Why those who rise up must fall down
In our last post, we discussed how Kung Fu Kenny partnered with Rihanna to exalt himself as king over a new society. We also noted that Kenny’s claim to be a savage, an asshole and a king is consistent with the criticism of human kings throughout the biblical narrative, particularly in the stories of King David’s abuse of power and King Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation into a savage beast. In particular, King Nebuchadnezzar’s story ended with the king declaring that the Most High is able to humble those who walk in pride. Somewhere along the way, Kenny seemed to have recognized the importance of humility. This led Rihanna to end “LOYALTY.” by singing:
It’s so hard to be humble.
It’s so hard to be
Lord knows is I’m tryin’
Lord knows is I’m dyin’, baby
Fittingly, the struggle to choose humility instead of pride is immediately on display in the new dichotomy that opens “PRIDE.”
Love’s gonna get you killed
But pride’s gonna be the death of you, and you and me
And you and you
And you and me
And you and you
And you and me
And you and you
And you and me and
Similar to the dichotomy between wickedness and weakness at the beginning of the album, the dichotomy between love and pride seems counter-intuitive. Moreover, it seems unclear why a person who chooses love will get killed. The confusion brought about by this dichotomy thus suggests that our definitions for love and pride differ from the definitions that Kenny is working with throughout this album.
Within the prevailing thought of the modern West, love is normally talked about as a good feeling that one gets from interacting with someone who is attractive or has done nice things. Meanwhile, pride is most commonly spoken of as a positive trait, particularly when applied to the love that one shows towards oneself or members of one’s cultural, ethnic, racial, gender or sexual identity group.
These definitions of love and pride make the two traits seem inseparable. However, in the minds of the biblical authors, love and pride were consistently opposed to each other. This opposition is seen most clearly when we consider Jesus teachings about the Kingdom of God, particularly his commandment for his followers to love their enemies. The unconditional, sacrificial love that Jesus spoke of cannot be based on the attractive or positive actions of others. According to Jesus, his followers must love people in spite of their negative actions, even when those actions potentially threaten their lives. It is this love that Jesus displayed when his practice of forgiving others enraged the religious authorities of his day and led directly to his crucifixion. Jesus thus serves as the iconic example the love is gonna get you killed.
While the biblical authors encouraged their audience to love despite the potential consequences, they constantly warned about the dangers of pride. This warning is seen most clearly in one of the more famous biblical proverbs.
Pride goes before destruction
And an exalted spirit before a fall
- Proverbs 16:18
This proverb asserts that human pride will inevitably result in destruction. To illustrate this point, the proverb describes pride as a spirit — a pattern of thoughts and feelings — that is high and exalted. Just like the gravity of earth brings down objects which are high and exalted, so God will bring down humans whose spirit is high and exalted.
This description of pride is more apparent in the original Hebrew due to the derivation of the underlying word. The word “pride” in this proverb and most other instances in the Old Testament is a translation of the Hebrew word ga’own (גָּאוֹן). ga’own is derived from a root word that means “to rise.” Hence, within the Bible, pride refers to someone who has risen up or exalted themselves above others.
Even though the word ga’own has a negative connotation in Proverbs 16:18 , there are counterexamples in which the word is used in a positive connotation. However, in almost every case in which the word ga’own has a positive connotation, the word is being used to describe an attribute of God. For instance, the very first time that the word ga’own is used anywhere in the Bible is in Exodus 15, which contains a song of praise sung by Moses after God delivered the Israelites out of slavery by parting the Sea of Reeds to let the Israelites pass through and then causing the sea to bury Pharaoh and the Egyptian army under the deep waters.
Moses’s song recounts the defeat of Pharaoh and the Egyptians by saying:
Your right hand, O LORD, is majestic in power,
Your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.
And in the greatness of Your excellence (Hebrew: ga’own)
You overthrow those who rise up against You
- Exodus 15:6–7
In this passage, the word “excellence” is actually a translation of the Hebrew word ga’own, the same word that is translated “pride” in the proverb “pride goes before destruction.” While human ga’own leads to self-destruction, God’s ga’own leads to the destruction of the injustice caused by humans who “rise up against God”, i.e. humans who are proud.
These associations between injustice, pride, tall structures, and humans who rise up are some of the most central motifs in the Bible. For instance, as we mentioned in the previous post, Daniel chapter 4 contains a story in which Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had a troubling dream about a tall tree which Daniel later interpreted by saying:
The tree that you saw, which became large and grew strong, whose height reached to the sky and was visible to all the earth and whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which the beasts of the field dwelt and in whose branches the birds of the sky lodged — it is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth. In that the king saw an angelic watcher, a holy one, descending from heaven and saying, “Chop down the tree and destroy it”
- Daniel 4:20–22
Daniel revealed that King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a tall tree getting chopped down was actually a prophecy about how Nebuchadnezzar had risen to a height that forced God to chop him down and destroy his greatness. However, King Nebuchadnezzar refused to lower himself or relinquish his pride. Thus, he had to learn his lesson the hard way.
“All this happened to Nebuchadnezzar the king. Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’
While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field.”
- Daniel 4:28–32
Notice that the dream was fulfilled when King Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of his palace. From this high vantage point, the king looked down at his kingdom and began boasting about his accomplishments. It is at this exact moment, that God humbled King Nebuchadnezzar by making him live like a savage beast until he acknowledged that the God of Israel is “The Most High” and is “able to humble those who walk in pride.”
In the previous post, we also mentioned the story of King David committing adultery and murder. It is notable that this story begins with the following statement:
“Now when evening came David rose up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance”
- 2 Samuel 11:2
The text reads that King David “rose up” from his bed in the evening and “walked around on the roof” of his palace just like King Nebuchadnezzar. From this high vantage point, David looked down and saw a woman bathing. He then forced her to have sex with him despite the fact that she was married to his most loyal soldier. When the woman become pregnant, David ended up conspiring to murder the woman’s husband which would eventually cause God to bring internal divisions and destruction upon David’s household and kingdom.
This division of society as a result of humans rising up goes even further back to the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. In that narrative, all of humanity gathered in pre-historic Babylon, spoke the same language and said to each other:
“Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
- Genesis 11:4
In this passage, the biblical authors depict the universal pattern of humans building themselves up so that they can have god-like power and fame. Moreover, the story depicts the human inclination to band together and build unjust societies where minorities, those who are different and those who are not part of the in-group become marginalized, oppressed, and insignificant.
Fittingly, when God saw the humans constructing the Tower of Babel, God revealed the differences between humans by giving them different languages. This new multilingual, multicultural dynamic caused confusion, distrust, and division between the pre-historic humans. These pre-historic humans soon abandoned their half-built tower and scattered themselves across the known world.
While the Tower of Babel story represents the origins of societies who rise up and oppress others, the pattern of individuals rising up to oppress others goes back even further to the story of the world’s first prototypical brothers named Cain and Abel. In that narrative, Cain — whose name fittingly means “possession” — gets angry when God blesses Abel but does not bless Cain. This leads to the pivotal scene in the story.
Cain said to his brother Abel “Let’s go out to the field”. While they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
- Genesis 4:8
In what happens to be the first murder recorded in the biblical narrative, the authors specify that Cain “rose up” against his brother and killed him. Later in the story, God revealed that because Cain unjustly spilled his brother's blood onto the ground, the ground would curse Cain to a life of fruitless labor. While Cain was certainly held responsible for murdering his brother, this idea of being cursed suggests that we are supposed to see Cain’s actions as a repetitive continuation of the legacy left by his parents, Adam and Eve.
The story of Adam and Eve goes back to Genesis chapter 2 where the text reads:
“Yahweh God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the eyes and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’”
- Genesis 2:8–9, 16-17
In this passage, Yahweh, the God of Israel, created Adam — a prototypical man whose name in Hebrew means “Humanity.” Yahweh then planted a garden in Eden — a name that in Hebrew means “delight.” In this garden, Yahweh God provided Humanity with all kinds of trees that were “pleasing to the eyes” and “good for food.” At the same time, Yahweh warned the prototypical human that he should not eat from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” because eating the fruit from that tree would lead him to death. At first, Humanity listened and obeyed God’s commandment. However, one day, Humanity decided to listen to another voice in the garden.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, “You shall not eat from any tree of the garden”?’
The woman said to the serpent, ‘From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, “You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.”’
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
- Genesis 3:1–5
Here, a mysterious figure referred to as “the serpent” caused the prototypical woman to doubt God’s word. Moreover, the serpent suggested that instead of trusting God’s word, she could become like God by deciding for herself what is good and what is evil. Essentially, the snake was tempting her to rise above her humble station and ascend to the level of the gods who ruled from the skies. This temptation was apparently too great for Humanity to resist.
“When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasing to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
- Genesis 3:6
The woman relied on her own sight — her own perception of reality — to determine that the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “pleasing to the eyes” and “good for food”. The deep irony here is that earlier in the story Yahweh God had already provided Humanity with “every tree that is pleasing to the eyes and good for food.” However, after listening to the serpent, the woman was further attracted to the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil because she believed that it was “desirable to make one wise.” The woman thought that her search for wisdom outside of God would bring joy and fulfillment to her life. However, she was mistaken.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.
- Genesis 3:6
After the prototypical man and woman, ate the fruit from the knowledge of good and evil, their eyes were indeed opened, but their hearts were not filled with joy. Rather their newfound ability to each decide good and evil for him or herself meant that they could no longer trust each other. Each of them sought to cover themselves in order to protect themselves from the other. Hence, the peace and relational intimacy that they once enjoyed was now destroyed. Along with this relational destruction, their choice to define good and evil for themselves would also lead to environmental destruction which Yahweh God would later reveal when he said:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;”
- Genesis 3:17–18
Here, we see that Adam and Eve’s decision to define good and evil for themselves led to the ground being cursed. Moreover, their actions set the pattern for their son Cain who would later be cursed from the ground. This pattern would then repeat itself in the stories of the Tower of Babel, King David’s adultery, King Nebuchadnezzar’s military conquest and countless other narratives from the Bible.
It is as if Adam and Eve’s decision to rise up to the level of the gods brought about the fall of all humanity — the epidemic spread of curses that would lead to a downward spiral of death and destruction. Hence, the biblical narrative seems to suggest the current state of imperfection that we see in the world can be traced back to the story of a serpent who infected men and women with pride. It is with this narrative in mind that Kenny raps:
Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride
Like many people throughout the history of Christian biblical interpretation, Kenny has come to the conclusion that pride is the first and most destructive sin — a sin that consistently defeats unsuspecting humans. Kenny’s identification of pride as the preeminent sin is even more explicit in a verse from an early version of “PRIDE.” that was shared by the co-president of Kendrick’s record label.
Pride is my biggest sin
I tride to fight it but I never win
Layin’ myself down in the beds I made
Karma is always knockin’ with capital K’s
It started when I was tossin’ my life in the sand
Crossin’ the street, momma don’t you hold my hand
- from an early version of “PRIDE.”
In this “lost” verse, Kenny confesses that pride is his greatest sin. Kenny traces his prideful tendencies back to childhood. In particular, Kenny recounts a scene in which childhood Kenny placed himself in harm’s way when he refused to let his mother hold his hand when they were crossing the street. Similar to the first verse of “DNA.” this line reveals that Kenny was “born like this, since one like this.” Moreover, since the pattern of a child trying to assert his independence over his parents is a universal experience, this line shows that pride is an inescapable trait in our collective DNA. It is the trait that causes each one of us to fall short of God’s perfection.
I’ll take all the religions and put ‘em all in one service
Just to tell ‘em we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect, world
Kenny ends the second verse by asserting that regardless of what religion we ascribe to, we “ain’t shit”. This criticism of typical religious practice is actually consistent with a critique found in the writings of James, the leader of the first Christian church community in Jerusalem. To this community, James wrote:
“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
- James 1:26–27
According to James, religion becomes worthless due to empty talk. Moreover, James asserted that of a person wants his religious observance to be considered pure by the Heavenly Father, that person must act like the Heavenly Father, specifically by being a father to the fatherless and a supporter of widows. Along with this commitment to uplifting the vulnerable, James challenged the members of his community to become like their Heavenly Father by remaining unblemished by the imperfect world. As it turns out, becoming like the Heavenly Father is exactly what Jesus talked about during his most famous speech about the Kingdom of God.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘ You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
- Matthew 5:43–45, 48
In this passage, Jesus first gives voice to the way of thinking that dominates the world — namely that we should love those who live peacefully with us and hate those who threaten us. However, Jesus commands his disciples to reject that way of thinking by choosing to love their enemies. Jesus claimed that by loving their enemies, men and women can become children of God — individuals who grow to resemble their Heavenly Father in word and deed.
As evidence that the Heavenly Father loves his friends and enemies, Jesus asks his followers to look up and consider how the heavens give to the earth unconditionally. In particular, Jesus observes that every day the sun rises in the sky whether people on the earth are good or evil. Similarly, when the rain falls from the sky, it lands on the fields of those who pursue justice and also those who create injustice.
Jesus taught that this pattern of sending light and rain upon individuals regardless of their feelings toward God or actions toward other people is one of the greatest illustrations of God’s unconditional love for humanity. Humans who show the same kind of love for friends and enemies are thus able to become perfect just like God is perfect. Hence, when Kenny ends the second verse of “PRIDE.” by saying “we ain’t shit, but He’s been perfect, world” Kenny is on a deeper level confessing how our inability to love our enemies causes us to fall short of God’s perfection and become stained by the world’s imperfection. Moreover, because we all are imperfect, God is our only hope for creating a more perfect world.
It is also interesting to note that by ending “PRIDE.” with a critique of empty religious practice and a confession of hope in God, Kenny’s narrative once again seems to be mirroring Jonah’s narrative. After the sailors threw Jonah overboard into the raging oceans, it seemed that Jonah would surely die as he drowned in the waters. In case the water wasn’t enough to kill him, God then sent a fish to eat Jonah. However, in a surprising twist, after three days and three nights of being digested in the belly of the beast, Jonah suddenly came to life and began to offer a poetic confession to the God who brought him back from the dead.
“I called out to the Lord from my distress,
and he answered me;
from the belly of Hades I cried out for help,
and you heard my prayer.
You threw me into the deep waters,
into the middle of the sea;
the ocean current engulfed me;
all the mighty waves you sent swept over me.
Water engulfed me up to my neck;
the deep ocean surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains;
the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever,
but you brought me up from the Pit, O Lord, my God.
- Jonah 2:2–6
After recognizing that Yahweh is the only one capable of bringing life out of death, Jonah declared the futility of observing worthless forms of religion.
Those who show regard for worthless idols
Forsake their faithfulness,
But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation is from Yahweh.”
- Jonah 2:8–9
Much like Kenny ended “PRIDE.” with a bold declaration of God’s perfection — God’s unconditional grace to all humanity, Jonah ends his poetic prayer with a declaration of God’s salvation.
Jonah’s declaration of God’s salvation was subsequently fulfilled when God raised Jonah up from his watery grave and commanded the fish to vomit Jonah back on to the dry land. God once again called Jonah to go and prophesy against the injustice of Nineveh. This time Jonah went to Nineveh.
However, even though Jonah had experienced God’s saving grace, it remained to be seen whether Jonah was ready to extend that grace to others. Similarly, it is unclear whether Kenny is now ready to love his enemies and become perfect as his Heavenly Father is perfect.
“Messiah” video by The Bible Project
“Atonement & Sacrifice” video by The Bible Project
“The Book of Genesis Part 1 of 2” video by The Bible Project
“Overview: Genesis Ch. 1–11” video by The Bible Project
“Overview: James” video by The Bible Project
“The Book of Exodus Part 1 of 2” video by The Bible Project