I’m not sure what the folks who asked for a study of these terms were expecting. If they wanted something high-flown, mystical, or “super-spiritual”, they asked the wrong person: for these are very plain, down-to-earth words, and flights of fancy are not my specialty.
Although two of the three Greek words, peinao and dipsao, are occasionally used metaphorically of intense desire, craving or longing, the vast majority are purely physical references. The third, limos, without exception, describes scarcity of harvest, or famine related to drought – not a rare occurrence in the ancient (or modern) middle east – and the associated hardship and even starvation (Mt.24:7, Mk.13:8, Lk.4:25, 15:14, 17; 21:11; Ac.7:11, 11:28; Rom.8:35, II Cor.11:27, Rv.6:8, 18:8)
Of the 7 incidents (14 references) where “hunger” and “thirst” appear together, only one (II Cor.11:27) uses limos; and of the rest, only two (Mt.5:6 and Rv.7:16) admit the possibility of metaphorical interpretation.
Peinao, the more frequent word for “hunger”, usually refers to one’s physical need for food. After a lengthy fast, Jesus was hungry (Mt.4:2, Lk.4:2). Pursued by Saul’s army, David and his companions were hungry (Mt.12:3, Mk.2:25, Lk.6:3-11). However, the need described is not always urgent. Jesus and his disciples on the way to Jerusalem (they probably left before breakfast!) were looking for a snack (Mt.21:18, Mk.11:12). Walking through the grain field, the disciples got the “munchies” and helped themselves – which, according to Mosaic law, would have been perfectly ok on any other day.
Paul comments (I Cor.4:11, Phil.4:12) on his own experience of uncertain support during his travels, and reminds folks of their cultural obligation to provide necessities even for enemies (Rom.12:20). On a more domestic note, he criticizes selfish behavior at the “church potluck” (I Cor.11:21, 34).
Jesus’ judgment parable (Mt.25 and Lk.6) is a commendation of folks providing for the needs of others, and a critique of those who did not do so. Usually the issue of urgency is not addressed.
Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (Lk.6:21,25) confines the “beatitude” comment to physical hunger, in contrast to Mt.5:6.
Matthew’s insertion of “for justice [righteousness]” provides a transition to the four instances where peinao may have been used in a more metaphorical sense. These include Lk.1:53, where Mary declares, “He has filled the hungry with good things” – which certainly would have included, but not been confined to food; Jesus’ own statement in Jn.6:35, “He that comes to me shall never hunger” – which in the light of Paul’s experience noted above, probably requires metaphorical interpretation; and his triumphant declaration in Rv.7:16 of the eventual vindication of the martyrs surely reaches beyond the physical realm.
I suspect that it is this latter group of references that Paul had in mind when he wrote his “thank-you note” to the Philippian church for their support. For an accurate understanding of his intent, it is necessary to begin with Phil.4:11, rather than glibly and arrogantly trumpeting the much-misquoted v.13. Expressing gratitude for their concern, Paul also testifies, “I have learned to get along in any condition. I know how to be hard-up and how to handle plenty. I’ve been fully initiated, to be well-fed and to be hungry, to have plenty or to be in need. I have strength for every situation, in the One who enables me.”
Passages involving “thirst” contain a bit more ambiguity. Actually, the only ones referencing purely physical need of water are Rom.12:20, I Cor.4:11, the Mt.25 discussions already cited, and John’s account of Jesus’ word from the cross (19:28). John does not elaborate on the latter statement, as mystically inclined individuals are wont to do. Extreme thirst would not seem strange under the circumstances.
Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (Jn.4:13-15) thoroughly blurs the line between literal and figurative reference, as do his comments in Jn.6:35, 7:37, and Rev.7:16, 21:6, and 22:17. Even the immediate audiences did not always understand, so it’s small wonder if we don’t.
The woman in Samaria initially grasped at the prospect of no longer needing to make her lonely mid-day trek for water (v.15), and only after more conversation realized that this was the promised “Anointed One” with whom she was speaking, even though Jesus had explained that his “water” was different: life-giving, and abundant enough to be shared (13,14).
The focus in Jn.6:32-35 places more emphasis on the provision of bread, and includes “never being thirsty” almost as an afterthought.
Jn.7:37-39 clearly connects the “living water” with the gift of the Holy Spirit,which is also intended to “flow out”, and not to be hoarded for one’s private benefit.
In order to appreciate the metaphorical uses of “hunger” and “thirst”, it is necessary to remember that the setting of all this activity and conversation is in a desert culture. “Thirst” in the desert does not simply imply discomfort. One’s very survival is in question. Like “hunger” in a land where famine mercilessly stalks its victims, “thirst” is also a matter of dire necessity, and culturally, water, like shelter, is not to be denied, even to one’s enemy.
It is this sense of urgency which, I believe, Jesus intends to convey in that first “beatitude” regarding one’s longing for justice/righteousness. Remember (#3) that this is the same word, and not two different ideas! Mt.5:6 is the only reference where any object of the “hunger” or “thirst” is overtly specified. There is probably a reason – do you have any idea what it might be? (I don’t!)
But there is no ambiguity whatever in the Lord’s gracious offer.
In the desert, water is life. In this world and the next, both physically and figuratively, it is his gift to his people.
“They will no longer be hungry or thirsty; neither will the sun fall on them, nor any burning The Lamb in the midst of the throne will shepherd them, and he will be their guide to wells of living water.” (Rv.7:16,17).
“I will give to the thirsty from the spring of living water [water of life].” (Rv.21:6)
“The one who is thirsty must come – whoever wishes – he must take the living water as a gift!” (Rv.22:17).
Thanks be to God!