A better translation of the Greek word tapeinos is "gentle." Meekness can imply a sheepish demeanor which is not the case with the 5:5. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus uses this word to refer to himself: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Jesus was hardly meek in his criticisms of the religious leaders (see Matthew 23), but he displayed the quality of gentleness that he expected from his followers in this third beatitude. If the poor in spirit rely totally upon God, then so do the gentle. Clarence Jordan suggests that a good translation of tapeinos is "tamed," that is the wills of Jesus' followers have been "tamed by God's will."(1) Because they will not assert their own desires and become singularly focused on God's will, they do not engage in the kind of power politics the pagans engage in to force others to bend to their wills-- "wrath, anger, violence, acquisitiveness, rapaciousness, theft, violent takeovers, and brutal reclamations of property."(2)
Jesus gets at the character of the gentle in his instructions to his disciples concerning the upside down nature of his kingdom:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, 'What do you want?' She said to him, 'Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.' But Jesus answered, 'You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?' They said to him, 'We are able.' He said to them, 'You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.'When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.' (Matthew 20:20-28)
The Old Testament context for this third beatitude is Psalm 37:7-11:
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.
The gentle are also patient... waiting for God's justice. Scot McKnight puts this third beatitude in context with the first two:
If we put these three beatitudes together, we find Jesus blessing the oppressed and the poor for their powerful trust in God, their willingness to wait on justice and the kingdom, and for their devotion that runs so deep they mourn over the condition of Israel and implicate themselves in the causes of that condition. These are the sorts of people, not the typical ones, that are (and will be) in the kingdom.(3)
When Jesus refers to the inheritance of the land, he is clearly referring to Israel specifically. The promise of the land to God's people hearkens all the way back to Genesis 12 when God calls Abraham and Sarah to travel to the land God will show them that will be an inheritance for subsequent generations. But the larger point here is that God's people will inherit what in this world is usually taken by violent force and other forms of power. The gentle simply endure because they trust in God to keep God's promises. Those who do not resort to the methods of the "Gentiles and tyrants" will receive an inheritance that only God can give.
(1) Quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 29.
(2) Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, p. 42.
(3) Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, p. 43.