What did Jesus mean when He said the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5)?
Depending on what dictionary you use, the English word meek leaves different impressions — gentle, submissive, compliant, spineless, humble and maybe even a bit cowardly.
But is this what Jesus meant?
I am not sure meek is the right English translation for the Greek word “praus” used in this verse which is how the King James translated it.
HELPS word studies describes “praus” this way:
4236 praótēs– properly, temperate, displaying the right blend of force and reserve (gentleness). 4236 /praótēs (“strength in gentleness”) avoids unnecessary harshness, yet without compromising or being too slow to use necessary force.
The word depicts a person with power, but one who knows when to use it and when not to. It also describes a person who “avoids unnecessary harshness.”
But “praus” does not portray a person who is weak or cowardly.
Though the word can be translated “gentle” it is not in the sense that we imagine. The word was used to describe war horses trained for battle. They were gentle and restrained around their handlers, but in battle they charged fearlessly into enemy lines.
Job goes into great detail describing war horses pawing at the ground when they heard the clanging of the enemy’s swords and spears. Under the control of their masters, they were fully prepared to throw themselves into battle if required:
“Do you give the horse his might?….
21 “He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength;
He goes out to meet the weapons.
22 “He laughs at fear and is not dismayed;
And he does not turn back from the sword.
23 “The quiver rattles against him,
The flashing spear and javelin.
24 “With shaking and rage he races over the ground,
And he does not stand still at the voice of the trumpet.
25 “As often as the trumpet sounds he says, ‘Aha!’
And he scents the battle from afar,
And the thunder of the captains and the war cry. (Job 39: 19, 21-25 NASV)
In his study of the original meaning of “praus, ” Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson says it portrays a powerful man who is armed with a sword and trained how to use it, but one who also knows when to sheath it.
Maybe it is just a coincidence, but at one point Jesus told his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy a sword (Luke 22:36). Buying a sword also meant preparing yourself to use it. Then when Judas led the priests into the Garden to arrest Christ, one of disciples pulled his sword and cut off the ear of a slave accompanying the high priest.
The disciples were armed and prepared to defend themselves, but then Jesus told the disciple to sheath his sword and healed the slave (Matthew 26: 51-52).
Moses was also described as the meekest man in the earth (Numbers 12:3). But he also killed a guard beating a Jewish slave. Many believe Moses probably saved the slave’s life as the guards were notorious for their brutality (Exodus 2:11-12). Then Moses confronted Pharaoh and warned him of judgement if he did not let God’s people go.
These men were not meek in the way we understand the word the word today. Meekness is not cowardliness. Meekness is not avoiding confrontation or a battle. Meekness is knowing when you should use your sword and when you should keep it sheathed.