The Necessity of Humility – Proverbs 25:6-7
By: Northern Seminary
I took my seat in a crowded room of pastors. There were about eighty or one hundred present. The speaker we’d all gathered to hear was a ‘big name’ among church leaders, a man renowned as a pastor, a preacher, and a writer. His church held annual conferences, and people flocked from all over the country who wanted to learn from him how to lead their churches better. He was a mentor for many.
Next to me at that conference was a pastor I’d met a few times. As the noted speaker stepped on to the platform, my neighbor whispered: “Do you know him?” I whispered back, “I do – just a little.”
No sooner had I said that than I heard the platform speaker say, “Before I begin my address today, I would like to call on my good friend Alistair Brown to open the meeting with prayer.” I was completely caught by surprise, but smiled and got to my feet. As I did, the pastor next to me muttered, “I think you know him quite a lot!”
I had done nothing to draw attention to myself, but it was nice to be recognized and called on by the famous person at the front. Who doesn’t enjoy that experience?
One of the wise proverbs in scripture is a warning to make sure our experience is never the reverse of that one.
6 Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
7 it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.
This is teaching on humility and, in particular, being careful not to promote yourself to a place where you don’t belong.
Twice the New Testament uses one particular metaphor about humility. In Colossians 3:12 and 1 Peter 5:5 we’re told to clothe ourselves with humility. The imagery pictures our lives being surrounded with humility. I have a thick, long wool coat. On a cold day I love putting on that coat, fastening all the buttons and then the belt, and being really covered by that coat. I feel warm and secure no matter how low the temperature outside. Back in biblical times clothes were often real wrap-around garments. The main garment, the cloak, was almost the only thing they wore, but it covered everything. So the metaphor of ‘clothing yourself with humility’ is one of enveloping your whole self with a humble spirit, making humility the clothes that surround you as you go out into the world. Humility is that important as a quality.
There are three lessons on humility from verses 6 and 7 of Proverbs 25.
- Humility prevents self-promotion.
A few people take humility to extremes.
I am an admirer of William Carey who is often called the father of modern missions. Having founded the Baptist Missionary Society in Britain, he sailed for India in 1793 and had a remarkable career in cross-cultural mission just outside Calcutta.
What I don’t like are the words he instructed to be written on his grave stone in Serampore: “A wretched poor and helpless worm.” That self-description fitted with Carey’s Calvinism with its emphasis on the total depravity of sinful men and women. And Carey, despite his great gifts and immense achievements, wanted to boast of nothing except Christ. That’s laudable, but describing yourself as a worm is neither necessary nor appropriate for a child of the living God.
But self-degradation – putting yourself down – is not most people’s temptation. Lifting yourself up is far more prevalent. The proverb warns against that instinct to blow your own horn so everyone looks at you and thinks what a fine person you are.
People who do that risk two things:
Following an agenda centered on themselves rather than God’s priorities. Years ago I heard a wise, old preacher say: “More young preachers are ruined by success than failure.” He had seen them get puffed up with pride, and become more concerned about their image and importance than God’s glory and the gospel. That was a road to ruin. God will not be usurped by our pride.
Rejection by all those who don’t agree with their estimation of how important they are. The proverb describes the up and coming young man at the king’s court or a wedding feast hosted by the king, and he pushes himself right to the front, among the nobles. His ambition is his downfall. He has no right to be there and will be publicly humiliated when the king sends him to the back of the hall.
The Scottish poet of the 1700s, Robert Burns, wrote:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
Let me translate his Scots dialect: ‘If only we had the gift of seeing ourselves the way others see us.’
People focused on their own prominence easily lose touch with God’s plan, and they’ll soon find that others do not hold them in the high esteem they hold themselves. Their pride will be followed by a mighty and humiliating fall.
Humility prevents self-promotion.
- Humility saves us from pushing ourselves into a place we don’t belong.
The proverb warns against someone promoting themselves to a place right beside the king, only to be told to get to the back. Their wisdom, gifts, and experience were not enough to justify a front-row position in the king’s court.
Management and human resource literature describe the danger of people being promoted too high, to the point of incompetence. They’ve reached the level at which they fail. Previous promotions have been justified. They’ve moved from job to job up the corporate ladder, and they’ve done well at each stage. But the last promotion took them beyond their skill level, to their point of incompetence.
That problem isn’t one that happens only in a business context. It occurs in many quite ordinary ways. For example, imagine someone juggling three balls. He’s good! Then he’s thrown another one and now he’s juggling four balls. Marvelous! Then he’s tossed another – five! Another – six! Another – seven! Amazingly he’s still coping. It’s hard, but he’s doing it. Can he juggle more? Eight balls! Then nine balls! His eyes flick from side to side, his hands almost a blur. “Throw me the tenth!” he shouts. He catches that tenth ball, and for a second it merges in with the other nine. And then…? Then they all fall down, and he collapses with exhaustion, almost trembling with tension. He had reached the point of juggling incompetence.
That’s exactly the same phenomenon as promotion beyond ability in the workplace. Someone has done well. Others have noticed and given them more and more responsibilities. But then they step up to the level for which they don’t have the skills or knowledge. So they fail. They can’t do the work and they become weary and stressed. They’re miserable and those around them are disappointed. Possibly they’ll be fired.
Humility guards against that happening. The humble person isn’t driven by ambition or self-promotion.
And humility keeps us in our place in many contexts other than employment.
John decided he had a gift for preaching. He’d filled out a questionnaire about spiritual gifts. He liked preaching and apparently everyone thanked him when he preached. So he kept urging his pastor to let him preach, and his pastor either didn’t like to refuse John or the pastor liked a Sunday off.
John, unfortunately, was far from good at preaching. He was unable to organize his thoughts clearly. He had a gift for making simple things complex. He buried his listeners with details he’d read about but not understood from a book. And, to complete the preaching misery, John mumbled his words so people could hardly hear what he said.
John would speak for half an hour but no-one was listening after the first five minutes. Yet later, in an overdose of Christian politeness, people would say: “Thank you very much, John. That was lovely.” In John’s ears, that was a ringing endorsement of his preaching gift. The reality was very different. John’s ambition had tempted him into a role to which he was neither called nor for which was he gifted.
None of this is to teach that the only acceptable standard in life is perfection. There are people who are only moderately gifted in some areas, and they definitely should use their gifts from time to time. The proverb is about those who push themselves forward, further forward than their abilities or experience warrant, and therefore they risk being rejected.
The proverb’s wisdom is that each person should examine their motives, and seek loving and honest counsel about where their gifts lie. Humility will save us from pushing ourselves into places where we don’t belong.
- Humility allows God to use us as he chooses.
The proverb is saying: Let the king decide where we sit, what we do, what we achieve.
Translating that into how we can best serve God, humility emerges as a powerful ally.
- Humility helps us stay focused on what God has for us to do, and we stay content with the gifts God has given us.
- Humility allows us to work easily with others because we’re not trying to rival them. In rugby, when the ball goes over the sidelines, what follows is a lineout. Players from each team line up facing the person who will throw the ball back into play. Both teams then jump for the ball, and the player who reaches the highest and gets his timing just right will win the ball for his team. Now, the temptation – and certainly against the rules – is to lean on your opponent’s shoulder at the moment the ball is thrown in! That kind of cheating gives a player two advantages: he lifts himself even higher while simultaneously pushing his opponent down.
Humility stops us doing that in ordinary life. We don’t claim the glory when it should be shared. We don’t put others down so we look better. We don’t exploit another person’s weaknesses.
So, humility makes a powerful difference. We work easily alongside others because we don’t threaten them. They know we want their success as much as our own. We’re great team members. We get things done together. Humility is the critical key for any team to succeed.
- Humility concentrates our attention on what God has for us to do. We don’t get distracted by what we like, or what would bring us fame or fortune. Someone said: “It is remarkable what God can do through someone who does not care who gets the glory.”
The ancient world was no different from our modern world. The same sins came to the fore, one of which was aggressive ambition. The antidote was and is humility.
In Romans 12 Paul writes: “…think of yourself with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3). In other words, don’t think higher and don’t think lower about yourself than reasonable judgment indicates is right.
Using that principle, recognize your calling, your gifts and your role, and then pursue these things with all your heart. There is nothing wrong with that.
But the warning by the writer of Proverbs is “Don’t push yourself forward.” It may be that the King of all kings will call you to a new and high place in his purposes. If so, accept that calling but with humility, serve well and give him the glory.
 From Burns’ poem To a Louse, probably written around 1785. ‘Louse’ is the singular of ‘lice,’ and Burns had seen the offending insect on the head of the lady seated in front of him in church!