In this chapter, Uzziah becomes king.
Uzziah becomes king at a very young age, when he was 16 years old. In the previous chapter, his father was assassinated, and since succession to the throne is based purely on his position as the eldest son of the king, Uzziah becomes the new king even though he's unlikely to be ready for the post. This was similar to Joash who became king at age 7. In both cases they likely operated in a regency, where a more experienced statesman administrated the kingdom on the king's behalf until the king hit some specific age of majority.
In any case, I think this is an incredible chapter. In the first half of the chapter (verses 6-15) we see Uzziah make a profound climb up to the heights of power and glory. In the second half of the chapter (verses 16-23), it all goes horribly wrong. Understanding how Uzziah's life fell apart will help us to avoid sharing his fate.
When I first read this chapter, I wanted to say that Uzziah's life formed some kind of arc, where he has this initial period of ascent and a second period of decline. I would find that kind of symmetry poetic, but I don't think that's really true. What he does is climb higher and higher and then falls off a cliff. I mean, there's only one specific moment where things in his life go wrong, but that single moment destroys his life. Even more, as verse 16 tells us, it is actually Uzziah's victories that led him to his downfall. To quote a recent movie, "victory has defeated you."
I really like the details in this chapter. I think we get a very clear portrait of what Uzziah's reign was like. Uzziah is clearly a very detailed, organized man with a strong administration that shows up in his military organization and in his building projects. He also shows a lot of sophistication when constructing the siege weapons. Yet, we also see Uzziah's tender side with his love for the soil and growing things.
In so many respects, Uzziah has all the makings of a fantastic king, and yet through it all there is a sinister force at work: pride. Pride is growing in Uzziah's heart throughout this time. Perhaps with every victory, he becomes ever more self-assured, more convinced that he is the ultimate authority in his own country. Certainly there are very few people that could stand against him. Notice how verse 17 calls the priests "valiant men". It takes bravery to resist a king, even when he is doing wrong. In fact, the word "valiant" in v. 17 is the same Hebrew word as the "valiant" soldiers in v. 12. The priests are just as brave and valiant as soldiers for standing up against the king. This is understandable; the king could have ordered their deaths if he wished.
It is a dangerous thing to have nobody who can stand up to you. This is true even for a king; perhaps it is true especially for a king.
Just as pride leads the king into the temple to offer incense, pride is also what causes him to lash out against the valiant priests who resist him. The same pride that caused him to sin also caused him to reject any correction or rebuke. This is what makes pride such a deadly sin: it is one of the few diseases that rejects its own cure.
Pride leads the king to such an ironic position and I'm not at all sure that the king even knew it. Think of it: here was a man in the temple, offering incense to God as an act of religious devotion. In fact, offering incense is supposed to express humility, showing our reverence and devotion to God. And when a bunch of priests (for that same God) come out and tell you that you are acting wrongly and contrary to God's will, he starts raging and yelling at them. You'd think that a man in the temple of God would be a little more respectful to the priesthood, but I think it's clear that Uzziah is out of control.
This part of the story is also very entertaining to read. It's easy to imagine Uzziah standing before the altar, waving his censer, when the priests enter and tell him he has to leave. Then Uzziah starts flipping out, cursing them and threatening them when suddenly a spot appears on his forehead and begins growing. At this point, the priests don't even have to argue with him to get Uzziah out, Uzziah gets himself out of there. I think that's actually an act of humility on Uzziah's part. He could have stayed in the temple and just kept arguing.
We can view this part of the story as a escalating conflict between the king and.... God? The king enters the temple and offers incense. The priests come out and challenge him, and at this point, the king could have backed down. He doesn't. Instead, the king escalates the situation by fighting the priests. Since God wants to protect the sanctity of his temple and his authority against this incursion, God fights back and strikes the king with leprosy. At this point, the king backs down. If the king had backed down earlier when the priests challenged him, he would not have incurred God's judgment and perhaps his life could have continued as normal. The king could have continued resisting against God, at which point God would be forced to make the judgment even more severe and it's likely that the king would have died. The king was challenging God's authority and there is simply no way that God was ever going to let him win this contest.
Uzziah could have done better (and avoided judgment), but he also could have done worse (and been punished harder). In the same way, there are going to be instances in our lives when God corrects us, rebukes us or tells us that we are going down the wrong road. That is the moment when we need to be humble and turn and follow him. If we insist on going our own way or (even worse) challenging God's authority like Uzziah did, then we will find ourselves getting into progressively worse and worse situations.
In any case, what punishment Uzziah did receive was devastating. Even though he did not die, he was condemned to reside in isolation for the rest of his life and never permitted to return to the temple complex (which was forbidden to anyone ceremonially unclean). Very few people visited Uzziah, since it would make them unclean as well, and his son reigns in his stead for the rest of his life. Even after his death, Uzziah is buried in a separate tomb because they did not want to bury a leper with the other kings.
Personally, I think Uzziah was a good king. In spite of his mistake, he did a lot of things well. He could have been a great king, but his mistakes don't invalidate all of the other things that he did well as Judah's leader.
After Uzziah dies, the next chapter describes the reign of Jotham.