When God judges Israel, he throws the world clock into reverse and makes time run backwards. In one afternoon, Saul and his sons die, while the Philistines drive Israel from their cities and enslave some of the Israelites (1 Chron. 10). Conquest and exodus are reversed, as Israel loses land and freedom. David arrives on the scene as a new Moses, Solomon as a new Joshua.
A similar reversal happens at the end of the monarchy. Nebuchadnezzar invades, breaks the walls of Jerusalem, burns the temple, and takes the people of Judah into exile. Israel ends where she began, in exile, awaiting another Moses who eventually takes the surprising shape of Cyrus the Persian.
This literary-historical pattern takes a more complex shape in the Chronicler’s account of Uzziah (2 Chron. 26). Uzziah’s reign encompasses exodus and reverse-exodus, conquest and expulsion.
By comparison with previous generations, Uzziah—whose name means “Yah is my strength”—is a breath of fresh air. Crowned at sixteen, he does right and “seeks” the Lord. Led by the visionary Zechariah, he embarks on an ambitious plan of conquest, building, defense, and development. During his father’s reign, Joash of Israel “burst through” the walls of Jerusalem; under Uzziah, Judah “bursts through” the walls of the Philistine cities of Gath, Jabneh, and Ashdod. Uzziah doesn’t even have to fight the Ammonites. They see what he does to the Philistines, and they pay tribute (26:8).
No army in Israel’s history is as well equipped as Uzziah’s, each warrior being issued a sevenfold panoply of offensive and defensive arms (26:14). The battlements of Jerusalem are fitted with cunning “engines of war” (the Hebrew repeats the same root three times—“designed-things designed by designers”) that shoot arrows and huge stones from the walls (26:15). Uzziah’s “name” spreads as far as the “brook of Egypt” (26:8). No king since Solomon has matched Uzziah’s reputation.
Uzziah liberates Israel and reconquers land, but just at the climax of his strength (26:15–16), things fall apart. Uzziah’s success makes his heart “strong,” so that he commits a sacrilege, the same kind of sin that doomed Saul (1 Chron. 10:13–14). The Chronicler reinforces the catastrophe with a pun: At his height, Uzziah is “exalted” (Hebrew ma’alah). He falls because he commits a ma’al.
Specifically, Uzziah tries to burn incense in the temple, an act of worship reserved for priests. Whatever his motives, Uzziah is strictly prohibited from entering the “sanctuary,” God’s space, which is open only to consecrated descendants of Aaron.
Eighty priests surround Uzziah, but they don’t have to do anything. Just as the king is ready to offer incense, the Lord “touches” his forehead with the stroke of leprosy, a mark of impurity in the very place where the high priest wears his golden crown. Terrified, Uzziah hurries from the temple.
Uzziah experiences a personal de-exodus and un-conquest. Made permanently unclean by one of the Egyptian plagues, he can’t worship in the temple courts. He can’t return to his own palace, but lives in a separate house. His son Jotham takes over his royal responsibilities. Even in death, he is excluded: He is buried with his fathers, but not in the city of David. Seizing a privilege that is not his, Uzziah repeats the sin of Adam, and his life limps to its end in a series of Adamic exclusions. He rises only to fall. Because of a solitary act of pride, his life-clock ticks backwards.
Pride and humility are the hinges of Israel’s history and the personal histories of Israel’s kings. 2 Chronicles 7:14—one of the few memory verses people take from this book—is key: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray, I will heal their land.” Rehoboam humbles himself, and the Lord preserves Jerusalem. Wicked Manasseh humbles himself, and the Lord gives him a reprieve. Uzziah becomes proud, and so the king who fights and rules like David ends his life as pathetically as Saul.
We may think progress requires resolute pride. We make progress by surging forward and seizing opportunities, damn the consequences. Humility, being timid, inhibits progress. The cautionary tale of Uzziah shows that this is an illusion. Pride turns the clock back, while humility opens a fresh future. Pride is regressive, and the humble are the true progressives.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.