Have you ever had a nickname that stuck? Good or bad, nicknames sometimes fizzle out and disappear and other times stick fast and won’t go away.
In grade school my classmates caught a student in our class picking his nose so we called him ‘Booger’ from that day on; ‘Boog’ for short. In high school we went our separate ways but years later I met him again with a couple of old classmates and they were still calling him ‘Boog’; 15 years later!
In Exodus, as Moses is preparing to leave for the promise land God says,
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.
In one of the most brutally honest verses in the Bible, God later says to Moses:
Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.
This Hebrew word for ‘stiff-necked’ is used 19 times to describe God’s people. It is not to be confused with the idea of stubborn. The Hebrews had a different word for that. In fact, they saw stubbornness as a virtue.
In Genesis 16: 12 an angel of the Lord blesses Hagar’s son Ishmael, in a backhanded sort of way saying, “He is a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Donkeys are stubborn for a purpose. Anyone who owns one will tell you that they aren’t stubborn out of spite but instead are very cautious. They will often resist their handlers if they don’t feel safe.
The term ‘stiff-necked’ was a pet phrase that was used to describe an oxen which would not yield to a yoke. It could be led around by a rope but would not allow itself to be fitted for service. When wandering in the wilderness a ‘stiff-necked’ ox would be particularly annoying. It would not make itself useful by pulling a load but would need to be watered and fed like any other animal.
The original Hebrew had two meanings: Being stiff-necked meant being impenitent: unwilling to submit, and at the same time meant being intractable, unyielding and inflexible.
In Acts 7: 51 Stephen was martyred after saying to the Pharisees, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”
God can use a stubborn spirit. He can work with your character to make it into what he desires. What God cannot work with is someone who is ‘stiff-necked’, or unwilling to be used.
In 2 Chronicles 30 Hezekiah calls all of Israel and Judah to observed the Passover as they were commanded. It had been forgotten along with all the Laws and Commands of the Lord. In verse 8 the Kings says,
Do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were; submit to the LORD. Come to the sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the LORD your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you.
Just like a nickname that sticks, this remains true of God’s followers today. We remain ‘stiff-necked’ from time to time; unwilling to submit to the yoke that God has for us to bear. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11: 30) and we somehow don’t believe him.
Just like Stephen observed, we often demonstrate our stiff-necked nature in the way we regard the Holy Spirit. Paul warned us in 1 Thess. 5: 19 to “not put out the Spirit’s fire” (NIV). The New American Standard translations says not to ‘quench’ the Holy Spirit. Our willfull, selfish ‘stiff-necked’ attitudes limit the Spirit’s ability to use us. We are just like an ox, unwilling to be put to work.
It’s time to shake this nickname. Pray for a servant’s heart; one that is willing to be broken an made useful in God’s service. Loosen up that neck and lets get to work.