The Roots of Humility

Old Testament

The Hebrew word for humble means: poor, afflicted, humble, meek. Translation is not a cut and dry process in which one Hebrew word equals one English word. Words represent concepts, and translators make choices about which nuance to emphasize depending on context and grammar. Consider these verses:

NIV Psalm 10:12 Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. (NAS, afflicted)

NIV Psalm 69:32 The poor will see and be glad– you who seek God, may your hearts live! (NAS, humble)

NAS Psalm 22:26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; Those who seek Him will praise the LORD. Let your heart live forever! (NIV, KJV, poor)

NAS Psalm 149:4 For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.

NAS Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted

NIV Amos 2:7 They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed

NIV Zephaniah 3:12 But I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD.

There is definitely a sense in the Old Testament that the humble are those afflicted, needy, or oppressed. To be humble is to be barren, without, lacking. In some cases, that without is physical, such as with the afflicted, the poor – they are without provision, safety, justice, and peace, and often at the hands of enemies. In other cases, the without is spiritual, as in being without pretense, arrogance, haughtiness, as in the prophecy of Zephaniah when God promises to leave a remnant of his people who are humble and trust in him.

New Testament

In the New Testament, a group of eight words (nouns, verbs, adjectives) convey humility. In Louw-Nida’s Greek lexicon these words are categorized under Moral and Ethical Qualities. English translations of these words are meek, humble, and lowly. [One Greek word literally means “poor in spirit”, (blessed are the poor in spirit) but this idiom could be translated as meek or humble of heart. Poor in spirit might lead one to believe a lack of spirit which is not the word’s connotation.] Consider these verses:

NIV Matthew 11:29 “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart (KJV, lowly in heart)

 NIV Luke 1:48 [Mary’s Song] “…for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” (KJV, low estate)

NAS Ephesians 4:2 “…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love…” (KJV, with all lowliness and meekness)

NIV James 4:6 “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” (Humble, juxtaposed to proud, implies a spiritual state of brokenness)

NIV 1 Peter 3:8 “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” (Humility is an important component of Christian fellowship, as in Eph. 4:2, above)

NIV 1 Peter 5:6 “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (We are to choose to be humble; humility requires action on our part).


  • Humble is a positional word. The humble are low, not high: low in pride, circumstances, pretense, health, or freedom.
  • To be humble is good. The humble are blessed, honored, lifted up (sweet irony), guided by the Lord, loved by him, protected, satisfied, saved, beautified…and much, much more!
  • Humility is either our choice, or sometimes forced upon us by circumstance. The first, God requires of us. The second, God ministers to us and delivers us.
  • Humbleness is an action word – we humble ourselves, we are humble to others. It’s part of Christian fellowship.

Join me this month as I explore these concepts more in-depth.


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