Passionately Pursue the Kingdom of Heaven

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt 5:6)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Fourth Beatitude taps into deep physical and spiritual needs expressed in the words: “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Hunger means both “to feel the pangs of lack of food, hunger, be hungry” and to “desire something—strongly, hunger for something” while thirst means both “to have a desire for liquid, be thirsty, suffer from thirst” and “to have a strong desire to attain some goal, thirst, i.e. long for something” (BDAG 2051). Righteousness means the “quality or state of juridical correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness” (BDAG 2004.2) that we hunger and thirst for in a sinful world.

The theme of hungering and thirsting—deep need and abundant provision—runs throughout in John’s Gospel. Jesus first reveals himself to a couple of newlyweds in danger of being stigmatized for their poverty, lacking sufficient wine to meet community hospitality standards. Our insufficiencies are contrasted with God’s super-abundant provision—of wine (John 2:1–11), bread (John 6:5–14), and fish (John 21:3–13)—that displays God’s trademark generosity.

God’s generosity is remembered in the Festival of Booths (John 7:2) that commemorates Israel’s desert wanderings after leaving Egypt (Lev 23:34-43), when Jesus says:

Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)

The bread here refers to manna and the water refers to God’s miraculous gift of water at Meribah (Exod 17:1–17).

Reminding temple worshippers of God, Jesus stood up and cried out:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-39)

The symbolism of water and bread both point to God’s abundant and everlasting provision that we commemorate in the sacraments of baptism and communion.

More generally, to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” speaks of suffering, where basic human needs are withheld or remain absent, as in songs of lament in the Book of Psalms. There we read: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1) and “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Ps 89:46). It is ironic that God reveals himself most clearly in the deserts of life (Exod 7:16; Card 2005, 16).

Modern atheism feeds from this painful stream. Modern atheists question God’s provision and goodness. They argue that if God is all powerful and all good, then the existence of suffering and evil suggests that God is either not all powerful or not good or not both—he does not exist.  In contrast, Jesus testifies that those who passionately seek righteousness will be satisfied. The Greek word here for satisfy means “to experience inward satisfaction in something or be satisfied” (BDAG 7954). Far from deserting us, in life Jesus suffered alongside of us, on the cross paid our penalty for sin, and in resurrection became our guarantor. “While some continue to argue that Auschwitz disproves the existence of God, many more would argue that it demonstrates the depths to which humanity, unrestrained by any thought or fear of God, will sink.” (McGrath 2004, 184).

In our deserts of suffering and need, Jesus gives us permission to pray for the simplest needs in life. He says: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11), displaying God concern for us just like when God clothed Adam and Eve, even as he expelled them from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:21). Even in judgment God’s eye is on care for his people: The righteous are separated from the wicked by their attitude about and care for those in need (Matt 25:31–46).

Brueggemann (2009, 31) contrasts the YHWH economy with Pharaoh’s economy providing insight into the Ten Commandments. In the YHWH economy, those who keep the Sabbath need not dishonor mother and father, kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet. In other words, do detestable things for the sake of money. In the unending race to pursue wealth of Pharaoh’s economy we are pushed individually and collectively daily to neglect or break these commandments.

Our needs will be met and expectations exceeded, we are reminded in the Fourth Beatitude and later in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt 6:31–33)

Listen to the phrase—”seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”—do you hear an echo of the First Commandment? (Exod 20:3) God’s righteousness on earth is embedded even in the invitation to share God’s peace.


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.>

Brueggemann, Walter. 2014. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow Experience Guide:  Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism. New York: DoubleDay.

Passionately Pursue the Kingdom of Heaven

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:

Publisher site:



You may also like

Leave a Reply