Matthew 5:8 in detail,  blessed are the pure in heart

1. The historical context

The pure at heart

When Abimelech defended his innocence before the Lord, he declared “In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this” (Gen 20:5 WEB). He had done wrong by taking Abraham’s wife into his harem, but he had done it innocently and without any motivation to harm Abraham. With Abimelech began a long tradition of associating purity of heart with cleanliness of hands.

Psalm 24 addresses purity of heart directly as it poses the rhetorical query, “Who may ascend to the LORD’s hill? Who may stand in his holy place?” (Ps 24:3 HNV). The answer it provides is “He who has clean hands and a pure heart;  who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully” (Ps 24:4 WEB). Psalm 15:1 ask the similar question, “ LORD, who shall dwell in your sanctuary? Who shall live on your holy hill?” (Ps 15:1 HNV), to which it provides the different, but closely related, answer, “He who walks blamelessly does what is right, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps 15:2 WEB). From these it appears that purity of heart relates to sincerity, truthfulness and walking a righteous path (cf. Jer 4:14, Heb 10:2), and that it was a prerequisite for coming into God’s presence. 

In Psalm 51, creating a clean heart occurs as a poetic parallel to renewing a steadfast spirit  (Ps 51:10).

That purity of heart was a prerequisite for finding favour with royalty is attested by Pr 22:11, where it is linked to pleasant speech. The footnote on Pr 22:11 NET reminds us that purity of heart refers to honesty and clarity of intention. 

In Psalm 73, the psalmist notes that “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (Ps 73:1 HNV). He then reflects how near he came to stumbling from the path as a result of seeing the wicked prospering rather than being humbled. However, resisting the temptation to promote falsehood, by saying “Surely in vain I have cleansed my heart, and washed my hands in innocence” (Ps 73:13 WEB), he came into God’s sanctuary and there realising the true precariousness of the wicked.

The heart is again linked to cleansing in Ezek 36:25-27, where washing is accompanied with the giving of a new heart and a renewed desire to walk in God’s ways.

Men seeing God in the Hebrew Bible

It is sometimes argued, often on the basis of Ex 33:19-23, that, prior to Jesus, nobody could see God and live. Yet that passage is bracketed by evidence that seeing God was clearly possible in other circumstances (Ex 33:11, Ex 34:5-8). The bible is scattered with individuals who encounter theophanies and survive, e.g. Abraham, Jacob, Joshua and Gideon. Jacob referred to such an encounter as seeing God face to face (Gen 32:30). Moses encountered God face to face (Ex 33:11, Num 14:14, cf. Num 12:8), as possibly did the people who accompanied him out of Egypt (Num 14:14, Deut 5:4), at least until they appointed Moses as their intermediary. David must also have known God in that way for him to be so concerned that God would not hide his face (e.g. Ps 13:1). Clearly Isaiah believed that he had seen the Lord (Isa 6:1), as did Amos (Amos 9:1). Furthermore, as Hezekiah faced death he bemoaned what it meant to him, “I won’t see the LORD, The LORD in the land of the living” (Isa 38:11 HNV).

Proverbs questions ‘Who can say, “I have made my heart pure. I am clean and without sin?”’ (Pr 20:9 WEB). This, together with David’s plea that God create in him a pure heart (Ps 51:10), indicates that this state of purity of heart and cleanliness is not something that a person can achieve by their own effort. However, surviving intimate fellowship with God unscathed was conditional on being in an appropriate, i.e. clean, state, not only physically but spiritually (cf. Lev 7:21, Ps 51:10-11). Where that was not the case, then either God did something about it first (e.g. Isa 6:5-6, Zech 3:1-2) or the person suffered the consequences (e.g. Num 16:17-33). The outcome depended upon the attitude of the individual.

In the Hebrew Bible, it is those to whom God grants an audience who see him and typically this involves going to his holy mountain or entering his holy dwelling. For example:

2. Biblical precedents

In Psalm 17 David establishes a link between purity of heart, the way of righteousness and seeing God as he seeks to dwell in God’s house, that he might see God in righteousness and know his form. The psalm reminds God how he has tried the king’s heart has not found it wanting (Ps 17:3) and his feet have held firm to the path (Ps 17:5). Then, after appealing to God to arise against the wicked, David reflects “As for me, I shall see your face in righteousness. I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with seeing your form” (Ps 17:15 WEB)

The promise of this beatitude is found again in Ps 18:25, in which David, after dwelling on how God has rewarded him, for his righteousness and the cleanliness of his hands as he adhered to God’s way (Ps 18:20- 24), then proclaims that God will reveal various aspects of his character (Ps 18:25-26)

Whilst Psalms 17 and 18 establish the necessary links between purity of heart and seeing God, Psalm 24 associates purity in heart with the promise of blessing. The one who has a pure heart stands in the holy place (Ps 24:3) to present themselves before God. Such a person “shall receive a blessing from the LORD, righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Ps 24:5 HNV), thus enabling them to meet him face to face. France (1995, 110) notes how Ps 24:6 speaks of those with a pure heart as a generation who seek God. 

Thanks to the link between cleanliness of hands and purity of heart we may find confirmation of the promise of Psalm 24 in Job. Job equates having clean hands with following a way of righteousness when he affirms “Yet shall the righteous hold on his way. He who has clean hands shall grow stronger and stronger”  (Job 17:9 WEB). Moreover, Job later expresses the conviction “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God”  (Job 19:25-26 WEB) . Therefore, after Job is redeemed (i.e. securely on the way of righteousness) and his redeemer stands on the earth, then he is assured that he will see God (Matt 5:8)

When the way of righteousness is restored the pure in heart can expect to see God (Matt 5:8).

3. Its place in the sequence

In Psalm 17 David reminds the Lord that the king’s heart has been tried but it was not found wanting (Ps 17:3). In Psalm 18 we then find the topics of mercy and purity reflected in precisely the order of Matt 5:7-8. When people see God, it suggests, he reveals his mercy to the merciful (Ps 18:25) and his purity to the pure (Pr 18:26). Thus thoughts of the pure seeing God follow quite naturally from those of mercy to the merciful.

4. Related New Testament texts

Vermes (2004, 314), notes that the Council of Jerusalem would later refer to God making no distinction between Jew and gentile, by also cleansing the gentile’s hearts by faith (Acts 15:9). The evidence that this had happened was the receipt of the Holy Spirit.

Paul urges Timothy, “flee from youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But refuse foolish and ignorant questionings, knowing that they generate strife” (2 Tim 2:22 WEB).

The promise of this beatitude seems to be implied in Hebrews where we find, as a result of Jesus’ priestly ministry, the exhortation “let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22 WEB). From later in the same book comes the encouragement to “make straight paths for your feet, so that which is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. Follow after peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man will see the Lord” (Heb 12:13-14 HNV).

5. Some church perspectives

For Bishop Gore (1904, 40), absence of defilement was pureness of heart in a narrow sense, but often not achievable without the singleness of purpose that he saw as purity of heart in its wider sense. He concludes, “our Lord means ‘Blessed are the single hearted’” (Gore 1904, 41). As for seeing God, this meant the individual was “satisfied in their every capacity for truth and beauty and goodness” (Gore 1904, 41).

Lloyd-Jones discerns a dual meaning to “pure at heart”, on the one hand it means “without hypocrisy”, sincere and single in its God-ward intent, on the other it relates to being cleansed or undefiled (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 111).

France sees the pure at heart as “one who loves God with all his heart (Dt. 6:5)” (France 1995, 110), but considers that, whilst we can experience this in part through persevering in love and faithful service (Heb 11:27), this will only be realised fully in heaven, as promised in 1 Jn 3:2 (France 1995, 110-11)