Blessed are the meek?

Blessed are the meek

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, says Matthew’s Gospel 5:5 (and also Psalm 37). This is the third of the eight beatitudes, preached by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. They were presented as the virtues that would be rewarded by God with salvation.

Meek was originally used to translate mansuetus (related to mansuetudo meaning tameness) from the Latin text of the Bible.

Meek comes from Middle English meke (around the 12th century) which meant gentle, courteous and kind. It originated in Old Norse from mjūkr, meaning soft. However in the 14th century it also took on a meaning of submissiveness. To find out the modern definition I did a little bit of a survey online and from my collection of international dictionaries.

My Shorter Oxford (Third Edition 1973) from the UK defines meek as:

  • gentle, courteous, kind, merciful, indulgent
  • free from self-will; piously humble and submissive; patient and unresentful
  • submissive, humble; easily put upon

My Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary (1976 Edition) from the US defines it:

  • Having a patient, gentle disposition
  • Lacking spirit or backbone, submissive

The Concise Macquarie (First Edition 1982) from Australia defines meek as:

  • humbly patient or submissive

On line the (based on the Random House Dictionary 2010) :

  • humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others
  • overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame
  • Obsolete. gentle; kind

Different types of meek

But if we aspire to inherit the earth, how do we recognise the characteristics of meekness that we need.  The difference between the gentle, courteous, pious and kind type of meek (the virtuous meek) and the submissive, compliant, spiritless type of meek (the non-virtuous meek) is quite large. Meaning, however, is seldom clear from the context. The difference between the good meek and the bad meek is not a matter of context but intent.

You can be meek because you choose to be gentle and courteous due to your pious and kind nature. This is a virtue resulting from choice and strength of character

Alternatively you can be meek because you are compliant and submissive due to your weak and spiritless nature. This is not a virtue as it comes without choice and from a weakness of character.

Meek is still used in the modern translation of the third beatitude to represent a virtuous state deserving of the future of the world. The Bible is an active and current publication and its use of meek, particularly in the Third Beatitude, demonstrates its sense as a virtue rather than its sense as a weakness. (I therefore argue that the gentle and kind meaning is not obsolete at all because of the currency of the beautitude).

The spiritless shall inherit the world

In defining the quality of meekness last century, Arthur Walkington Pink (1886 – 1952), an influential biblical scholar, wrote:

Some regard it’s meaning as patience, a spirit of resignation; some as unselfishness, a spirit of self-abnegation; others as gentleness, a spirit of non-retaliation, bearing afflictions quietly.

So, dear dictionary writers, if the good meaning of meek is obsolete we must either get the biblical translators to replace it with something like:

Blessed are the patient, unselfish and gentle for they will inherit the earth.

Or be afraid for the future because the dictionary-makers have subverted the meaning of meek and given the world away to the wrong people:

Blessed are the compliant, submissive and spiritless for they will inherit the world.

P.S. Ron Cobb

I have used a cartoon illustration in this post is by Ron Cobb. I tried to contact him for permission to use it in 2013 but received no answer from the email contact I had. It was quite disappointing at the time as he was one of my heroes. He was an influential American political cartoonist in the 1970s and 1980s creating many highly biting environmental images—this being one of my favourites. Cobb went on to design creatures for Star Wars and elements of Ridley Scott’s Alien film and was involved in many other important films. He settled in Australia and died in 2020.