Saturday, September 03, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (1)

There’s an interesting story in the book of Jeremiah, probably recorded by the prophet’s scribe Baruch. Jeremiah has been pronouncing judgment on the house of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, and the priests and prophets want him to receive the death sentence. At that moment, several elders address the assembly to make a case for Jeremiah’s defense.

Their argument is this: over a century before, around the time of the Assyrian invasion of Israel and the siege of Jerusalem, a prophet named Micah had also pronounced judgment on Judah in nearly the same language as Jeremiah.

A Tale of Two Reprieves

Despite declaiming against the sins of his own people and prophesying their doom as a nation, Micah was not sentenced to death. Rather, King Hezekiah listened to him and entreated the Lord for mercy, and the Lord relented of the disaster pronounced against Jerusalem. The Assyrian invasion was miraculously repelled.

This argument proved persuasive, and Jeremiah was allowed to live, though the people of Judah did not repent a second time.

The story reminds us that even when God gives his word, humility and repentance may delay his judgment. Nevertheless, since he is a God of justice, sin must eventually receive its punishment. Not one of the Lord’s words will fall to the ground. Jerusalem received a reprieve in the days of Hezekiah, but judgment came later, just as Micah (and Jeremiah and others) prophesied. Parts of Micah’s prophecy were not immediately fulfilled, but even prior to their fulfillment, his people recognized that he was speaking for God, and his words were preserved for later generations.

That reference to Micah in Jeremiah is also the only time in scripture that the subject of our latest study in the Minor Prophets is mentioned outside his own book.

Micah 1:1 — Introducing our Subject

“The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.”

There are a number of Micahs in scripture. The name was quite common in Israel. One Micah (not a good one) rates two full chapters in Judges. Several others populate the genealogies of Chronicles. Yet another prophet named Micah (with a variant spelling) foretold Ahab’s death.

Micah of Moresheth

Our Micah lived in Judea right around the terminus of the northern kingdom during the reigns of the Judean kings Jotham (generally good), Ahaz (wicked) and Hezekiah (godly). He began prophesying a few years after Hosea, the subject of our previous study. Micah was also a contemporary of Amos and Isaiah. He lived through his encounter with the king because he spoke the word of the Lord, and Hezekiah recognized this. This is what Micah declares right at the outset: that he was a prophet of God speaking God’s words, not his own.

To distinguish Micah from all these other fellows with similar names, he is called “Micah of Moresheth”. Moresheth-Gath, or just Moresheth, was a town in Judah near the border of Philistia. You may recall Gath as the home of the Philistine giant Goliath, famously slain by David. Gath was originally a Judean possession, then was lost to the Philistines, restored to Israel in the time of Samuel, apparently lost again during Saul’s reign (Achish was king of Gath), and lost again to Syria during the reign of Jehoash, which suggests it had been recovered in the interim. Let’s just say Gath had a checkered history. Depending on the decade, a person from Gath might as easily be a Philistine as an Israelite.

Micah saw the demise of Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom, but his message is really directed to his own Judean people as an appeal for repentance. For Israel, it was already too late to repent. Their fate was sealed. Samaria is mentioned only three times, all in the first chapter.

“Jacob” and “Israel” in Micah

That brings up an important distinction we should note between the prophecies of Hosea and Micah. Unlike Hosea, when Micah uses the name “Israel”, he is not referring merely to the northern kingdom headquartered in Samaria, which would shortly cease to exist as a political entity, but to the entire family descended from Jacob, over which Judah would have ruled apart from the rebellion of Jeroboam. The northern kingdom may have taken the name “Israel” when the ten tribes hived off from the House of David, but properly speaking, Israel was the father of all the tribes including Judah. Any Judean had as much claim to Israel’s name and legacy as his Ephraimite brothers.

So when Micah speaks of the “sins of Israel”, the “glory of Israel”, the “kings of Israel”, the “house of Israel” or the “remnant of Israel”, he is viewing the nation not as the splintered mess it was during his own ministry, but in its grander, more historic, united, covenental sense. You get the idea he views the divided nation as a temporary blip rather than a permanent state of affairs, much as God himself does.

So far as I can tell, Micah uses the word “Jacob” in exactly the same sense as “Israel”: not as a pejorative, but as a reminder of his nation’s history, origins and relationship to God. So we read that God will show “faithfulness to Jacob”, of the “remnant of Jacob” and the “God of Jacob”. The names “Jacob” and “Israel” are used roughly the same number of times in the book and there is no obvious reason to distinguish them.

The Latter Days

When Hosea speaks of the end times, he does so obliquely. You may reason your way to the fact that the restoration of the northern people awaits a future day by comparing scripture with scripture. If you were to read only Hosea’s prophecy, you could be forgiven for thinking restoration might have happened for Ephraim at any moment between its exile and the present day were the nation to repent.

But when Micah speaks of end times (as he does repeatedly), he uses phrases like “the latter days” to distinguish his short-term predictions from the longer term. Like his view of Israel, Micah’s view of the future is more global in scope than Hosea’s. In chapters 4 through 7, he will take us into both the millennium and Israel’s time of great tribulation. In chapter 5, he will foretell the birth of Christ right down to the town in which he would be born.

But we don’t have to wait for chapter 4. This global perspective is evident from the very first words Micah utters: “Hear, you peoples, all of you; pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it.” While the Hebrew word translated “earth” here is often translated “land” and refers specifically to Israel in some cases, there are good reasons to believe Micah is addressing the whole world with this prophecy. When he says, “Hear, you peoples, all of you,” he seems to refer to the nations of the earth rather than the tribes of Israel. His choice of words certainly allow that meaning. Later on, he will speak of an Israel with “many nations assembled against you”, which would not be true of either the Assyrian or Babylonian sieges of Jerusalem.

So then, Micah skips back and forth between the near-term destruction of Jerusalem and the devastation of the final, apocalyptic battle for the land God gave to Israel. The language is often too much for the former: “the mountains will melt”, “valleys will split open” and so on. Either this relates the Babylonian conquest of Judah in hyperbole or figurative language, or else it is quite literal and anticipates the final conflict of the latter days.

Idols and Injustice

Despite being roughly contemporary, the messages of Hosea and Micah are far from redundant. They may also be usefully contrasted. Where Hosea’s theme in condemning Ephraim is idolatry, Micah’s primary concern is injustice. Put another way, Hosea condemns sins against God, while Micah condemns sins against one another. Micah only mentions idols once, in the brief first-chapter reference to Samaria. Where Judah is concerned, he has other issues to address.

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