“But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense. And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests of the LORD, that were valiant men: and they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou has trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God. Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, from beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked upon him, and, behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out from thence; yea, himself hasted also to go out, because the LORD had smitten him. And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD: and Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.”2 Chronicles 26.16-21
The books of the history of the kings of Israel and Judah make fascinating reading. To the Secularist, they may make nothing more than interesting tidbits of historical knowledge; but to the Christian, they give us a visceral picture of how the Old Covenant and its law of religious ceremony was ineffectual to (and indeed not designed to) purify the hearts of men (see the Epistle to the Hebrews). Time and time again we read of wicked kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord, then good kings who mostly did what was good in the sight of the Lord, except they left the places of idolatry and unauthorized worship (the high places) standing. Throughout this period, we find colorful examples of how theocracy does nothing to keep a nation’s heart turned toward God. But in this particular story of King Uzziah, we find a tragic tale of how the pride of life can ruin a man.
King Uzziah’s Reign
King Uzziah (who was also named Azariah) was the tenth king of Judah after the dividing of the kingdom; he reigned from about 791-740 B.C. Uzziah followed King Amaziah who for a time followed the Lord, but soon turned away to the other gods. Because of his idolatry, Judah was defeated in battle against Israel, and the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God was ransacked. King Uzziah “did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah did” (2 Chron. 26.4). That is a foreboding statement, because Amaziah’s religion was half-hearted, and he quickly turned to idols. But King Uzziah was a mighty man of war, and under his rule the kingdom of Judah regained its military power; he also improved upon the civic and economic infrastructure of the kingdom. For in the early days, “he sought God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding in the visions of God: and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him to prosper” (26.5).
We all know that famous saying that pride cometh before a fall, and surely that was the case for Uzziah. “When he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction” (26.16). Whereas his father sought the gods of Edom, Uzziah took for himself the place of God by attempting to offer unauthorized worship. It was the regulation by the commandment of God that only the priests should offer incense before the Lord: “And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it” (Ex. 30.7). In fact, this regulation was so far from being a minor point of propriety that 250 men were consumed by fire from the Lord for offering unauthorized (Num. 16.35). By putting himself in the place of the priest, Uzziah was seeking to take honor for himself which was not his. Saul did the same thing, and the kingdom was taken from him and given to David (1 Sam. 13).
The Lord God is zealously concerned that his worship been done properly according to the commandments which he has given. This may seem at first like the cruel outbursts of an angry tyrant to modern sensibilities, but that is the fault of a fundamental misunderstanding of worship. In many of today’s “churches,” worship is about how the individual feels about God. Worship, according to the modern perversion, is concerned with uplifting the individual with happy-go-lucky thoughts and fuzzy feelings. Consider this sentence from a popular “megachurch” in this area of Kentucky called Southeast Christian Church: “We hope this music will encourage, resource, and connect you with Jesus” (link). This is not biblical worship. The focus of biblical worship is God. As his creatures, we are obligated to render him that worship which he requires as our Creator. Pastor Joshua White puts it this way: “The worship of the most high and only true God is a part of His created order.”
This focus on God as Creator has certain implications; one of these implications is that God alone is the one who prescribes the proper mode of our worship. In fact, he is so concerned with this point that he said, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12.32). This concept is so important that it formed the second commandment of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20.4-6). Many people only give these two tables of the law a cursory reading, but their implications run deep. In Keach’s Catechism, question 56 is “What is forbidden in the second commandment?” The answer is short but powerful: “The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word.”
This is why Uzziah’s uplifted heart led to his destruction. By ignoring the commands of God, he was violating the second commandment. He was, in essence, placing himself in the position of God by attempting to worship the Lord in an unauthorized fashion. And his punishment truly was terrible. While he was about to ignore the warning of the priests and burn incense upon the altar, the Lord struck him with leprosy. Leprosy is a terribly painful disease physically. But more than that, leprosy in Scripture represents spiritual uncleanness. This is why Uzziah was cast out of the temple and never allowed back in (26.21). It is important to remember the words of our Lord Jesus: “And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mk. 7.20-22). The leprosy is not what made Uzziah unclean. It was merely the outward representation of his inner uncleanness. His heart was full with the pride of life, and therefore was he unclean. Because of this uncleanness, Uzziah was “cut off from the house of the LORD” (26.21).
We can learn three things from the fall of King Uzziah: first, a warning concerning the pride of life; second, the importance of proper worship; and third, the remedy for man’s uncleanness. First, the pride of life is one of the most dangerous enemies for a man’s soul. It is easy to rest content in the good things of this world, to accumulate and acquire all the pleasures this world has to offer. It is a broad path full of many opportunities to make much of ourselves. Yet broad is the way that leads unto destruction. How do you know if your heart and minded has been blinded by the pride of life? What are your first thoughts in the morning? Is your concern with your career? Is it your family? I have found in my own life that this is a helpful barometer of my spiritual health at any given time. If our first thought in the morning is anything other than thoughts of God and his word, then we are blinded with the pride of life. We must always be on guard against this foe: our pride loves to rise up and strike us when we in seasons of love towards God, just as it did to Uzziah. Remember, his pride arose after the Lord had made him strong because he had sought after God. So too does our pride seek to overthrow us in days of spiritual ease.
Second, the proper worship of God should be of utmost concern for the Christian. We have been made new for the sole purpose of worshipping God. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That is the definition of worship: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Yet we are not left to our own imaginations in this regard: the Lord has given us clear instruction as to how we are to worship him in an acceptable fashion. Many men in the Old Testament were slain by God because of improper worship. And in the New Testament, many members of the church of Corinth became weak and sickly because they partook of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11.30). This is a topic too deep to cover in this brief article, but a good starting place is chapter 22 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.
Third, we must know the remedy for our uncleanness. The outward movements of pride are symptomatic of a much more serious disease: the inherent corruption of our nature through union with Adam. Remember that in the garden, Adam stood as the covenant head of his posterity, which includes every man born according to nature. So what is the remedy to this corruption? “When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mk. 2.17). The balm of healing for a corrupted soul is repenting of sin and looking to Christ. It really is that simple. The soul that calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Our pride and corruption are like the fiery serpents that God sent into the camp of Israel in the wilderness in Numbers 21. They bite and sting and poison us. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21.8-9). Now, don’t miss the fact that this is pointing directly to the cross of Jesus Christ. He told Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3.14-15). Look to Christ, and live.