Behold, your king is coming to you . . . humble and mounted on a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
God commands us to be humble. “Seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3). “Put on . . . humility” (Colossians 3:12). “Have . . . a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). Jesus’s promise that God will exalt the humble enjoins us to pursue it (Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). And his apostles too say, “Humble yourselves” (James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6).
And yet, humility, according to the regular testimony of Scripture, is not something we can just up and do. As we consider the positive examples of those who humbled themselves (from Josiah and Hezekiah to Rehoboam, Ahab, and Manasseh) — as well as the negative examples of those who did not (Pharaoh, Amon, Zedekiah, Belshazzar) — what becomes clear is that humbling first belongs to the hand of God. He initiates the humbling of his creatures. And once he has, the question confronts us: Will you receive it? Will you humble yourself in response to his humbling hand, or will you kick against the goads?
“Humble yourselves,” writes Peter, “under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6). First descends his humbling hand. Then the creature has his turn: God is humbling me. Will I embrace it? Will I humble myself?
Given this background, it is stunning to read about Christ in Philippians 2:8 — in perhaps one of the most striking assertions in all the Scriptures: “he humbled himself.” God himself, fully divine and fully human in the person of his Son, humbled himself. This is worth our slow meditation and our endless marveling.
But before we assume too much, let’s ask what humility is in biblical terms. Get that wrong and we might marvel for the wrong reasons. And then, with some biblical bearings in place, let’s see what’s so marvelous about our self-humbling Christ.
What Is Humility?
Fittingly, the first mention of humility in all the Bible comes in the escalating showdown between Egypt’s Pharaoh and Israel’s God, mediated through Moses.
Moses first dared to appear before Pharaoh in Exodus 5, and spoke on Yahweh’s behalf, “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1). To which Pharaoh replied, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Mark that. Pharaoh, swollen in pride, has miscalculated his status, as a creature, in relation to the Creator God. Through Moses, God speaks to Egypt’s head and calls for him to obey. And Pharaoh refuses.
Exodus 10:3 then describes this as a call to humility. After seven plagues, on the cusp of an eighth, God speaks to Pharaoh, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?” The piercing question, in the context of this extended power encounter, gives us this glimpse into the heart of humility: humility acknowledges and obeys the one who is truly Lord. Humility entails a right view of self, as created by and accountable to God, which requires a right view of God, as Creator and authoritative in relation to his creatures. Humility is not, then, preoccupied with self, and one’s own lowliness, but first mindful of and conscience of God, and his highness, and then of self in respect to him.
Is God Humble?
Put another way, humility embraces the reality that I am not God. Pride led to humanity’s fall when Adam and Eve desired to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5) contrary to his command. Humility would have obeyed his command — which is what we will see below in Christ.
Humility, then, is a creaturely virtue. It is a posture of soul and body and life that acknowledges and embraces the godness of God and the humanness of self. Which means that “Is God humble?” is a tricky question. The answer is no, but not because God is the opposite of what we would consider humble. He is not arrogant or prideful. Rather, humility is a creaturely virtue, and he is God. The essence of humility, we might say with John Piper, is “to feel and think and say and act in a way that shows I am not God.”
Which contributes to what makes us stand in awe as we read that the God-man, Jesus Christ, “humbled himself.”