The Weakness of Power
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The Weakness of Power

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 4

The story of Uzziah traces the success of a man marvelously helped by God—until vain pride caused him to plummet sharply into destruction. If we take God off the throne of our hearts, we are in danger of a similar demise. Alistair Begg urges pastors, as students of the Word, to remain ever vigilant of the dangerous sin of pride, especially in the conduct of religious affairs.


Sermon Transcript:

2 Chronicles 26:

“Then all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king in place of his father Amaziah. He was the one who rebuilt Elath and restored it to Judah after Amaziah rested with his fathers.

“Uzziah was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem [for] fifty-two years. His mother’s name was Jecoliah; she was from Jerusalem. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done. He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God. As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success.

“He went to war against the Philistines and broke down the walls of Gath, Jabneh and Ashdod. He then rebuilt towns near Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines. God helped him against the Philistines and against the Arabs who lived in Gur Baal and against the Meunites. The Ammonites brought tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread as far as the border of Egypt, because he had become very powerful.

“Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, at the Valley Gate and at the angle of the wall, and he fortified them. He also built towers in the desert and dug many cisterns, because he had much livestock in the foothills and in the plain. He had people working his fields and vineyards in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil.

“Uzziah had a well-trained army, ready to go out by divisions according to their numbers as mustered by Jeiel the secretary and Maaseiah the officer under the direction of Hananiah, one of the royal officials. The total number of family leaders over the fighting men was 2,600. Under their command was an army of 307,500 men trained for war, a powerful force to support the king against his enemies. Uzziah provided shields, spears, helmets, coats of armor, bows and slingstones for the entire army. In Jerusalem he made machines designed by skillful men for use on the towers and on the corner defenses to shoot arrows and hurl large stones.”

You find yourself by this point saying, “Is there nothing that this chap can’t do? Is there no area that he is not competent in?”

And then the Chronicler says, “His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.

“But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted him and said, ‘[It’s] not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.’

“Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the Lord had afflicted him.

“King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house—leprous, and excluded from the temple of the Lord. Jotham his son had charge of the palace and governed the people of the land.

“The other events of Uzziah’s reign, from beginning to end, are recorded by the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. Uzziah rested with his fathers and was buried near them in a field for burial that belonged to the kings, for people said, ‘He had leprosy.’ And Jotham his son succeeded him as king.”

Amen.

I wonder, do you read the obituaries? If you don’t, then I suggest that you, as of today, resolve to make it your practice. I don’t mean just the routine stuff that says, “He was here, and he left,” but in a relatively good newspaper, if you go online, you can go to The Times—that is, The Times; there is after that the New York Times and other Times, but there is The Times—and there you can read some fine obituaries. And I like to read them and to keep them and to boast about the fact that I’ve done so, as you can tell, and because of a number of things. One, you get minibiographies. You get insights into people’s lives, the things that mark them—usually some succinct expressions of that. And you’re also introduced to people about whom you’ve known absolutely nothing, and you’re reminded of your own mortality, and you’re confronted with the question of what kind of legacy you’re going to leave.

Some of you may have heard that recently Larry LaPrise, who wrote “The Hokey Cokey”—or “Hokey Pokey,” as you refer to it here—he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of ninety-three. Apparently, the most traumatic part for his family was getting him into his coffin: they put his left leg in, and then the trouble started.

That is a shameful abuse of the pulpit, really, but…

But for example, I have one in here, it says, “Joseph Charles, 91, a Symbol of Street Corner Friendliness.” This is from March 20, 2002. And the byline reads, “For 31 years, cheery salutes for 4,500 people a day from 7:45 to 9:30 a.m.” It’s a wonderful story of a man who moved into a house in October of 1962:

Mr. Charles stepped out of his newly purchased white clapboard house in Berkeley[, California,] and waved to neighbors down the block. [And] they waved back. [And] the waving quickly became a ritual. …
“At first,” Mr. Charles said, “people thought I was crazy. They called me a Communist.”

What? He waved at people and they called him a Communist!

“And [they] said I would cause a wreck.”
But one person waved back, [and] then another and then another. [And] some honked. [And] a motorist gave him a pair of yellow gloves, and they became his trademark. [And] he eventually owned 20 pairs [of yellow gloves].
[It’s] estimated that each day he waved to at least 4,500 people, nearly 1.2 million a year. [And] when his right arm grew tired, he used his left.[1]

“Joseph Charles … A Symbol of Street Corner Friendliness.” I could go through; I won’t bore you with it. It’s a helpful process, and I think you’ll benefit from it if you don’t already do so.

I hope also that you visit cemeteries with frequency. I wonder, do you ever study in a cemetery? You ever park your car, at least, on one of the driveways and read your Bible there? Do you ever get out and walk up and down and look at the dates and find yourself staggered by the fact that they’re catching you up? That a decade ago it didn’t seem as painful as it does today? That all of a sudden, whatever your particular vintage is, it’s begun to creep in? One of the most recent graves in the Chagrin cemetery has almost my identical dates—a young woman who died of cancer.

There is nothing quite like the prospect of death to clarify the issues of life.

Well, of course, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “It’s always better to go to a funeral than to go to a party, because death is the destiny of every man; and the living should take this to heart.”[2] And without being melodramatic in anyway, there is nothing quite like the prospect of death to clarify the issues of life.  And each of us is confronted by the fact that our life will finally be summarized in some measure by just the chipping away of a chisel on a tombstone, and the totality of who we are and what we have done will be marked, actually, by a dash of maybe three or four inches. For me it will read, “1952–” and then a closing date. And the question is, what’re we doing with the dash between the dates?

And if there’s anything that goes on the tombstone that says anything about us—not that anyone will care for very long; we don’t live with that kind of illusion. I won’t be remembered by many: my children for a while; beyond that, nothing much. But to the extent that anything would be put there, the only thing that can realistically be put there, can honestly be put there, at the end of our days is that which by our lives, in the providence and mercy of God, is possible to be put there.

And that’s, again, why going through old graveyards can be fun, because you find these wonderful statements to the person who was there. I won’t bore you with any beyond this, but this is the kind of thing I’m talking about: “Interred beneath this kirkyard stane”—stone—“interred beneath this kirkyard stane lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt, who died one morning just at ten, and saved a dinner by it.” Now, I marvel that his family was bold or foolish enough to put that on there. But anyone that knew Wyatt would’ve gone through and said, “That’s him! I mean, that is him! He was a stingy rascal, you know. Imagine dying in the morning so that he didn’t have to pay for his dinner.”

How tragic would it be—how tragic would it be—if after years of usefulness one were to leave a legacy that spoke only of failure?  Look at what the people said at the end of verse 23, especially in light of everything that we read in the opening section of the chapter: and the people came around and they said, “He had leprosy.” Just three words.

“What about Uzziah?”

“Oh, Uzziah had leprosy.”

“Is that it?”

“Well, no, it’s not it. But it’s true.”

Paul Simon, who said that “the [signs] of the prophets are written on [the] subway walls and [the] tenement halls and whispered in the sounds of silence,”[3] has a wonderful song way back in the ’60s called “Most Peculiar Man,” if you remember it:

He was A Most Peculiar Man
That’s what Mrs. Riordan says, and she should know
She lived upstairs from him
She said he was a most peculiar man
 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
 
He had no friends, [and] he seldom spoke
And no one in turn ever spoke to him
’Cause he wasn’t friendly and he didn’t care
And he wasn’t like them
… he was A Most Peculiar Man
 
He died last Saturday
He turned on the gas and he went to sleep
With the windows closed so he’d never wake up
To his silent world and his tiny [little] room
 
And Mrs. Riordan says he has a brother somewhere
Who should be notified soon
And all the people said
“What a shame that he’s dead,
But wasn’t he A Most Peculiar Man?”[4]

And all the people said, “What a shame that he’s dead. He had leprosy.” That marked him. He wrote his epitaph, if you like, in five minutes, having taken decades to build a life of character.

Now, if yesterday Jehoshaphat represented something to us of an individual who speaks of the power of weakness, then Uzziah is the flipside, giving to us—and he is the great-great-great-grandson of Jehoshaphat—giving to us an illustration of the weakness of power.

You see, Jehoshaphat leaves a lasting impression when you read those three chapters; I’m sure you all did for your homework as directed. And he leaves the impression not of being a good man or being a great man, although he was both of those things, but he leaves the impression of being a weak man. Now, we didn’t deal with it yesterday morning, but the weakness that finally in the crunch became a benefit in his life was not all benefit. Because when you read carefully those chapters, you recognize that Jehoshaphat apparently was too weak ever to say no to anyone. And because he couldn’t say no, he got himself in military liaisons, he got himself in commercial ventures, he allowed his family into marital status that was directly related to his weakness. But when in the crunch he faced his weakness, then it became the means of his success.

Few chapters on, here and with Uzziah, we have a contrast, because he is a strong man. By any standards he’s strong; he’s powerful, he’s decisive, he displays visionary leadership—all of which is actually praiseworthy. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But when it came to the crunch for Uzziah, he answered the psalmist’s question wrongly. And answering the question incorrectly proved to be his downfall. What question am I referring to? Well, Psalm 121: “I lift … my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?”[5]

Now, at a certain point in his life, Uzziah would have said, “Absolutely, categorically, my help comes from God. All that I am, all that he has made me, all that he has given me, all that he has granted me is from God.” But at some point along the way, he changed his tune. And he began to conclude that in actual fact, he was the source of his own power, and of his own wisdom, and of his own insight, and of his own influence.

Now, two-thirds of the chapter—and we read it all together—describes the positive impact of his leadership. By any standards, he’s a remarkable young man. He is, if you like, a whiz kid, in contemporary jargon—or at least the contemporary jargon of the ’60s. He’s a whiz kid. At sixteen years of age, with his father presumably still tottering along before his dad is murdered, he is beginning to exercise influence. His name Uzziah actually means “the Lord my strength.” So his very name speaks to the fact that his strength is in the Lord. Stepping into the place of responsibility, he is able to take charge, apparently, of all aspects of national life. And he puts his mark on them for good.

Now, yesterday morning I introduced you to the important principle of planned neglect, and we will operate under that principle again. It would be tedious for me just to go through and rehash the breadth of the impact of his reign in terms of national security, and military advance, and commercial development, and agricultural success, and so on. It’s not necessary for the purpose of our emphasis here in the heart of this chapter.

The bottom line is, he apparently had the Midas touch. He was one of these infuriating characters that no matter what he turned his hand to, he was successful. I went to school with boys like that. Not only did they get straight As in their A levels, but they always won the mile. I could have tolerated the straight As provided they did not win the mile, or if they won the mile, I don’t want them to get straight As, but to get both? And they could always play the piano. Just infuriating characters. Up for any challenge, able to see around the corners, he presides over the affairs of his nation with significant influence.

Now, the Chronicler takes us a little bit behind the scenes. It’s always fun to get into the dressing room, isn’t it? I mean, if you go to a sporting event, you look at it from the stands and you wonder, “What was going on? I wonder, did he put his left sock on first or his right sock? I wish I could get in there and find out. I wonder what the coach said. I wonder what makes him tick.” And the Chronicler wonderfully doesn’t simply give to us all of this information about geographical expansion and the impact that he has made on the community, but he gives to us these, if you like, hidden factors which he identifies as the very keys that made Uzziah the leader that he was.

Now, I’m going to point them out to you, and without development. Quickly becoming apparent to you that this study has about it the kind of charcoal sketch of your art teacher at school. If you did art at school, then your teacher came, and they had that bowl of fruit, or a chair, or a glass of water, and you were supposed to draw it and then paint it. It’s a paralyzing prospect. And I used to try and look as beleaguered as I could in the hope that my art teacher would come and take the charcoal and do a little bit of an outline, and I would always try and say, “Oh, and how would it be over there?” to get as much as I possibly could. And then he would always—’cause he was smart to me, of course—he would always say, “Well, that’s enough, Begg. I’m not giving you any more. It’s over to you now. You go ahead and develop this.” Well, I’m gonna be just dead honest with you, and if you got up close, you could see the charcoal’s still in my hands. And so I’m gonna have to say to you, much of this you’re gonna have to go at from the charcoal sketch, and I hope that it will reward your own personal study.

So let me point these things out. Verse 4. What is it that underpins this remarkable man? Well, number one, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” He asked the question, “What is the right thing to do?” Presumably there was something of the spirit of Daniel about him as a younger man—that there had been the influences from his family on his life. The statement here, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done,” may be giving us a little clue to the fact that his father started well and finished poorly, and the Chronicler may be suggesting, “If you read on, you’re going to find out that that’s exactly what happened.” But I think that’s a little farfetched. The commentators, some of them, make much of that.

I think it’s sufficient to say that this boy got off to a great start. He was aware of the fact that “the law of the Lord is perfect,” that “it revives the soul,” and that “the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy” and “they make wise the simple.”[6] And if we had seen him in his early years, there would’ve been about him a sort of moral rectitude and a concern to make sure that you got a pound for a pound, and that the correct change was given, and he spoke with scrupulous honesty concerning all that was under his province.

And also we’re told in verse 5 that “he sought God.” “He sought God.” What a amazing little phrase that is. “And you will seek me and you will find me,” God says through the prophet, “if you search for me with all of your heart.”[7] And you wonder, well, what does this mean in his life? What was it like in the mornings when he awakened? “In the morning, when I rise…”[8] And when he went to bed at night? The heavens declaring the glory of God, the firmament showing his handiwork,[9] and he’s saying, “O God, I look to you.” He sought God.

And he did so under instruction: “He sought God during the days of Zechariah,” whom we’re unable to actually identify with any clarity. But Zechariah “instructed him in the fear of [the Lord]”—“in the fear of God.” So that he wasn’t, if you like, unhinged from relationships—neither familial relationships nor the importance of human friendship. He was, in the context of companionship, we would say today, discipled, nurtured, encouraged, instructed, and instructed in the fear of the Lord. I mean, in contemporary terms, at least in America, you would’ve gone out early in the morning, and somewhere around half past six, you would’ve gone into a restaurant somewhere, and over in one of the booths you would’ve seen: there’s Zechariah and Uzziah. And Zechariah would’ve been there saying to him, “Come on now, Uzziah. You’ve got a whole kingdom to care for. You’ve got a whole world to be concerned about. I see promise in you. Now let me urge you: seek the Lord, do the right thing.” And apparently Uzziah showed up for these breakfast meetings with consistency.

And verse 5 ends by telling us that there was a direct correlation between the seeking of the Lord and the granting of success: he did what was right, he sought God, he was under instruction, and “God gave him success.” And we don’t need to go again and try and unpack that; the Chronicler gives us the indication of the success in terms of his influence as king.

And then we discover in verse 8 that “his fame spread.” It spread “as far as the border of Egypt.” This wasn’t some kind of local news broadcast; this was getting out and beyond! The word was out concerning Uzziah: “There is a king in Judah to be reckoned with. Look what he’s done in the restoring of Elath.” Israelites don’t like sailing. They weren’t really big on it. But he’s smart enough, shrewd enough, to recognize that Elath—although Elath was marked in secular history by a dramatic earthquake, the Chronicler doesn’t say a thing about the earthquake, which was the most dramatic thing that had happened to the region of Elath—but he says that “he was the one who rebuilt Elath.” That was the significant thing. Because he had visionary leadership. He saw the expansive possibilities of the port when other people didn’t. And as those trading vessels moved out, then, the word got out: “Where did you boys come from? Who dreamt this up?”

“Uzziah! He’s our main man. He does it right. He seeks God. He has breakfast meetings. He’s famous! And he’s very powerful.”

That’s what it says: “His fame spread as far as the border of Egypt.” Why? Well, “because [he’d] become very powerful.” He wasn’t famous for being famous. I mean, he didn’t get his face on somewhere and he was famous because his face was somewhere. He was famous for a reason. There was a whole barrel load of material, if you like, which gave substance to the things that people said and to the influence that he had.

Now, from verse 9 and on you get a sort of explication of some of his influence and his power and so on. And that leads us again back to the second half of verse 15 and the opening of verse 16: “His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.” Okay, so famous; as a result of help, he became powerful; as a result of being powerful, he became famous. Okay. “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall.”

Now, this is not an unknown verse to us. I have known this little section here for a long time. In fact, I was thinking about it last week when I was thinking about how I didn’t want to do a talk on spending a year with Spurgeon. And it was in that context that I felt that I would address these two issues of the power of weakness and the weakness of power. Then I said, “I have this phraseology in my mind in a way that isn’t in the NIV.” And then I looked in the Authorized Version, which is what I was brought up on, and it wasn’t in there as well. And I said, “I wonder if the way I have this memorized is in the RSV.” So I went to get my RSV, which I bought in 1972—September of 1972, because this was the text we used at LBC. And sure enough, here in a Bible that only has two underlinings in the whole Bible—that’s not significant in itself, but it was striking to me when I went looking—and I discovered that I’d underlined two things. One, I’d underlined the statement concerning Caleb in Joshua chapter 14, “because he … followed the Lord … God of Israel [wholeheartedly]”[10]; that’s one underlining. And the other underlining I had was the end of verse 15 and the beginning of verse 16: “For he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.” “Marvelously helped, till … strong. But when he was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.”

So there was a turning point in the life of Uzziah. God gave him success, God gave him influence, God gave him power, God gave him fame. Well, when did he stand up in the canoe?  You didn’t know he had a canoe, right? No, I’m no great canoer. I always like the look of canoes. People who can canoe make it look so straightforward. But when you get in a canoe, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, it’s very easy to tip the thing over. And if you’re not a sort of master canoer, then you don’t know at what point it tips. In fact, it would take some quite incredible machinery and computer program to analyze the point where the fulcrum moves and the tipping takes place. Because it’s such a very, very fine moment. One minute you’re dry and the next minute you’re drenched! You say, “How did that happen?”

Well, somehow or another, in the canoe of life, out on the sea of his influence, Uzziah decides that he can actually stand up in the canoe—that he’s able to do things that other people can’t do. After all, he’s successful, he’s powerful, he’s famous. Look at everything he’s done. Hey-hey!

Now, what we have is not an insight, again, behind the scenes, but what we have is the recounting of the way in which his pride expressed itself. And I wonder if, in the public acts which are described for us, we’re actually given the insight into his private attitude, inasmuch as “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak[s]”[11]—insofar as our actions really will ultimately display where our heart loyalty lies. So in the same way that we sketched out, if you like, the steps to his prominence and usefulness, look at what the Chronicler tells us concerning his expression of pride.

First, in verse 16, he was unfaithful to God: “He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.” What a wealth is contained in that. He’s going to tell us exactly how that expressed itself in a specific instance. But is this the same character who sought the Lord, who sought God? The same chap who was under the instruction and tutelage of Zechariah, who was so concerned to make sure that he did everything that was right in the eyes of the Lord? Yes, it is. “He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.”

And he “entered the temple … to burn incense.” Now, God had given very, very clear instructions about who was to do this, when they were to do it, and how they were to do it. And although he had granted success to the king, although he had royal prerogatives, he did not have priestly prerogatives. And so what he decides to do is to take to himself something that was not his to take. And in the course of doing so, in verse 17, he’s confronted by Azariah and “eighty other courageous priests.” They’re courageous priests; they’d get their heads chopped off for this! And they confronted him, they said, “[It’s] not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. [That’s] for the priests, the descendants of Aaron.” And we don’t find him here raging against the machine, but we find him raging against the priests. Verse 19: with “a censer in his hand ready to burn [the] incense, [he] became angry,” and his smoldering rage erupted and “raging at the priests in their presence.”

What we are today is in large measure simply the cumulative expression of all that we have known of God’s favor and of the decisions that we have made in light of God’s directives.

Now, think with me, and do your best, and we’ll try and draw this to some kind of sensible conclusion. I would guess the reason that I underlined this at the age of twenty was as a marker for the future. When you’re twenty, you can’t imagine being much more than twenty. Thirty’s out there, forty’s ancient, and fifty is unthinkable. But what we are today in our fifties is in large measure simply the cumulative expression of all that we have known of God’s favor and of the decisions that we have made in light of God’s directives.  And success in the ten thousand meters over fourteen laps is no guarantee of victory, or of even finishing well.  

So I have been on a quest—I am on a quest—to find out: How does this happen? ’Cause it could happen to any of us. And I figured, if we could see something of how it unfolds, then it may act as preventative medicine. Right?

Now, I don’t think that this happened overnight for Uzziah. I don’t think he woke up one morning and made a categorical decision to turn his back on God. If you like, what you have with Uzziah is that he has an enlarged heart—an enlarged heart. He has spiritual heart failure. The word for pride is the word—in the Authorized Version, I think it says that “his heart was lifted up.”[12] In other words, he vaunted himself. He began to take to himself what was not his to enjoy.

And his heart was enlarged not to welcome God on the throne of his heart, if you like, but his heart was puffed up as a result of his own self-focus.  Somewhere along the line, presumably—and I recognize this as special pleading, but it doesn’t really run counter to anything, does it?—somewhere along the line, if they did have the breakfast meetings, the breakfast meeting stops. Somewhere along the line, he stopped being a learner. Somewhere along the line, he stopped being a pupil. Somewhere along the line, he became just the disburser of information. He was the one who knew the answers. He was the one who had sought God. After all, look how successful he was. There was no one as blessed as he. He had influence beyond the borders of the country. He walked around and everybody knew. But somewhere in the secret place—somewhere in the secret place; brothers, in the secret place that’s known to you in your car, and me in my home, and each of us in our bedrooms, and on our own in our hotel rooms; in that secret place where God searches us, and tries us, and knows our anxious thoughts, and sees if there is any wicked way in us[13]—somewhere in there, in Uzziah’s core, there was a deviation from course.

And listen: it is a powerful, powerful challenge to those of us who have the responsibility of taking the Bible in our hands on a weekly basis, isn’t it? The awesome responsibility that comes with the privilege! Are you still learning? I hope so. I think you’re here because you’re still learning. I’m here because I want still to be learning.

I think he began to believe his press reports as well. He began to believe the silly things that people said about him. They got it wrong. They said things about him. And some of the things were right. But he didn’t have a lady in the sweetshop, the way some of us had in Glasgow. You say, “What’s that?” I’m going to explain.

On a Saturday afternoon, up in an area called Maryhill in Glasgow, my father had dragged me as a nine-year-old boy to hear a male voice choir—something that every nine-year-old boy in Scotland wants to do on a Saturday afternoon. And my mother had polished me up for the occasion: Brylcreem, and rubbed my face raw, and the back of my neck. And I can only assume that I was standing in this sweetshop, this confectionery shop, shining, as it were. And there were adults in the shop. And I can only assume that the adults must have said, “My, what a shiny wee boy! What a fine wee boy you are! Aye, look at that, there you go, aye, son, aye, aye”—that kind of thing. And when the adults had left and the lady was pouring out of the big jar into the two ounces of whatever it was and wrapping it in the bag, when she gave it to me over the counter she said, “Sonny, flattery is like perfume: sniff it, don’t swallow it.”

Now, somewhere along the line, Uzziah should have been in that sweetshop and met that woman. Because he began to believe his press reports. And the press reports gave no glory to God at all. The press reports were all about Uzziah: “Did you hear what Uzziah did? Did you read what Uzziah said? Have you seen where Uzziah’s been?”

So he was coming down on the morning. He was going on the internet, see if he could find his name: “What’re they saying about me here and there?” And he decided that he could go where he wanted: “Temple or no temple, I’m in.” He decided that he could do what he pleased. He decided that the rules no longer applied to him.

For Uzziah, there was no longer any “out of bounds” on the golf course of his life, and he could take as many mulligans as he wanted. He was the king, and he had a ready supply of the second, third, and fourth ball ready to drop at any moment if he didn’t like his shot: “Well, I’ll just play that one again.”

And when he came to the end of the hole, the sycophant who was riding in the cart with him would ask him not “What was your score?” but “What would you like to take on this hole, Uzziah?”

And he said, “I’d like to take par on this hole.”

The guy said, “How does a birdie sound?”

“Well, why not? Give me a birdie. It’ll look good in the paper.”

The fact that he had two balls in the water, thrashed around in the trees, barely made it out with an eleven, doesn’t come into play. ’Cause he can go where he wants, he can do what he wants, and none of the rules apply to him. After all, he’s famous! After all, look at everything he’d done!

And when he got home, he knew that his wife would run him a bath and he would have his favorite song playing as he lay back in the bubbles: his favorite, Old Blue Eyes. And he laid there and looked up, and he enjoyed it:

To think I did all that,
And may I say, not in a shy way.
Oh no, oh [not Uzziah],
I did it my way.
 
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself … he has naught
To say the things he truly feels,
And not the voice of one who [yields].
The record shows I took the blows,
[I] did it my way.[14]

Now listen! That is as clear an indication of disaster in our hearts when we have a church with thirty-seven people in it; where we put the toilet rolls in the bathroom; where we clean up the crisp papers from the Boys’ Brigade the night before; where we go and find the velvet thing that goes on top of the trestle table that is collapsing because no one’ll spend the money from the deacons’ court to buy a new one; where you get a jar, and you fill it up with water, and you go find a few things out on the side, and you cut the flowers, and you stick them in, and you put them on the thing, and then you go in the vestry and you say, “O Lord in heaven, help me, they’re coming in again!”

You say, “How do you know all that?” That is my life—not yesterday, but that’s my life. That was life for me. I haven’t forgotten that. And the propensity for pride in that situation is actually just as real as in any subsequent situation! Pride is endemic and inherent in us. It’s the undershirt of the soul; we put it on first and we take it off last.[15] I think it was Swinnock that said that—had to be somebody clever. But it’s right, isn’t it?

So somehow or another, his fame had blinded him to God’s generosity. And in seeking to take what wasn’t his, even what he had was taken away. Do you remember Jesus said that? “Take it from him, and give it to him.”

If Jehoshaphat’s problem was that he couldn’t say no to others, then presumably Uzziah’s problem was that he refused to say no to himself.

If Jehoshaphat’s problem was that he couldn’t say no to others, then presumably Uzziah’s problem was that he refused to say no to himself.  He rejected the notion of, as the French say, noblesse oblige—that nobility brings with it obligations. Napoleon is reputed to have said on one occasion, “I am not an ordinary man, and the laws of morals and of wisdom were never made for me.”[16] And somehow or another, that had seeped into the mind of Uzziah.

And what makes this most striking, I think, for some of us is that this isn’t a story of vice or of villainy. You know, this isn’t the collapse of David with Bathsheba. So those of us who are managing to stay on the straight and narrow as far as that’s concerned, we say, “Well, that’s good. I’m sure this is good for somebody in here, but it’s definitely not me.” But this is a hard one to escape, isn’t it? Because the sin of pride in the context of the conduct of religious affairs—for that’s where his pride comes to the fore: in the temple, in the context of God’s ordering of his praise. And surely it’s a challenge inasmuch as this is not a sin of his youth. This is not a young guy and you say, “Well, he’s a young boy here, he’s bravado, he’s full of naive optimism and presumption.” No, this is a man in his mid-fifties, highly experienced, with influence and with authority. This is a man in his mid-fifties, highly experienced, with influence and authority.

I’ve been here now for almost twenty-one years. In those twenty years that I’ve spent here, there have been a number of significant collapses in pastoral ministry. I have four particularly in my mind; I’m not going to reference them. One is in Britain, three are in the States. In every instance, I knew the individuals. In every instance, I knew them beyond the surface awareness of them in their preaching, in their books, and in their profile. In every instance, I had reason to be thankful for the success that God had given them. And in every instance, the thing that came as a result of their success was the thing that led to their failure.

James Taylor… Gotta finish. Having quoted Paul Simon, I have to include James. James Taylor, in that wonderful song “That’s Why I’m Here,” in which he essentially says, “I finally figured it all out now: I’m a singer, I’m a minstrel; I sing songs and people listen,” he says,

Fortune and fame’s such a curious game,
[And] perfect strangers[, they] call you by name,
[And they] pay good money to hear “Fire and Rain”
Again and again and again.[17]

And whether the extent of our influence is apparently microscopic or more expansive, we tremble on the brink of destruction.  I’m going to say this as boldly as I can, because we’re gonna have the doctrine of election to finish us up, and Sinclair will then come and buttress us all and encourage us. But I’m gonna scare the living daylights out of us while I have the chance. For those of you who are already going, “Aw man, I can’t… I’ve heard this thing about Uzziah; this is the fortieth time I heard one of these, and this is the worst of the forty,” well, I’m glad you’ve got it all buttoned down. You think you can stand up in the canoe? Look out! That’s what Paul said, wasn’t it, in Corinthians 10? No, he didn’t mention the canoe. But he said, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls.”[18]

Now, what do we need? What do we need? Well, we don’t need people around us who flatter us. “A flatterer creates a net for the person’s feet.”[19] What do we need? Number one, you need a wife. Those of you who are unmarried, come to me afterwards and I’ll try and hook you up with somebody, because you cannot continue—it’s not good for you to continue—as an unmarried person in pastoral ministry. If for no other reason, you need a wife to keep you humble. And if you have a silly wife who thinks you’re the best preacher in America, you’re gonna… Let me talk to her, I’ll let her know what the truth is.

So we need a wife. Secondly, you need children. In the providence of God, you need children. Say, “Man, you really have these great intellectual insights, don’t you?” You need kids. You need kids who love you. You need kids who, as they grow, will be honest with you—sometimes painfully honest, but honest nevertheless. I know my son, who’s twenty-five, loves me; I think he cares for some parts of things. But he said to me not so long ago, he says, “Dad, why don’t you write a book that somebody wants to read?” And when he heard that Cedarville University had bestowed upon me the great honor last year of—in the departure of Dr. Dixon—of this honorary doctorate, the word had trickled out to him. And we were eating in a restaurant somewhere—there were a crowd of us, and we were together—and he, all of a sudden, out of the blue, he said, “Hey Dad, what about that… what about that doctorate thing? What’s that about?” And I said, “Well, son,” I said, “it’s not exactly Princeton, is it?” And he said, “That’s good, Dad. Keep thinking like that. It’s so important.”

And we need elders who have the courage of the eighty priests. The courage of the eighty priests.

I can tell you this story, and I’m going to stop. I can tell you this because it has only happened to me in such a striking way on one occasion. And I hope in telling it, it makes the point I intend and not the point I’m trying to avoid.

Following a Wednesday night elders’ meeting some years ago, one of the members of our elder group called me and said, “Last night at the elders’ meeting, when you said x to Mr. Y, what you said was true, but the way you said it was dreadful. You harmed him, you spoiled your influence, and it had a sour impact on the meeting. And,” says the elder, “I want you to phone him up, I want you to apologize to him, and I want you to phone me back when you’ve done it.”

I put the phone down, and I won’t go through the range of emotions that finally led to me picking up the phone and doing what I’d been asked to do. He was right, I was wrong, but I can’t tell you how sorely tempted I was to pull some kind of supposed rank, you know: “Hey, I didn’t get where I am today by having clowns like you phone up, you know, and …” But all of that was nonsense and rubbish and self-defense.

You got a good wife? You got straightforward children? Have you got good elders? Have you got a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress? Do you read Murray M’Cheyne? Then that’s about all I can tell you. Because it is in those arenas—in reading M’Cheyne’s marks and causes and cure for backsliding—that I find myself helped. In reading the manner of backsliding in Pilgrim’s Progress that I find myself helped. And M’Cheyne says, here’s what to do:

Search out the cause [of the decay]. Your heart will be most unwilling to find it out, but you must find it out. If [you’re] in a sinking ship, the first thing is to find the leak; … Find the leak in your soul. … Lay it bare. …
Get forgiveness of it. Confess it over the head of the Scape-goat—plunge it into the Fountain … for sin. …
[And] slay the troubler.[20]

Search out the cause, bring it to the cross, and slay the troubler.

And people went around the town and said, “Who lives in that wee house?”

They said, “Oh, Uzziah lives in there.”

“What’s that about?”

“Oh, he had leprosy. He had leprosy.”

Father, out of all of these words, O God, I pray that there may be something of yourself and from the truth of the Bible that will serve as an antidote to the propensity in our stony hearts to take to ourselves prerogatives that are not ours, to listen to silly things that are said, to forget that love does not vaunt itself, that it is not puffed up, that it is not proud.[21] Help us, we pray. Help us to find where the decay is, if it’s there. Grant that we may come and bring it to the cross of Christ. And as we become conscious of the fact that sin is crouching at the door, desiring to master us,[22] desiring to have us, then enable us to master it. By the power of your Spirit we pray, for the glory of Christ’s name. Amen.


[1] Douglas Martin, “Joseph Charles, 91, a Symbol of Street Corner Friendliness,” New York Times, March 20, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/20/us/joseph-charles-91-a-symbol-of-street-corner-friendliness.html.

[2] Ecclesiastes 7:2 (paraphrased).

[3] Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence” (1964).

[4] Paul Simon, “A Most Peculiar Man” (1966).

[5] Psalm 121:1 (NIV 1984).

[6] Psalm 19:7 (paraphrased).

[7] Jeremiah 29:13 (paraphrased).

[8] “Give Me Jesus,” traditional spiritual.

[9] Psalm 19:1 (paraphrased).

[10] Joshua 14:14 (RSV).

[11] Matthew 12:34 (KJV).

[12] 2 Chronicles 26:16 (KJV).

[13] Psalm 139:23–24 (paraphrased).

[14] Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).

[15] George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock, M.A., vol. 4, Containing the Latter Portion of “The Fading of the Flesh”; “The Pastor’s Farewell”; “The Gods Are Men”; and “The Incomparableness of God” (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868), 129. Paraphrased.

[16] See, for instance, Willis Mason West, The Story of the World’s Progress (New York: Alan and Bacon, 1922), 433.

[17] James Taylor, “That’s Why I’m Here” (1985).

[18] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).

[19] Proverbs 29:5 (paraphrased).

[20] Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Additional Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Late Minister of St. Peter’s Church, Dundee (Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1847), 422.

[21] 1 Corinthians 13:4 (paraphrased).

[22] Genesis 4:7 (paraphrased).