Definition of Meekness
Recently I read in Numbers 12:3, "Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth." In what way was Moses meek? We know that he stood against Pharaoh, he argued with God, and led the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years
None of these seem to fit the definition of "meek" to me:
- patient, long-suffering, or submissive in disposition or nature; humble
- spineless or spiritless; compliant. (See online Dictionary)
It might be true that when we think of meek, we think of wimpy, milquetoast, weak or flabby. We don't want to be that. But, especially in the New Testament (as in the Sermon on the Mount), that's not what that word means. In the Greek understanding of the word, "meek" had to do with the breaking-in of horses, the training of animals. Imagine an untamed animal – filled with passion, spirit, and energy – and then imagine getting all that under control during the training process. The Greek understanding of "meek" carries with it the idea of taking all this fire, all this passion, and putting it under control.
Aristotle said that the praus man (praus is the Greek word that we translate as meek) is the one who has the virtue of the mean between two extremes. If there were a continuum with recklessness on one end and cowardice on the other end, the right virtue in the middle would be courage. This is how Aristotle defined it in relation to anger. The praus person, the meek person, is the one who feels anger on the right grounds, against the right person, in the right manner, at the right moment, for the right amount of time. Notice that he didn't say: A meek person never gets angry.
Meekness includes the idea of self-restraint. It's having the power at our disposal, but not using it. It's the king who could, in fact, destroy his enemies, but chooses to be merciful, chooses to be lenient, chooses restraint. It combines a sense of gentleness and strength – not weakness, not indifference, but strength with gentleness.
The best modern day illustration of this point comes from a very popular sport. Think of a football game. Now imagine all of the players lining up for the next play. There are all these big, burly men in their huge shoulder pads, with all their fire, all their aggressiveness, all their passion – under perfect control. That is the Greek understanding of meekness. Now, after the ball is snapped, the Greek understanding of the word is no longer relevant. But that moment before the snap is a great example.
This word had a little different meaning in Jewish history. There, it meant the humble, the lowly, the man who accepted God's guidance, whatever God sent, who is dear to God and strengthened by God. So we have the Hebrew sense that talks about perfect obedience and the Greek sense that talks about perfect control. Put those two together, and what do we have but a God-controlled life. This is a good description of spiritual poise.
Once we have this bigger understanding, we can understand why Moses is described as "very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth." I used to think that was because he was so self-effacing in the beginning with God. Remember the dialogue that took place at the site of the burning bush, God said, "Bring my people out of Egypt." Moses said, "I don't think I'm the right one." God said, Yes. Moses said, No. They went back and forth seven times. However, now I think about a different moment at the end of Exodus after the Golden Calf incident, when God says, "I've had it with these people." And Moses says, "You made a covenant with them." That describes a moment of meekness, too, a moment of spiritual poise
Jesus identified himself as being "meek and lowly in heart." We know he got angry, we know he stood up to the religious leaders of his day, we know he threw people out of the temple. Yet he defined himself as being meek and lowly in heart. That's how we must understand meekness – not as wimpy, but as God-controlled.