Joy in Sorrow

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Honored are those who mourn, 

for they shall be comforted. 

(Matt 5:4)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension within ourselves is never more obvious than when we grieve. Grief vanquishes all pretense of our self-sufficiency as we cry out to God from the bottom of our hearts and acknowledge our dependence and loss. This loss and subsequent grief is the most basic form of human suffering (France 2007, 109). Because grief and blessing sit at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum—one feels cursed, not blessed in mourning, it is paradoxical to be honored for mourning.

Mourning and Comfort

Mourning and comfort are brought together in Matthew’s rendering of the Second Beatitude. The Greek word for mourning (πενθέω; “pentheo”) means—“to experience sadness as the result of some condition or circumstance, be sad, grieve, mourn” (BDAG 5773.1). Meanwhile, the word for comfort (παρακαλέω; “parakaleo“) means—“to instill someone with courage or cheer, comfort, encourage, cheer up” (BDAG 5584(4)).

Luke’s rendering of the Beatitude speaks not of mourning and comfort, but of crying and laughter. In the Second Beatitude, Matthew focuses on the inward tension and release of grief (mourning/encouragement) while Luke focuses on its outward expression (crying/laughing). The Apostle Paul sees this inward tension as critically important in our spiritual formation. He writes: “For godly grief (θεὸν λύπη; “theo lupe”) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10). Paul uses an entirely different word for grief in the Greek that 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.

The Object of Mourning

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the object of mourning, which appears only once before and once after the Second Beatitude. Before the Beatitude, Matthew records the mourning of Jewish mothers after King Herod’s slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem (Matt 2:18). 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)

Rachel died in child-birth when her second son was born. She called him—Ben-omi (son of my sorrow)—but 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).

After the Beatitude, Matthew reports Jesus telling a short parable:

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)

Because mourning accompanies both Jesus’ incarnation (the slaughter of innocents) and his ascension (Jesus’ parable), for Matthew the object of mourning is always Jesus.  Underscoring this point, note that the stories of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11–16) and Lazarus (John 11–12), which have obvious references to mourning, do not appear in Matthew. A possible exception to this generalization about mourning are the references to hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30).

Why Does God Mourn?

If mourning requires an object, what does Jesus mourn for? Much like God mourned over sin before sending the flood (Gen 6:6), Jesus mourned over the sin of the nation of Israel, borrowing words from the Prophet Isaiah: “to comfort all who mourn” (Isa 61:2). Isaiah 61 connects the Beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon and draws attention to Jesus’ role as a prophetic messiah. Messiah is the Hebrew word translated as Christ in Greek—both mean anointed one (John 1:41; BDAG 4834). In Jewish tradition, prophets, kings, and priests were anointed which explains the three types of messiahs and points to three offices of Jesus’ messianic ministry.

By contrast, Isaiah’s prophesy announced the release of slaves in Babylon who previously disobeyed God and rebelled twice against the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. Because of their rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, burned the city and the temple, and took many Jewish survivors back to Babylon as slaves (2 Kgs 24 and 25). In this context, Jewish salvation was literal—God would pay their ransom and redeem them from slavery, using King Cyrus of Persia to redeem them (Ezra 1:1-3). Redemption of sinful slaves (rebellious Israelites) is a small step removed from redemption of slaves of sin (us).

Mourning over sin starts in Matthew with John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2) who draws heavily on the prophetic tradition. For example, mourning over sin starts in the Prophet Isaiah’s call story:

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)

Elsewhere in the prophets we read: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” (Mal 4:1) Facing an eternity in hell (a burning oven) for our inadequacy, brokenness, and sin (evil deeds), scripture suggests that appropriate responses include repentance, mourning, and reconciliation.

Prophet Voice

Another word for mourning—woe (οὐαὶ)— is the classic expression of prophet voice and Luke uses it as a contrast immediately following μακάριος in his Beatitudes. For example, we read:

Honored (μακάριος) are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . But woe (οὐαὶ) to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:20, 24)

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, like Luke.

Mourning is also a form of anxiety that Jesus suggests may focus on food, clothing, and the future (Matt 6:15–34). Jesus continues:“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33) 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. (Jas 4:8–10)

Here James links mourning to humbling ourselves before God. 

Triad of Humility

The link in James between mourning and humbling suggests a subtle reading of the first three Beatitudes as a emphatic triad of humility. In fact, early manuscripts reverse the Second and Third Beatitudes (meek becomes mourn and mourn becomes meek), suggesting textual support for this interpretation (Nestle-Aland 2012, 9). Remember that poor in spirit and meek can be expressed in the same Hebrew word (עָנָו; Num 12:3). In the current ordering (that is, poor in spirit, mourn, meek) mourning is bracketed by two expressions for humility that suggests that it is a synonym for humility.


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

Joy in Sorrow

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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