Saturday, November 05, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (10)

Last week we invested a couple thousand words in discussing the three verses Micah and Isaiah have in common. The differences between the two passages in the original Hebrew are so miniscule as to not be worthy of lengthy discussion. It is obvious these two prophetic contemporaries were right on the same page in their messages to the nation of Judah at a time when, if not for the reforms of King Hezekiah, it might well have joined its sister kingdom in Assyrian exile.

However, from this point on the preachers part ways. This week I’d like to consider the differences between the two sermons that follow.

An Appeal to Judah

For the sake of clarity, I’ll repeat that 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 …”

The text-in-common with Isaiah 2 ends here. In Isaiah, “neither shall they learn war anymore” is the end of his final sentence. The prophet then caps off his version of this Messianic millennial prophecy with a logical and appropriate appeal to his 8th century BC audience in Judah: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” “In view of this vision of future earthly glory to which we have been introduced,” he says in effect, “let us behave accordingly, as ancestors of the citizens of an unprecedented world empire, the political and spiritual nexus of its age — and as subjects of the Lord, who will one day rule over both a reunited Israel and the entire planet.”

If godly Hezekiah was king at the time, this appeal was genuinely hopeful and, initially at least, the outward public response to it may have been quite favorable.

Isaiah’s Sermon

From there, Isaiah goes straight into what appears to be a description of Israel at the end of the coming Great Tribulation period, a state not wildly dissimilar in its true character to that of Judah at the time he was preaching. Hezekiah’s reforms were remarkable but not long lasting. They changed Judah’s religious practices for a few years but did not touch its corrupted heart. The moment Hezekiah’s son Manasseh ascended to the throne, Judah leaped at the chance to plunge right back into idolatry with a vengeance. God had repeatedly warned his people, but the writer of Kings gives this sad commentary about his nation: “They did not listen, and Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” During his 55 year reign, Manasseh undid literally everything his godly father had done. This could never have happened without the willing collaboration of the people over whom he ruled.

Isaiah’s focus, then, is on a materially-affluent-but-spiritually-corrupt future version of his nation that is “full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines”; whose land is “full of silver and gold” but also “filled with idols”. This is a nation ready to make a literal deal with the devil when offered: they “strike hands with the children of foreigners”. Like Judah, who would have to go through Babylonian exile to learn repentance and humility, these future Israelites must go through the “time of Jacob’s trouble” in order to be humbled, purified and restored.

However, in Micah, that final common sentence is not quite over. He is going a different direction.

Micah 4:4-5 — The Uncommon Text

“… but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.”

Vines and Fig Trees

While Isaiah considers the Great Tribulation, Micah remains in the millennial reign of Christ. Isaiah describes a scene in which men will “hide in the dust” and “enter the caves of the rocks and the holes in the ground” in a vain attempt to escape “the terror of the Lord” and “the splendor of his majesty”, whereas Micah bypasses the Lord’s return and goes straight to its results: world peace. Israelites and Gentiles alike will be blissfully unconcerned with national differences and pending strife; rather, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid”.

However, the specific language Micah employs here is quite interesting. If you are familiar with 2 Kings, those vines and fig trees sound awfully familiar. Here, from precisely the period in question, is the Assyrian Rabshakeh’s offer to the people of Judah hiding in fear behind the walls of Jerusalem:

“Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die.”

Satan offers an alternative to what God is offering that sometimes looks impressively like the real thing, but as usual, Satan cheats his gullible patsies.

An Argument for Micah as Original Author?

Now, it may be that eating of your own vine or sitting under your own fig tree are ancient Middle Eastern euphemisms for prosperity common to both Judah and Assyria. Perhaps everyone used them. In fact, earlier in Kings the days of Solomon are described like so: “And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree.” Even so, the coincidence of expressions here seems quite remarkable. The Rabshakeh’s utopian vision is a counterfeit version of Micah’s. Sure, the Judeans will eat of their own vines and fig trees, but only until he returns to take them into exile. The only real upside? They will live and not die. (Of course if you know anything about the history and tactics of the Assyrian army, that too could have been a lie.)

So which came first? Is Micah anticipating the Rabshakeh’s offer to his people, and pointing instead to a coming day when the vines and fig trees under which they sit in peace will always be theirs under the protection of Messiah? Or, in the days after God miraculously repulsed the Assyrian army, is Micah perhaps reminding Judah that the Lord has something far better in store for them? And why doesn’t Isaiah include these verses, particularly since he appears to have been present in Jerusalem during the Assyrian siege, while we know nothing of Micah’s whereabouts at that time? We can’t answer these questions, but the existence of this “extended version” of the text-in-common may argue in favor of Micah as their original author.

The Mouth of the Lord of Hosts

The expression “the Lord of hosts” occurs 268 times in the Old Testament. It refers to God in his capacity as head of both the armies of heaven and the army of Israel; as Israel’s protection in time of trouble; as the exalted Judge; as the Holy One enthroned above the cherubim; as the Destroyer of empires; and ultimately as the King of glory. In Psalm 24 it is almost certainly a title of Christ. Thus when Micah says, “no one shall make them afraid”, there is no uncertainty about it. It is “the mouth of the Lord of hosts” that has spoken; not some mere local deity, but the rightful ruler of all the nations of earth and of the hosts of heaven.

A Firm Resolution

Finally, Micah returns to the present in a way that is slightly different from Isaiah’s appeal. Where Isaiah pleads, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord”, Micah finishes by declaring, “For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.” This is not an appeal. It’s a statement of resolution akin to Joshua’s famous “as for me and my house” declaration. Perhaps this is because Micah is talking to and about a different group of Israelites than Isaiah, who is dealing with the coming fate of the Israel-in-name-only that we see occupying the land of that name today. Micah, on the other hand, is addressing the godly remnant of Israel, a group he first mentioned in 2:12 and will refer to again in next week’s passage from chapter 4.

Not to make too much of a small detail, but there is also a difference is what each group is doing. Isaiah pleads with Judah to walk with him “in the light of the Lord”, which may be to say “in accordance with God’s revelation”. Repentance and obedience are simply common sense given the power and glory of the God of Israel and the future he offers his people, but even a nation given the greatest light of all may still choose whether or not to respond to that light. Historically, we know they did not, and do not do so today. However, Micah says, “we will walk in the name of the Lord”. To walk in his name is to willingly act as his representatives on earth, to live as servants of Christ continually, whether or not circumstances are favorable.

We would do well to do the same.

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