Nobility is too often an orphan: an uncommon quality in local, national, or international news. And figures we have admired like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, or Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger are now figures of the past. Even though nobility is available to all of us.
I’m reading Isaiah right now and in the early chapters of the book the prophet is troubled by the faithless ways of God’s chosen people. He called on God’s people to repent: “Turn to him from whom people have deeply revolted, O children of Israel” (31:6). And then he promises a coming righteous king—a promise unfolding throughout the book—and a time when the “fool will no more be called noble, nor the scoundrel said to be honorable.”
Isaiah continues, “As for the scoundrel—his devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right. But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands” (32:7-8).
More nobility would certainly be welcome in the world today! Compassion for the poor and needy—the compassion Jesus displayed to his following crowds—is always needed. But all too often there is instead the call to protect our personal wealth and security. To choose the lesser of two evils in elections—even if it means supporting utterly ignoble leaders—so we can gain certain benefits. And to align ourselves against genuinely needy refugees.
So let’s pause and consider the nature of nobility.
First, what does the word mean? Is it a station in society? In England, for instance, some people belong to “the nobility.” Their societal status comes from the throne: those related to the royal family by blood are the British nobility in descending degrees of significance.
But being part of the royal family doesn’t ensure the sort of nobility Isaiah had in mind. The prophet spoke of nobility as a moral quality—of life lived in contrast to the scoundrel. And the Brits have had a scoundrel or two in their royal history. Yet Isaiah assumed we would know what he meant when he didn’t bother to describe or define the term apart for his single contrast.
So here’s a brief reflection on Isaiah’s likely meaning.
For one, Isaiah viewed the LORD—Yahweh—as the measure of morality. God is good: righteous by every conceivable measure. And we are made by and for him—with his goodness rooted in our design. So that with God as the ultimate “King” we are family members who are meant to share his nobility as his human offspring and agents.
So what should this sort of extended goodness look like? One part of ancient nobility was the concept of noblesse oblige—a French phrase for the obligation of nobility to be caring, generous, and responsible.
Ancient kings were in fact pivotal figures both in their status of holding regional power and in maintaining the material resources of a kingdom. So a particular realm would display the character and wealth of that ruler. Peasants—essentially royal employees in those times—were to be granted a percentage of harvests in order to maintain a sound living. The nobility also offered other forms of protection and care as part of this social contract. And it was this caregiving that gave the term a moral connotation.
So it was the role of nobles to care for others—to be devoted to those less privileged; and, as needed, to share care and resources with others. The orientation of a noble heart, in other words, is outward rather than inward; selfless rather than selfish. It is the parent caring for family needs.
Or among the figures we noted above, it was Mother Teresa’s willingness to care for the poor, discarded outcastes of Calcutta even at the expense of her own comforts. For Mandela it was his devotion to building a new and fairer society in South Africa when he might have used his presidential power to be vindictive. For Captain Sully it was his commitment to walk the aisle of his flooding aircraft to be sure every passenger was safely evacuated.
Our nobility as Christians is rooted in the tangible selflessness of our Triune Creator. The Father was the ultimate noble when in love he gave his only Son to die for sinners. And the Son also expressed this divine nobility in Philippians 2:5-8—“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And the Spirit extends this love to us as he pours himself out in our hearts in his eternal ministry of sharing God’s life.
What does nobility look like in our lives? Who knows! But one thing is certain. Those around us will instantly recognize it as an uncommon quality—a striking difference that God instills in our hearts by his own noble presence.
So, again, “But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands”—and with it comes the joy in finding it is more blessed to give than to receive.