The Didache is sixteen chapters long, and there are exactly sixteen Sabbaths between Shavu’ot and Rosh HaShanah. In turn, it presents a perfect opportunity to study one chapter of the Didache per week throughout the summer. We will be presenting a blog each week previewing some of the commentary of The Way of Life.
Chapter 3 of the Didache continues on the theme of the Decalogue. Like chapter 2, we can divide chapter 3 into two parts.
It opens with admonitions regarding minor sins that can lead to major sins (3.1‒6), and it closes with a list of positive Messiah-like traits that its audience is urged to adopt (3.7‒10). Both sections exhort us to a life of righteous conduct and to be on guard against all forms of sin. In the middle of the second section are two of my favorite verses in the Didache:
Rather, be humble because the humble will inherit the earth. Be patient, merciful, innocent, quiet, and good-natured, always trembling at the words that you have heard. (Didache 3.7-8)
Verse 7 exhorts us to live a life of humility and then verse 8 lists five characteristics that encompass a life of humility followed by an exhortation to reverence God’s word. Let’s break down each of these.
To achieve humility, we must first attain the character trait of being “patient,” which is a “fruit of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22). The Apostle Paul tells us that Messiah exercised “perfect patience” (1 Timothy 1:16). In Judaism, patience is not just about keeping calm and not becoming aggravated when things go wrong; rather, it is about trusting completely that God controls our fate and that everything that happens is under his command. Patience brings us to humility because we are humbled by the fact that we are not in control.
The second character trait toward humility is “mercy.” Mercy (rachamim) is one of the thirteen attributes of the LORD (Exodus 34:6-7). The Didache enjoins us to be merciful like our Creator, not exacting the full weight of justice. The Apostolic Constitutions quotes the Master’s words, “Be merciful, for ‘blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy’ [Matthew 5:7].” Mercy humbles us because when we extend kindness, compassion, and forgiveness to others, we realize how much mercy God extends to us and how unworthy we are to receive it.
Third, we attain humility through the character trait of “innocence.” Messiah himself is referred to as innocent in the book of Hebrews: “It was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). However, the word itself means more than just free from sin. The Greek word for “innocent” corresponds to the Hebrew term tam. Noah is the first person in the Torah to be called such: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless (tam) in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). In the Tanach this term often refers to one who is upright and honest: “The integrity (tam) of the upright guides them” (Proverbs 11:3). In turn, to be “innocent” is to act with integrity. The Greek term also refers to someone who is gentle and harmless. If we are truly humble, we will act with full integrity, no matter what the circumstances or who is watching, knowing that God sees all, and we will seek good and not harm for all God’s creatures.
“Quiet” is the fourth character trait of humility. In Jewish thought, “silence” (shtikah) is one of the foremost virtues of a righteous individual. The great sage Shimon ben Gamliel used to say, “All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but deed; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin” (m.Avot 1:17). The wise man realizes that actions speak louder than words. Proverbs tells us that even those who are not wise can seem intelligent if they remain silent (Proverbs 17:28), which led the sages to say, “Silence is a fence to wisdom.” Cheshbon HaNefesh instructs, “Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: ‘What benefit will my speech bring me and others?’”  Being quiet helps us to exercise humility by listening to others, which places their needs before ours, and it helps us to realize that not everything we want to say is so important that it needs to be spoken.
The fifth character trait toward humility is being “good-natured.” Similarly, the Master is called “a good man,” and he likewise teaches, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35). In the New Testament this refers to one who is faithful to the LORD and his commandments, but it is also related to the concept of chesed (“loving-kindness”). The fullness of chesed is seen in acts of complete humility, in which one reaches out to help others while at the same time expecting nothing in return.
Trembling at the Word
Finally, this verse urges its audience to “always tremble at the words that you have heard.” Such language is reminiscent of the fear that came upon the Israelites as the Torah was given at Mount Sinai and the trembling that came upon the prophets as they encountered the words of God. The sages said that just as there was dread, fear, trembling, and quaking at the giving of the Torah, so it should be when we study Torah (b.Brachot 22a). Just as Yeshua took the Word of God seriously and said “not an iota, not a dot will pass” (Matthew 5:18), so should we study the Torah and the words of our Master with reverence and fear.
In Jewish ethical teaching the character trait of humility is considered to be “the root of the Divine service,” and from it flows all other godly character traits.  According to Judaism, one of the biggest aspects of humility is learning from others and constantly refining oneself. The Didache gives us a six-step program to help us progress on the path of humility and mold our image more into the likeness of Messiah.
- Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levin, Cheshbon HaNefesh: A Guide to Self-Improvement and Character Refinement (trans. Rabbi Shraga Silverstein; New York, NY: Feldheim, 1995), 165.
- Rabbi Gavriel Zaloshinsky, The Ways of the Tzaddikim (trans. Rabbi Shraga Silverstein; 2 vols.; New York, NY: Feldheim, 1996), 1:57.