Saturday, October 15, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (7)

As with most other Bible prophets, the book of Micah is a combination of direct quotes from the mouth of God, instruction from God in what appear to be the prophet’s words, and the prophet’s own divinely-inspired observations. (In some prophetic books we even get a bit of history.)

This being the case, and the speaker-distinctions not always being instantly obvious, we have to watch our pronouns: in Micah, “I” is not always the same person.

Changing Speakers

In chapter 1 for example, we would be silly to attribute “I will make Samaria a heap in the open country” to the prophet. He hadn’t got the power for that sort of thing. It is obviously God speaking. But two verses later, when we read “I will lament and wail, I will go stripped and naked”, it is evident we have had a change of speakers. As a faithful member of the Israelite remnant, Micah is expressing his own distress at the word he has received from God concerning his people.

From chapter 2 verse 3 onward, God has been speaking to the nation. As we begin chapter 3, it is apparent Micah has taken over again. The “And I said” that starts the passage is our first clue, and the third person reference to “the Lord” in verse 4 settles it.

Micah 3:1-3 — Heads and Rulers at Lunch

“And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice? — you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron.”

Micah identifies himself with an oppressed nation under the thumb of princes and rulers who are only out for themselves and who do not respect the authority God has given them to do good on behalf of their nation. (Sound familiar, American readers?) The words “my people” occur ten times in the book, several times from the Lord directly, but at least six times in passages like this one where Micah is expressing what appear to be his own thoughts. Like Daniel, he does not see himself as distinct from his nation, but certainly as very distinct from their masters. There is “my people”, and then there are the powerful men he pictures devouring their own nation: skinning, flaying, breaking bones, chopping, stewing and finally consuming.

It’s a grisly picture and obviously non-literal. But it well describes rulers who see those they rule only as a means of fattening themselves and bettering their own lot. It is also a remarkably short-sighted way to rule. It would be like shepherds who never think in terms of feeding or caring for the flock so they can produce milk and wool, but simply keep them penned up in order to consume them one after another. Eventually they will eat themselves out of a job, and what then would be the difference between the shepherds and the wolves?

Micah asks, “Is it not for you to know justice?” Of course. As Paul tells us, in God’s economy, rulers are his servants for the common good. Their job is to render judgment in favor of the oppressed and to punish the wrongdoer, not to use their position to destroy their own people.

Micah 3:4 — A Hidden Face

“Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.”

A Christian never has to worry about God hiding his face. We may sometimes feel like our prayers are not reaching heaven, but that is a subjective impression that may be caused by any number of factors. We have the completed word of God to refer to, and nothing to cause us to expect extra-biblical written or verbal direction. All we have to do is look to what God has already given us. But before the completion of the canon, life was not like that. God would often speak directly to men through his prophets, and men could inquire of him in times of distress by consulting a priest and his ephod, as David often did in his early years.

However, in times past, when men refused to hear what God had to say or to respect his commands, he generally did two things. First, he changed the conditions around them so as to cause them to ask what has gone wrong and to look for solutions. Secondly, he went silent. The prophets would have nothing to say. Urim and Thummim would give no answer. After all, Israel had already been told what God wanted from them. They were not in need of a new word from the Lord; they needed to act in obedience to the word they had already received and repent of their unfaithfulness. Until that occured, God had nothing more to say to them.

Micah 3:5-7 — The End of Prophetic Vision

“Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.”

Pressure to Conform

In verses 5-7, Micah moves from the heads and rulers to the prophets who falsely claimed to speak for God to their nation. Much like our present day media, these men were smart enough to propagate a narrative that served only their own purposes. Give them something to eat, and they would tell you what you wanted to hear: that you were not in any danger and life would go on as you were used to. Fail to deliver the goods and they would deliver an unfavorable verdict about the nation’s future, much like the beggar who calls down imprecations on those who pass by his proffered coffee cup without throwing in a coin or two. Far from speaking for God, they were entirely for sale.

We can get an idea of what it must have been like for the true prophet of God — a rarity in those days — from a story we find in the last chapter of 1 Kings, though it actually took place 150 years earlier in Israel during the reign of Ahab. Four hundred false prophets gathered to tell Ahab what he wanted to hear. Only Micaiah told the truth, and even he was counseled “Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” Imagine the pressure to conform involved in such a confrontation!

The Test of a True Prophet

God’s strategy with false prophets was the same as with the heads and rulers: simply stop talking. He would give the prophets nothing to say. And since they insisted on making up their own words and putting them in God’s mouth, he would confound their wisdom and repeatedly prove them wrong, humiliating them in front of the people they were trying to fool. As always, the test of a true prophet was whether what he said came true. Micaiah prophesied the death of Ahab. The king reacted by putting him in jail until he returned from battle safely. Micaiah simply responded, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.”

The true servant of God has that sort of confidence, even today. He knows he is delivering a message from God faithfully, and he counts on his Master to stand behind the word he has given him. Ahab never made it back from Ramoth-gilead. He died propped up in his chariot. So the four hundred were proved liars, and the lone prophet’s word proved true.

Micah 3:8 — A Lone Prophetic Voice?

“But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.”

Like Micaiah, Micah can speak with confidence. “I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord.” Though in the minority, he spoke the truth and he knew it. But Micah was far from the only prophet in Judah during his lifetime. He wasn’t even the most significant; Isaiah is much better known today, and was probably better known then too. As we will see when we come to chapter 4, they were sending very much the same message to the same people at roughly the same time.

But of course Micah is not claiming to be the only true prophet in Israel during his lifetime. His outcry is not against all other prophets, but against “the prophets who lead my people astray”.

Isaiah was definitely not one of those.

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