Matthew 5:5 (NIV)
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
What does "meek" mean in the original language? Is "meek" a good translation for the original Greek word?
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According to this source, the word was used to describe a horse that had been broken-in among other similar usages.
The gentle/meek in the Hebrew Bible
A link between this beatitude’s promise and Psalm 37:11 is clearly indicated (as discussed below), for not only does that verse contains the beatitude’s promise, but the LXX uses the same Greek word used in this beatitude (Ps 36:11 LXX). The Hebrew equivalent of πραεῖς (praus), as suggested by Ps 37:11, is עָנָו (`anav), a word rendered variously as poor, afflicted, humble, Lowly or meek. The historical context of ‘the meek’ is provided by passages that share that Hebrew term.
Whilst the use of עָנָו (`anav) provides relatively few clues as to its precise meaning, the rending of it as πραεῖς (praus) in the LXX is helpful. Translations vary in their approach to praus variously rendering it “meek” (KJV), “gentle” (NASB95) or “those who are humble” (ISV), yet none of these quite capture the full sense of the Greek. The Greeks used this word to describe a horse that had been broken-in.
The only three adjectival uses of praus in the Gospels are provided by Matthew. The first is in this beatitude. The second, Matt 11:28-30, clearly keys into the image of a beast of burden as raw power, tamed to so that it can be used. Jesus advocates “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29 WEB). At times a trainer would yoke or tether a colt to a more experienced animal, thus encouraging them to comply, without making them fearful. In the third, Matt 21:5, we find the claim that Jesus’ triumphal entry fulfilled the prophecy of Zech 9:9.
A second aspect of praus comes to the fore in Matthew’s quotation, “tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your King comes to you, humble, and riding on a donkey on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matt 21:5 WEB, cf. Zech 9:9). The adjective was often used of taming a wild animal or the calming of people who were excited or irritable. By association it was therefore applied to the outcome of such taming, to the gentle, quiet and friendly who, like a well trained animal, do not succumb to bitterness or anger, whatever the provocation. As with the trained workhorse, this is not simply a matter of passive submission to a stronger force, but involves an active choice to accept instruction (Hauck and Schulz 1964, 6:650-1).
I noticed that none of the current answers explicitly address the question of whether meek is a good English translation. Given the modern connotations of the word meek, it is not a good translation (though it may have been at one time), because in the modern usage it has a sense of craven pandering—the word, at least in my mind, has a derogatory connotation. It's the sort of word I would use of someone whose demeanor is dominated by cowardice and people-pleasing.
However, if meek doesn't carry those connotations for you, it is indeed a good translation. Humble is a possible translation, but because the word often occurs next to another Greek word translated humble, it is often translated gentle instead, which is appropriate.
Two verses which are helpful for understanding the πρα- stem are Galatians 6:1:
Brothers, even if a man has been caught in any sin, you who are spiritual must restore such in the spirit of gentleness (πραΰτητος), watching yourself lest you also be tempted.
which shows the tie between gentleness and not thinking to highly of oneself; and 1 Peter 3:15:
Set Christ apart in your hearts as the Lord. Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks about the reason for the hope that is in you. But do this with gentleness (πραΰτητος) and fear.
Not that in contrast to people-pleasing, this is fear of God that is enjoined in conjunction with gentleness. As an expanded paraphrase based on the sense of these two verses, I would render the word the gentleness that comes from humility.
It is often noted that the word doesn't require a relinquishing of manliness. While this is certainly true, don't forget that it runs contrary to secular masculine bravado. There is something paradoxical about the character of a godly man in his strength/weakness dialectic. Gentle captures this well.
Thayer's Lexicon gives the definition of πραΰς as "mildness of disposition, gentleness of spirit, meekness."
Webster's defines meekness as "Softness of temper; mildness; gentleness; forbearance under injuries and provocations....In an evangelical sense, humility; resignation; submission to the divine will, without murmuring or peevishness; opposed to pride, arrogance and refractoriness."
Comparing the two, it seems relatively appropriate, though perhaps different connotations have evolved, making it less than ideal at conveying the thought here.
Matthew 5 has Jesus going up the mountain and chapter 8 has him coming down. These are followed by parallel passages which can be used to illuminate the meaning. The first thing Jesus says is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." And the first thing Jesus does is heal a leper.
The next parallel is blessed are the meek, and the Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant.
Just as the leper is an example of one poor in spirit, the Centurion is an example of one who is meek.
Structurally there are three blocks constructed with such parallelisms.
The word praüs is related to 'friend', denoting gentleness and pleasant, the opposite being rough, hard, violent. As an adverb it is used for a quiet and friendly composure which does not become embittered or angry at what is unpleasant. It is not a passive submission, but an active attitude and deliberate acceptance. As such, in the context of Jesus' words, it is one who actively turns the other cheek in a display of confidence in God. redacted from TDNT 6:645.
The Centurion knew the nature of authority, and it gave him the composure to speak with Christ in such a manner, recognizing that Jesus was the authority and being actively confident of a positive response.
Matthew 5:5 is essentially a quote from Psalm 37:11 (36:11 LXX) about who will and will not inherit the Promised Land:
11 οἱ δὲ πρᾳεῖς κληρονομήσουσιν γῆν, καὶ κατατρυφήσουσιν ἐπὶ πλήθει εἰρήνης.
Swete, H. B. (1909). The Old Testament in Greek: According to the Septuagint (Ps 36:11). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Notice the context:
Submit thyself to the Lord, and supplicate him: fret not thyself because of him that prospers in his way, at the man that does unlawful deeds. 8 Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself so as to do evil. 9 For evil-doers shall be destroyed: but they that wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the land. 10 And yet a little while, and the sinner shall not be, and thou shalt seek for his place, and shalt not find it. 11 But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
Brenton, L. C. L. (1870). The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament: English Translation (Ps 36:7–11). London: Samuel Bagster and Sons.
In the one column we have the ones who will NOT inherit the land:
In the other column are the ones who WILL inherit the land:
The ones who are "meek" are those who fit in the latter column. They are those who yield readily to God.
The irony here is that Moses was the meekest man on earth but because he momentarily slipped into the former column he was denied entrance to the land!:
Numbers 12:3 LXX And the man Moses was very meek [same word] beyond all the men that were upon the earth.
Brenton, L. C. L. (1870). The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament: English Translation (Nu 12:3). London: Samuel Bagster and Sons.
Perhaps the implicit information is that if this is the fate of a green tree, what shall become of the dry?:
NASB Deuteronomy 32: 51because you broke faith with Me in the midst of the sons of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, because you did not treat Me as holy in the midst of the sons of Israel. 52"For you shall see the land at a distance, but you shall not go there, into the land which I am giving the sons of Israel."
πραΰς, πραεῖα, πραΰ (Hom.+; Crinagoras [I B.C. / I A.D.] in Anth. Pal. 10, 24, 4; 16, 273, 6; PGM 4, 1046; LXX; Jos., Ant. 19, 330; SibOr 4, 159 with v.l.) gen. πραέως (1 Pt 3:4; cp. W-S. §9, 5 p. 87; Kühner-Bl. I §126, 3 n. 9; B-D-F §46, 3; Mayser I/2 §68, 2, 1e p. 55f) and πραέος; pl. πραεῖς (on πραΰς and πρᾶος Kühner-Bl. I 532f; B-D-F §26 app.; Mlt-H. 160; Thackeray 180f; Crönert 290, 2.—But in our lit. πρᾶος [2 Macc 15:12; Philo; Jos., C. Ap. 1, 267] occurs only Mt 11:29 v.l.) pert. to not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate, meek in the older favorable sense (cp. OED s.v. 1b; Pind., P. 3, 71 describes the ruler of Syracuse as one who is π. to his citizens, apparently the rank and file [Gildersleeve]), unassuming D 3:7a; Mt 21:5 (Zech 9:9). W. ταπεινός (Is 26:6) Mt 11:29 (THaering, Schlatter Festschr. 1922, 3–15; MRist, JR 15, ’35, 63–77). W. ἡσύχιος (and occasionally other characteristics) 1 Pt 3:4; 1 Cl 13:4 (cp. Is 66:2); B 19:4; Hm 5, 2, 3; 6, 2, 3; 11:8 (Leutzsch, Hermas 452, n. 122). Among the qualities required of church officials D 15:1. πρὸς τὰς ὀργὰς αὐτῶν ὑμεῖς πραεῖς gentle in the face of their wrath IEph 10:2 (cp. PLond 1912, 83f εἵνα Ἀλεξανδρεῖς πραέως καὶ φιλανθρόπως προσφέροντε [=προσφέρωνται] Ἰουδαίοις=therefore we affirm that the Alexandrines are to conduct themselves with kindness and goodwill toward the Judeans/Jews [41 A.D.]).—οἱ πραεῖς (Ps 36:11) Mt 5:5 (WClarke, Theology 47, ’44, 131–33; NLohfink, Die Besänftigung des Messias, Gedanken zu Ps. 37 [Mt]: FKamphous Festschr., ed. JHainz et al. ’97, 75–87; Betz, SM 124–27); D 3:7b.—LMarshall, Challenge of NT Ethics ’47, 80ff; 300ff.—DELG s.v. πρᾶος. M-M. EDNT. Spicq. Sv.
Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 861). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.