Here’s something to file under “weird but true”: “Humble” and “oppressed” are the same word in the Bible. We don’t usually think of these two concepts as having anything to do with each other. Yet when Israel is “enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” in Egypt, it’s the same term used as when Israel is called to “humble [their] souls” before God (Gen. 15:13; Lev. 16:29, emphasis added). How are these two ideas related? A humble person puts others first, which Jesus took a step further by laying down His life for us. An oppressed person is afflicted, mistreated, and persecuted. At first glance, these two people seem to have nothing in common, so let’s take a closer look to uncover the connection.
When we humble ourselves before God, we’re bending our life toward His authority and goodness, giving ourselves fully to Him.
Put in Our Place
The Hebrew term for “humble” is anah, and it basically means “to be bowed down.” So this word invokes an image of someone with his head lowered, like a subject bowing before a king. When we humble ourselves before God, we’re bending our life toward His authority and goodness, giving ourselves fully to Him.
If you raise yourself up with pride, however, it’s like refusing to bow in the presence of the king. When Pharaoh stands arrogantly against God, for example, and afflicts His people, God asks, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go” (Ex. 10:3).
Pharaoh continues to dig his heels in, so God serves him up a slice of humble pie.
“Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled,” Jesus tells us, “and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). Jesus is not inventing this idea out of thin air; it’s a major theme throughout the Bible. Pride and humility are often contrasted with one another. Consider these examples from Proverbs:
“A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23).
“When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2).
“Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, but humility goes before honor” (Prov. 18:12).
These things don’t just happen sometimes or by accident; God makes sure of it. It’s like that “whack-a-mole” game at arcades, where you wait for a robotic rodent to pop its head up out of the ground and then smack it back down. God scours the land for the haughty, and when we get “too big for our britches”—as Pharaoh did—God puts us back in our place.
Though God is exalted on high, the psalmist rejoices that “He regards the lowly, but the haughty He knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6). The proud may have their heyday now—in an age when the wicked often prosper while the righteous suffer—and God may be patient with their impertinence for a time. But He sees all and will eventually bring His justice to set things right.
Raising Valleys, Razing Mountains
The prophet Isaiah sees the raising up of valleys (the low places) and the lowering down of mountains (the high places), as an image of preparation for God’s arrival: “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Isa. 40:3-4). God raises valleys and razes mountains, humbling the proud and exalting the humble, as He comes to establish His justice in the world.
Of course, when Jesus arrives, this prophecy is fulfilled. Mary sings over the child in her womb, celebrating the Lord’s “mighty deeds” and anticipating the great things He will do: “He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:51-53).
When we bow before God, we’re willing to suffer for the greater good.
Jesus is the humble King. He describes Himself as “gentle” and “humble in heart,” a pairing of words that highlights His humility. As the One who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 11:29; Matt. 20:28), Jesus practiced what He preached. The Savior of the world “humbled himself,” Paul tells us, by “taking the very nature of a servant” and “becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.”
The story doesn’t end there, however. Because Christ humbled himself, Paul can pen the second half of his statement, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:7-9 NIV).
At the center of the gospel is a God who exalts the humble.
In the Footsteps of the Humble King
It’s been wisely said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” The goal of humility is not that we’d think poorly of ourselves or have low self-esteem. It’s rather that we would think highly of God and then rightly find ourselves before Him. As Proverbs 22:4 puts it, “Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life” (NIV). When we bow before God, bending our lives beneath His wisdom and character, we’re willing to suffer for the greater good. And it ironically lifts us up, as we are built up by His love and defined by His goodness.
What does this mean for us? As we follow in the footsteps of our King, the gospel regularly calls us to meekness. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand,” Peter urges us, “that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6 NIV). “Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” we’re told in Colossians, “forgiving each other … just as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:12-14). We are to take the lower place as Jesus did, and lest we forget why, James reminds us that “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
So let’s return to our original question: How are “humility” and “oppression” related? Both entail the image of having one’s head bowed down, though for very different reasons. Humility is when you assume the lower place on purpose. Oppression is when somebody pushes you there against your will. The afflicted held under the thumb of tyrants can take hope, for God is coming to topple the arrogant. And those who willingly choose the lower place in devotion to Jesus and are willing to endure hardship for others can also rejoice, knowing God will come in due time to raise us up.
Illustration by Adam Cruft