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What the Bible says about Hunger Imagery
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Matthew 5:6

It is not at all uncommon these days to hear of an ambitious person as being "hungry" to accomplish significant things. Writers apply this term to athletes who want to make it to the professional leagues, to actors who want to attain stardom, and to businesspersons who seek to become CEO or president of a major corporation. These people drive themselves to work harder than their competition. They push themselves in studying every facet of their discipline, and they practice longer and harder than others. Their ambition knows no limits. They seem to play every angle to bring themselves to the attention of their superiors. They seize every opportunity to "sell" themselves to those who might be useful in promoting them.

Some but not all of these nuances are present in Jesus' use of "hunger" and "thirst" in Matthew 5:6. He describes a person who from the very depths of his innermost being has a driving need to satisfy a desire. William Barclay, in his Daily Study Bible commentary on Matthew, provides a colorful description:

Words do not exist in isolation; they exist against a background of experience and thought; and the meaning of any word is conditioned by the background of the person who speaks it. That is particularly true of this beatitude. It would convey to those who heard it for the first time an impression quite different from the impression which it conveys to us.

The fact is that very few of us in modern conditions of life know what it is to be really hungry or really thirsty. In the ancient world it was very different. A working man's wage was the equivalent of three pence a day, and, even making every allowance for the difference in the purchasing power of money, no man ever got fat on that wage. A working man in Palestine ate meat only once a week, and in Palestine the working man and the day laborer were never very far from the border-line of real hunger and actual starvation.

It was still more so in the case of thirst. It was not possible for the vast majority of people to turn a tap and find the clear, cold water pouring into their house. A man might be on a journey, and in the midst of it the hot wind which brought the sand-storm might begin to blow. There was nothing for him to do but to wrap his head in his burnous and turn his back to the wind, and wait, while the swirling sand filled his nostrils and his throat until he was likely to suffocate, and until he was parched with an imperious thirst. In the conditions of modern western life there is no parallel at all to that. (vol. 1, p. 99)

We see, then, that Jesus is not using "hunger" or "thirst" as we would describe the emptiness or dryness we feel between meals, but a hunger or thirst that seemingly can never be satisfied. With physical appetite, this would be a hunger and thirst that, even after a full meal with plenty of drink, we would still feel as though we could eat and drink much more! Again, as Barclay describes it, "It is the hunger of the man who is starving for food, and the thirst of the man who will die unless he drinks" (pp. 99-100).

Nothing can better express the kind of desire we should have to obtain righteousness. The Bible's writers frequently employ the imagery of hunger and especially thirst to illustrate an ardent desire, particularly for the things of God:

  • Psalm 42:1-2: As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?

  • Psalm 63:1: O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.

Even limiting hunger and thirst to our normal, daily need for nourishment illustrates a continuous cycle of consuming a most vital necessity for spiritual life and strength.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Four: Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness

Matthew 5:6

At first, the question "What is righteousness?" may seem like a "no-brainer" because we know it means "rectitude," or more simply, "right doing." By quoting Psalm 119:172, "All Your commandments are righteousness," we feel equipped with a direct biblical definition of this important biblical concept. None of these is wrong, but the Bible's use of "righteousness" is both specific and broad—so broad that in some places it is treated as a synonym of salvation itself (Isaiah 45:8; 46:12-13; 51:5; 56:1; 61:10).

Though the Bible uses "righteousness" so broadly, its comparison with "salvation" does not help us much in understanding it because "salvation" is one of the Bible's most comprehensive terms. Since none of us has fully experienced salvation, we look through a glass darkly trying to comprehend it.

Righteousness is used in a similar sense in the very familiar passage given in Matthew 6:33, where Jesus commanded, "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." Here it has the sense of seeking all of God's spiritual blessings, favor, image, and rewards. We see in this verse not only a broad New Testament application of the term but also, more importantly, its priority to life. This dovetails perfectly with the hunger-and-thirst metaphor. It is not enough to ambitiously yearn to accomplish. According to Jesus, God's Kingdom and His righteousness are the very top priorities in all of life. Seeking God's righteousness is that important.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Four: Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness

Matthew 5:6

One of the types of righteousness for which we are to hunger and thirst is the one that occupies the greater portion of our life after conversion. Notice how Jesus states this beatitude. He does not say, "Blessed are those who have hungered . . . ," but rather, "Blessed are those who hunger [do hunger, KJV]." This hungering and thirsting is a continuous state, and it must be this way for the second kind of righteousness, elsewhere called pursuing holiness, going on to perfection, or growing in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Frequently the Bible calls it sanctification. None of these terms is specifically righteousness, but all are contained within its broad meaning. This righteousness is created in us, imparted to us by God's Holy Spirit following justification as we experience our relationship with God. It is seeking godly character to be prepared for living in His Kingdom.

God cannot create His holy and righteous character by fiat. It requires the willing and freely given cooperation of the called; by exercising their free moral agency, they submit to Him in the experiences of life. Submission is difficult, and thus Christianity is no cake-walk through a garden. Jesus often warns that it will require a devotion to Him of such degree that all else must be secondary to Him. We are to bear our crosses and count the cost (Luke 14:26-28). He also warns, "The way is difficult and narrow" (Matthew 7:14), and "He who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13). The trek of the ancient Israelites through the wilderness is a type of the Christian's pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God. Their wilderness experiences expose a number of pitfalls that can destroy a Christian's faith and enthusiasm for continuing to the end.

Through this beatitude, God presents us with a serious challenge. Because it is continuously needed, it establishes a demanding requirement. How much do we want goodness, the righteousness of God? Do we want it as much as a starving man desires food or a parched man wants water? Do we so lack vision that we will give up our faith as all the Israelites, save Joshua and Caleb, did in the wilderness? According to Hebrews 4:1, though they heard the good news, they did not believe it sufficiently. They, therefore, died in the wilderness, their pilgrimage finished before they reached their goal. Rather than submit, they resisted God until their deaths. Apparently, they did not hunger for it.

Most of us have a desire for God's Kingdom and His righteousness, but it is, to our detriment, frequently nebulous rather than sharp. When the time comes to make a choice, we are not prepared to make the required effort or sacrifice that the righteousness of God demands. It is situations like these that reveal that we do not desire righteousness more than anything else.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Four: Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness

Matthew 6:33

Here the term righteousness has the sense of seeking all of God's spiritual blessings, favor, image, and rewards. We see in this verse not only a broad New Testament application of the term but also, more importantly, its priority to life. This dovetails perfectly with the hunger-and-thirst metaphor in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). It is not enough to ambitiously yearn to accomplish. According to Jesus, God's Kingdom and His righteousness are the very top priorities in all of life. Seeking God's righteousness is that important.

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Four: Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness

2 Timothy 3:1

For us, a great deal of that peril exists in the multitude of visible, emotional, and audible distractions that occupy minds nurtured by television, movies, and radio. Through these mediums we invite the world and much of its appeal directly into our homes. We have come to tolerate television's intrusion into our lives. By means of the Internet, some of us have become information junkies, and others can hardly go anywhere without being accompanied by a playing radio. We need to honestly examine ourselves as to whether we are showing God that what this world bombards our minds with through these mediums is really what we hunger and thirst for. How are they preparing us for the Kingdom of God?

John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Four: Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness

Revelation 6:5-6

Clearly, this third seal pictures famine stalking the land (see Matthew 24:7; Luke 21:11). Biblically, the color black—unlike our modern conception of it as the color of evil, as opposed to white—signifies mourning and ill health as a result of scarcity (see Jeremiah 14:2; Lamentations 5:10; Nahum 2:10; all of which, in Hebrew, describe people's expressions, skins, or faces as "black" due to want). This is in keeping with another use of black or darkness in Scripture: as a sign of God's judgment for sin (Zephaniah 1:15; Joel 2:2).

The pair of scales, of course, suggests similar things, adding an economic element, as grains or other foods would often be weighed for sale. Scales could also be used, as is likely intended in the third seal, to ration food during a time of scarcity. In the vision, a denarius represents a laborer's daily wage, and a quart of grain equals a person's daily nutritional requirement. The third horseman, then, portrays a scenario of hunger and suffering, when the powers that be tightly control the meting out of staple foods at highly inflated prices.

Finally, there is the curious phrase, "do not harm the oil and the wine." Commentators have been debating the meaning of this command for centuries. It is clearly spoken by God, sitting among the four living creatures, and just as He sets the famine prices of grain, He also decrees that oil and wine be spared any harm. How are we to understand this?

Olive oil and wine are not luxury items, as many take them to be; in the Mediterranean world, they are important supporting elements of the common diet (see Deuteronomy 7:13; Hosea 2:8; Haggai 1:11; etc.). However, while they provide supplementary nutrition, people cannot subsist on them alone. Thus, they are secondary food items, and in the prophecy, they remain plentiful. This leads to two possible conclusions:

1. God is limiting the severity of famines, as "the end is not yet" (Matthew 24:6) and "these are the beginning of sorrows" (verse 8); or more likely,

2. He is indicating a measure of disparity and irregularity in these famines. Some foods will be scarce, while others are abundant. Some people will be sorely affected, while others will hardly suffer. Some areas will be hit hard, while others feel little impact.

This second conclusion suggests human involvement, a wild card in every circumstance, which would fit well with the first two seals. Unlike simple natural disasters, religious deceptions and wars require the decisions and actions of people to bring them about. God hints at a human element in all these disasters, including famine, that occur down through the centuries to remind us of our culpability in them. When man governs without the guidance of God, catastrophe and destruction are not far behind.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Scarcity Amid Plenty


 




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