To be stiff-necked is to be obstinate and difficult to lead. The Bible often uses this figure of speech when describing the attitude of Israel toward God (e.g., Exodus 33:3; Deuteronomy 9:13; Nehemiah 9:16; Acts 7:51). The term was originally used to describe an ox that refused to be directed by the farmer’s ox goad. When a farmer harnessed a team of oxen to a plow, he directed them by poking them lightly with a sharp spike on the heels or the neck to make them pick up speed or turn. An ox that refused to be directed in such a way by the farmer was referred to as “stiff-necked.” A stiff-necked animal (or person) refuses to turn the head in order to take a different path.
The Israelites were familiar with the term stiff-necked, so when the Lord used it to describe them, they got the message. Every farmer well understood the frustration of trying to plow a field or transport a cart when an ox was being stiff-necked. An ox that refused to be guided was useless for any real work. A stiff-necked ox was a disappointment in that it was not performing the task it was intended to perform. When God’s chosen people refused to love Him, honor Him, and obey Him, they were not living the purpose for which God chose them as His own (see Isaiah 41:8–9; Jeremiah 7:23–24; Exodus 19:5–6). God made His will clear to the Israelites, and their disobedience was rightly referred to as being stiff-necked and hard-hearted. As Israel rebelled against God, they ignored the “goads” that God used to try to redirect them.
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, used the term stiff-necked when he told the Jews they had murdered their Messiah. He said, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:51–52). For his truth-telling, Stephen was stoned to death.
All human beings were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) for the purpose of reflecting His glory as we walk in fellowship with Him. But, since Adam’s sin in the Garden, we want to go our own way (Romans 5:12). God sent His Son to pay the penalty for that rebellion, and yet millions continue to reject His offer (2 Corinthians 5:21; John 3:16–18). Those who have the opportunity to know God but serve themselves instead are following the example of Israel in being “stiff-necked” (Hebrews 3:7–12).
God promises to guide His loved ones, and He pleads with them to not be stiff-necked:
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32:8–9).