The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. … But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13a,14 (NIV)
Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. [2 Chronicles 30:8 (NIV)]
While editing photos of egrets, the beautiful birds with the flexible necks, I wondered about the origin of the metaphor “stiff-necked people,” often used in the Bible to describe the Israelites. Having had my share of stiff necks after spending hours in the car or at my desk, I was curious about this phrase. Used figuratively, “stiff-necked” means stubborn, inflexibly obstinate, and contumacious. For those who, like me, had no idea of the meaning of “contumacious”; it means flagrantly disobedient, rebellious or persistently refusing to obey a court order. In ancient times, “stiff-necked” was used to describe an obstinate ox. A plow was typically drawn by a team of two oxen and the plowman carried an “ox-goad” in one hand while he held the reins with the other. The goad was a pole with an iron spike on the end. The ploughman would prick the oxen on their rear legs to increase their speed and on their necks to make them turn. A “stiff-necked” ox would be one that, when poked by the prod, would keep his neck straight and refuse to turn. The term “stiff-necked” was appropriately used to describe the intractable spirit of the Hebrews, a people unwilling to respond to the commands of their God.
Stiff-necked – stubborn, unmanageable, demanding, obstinate, headstrong, willful, pig-headed, uncooperative, headstrong, uncompromising, troublesome, unaccommodating, and difficult. Does that sound like anyone we know? At one time or another, and probably more times than not, many of those adjectives could be used to describe any one of us. Occasionally (perhaps frequently), God has to poke us with his “people-goad” several times before we’ll turn in the right direction.
While there are several “stiff-necked” references in the Old Testament, there is only one in the New. It occurs in Acts when Stephen gives an historical account of Israel to the Sanhedrin. Summarizing God’s dealings with the Jews, he shows God’s faithfulness to Israel. He then boldly accuses them of resisting God just as their forefathers did. Instead of taking Stephen’s message to heart, the Sanhedrin grew furious. Rather than respond to God’s prod, they covered their ears, dragged Stephen into the street and stoned him. Indeed, like their forefathers, they were a stiff-necked people and not about to consider a new and better way—Jesus’s way.
I think of the egrets with their long serpentine necks that can turn, twist, extend and seem to disappear within seconds. An egret has specially elongated vertebrae in its neck that allow the neck to collapse upon itself and then quickly and powerfully extend. When flying, the neck is pulled in but, when hunting, that neck is often fully extended. Other times, the egret coils his neck into an s-shape and patiently stalks his prey until, with lightning speed, the neck uncoils, and the bird’s sharp beak shoots into the water to emerge with a fish dinner. If egrets were stiff-necked birds, they’d get nowhere and never eat!
I may not be as stiff-necked as the Israelites but, admittedly, God frequently needs to use a sharp prod to get me moving. Moreover, in spite of his prodding, I seem bound and determined to go my way instead of His. I’m going to take a lesson from the egrets and stop being so stiff-necked. Like those beautiful birds, there are instances we have to extend ourselves and reach forward into the unknown. Other times, like them, we need to pull back and take flight.
Father, forgive us when we are stubborn and obstinately insist on going our own way, when we’re inflexible and unwilling to adjust to circumstances, and when we defiantly refuse to listen to your truth. Keep prodding us to do your will; don’t let us be a stiff-necked people.