Matthew 5:3, in detail,  blessed are the poor in spirit

1. The historical context

Poor in spirit in the Hebrew Bible

Whilst the phrase “poor in spirit” lacks a clear equivalent in the Hebrew Bible, the emotional state of individuals is commonly described in terms of the type of spirit they are  “in” or “of”. For example:

Sometimes such states are contrasted with one another, as when Eccl 7:8 suggests that being patient in spirit is better than being proud in spirit.

Poor in spirit in the Qumran texts

Vermes (2004, 313) notes the use of the phrase “poor in spirit” amongst the Qumran finds, where the War Scroll sees the “hard of heart” defeated by the “poor of spirit” (1QM 14:7). Smith (2001, n.p.) highlights that the phrase occurs within a poetic parallelism, that the counterpart of the poor in spirit defeating the hard hearted is “by the perfect of way all the nations of wickedness have come to an end” (1QM 14:7 [Smith]). These victorious people are are described as a holy remnant. 

The writer of the War Scroll appears to have appreciated a link between poverty in spirit and the Way of Righteousness, a concept that was central for the Qumran community. Wright sets membership of the Qumran community in the context of the two ways so often contrasted in Proverbs (e.g. Pr 11:5, 12:28). He writes “those who belong to the little community of the renewed covenant are those who follow the way of truth, while those who remain outside are following the way of falsehood” (Wright 2001, 314). Sanders (2000, 30) states: “members do not enter the community unless they are perfect of way (1QS 8:10). If a member deliberately transgresses - which he is free to do - he is not readmitted until ‘all his deeds are purified and he walks in perfection of way’ (8:18, cf. 10:21).” 

The Kingdom of Heaven

In practice this term described the kingdom ruled by the one chosen to exercise authority over God’s chosen people, from wherever God chose as the seat of his authority upon earth. For further details of the concept’s use in the Hebrew Bible, first-century Judaism and the later New Testament, see background on the Kingdom of Heaven.

2. The biblical precedent

Identifying the promise

It is in Isaiah that we find “in spirit” attitudes prominently linked to promises concerning the domain of God. The prophet, after declaring the uselessness of all the foreign and idolatrous influences that Judah have come to depend upon (Isa 57:8-9), observes “You were wearied with the length of your way; yet you didn’t say, ‘It is in vain’” (Isa 57:10 WEB). The wind, says Isaiah, will blow all this away but “he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land, and shall inherit my holy mountain” (Isa 57:13 WEB), the Lord’s holy mountain being the figurative seat of power from which he rules his Kingdom. Isaiah goes on to clarify the nature of those who have taken refuge in the Lord and will therefore inherit this holy mountain, they are the lowly (shaphel) in spirit whom we meet a few verses later (Isa 57:15). Proverbs confirms that the poor are of a lowly (shaphel) spirit (Pr 16:19) and that the lowly in spirit will be honoured (Pr 29:23).

It is worth noting that Isaiah places his reference to the lowly in spirit in the context of John the Baptist’s mission of preparing the way of righteousness (Isa 57:14, cf. Luke 1:76).  Isaiah declares -

57:14 ‘He will say, “Cast up, cast up, prepare the way, take up the stumbling-block out of the way of my people.” 15 For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also who is of a contrite and humble [shaphel] spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” ’

(Isa 57:14-15 WEB)

When the way is prepared the kingdom of the lowly, or poor, in spirit becomes the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 5:3). This accompaniment of the lowly of spirit with the contrite, ties in exceptionally well with John the Baptist and Jesus’ unified call to repentance (Matt 3:2, 4:17)

In the light of ‘perfection of way’ being central to poverty in spirit, we should recall that Jesus anticipated a day of the Lord (Luke 4:19, cf. Isa 61:2) such as that spoken of by Zeph 2:1-3. Zephaniah sees the humble of the earth as those who have carried out God’s ordinances, i.e. as the perfect of way (Zeph 2:3). He encourages them to seek humility so that God may hide them on the day when he judges, then returns to that when he states -

3:11 In that day you will not be disappointed for all your doings, in which you have transgressed against me; for then I will take away out of the midst of you your proudly exulting ones, and you will no more be haughty in my holy mountain. 12 But I will leave in the midst of you an afflicted and poor people, and they will take refuge in the name of the LORD.

(Zeph 3:11-12 HNV)

The link with humility

Many translations render the idiomatic “lowly in spirit” as humble (e.g. see Prov 16:19 KJV, GNT, NASB95 and Isa 57:15 KJV, ASV, GNT, NCV, WEB). As such it is the opposite of pride, the observation that lies behind Prov 29:23, “A man’s pride brings him low,  but one of lowly [shaphel] spirit gains honor” (WEB) and Prov 16:19 which advocates “It is better to be of a lowly [shaphal] spirit with the poor, than to divide the plunder with the proud” (WEB). The NET prefers humiliated to humble, reflecting the context and the sense that these people have been actively brought to their knees by God crushing the pride from them, as with Joseph (Gen 37:10-11, 20, cf. Gen 50:20) or Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:30-37). Another case in point was the humbling of Antiochus, the crushing of whose arrogance is eloquently described in 2 Macc 9:3-11.  

The sense, that a circumstance driven change of heart was associated with the humility that attracts Isaiah’s promise, is picked up upon in the NET. Therein, a footnote on Isa 57:15’s humble in spirit observes  “this may refer to the repentant who have humbled themselves (see 66:2) or more generally to the exiles who have experienced discouragement and humiliation” (Isa 57:15 NET, footnote). As the NET notes, Isa 66:1-3 reinforces the promise of Isa 57:15. In it God contrasts his occupation of heaven and earth with any house that mankind might  make (Isa 66:1). He then declares, “For all these things has my hand made, and so all these things came to be,” . . . “but to this man will I look, even to him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word.” (Isa 66:2 HNV). The passage is linked to idolatry through the theme of the inappropriate sacrifices that arising from men following their own ways (Isa 66:3).

John Chrysostom, identifying the link with Isa 66:2, points out that this relates to Psalm 51 (Chrysostom, hom. 15:2), where we find “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17 WEB).

3. Its place in the sequence

There are several good reasons for opening with this beatitude. The association of Jesus message of repentance with contrition, and both contrite and humility with this promise, has already been mentioned above.

The relationship to the subjects of the opening beatitudes, of Jesus inaugural teaching at Nazareth, is dealt with in the notes on Matt 5:3-10. That incident began with a proclamation of the the advent of Isa 61:1-2, in which  passage, the humble are the first to be address, followed by those who mourn.

Perhaps more relevantly, given the centrality of the Torah to the Sermon, is an implication of the Qumran text mentioned above (1QM 14:7). By equating the “poor in spirit” with the “perfect of way,” it links them directly with the beatitudes that open Psalm 119, which in turn are linked directly to the way of righteousness. In that great meditation on obedience to the word of God we find - 

119:1 “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the LORD’s Torah.
2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes,
who seek him with their whole heart.
3 Yes, they do nothing wrong.
They walk in his ways.”

(Psalm 119:1-3 HNV)

Through the choice to open the Beatitudes with the poor in spirit, the educated and astute Jewish reader would be subtly introduced to the central themes of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, walking according to a Torah-centric way of righteousness and seeking God with all your heart.

4. Related New Testament texts

The parallel version of this beatitude in Luke, following a pattern evident elsewhere within the Sermon on the Plain, has just “poor”, rather than “poor in spirit”. For further discussion of both this and the issues surrounding the relationship between these parallel passages, see the background on Luke 6:20-49.

1 Peter 3:8 refers to several aspects of character that disciples should adopt because they are called to inherit a blessing, one of which the NASB95 renders as humble in spirit (1 Pet 3:8 NASB95)

5. Some church perspectives

Augustine of Hippo, arguing from the fact that spirit and wind are synonyms in Greek, declared that ‘“the poor in spirit” are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who have not the spirit which puffs up’ (Augustine, Sermon. 1:2.3 [Findlay])

John Chrysostom sees them as “the humble and contrite in mind” (Chrysostom Hom. 15:2 [Knight]).

Luther saw this beatitude as a direct attack upon the idea that one should equate wealth and success with blessing (Luther 1854, 5.3). For him, physical wealth, and hence also physical poverty, belonged to the secular stage, the “Kingdom of Heaven” was a purely spiritual affair and it was only spiritual poverty to which this blessing attached (Luther 1854, 5.3). This spiritual poverty he envisaged as the sort of loose attachment to status and possessions that allowed them to be just as easily disposed of as kept (Luther 1854, 5.3).

For Lloyd-Jones (1962, 49) the poor in spirit are those spoken of in Isa 62:15, the humble and contrite who, like Gideon (Judg 6:15), Isaiah (Isa 6:5) or Peter (Luke 5:8), saw themselves as too unclean, unworthy, insignificant or inadequate to experience the presence of God and fulfil his call upon their lives (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 49).

Sinclair Furguson (1987, 15-16) emphasises that poverty of spirit is not the be equated with physical poverty, which itself may call forth pride. For him, “Jesus is describing the person who sees his spiritual bondage, is conscious of the debt of his sin (cf. Matt 6:12), and knows that in himself he is dispossessed before God. All he can do is cry for mercy, and depend upon the Lord.” 

France (1995, 109) sees them as “those who humbly trust God, even though their loyalty results in oppression and material disadvantage, in contrast to the ‘wicked’ who arrogantly set themselves up against God and persecute his people.” He note Barth’s description of them as the “empty before God.”