Jesus: Joy in Sorrow

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension within ourselves is never more obvious than when we grieve. Grief vanquishes all pretense of our self-sufficiency. From the bottom of our hearts we cry out to God knowing our total dependence on Him. It is paradoxical to be honored or blessed in mourning because no one who mourns feels blessed. Mourning is a the most basic form of human suffering (France 2007, 109).

Mourning is the somber mood of Good Friday.  The irony of the cross is that our salvation is secured through the ultimate act of humility.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 ESV)  Jesus’ own words are prophetic:  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)  Without the cross there can be no Easter.

The second Beatitude in Matthew speaks of mourning and encouragement, while Luke’s Beatitude speaks of crying and laughter [1]. The Greek word for mourning (πενθέω) means: “to experience sadness as the result of some condition or circumstance, be sad, grieve, mourn” (BDAG 5773 (1)). And, the word for encouragement (παρακαλέω) means: “to instill someone with courage or cheer, comfort, encourage, cheer up” (BDAG 5584(4)).

Prior to the second Beatitude, Matthew speaks of mourning only once in describing the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem by King Herod (Matt 2:18). At that point, Matthew cites the Prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer 31:15 ESV)[2]  After the second Beatitude, Matthew uses the word, mourn, only once: “And Jesus said to them, Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matt 9:15 ESV) Because both Jesus’ coming and his going in Matthew are accompanied by mourning, this suggests that for Matthew the focus of mourning is always Jesus [3].

Mourning requires an object—what does Jesus mourn for?

The key words distinguishing the second Beatitude in Matthew, mourn and comfort, are taken from Isaiah 61:2. The full sentence in Isaiah reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

The context for Isaiah is prophesy announcing the release of the Judean captives from slavery in Babylon. They were captives because of having displeased God and twice rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon (2 Kings 24 and 25). Because of their sin, they were slaves in Babylon [4]. For them, salvation meant being released from slavery and allowed to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-3).

The common connection between the Beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon [5] arises as Jesus is leaning into his role as a prophetic messiah. In Greek, messiah (Μεσσίας) means: “anointed one” (BDAG 4834). Another word for messiah is Christ [6]. In Jewish tradition, prophets, kings, and priests were anointed which defines the three types of messiahs. The classic expression of prophet voice, woe (οὐαὶ), is another word for mourning which Luke uses in opposition to makarios in his Beatitudes. In Greek, woe is an: “interjection denoting pain or displeasure, woe, alas” (BDAG 542(1)). Matthew uses the word, woe, eleven times, but not in the context of his beatitudes [7].

Mourning is also a form of anxiety—another form of tension with ourselves [8].  As such, the second Beatitude anticipates later Sermon teaching focused on anxieties about food, clothing, and the future (Matt 6:15-34). Jesus concludes here: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33 ESV) Jesus’ brother James completes this thought: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:8-10 ESV) [9]

The Nestle-Aland (2012, 9) study of surviving manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel show that some early manuscripts reverse the second and third Beatitudes. As argued in earlier posts, “poor in spirit” and “meek” can be expressed in the same Hebrew word, ana, found, for example, in Numbers 12:3[10]. Both suggest humility. One theological interpretation for this reversal is to bracket with humility the prophetic voice found in mourning (woe) offering truth but only in the context of grace (John 8:11).  An example is given by Jesus on the Mount of Olives:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37 ESV)

Another interpretation is to read mourning as the soul crying out in anguish over sin, as with the Prophet Isaiah:

“And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5 ESV)

In this case, mourning becomes another synonym for humility making the first three Beatitudes an emphatic triplet of humility.


[1] It is interesting that scholars consider Matthew 5:4 part of Q manuscript (Guelich 1982, 35). Q stands for the German word, quelle, which means source.

[2] Rachel died in child-birth when her second son was born. She called him—Ben-omi (son of my sorrow)—while Jacob renamed him: Benjamin (son my right hand; Gen 35:18). In the quote from Jeremiah the Greek word for weep (κλαίω) is the same word as used in Luke’s second Beatitude and it simply means: weep or cry (BDAG 4251(1)).

[3] A possible exception is that hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων; Matt 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30). The stories of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-16) and Lazarus (John 11-12) do not appear in Matthew.

[4] The experience of slavery in Babylon was on account of sin which was unlike the experience of slavery in Egypt which came about more because of a change in political fortunes (Exodus 1:8).

[5] Luke 4:16-20.  The connection is Isaiah 61:1-3.

[6] When Jesus calls Andrew, he runs to find his brother, Peter, and says: He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah (which means Christ).” (John 1:41 ESV)

[7] Matt. 11:21; 18:7; 23:13, 15-16, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:19; and 26:24. The primary object of his woe, scribes and pharisees, calls to mind the Prophet Ezekiel who writes: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ezek 34:2 ESV)

[8] It is interesting that in the second Beatitude Matthew focuses on the inward tension and release of grief (mourning/encouragement) while Luke focuses on its outward express (crying/laughing). The Apostle Paul sees this inward tension as critically important in our spiritual formation. He writes: “For godly grief (θεὸν λύπη) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:10 ESV) Paul uses an entirely different word for grief in the Greek which means: “pain of mind or spirit, grief, sorrow, affliction” (BDAG 4625). In Paul’s analysis we see grief tinged with guilt and shame—a motivator for repentance.

[9] In another possible object of mourning is family abandonment  which Neyrey (1998, 172) speculates is in view here because many Christians found themselves in tension with their families.  Even Jesus may have suffered in this way (Matt 12:46).

[10] “Now the man Moses was very meek (עָנָיו), more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3 ESV)


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

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