Three main words or word groups are used to describe humility: First, the related words 'ani and 'anav; second, the word shaphel; third, the word kana'.
1. The most common group uses the related words 'ani and 'anav.
'Ani usually denotes a condition of circumstance. Those who are 'ani are suffering or afflicted and as a result find themselves in a lowly condition, whether physically, materially or socially. This affliction is often imposed by someone else: usually, the wicked. Thus, Isaiah 32:7 speaks of wicked men who concoct evil schemes to defraud the 'ani. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 counsels Israel against taking unfair advantage of an 'ani. Isaiah rails against those who oppress the 'ani (3:14-15).
There is a related verb, 'anah (to humble") that not only refers to what one might do to one's enemies but also to what one does to oneself as a spiritual practice ("afflict your souls" on the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:29, 31; compare Psalm 35:13) or what God uses to bring about repentance (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
Often, being an 'ani in circumstance leads to being an 'anav in character. Thus, the 'ani is placed on the same level with the person "of a contrite spirit" in Isaiah 66:2. And the famous messianic passage Zechariah 9:9 speaks of the coming messianic king as 'ani. Though most translations emphasize the humble character of the Messiah in this verse, we also remember that Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah in verses 4 and 7 as "afflicted" using the related verb. It is hard in the case of Yeshua to separate His humble circumstances from His humble character. This leads us to the next word.
'Anav usually denotes a condition of character. The Scripture is not concerned about our external circumstances only. So we find the related word 'anav, referring to those who have learned to be spiritually humble in character and dependent on God because of their afflictions. God's relationship to the 'anav is frequently depicted in the Psalms: God guides the 'anav (25:9), crowns the 'anav with salvation (149:4) and encourages the 'anav by the story of others (34:2). The 'anav inherits the land (Psalm 37:11), a promise Yeshua reiterated and enlarged in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5).
The difference between the two is that the 'ani is needy and must depend on God to meet his or her needs; the 'anav is humble because he or she has chosen to depend on God. The first is circumstantial; the second is a mark of character. Commentator Derek Kidner puts it well: The 'ani "are the under-dogs, who meet us frequently in the Psalms, not only as the 'humble'…but translated better as 'the poor'…'the afflicted'…'the weak'…and 'the needy.'…They correspond to the 'poor' in the first Beatitude, as being those who are in need and know it. A companion word, 'anaw, is also translated in most of these ways; but as far as it has a separate meaning it is that of the third Beatitude, which names the 'meek'…who refuse the way of self-assertion."1
As we consider the Scriptural teaching on the 'ani and 'anav, we can conclude:
God is a God of justice. He will judge those who oppress the 'ani, and the 'ani will be vindicated by God. (Note that the 'ani is here assumed to be a faithful member of the covenant community.)
God can bring us into a low condition to lead us to repentance and to a right attitude (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). The 'anav is a person who has grown spiritually because of his or her afflictions. The pattern was set by the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. When Jesus was afflicted by being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, it was these verses of Deuteronomy that he quoted. After God tells Israel that he "humbled" them, he says it was so that they might learn the lessons that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).
2. The second word group involves the word shaphel, which contrasts a high position with lowliness.
God's enemies will be brought low, others will be raised. Belshazzar did not make himself low or humble himself in Daniel 5:22.
Shaphel also speaks of God's descent to our own condition. There is a certain overlap here with the word 'anah. Centuries before the Incarnation, the psalmist wrote that God "stoops down," that is, brings Himself low, to look at heaven and earth. In Psalm 18:35, God (using 'anah) humbles Himself to make King David great.
The idea of God's lowliness is even more pronounced in Isaiah 57:15. In this verse, God says that He lives in a high and holy place, but also with the person who "shaphels" himself, thus implying that God "shaphels" Himself as well.
The theology of God's lowering Himself goes far beyond a particular word or two: we see it in His dwelling among Israel, in His willingness to forgive sin and ultimately in the Incarnation.
3. Finally we have kana', which implies submission to another's will, as opposed to dominion of one's own.
This word is used in military contexts to speak of a king subjugating others. It is used often in 2 Chronicles to describe those kings who did not "humble" themselves before God (2 Chronicles 33:23; 34:27; 36:12; also 1 Kings 21:29). Notice that the king of Israel must submit to a greater king, God. Humility requires submission before God, and this is as necessary for leaders as it is for anyone else. In fact, one measure of a person's leadership will be: did he or she submit to God? It is also the measure of a people: 2 Chronicles 7:14 required Israel to kana', to submit to God before it could experience blessing.
These two last words suggest the following:
God humbled Himself by interacting with human affairs. We see this most of all in the Incarnation, which in fact is a logical extension of God's dealings in the Old Testament. So should we be humble in our dealings.
Whatever our station in life, we ought to submit to God's kingship.
In summary, as we respond properly to our own situations, the situations of others and preeminently to God, we will be His humble people, and we will be blessed.