Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Church Talk 101: What Does It Mean to Be Blessed?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled...  (Matthew 5:3-6)

So, what does the word "blessed" mean?

Some Bible translators use the word "happy" here instead of "blessed," though the two words are not perfectly synonymous.  A person can be happy without being blessed, and a person can be blessed without being happy.  One difference between a blessing and simple happiness is
the fact that a blessing is bestowed.  According to Webster's dictionary, when used as an adjective, blessed means:
held in reverence; honored in worship; enjoying happiness, specifically the bliss of heaven
Also according to Webster's, happy means:
enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment
So, logically, a person can be happy all by himself, but it takes two to be blessed.

What about the original wording of Matthew's gospel?  What word did Matthew use for "blessed" and what is the meaning of that word?  (If you are VERY new to Bible study, it may surprise you to learn that the King James Bible, though old, was NOT the original text, by a long shot.  The first books of the New Testament were written 1500 years earlier, before English was even a language.)

WARNING:  BIBLE-STUDY GEEK MODE ACTIVATED...THE FOLLOWING MAY BE TOO "SCHOLARLY" FOR THE AVERAGE PERSON TO ENJOY.  FEEL FREE TO SKIP IT.  Although the oldest existing copies of Matthew's gospel are written in koine Greek (the trade language of the first century), most scholars believe his original text was in either Aramaic or Hebrew, the languages spoken by the Jews, which Jesus probably used for most of his teaching.  Common speech was in Aramaic, but religious writings, prayers, and blessings were (and still are) mostly in Hebrew.

Hebrew has two words translated "blessed" in our English Bibles.  The first is barukh.  Almost every Hebrew blessing begins with the words Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu, melekh ha olam ("Blessed are You Lord our God, king of the universe") or the abbreviated version, Barukh hu ("Blessed is He").  Another Hebrew word often translated "blessed" is ashar.

Unfortunately, we don't have Matthew's Hebrew/Aramaic version, so we have to look at the Greek and guess which word Jesus himself probably used.  Fortunately, there is an Old Testament translation known as the Septuagint, which was translated from Hebrew to Greek about 2000 years ago, and by looking at the choices those translators made, we can do some pretty safe detective work when trying to recreate Matthew's Hebrew.

The Hebrew Priestly Blessing
Barukh (בָּרַךְ  Strong's H1288) is used over 300 times in the Old Testament, including verses like Genesis 1:22, where God blesses His creation; 2 Samuel 6:18, where King David blesses his people; Psalm 115:18, where the people bless God; and Psalm 118:26, where God's people bless the Messiah.  The connotation of the word barukh is that one is speaking well of another, much like we say "I wish you luck" or "God bless you."  While the sentiment is certainly a positive one, barukh is basically passive on the part of the recipient.  In most of the barukh verses, the Greek word chosen by the authors of the Septuagint for "blessed" is a form of eulogeo (εὐλογήω, Strong's G2127), which means to praise, and from which we get our word "eulogy." (I can't think of anyone more passive than a corpse.)

The second word, ashar (אָשַׁר  Strong's H833), is used much less frequently (only 17 times) in verses like Genesis 30:13, where Leah describes her joy in giving birth to a son; Proverbs 3:18, where Solomon describes the state of a man who seeks and finds wisdom; and Proverbs 31:28, where children describe their godly, hard-working mother.  This word is sometimes translated into English as blessed, sometimes happy, and sometimes as another word altogether: go, guide, lead, call, or relieve.  The idea here is that blessing/happiness is the direct result of following God's direction.  Ashar, therefore, involves the recipient in an active role. In most of the ashar verses, the Septuagint translators chose the Greek word makaria (μακαρία, Strong's G3107).

So which kind of blessing was Jesus describing in his Sermon?  The Greek manuscripts of Matthew's gospel use the word makaria nine times in the first twelve verses, which have come to be known as the Beatitudes (beatitude is the Latin for blessing).

Those of you who hung in there and rode that out...you've now learned how to bless someone in four different languages.  I hope you feel blessed.  Back to PRACTICAL matters: what difference does it make to us today which word Jesus used?

Since the Gospel of Matthew uses the Greek word μακαρία, we can safely assume that Jesus used the word "ashar" (or the Aramaic equivalent) when talking about blessing, which means he deliberately used a word that ACTIVELY INVOLVES the person who is receiving the blessing.  In other words, if you want to be blessed, you need to DO something.  He will lead; you must follow.  He will call; you must go.  If you do, you will receive a blessing that goes beyond words or good wishes; you will receive a blessing that will make you truly happy in a way that would be otherwise impossible.

Thank you to BlueLetterBible.org for their free online concordance and Lexicon tools.


  1. I absolutely love these posts, Dee! You are truly a blessing to me. :)

    Blessed, as used in the Beatitudes, means much more than just happy or materially satisfied.

    The Greek word makarios (mak•ar•ee•os) and the corresponding Hebrew word ashar (aw•shar) both refer to a happiness that goes beyond earthly circumstances. Blessed refers to a joy that comes from desiring to trust God completely. It is a happiness that transcends physical needs, and worries. It might be translated as bliss.

    The Beatitudes use of blessed (makarios as we have in the Greek or ashar as it likely was in Hebrew) is intentionally contradictory to the Greek culture and legalistic Jewish culture of that time.

    The Greeks used blessed, makarios, in common language to describe a state of financial wealth that put one beyond care or need of material goods. The Greek poets used makarios to describe a state of the gods that was beyond care, labor or death and also used the word to describe the state of men who, at death, had attained this same happy state of the gods. Again makarios is used in the Beatitudes to show the direct conflict between God’s values and man’s values in the Greek culture.

    The Hebrew ashar (aw•shar) is a word attributed to a man that is to be envied because he trusts in God. Ashar would have been used in the Beatitudes because they are speaking of actions and attitudes initiated by man and not by God. Blessings by God’s actions would use the word barak. This is why the self righteous and pious Jews believed they were blessed, ashar (aw•shar), by their actions of merely knowing and externally legalistic keeping of the Law. Again a clear contradiction of the values and actions relayed in the Beatitudes.

    Blessed in the Beatitudes refers to the ultimate satisfaction in God and humility before God who provides and is all.

    The blessing comes from a changed heart attitude not from a fat wallet or a fat head.