Saturday, October 08, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (6)

Almost as long as there has been an Israel, there has been an Israelite remnant.

In its very first generation, Joseph explained his own suffering and subsequent exaltation to his brothers in this manner: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” God may have been the author of the worldwide famine they were experiencing, but he had made provision for Jacob’s family so that they would not be eliminated from the earth.

However, not all who went to Egypt and were thus preserved were men and women of faith.

A Godly Remnant

Later, the prophets would use the expression “the remnant” to denote a subset of godly Israelites within a nation of idolaters, fakes and compromisers. In Elijah’s day, 7,000 men refused to bow the knee to Baal in the northern kingdom. Elijah did not call them a remnant, but the apostle Paul does.

Isaiah uses the same term to describe the Judeans besieged in Jerusalem who cried out to the Lord for deliverance in the days of Hezekiah. He promised, “Out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord will do this.” That night the angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrians in their camp, and the remnant of Judah began to take root once again.

Zephaniah speaks of a future remnant, as does Zechariah, a post-exilic prophet, so we know he is not talking about a diaspora remnant but a future one. In the New Testament, we find Paul referring to first century godly Jews as “the Israel of God”, and calling them “a remnant, chosen by grace”. Jeremiah speaks of a gathering of the Israelite remnant in the far-flung future “out of all the countries where I have driven them”.

So there has always been an Israelite remnant, and there will be until the day that “all Israel will be saved” and the unrighteous banished from the presence of the Lord forever. You can find out more about this remnant concept here and here.

Micah speaks of a godly remnant in chapters 2, 4, 5 and 7, more than any other Minor Prophet. Today’s portion is the first of these references.

Micah 2:12-13 — Regarding the Remnant

“I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king passes on before them, the Lord at their head.”

As we have previously noted, where Hosea used “Israel” to mean only the northern kingdom as distinct from Judah, Micah uses both “Israel” and “Jacob” to denote the nation as a whole. Outside of chapter 1, he only mentions Judah a single time, in the famous Messianic prophecy of chapter 5 (“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah …”), and probably only because there existed another Bethlehem in the north from which Micah wished to distinguish this much-favored little town in Judea. Though addressing Judeans, Micah repeatedly calls them “Israel”. Other prophets refer to a remnant of Judah, but Micah talks to Judeans of “the remnant of Israel” with such confidence that we can only think he sees the reuniting of God’s people as a well-established inevitability.

An Abrupt Change of Subject

We cannot help but notice these last two verses of chapter 2 are an abrupt change of subject, from the imminent judgment of God’s erring people to their future restoration. In fact, the U‑turn is so sharp that more than a few commentators refuse to acknowledge there is a change of direction at all. John Calvin was one of them. He viewed the “fold” of verse 12 as being Babylon, and saw the two verses as foretelling the captivity of Judah a century after Micah’s prophecy. In this view, the Lord would be at the head of his people only figuratively, leading them out like sheep and “gathering” them for dispersal throughout the Babylonian Empire.

But these commentators fail to note that other prophets also have a tendency to flit from subject to subject at the drop of a hat with no apparent transition. For example, Isaiah speaks of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (fulfilled by Christ in the first century) and “the day of vengeance of our God” (still to be fulfilled) in the very same sentence. It may be hard for a modern reader to process, but we may as well get used to this sort of thing in the prophetic word. We are going to find Micah doing it again very shortly, between chapter 3 (disaster) and 4 (restoration), then again between 5:1 (disaster) and 5:2-5 (deliverance), then again in 6:9-7:6 (disaster) and 7:7 on (deliverance), veering back and forth between scenarios of judgment and restoration for God’s people.

This being the case, I see no difficulty interpreting the last two verses of chapter 2 as the first in a series of abrupt changes of topic. This is just the way Micah’s prophecy unfolds, and it is surely by design. Just when we would write off Israel (as so many Christians do today), God reminds us he has not ceased to deal with his earthly people just because he has taken a heavenly people for himself.

Historical and Future Interpretations

Some commentators view these two verses historically, as describing the Lord’s care for his people during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem retold in Kings, Chronicles and Isaiah. That was indeed a pivotal moment in Judean history. If not for God’s gracious response to Hezekiah’s prayer, Judah would have gone into captivity at roughly the same time as Israel, rather than a century later.

In that view, the walled city of Jerusalem would be the fold, and the Lord would be the shepherd gathering his people in one place, keeping them safe from the Assyrian army. Once the angel of the Lord had struck down the Assyrians, the people would come out joyfully through the gate of the city to look on the desolate camp of their stricken enemies.

However, it is also possible (and in my view more likely) to read these verses as being fully realized in a future day, when the Lord will preserve the remnant of Israel against not just Assyrians, but the armies of the vast majority of the world. As much as Hezekiah was an unusually godly king, Micah still indicts the people of Judah for plenty of evil-doing. Though well-governed, their hearts remained disposed to idolatry, and their rich inclined to injustice, and they returned to their bad habits with a vengeance immediately upon the death of Hezekiah. Once his wicked son Manasseh came to power, the people promptly showed their true colors.

A Future Regathering

The idea that the import of these two prophetic verses might have been fully realized in a siege-gathering of those whose judgment was only temporarily delayed seems insufficient to say the least. Moreover, in these verses, the Lord is not just Shepherd but also King. Given that Hezekiah was already king during the Assyrian reprieve, that makes one too many kings for me. I find the historical interpretation inadequate.

In my view, the passage points to a future regathering of Israel and a time in which the Lord will once again be king over his people, and will lead them out victoriously against their enemies.

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