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?