Humility is not self-taught. Try as we might, we don’t just up and humble ourselves by our own bootstraps.
Within measure, we can take certain kinds of initiatives to cultivate a posture of humility in ourselves, but the main test (and opportunity) comes when we are confronted, unsettled, and accosted, in the moments when our semblances of control vanish and we’re taken off guard by life in a fallen world — and the question comes to us:
How will you respond to these humbling circumstances? Will you humble yourself?
Humility Received, Not Achieved
God takes the initiative in producing humility in his people. Whether or not we will “humble ourselves,” then, comes in response to the humbling hand above.
Alongside pondering the postures and means we can cultivate — as in daily humbling ourselves under the authority of God’s word, and humbling ourselves by obeying his words, and humbling ourselves by coming desperately to him in prayer, and humbling ourselves in fasting — we need to know that humbling ourselves is first and foremost responsive to God, not of our own initiative.
“It is never virtuous to doubt God’s goodness and justice. We have never been treated unfairly by God.”
In such situations, when we find ourselves humbled — whether through God’s word, or becoming newly aware of some pattern of sin in us or some way we have not measured up, or some circumstances or event in life that lays us low — what might it mean to humble ourselves, looking with faith to the promise of God’s lifting us up in his perfect timing? Consider the self-humbling moments of three Old Testament kings — two Israelites, one Babylonian, two positive examples, one negative — and what we might glean for our time when it comes.
1. Receive the humbling of God, and repent.
God not only means for us to know ourselves to be sinners in general, but also specifically. And in his severe mercy, he runs the world in such a way as to expose, in new ways, the specific sins of his people. In doing so, he calls us to admit particular times we have been on the wrong path and need to change course. The word for it is repentance.
Such repentance is a form of self-humbling, as demonstrated in the life of King Josiah. When Hilkiah the high priest found the lost Book of the Law in the temple and brought it to the king, Josiah tore his clothes in distress as he became newly aware of how he and his people were out of step with God’s directives (2 Kings 22:11). Josiah sent to inquire of God, through the prophetess Huldah, who commended his self-humbling in the form of his repentant heart and the acts that followed:
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. (2 Kings 22:18–19)
“In this is humility — not that we have humbled ourselves, but that God, in his mercy, took the initiative to humble us first.”
Josiah’s repentance is recounted again in 2 Chronicles 34, with an emphasis on the king hearing God’s words and then appropriately responding (called “self-humbling”) with a tender heart and torn garments: “because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord” (2 Chronicles 34:27). As we’ll see, this is not the only emphasis on self-humbling in 2 Chronicles.
2. Declare him to be right — always.
When life’s circumstances and events conspire to lay us low, we may be tempted to doubt God’s goodness and justice. The test of self-humbling in these moments, as we see in King Rehoboam, is whether we arrogantly point the finger at God, instead of humbly evaluating our own hearts and lives, and declaring — for our own souls and for anyone else in earshot — that God is righteous.
It is never virtuous to doubt God’s goodness and justice. We need to know, and be reminded, that we have never been treated unfairly by God. No creature ever has been mistreated by the Creator. Never has he done you or anyone else wrong. He is not unjust, and never will be unjust to you. And if we ever find ourselves suspecting him to be in the wrong, we can know that we ourselves are out of line, not him.
It’s one thing, however, to steady and correct our own souls. It’s another to vocalize it.
Humility Lost and Found
Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, came to the throne in seeming strength and security, but he was off his guard, and soon went soft spiritually. “When the rule of Rehoboam was established and he was strong, he abandoned the law of the Lord, and all Israel with him” (2 Chronicles 12:1).
God’s gracious humbling then came when Shishak king of Egypt “took the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 12:4). It is humbling, to say the least, to have a foreign army march on your capital. The newfound threat to Jerusalem, and his own life, awakened Rehoboam to his folly, and God sent the prophet Shemaiah to make God’s purpose plain:
Shemaiah the prophet came to Rehoboam and to the princes of Judah, who had gathered at Jerusalem because of Shishak, and said to them, “Thus says the Lord, ‘You abandoned me, so I have abandoned you to the hand of Shishak.’” (2 Chronicles 12:5)
In this instance, the king and his counselors “humbled themselves” by declaring God to be in the right, and this judgment to be owing to their own sin, rather than divine injustice or unfaithfulness:
Then the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “The Lord is righteous.” When the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah: “They have humbled themselves. I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance, and my wrath shall not be poured out on Jerusalem by the hand of Shishak.” (2 Chronicles 12:6–7)
First, God acted to humble Rehoboam and his kingdom. Then, in his humbling, the king was presented with the moment of decision: Will I humble myself before God, or resist in pride? Will I welcome his severe awakening, or kick against this kindness?
Rehoboam humbled himself by declaring God to be in the right, and “when he humbled himself the wrath of the Lord turned from him, so as not to make a complete destruction” (2 Chronicles 12:12).
3. Learn from the humbling of others.
Finally, one other regal example is instructive for us who desire to be more humble and yet admit our inability to up and do it for ourselves. This time the example is negative.
In the case of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, the humbling he should have learned from was not his own but that of his (grand)father, Nebuchadnezzar. Swollen with pride, Belshazzar brought out “the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem” (Daniel 5:2) for debaucherous use.
“Humbling ourselves is first and foremost responsive to God, not of our own initiative.”
When the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the wall, and the king himself saw the hand as it wrote, his color changed with alarm. His own magi could not interpret the words, but the queen remembered Daniel, who was summoned to the king’s aid. Before giving his interpretation, Daniel reminded Belshazzar of his grandfather, whom God humbled, and what it should have meant to Belshazzar:
When his [Nebuchadnezzar’s] heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him. He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will. And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. (Daniel 5:20–23)
God’s humbling of Nebuchadnezzar was not only a lesson for him, but also for his kingdom, and for his progeny — and not just his contemporaries but even his grandsons. But this grandson didn’t take notice, and it was too late. “That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed” (Daniel 5:30).
Learning from God’s humbling of others is vital for each of us, and not just in our own day but in the generations before us. God not only means to humble us all individually — and he has his countless ways of doing so in the tough mercies of his providence — but he also means for us to humble ourselves in response to seeing others humbled, both around us and before us. Wisdom not only humbles herself when prompted by her own humbling, but also in response to the humbling of others.
God is the one who does the humbling, and he will get the glory for it. In this is humility — not that we have humbled ourselves, but that God, in his mercy, took the initiative to humble us first. Yet, he invites us to welcome his work and participate in the process through the self-humbling of repenting, declaring him righteous, and learning from the humbling of others.