To understand the biblical background to the Beatitudes, we turn first to Psalm 1:1–3:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
Here the blessed one, the one who will flourish and prosper in his life, is the one who meditates on the law of God. Additionally, the term translated “blessed” in Psalm 1:1 in the Greek Old Testament is the same term used in the Greek New Testament for the blessed of the Beatitudes (makarios). Both Psalm 1 and the Beatitudes speak about the importance of God’s law for life. Thus, there is an ethical emphasis in these two texts: to know and to do God’s law is to be blessed.
We gain a fuller picture of what it means to be blessed by looking also at the blessings of Deuteronomy. For readers of the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), the language of blessings and curses has a familiar ring. Particularly at the end of Deuteronomy, we read about two paths that lie before the Israelites: the path of blessing and the path of cursing (Deut. 26–28; see also 11:26–28). The warnings against covenantal disobedience are clarion, as are the rewards for covenantal obedience. It is important to recognize that Deuteronomy is addressed originally to God’s covenant people who have been redeemed from Egypt (Deut. 1–4; see Ex. 19:5–6) and who are consequently instructed in covenantal obedience (Deut. 5–26; see Ex. 20–23). It is in this context that we read at the end of Deuteronomy a verse that is particularly relevant for the Beatitudes: “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs” (Deut. 33:29). These words, which are the last recorded words of Moses, speak of the happiness or blessedness (makarios) of Israel, who are the people uniquely saved by the Lord. Already in the Old Testament, therefore, God’s saving work provides the proper context for understanding what it means to be covenantally blessed and shows that being blessed with salvation also entails the responsibility to live according to God’s law.
Consistent with this Old Testament emphasis on the priority of God’s action in redemption before the giving of the law, the Beatitudes are found in the context of Matthew’s gospel, wherein we find that Jesus saves His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Though the Promised Land may have been filled with darkness, the coming of Christ brought the great light of salvation for those dwelling in the shadow of death (4:14–16). The Beatitudes must thus be read in their wider context. Before we get to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has already been baptized, has overcome the devil in the face of temptation, has fulfilled Scripture in various ways, and has announced the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven. Only after we read of these aspects of the work of Christ are we introduced to the ethics of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. And even here, the opening of the Sermon on the Mount speaks of the blessings of the redeemed (5:3–12). This does not mean, of course, that we are not to strive for the vision that is cast in the Beatitudes; but it does mean that redemption precedes living according to the Beatitudes. It is thus in light of the gift of redemption that we are to hunger and thirst after righteousness, be pure in heart, be meek, and so on. The Beatitudes are at once the blessings of the redeemed and the call for what the lives of the redeemed should look like. And these blessings are not abstract, for Jesus Himself shows us how the Beatitudes look in practice. For example, Jesus blesses the meek (5:5), and He Himself is meek and lowly of heart (11:29; 21:5). Likewise, Jesus blesses the merciful (5:7), and He Himself shows mercy (9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:30–31; see Hos. 6:6). Thus, the blessings of the redeemed are also ways that the redeemed reflect the character of their Savior.