermon on the Mount, 32).
The noun אַשְׁרֵי (ʾašrê) is normally translated “blessed” (Psalm 1:1). It is the normal introduction to a blessing. Pennington associates the state of being blessed with the biblical concept of shalom (Sermon on the Mount, 44). Shalom is usually translated “peace,” but like many important Hebrew words, it is difficult to translate the word with just one word. It really has to do with functioning exactly as God intended. Prior to the fall, the world was in a state of shalom, peace. But the world implies everything was God intended. Perhaps shalom as the sense of “just right.” Scot McKnight suggests the character of God blesses the one who pursues wisdom. This blessing is always tangible, a “flourishing life rooted in common sense, hard work, and listening to one’s elders” (32).
The combination of “blessed and cursed” is common in Hebrew wisdom literature and may help unpack what this state of blessedness is. Psalm 1 for example begins with “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” and contrasts the blessed person with the wicked. The prophets often pronounce a “woe” on their listeners, a kind of anti-beatitude. The cursed is a state of being “not as God designed.” So the wicked described in Psalm 1 are living outside of the way God intended for them and are therefore living is a state of cursed-ness as opposed to blessed-ness.
To illustrate this, the beatitudes in Luke 6:17-26 have four “blessed are” statements matched by four “woe to you” statements. Blessed are the poor, but cursed are the rich. Where are the woes in the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus pronounces a series of woes on the towns which rejected the preaching of the disciples when they were sent out two-by-two. Matthew also has collection of woe-sayings targeting the Pharisees (Matt 23). Since that is a long speech which transitions into the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25), Matthew may have intentionally separated the blessing from cursing as he wrote his gospel.
One way to define “blessed” in this context is to think of the sayings as describing how people can flourish and live a successful life. Jonathan Pennington recently defined “blessed” as “human flourishing.” He says “a macarism is a pronouncement based on observation, that a certain way of being in the world produces human flourishing” (Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount, 42). To illustrate, consider 1 Kings 10:8. The Queen of Sheba praises (blesses) Solomon using the word, “Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” In this context, Solomon’s servants flourish because they are in Solomon’s presence. They are not rewarded with this flourishing, it is simply the result of the fact they are in Solomon’s presence.
In these sayings, Jesus defines the kingdom of God as living out the life of wisdom and obedience to the Law. The Sermon on the Mount goes well beyond the “letter of the Law” to describe the life of the follower of Jesus. But these are not commandments, Jesus does not say “be poor in spirit if you want to get blessed.” He says those who are poor in spirit are in a state of blessedness.
This is a radical way of looking at these sayings since most modern readers what to read them as commands and preach a sermon on “Twelve Steps to being Poor in Spirit.” These are not promises to the meek that (someday) they will inherit the kingdom if they are meek enough. On the contrary, Jesus is telling his disciples that their meekness, poverty, and even their state of persecution means they are already in a state of shalom, the kind of happiness that comes from being exactly where God intends you to be.
How does this way of looking at the Beatitudes reverse popular teaching and preaching? Do the “blessed are…” sayings describe “human flourishing” in the same way the present day church does? As we enter into to the Sermon on the Mount, how will this way of thinking change our view of Jesus’s teaching?
Bibliography: Raymond F. Collins, “Beatitudes,” in ABD 1:629-631; Hans Deiter Betz, “The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3–12)” in Essays on the Sermon on the Mount (Tr. L. L. Welborn; Philadelphia: 1985), 17-36; Betz, The Sermon on the Mount, (Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Robert Guelch, The Sermon on the Mount, 62-118; C. M. Tuckett, “The Beatitudes: A Source-Critical Study. With a Reply by M. D. Goulder” in The Synoptic Problem and Q: Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum (Ed. David E. Orton; Brill Readers in Biblical Studies 4; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 180-203; Jason Kuo, “Beatitudes,” Lexham Bible Dictionary.