The Meaning of Meekness
“Cool” was once used to describe temperature instead of something “neat-0, awesome, or swell”.
“Sick” was once used to describe illness rather than something “crazy, cool or insane”.
“Fast” used to mean firm and solid instead of “quick”.
Another old phrase”…’by and by,’ which first meant ‘immediately,’ has now come to mean ‘after an interval.'” (William Shakespeare, William George Clark, William Aldis Wright – 1873, 81)
From The New York Times we read:
Here’s a thought that might help: A word that means the opposite of another is an antonym; a word that looks as if it means one thing but means quite another could be called a phantonym, and warrants wariness.
I love that. We have synonyms that are words that mean the same thing, then we have antonyms which are words that mean the opposite of each other and last of all, “phantonyms” which are words that mean the opposite of what we think they mean! Casual observation leads me to believe that the number of phantonyms in our current vocabulary is staggering.
The meanings of words change over time. In certain works such as scripture, however, it is important that we learn to understand the words in their original context and not by the way we understand them through the lens of modern interpretations.
So let’s get to the modern meaning of word ‘meek’ and for this, we’ll turn to Dictionary.com:
MEEK /mik/ –adjective, -er, -est.
- humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others.
- overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame.
- Obsolete . gentle; kind.
Did you notice number three? That’s right, OBSOLETE! Isn’t it sad that some of the true meanings of words have been rendered obsolete in modern language?
Many of the words and phrases above seem to not be qualities that one would want to possess such as: docile, overly submissive and, wow, spiritless!
Most of the time when I see the word “meek” being referenced, it’s used to describe someone that is shy, quiet and a bit of a push-over. Maybe it is because the word “meek” sounds like “weak” or maybe the “eek” in meek reminds people of a little mouse scurrying to get away and hide.
So let’s move on to what the word ‘meek’ actually means. Since Dictionary.com has admitted that the original meaning of meek has been rendered obsolete, let’s visit the good old 1828 Webster’s Dictionary:
MEEK, a. [L. mucus; Eng. mucilage; Heb. to melt.]
- Mild of temper; soft; gentle; not easily provoked or irritated; yielding; given to forbearance under injuries.
Now the man Moses was very meek, above all men. Num.12.
- Appropriately, humble, in an evangelical sense; submissive to the divine will; not proud, self-sufficient or refractory; not peevish and apt to complain of divine dispensations. Christ says, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls.” Matt.11.
This is starting to make the word ‘meek’ sound a little more like a virtue rather than a sign of weakness.
The above definition refers to Christ using the word ‘meek’ to describe himself, indeed it is the meek that will “inherit the earth”. In the first definition we see “given to forbearance under injuries” which sticks out to me because of another way I once heard ‘meek’ defined and that was “to bear injury without resentment”.
When you think about it, I think this is one of the powerful virtues that Jesus Christ possessed. Think of all the torture and humiliation that preceded his crucifixion. This wasn’t just a sign of ‘toughness’ because as he hangs, nailed to a cross he cries out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
He bore all the injury but he was not resentful. Through all that those that hated him put him through, they did not overcome him or conquer his spirit; they didn’t even take his life, he ‘gave up the ghost’ freely.
This understanding leads to a greater appreciation for the word “meek” and how it relates to Christ and his followers. Instead of a word that describes weakness it is a word that describes something that requires a great deal of self-governance and love.
When we are injured it is instinctive and easy to react, but to maintain consistent perspective amidst the turmoil of emotions and circumstance is an admirable and desirable virtue. To be meek is to also be firm, steadfast and focused instead of being the opposite of meek which would be someone that is impulsive, stubborn and prideful.
Which qualities would you rather possess?
To me this once again illustrates how important it is to understand all the words of scripture in their appropriate context.
To me the biggest impact comes to those who study scriptures still written in an older version of English; especially Latter-day Saints since we prefer the King James translation and also have other scriptures such as the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants that preserve this more archaic form of English.
So I would conclude that it is an almost indispensable necessity that every Latter-day Saint have an understanding of the meanings of some of these more archaic words. I suppose some would argue that the text should be updated and I think there might be a valid argument for that. The problem is that in these modern times we are constantly reinventing the meaning of our already existing vocabulary and trying to keep a canon of scripture up to date with these fads and trends would be impossible.
I would argue that it is actually more effective to simply study the original meanings of the words since we already have the tools at our hands to do so.
I also think that it is appropriate that the language of the scriptures stays the same. It is representative of the fact that the word of God does not change to meet our convenience and in a way presents a new mountain for us to climb to seek understanding from on high.
Updated: March 20, 2011