Matthew 5:4, in detail, blessed are those who mourn
Mourning in the Hebrew BibleThe Hebrew Bible mentions a range of situations that call for mourning. These include:
- Bereavement (Gen 23:2, Deut 34:8);
- Suffering humiliation or affliction (Job 30:27-31, Esth 6:11-12, Neh 1:3-4);
- The ways of Zion being deserted at festival time (Lam 1:4);
- When those close to you turn against you (Ps 35:12, 14-15, 2 Sam 15:30);
- Loss of relationship (2 Sam 3:14-16);
- The loss of a way of life (Num 11:4-10, 2 Kgs 8:11-12, Isa 22:4);
- Inability to stand before the Lord due to sin (Exod 33:4-5, Neh 8:9, Ezra 10:6, Ps 38:5-6).
Comfort in the Hebrew Bible
From as early as the death of Rebekah (Gen 24:67), the Hebrew Bible sees offering comfort as a natural way to deal with mourning (cf. 2 Sam 12:24, 1 Chr 7:22). The earliest biblical example of God providing comfort for those who mourn also comes from Genesis, for, after the apparent death of Joseph, Jacob mourned and refusing to be comforted concerning his loss (Gen 37:35). This was his favourite son (Gen 37:3) and Jacob had already noted that there was something special about him and his future role (Gen 37:10-11). On that occasion it was not just the loss of a child, but also the apparent failure of God’s intended succession, that provided cause for mourning. When God’s appointed leader was subsequently revealed to be alive and well, then those who mourned were comforted and revived (Gen 45:27).
Job introduces the idea that comforting those who mourn was part of the role of a leader. He claimed “I chose out their way, and sat as chief. I lived as a king in the army, as one who comforts the mourners” (Job 29:25 WEB). Thus it would be natural to expect that God would comfort his people. Indeed, in this beatitude the passive “they shall be comforted” is idiomatic, implying that God is the author (France 1995, 110).
Comfort is a theme that occur frequently in the context of the exile and return of Judah. We find it coming together with weeping in Lamentations, as the writer states -
(Lam 1:15-17 HNV)
1:15b “The Lord has trodden as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah.
16 For these things I weep; my eye, my eye runs down with water;
Because the comforter who should refresh my soul is far from me:
My children are desolate, because the enemy has prevailed.
17a Zion spreads forth her hands; there is none to comfort her.”
However, it is clear that God’s recovery plan included comfort for the remnant that remained (e.g. see Ezek 14:22, Zech 1:17). These people mourned the loss of Jerusalem and the cultic system that went with it, but this remnant that survived would yet be comforted.
In Isaiah we find that, after God’s anger against his people is spent, he offers comfort to them (Isa 12:1). Indeed this is the context of the famous “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” (Isa 40:1 KJV) that precedes the passage which John the Baptist applied to himself (John 1:23).
I have discussed elsewhere (see Matt 5:3-10, notes) the link between the beatitudes, Jesus’ address at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-29), and Isa 61:1-2. It is sufficient here to note that the anointing upon Jesus “to proclaim good news to the humble” (Isa 61:1 WEB, cf. Luke 4:18), meant that he was also commissioned “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:2b HNV, cf. Luke 4:19), moreover that he does so under the mantel of Isa 40:3’s call to prepare the way. It is those who mourn concerning the state of Zion for whom Isaiah foresees comfort (Isa 61:3, 66:10).
I have postulated elsewhere (see Matt 5:3, notes) that Isa 57:14-15 lay behind the first beatitude, however a few verses later Isaiah speaks of God healing the heart way of the backslidden, leading his people, and comforting those who mourn because of the lack of righteous. He says -
57:17 “For the iniquity of his covetousness was I angry, and struck him; I hid [my face] and was angry; and he went on backsliding in the way of his heart. 18 I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts to him and to his mourners.”(Isa 57:17-18 WEB)
Isaiah 57:18 promises that when God leads Judah, i.e. God’s appointed leader is leading his people faithfully, comfort will be restored to Israel and its mourners.
There are at least three passages that explicitly link the humble poor of the first beatitude (Matt 5:3) with those who mourn. These are found in Job 5:11, Isa 61:1-2, Isa 57:15-18. Job states that he will seek God, because the Lord does great things (Job 5:6), “so that he sets up on high those who are low, those who mourn are exalted to safety” (Job 5:11 WEB). The other two passages are mentioned above as precedents for this beatitudes promise. In all three mourning is mentioned after the lowly/humble. It would therefore have been natural to preserve this order in the Beatitudes.
In some textual traditions the blessing upon the meek (Matt 5:5) and the blessing of those who mourn (Matt 5:4) are reversed, see notes on Matt 5:5.
The difference between this beatitude and its parallel version in Luke (Luke 6:21), which refers to weeping and laughter instead
of mourning and comfort, is covered under discussion of the Sermon on the Plain.
The picture of a people mourning for the sorry state of God’s Kingdom, who are promised comfort when the way of righteousness is restored, is similar to that found in the story of Lazarus and the Rich man (Luke 16:19-31), with its echoes of Luke’s first woe (Luke 6:24).
James provides evidence that the Hebrew Bible’s perspective prevailed into apostolic times, for James explains how God opposes the proud, whilst giving grace to the humble (Pr 3:34 LXX, Jas 4:6), he then exhorting sinners to cleanse their hands and purify their hearts, turn their laughter into mourning and humble themselves so the Lord will exalt them (Jas 4:8-10).
Paul links the topic of comfort with affliction when he writes “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4 WEB). The same letter sees godly sorrow, i.e. mourning over a sinful state, as the prelude to repentance (2 Cor 7:10).
For John Chrysostom this beatitude “designated not simply all that mourn, but all that do so for sins” and the promised comfort was forgiveness (Chrysostom Hom. 15, 4 [Knight]). Moreover, he saw this verse as an encouragement to mourn for the sins of others, rather than just for personal sins.
Bishop Gore suggested that “there are two chief kinds of mourning into which it is the duty of every true servant of our Lord to enter - the mourning for sin and the mourning for pain” (Gore 1904, 27-28). He the former as the sorrow that leads an individual to repentance, the latter as the sympathy we feel for other’s sufferings (Gore 1904, 28). He notes that there is a false mourning, which, inspired by pride, brings no blessing, for godly sorrow brings repentance but such worldly sorrow leads to death (2 Cor 7:10; Gore 1904, 30-31).
Interpreting the Beatitudes as “a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple” (Stott 2003, 54), sees the gulf between this and most people as particularly apparent in those who mourn. ‘Such men mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune. While the world keeps holiday they stand aside, and while the world sings “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may” they mourn’ (Stott 2003, 55-6). For Stott (2003, 41) the mourning that invites God’s blessing is embodied in the weeping of the psalmist (Ps 119:136), of Ezekiel (Ezek 9:4) and Christ (Luke 19:41).
The Hebrew Bible’s precedents leave Jesus’ early ministry as the ideal setting for this beatitude. However, those who see the Beatitudes as a late first century compilation, whilst not necessarily disputing that it originated with Jesus (e.g. see Vermes 2004, 312), must find a late first century reason for its inclusion in the Sermon. Vermes (2004, 313) suggests that it is included because the stress of those severing family ties to join the evolving Jesus movement could be likened to mourning.
Luz (2007, 193), adopting a typically two-source approach, sees a progression from physical weeping as the original meaning to sorrow over one’s own sin and the sin of others as the eventual Christian interpretation of this. Within that progression he suggests that the meaning in Matthew was similar to that in Isa 61:2-3, i.e. that an original beatitude (Q 6:21b) has been expanded without significant change to its meaning (Luz 2007, 194).