In the Bible, the phrase “stiff necked” is used to describe people who are stubborn, arrogant, and unwilling to obey God. It refers to a prideful attitude that rejects God’s authority. The imagery comes from farm animals who resist the yoke placed on their necks to guide them. Let’s explore the biblical meaning and usage of this important phrase.
Being “stiff necked” is a significant theme throughout Scripture. God accuses both His chosen people Israel and pagan nations of having a stubborn, unrepentant attitude. This rebellious hardness of heart brings God’s judgment and hampers walking in His blessing.
As Christians today, we must examine our own hearts for prideful resistance to God’s ways. Submitting to the Lordship of Christ requires humility and teachability. We cannot experience God’s best while clinging to selfish ambition or living in disobedience.
- “Stiff necked” refers to stubbornness and rebellion against God
- Both Israel and pagan nations are accused of having a stiff neck
- Pride and arrogance lead to a stiff neck
- God’s people must cultivate soft hearts and submit fully to Him
Old Testament Usage
The phrase “stiff necked” originates in the Old Testament, where God frequently uses it to describe Israel’s stubborn rebellion and idolatry. The people’s hardened hearts exasperated God and activated His judgment.
God’s Initial Description of Israel
The first mention of Israel’s stiff neck comes in Exodus 32 during the golden calf incident. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people grew impatient and demanded gods to lead them. Aaron collected gold jewelry and constructed an idol of a calf, and the people worshiped it saying, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4 NKJV).
God told Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people!” (Ex. 32:9 NKJV). He wanted to destroy them for their blatant idolatry but relented at Moses’ intercession. Still, their actions aroused God’s fierce anger.
This earliest occurrence reveals the core issue – rejecting God’s direct commands and embracing false gods. Stiff neckedness manifests in determining our own paths instead of following where God leads.
Moses’ Ongoing Warning
Moses repeatedly warned future generations against developing stiff necks like their fathers in the wilderness (Ex. 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deut. 9:6, 13). Deuteronomy 31:27 records Moses saying near the end of his life, “for I know your rebellion and your stiff neck. If today, while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD, then how much more after my death?” (NKJV).
Despite God’s miraculous provisions, Israel repeatedly rejected His good ways. Developing a stiff neck means hardening our hearts against the Lord’s gracious commands.
A Hallmark of Evil Kings
When Israel demanded a king, God gave them Saul. But his disobedience resulted in God saying, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you…” (1 Sam. 13:13 NKJV).
Many subsequent kings also exhibited stiff necked rebellion against God:
- Jeroboam: “Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way” (2 Kings 13:6)
- Jehoiakim: “He did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done.” (2 Kings 23:37)
- Zedekiah: “He…stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD God of Israel.” (2 Chron. 36:13)
These accounts warn against the dangers of arrogance and resisting God’s commands. Stiff necked leaders damage nations and displease the Lord.
A Stubborn Tendency in Human Nature
Because stubbornness plagues humanity, Scripture connects stiff necks with mankind’s sin nature. Nehemiah 9 recounts Israel’s history of rebellion despite God’s mercy and concludes: “they became headstrong in their arrogance, and did not obey your commands.” (Neh. 9:16-17 NIV).
God’s Response to Stiff Necks
Scripture makes clear that God adamantly opposes stiff necked rebellion. His responses include:
- “God will bring this people into judgment for their stiff necks.” (Ezekiel 20:33-38)
- “The LORD will strike Israel as a reed is shaken in the water, and root up Israel out of this good land which He gave to their fathers.” (1 Kings 14:15)
- Allowing captivity and oppression by enemies (Jer. 19:15).
Yet God also mercifully forgives, restores, and heals our stubbornness when we repent.
New Testament Commentary
While less frequent, “stiff necked” also appears in the New Testament to describe those rejecting the gospel.
Stephen’s Speech and Martyrdom
In Acts 7, Stephen boldly preached Christ to the Sanhedrin. He concluded by saying, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit.” (v. 51). This enraged his listeners, and Stephen became the first Christian martyr.
Like the Old Testament prophets, Stephen connected stiff necked rebellion with rejecting God’s Word through His chosen messengers. Pride blinds people to truth.
Paul and Barnabas Turn to the Gentiles
In Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas preached salvation through Christ in the synagogue. But the Jewish people resisted and rejected the gospel. Acts 13:46 records the missionaries saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.”
Their stiff necks excluded them from the blessing of new life in Jesus. Rebellious pride leads to missed spiritual opportunities.
Cultivating Soft Hearts as God’s People
While no believers are totally free of stubborn tendencies, Scripture calls us to soft, humble hearts sensitive to God’s voice. Here are some biblical principles for maintaining tender teachability.
The antidote to a stiff neck is humility. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Pet. 5:5). Pride hardens our hearts to God’s ways. Intentional humility opens us to His transforming work.
We must cultivate hearts willing to obey God’s commands, follow His Spirit’s leading, and apply His Word. Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice…and they follow Me.” (John 10:27). Avoid stubborn deafness toward God.
When convicted about stiff necked resistance in any area, agree with God about the sin. Repentance allows Him to soften and renew our hearts. Pray daily to be attentive and responsive to the Spirit’s prompting.
We cannot conquer stubbornness in our own strength. God’s Spirit enables us to submit and align our hearts with His will. Yield continually to the Spirit’s work in your life.
From Old Testament Israel to the New Testament church, Scripture confronts stiff necked rebellion against God. This sinful mindset brings negative consequences. As God’s people, we must engage in intentional self-reflection to identify and repent of prideful resistance. Daily rely on the Spirit to nurture humility, teachability, and obedience. God desires to free us from stubbornness so that we fully experience His blessings. What steps will you take to soften your heart?