Saturday, October 22, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (8)

It has been pointed out more than once that, like Jonah’s prophesy of the destruction of Nineveh, Micah’s prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem was not fulfilled in his lifetime. When the people of Nineveh repented, God gave them another century before razing the city to the ground. When the people of Judah repented, he gave them something like a century and a half.

That doesn’t make Micah’s messages to Judah between 740 and 700 BC or thereabouts, which we have recorded for us here, either irrelevant or inaccurate. It certainly doesn’t mean God’s word was nullified. It just means his pronouncements against Judah came true later rather than sooner.

God’s verdict wasn’t “case dismissed”, it was “judgment delayed”. Chapter 3 gives us a snapshot of the “court proceedings”.

Charges and Consequences

Micah alternates between God’s charges against the people of his day and the judgments God had determined to inflict on them as a consequence. Despite a temporary repentance, by the time Judah went into Babylonian captivity, all the same wicked practices were true of its leadership once again:

v1-3 Charge The rulers treat their people like food.
4 Judgment God will not hear them when they cry out.
5 Charge The prophets only prophesy when you feed them.
6-7 Judgment God will put an end to the prophetic gift.
8 --- except for Micah (and other true prophets of the day) ---
9-11 Charge The rulers, priests and prophets only care about getting paid.
12 Judgment The destruction of Zion.

Actually, if you read Ezekiel, it had gotten worse. Much worse.

Micah 3:9-11 — Money, Money, Money

“Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.”

Crooked and Straight

John the Baptist was sent by God prior to the revelation of the Lord Jesus to his nation. He was tasked with making the crooked places straight and the rough places level, or so he says in Luke, quoting Isaiah. He leaves us in no doubt what this expression means in practice: he was to bring conviction of sin and repentance to Israel through his preaching of the truth. When men and women asked him what this “straightening of the crooked” would look like in Judean society, it all involved applied love and justice: sharing with those in need, treating others fairly, being content, and avoiding threats and false accusations.

Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah, and I think we can safely assume Micah is using “straight” and “crooked” in the same metaphorical sense as Isaiah. If we are in any doubt, Micah will shortly expand on what he means.

Aristotle on Money

By coincidence, I was reading Aristotle on ethics this week. He makes the point that money serves as a medium by which barter-type fair exchange can take place between those who grow or manufacture goods of different types. “Demand,” the philosopher wrote, “holds all things together, but money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand”, and therefore a means of achieving reciprocity between individuals in need of goods and services.

In this Aristotle was correct. When that’s all money does, serving only to facilitate mutually-beneficial exchanges between individuals, it is doing the job for which it was originally created, and there is nothing to criticize about that. Commerce and exchange are not intrinsically evil activities, and the medium by which they are enabled to take place (money) is in itself neither good nor evil; rather, it is the love of money that leads inexorably to injustice, unfairness, oppression, greed and every kind of evil, just as the scripture teaches. The love of money causes men to distort the prices of goods and services in order to increase the benefit to themselves.

More importantly, the love of money causes men to put a price on “goods” that should rightly be freely available to all. Justice, for example, should never have a price attached to it. Rich and poor alike should have equal access to justice at all times. Likewise, the knowledge of God — whether obtained by way of priest, prophet, or any other means — should not be something one must pay to acquire. This was partly what seems to have incensed the Lord Jesus on his visit to the temple: that his Father’s house had been converted into “a house of trade”, greed disguising itself as convenience or necessity.

Judgment for a Bribe

In Judah, as Micah points out, the civic and moral leadership had become thoroughly corrupted and relentlessly acquisitive. He accuses the judges and rulers of charging the people to render judgment. He accuses the priests of sharing their knowledge of what had already been written about God and his will only with those who could pay their fees, and the prophets of sharing their knowledge of what had not yet been written about God and the future only with those who could afford their services.

They did all of this with straight faces, insisting God remained on their side and would defend them against their enemies. “Is not the Lord in the midst of us?” they inquired rhetorically. This too is common among corrupt purveyors of religion. Their services only have value to others insofar as they can be associated with God. Remove him from the picture, and everyone loses interest in so-called prophets and priests. So we read that in the last days religious men will maintain the appearance of godliness, but not the substance. The primary motive? They are “lovers of money”.

This is not always out-and-out deliberate deception. Often the religionists themselves are quite deluded about their relationship to God: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?”

Micah 3:12 — Plowing Zion

“Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.”

Literal and Spiritual Zion

So much for the third series of charges against the Judean leadership. Now we come to the consequences: the promised destruction of the city of David.

The word “Zion” was originally not much more than a geographical term for a mountain with a Canaanite fortress on top. David took it from the Jebusites and made it his stronghold. In scripture, the word “Zion” began its usage as a synonym for “Jerusalem”, later becoming a metonym for the temple (“the mountain of the house”) and eventually even the entire nation of Israel. When we speak of “Zionists” today, we are talking about proponents of a national, political Israel. Spiritual “Zion”, on the other hand, is something not really contemplated in Old Testament Judaism. 

The first hint that “Zion”, though Jewish in origin, may represent something special to the Christian believer comes in 1 Peter. Like the earlier New Testament writers, Peter also quotes Isaiah, but here he uses the verse to back up his assertion that there is a new sort of “house of God”, a house built of living stones constructed around the Living Stone who was “rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious”. This “spiritual house” (as opposed to Israel’s earthly and physical house) is a “holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ”.

The City of the Living God

But the foundation of this spiritual priesthood, this new house, is a Living Stone laid “in Zion”. The concept is spelled out fully by the writer to the Hebrews, who says this:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

When the writer of Hebrews says we have “come to Mount Zion”, he is manifestly not speaking literally. I’ve never been to Israel, but because of the work of Christ I have come in spirit to a new thing entirely; a thing that stands in contrast to all that can be touched and heard. When I pray, I cannot see those “innumerable angels in festal gathering”. I cannot see the city itself, nor can I see the sprinkled blood, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, the Lord Jesus, the Father or even the “assembly of the firstborn”. But though they are not visible to me, I see them by faith. I come into this sanctuary not once a year like the High Priest under the Law of Moses, but every single time I engage in prayer, worship, praise or meditation on the person of Christ, and I unite myself with a chorus of fellow worshipers, servants and sons.

Plowed and Unplowed

We find the word “Zion” used ten times in Micah. Other than the Psalms, these are among the earliest occurrences of the term in scripture. None of the wonderful spiritual baggage we enjoy today had attached itself to the word “Zion” in those early days when Micah used it as a synonym for “Jerusalem”. The Assyrian armies never conquered Jerusalem, but the Babylonians certainly did.

In stark contrast, the Zion to which the Christian has come will never be “plowed as a field”.

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