Monday, December 22, 2008

0 The Pride of Uzziah, the Humility of Isaiah

Phrases stick in the head from youth - and the title, "Pride Goeth Before a Fall" somehow is lodged in there from my first bible, a KJV, from my childhood. In this morning's reading from the M'Cheyne Calendar that I use for daily reading, Uzziah, king of Judah, was struck in the midst of his power:
But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.” Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the Lord had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord. And Jotham his son was over the king's household, governing the people of the land. (2 Chronicles 26:16-21, ESV)
As the dictum from Solomon in Prov. 16:18 goes, indeed; the prideful heart is ripe for a fall. Pridefulness, it seems to me (knowing plenty about it) gives one a sense of invincibility, that one can do anything with impunity. It happened that Uzziah thought it right at the peak of his power to enter into the temple to usurp the role of God's ordained servants, the priests - and upon his doing so, he was caught and struck by the Lord with the wasting disease universally (and specifically for the Jews) despised - leprosy. He was instantly unclean, and was, as the divine record tells us, unclean to the end of his days. He died unable ever to enter into the temple again, and to be regarded as clean among the people of God. What a fearful thing to have happened... but what a fitting punishment.

As I read this passage this morning, I was (as many are, I'm sure) reminded of the passage from Isaiah 6, wherein this man's reign and death was used by the prophet as a time-stamp of sorts (at least that's the way I've always thought of it). He writes,
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:1-6, ESV)

I wonder whether there's more than a mere time-stamp here, dating this vision of Isaiah's to the year of Uzziah's death. It's interesting to ponder the connections. Uzziah, disgraced head of Judah, is ceremonially unclean, punished with leprosy to the end of his days because of pride.

In this last year of Uzziah's life, Isaiah is given this grand vision of the Lord in His temple, and of His marking out and cleansing by the gracious and monergistic act of God. Isaiah recognizes his uncleanness, and that of his people (and, most intimately connected with that I am sure, the uncleanness deriving from that of his king) before the Lord. He cries out in a cry that should be upon ALL of our lips - "Unclean! (as the lepers were required by the Law to say) Unclean! Woe is me, I am undone, for I am unclean!" The Lord graciously gives him a sign of his cleansing, by the coal from the altar, carried by His servant the seraph - and thenceforth comes the well-remembered request by God, "whom shall I send?" And we know the rest of the story.

More than a simple marker of time, I do think that Isaiah's mention of Uzziah's death sets a proper context for his reaction to his vision of the presence of the Lord. How keenly he felt his own uncleanness, and certainly that sensitivity was aided by the state of affairs in Judah under their disgraced king. I don't want to go farther than is warranted - but the image is certainly striking and has given me pause to meditate on the glorious nature of God's salvation of people touched with and stung by the sin of pride and its effects.



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