What is the meaning of the beatitude in Matthew 5:4 regarding spiritual mourning? This article offers an explanation and application.

Source: The Banner of Truth (NRC), 1989. 8 pages.

The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience Beatitude #2: The Mourners Pronounced Blessed

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Matthew 5:4


In my initial article about the Beatitudes, I stressed the importance of recognizing the structure as well as the interrelatedness of the first seven Beatitudes. In these Beatitudes Christ not only gives us a perfect and complete description of the citizens of His kingdom, but within the context of this description He teaches us that true religion has an internal as well as an external dimension. It consists of Spirit-wrought experiences in the inner recesses of the hearts of God's children which in turn manifests itself externally in a godly walk. Both the internal dimension of Christian experience (Beatitudes 1-3), as well as the external manifestation of internal grace (Beatitudes 5-7), revolve around the central of these first seven Beatitudes, which describes the focal or central experience of all true experience, namely, the exercise of faith which Christ by His Spirit defines as "hungering and thirsting after righteousness."

However, as we consider each individual Beatitude within the context of this remarkable structure, of which God Himself is the Architect, we must do so with the understanding that the order of the Beatitudes is sequential and cumulative. For our consideration of the second Beatitude this means that when Christ speaks of His people as mourners, He does so in relation to the first Beatitude where He has defined them as being poor in spirit. In other words, this mourning of the citizens of God's kingdom is intimately related to the fact that by the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit they have been made conscious of their spiritual poverty, of the fact that through their original and actual sin there has come a breach between God and their soul. This explains at once why God's chil­dren mourn. They mourn because they miss God. They mourn over the fact that there is a separation between God and them. They mourn over the cause of that separation, sin. They mourn over the fact that through sin they are excluded from the presence and fellowship of God after whom their heart thirsts as dry land thirsts for rain (Psalm 63:1).

Definition of Terms🔗

It is this spiritual mourning over spiritual poverty which Christ has in view, rather than natural grief to which all sons and daughters of Adam are subject in this vale of tears. This becomes evident when we examine the meaning of the Greek word "pentheo," which is translated by the verb to mourn. The lexicon describes the meaning of this verb as follows: To mourn for, to lament, to grieve as at the funeral of a loved one. The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian ExperienceIt is this last dimension – to grieve at the funeral of a loved one – which is particularly im­portant for our study of this Beatitude. It is this description of the verb "pentheo" which conveys to us that the mourning Christ has in mind is an expression of intense, heartfelt grief. It is significant for us to note that the reference here is not to grieve in a general sense, which for example would be ex­perienced by the majority of those who are present at a funeral. This grief to which Christ is referring is grief which is synonymous to the grief one experiences when bringing a loved one to the grave. In other words, in choosing the word "pentheo" Christ wishes to convey that this spiritual mourning is the expression of a heart that loves God, His attributes, and His precepts. It is therefore essential for us to understand that this mourning is pre-eminently an expression of the heart!

This correct understanding of the verb to mourn helps us at once to deal with some misconceptions about the mourning of God's children. It should be noted that Christ does not say here, "Blessed are they that weep," or, "Blessed are they that cry." Why must this be stressed at the very outset of our study? I believe that often mourning and weeping are considered to be synonymous. Such, however, is emphatically not the case. To illustrate this, let us consider for a moment what transpires at a funeral. Among the multitude present there will be some who are shedding tears and some who are not. May we conclude that only those who are shedding tears are truly mourning the death of the deceased, and those who cannot shed a tear at that moment are not mourning? Such is obviously not the case, something which will be understood by many who have lost a beloved relative. Tears indeed can be, and often are, the expression of internal grief, but it is equally true that many tears are the superficial expression of the emotion of the moment, rather than grief which proceeds from the heart. Many who mourn the loss of loved ones have times when they shed tears and other times when they do not. To suggest that during the times that they are not shedding tears they are no longer mourning is obviously not consistent with reality. Genuine mourning is something which transpires in the heart, in the inner, spiritual dimension of our human existence, which occasionally will manifest itself externally by means of tears. With some individuals this will occur much more fre­quently than with others, as our ability to cry is closely related to our emotional and psychological constitution and condition.

Why so much said about this? To dispel the notion that Christ would be teaching here that the shedding of physical tears is evidence of the gracious operation of His Spirit within a soul. Only God knows how many have deceived themselves or are currently deceiving themselves by entertaining a spiritual hope for themselves based on the fact that they shed physical tears when God's Word is read or preached. Let me state emphatically that Christ is not referring to the shedding of physical tears, but He is describing the condition of the heart of His people. This mourning, this heartfelt grief, proceeds from the deepest recesses of the hearts of God's children, a grief which to a lesser or greater degree is a continual reality during their entire sojourn here upon earth.

Experiential Perspectives🔗

By pronouncing the mourners blessed, Christ defines for us what the second important element of saving conviction is, what the second element of Christian experience is which prepares the heart for the exercise of faith in His Person and work. In doing so He not only teaches us that there is a well-defined reason for this mourning, namely the experiential awareness of one's spiritual poverty, but also that whenever it pleases the Holy Spirit to make a fallen sinner conscious of his spiritual poverty, this experiential consciousness will inevitably result in heartfelt grief. The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian ExperienceIt must be stressed that these two elements of saving conviction are here inseparably linked together. Wherever the Holy Spirit is savingly at work in the heart of a sinner, his experience will always be distinguished by these two marks. In other words, the recognition of one's sinnership is not a cold, intellectual conclusion which one reaches by merely reading the Word of God. Neither is the mourning of God's chil­dren a mourning without a purpose, a mourning which does not have a well-defined focus. The intimate link between the first two Beatitudes communicates to us that the sinner who is savingly wrought upon by God's Spirit understands 1) the essence of his sinnership, namely to be poor in spirit, and 2) mourns over his sinnership.

The mourning to which Christ refers here is therefore the inevitable and spontaneous fruit of the Holy Spirit's saving operation. This is clearly observed in David's confession in Psalm 69:29, "But I am poor and sorrowful: let Thy salvation, O God, set me up on high," a confession to which all God's children will whole-heartedly subscribe.

Having recognized the important relationship between the first two Beatitudes, let us focus on the experience of this mourning itself. As was true for the first Beatitude (and will be true for all others), also the focus of this Beatitude, of this experience, is God Himself! It deals with the mourning of a sinner who has been made conscious that he is without God, and therefore without hope in the world. It is the mourning of a sinner who has been made painfully aware that his sin is the reason why there is a separation between God and his soul, that his sin is the reason that he cannot enjoy the favor and communion of God. How deep is the grief he feels in his heart that he has offended the God for whom his heart yearns and longs!

The focus of this mourning is therefore on sin itself. It is the regenerated sinner's response to his recognition of the ugly nature of sin as an act of contempt towards God, as an act whereby he despises the law of God, offends the attributes of God, and ultimately rejects God Himself. It is this realization, which the convicted sinner may not be able to express in words at that moment, but as a living reality in his heart will inevitably bring forth this intense, heartfelt grief. This grief caused Peter to weep bitterly when Jesus looked upon him after he had denied His Master. This grief cannot be expressed more clearly than David ex­presses it in Psalm 51:4, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight."

God Himself was the focus of David's mourning, and He will be the focus of the mourning of all His children who so often must confess with the psalmist in Psalm 38:6, 7, "I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease." It is such mourning of which the prophet Zechariah prophesied in chapter 12:10, "And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the in­habitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and supplications: and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him." We must conclude therefore that the spiritual mourning of the citizens of God's kingdom primarily relates to sin itself rather than to the consequences of sin. How many there are who mourn over these consequences rather than over sin itself, as an act whereby we offend God, His attributes, and His holy law. Such was the mourning of Cain, Saul, and Judas, as well as of Simon the sorcerer who, rather than repent and beg God for forgiveness, was merely concerned with the possible consequences of his wickedness. This is very evident from his response to Peter's scathing re­buke, when he says, "Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me." How many there are who mourn as Simon the sorcerer did, who are only concerned with the consequences of sin, rather than sin itself. Dear reader, if such is the case with you then your mourning is not the fruit of the saving operation of God's Spirit, but merely the result of a troubled conscience.

May God grant that we all may be acquainted with such God-focused, spiritual mourning which Christ here identifies as one of the marks of spiritual citizenship. Only such mourners are pronounced blessed by Christ; to only such mourners the promise is made that they shall be comforted, a reality which we hope to consider in the second part of this meditation. Such mourners who love God and whose hearts yearn for God, who yearn to be reconciled to the God they have so deeply offended, who yearn for the favor and communion of God, shall in God's time experience the joy of salvation. For it is this mourning, as the unmistakable evi­dence of experiential acquaintance with spiritual poverty, which will cause such a sinner to hunger and thirst for the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will have a hunger and thirst which God, who loves His people with an everlasting love, will satisfy by leading all true mourners in Zion to the fountain of His everlasting love opened in the Person and work of His beloved Son. That is the rich promise of Scripture for all spiritual mourners. "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy" (Psalm 126:5). "For the Lord shall comfort Zion" (Isaiah 51:3). He shall comfort them in the Son of His eternal good pleasure, a truth so clearly expressed in Isaiah 61:1-3, "The LORD God hath sent Me (=Christ) … to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning."

In our consideration of the first part of this Beatitude, our focus was upon the mourners in Zion, as Christ clearly identifies spiritual mourning to be the second mark of saving grace, the second distinctive characteristic of all the spiritual citizens of His kingdom. We pointed out that due to the sequential and cumulative order of the Beatitudes we must of necessity conclude that this mourning is closely related to the first Beatitude, which identifies citizens of God's kingdom as sinners who have been made experientially acquainted with their spiritual poverty. Consequently, this spiritual poverty is the focus of this mourning.

This mourning refers not to mourning in a general sense of the word. Neither does it refer to mourning which is man's emotional response to the many grievous experiences which he encounters in this vale of tears. Rather, this mourning is the sinner's response to the painful and grievous realization that He is without God and thus without hope in the world. The mourning to which Christ refers is, therefore, the manifestation of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that wondrous work which, as the authors of the Canons of Dort state so profoundly, exceeds the creation of the universe in magnificence. It is at that stupendous moment that it pleases the Holy Spirit to make the elect sinner alive unto God again, and it is at that moment that He sheds the love of God abroad in such a heart. It is this latter reality which at once directs us to the secret motive why God's children mourn. They mourn because they love God, even though in the beginning of their spiritual life they often cannot give expression as to what is transpiring in their soul. Yet the one thing they clearly perceive is an unexplainable, heartfelt yearning of their soul after God.The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience

It is this yearning after God which produces the realization that they are without Him, that they offend Him and grieve Him, that they have a heart which is so wretchedly inclined to violate His holy commandments; yes, it is this realization which brings forth such a heartfelt grief in their soul. It is this realization which causes them to weep with David, "My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease … Lord, all my desire is before Thee; and my groaning is not hid from Thee. My heart panteth, my strength faileth me" (Psalm 38:5-10). It is this painful realization of spiritual poverty which even caused God's exercised child Paul to weep, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24).

Before we proceed, we must therefore emphasize again that God Him­self is the focus of this mourning; and thus, due to his experiential understanding of the very nature of sin, the elect sinner primarily mourns over sin itself rather than its consequences. A clear understanding of the nature of this mourning is necessary in order to grasp what the essential nature of the comfort is which Christ promises to true mourners in Zion, and for which these mourners long.

Definition of Terms🔗

As is true in our language, the verb here translated as "comfort" is the Greek verb from which the word "Comforter" is derived – a word which often is transliterated into English as "Parakleet." This title is preeminently given to the Holy Spirit, to whom Christ repeatedly referred as the Comforter who would come as the gift of the Father (cf. John 14-16). This relationship between "comfort" and the "Comforter" at once directs us to the correct interpretation of Christ's promise, "for they shall be comforted." For when we view this text as we must view every text, namely, within the context of all of Scripture, and especially when we compare it with the numerous passages which explicitly identify the Holy Spirit as the Comforter of His people, then it becomes evident that the comfort which mourners in Zion shall experience is exclusively the result of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the heart of such sinners.

In other words, the very same Spirit who regenerates, who convicts of sin, and who causes spiritually bankrupt sinners to mourn over their poverty, is also the Spirit who comforts. The very same Spirit who wounds the soul also pours the balm of Gilead in those wounds. The very Spirit who empties the sinner and who will strip him of all his own righteousness also will fill the soul with precisely that comfort for which He has made room with masterful precision.

Experiential Perspectives🔗

What then is that comfort with which the Spirit comforts mourners in Zion? Scripture teaches clearly that the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is the great Executive of the Holy Trinity. It is the Spirit who accomplishes the Father's eternal good pleasure – so richly revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the Son of His good pleasure – in the hearts of sinners who have been loved by a triune God from the stillness of a never-begun eternity. As it is the Father's good pleasure to restore fallen sinners into an intimate relationship with Himself, it is thus the Holy Spirit's work as He executes that good pleasure, to re­store the dreadful breach caused in Paradise between God and those elect sinners who have been eternally couched in His heart. This at once explains why He is pre-eminently called the Spirit of Christ, why it is His utmost desire to glorify Christ, why He delights to take out of Him and reveal it precisely to the mourners in Zion, and why He will not rest until He causes such mourners in Zion to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ with the arms of faith.

Why is Jesus Christ the pre-eminent focus of His saving work? Oh, it is because He is the Restorer of the breach; it is by Him who is mighty to save that Jehovah's good pleasure can prosper! It is in Him that God and sinners can be reconciled. In Him God has found a way whereby the glorious promise and declaration of the covenant of grace can be an everlasting and precious reality for God's children, namely, "And I will be their God, and they shall be My people!" How profoundly this statement expresses God's eternal good pleasure towards His people! Is it any wonder that the Father has therefore given the Son of that good pleasure a Name above every other name, and that it thus pleases Him that in all things His Son Jesus Christ should have the pre-eminence? (Col. 1:1 8, 19).

How evident it now becomes why it is the Holy Spirit's sacred and singular objective to glorify this mag­nificent Savior in the hearts of the mourners of Zion! This is why He will not rest until, by virtue of His saving operation – also for these poor mourners in Zion – the Name of Jesus Christ shall become a Name above every other name. For this is the very method by which it pleases Him to comfort such mourners, a method so clearly outlined by Christ Himself in John 6:45, "Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto Me." And thus the Holy Spirit, as the Father's Instructor causes them to weep over the fact that they are with­out God and without hope in the world, causing them to cry out with David, "Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight" The objective of His divine in­struction is to bring the mourners in Zion to the place where in deep soul's mourning they will cry out of the depth of their lost condition, "Lord, is there yet a way whereby I may escape my well-deserved punishment and be restored into Thy favor?"

Oh, how the Spirit loves to hear that cry from such a wounded soul. It is for that moment that He has waited with holy anticipation. How He delights to respond to this cry by comforting such sinners with the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, as God's ordained way whereby the immeasurable gulf between God and their soul can be bridged again, The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experiencetheir sins can be forgiven, and they again may become the recipients of divine favor.

How unspeakable and unforgettable, therefore, is that moment when the eyes of such a sinner may go open for Him who is the Chief among ten thousand, who is white and ruddy, and who is an altogether lovely and suitable Savior for altogether guilty and vile sinners! How unspeakable is the comfort which such sinners may experience when the Holy Spirit as divine Comforter soothes their wounded souls with the precious balm of Gilead, for it is the Person and work of Jesus Christ alone which can truly comfort the souls of all mourners in Zion. It is in Him alone that the God for whom they yearn can be their portion. In Him alone the barrier between God and their soul can be removed. In Him alone their guilt can be blotted out. In His blood alone they can be cleansed from all their sin. In Him alone they can lavish their soul at the fountain of God's eternal and infinite love. This explains why an exercised child of God, deceased for many years, once said, "Christ fits my heart as precisely as a key fits a lock."

Moreover, the experience of this comfort is not merely an experience of singular occurrence in the lives of God's children. Rather, it is the life­long experience of God's children that this Spirit by renewal makes room for Christ, causes a hungering and thirsting for Christ, reveals Christ, gives faith to embrace Christ, and causes His people to find comfort for their souls in Christ. The original Greek text underscores this reality in a profound manner. As has been pointed out previously, Christ uses the present tense in all the Beatitudes, which in Greek is indicative of continual and/or repetitive action. The implication of this important grammatical perspective relative to this Beatitude is that spiritual mourning is a life-long and repetitive experience for God's children, an experience they will never grow beyond as long as they belong to the church militant. However, it is noteworthy that the future tense used in the sec­ond half of this Beatitude, in the Greek, also is indicative of continual and repetitive action. Therefore, we may actually read this Beatitude as follows, "Blessed are they that continually and repetitively mourn, for they shall continually and repetitively be comforted."

How clearly this confirms that the experience of God's children is not a "half experience" which would consist of mourning only, but that this continual mourning by divine ordinance and divine necessity will always result in experiencing comfort in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit's work cannot miscarry. He does not do a half-work, but will always finish what He begins. He killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up; He maketh poor and He maketh rich; He bringeth low, and He lifteth up (1 Samuel 2:6, 7). It is by this twofold method that it pleases the Holy Spirit to cause God's children to grow in the grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. This explains why Christ states so emphatically that His mourners shall be comforted.

The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian ExperienceThe use of the future tense here should not be construed to mean that such comfort is exclusively laid away for the future and thus will only be experienced in heaven. This evidently is contrary to Christ's intent in this text as well as contrary to the experience of God's children. It is true that the full extent of that comfort will not be ex­perienced until God's children are in heaven where they shall see Christ uninterruptedly as He is. Christ's use of the future tense, however, primarily serves to underscore the absolute cer­tainty of the experience of this comfort, even though reference to future fulfillment of this promise is certainly included in its meaning. The experience of heaven begins here as our Heidelberg Catechism so plainly teaches in Lord's Day 22, where it is stated, "Since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life." Every exercise of faith is a foretaste of heaven where the Lamb of God shall forever feed them and lead them to living fountains of water (Revelation 7:17).The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience

Thus this Beatitude clearly confirms that the experience of God's children is a lifelong preparation for heaven where their tears – which here they so often must shed as they mourn over sin – shall forever be wiped away, where that which eye has not seen and ear has not heard shall be an unending reality. When God's children arrive in heaven they shall not do a strange work, for there they shall forever delight themselves in Him, who by the work of the Holy Spirit already has become so precious to them in this life, and whom they will there behold as the express image of His Father's Person, as the brightness of His glory who shall forever illuminate heaven with the unfettered brightness of His glory. There the darkness and absence of comfort they so often must experience here due to unbelief and backsliding shall forever be replaced by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God which they shall be privileged to behold in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6). There they shall forever continue the doxology which here they have begun to stammer each time it pleased the Spirit to comfort them with a new revelation and application of Christ and His unsearchable riches, namely, "Worthy is the Lamb!"

Therefore, how blessed are they that mourn, how blessed are they who join David in saying, "But I am poor and sorrowful: let Thy salvation (=Jesus Christ!), O God, set me up on high" (Psalm 69:29). In this Beatitude you have God's own warranty that you shall be comforted! Here in principle, and once forever, you shall re­ceive beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning. Then, with Paul and all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and who love His appearing, you shall receive a crown of righteousness. "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted."

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