Early in the book of Proverbs, we hear Solomon urging readers–represented in the form of his ‘son’ (see 1:8, 10, 15, etc.)–to pay attention, to heed his wise words. Among his counsel? God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Prov 3:34). It’s a good word, and true–but not one under which Solomon himself will live. Instead, this gifted king will squander resources showered on him by God.
But we need not discount words and wisdom simply because they come from flawed people. Here, in this reminder and exhortation about God opposing and giving, we’re exposed to deep magic. Want to know how the world fashioned by God works? This line of Solomon offers insight.
The proud–the self-serving, that is–may think they will advance. And, to be sure, they do–at least in terms that are meaningful in the worlds they inhabit. But these successes do not last, and God’s ‘opposition’ to the proud (be it obvious or subtle) comes clear, sooner or later. Humility, on the other hand: what comes of that?
The OT prophet Zechariah offers a response, describing a king who approaches, “gentle, and riding…on a colt, on the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9). To juxtapose “king” with “gentle” (and maybe “foal”) is more than a brilliant rhetorical device, however. Zechariah has seen into the heart of humility, and personified it. Later, the Gospels will tell us that Zechariah’s king is Jesus.
The proud want to call attention to themselves, to boast of accomplishments, industry, ability, quality, to puff out their chests by sucking all the air from the room. But this is futile, and short-lived.
Think of it: did anyone have more bullet points under their name than Jesus, God incarnate? Was anyone before or after Him more qualified for or deserving of such attention? And yet, He refuses to call for the spotlight, resists press releases, eschews attention. Indeed, that which qualified Him for such attention becomes for Him motivation not to mount a pedestal, but to carry a cross.
“He humbled Himself,” Paul says, in that passage we will read over and again as Lent segues into Holy Week, “and became obedient to death” (Philippians 2). Obedient to death? Such a curious phrase, such a troubling idea. Pride is all about living it up, all about look at me now. Humility takes a different path.
Solomon started so well. His prayer during the Temple’s dedication, his request of God for wisdom over wealth, his pursuit of beauty, his fascination with creation–all these suggest a heart in tune with God and satisfied with what would fall from God’s hand. But he wandered from a Godward life, taking up his own fancies, and experienced the opposition all who are proud face.
Solomon’s heir–great David’s greater son–did not succumb, even though His resources far exceeded those of Solomon. He chose rather to serve others, to ‘humble himself under God’s mighty hand’, in Peter’s language. As a result? Grace.
We think of grace as a motivation for action, and surely this is an important part of it. But grace also describes a quality, a characteristic, almost a resource that one has, or can be given. That seems to be Peter’s idea here, as he writes to those facing uncertainty and threats; he’s telling them that by giving up on themselves, they are in a position to receive grace (God opposes the proud but gives grace [and does not merely show it] to the humble)–as was the case even for Jesus.
Another prophet–Elisha–told a woman, suddenly bereft and burdened by poverty, to collect jars. Once that was done, Elisha instructed her to pour from the one flask of oil she had. This she did, and soon every vessel, to say nothing of her own heart, was filled with what would bring life. The story thrills us for its miraculous provision, for the surprise of rescue for a widow otherwise cast on dire straits. It’s also a picture of grace this prophet paints, which fills the space humility creates.
Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!