“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. [Exodus 32:9 (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)]

great blue heronAlthough the Israelites often have been called the “Chosen People,” God chose a far less complimentary term early in the exodus when He called them “a stiff-necked people.” Having nothing to do with the stiff neck that comes with a long drive, sleeping in an awkward position, or hunching long hours over the computer, “stiff-necked” figuratively means stubborn, inflexibly obstinate, and even contumacious (which means flagrantly disobedient, rebellious or persistently refusing to obey a court order).

A commonly used term describing an obstinate ox, the Israelites didn’t need an explanation to know what God meant by “stiff-necked.” Ancient plows usually were drawn by a team of two oxen. While the plowman held the reins in one hand, in the other he carried an ox-goad: a pole with an iron spike on the end. The ploughman used it to prick the oxen on their back legs to increase their speed and on their necks to make them turn. A “stiff-necked” ox would keep his neck straight and refuse to turn even when poked by the goad. “Stiff-necked” perfectly described the intractable spirit of the Israelites, a people who seemed unwilling to respond to the commands of God. As the prophets later declared, it was because they were a stiff-necked people that God promised His judgment on Jerusalem.

While there are several “stiff-necked” references in the Old Testament, there is only one in the New. It occurs in Acts when Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin. By summarizing God’s dealings with the Jews, he showed God’s faithfulness to Israel and then, calling them a “stiff-necked people,” he boldly accused 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’ way.

Stiff-necked: stubborn, unmanageable, demanding, obstinate, headstrong, willful, pig-headed, uncooperative, uncompromising, troublesome, unaccommodating, and difficult. Do any of those words describe someone we know? At one time or another (probably more often than not), some of those adjectives could be used to describe any one of us. Are we ever so certain we’re right that we won’t even consider the possibility of error on our part? Unwilling to examine our opinions, motives, or behavior, do we ever refuse to listen to different points of view? Are we ever short on repentance and long on excuses, defensive when corrected, or unwilling to accept responsibility for our failures? Guilty, as charged! I may not be as stiff-necked as the Israelites; nevertheless, God frequently needs to use a sharp prod to get me moving in the right direction. Moreover, in spite of His prodding, I often seem bound and determined to go my way instead of His.

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.

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)]

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