What is humility? C. S. Lewis said it’s not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. But what does the Bible say about humility? How would you find out?
You could use a concordance, or run a search at BibleGateway. You’d find 60 – 100 verses (depending on your version). But there’s more to it than sticking all those verses together as a collage of humility. There’s a development in the theme as the Bible’s story unfolds. When Jesus arrives on the scene as God’s anointed Messiah, King of the kingdom, he’s such a contrast to earth’s power-grabbing rulers. God-in-a-manger is humility we’d never known.
Since themes like humility change as the Bible’s story develops, it’s a mistake to just pool all the verses into a flat reading. While God’s purposes don’t change, our understanding of them grows as more is revealed. Technically, theological themes develop over time: they tend to be diachronic, not synchronic.
It would also be a mistake to view Jesus as disconnected from or dissonant with the Old Testament (Marcion’s error). Jesus is the natural unfolding and fulfilment of all God was doing in previous times, the more complete revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-3).
So what we know of humility changes radically as the Bible’s story unfolds. John Dickson completed a PhD on the origin of humility as a virtue. Ancient Greek philosophers did not include humility in their list of virtues. Most ancient cultures (and many non-Western contemporary ones) were communal, so esteem was social currency. When a person was honoured, they brought honour on their community. When a person was shamed, they brought shame on their community. In those cultures, a lack of honour (humility) was not perceived as a virtue.
What changed? When did humility become a virtue? Dickson traces it back to the first century, when a dishonoured man — publicly disgraced by crucifixion — began to be worshipped as Lord of all. Read his conclusions in Humilitas (Zondervan, 2011).
After Jesus, we like to be considered humble, even though we don’t like being humiliated. That distinction was not clear in the Old Testament. In the honour/shame paradigm, humbling oneself is undesirable, but it’s better than being humiliated. In general, you chose to humble yourself only in the presence of someone who had greater honour.
So that’s how we should approach this verse, the first occurrence of humble in most English translations (NIV, ESV, NRSV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, CSB, GW, HCSB, …):
Exodus 10:3 (ESV)
So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.
Let me assure you that Pharaoh did not respond with, “Well, maybe I’ve been a bit proud lately. I might get more Facebook likes if I acted humble.” Pharaoh is the most honoured ruler of the entire region. He’s not used to ambassadors from another kingdom entering his presence and treating him as the little guy. But that’s exactly what Moses and Aaron have done.
Pharaoh has refused to recognize YHWH’s kingship over the Hebrew people. Moses’ message implies a threat: recognize the honour of the greater sovereign (humble yourself), before he shames you by demonstrating your powerlessness in front of everyone (humiliates you).
Truth is, Pharaoh has already been humiliated seven times, and Moses spells out how he’s about to be humiliated again (10:4).
In the Old Testament, humility means recognizing God’s authority, living in submission to his sovereignty. Pride is setting oneself up as the authority, living in rebellion against God’s sovereignty. When it’s framed like this, you can understand why some theologians have viewed pride as the foundational sin: grasping power that belongs in God’s hands causes violence and all manner of evil.
This framework makes the New Testament development even more astounding. How does the ruler of the universe deal with the rebels who resist his kingship? In Old Testament times, he certainly applied pressure on those, like Pharaoh, who refused to humble themselves before his authority. But in the New Testament, the eternal sovereign addressed the problem of proud rebels not by humiliating them, but by humbling himself before them!
Who could have guessed our sovereign would humble himself to resolve the problem of prideful subjects? This redefines everything:
Philippians 2:5-11 (Michael Gorman’s translation)
Cultivate this mindset in your community, which is in fact a community in Christ Jesus, who, though being in the form of God, did not consider his equality with God as something to be exploited for his own advantage, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, that is, by being born in the likeness of human beings.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the title that is above every title, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s humility. Our true sovereign laid aside his honour, to reconcile with the rebels who refused to honour him. That’s the humility that ends the hostility. Peace comes in his great name, his humble name.