Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. – Matthew 23:12
In the kingdom of God, down is up, and up is down. It is quite opposite of this world, where those who seek success and exaltation often scratch their way to the top. They boast of themselves and their accomplishments, use others as stepping stones, and crush their enemies without mercy. But it is not so in the kingdom of God. Those who are least are regarded as the greatest, and those who serve are those who lead.
Jesus demonstrated this well when He stooped down to wash His disciples’ feet. The washing of feet was an undesirable job that was left to the lowest servants of the house. This is why Peter exclaimed, “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” He recognized that Jesus was the Lord of heaven. How could the Master do the humble work of a servant? But the lesson that Jesus was teaching was of the utmost importance in scripture: He who desires to go up must first go down.
Going down is no one’s desire. As we grow older, we desire to be more respected, make more money, have a higher social status, a nicer house, a better car, and so on. We want better positions at work, more authority, and better conditions. And no matter what age we are, or where we are in our lives, going down is never the direction we desire to go.
I think of Moses. He was raised in Pharaoh’s house. The Bible says that he was trained in all the wisdom of Egypt, and was mighty in word and deed (Acts 7:22). He thought for sure that God had exalted him to be the deliverer of his people. And why shouldn’t he be? Certainly, he would have been the best qualified of his people. He had been trained in wisdom, in war, in speech. Who else among his people had such qualifications? Yet at age 40 he was not ready. He had to go ‘down’ for another 40 years, living as a lowly shepherd in the wilderness. It was only after those years of humiliation that he was ready to be exalted.
And think of Joseph, who had lofty dreams about being the leader of his family. It was only after being thrown in a pit, then sold to slavery, then assigned to prison, that he was ready to be exalted as savior of both Egypt and his people. He had to go down, way down before he went up.
And consider David, anointed as king as a teenager, but not seeing the full fruition of his calling until age 30. During those years he humbled himself as a servant to Saul, and as a fugitive on the run. And when he had the chance to kill Saul and take his revenge, he refused. All of history is full of examples of those who would readily kill to take their place as king, but David would not. God’s timing is perfect, and David humbled himself until God’s time of exaltation came.
I’d like to now consider two things in regard to our text:
- God humbles those that exalt themselves.
- God exalts those that humble themselves.
God humbles those that exalt themselves.
To ‘humble’ means to bring low. This passage thus indicates that those who lift themselves up shall be brought low. This is a universal principle without exception. Every single person who exalts themselves will eventually be brought low. And if God has been so merciful as to begin that process in you, count yourself blessed, for if you have been brought low by God, and if that has brought you to a place of humility and repentance, then God means to do you good. But those who continue in an exalted state should fear greatly, for they are only rising higher that they might fall harder. We see this in Pharaoh, to whom God said, “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Pharaoh was an instrument of God, and his exaltation was not for his good. He could have humbled himself before God, but he would not. Instead, he hardened his heart. Therefore, God chose him as a vessel of wrath. He exalted him so that He might demonstrate His power. He was raised up so that he might fall greatly.
It is for this reason that we should never envy the people of this world who rise to high prestige and power. Who knows if God is allowing them to exalt themselves so they might fall? Perhaps He has spoken to them and they have hardened their hearts. They responded in pride and refused to listen, just like Pharaoh. Their exaltation is not for their good, but for evil. ‘Their foot shall slip in due time,’ and they shall be brought very low. They shall serve only as an example of what the godly should never do.
We need not look far in history to see examples of this over and over again. How many men and women who were greatly exalted perished in infamy? How many stars were snuffed out early? How many misers died in misery? And this is only what we see, for God brings them low into the depths of hell.
Be afraid if you have been exalted, if everyone likes you, if success comes easily. Be afraid if you have not been humbled like all God’s people are. Be afraid if you have not humbled yourself, for you will be humbled. And be particularly afraid if you are exalted above all the others around you, for your fall will be the greatest. God humbles those who exalt themselves. There is no exception.
God exalts those who humble themselves
The second part of this verse is the fact that God exalts the humble. This refers to the initiative that God takes to lift up the lowly into high places. When a person recognizes their deep sinfulness, their helplessness, and their need for God, then God sees to it that they are lifted up to a state of exaltation.
This is well illustrated by our Lord in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee boasted of his religiosity and bragged about his accomplishments. But the tax collector would not even lift up his head. He said, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus said that this man went down to his house justified, and the other did not. That is, God put His approval on the latter and his scorn on the former.
Perhaps the most striking case in the Bible regarding this is with the Judaean king Manasseh. He was the most evil king of the southern kingdom of Judah. He was of the house and lineage of David. But he did not walk in David’s footsteps. Instead, he gave himself to idolatry, witchcraft, and much evil in the sight of the Lord. He even sacrificed his son through the fire to the abominable idol Molech. In fact, the scripture says that he ‘seduced Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations who the Lord had destroyed before them.’
So God sent his righteous judgment upon him. The Assyrians took him with hooks, bound with chains, and carried him to Babylon. But while he was there, something remarkable happened:
Now when he was in affliction, he implored the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. – 2 Chronicles 33:12
This account of king Manasseh strikes me deeply. How could a man so evil, who led astray the people of God so much, be forgiven by God? The only answer is that God treats no man differently from another, whether he is a king or a peasant. If that man humbles himself, God will lift him up. And we see that Manasseh did just that. As he lay bound in prison, chained up in the filth of the dungeon, the Bible says that he ‘humbled himself GREATLY.’ What that looked like, we don’t know for sure. But we can assume that he accepted his punishment as just. It is likely that he had little hope of ever coming out of there, but he repented anyway. He wept before the Lord, remembering now all the words of the prophets who had warned him of this judgment. He thought about the stories of the great kings before him, like Hezekiah, and David, who served the Lord faithfully. He finally recognized all the evil that he had done, leading so many astray. I can only think that he spent much time weeping. And I’m sure he prayed to God, “If there is any way you can get me out of here, I will do everything in my power to make things right.” And the Bible says that God heard his supplication, and brought him back to his kingdom in Jerusalem.
Now we must consider this in the light of our own lives. What are we striving to obtain? Are we seeking great things for ourselves, or are we seeking to be a greater servant? Are we doing everything we can to lift ourselves up, to make ourselves look good, to acquire power and status? Or are we, like Jesus, seeking only to be obedient, even to the point of death? (see Philippians 2:5-11)
I fear that far too many Christians and Christian ministers are not seeking those things which are of Jesus Christ, but their own interests (Philippians 2:21). It’s too easy to turn our eyes upon ourselves and our own interests. We are naturally predisposed to do such things, and the world tells us that to do otherwise is foolish. So we must daily check the motives of our hearts. Why are we doing what we are doing? Is it for recognition? Is it for worldly gain? Is it to feel better about ourselves? Or is it done out of true motives?
We must also think about this in regard to our church. Are we fulfilling the purpose that Christ has for His church? Or are we simply seeking a comfortable place where we can fellowship with our friends and hear a message to make us feel better about ourselves? Our purpose is to glorify God, to be instructed in the Word of God, to encourage and strengthen each other, and to reach the lost. We must not stray away from that calling. We must serve rather than be served.
The Bible promises us that if we take that low path, God will lift us up in due time (1 Peter 5:5-6). If we are exalted at all, we want it to be because God has exalted us. For when He exalts, it produces great good for the kingdom of God.