Saturday, November 12, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (11)

From John Gill’s introduction to Micah 4:

“This chapter contains some gracious promises concerning the glory and happiness of the church of Christ in the last days; as of its stability, exaltation, and increase, and of the spread of the Gospel from it, Mic 4:1, 2; and of the peace and security of it, and constant profession and exercise of religion in it, Mic 4:3-5; and of the deliverance of it from affliction and distress, and the ample and everlasting kingdom of Christ in it, Mic 4:6-8; and then follow some prophecies more particularly respecting the Jews; as that, though they should be in distress, and be carried captive into Babylon, they should be delivered from thence, Mic 4:9, 10; and, though many people should be gathered against them, yet should not be able to prevail over them, but their attempts would issue in their own destruction, Mic 4:11-13.”

Hmm. Notice anything weird here?

Anything prophetic that involves glory, happiness, stability, exaltation and increase applies to the Church; anything prophetic that involves distress and captivity applies to the Jews, despite the fact that doing so requires “Zion” and “Jerusalem” to mean completely different things right in the same passage.

Does that seem a fair and consistent way to interpret scripture? I’ll let you be the judge. We will take the position that all these verses alike apply to ethnic Israelites, though at different times in history. (I hate to use a term like “ethnic Israelites” at all, but it becomes necessary to clarify when others have appropriated “Israel” to describe the Church. I can’t use “national Israel”, because in many passages in Micah both Israel and Judah have lost their nationhood.)

Micah 4:6-7 — Lame, Thrust Out and Afflicted

“In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore.”

The Lame

The word “lame” is the same Hebrew term used of the patriarch Jacob after he wrestled with the angel. It does not mean entirely unable to walk, like Mephibosheth, but refers to a visible indication of weakness and reduced mobility: a limp. God delights in choosing the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and he will do so with the least of his people driven out among the nations when they call on his name. “The lame” is obviously figurative. Literally, it is “her that limps” (specifically feminine), not referring to lame individuals but rather to the personified Judah in its weakness as a political and national entity. It is status in the world that is in view here, not spiritual state, though that will also need to be dealt with. (Spiritual “lameness” is the inability to live righteously for the pleasure of God.) It is these diaspora Hebrews that God will make his remnant; a restored, righteous group of believing Israelites whom the Lord will call back to their home.

Zephaniah, writing almost a century later, would say something very similar:

“Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.”

He too is speaking of this coming restoration in language virtually identical to Micah’s. He also mentions …

The Outcasts

In the phrase “those who were cast off”, the words “cast off” are more literally “thrust out”. The sense is not so much discarded as evicted. Micah probably intended to refer to the promise of Deuteronomy 30, where Moses has called the people together to renew the covenant in Moab. He predicts Israel will turn away and worship the gods of the nations, and that God will thrust them out from the land because of it. But if they repent and return to the Lord, he assures them, “If your outcasts [same word] are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you.” This is the promise to which Nehemiah would later appeal in prayer while serving King Artaxerxes, which God answered by sending him to rebuild Jerusalem.

The Afflicted

The term used for “afflicted” here can mean either injured or completely shattered. Jacob used it to describe his treatment by Laban, saying, “God did not permit him to harm me.” He had suffered considerable frustration and inconvenience, working day and night, but Laban could not break him. It is also used concerning Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt, which was more severe than anything Jacob suffered at Laban’s hands.

In this case, it is not merely that Judah would be afflicted, but that God himself would afflict them. Unlike Laban and the Egyptians, his purpose in so doing is disciplinary rather than self-interested or ruinous.

A Millennial Outlook

Micah is not merely looking forward to Nehemiah’s rebuilt Jerusalem, but rather to something much greater. While a remnant of Israel did indeed return to the land, you would certainly not have referred to them as “a strong nation”. Judah had governors rather than kings for the next few hundred years, and was reduced to the status of a province in successive world empires — Persia, Greece and Rome — before being expelled from the land once again in AD70. So Micah is really speaking of a day still future when he says, “The Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore.” This will be a great kingdom with the greatest of Kings. He can only be referring to the millennial reign of Christ, which we can infer from the words “In that day” at the beginning of verse 6 — “that day” being the “latter days” of verses 1-5.

If that seems too obvious, bear with me. Like many of the other prophets, Micah tends to jump around from present to future to far-flung future, so it is necessary to stop and locate ourselves from time to time. And despite being apparently obvious, there are many like John Gill who do not read it that way.

Micah 4:8 — The Once and Future King

“And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.”

The female imagery reappears here (“daughter of Zion”, “daughter of Jerusalem”). Zion and Jerusalem are places; their “daughters” are those born there. But the description “daughter” rings true in a sense Micah and his original audience probably never thought much about, referring in Hebrew to both literal daughters and also to any female offspring of a descendant, even a very distant one. The original audience, of course, is centuries in the grave. The Jews returning at the beginning of the millennium will be the long-distant offspring of their rebellious forebears.

If we leave God out of the picture, some of the things predicted by the prophets might reasonably be discounted as comparatively easy guesses. For example, having lived during the period when the powerful Assyrian army swept away the people of Samaria, predicting they (or later, Babylon) might do the same to Jerusalem was not exactly a long shot. They either would or wouldn’t (50/50), and they were doing it successfully to everyone else.

But other predictions seem to come out of left field. For example, how did Micah know kingship would become an issue for Israel? He prophesied during the reigns of three Judean kings, and though he had been told his people would shortly go into exile, he also knew they would eventually be restored. Micah had no reason to imagine that more than 2.5 millennia of king-lessness would be part of God’s disciplinary package for Israel. He could never have made that up on his own.

So kingship will return to kingless Jerusalem, and we are in no doubt about the identity of the king, for it is the Lord himself who “shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away.”

At least that’s how I see it. How interpretations of the text that put us in the millennium today fulfill such promises satisfactorily in any sense at all is difficult to see, no matter how distantly metaphorical they be. If our churches can truly be called glorious, happy, stable or exalted today, the prophesied millennial reign has turned out to be a sad parody of any devout Israelite’s hopes and expectations.

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