Saturday, September 10, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (2)

Regular readers of scripture will eventually notice that predictive prophecies often have multiple “trajectories”, which is to say that they are true at more than one time and place, and sometimes even in more than one sense.

One classic example is the Lord’s selection from the book of Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. After his reading of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy of good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, he announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I think we can safely say he did not mean “exhaustively fulfilled”.

Other prophets assure us there are still days to come in which poor people will again hear good news, captives will be again be liberated and the blind will again recover their sight. In fact, we could say that in a spiritual sense these things have been happening continuously ever since the Lord Jesus died and rose again. The prophecy applies to more than one period in human history. To say that the Lord “fulfilled” it is not to say that Isaiah’s words will never be true in one sense or another in other times and places.

Moreover, it has been noted that the Lord stopped reading, rolled up the scroll of Isaiah and gave it back to the attendant at a most propitious moment. In Isaiah 61, the very next line after “the year of the Lord’s favor” is “and the day of vengeance of our God”, indicating that Isaiah spoke in the same sentence about two very different periods of time: one in the first century; another thousands of years later. Today, we still await God’s day of vengeance.

Again, a single scripture applies to more than one occasion. I think we have another case of these “multiple trajectories” in the first chapter of Micah.

Micah 1:2-9 — The Incurable Wound

“Hear, you peoples, all of you; pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it, and let the Lord God be a witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will split open, like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a steep place. All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the transgression of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? And what is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem? Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country, a place for planting vineyards, and I will pour down her stones into the valley and uncover her foundations. All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces, all her wages shall be burned with fire, and all her idols I will lay waste, for from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them, and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return.

For this I will lament and wail; I will go stripped and naked; I will make lamentation like the jackals, and mourning like the ostriches. For her wound is incurable, and it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem.”

I noted last week that the words for “earth” and “land” in Hebrew are identical. Likewise, the word translated “peoples” in the ESV can mean either “tribes” or “nations”. Other than context, there is no way to determine whether Micah is speaking globally, about the peoples of the entire world, or locally, about the various tribes within the nation of Israel. If we substitute the words “land” and “tribes” for “earth” and “peoples”, he is speaking of a judgment to come only a few years in the future against the splinter Israelite nation to his north. If we retain the words “earth” and “peoples” (or nations), his prophecy is consistent with the teaching of other scriptures about a day of judgment still to come on our entire world.

Dispensational Confusion

Such scriptures would give dispensational interpreters fits — if we had failed to observe that predictive prophecies often have multiple trajectories. If, for example, we thought the phrases “the mountains will melt under him” and “the valleys will split open” must be applied to the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom culminating in the three-year siege of Samaria, we would have to call them mere hyperbole; nothing more than figurative language. After all, we have no indication from either scripture or secular history that the fall of Samaria in 722 BC involved the rearrangement of Israelite geography, or any other sort of phenomena that those present may have considered supernatural at all. But an example of this type might then persuade us that the Lord’s words in Matthew 24:29-31 are similarly hyperbolic, and that the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in AD70 constitutes their complete fulfillment.

None of that is necessary if we recognize the way the Lord Jesus understood and interpreted Old Testament prophecy. He knew that even two phrases in the same sentence may refer to completely different times and places, and that each may have both literal and spiritual fulfilments. We need not limit ourselves to one or the other.

The Lord is Coming Out

When we read that the Lord is a witness against the earth (or the land) from his holy temple, we should not think of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem at all. In their better times, Israel rejoiced at the presence of God in their midst, but they did not fool themselves into thinking YHWH could be limited to a single location. Solomon himself grasped this truth when he prayed these words when the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple he had built: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!”

Quite so. God could be present in a special way with Israel while filling heaven and earth, and still be enthroned in heaven all at the same time. Hebrews tells us the tabernacle and various temples were only copies and shadows of heavenly realities. We do not worship a God who is limited in the way humanity is. So when we read that “the Lord is coming out of his place”, the picture is a great and dreadful one: melting mountains, valleys splitting like wax, and so on. There is nothing to answer to these descriptions in the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom, but plenty in the prophecy of Zechariah, which we may get to eventually, Lord willing. Zechariah’s prophecies are post-exilic, so we know they have nothing to do with the fall of Samaria and everything to do with the Lord’s return in a future day, when representatives of many nations will array themselves against Israel, and huge geographical changes (hint: mountains and valleys) will take place in a very short period. This seems to be what Micah saw (and verse 1 suggests he did not merely receive words from God, but a vision of the future).

Immediate Relevance

To observe that Micah is often speaking about the far-flung future is not to dismiss the relevance of his message in his own day. The two “trajectories” exist side by side in the text. The return of Christ in glory to call his earthly people back to himself, destroy their enemies and rule over the entire world for 1,000 years is a hugely important prophetic theme. At the same time, Micah is drawing the attention of the people of Judah to God’s imminent judgment on the northern kingdom in an effort to call them to repentance. The transgression of Jacob is Samaria, with its golden calves and idolatrous practices, but Judah has its own “high places” that need to be dealt with. The “incurable wound” has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of Jerusalem.

Micah was prepared to make a spectacle of himself in order to be heard; to lament and wail; to go stripped and naked. When we consider that much of Micah’s ministry occurred during the reign of Hezekiah, who was a godly man and a great reformer, we have to remind ourselves that just as God is concerned with the state of the inner man and not merely with external appearances, so also the Lord is not merely concerned with externals at the national level. He is looking for true justice and mercy that works its way all the way through society and reflects his character to the world.

Externals and Reality

I grew up in a time when there was an appearance of godliness in Canadian society. We said the Lord’s Prayer every morning before school along with the national anthem. Honesty, loyalty, self-control and hard work were still considered virtuous, even if not everyone practiced them. People believed that what they saw on the news was generally true, though many recognized it was occasionally delivered with a spin. Marriages generally stayed intact, even if they were not always happy ones. The major institutions of society were expected to conduct themselves respectfully and lawfully, and to be accountable to the people.

Looking back on it from a distance of half a century, it is apparent the society I grew up in was in the last stages of externally conforming to a set of moral norms it had already rejected at the heart level. Within a decade abortions were becoming common and the “right” to kill your own offspring quickly became entrenched in law. Divorce became commonplace. The “Summer of Love” signaled the fact that an entire generation was abandoning the lifestyles and worldviews of their parents, recognizing that they were hollow at the core, and seeking something more “authentic”. They didn’t find it, but the mass rejection of the values of the Silent Generation demonstrated the essential emptiness of moral living without a true connection to Christ.

The Judah of Hezekiah’s day was in much the same state, and God was just as eager to get his people’s attention. Before they become public venues for worship of false gods, the high places always exist in the human heart.

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