In my study of recent months on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.3-10, I have been searching to find Old Testament allusions for the various Beatitudes. Wanting to go deeper into understanding the Beatitudes, finding the Old Testament backgrounds allow us to see the Beatitudes more from the perspective of the Jewish Jesus. Psalm 40.17 is a likely allusion of poor in spirit, as King David refers to himself as poor in that psalm. The language of Psalm 36.9-11 fits very well with the beatitude about the meek, contrasting the strength fo the wicked with the future deliverance or the meek. The beatitude about peacemakers being all the children of God with the Greek translation of Psalm 2.7-9. However, I really couldn’t find a good passage that connected all the Beatitudes together into something approaching a coherent whole, that is, until I read Isaiah 61 the other day:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
There are a few reasons why Isaiah 61 is likely in the background of Jesus’ Beatitudes. Firstly, we know that Isaiah 61 was a critical part of Jesus’ own sense of mission and purpose. In Luke 4.17-21, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue and says this Scripture was fulfilled in the reading of it. Jesus was establishing Himself at the one who comes to bring about this age of restoration. Secondly, the language about mourning and comfort in Isa. 61.2 matches perfectly with Jesus’ beatitude about those who mourn will be comforted. Additionally, the Beatitudes are each preceded by “Blessed” and Isaiah 61 talks about proclaiming the Lord’s favor: the Beatitudes are the proclamation of the good news of Isaiah 61. Also, the contrast between proclamation of the Lord’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance can be seen to be reflected in blessed and woes of the Lukan version of the Beatitudes in Luke 6.20-26. Then, in addition to this, we see the motif of reversal throughout Isaiah 61, which is a common motif in the Beatitudes. Isaiah talks about people being oaks of righteousness and Jesus talks about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Finally, if we understand peacemakers to be people who bring well-being within the world, then the repair of the ruins can be seen as a form of peacemaking. Altogether, this STRONGLY suggests that the Beatitudes are built from Jesus’ own sense of vocation from Isaiah 61. While other Scriptural allusions are pertinent, Isaiah 61 helps us to make sense of the Beatitudes as a whole unit.
The implications of this? That the Beatitudes are not simply about some sense of moral virtues or personal well-being, though it certainly includes those two, but the Beatitudes is Jesus’ expression of the shape of the liberation He brings in the reversal of fortunes. Those who are brought low are lifted up high by God. Those who are last will become first. Those who live as servants will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
The nature of the Beatitudes is expressed even in Jesus’ own life: he grew up in a peasant family and lived His life of ministry without a place to lay His head; Jesus certainly fits the bill for being poor in spirit. Jesus had deep compassion and mourned for the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus was meek in that many people regularly tried to unjustly kill him, even as he sought to do no harm to others. We should all agree that he deeply craved righteousness. Jesus was merciful. He dedicated hours of prayer to seeking the will of the Heavenly Father, making His heart pure. He brought shalom/well-being to many people by healing the sick and casting out demons. On top of that, he was persecuted for righteousness’ sake. On top of all that, the realization of the reversal is expressed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus in that He who was falsely regarded as a vile transgressor worthy of the crucifixion is vindicated as the Lord and the righteousness of God.
The Beatitudes are the proclamation of liberation for the people because Jesus in His human nature experiences all the aspects of this liberation (although without needing to be freed from any committed sins). He can proclaim liberation because He Himself experiences the very thing that He offers to others. As the preacher says in Hebrews 2.17-18:
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
How true this must this also be for His disciples who also seek to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. How true is it that they must go through and experience this liberation to be able to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance. Notice that the emphasis is on favor, though, as God’s favor last longer than His vengeance (see Exodus 34.6-7). So many preachers proclaim a vengeance that seems to overwhelm God’s favor, as if God is sending everyone to hell unless one gets their beliefs right about Jesus. However, Jesus does not come to judge the world, although those who entirely reject the name of Jesus are judged, but He comes to save the world. So too must those who experience God’s liberation come to understand that God’s favor is more prevalent than His judgment. The Beatitudes were Jesus’ expression of the future of God’s redemptive activity to bring favor to and liberation for the lost sheep of Israel that were bereft of dutiful shepherds, along with making God’s mercy to the Gentiles known (Matthew 15.21-28).
So, let us reflect more deeply on Jesus’ vocation from Isaiah 61 and how we ourselves come to experience this liberation that Jesus experienced and offers to us, so that we too can faithfully proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.