Who will teach us how to become great?
After Kendrick questioned his ultimate allegiance on the last track, “LOYALTY.”, and realized that being loyal to God would require him to be humbled, Kendrick uses the track “PRIDE.” to explore how he arrived at an exalted view of himself. At the same time Kendrick explores how loyalties to societal groups eventually lead to the problem of pride. Given that Kendrick now seems to have a negative view of individual and group pride, one must question whether his conception of pride is still compatible with our modern notions.
In the Tanakh, the Hebrew word that is most frequently translated as pride is the word ga’own, which comes from a root word with the meaning “to rise.” Thus, the Hebrew word ga’own could be more precisely translated “excellence” — a word which comes from the Latin word excellentia which at its root means “to rise”. The Hebrew word ga’own could also be translated as “exaltation” — a word which comes from the Latin word exaltatio which at its root means “to raise” while also being used to mean pride.
Heavenly Excellence or Human Exaltation
Much like the English word pride, ga’own can have a positive or negative connotation. However, unlike modern usage of the word “pride”, examples of the word ga’own used with a positive connotation are in the minority. In fact, the instances in which ga’own is used to mean something positive are almost exclusively cases where the word refers to the attributes of God. One can see this usage in the very first time that the word appeared in the Torah.
In the greatness of your excellency (Hebrew: ga’own), you thrown down those who rise up against you.
- Exodus 15:7
Fittingly, this first appearance of the word ga’own occurs in the “Song of Moses” from Exodus 15, which also happens to be the first song of praise in the narrative arc of the Tanakh. The song itself is a poetic retelling of the previous chapter — Exodus 14 — in which the God of Israel brought salvation to the Israelites by making a dry path through the Sea of Reeds before subsequently burying the king of Egypt and his army under the deep waters.
According to the “Song of Moses”, this act of deliverance was a display of God’s ga’own — the degree to which God had risen above all kings and powers on the earth. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, clearly did not recognize God’s ga’own when he chose to rise up against God. As a result, God threw Pharaoh down to the bottom of the sea — much like God would later do to Jonah.
Herein lies the key to distinguishing between positive and negative usages of the word ga’own. When humans rise up — i.e. are proud — they become violent oppressors. When God rises up — i.e. shows his excellence — he opposes the proud and frees the oppressed. In the case of Exodus 15, the Egyptians were the proud humans whom God opposed. However, the majority of the subsequent narrative in the Tanakh is written to illustrate how Israel became the proud humans who God opposed. One can begin to see the foreshadow of this turn of events if one considers the fact that the word ga’own is only used one other time in the five books of the Torah. In this second instance, it is used to speak of the Israeites’ ga’own — their national and ethnic pride which God promises to destroy.
But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments…
I will set my face against you, and you will be struck before your enemies. Those who hate you will rule over you; and you will flee when no one pursues you.
I will break the pride (Hebrew: ga’own) of your power.
- Leviticus 26:14, 17, 19
Fittingly, this warning about national pride occurs at the end of the Book of Leviticus — the section where Moses sets the blessings and curses of the commandments before the generation of Israelites whom God had freed from slavery and delivered through the Sea of Reeds.
Unfortunately, this generation of Israelites who had personally witnessed the greatness of God’s ga’own decided to assert their own ga’own by rising up against God and rebelling against the leaders that God sent to guide the people (see the Korah Rebellion that we discussed in “Track 6: LOYALTY. — Outro”). As a result, God humbled the entire generation by prohibiting them from entering into the good land God had promised to them. All the adults of that generation would die in the wilderness over the next 40 years.
It was only after these deaths that the next generation was ready to enter into the promised land. This second generation of freed Israelites are the very people to whom Moses gave Deuteronomy as his farewell speech. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses once again set the blessings and the curses of the commandments before the second generation just as he had done for the first generation. Moses warned the people not to be like their earthly parents. They too must choose between life in the land or death outside the land.
Given how negatively the Jewish and Christian canons speak about human pride, one might wonder why so many modern people — including modern Jews and Christians — routinely consider human pride to be a positive attribute. One reason for this inconsistency may be that the canon of Western philosophy contains a contrary pattern of thought.
Aristotle: The Prophet of Pride
The ancient canon of Western Philosophy is built upon the foundations of three successive teachers: Aristotle, Aristotle’s teacher — Plato — and Plato’s teacher — Socrates. These men all lived and taught in Ancient Greece beginning 500 years before Jesus began teaching in Roman occupied Judea. Thus, by the time of Jesus, the writings of these Greek teachers dominated the patterns of thought and even the vocabulary which people used to discuss life’s most important questions.
Of these three men, Aristotle was the most prolific writer and logician. Aristotle was also one of the most influential writers to have articulated a perspective on human pride that is diametrically opposed to the perspective of the biblical authors. As seen in his seminal work on ethics, Aristotle believed pride to be the most desirable trait for leaders of society and humility to be the most undesirable trait.
Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them. …For pride (Greek: megalopsychia) implies greatness, as beauty implies a goodsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful. Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them more powerful, and it is not found without them.
Such, then, is the proud man; the man who falls short of him is unduly humble (Greek: tapeinos), and the man who goes beyond him is vain. But undue humility is more opposed to pride than vanity is; for it is both commoner and worse.
- Aristotle from Nichomachean Ethics
For Aristotle, pride was the characteristic closely associated with true greatness. In fact, the underlying word being translated into English as “pride” is the Greek word “megalopsychia” which most directly means “greatness of soul”. The Latin translation of “megalopsychia” is “magnanimus” from where we get the English word “magnanimous” which has come to mean “noble and generous in spirit.” Similarly, for Aristotle, one who exhibited such “greatness of soul” was thought to possess the “crown of virtue”. Hence, pride is what distinguished a man as a king. Pride was the source of power behind all virtues that a man could possess.
In contrast, Aristotle held that humility was the characteristic most opposed to pride. The underlying word which is translated into English as “humility” is the Greek word “tapeinos”, which most directly means “not rising far above the ground” or in other words, “lowliness.” Clearly, choosing to remain low to the ground by exhibiting tapeinos (Greek for humility) prevented one from rising up and displaying one’s ga’own (Hebrew for pride).
The history of Western thought shows that Aristotle’s views on pride and greatness were deeply influential to many later thinkers, including many Jewish and Christian academics. Still, the figure who whom was likely most directly influenced by Aristotle was Aristotle’s famous pupil, Alexander the Great — one of the most successful conquerors in history.
How Greece Became Great
When Alexander was 13, his father, the King of Macedon in Ancient Greece, sought out the world’s greatest mind to teach his son. As a result, Aristotle was brought in to tutor Alexander in Greek thought and culture. One can only imagine that the tutelage under Aristotle sharpened Alexander’s strategic thinking and inspired him to become a great soul.
Years later, Alexander earned his epitaph when he led an undefeated army to conquer an area of land from Europe to India which included Judea and Samaria. Alexander thus established one of the largest empires in history by the young age of thirty. Along the way, he laid the groundwork for spreading the Greek culture and values he had learned from Aristotle into every civilization under his rule. Ironically, though, Alexander was struck with a sudden illness and died at the age of thirty two. He never had the opportunity to rule his empire. Instead, Alexander’s generals divided his empire into a few smaller ones which they then proceeded to rule.
Jews throughout the Greek-speaking world were divided about how to respond to the imposition of a foreign culture. Many Jews — particularly those living outside of Judea — gradually adopted aspects of Greek culture and religion. However, other Jews — particularly many living inside Judea — viciously opposed this imposition of Greek culture and religion. These proud Jews looked down upon the Jews who had compromised with the Greeks.
Nearly 150 years after Alexander’s death, the animosity between the Jewish factions had grown into violent conflicts. The foreign king who ruled over Judea at this time was a man named Antiochus IV. After putting down an uprising in Judea, Antiochus grew impatient with those who refused to adopt Greek culture. He determined that his empire would increase in greatness if all nations under his rule adopted one unifying culture. He knew that in order to accomplish this he would need to break the pride of the Judeans.
As a result, Antiochus issued laws which made practicing Judaism illegal in all of Judea. Judeans were forbidden from keeping their most distinctive traditions including the Sabbath, dietary laws, and the circumcision of infant boys. Possessing Jewish scriptures and gathering in a synagogue became crimes worthy of death. Antiochus then instigated his greatest insult to the Jewish religion by organizing a sacrifice of an impure animal to Greek gods inside the most holy place in the Jewish temple. On top of all of this, Antiochus asserted his ultimate authority over all people in his kingdom by taking on the title “Theos Epiphanes”, which in Greek means “God Manifest”.
The Judeans Rise Up
After Antiochus exalted himself to the place of God and caused the temple to become impure, zealous Jews were no longer willing to tolerate any compromise with the Greeks. In a pivotal moment, a Judean priest named Mattathias killed a Jew who agreed to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattathias then killed the Greek official who had ordered the sacrifice. After the Greeks attempted to arrest him, Mattathias and his five sons fled into the wilderness while calling on other Torah-observant Jews to follow them.
From this wilderness, Mattathias’s son Judah Maccabeus gathered a group of zealous Judeans and led an uprising against the army of Antiochus. These Judean guerrilla soldiers found a way to defeat the imperial army. Judah Maccabeus was then able to purify the temple, install his brother as the high priest, and establish a moderately independent Judean kingdom. This surprising turn of events led to a renewal of Judean pride and the creation of a new holiday named Hanukkah.
However, this independent Judean kingdom would only last for one hundred years. By the year 37 BCE, the Roman Empire had fully conquered the region and installed a client king named Herod the Great — the same king who killed numerous young Judean boys and forced Jesus’s family into exile from Judea as we discussed in “Track 6: LOYALTY — Verse 2”.
The continued oppression under Herod the Great and the subsequent Roman rulers kindled even greater animosity among the Judeans. Those who desired to make Judea great again took inspiration from the Maccabean Revolt as well as the passages in the Tanakh which prophesied the coming of an anointed king who would bring peace to Jerusalem and establish a kingdom that would last forever. On different occasions over the years, various Judeans would rise up against the Romans while claiming to be the Messianic king. However, each of these uprisings would soon be crushed by the Roman military.
Jesus: The Anti-Aristotle
In the middle of this powder keg of emotions and expectations, Jesus began gathering large crowds of Jewish people who believed that Jesus was the promised Messianic king. In many cases, people came to this conclusion based solely on his teaching. We see this in the concluding narration that Matthew adds immediately after the Sermon on the Mount.
When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their Torah scholars.
One of the reasons that the crowds were so amazed by Jesus’s teaching was that his words upheld a moral standard which far exceeded the standard of the existing Judean teachers. These other teachers claimed to teach people how to follow God’s commandments, but they also taught that the Messiah would be a great military leader who would use violence to conquer the Roman armies. Thus, in practice, these Judean teachers subscribed to the same view of greatness that Aristotle had inspired among the Greeks. In contrast, Jesus taught people to follow his example by reversing Aristotle’s system of ethics.
Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble (Greek: tapeinos) in heart; and you will find rest for your souls (Greek: psyche).
- Matthew 11:29
Instead of teaching pride as a path toward greatness for the soul, Jesus taught humility as the path toward rest for the soul. Modern Westerners who tend to measure themselves by economic productivity and define themselves by their work might question why rest is more desirable than greatness. However, the ancient Israelites had long ago realized that refusing to allow themselves, their co-workers and the land to rest would eventually lead to social oppression and environmental destruction. They thus grew to accept the wisdom in God’s commandment that they must observe a Sabbath rest one day out of every seven days and one year out of every seven years. During these Sabbath periods all people and animals were prohibited from working.
Following these sabbatical commandments and refraining from work meant that the Israelites had to deny their desire to control others and the control the environment. Hence each Israelite had to cultivate a heart of humility and trust that God would provide for the needs of God’s people.
Even though the Israelites had observed the Sabbath for centuries, Jesus’s followers had not applied its counterintuitive principles to other areas of their lives — particularly their personal aspirations and political ideology. Thus, they routinely misunderstood what the kingdom of God was and how Jesus planned to rule. One can see this misunderstanding in the actions of Jesus closest followers.
As Jesus made his final trip to Judea on the way to Jerusalem, his disciples — who thought that Jesus was heading to Jerusalem in order to establish a geopolitical kingdom — began arguing about who would receive the honor of sitting to left and right of Jesus’s throne. Jesus — who just a few verses earlier had plainly told them that he was heading to Jerusalem to be killed — rebuked his disciples for accepting the world’s definition of greatness rather than God’s definition of greatness.
But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
- Matthew 20:25–28
Jesus claimed that true greatness of soul belonged to those humble enough to serve others. To illustrate this principle, Jesus would later take on the role of a lowly servant by washing the feet of his disciples. His disciples were taken aback that their teacher would choose to upend the traditional order of their hierarchical society. Peter in particular tried to stop Jesus from washing his feet. However, Jesus told Peter that if Peter did not accept this model of humility and servant leadership then Peter could not take part in Jesus’s life and kingdom. Peter still could not fully comprehend Jesus’s upside down kingdom but he trusted Jesus’s leadership enough to humble himself and accept Jesus’s rebuke.
Not everyone was so willing to humble under themselves under Jesus’s authority. As soon as Jesus entered Jerusalem, the religious leaders of the city began challenging Jesus hoping to convince others that Jesus was a false teacher so that they could retain their influence over the people. Jesus subverted each one of these challenges before pointing out to the people that the ruling elites were merely preoccupied with making themselves appear to be great.
They do all their deeds to be noticed by men… They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Teacher by men. But do not be called teacher, for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers…And do not be called leaders, for One is your Leader, the Messiah. But he who is greatest among you will be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”
- Matthew 23:5–6,10-12
Similar to how Jesus warned his disciples about becoming like the secular rulers of the nations, Jesus also warned the people of becoming like the religious leaders of Judea. In many ways, this public rebuke was the last straw for the Judean leaders. The religious rulers of Judea soon formed a plot to kill Jesus. They partnered with the secular rulers of the Roman Empire, falsely accused Jesus and convinced the Roman governor to torture and crucify Jesus.
Humility Will Get You Killed
Given Jesus’s popularity with the people and his claim to be favored by God, Jesus likely could have instigated an armed revolt and taken back the country from these corrupt leaders. However, Jesus chose not to rise above the ground. Instead, Jesus humbled himself. He made himself subject to the religious and secular rulers who then drove him down into the ground.
If Jesus’s story ended here it could be seen as a heroic tale of non-violent resistance. At the same time, though, the story could equally be seen as a cautionary tale which proves the danger in refusing to accept Aristotle’s claim that only a soul which is great in the eyes of the world can be the kind of leader who preserves his own life as well as the lives of his subjects.
However, both of these assessments fall short of being Good News. An upside-down kingdom where the humble are exalted in their death can only be Good News if death is defeated. If death is defeated, then citizens of Jesus’s kingdom are empowered to live a new kind of life. If death was the end for Jesus, then none of his teachings made sense.
The problematic nature of death is precisely why Jesus’s disciples had to witness the resurrected Jesus before they understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them all along. Once his disciples understood the Good News, they began to teach others the lessons that Jesus had given them. One can see an example of these passed down teachings in a letter written by Peter — the very same disciple who had initially rejected Jesus’s offer to wash his feet.
Yes, all of you clothe yourselves with humility of mind (Greek: tapeinophrosynē), to subject yourselves to one another; for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Greek: tapeinos).” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that God may exalt you in due time; casting all your worries on him, because he cares for you.
- 1 Peter 5:5
In this passage written later in his life, Peter asserts that humans should aim to obtain Jesus’s humility of mind rather than Aristotle’s greatness of soul. Just like James did in the Book of James 4:6, Peter then connects Jesus’s teaching on humility back to Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”. By showing the continuity between the Hebrew scripture and the teachings of Jesus, Peter pointed to Jesus as the anointed king whom Israel had been hoping for — the leader who would show all nations the way toward peace and justice. Following this way eventually led to Peter being arrested and sentenced to crucifixion under the Roman Emperor Nero. However, because Peter did not consider his life great enough to end in the same manner as Jesus, Peter requested to be crucified upside down.
Peter died believing that one day he would be resurrected just like Jesus. Thus Peter was able to follow Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount by refusing to worry even about the death of his mortal body. Peter’s faithful witness to Jesus’s victory over death challenges the misconception that loving others will prevent bad things from happening. Moreover, Peter’s life proves that we have a critical choice to make regarding who will be our teacher? Will it be Jesus or Aristotle? Do we want to become great like Alexander or saints like Peter? You decide. Our choices will determine if we live or die.
Love or Pride? You decide.
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 —
For the introduction of “PRIDE.”, Kendrick uses the same voices we heard at the beginning of the first track “BLOOD.” to presents us with a new dichotomy: love or pride. Much like wickedness or weakness, love or pride is initially a surprising dichotomy, particularly in the modern West where the sexual revolution has attempted to simultaneously champion both of these characteristics. However, by claiming that love and pride are opposed to one another, Kendrick seems to indicate that the modern West has significantly misunderstood the nature of both love and pride.
In the minds of most modern Westerners, love is loosely thought of as a pleasurable feeling one gets through intimate relationship with another person. However, as we discussed in “Track 6, LOYALTY. — Verse 2”, Jesus viewed love primarily as a choice to remain loyal to others including people toward whom one feels great animosity. Showing this kind of sacrificial love to one’s enemies — particularly to those that threaten one’s life — requires the kind of extreme humility which Jesus displayed when he subjected himself to being falsely accused and executed. Hence, Jesus’s life is a prototypical illustration that love’s gonna get you killed.
In contrast, we saw how the kind of pride advocated by Aristotle inspired Alexander the Great and Antiochus IV to exalt Greek culture at the expense of numerous people groups. The advancement of Greek pride only served to inspire greater Judean pride. As each culture attempted to rise up against the other, the resulting tensions sparked numerous revolts, sieges and massacres over a 500 year period and eventually led to the deaths of countless soldiers and civilians. This period of history thus exemplifies Kendrick’s claim that pride is a viral epidemic which just may be the death of us all. This realization has finally convinced Kendrick that he must turn away from his prideful ambitions, acknowledge his imperfections and humble himself before God.
The narrative of DAMN. now seems to have arrived at the Book of Jonah chapter 2 in which Jonah comes to his senses after being digested by a fish for three days. From the belly of the fish, Jonah composes a poem of repentance. This poem tells of how God has brought him down from a high, prideful position down into the lowly depths of the sea. Just like Jonah on the boat, Kendrick’s pride has been putting those around him at risk of destruction. At the same time, Kendrick realizes that choosing to act out of self-sacrificing love will mean that he himself may be killed — just like the alternate version of Kendrick was killed at the end of “BLOOD.” Thus, Kendrick sees no path toward life unless a loving God provides salvation for those who choose love.
For further connections to the Book of Jonah, one can also examine how Kendrick performs “PRIDE.” in concerts. During the DAMN. Tour in 2017, Kendrick rapped the first verse of “PRIDE.” while suspended along with another body as if both of them are swimming through an ocean. Meanwhile, rays of light shone down on Kendrick through a platform above him much like the sun shining through the surface of the ocean down into the deep waters. Such an allusion may be reading too much into the set design. However, given how thoughtful Kendrick is about the imagery related to his music, it does seem plausible that Kendrick intended to make this connection.
Assuming the allusion to Jonah in the belly of the fish is intentional, it would seem to follow naturally from the imagery in the video for the previous song, “LOYALTY.” in which Kendrick sinks into the shark-infested, watery ground. Fittingly, the video version of “LOYALTY.” also contains an audio segment in which the introductory dichotomy for “PRIDE.” is inserted after the first verse before beginning the chorus. All of these connections seem to be setting up the main section of “PRIDE.” for Kendrick’s conversion toward God.