Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are reading Micah chapters 4 and 5. If you have been reading along, you probably have noticed that Micah’s style lacks fluidity. His book is like a collection of oracles stitched together by rough transitions. Some oracles point to judgement and some point to salvation. Some oracles apply to the near future and others connect to Israel’s distant future, also known as the messianic age. As a reader, if you are looking for linear progression in the text from a present judgement to a future salvation, you will not find it. One of the most important things to understand when reading most of the prophets, is that prophecies do not always follow an obvious order. They even switch between first and third person points of view within the same passage. Martin Luther famously complained about what he called the prophets’ “strange way of talking” and he wished that instead they wrote “in an orderly manner.” I recommend in your approach to the prophets keeping room for more literary nuance than Luther. The prophets were not necessarily meant to be read in one sitting, but rather heard in short sermons like inspired street evangelists. They likely did not anticipate a day when the entirety of their prophetic career would be contained in one book, more often read rather than heard.
The first three chapters of Micah consist mainly of oracles of judgement sprinkled with a message of hope. In today’s section, those proportions switch. Micah delivers long passages of hope sprinkled with short sections of judgement.
And while I said that Micah may not write in an orderly way, order is embedded in the book’s themes. Micah is rather proficient at making sure that his judgement speeches are matched with parallel oracles of hope. In chapter 3, the Temple lay in smoldering ruins. But in the messianic age in chapter 4, the Temple is rebuilt and glorified as the spiritual center of the world. The Babylonians are predicted to kill and destroy the righteous, but their destruction will be redeemed by the survival of a remnant. The enemy armies who once gloated over Jerusalem’s destruction will one day hold Jerusalem in the highest regard. In Micah 2-3, the judges, prophets, and priests of Israel were all guilty of ignoring God’s laws. Where justice was once impossible to find in chapter 3, justice now flows out of Jerusalem into the world in chapter 4. While Israel’s earthly kings made missteps and failed to save their kingdom (4:9-10), a future ruler is coming who will reign in and through Yahweh. That’s the overview, but as always let’s dive into the text itself.
The fourth chapter of Micah begins with a beautiful vision of an exalted Jerusalem in the messianic age. Micah is walking among the nations on their way up to Jerusalem and he is overhearing the exhortation of the gentile pilgrims. “Come, let us go up,” they say. All the nations stream toward Zion for teaching and religious instruction. Interestingly, Micah 4:1-5 is identical to Isaiah 2:2-4. I will quote the whole Micah portion here but the Isaiah passage matches almost word for word:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
Isaiah and Micah were contemporary to each other, both ministering in the halls of power in Jerusalem. But how do we contend with the prophets both including the exact same passage? We know by now, at the halfway point through our Minor Prophet study, that prophets often quoted each other and cross-referenced other biblical writings. But these matching portions in Isaiah and Micah are the longest word for word quotations in the prophets. Since Micah and Isaiah lived around the same time, we do not know if Micah is quoting Isaiah or if Isaiah is quoting Micah or if they are both quoting from a common source of prophetic wisdom that did not survive.
Micah does not get the same biblical real estate as Isaiah, his book being much shorter and less famed. Traditionally, Isaiah is thought to be the older of the two contemporary prophets. If either prophet was quoting the other it was probably Micah quoting Isaiah. However, I tend to think the idea of an exalted Jerusalem in the coming age was well-known, well-developed, and routinely preached in the school of prophets as an encouraging vision for a depleted Judah and threatened Jerusalem. Both Isaiah and Micah had the ear of Hezekiah (Jer. 26:18; 2 Kings 19), the only Judean king in that century to seek after Yahweh. The more their visions collaborated, probably the more effective their prophetic counsel to the king.
Isaiah and Micah, after witnessing Israel’s destruction in the Northern Kingdom, both longed for a day that all wars would end. One town at a time, the Assyrians were ravaging Judah. Those living in Jerusalem during Micah’s day feared they would be the next victim of Assyrian aggression. A vision for peace on earth with Jerusalem at center stage provided needed consolation to Jerusalem’s inhabitants.
Micah, Isaiah, and Zechariah, all preached of a day when Jerusalem’s spiritual standard would permeate out into the world. All are vague about when this destiny unfolds, only saying “in days to come,” (Micah 4:1) a signal for an age beyond the horizon.
For the people of Judah, pilgrimages to Jerusalem were already a common occurrence. The Torah commanded Jews to perform sacrifices and worship in Jerusalem at least three times a year: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Psalms 120-134, or the Psalms of Ascent, retain the traditions and atmosphere of holiness that surrounded this ritual pilgrimage. As the pilgrims left the lowlands and climbed the hills toward Jerusalem, they felt they were spiritually ascending as well.
Micah paints an image of Mount Zion as the “highest of the mountains” and “raised above the hills” (4:1). In terms of actual height, Mount Zion is not at all impressive, and far inferior to Mount Hermon in northern Israel or the mountain ranges of neighboring Lebanon. The prophet is describing Zion’s spiritual heights and its centrality to world peace. In the Ancient Near East, deities were often associated with mountain-top temples. When Micah describes Zion as higher than all the rest, he means Yahweh has the highest seat of honor. The global magnetism of Jerusalem in the messianic age will be nothing less than the pull of Yahweh. The nations will want access to the one true God in his earthly throne room.
The Remnant and the Messiah
Chapter 5 turns the history pages backwards and describes a few key events that will take place before Jerusalem’s exaltation over the nations. First, a remnant of God’s people will one day return to the promised land to restore the broken kingdom. At the time of Micah’s ministry, the glory of the remnant felt very far from their current reality (4:6). Second, an appointed messiah will be born to rule and reign in the lineage and legacy of King David.
The remnant doctrine is a consistent touchpoint in all the prophetic literature. A huge blow was coming for Judah in the way of the Babylonian attack. Micah and Isaiah were the earliest prophets to foresee the rise of Babylon (Micah 4:11-13, Isa. 39:1). In chapter 2, Micah envisioned the remnant as a unified flock of sheep, regathered and protected by God their shepherd-king. God conveys his compassion towards them in 4:6-8, acknowledging that it is indeed He who first afflicted them. He had allowed Assyria to function as the rod of His anger and club of His wrath (Isa. 10:5).
But it is also Yahweh who will transform his limping flock into a ruling remnant. God hates Assyria for the excessive pride they took in the ruin of his holy city (4:11) and he has laid out counterplans for a revenge attack. Micah describes the destruction of Assyria with an agricultural metaphor: “he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor” (4:12). God is the author of all human history, and the Assyrians were soon destroyed just as Micah had prophesied. It was not Israel who destroyed Assyria but rather the Babylonian empire who overthrew the Assyrians by 609 BCE.
The “Daughter of Zion” or “remnant of Jacob” are both names used for the remnant. The Daughter of Zion will persevere through exile, as a sign of both God’s punishment and protection. Exile is described as labor pains for the Daughter of Zion both in Micah and in Jeremiah (Jer. 4:31). The labor pains will bring forth something new: the messianic age (4:10; 5:3). But first, if the remnant is to commit to their path of holiness, the Lord must purge and purify them. All forms of idolatry and pagan cultic practices must be thrown out of the covenanted land: sorcery, divination, wooden poles to worship Asherah, and stone pillars to worship Baal. Written in first-person, Yahweh will do the uprooting Himself, cleansing the nation of all her apostasies. Israel will also no longer place her faith in her military strength, chariots and fortifications. Salvation is Yahweh’s alone.
Among Christians, Micah is most known for his direct address to the small town of Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2). Micah’s audience knew exactly what the prophet was stating between the lines in this prophecy. King David had been from Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:1). The birth of the coming messiah king in Bethlehem was a manner of connecting the ancient days of glory to her future glory. The people felt nostalgic for the golden age of King David and his united kingdom. The continuation of David’s royal line was a promise that Israel eagerly awaited fulfillment. The Psalmists wrote about David, “His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun” (Ps. 89:36). The coming messianic king would be an heir to the Davidic covenant, but he would also bring unprecedented blessings to Israel during his reign. What no one could conceive in the 8th century BCE is that someone greater than David was coming whose origin was even more ancient and whose strength was even more rooted in Yahweh.
Prophecies around Jesus’s birth are intermingled with oracles that could only have applied to Judah’s troubled present. If you read chapter 5 as an orderly progression of prophetic events, the reign of the Messiah seems to occur right after Assyria’s invasion. The Bethlehem birth prophecies are sandwiched between a description of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE (5:1) and the forecasting of the eventual collapse of the Assyrian empire (5:5). Neither event possibly connects to Jesus’s first century arrival. Seven hundred years separate Assyria’s history from Jesus’s birth.
But remember, Micah’s writing flows in and through each other. Within the confines of chapter five, Micah is contrasting two different types of leaders for Judah. The prophet starts with a reference to the humiliation of King Hezekiah during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. Micah would likely have been an eyewitness to this this event. Micah describes Hezekiah as struck on the cheek with a rod (5:1), a rod being the prophetic symbol for Assyria. King Hezekiah did everything within his power to pacify the Assyrians, including giving them a tribute so large that he had to empty the temple treasury. When Micah speaks to Hezekiah’s humiliation he could be referencing this tribute. However, we know from 2 Kings 19 that an angel of the Lord swept through the Assyrian encampment and miraculously ended the siege and saved Jerusalem.
The other messianic king promised by Micah was not to suffer humiliation. Yet to be born, the ruler Micah envisioned will rely on Yahweh alone: “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (5:4).
The phenomenon of juxtaposing prophecies about the near and distant future is common to all the Minor Prophets. It is called “prophetic telescoping.” When you look at a mountain range through a telescope, the mountains look like they are connected. Only an aerial view or a closeup encounter shows that the mountains are not in fact closely aligned. Each of the mountains in view are separate mountains situated miles apart. In a sense, the prophets saw the near and distant future through a telescope. The near and far mountains all looked like one mountain range. For this reason, the wrong way to read the prophetic texts is to try and put every detail on a historical timeline or to match every prophetic utterance with an actual event in history.
The gospels show that at the time of the Roman occupation in first-century Israel, Jews still held onto Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy and considered it unfulfilled. They understood the prophetic telescope and held out hope for an unmet expectation. A Bethlehem birthplace was part of the Messianic profile in Jewish tradition. In Matthew’s retelling of the nativity (Matt. 2), the wise men from the east first went to Herod to inquire where they could meet the infant “king of the Jews.” Herod, alarmed by the potential threat, called together the chief priests and scribes and questioned the birthplace of the Messiah. They all answered, “Bethlehem of Judah” and proceeded to quote Micah’s birth prophecy. Later, during Jesus’s earthly miracle-performing ministry, the people doubted his identity as Messiah because they knew him as being from Nazareth and they were waiting on a Bethlehem-born messiah (John 7:42).
Taking the Prophet at their word
Across the street from the United Nations headquarters is a granite wall with the verse from Isaiah 2:4 etched into it: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares. And their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.” As I noted earlier, this exact verse also appears in Micah 4:3. I understand that the yearning for world peace is manifest in every human heart. And I endorse the featuring of prophetic writings in all public spaces.
But what interests me as well is how often the plowshares verse is lifted from its full context in both Micah and Isaiah. Nations will not beat their swords into plowshares, until the laws of God that meant to set humanity aright again are issued forth from Jerusalem, Mount Zion. So, while the image of beating swords into plowshares is personified with an actual statue in the UN garden, nothing is said about the means to which all war can come to an end. Only when the nations are taught in His ways and walk in His paths will wars cease. For Christians, we would add that this day will come only through the recognition of the authority of Jesus when “every knee bows and every tongue confesses that He is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
I know I teach on this a lot but the prophets need to be read in full and on their own terms. We are only made richer knowing the context of verses we hold most dear, like the swords to plowshares and also the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth.
Please join me next week for Micah chapters 6 and 7 as we close out our prophet.
I hope Bible Fiber can help you with your own commitment to go deeper into God’s word, especially the parts that are not as familiar. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.