Saturday, October 29, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (9)

Chapter 4 begins with three verses of text that are strikingly similar to Isaiah 2:2-4. The differences between the two passages are trivial: in Micah, the words ʿam (“peoples”, which can mean either “nations” or “tribes”) and gôy (“nations”) are reversed at the end of verse 1, the beginning of verse 2 and the beginning of verse 3, but since they are clearly being used as synonyms, nothing of significance turns on that. Also, in verse 3 Isaiah has “He … shall decide disputes for many peoples”, while Micah has “strong nations far away”.

Other than these minute differences and a couple of irrelevant prepositions, the passages are word-for-word identical in the original Hebrew. Most of our English translations reflect this.

Micah 4:1-3 — The Common Text

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore …”

Chickens and Eggs

Which passage came first: Micah or Isaiah? Both prophets ministered in the 8th century BC, during the reigns of the Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah commenced his ministry toward the end of the lengthy reign of Jotham’s father Uzziah, and probably continued to preach for some time after Micah had ceased. While Micah briefly mentions the fall of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, in chapter 1, both prophets direct their messages primarily toward the people of Judah. The original audiences and timeframes for both passages are therefore indistinguishable.

Now, it is certainly not impossible that the Holy Spirit in his sovereignty gave precisely the same revelation to two different prophets during the same time period, but that is neither a necessary conclusion nor the most probable scenario: one almost surely came first and was repurposed by the other. Even so, the lack of attribution is not a problem. There are many unattributed quotations in scripture, and quotation marks did not exist in ancient Hebrew. The original audience would almost surely have known the source of the quotation without it being specified.

Some commentators infer Isaiah’s text is the original because he includes an introductory statement Micah does not: “The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” However, Isaiah likely intended this introduction to apply to everything he is about to say from chapter 2 through the end of chapter 5, which is a continuous revelation tied together by repeated references to a coming era he calls “that day”. This being the case, a relatively brief quotation repurposed from Micah would not falsify his introduction.

If we assume the early chapters of Isaiah are given to us in chronological order (of which there is no guarantee), then they precede the revelation in chapter 6 which took place “in the year that King Uzziah died”, and therefore also precede Micah’s version. But this too is improbable, as Isaiah 6 appears to record Isaiah’s original call to service, which could suggest Micah began his ministry a little earlier than Isaiah, as Jotham was co-regent with his father Uzziah for at least four years.

Text analysts observe that while the style of the passage is consistent with other parts of Isaiah, it also includes several words and phrases found in the previous chapter of Micah. No help there. (There is one more tiny hint to come that Micah might be the original author, but we’ll have to save that for next week.)

So then, which passage came first? Nobody knows with absolute certainty, and the answer is probably not that important. The fact that it occurs twice, however, makes it very important indeed. Evidently, the Holy Spirit wanted to make sure these precious promises of future glory for Israel wouldn’t be lost in the surrounding sea of prophetic rebuke against the sins of the nation.

Messianic and Millennial

The passage appears to be both Messianic (“let us go up … to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways” and “He [Messiah] shall judge between many peoples”) and Millennial. Attempts to apply these words to a period of Jewish prominence in the Medo-Persian Empire after the events chronicled in the Book of Esther seem badly misguided for three reasons:

  • Firstly, the passage begins with “It shall come to pass in the latter days”. That expression has a range of meanings in scripture, but usually refers to longer than a couple hundred years. (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Bible Theology asserts that there are also usages of similar “day” expressions that locate the day being discussed in the time of the writer or speaker, but having examined all the verses in question, I can find no evidence this is true of the phrase “latter days”.)
  • Secondly, the concluding statement that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” suggests a state of long-lasting, generalized peace on earth that surely cannot be assigned to a few years of relative stability during the era of Medo-Persian world dominance. This hope of coming global harmony became the expectation of the nation, its fulfillment heralded by angels at the birth of Messiah: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” However, in our Lord’s first advent, he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” We, as well as Israel, still look for that promised peace in the wake of his return. But the fact that the godly in Israel were still looking for the fulfillment of this promise in the first century strongly suggests they did not hold to a historical fulfillment of the passage.
  • Thirdly, there is a reference in both versions to many nations streaming to Zion to be taught the law. While the events chronicled in the book of Esther did cause many Gentiles to identify as Jews, the post-exilic historical books of scripture make no reference to mass Gentile pilgrimages to Jerusalem such as are described here. (The Hebrew word translated “flow” implies a continuous stream of visitors.)

My conclusion? The historical interpretation of the passage is logically bankrupt.

A Historical Interpretation?

Notwithstanding the difficulties with a historical interpretation of these verses, adherents of certain prophetic schools still prefer it. These find it necessary to understand references to the mountain of the house of the Lord being “lifted up”, and words like “hills” as figures of speech only, since to date they manifestly have not occurred literally. And indeed, the passage certainly goes on to assign great spiritual prominence to the Zion of a coming day.

However, we can find several references in the prophecies of Ezekiel to huge and violent topographical changes in Israel. Zechariah confirms this idea: “The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate.” Such language is so specific as to make a figurative interpretation quite a stretch; it begs to be read literally, and there is no reason (other than dogmatic adherence to a contradictory eschatalogical system) not to do so.

A Glorious Picture

The picture, then, is one of lasting peace and safety during the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 72 expresses the nation’s longing for this period and its king:

“May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

The prophets are clear that Messiah will rule from Zion not only over Israel, but over the entire planet. Today, when nations have disputes with one another, we experience crises that shake the economies and spirits of men and women almost everywhere, and leave us wondering if and when the nuclear option might be considered. Under Christ, no disagreement will ever escalate to that level. Under his direction, there will be no need to maintain armies, navies and nuclear arsenals. Imagine the entire defense budgets of every nation on earth repurposed to feeding the poor and caring for the needy!

But there is not just political leadership. There is also the spiritual direction the world has always needed, and which no scenario that contemplates a man-made heaven-on-earth can ever provide (that includes Christo-utopians like the post-millennialists). In Micah, the passage follows chapter 3’s exploration of the spiritual failings of Israel’s leaders: the greedy rulers, prophets and priests who only exercised their offices for the benefits they could get from them. In Christ, the world has a leader who will “teach us his ways ... that we may walk in his paths”. He may shepherd the nations with a rod of iron, but he will also give no end of spiritual enlightenment to any who humbly seek it.

In summary, then, we have two virtually identical passages in two prophetic contemporaries telling us much the same things the Psalms have taught us to expect about our world’s future. But the two contexts in which these revelations are given are quite different, as, no doubt, were the two authors’ purposes in placing them where they did. We will consider that next week.

No comments :

Post a Comment