Self-humbling is a grace beyond our own grasp. It’s a blessing we await, not achieve. God is the one who takes the first and decisive action in mercifully humbling his people. And yet he has not left us only to wait in silence. In fact, he wants to hear our voice. He invites us to have his ear.
Various habits of life can bend our souls toward humility and form instincts that shape us to gladly receive God’s severe mercies when they come. One is welcoming God’s word in Bible reading and meditation, and sitting attentively under faithful preaching.
However, the cycle of preparation for self-humbling lies incomplete without the counterpart to welcoming his voice — namely, appealing for his help in prayer.
In one sense, we are accenting here the importance of prayer in all its many shades and modes — from adoration, to confession of sin, to expression of gratitude, to petitioning him for our daily bread, to interceding for others. All prayer cultivates in us a general sense of dependence on God; however, when we know ourselves especially desperate, and appeal to God for rescue in the face of some looming threat, we experience an intensity that the Scriptures connect to self-humbling.
To appeal to God for rescue moves us beyond the casual requests that pour forth from our casual lives. It’s one thing to put together a wish list; it’s quite another to beg for deliverance from life-threatening danger. We most humble ourselves in prayer when we appeal to God for what is plainly beyond our ability to produce. We feel stuck. We are desperate. We have come to the end of ourselves and our resourcefulness. And in our appeal to him is a more profound acknowledgment of his highness and our lowness, his strength and our weakness, his omnipotent ability and our human inability, his holiness and our humility.
The theme of self-humbling is a major emphasis in 2 Chronicles. This was the season of Israel’s great humbling. Often God humbled his people quite apart from their welcoming it. For instance, under Ahaz, “the Lord humbled Judah because of Ahaz king of Israel, for he had made Judah act sinfully and had been very unfaithful to the Lord” (2 Chronicles 28:19).
However, at key junctures, the people, led by a righteous king, humbled themselves by seeing and acknowledging God’s humbling work. Once God had acted to humble them, then the question came: Would they receive his humbling? Would they humble themselves? Or would they kick and squirm? Would they fight back against his humbling hand, or write it off as random or merely unfortunate? Or would they see and acknowledge God at work in it and kiss the wave, as many have said, that had thrown them against the Rock of Ages?
From the height of the kingdom under Solomon, to the utter depths of decimation under Babylon, God’s humbling hand was received, notably at points, with self-humbling — by Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 12:6–7, 12), by Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 28:19; 30:11; 32:26), and by Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:27). At other times, his humbling was rejected, demonstrated perhaps most starkly by Zedekiah who “did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 36:12).
Maybe the most often-quoted text today on self-humbling, though, is the first mention of this theme in 2 Chronicles. After Solomon had completed the temple, and offered his great dedicatory prayer, God appeared to him and said, “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice” (2 Chronicles 7:12). Then come the words many of us have heard time and again (even if the initial when clause is omitted):
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:13–14)
Not if there is no rain someday, but when. And when God sends locusts and pestilence. The days of humbling will come. The nation will decline in time, and God will act, in response to their sin, with drought and famine and disease, to make the people freshly desperate. And in those times, self-humbling will mean prayer — his people appealing to him for help. Humble yourselves and pray and seek my face and turn from your wicked ways.
In such moments, self-humbling requires turning from the path of pride that is leading to destruction, and turning to the face of God in prayer. And those who are most ready to hit their knees in desperate times will be those who have learned the habit of bowing even in the best of times.
King Manasseh’s story is an extraordinary glimpse into the depths of God’s grace, and the role of prayer in self-humbling. His life reminds us that the narrowness of the path of humility is due to the hardness of human hearts, not any lack in the breadth of God’s mercy.
Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. (2 Kings 21:11–12)
Even once the good king Josiah had come to the throne, and implemented extensive reforms, the depth of national depravity under Manasseh could not be overcome, however much Josiah tried (2 Kings 23:26). And when Babylon came to destroy Jerusalem, God ties it explicitly to Manasseh: “Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done” (2 Kings 24:3).
But oh, the mercy of God! Even for one so wicked as Manasseh, one who had so plainly “led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray” (2 Chronicles 33:9). When God “brought upon [his people] the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon,” Manasseh, in his desperation, turned to God in prayer:
When he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God. (2 Chronicles 33:12–13)
This ungodly king, depraved as he had been, appealed to God in desperation — in the self-humbling act of prayer. At long last, he had come to the end of himself and his own resources and power. Now he was willing to admit he needed God’s rescue, and he pleaded in desperation.
And even for such a wicked man, God opened his ear. God stood ready to be “moved by his entreaty” — even when he knew it would be short-lived. Soon enough, his son Amon would come to the throne, “and he did not humble himself before the Lord, as Manasseh his father had humbled himself” (2 Chronicles 33:23).
For those of us in Christ, we have all the more reason, in our desperation, to hit our knees and plead for help in the wideness of God’s mercy. If God heard Manasseh, then how much more will he hear my self-humbling cries in Christ and send his rescue in his perfect way and time? How much more for those of us who now have the Great High Priest, able to sympathize with our weakness, bidding us “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14–16)?
Prayer is a sacred act for humbled humans. In prayer, we turn from being disillusioned with our own resources and strength. And if we are to learn well from Manasseh’s self-humbling (as his son did not), we will not wait until we are in dire straits to turn Godward and appeal for divine help. We will make it a pattern now.
Humility in the worst of times grows out of prayerful desperation in the best of times. For those of us who are under the delusion that we are strong, prayer makes little sense, especially as a pattern of life. But when we freshly realize our weakness, we find that the New Testament’s emphasis on unceasing prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is not a burden but an unparalleled offer.
Because we are so needy, what grace to learn that we can “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). That God does not tire of our pleas or close his ears to us, but we can “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2). That we need not “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Not only do we have Christ interceding for us, but also his Spirit, who “helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). When we know our desperation, and the nearness of our Lord and his Helper, how can we not be among those who delight to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18)?
Don’t wait till God’s humbling hand descends. Walk the path today, on your knees. Mark now the trail to heaven. Learn to look Godward as a reflex, long before your great humbling comes. And when it does, under God, you’ll be ready.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.