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 the last portion of Micah, chapters 6 and 7. Micah’s book opened with an image of Yahweh descending from his heavenly throne, marching down to earth like a plaintiff entering the courtroom. In this closing section, Yahweh is back in the courtroom with the prophet Micah, His counsel, delivering the terms of the covenant lawsuit. The trial begins: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1-2).
Micah is a prophet to the Kingdom of Judah. At this point in history, there is no more Israel. But in Micah’s speeches and writing, he prefers using Judah’s covenant name, Israel, or the term “House of Jacob.” Micah is not merely exchanging the name Israel for Judah because they are synonymous. The prophet is establishing the antiquity of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and His people before he ever lays out Yahweh’s case against the nation.
Micah artfully calls upon the hills and mountains to stand as silent witnesses to the legal case against Israel. Here, he is following a long tradition of bringing in objects of creation to witness Israel’s covenant ceremonies. When Moses laid out the blessings and curses attached to the covenant obligations, he called “heaven and earth” to the witness stand, swearing that disobedience would ensure many punishments including loss of the land (Deut. 30:19). Later, when Joshua warned the people of the dire consequences of idol worship, he set up a stone as witness (Josh. 24:25), threatening that if the people rebelled against God, the stone would testify against them.
Before putting forward the evidence, Yahweh invites Israel to formally testify for themselves: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me” (6:3).
The invitation suggests that the national mood at the time was resentful of Yahweh. The people were grumbling and complaining about His seeming absence during their time of desperation. In their understanding, Jerusalem was God’s earthly throne, immune from destruction. As the elect, they felt entitled to eternal protection. Yet, how could they explain Assyria’s many victories against them? They were amplifying the blessings associated with the covenant while muting the curses. Making assumptions about their election was partially what Micah addressed when he later told the people they needed to “walk humbly” with God (6:8).
In His defense, Yahweh describes all the ways He has proven his fidelity to the covenant with Israel throughout the generations. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt, sent them appointed leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and helped them conquer the many nations of Canaan during the conquest. Micah also highlights God’s intervention with King Balak of Moab as one of God’s many gracious acts (Num. 22-24), probably because the event was a bookend that separated the period of wanderings from the period of conquest.
The purpose of reciting God’s great acts of salvation on behalf of Israel was to demonstrate that God was not the one to fail the covenant. Their national narrative needed to change. God had chosen them out of all the peoples to be a source of salvation for the world, and now they were the ones in desperate need of revival.
In response to the reminders of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant, Israel then enters into a dialogue with Yahweh about what is required of them to demonstrate their faithfulness. They formulate their questions as if they are inquiring about rules for entry into the Temple precincts. In Psalms 15, David asked a similarly phrased question: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (15:1). David rightly presumed that those who may enter God’s presence live a blameless life, honor their God, speak truth, and do justice.
Here in Micah 6, Israel is asking the wrong questions. They want only to know what type of offering they can bring to Yahweh that will rightly demonstrate their faith. They at first inquire about the quality of the offering. Should it be a year-old calve (6:6)? Then they move to the quantity of the offering. Would a thousand rams or ten thousand rivers of oil suffice (6:7)?
There is a desperate exaggeration in their questions about required sacrifices, climaxing with the shocking question: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression” (6:7)? This inquiry more than any of the previous misguided questions shows how far the people of Israel have removed themselves from knowledge of God and instead embraced the pagan instincts of their neighbors.
Hosea wrote, “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). How had they forgotten Yahweh’s warning that when they entered the promised land they were to resist the evil ways of their neighbors? Child sacrifice is an abomination in God’s laws (Deut. 12:29-31).
The prophet Jeremiah said never did child sacrifice even arise in Yahweh’s mind (Jer.7:30-31).
Judging by the proportions of their sacrifices, the people were clearly desperate to win back Yahweh’s favor. But they were blind to the actual expectations of their God.
In other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, sacrifice and ritual worship were all that was required of their many gods. The gods of Assyria, Egypt, or Babylon did not demand an ethical and moral standard from the people. They did not ask for justice, humility, and morality. The House of Jacob was trying to worship Yahweh in the same manner as the false gods of their neighbors, all sacrifice, and no obedience. What resulted was a worship system void of the expression of love that God intended.
Instead, the sacrifices had become a bargaining contract between the people and god, a debasement of the loving covenant relationship that Yahweh had designed.
So, what is required to approach Yahweh and to reconcile the broken covenant relationship? Micah answers them: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). This is the verse for which Micah is most known. However, his summary of God’s desires was not new. Centuries before, Samuel understood that the people were overfocusing on ritual worship and under focusing on God’s call for righteous living. Samuel preached that God desired obedience over sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22).
That same exhortation reverberates throughout the prophets. In Hosea, Yahweh said, he desired “acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). In Amos, God refused to accept the burnt offerings or grain offerings. What He wanted instead was justice and mercy (5:21-24).
In his one generalizing summary of Yahweh’s will, Micah addresses right living on both the horizontal realm, man’s interaction with fellow man, and the vertical realm, our relationship with God. Justice, humility, and kindness were the ideal, but the reality in eighth century Israel looked much different. In the last eight verses of chapter 6, Micah goes into detail about all the ways the people failed to meet God’s standard.
Earlier in his book Micah had called out the leaders of Israel for their corruption. The end of his composition broadens the accusation to all the people of Israel who are mistreating and abusing one another. The people are lying in court and cheating in the marketplace. The land is full of deceit and violence. Micah compares their degenerate state to the Kings Omri and Ahab. This is the only time kings are named in the minor prophets outside the historical superscriptions. Omri and Ahab had been Baal-embracing kings of the Northern Kingdom. To the Judahites, any association with them was the ultimate insult.
With such a low spiritual barometer in Israel, the people are deserving of judgement. Micah intentionally names the consequences for their disobedience in the same manner that they were laid out in Deuteronomy 28. Enemies will invade, babies will go unborn, and crops will go unharvested.
In chapter 7, Micah writes autobiographically. “What misery is mine,” the prophet laments, bringing back the vision of this lonely prophet crying barefoot and naked for the fate of his hometown (1:8,12). Micah uses an allegory about a vineyard stripped completely of fruit to describe his pointless search for even one righteous person in the land.
Though he is craving the fruit of the faithful, what he finds instead is anarchy. “Everyone lies in wait to shed blood,” the prophet mourns (7:2). There is a total breakdown of family and communal harmony. Neighbors, family members, and friends can no longer trust each other.
On the one hand, our steadfast prophet Micah walks alongside the people and their coming punishment. On the other hand, he is already standing upright, looking beyond this present torture, waiting on the promises of Yahweh to be fulfilled in the future. He says, “But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me” (7:7). Notice how all three lines of this poetic stanza mention both the prophet and God together in various respects.
Micah ends with an oracle of hope, part praise and part aspirational prayer. Gone is his bitter tone when he accused the people of hating the good and loving the evil (3:1-3). A day was coming that God’s wrath would be all poured out, and Israel would finally admit her guilt and ask for restoration (7:9). Yahweh would no longer judge them, but advocate for them and restore them once more to their land. The House of Jacob was accused of not remembering the covenant. Now, it is Yahweh doing the remembering, and he promises to fulfill all his covenant promises.
Israel’s enemies may be victorious in the present but in the future they will be defeated, Israel will return to her land, and the territory will be expanded to the highest points in her history. There is plenty of archaeological evidence showing that in Micah’s day the population of the city of Jerusalem exploded. Refugees from the Northern Kingdom and from the smaller towns of Judah fled to the only fortified city left standing. When Micah prophesies a “day for extending your boundaries,” (7:11) he is speaking to the core desires of the overpopulated city.
Assyria’s slash and burn policies in Israel and Judah were designed to shame and disgrace the people and dethrone her god. Micah prophesied Israel’s vindication when her enemies would be shamed and mocked.
God is going to perform a second Exodus. When Micah says, “You will again have compassion on us” (7:19), he is calling back to the Exodus when the cries of the people reached Yahweh’s ears. Israel had been powerless against the Egyptian slave masters, and she is now powerless against the Assyrians. Only the mighty delivering acts of Yahweh intervening in history could bring Israel out of exile and back into the land once more.
The Exodus is always the critical moment looked back on in Jewish history. If the entire New Testament hinges upon Christ’s death and resurrection, the entire Old Testament hinges upon the Exodus. The beginning of the Hebrew scripture builds up momentum to the Exodus and the rest of Hebrew scripture calls back to that moment. That great act of salvation, the God of their forefathers stepping into history to free a band of slaves from the Egyptian empire, was the first domino to tip over in a series of other salvific acts.
Then came the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the provisions of Yahweh in the wilderness wanderings, and the stage-by-stage conquest of the promised land. In Jewish tradition even today, the Exodus is still the central event told and retold through the holiday of Passover.
When Micah closes with his own namesake asking, Mikhayhu, “Who is a God like you?” He recognizes that what sets Yahweh apart is not his omnipotence, power, or might. All the pagan nations claimed those attributes for their false gods.
Micah asked, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (7:18).
In Dr. Leslie Allen’s commentary on Micah, he explains Micah’s ending thought this way:
“There were many nations around who claimed power for their gods; Israel was always glad when their own God, whom they believed to be invested with universal omnipotence, was proved to be so in a manner convincing to those to whom seeing was believing. But with an insight born of a richer experience, God’s people have come to see that his majesty is most evident in his grace” (Allen 1976: 401).
God’s grace would continue to be revealed from then until now in a thousand different ways, both for the people of Israel and for the world. Both in mighty acts of saving power, and in the invisible act of extending grace and forgiving transgressions. What a God we serve who holds power that can not be measured, but choses to interact with the lowly and weak of heart through His mercy and grace.
Please join me next week as we read the book of Nahum and learn more than you ever thought you could about the Assyrian Empire in one short prophetic text.
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The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah: New International Commentary on the Old Testament By: Leslie C. Allen