What does ζητέω (ZHTEW) mean?
Matthew 6:33 says, “ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν”
An elementary Greek, wooden translation is, “And/But seek first the kingdom of God and the righteousness of him and these all will be added to you.”
I’ve often wondered what seeking a kingdom meant. Where is it? Is it lost? Has it been misplaced? Is there a map that can direct me to where it is?
Specifically, how does one do this seek activity? The literary context doesn’t really answer that question. The context is about the anxiety of meeting rather important day to day needs: food, water, and clothing. We are to not get worked up into a sweat about such necessary things, but, instead replace that anxiety with seeking. The text seems to assume that the person hearing this for the first time will know what seeking a kingdom means. Seeking is not elucidated.
Moulton and Milligan (MM), “The vocabulary of the Greek New Testament”, show that ζητέω has a lot to do with inquiring into something which is not immediately obvious. The word was sometimes written into a margin (with δίπλωμα) next to specific names on a list. Perhaps this meant that someone was to do a little research into these person’s official papers (travelling papers, perhaps). MM appear to me to indicate that the idea of inquiry was a significant core piece to the meaning of ζητέω.
TDNT also bears this out. Additionally they bring another conceptual piece into play. Namely, that the information being sought is not immediately obvious. Well, of course it’s not immediately obvious–why else seek for the information? But, it’s not that the data is purposefully hidden; it’s just not something readily available unless one makes the effort by doing a further inquiry. Jesus is not painting the picture that the kingdom is a mystery (μυστήριον)–at least not here. “Mysteries” had to be taught; they couldn’t be learned by simple inquiry. He is not talking about a strenuous effort to find special knowledge. It’s more like, ask the right questions. Go talk to the right people. And you’ll get clued in. It’s closer to “figure out God’s kingdom.”
Does the idea of inquiry come to mind when the English reader reads Matthew 6:33? Should it? I think so.
Seeking a kingdom immediately brings to mind that there is a place one needs to go. That one needs to leave here and go there. I’m questioning whether that’s the real intent here. It’s pretty easy to interpret the English as “try to get out of this world” either in a real sense or metaphorically. If that were true, then why would one pray, “I want your kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven?” And, given the context, why would I “give a cup of cold water to the least of these?” Why wouldn’t I tell this thirsty person to not get all anxious about it but go find the kingdom and the drink will “be added to them.”
I wonder if it would be better to think in terms of inquiry. That is, that one is to try to gain information about, and try to understand, the kingdom of God (the same can be said about God’s righteousness).
I wonder if it would be better to translate Matthew 6:33 along the lines of:
Make understanding God’s kingdom and his righteousness a first priority, and these other things will accrue to you.
What are your thoughts? Can we do better than seek?
20 thoughts on “An inquiry into better seeking — Matthew 6:33”
I doubt very much that understanding has anything to do with it. That’s my polite way of saying – no – never. Not understanding.
Seeking is action towards the end of ‘being in the reign of God’. The Psalms 96-99, a daisy chain in which the beginning of each psalm is framed with the end of the next one, is all about the reign of God (Yhvh). It is right in the middle of the fourth book. In that book, the two prayers (90 of Moses, and 102 of the disabled, itself surrounded by the two Davidic poems in Book 4, 101 – on completeness, and 103 – the compassion of the King), these two prayers highlight the renewal of life חלף (a double frame for the two psalms, 90.5-6 and 102.27 applied to Jesus as son in Hebrews) in reflecting on the failure of the Davidic monarchy (Psalm 89, culminating books 2 and 3 which themselves lament the exile.) So the kingdom of God to be sought is this reign of Yhvh. The understanding will come with the seeking, those actions which lead to obedience in the gifts that each and all have from the Most High. Book 4’s full ending 104-106 rehearses the entire history of creation and redemption – as in many places in TNK, leaving nothing and no one out.
Understanding is an excuse to do nothing. Perform it. Don’t just think about it.
Bob, don’t brush Proverbs 1:2-7 too far to the side. 🙂
I don’t agree that understanding is an excuse to do nothing, as if the one determines the other. However, I certainly do agree there is too much “understand but do nothing.” And I also agree that one doesn’t really understand something until one has done it.
In any case, I’m a bit more focused on the act of inquiry.
Take a quick peek at Mat. 7:7-8, particularly 8. Asking, seeking [with inquiry], and knocking on a door so someone will come to the door all carry the idea of inquiry.
I think Mat. 13:45 is also helpful here. The idea is of a businessman asking questions to determine the quality of pearls (ζητοῦντι καλοὺς μαργαρίτας) “…inquiring into the good pearls”. I think the accusative leans this toward into as opposed to about, though that’s a fine distinction. At a certain point this businessman finds one of great value (the kingdom of heaven), so he liquidates all his assets in order to purchase that pearl. Now, here’s my point: Even if one takes ζητέω to mean exactly the English seek, the element of inquiry is still there since it’s implied in the act of determining the quality of that one pearl over the others (note the plural).
 I hold to process improvement model called “a maturity model.” In this model, one matures through initial, repeatable, defined, managed, and optimizing stages. The interesting thing to me is that ‘repeatable’ is before ‘defined’. In other words, first live it, then define it. One doesn’t get all the real world connections until one has made the process repeatable. Then you know you’ve got it right and can therefore put it down on paper.
Ah – I haven’t done Proverbs yet – but thanks for the pointer. I see בִּין is given possible glosses of understand, discern, and consider. It is a betwixt and between sort of thing. (pun) I must pay more attention to the proverbs – maybe if I survive the remaining 6 months on the Psalms. I think I am coming to an end there.
Thanks too for the agreement and the maturity model.
Now about all that Greek – I do admit it’s over my head – I think that the word ζητέω you speak of must speak to action when translated today. Seek, ask, knock, search – all actions. I must admit though that there are many possible distractions. Understanding may tend to inaction – to a cerebral only response to the commandment. Perhaps though I am advising myself.
On the subject verse – seek is operative from Mathew 2 – the Magi certainly would not be about ‘understanding’ – but the movement of self to the anointed as revealed in Israel.
Although inquiring and understanding is present in the background, I do not think that using “understand” as a translation conveys the main point intended. The seeking is in order to obtain something. The context as well as “first” shows that Jesus is making a contrast between seeking and obtaining what belongs to this world as compared to FIRST seeking to obtain what belongs to the Kingdom of God. When someone has sought, found and entered into God’s kingdom, then those other things – at least what we need rather than necessarily all that we want – are also obtained. And the “righteousness of God” probably means “do what God wants or what he considers the right thing to do”.
A new meaning-based Danish version says (in my translation into English): No, you must focus/concentrate on God’s kingdom and what God wants you to do, and then he will take care of all the other things.”
I must also agree with the comments above. When someone was looking for Jesus and this word was used (eg Mark 3:32), they weren’t trying to understand where he was just by sitting in a room, they were actively trying to find him, not just trying to know where he was. Understanding may be a part of it, but it’s not the main thrust.
I don’t seeking for the Kingdom necessarily implies a geographical Kingdom as you say in your 3rd last para, I think part of the reason is that you are to seek after his righteousness also (and we know that righteousness isn’t a place).
Yes, we know that ‘righteousness’ isn’t a place. But, that’s at least part of my point. We have such a load of theological baggage surrounding the words ‘kingdom of God’ and ‘righteousness’, and even more to the point, theological baggage surrounding the phrase, “seek first the kingdom and his righteousness”, that we can’t interpret it in a natural way. That is, it has to be ‘seek’.
To remove the theological baggage…what would someone have meant if they had said, “seek Caesar’s kingdom”?
What about inquire into the God’s reign and his righteousness.
I think Iver’s suggestion of focus, has some merit, but it loses any sense of inquiry, something seek has.
…“Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
ἰδοὺ ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί σου καὶ αἱ ἀδελφαί σου ἔξω ζητοῦσίν σε
It seems to me that this is a fairly straightforward way of the Greek saying, “Excuse me, your mom, brothers and sisters are outside inquiring for you.”
[I saved this comment, but I need to add something more.]
From the immediately previous literal context, Jesus’ family knew he was inside. So, they weren’t actually seeking him. They were inquiring (or making a request) for him to come out.
I’ve often wondered about the meaning of this 3:31-32. The idea of inquiry helps me understand it. I now see that Mark 3:21 and 31-32 form a book-end structure. Verses 22 and 30 also support the overall structure (a somewhat chiastic one) with the parable in the middle.
Satan was trying to divide Jesus’ “family”–the new family (in the ancient Jewish sense) he was forming (and continues to this day). Mark 3:20-35 presents Jesus as saying, “Sorry, Satan, you’re not going to divide my family. You, in fact, are opposing yourself, and your end has come.” It doesn’t place the “teachers of the law” in a very good light, to say the least.
The contrast Jesus makes in the immediate context is with the pagans who are doing more than just inquiring . . . although the verbs are not identical, they are related and I don’t think we should read too much into the difference. What the pagans are chasing after is not the pursuit of the disciple.
I think the Hebrew mindset of understanding is far different to our understanding of the term. I believe within their framework, ‘understanding’ means – ‘action.’ To know is to do!
I like Iver Larsen’s way of putting it with this format: Put God first in your life and he will meet your needs.
Just to inject. My take on ziteo (ζητεω) is “to aim for”. J.B. Philips says “Set your heart on” for that verse.
The German Elberfelder translation says “Trachtet” , which in a standard dictionary means “to aspire to” , but also means “to strive after” or”to endeavor”
Interestingly, the German idiom “trachten danach” means “to seek revenge” or “hunt someone down for revenge”
So, I think Craig Benno may be right!
and we know that righteousness isn’t a place
But Hope is! 🙂
Lk 19:10 “the son of man came to figure out and save the lost”?
Drew, that’s an interesting observation. Thanks for pointing it out.
First, I think it might be best to put a definition in place. ζητέω doesn’t mean quite what we mean by “figure out.” Context selects and modifies the meaning of words. It’s best to try to nail down a definition of a word. And then, in a specific context, analyse how that definition functions within a specific context. The meaning of a word isn’t infinitely fluid, but it is a bit flexible. That is, we must analyse how the word functions with the other words and with the other elements extant in the specific speech event.
ζητέω means something like, “seek to reveal something through inquiry.” With that in mind, let’s look more closely at Luke 19:1-10.
The thing that jumps out at me is Jesus’ expression in verse 5: Ζακχαῖε σπεύσας κατάβηθι σήμερον γὰρ ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ σου δεῖ με μεῖναι (“make haste, come down, for I need to stay at your house today.”)
Why the δεῖ (“there is need”)? Was Jesus hungry and he simply was relying on the common practice of hospitality? I don’t think so–there’s nothing in the text, or even necessarily in the context, to require such an interpretation.
Why the μένω (stay, stand fast, remain)? μένω means more than just “drop by for some lemonade.” The use of the word in this context easily implies something more like what we call fellowship, or maybe even an appointment. Jesus is going to spend at least the day at Zacchaeus’ house.
Why the σπεύδω (urgency, hasten)? Jesus was focused on something and wanted to get it resolved.
What was there about this event that meant that Jesus needed Zacchaeus to be urgent about getting out of the tree and getting home? Why did Jesus need to spend time there at Zacchaeus’ house? Even the people who were watching recognized this visit was much more than just a simple visit. Note that an intransitive use of καταλύω (see verse 7) is “to lodge with someone.” Again, the narrative clearly indicates a lengthy and even deep conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Could it have been that the Son of Man had some questions? Did he want to inquire into who this Tax Collector (one who collected money from Jews and gave it to the Romans) really was? If we were to sum up in a narrative the long meeting, and the lengthy dialog Jesus had with Zacchaeus, would we capture the two sides of the dialog by saying,
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham…”
What Zacchaeus said defined him as a real “son of Abraham.”
The theology in this event doesn’t align very well with the popular presentation and acceptance of the Gospel. It’s a lot more like, “Are you willing to radically change your mind and to commit to the agenda of the Son of Man?” Zacchaeus did. Jesus had discovered that very thing during his meeting with Zacchaeus. And thus he could say, “the Son of Man came to reveal through inquiry who lost people are and so to save them [if they respond appropriately].” For the time, this was an astounding statement–salvation belonged not to the lost, but to those who were not lost.
Jesus wasn’t seeking Zacchaeus as if he didn’t know where he was–a geographic seeking. He wasn’t seeking in the sense of one seeking followers (I think we too easily inject this English linguistic frame into this text). He was, through inquiry, determining who this Zacchaeus was and bringing the facts to the surface.
Jesus found out. And so did Zacchaeus. And so did everyone else. This is what ζητέω does.
I find that cool. Thanks again for the question.
 A “linguistic frame” is the set of linguistic facts within the mind which are connected to a specific word. So, for example, when we think of ‘seek’, the concept of seeking followers is potentially readily available to be used in interpretation. You couple this frame with the fact that we’ve heard lots of sermons reinforcing this very idea from this Luke 19 text, and it gets pretty hard to distance oneself from the English linguistic frame.
I would agree with Mike, that the specific sense of any word is shaped by the other words that it occurs together with.
One such contextual clue is what kind of object it cooccurs with. The dictionaries will often seperate senses depending on whether the object is a thing, a person or an abstract concept. If we look at the standard dictionary BDAG we find four senses:
① try to find someth., seek, look for in order to find (s. εὑρίσκω 1a)
ⓐ what one possessed and has lost, w. acc. τινά Mt 28:5; Mk 1:37; Lk 2:48f; J 6:24, 26; 7:34, 36. τί Mt 18:12; Lk 19:10. Abs. Lk 15:8.
ⓑ what one desires somehow to bring into relation w. oneself or to obtain without knowing where it is to be found τινά 2 Ti 1:17; J 18:4, 7f; Ac 10:19, 21. ζητεῖν τ. θεόν, εἰ ἄρα γε αὐτὸν εὕροιεν search for God, in the hope that they may find him 17:27. τί Mt 2:13; 12:43; 13:45 Lk 11:24.
ⓒ be on the search for, look for, search out τινά someone Mk 3:32; Ac 9:11
② to seek information, investigate, examine, consider, deliberate περὶ τούτου ζητεῖτε μετʼ ἀλλήλων ὅτι; are you deliberating with each other on the fact that? J 16:19 πῶς Mk 11:18; 14:1, 11. τί Lk 12:29. τὸ πῶς 22:2. .—As legal t.t. investigate ἔστιν ὁ ζητῶν κ. κρίνων there is one who investigates and judges J 8:50b . J 11:56 may also have this technical sense.
③ to devote serious effort to realize one’s desire or objective, strive for, aim (at), try to obtain, desire, wish (for)
ⓐ desire to possess τὶ someth. τ. βασιλείαν Mt 6:33; Lk 12:31. εὐκαιρίαν Mt 26:16; Lk 22:6. ψευδομαρτυρίαν Mt 26:59; cp. Mk 14:55. τὴν δόξαν J 5:44; 7:18; 8:50a. τιμὴν κ. ἀφθαρσίαν Ro 2:7; cp. 1 Cor 7:27b; 2 Cor 12:14; Col 3:1; 1 Pt 3:11 (Ps 33:15).
ⓑ wish for, aim at τὶ someth. τὸν θάνατον Rv 9:6. λύσιν 1 Cor 7:27a. τὸ θέλημά τινος be intent on someone’s will=aim to satisfy it J 5:30. τὰ (τὸ) ἑαυτοῦ ζητεῖν strive for one’s own advantage 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:21.
ⓒ w. interrog. pron. τί ζητεῖτε; (cp. Gen 37:15) what do you want? J 1:38;
ⓓ w. inf. foll. mostly aor. Mt 12:46; 21:46; Mk 12:12; Lk 5:18; 9:9; 11:54 v.l.; 17:33; J 5:18; 7:1; Ac 13:7 D, 8; 16:10 Ro 10:3; Gal 2:17. Rarely the pres. inf. Lk 6:19; Gal 1:10
ⓔ OT lang. apparently is reflected in ζ. τὴν ψυχήν τινος seek the life of someone Mt 2:20 (cp. Ex 4:19); Ro 11:3 (3 Km 19:10); cp. also 3 Km 19:14; Sir 51:3; Ps 34:4; 37:13; 39:15; 53:5; 62:10; 85:14.
④ ask for, request, demand τὶ someth. σημεῖον Mk 8:12. σοφίαν 1 Cor 1:22. δοκιμήν 2 Cor 13:3. τινά J 4:23. τὶ παρά τινος demand someth. fr. someone Mk 8:11; Lk 11:16; 12:48. ζητεῖται ἐν τ. οἰκονόμοις ἵνα it is required of managers that 1 Cor 4:2.
Mike was seeking sense 2 which is rare in the NT, and hardly found outside of John’s Gospel.
Matt 6:33 about seeking God’s kingdom is listed under 3a: desire to possess.
In Luke 19:3 we find the word in the sense “seek to see Jesus”. That would be 3d: he devoted serious effort to realize his desire to see Jesus.
Luke 19:10 is listed under 1a: look for what one possessed and has lost.
I do not see any aspect of inquiry in these contexts, nor does the dictionary.
However, the word δεῖ is interesting. It means “it is a must”. This has to happen according to the speaker. In most cases, particularly when Jesus says it, it means that this is the will of God and it therefore must happen. Jesus only did what God, the Father, told him to do, and Jesus had clearly been told that the Father wanted him to address Zaccheus, because he had a plan for him. It does not mean that Jesus had a need. Rather, Zaccheus had the need to be found and be saved, to become a true, spiritual “son of Abraham”.
Jesus had no need to inquire about Zaccheus, cf. John 2:25. He knew already who he was and what need he had.
Going back to the context of Matthew 6:33, isn’t the translator of Jesus’ speech into Greek writing emphasizing a contrastive seeking of food and clothing for something else sought? Doesn’t the contrast start with the seeking of food and not the inquiry of food, in this context.
I would suggest turning to the LXX from this context for a better inquiry. Matthew seems to turn there. For example, the Greek translation of a Hebrew word for begging (i.e., begging for food, not inquiry about bread) is the same Greek word Matthew uses in this context of translating Jesus. Check out the Greek translation of Psalm 37:25.
νεώτερος ἐγενόμην καὶ γὰρ ἐγήρασα καὶ οὐκ εἶδον δίκαιον ἐγκαταλελειμμένον οὐδὲ τὸ σπέρμα αὐτοῦ ζητοῦν ἄρτους
@J.K. Gale Psalm 37:25 🙂