Saturday, December 03, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (14)

From one end of the Bible to another, the Holy Spirit quite frequently assigns layers of spiritual significance to real personages, cities and nations.

In Ezekiel, for example, the “prince of Tyre” is an analog for Satan himself. Manifestly, the real, human prince of Tyre never appeared in Eden. Likewise, John calls Jerusalem “Sodom and Egypt” in the book of Revelation, perhaps because the people of that city have at times displayed the moral character of both places. Again, in Galatians, Paul uses Hagar and Sarah as allegories for two covenants.

Observing this principle may help us with a few verses in Micah 5 when our attempts to interpret him literally hit the wall. Back to that thought in a bit. Let’s do the comparatively easy stuff first.

Micah 5:3 — A Woman in Labor

“Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.”

It follows that the “he” of verse 3 refers to verse 2’s future “ruler in Israel” who was later to come forth from Bethlehem, but who was already currently in existence and had been since prior to the beginnings of human history. That can really only refer to one individual, right? The “them” this prestigious person shall give up presumably refers to verse 2’s “clans of Judah”. “Give them up” is nāṯan, an extremely common Hebrew word usually meaning to hand over into the care of someone else. The sense seems to be that the Lord Jesus will give his people into the hands of the king of Babylon for a specific period, which Jeremiah would later limit to seventy years. Historically, this is precisely what occurred, though Babylon would fall to the Medo-Persian Empire before Judah’s return to Jerusalem.

That means we need to identify “she who is in labor”, which shouldn’t be difficult. In the previous chapter, Micah addressed the inhabitants of Zion at the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and says, “Now why do you cry aloud? Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished, that pain seized you like a woman in labor? Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in labor, for now you shall go out from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued; there the Lord will redeem you from the hand of your enemies.” The deep national and spiritual distress Judah had already begun to experience as a result of their idolatry and rampant injustice would continue until it produced fruit in the form of repentance (see Daniel’s prayer on behalf of his people), after which the Lord would redeem his people and bring them home to Jerusalem.

The phrase “the rest of his brothers” may have had an odd ring for the Judeans of Micah’s time, but the Lord Jesus refers to both believing Jews and Gentiles as his brothers numerous times in scripture. David speaks in Messiah’s voice about telling the name of God to his “brothers”. In Matthew he says of his own disciples, “My mother and my brothers.” Paul calls the Son the “firstborn among many brothers”. And indeed, the “King of the Jews” must be a Jew.

Micah 5:4-5 — The Peace of the Shepherd

“And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”

As happens regularly in the prophets, Micah now jumps thousands of years down the road between verses, from the 6th century BC to an indeterminate date still future. Interpreting Bible prophecy has often been compared to viewing a mountain range from a distance: You can count all the mountaintops one after the other, but you can’t make out the deep valleys between the mountains or measure their length and depth. The present church age lies in one of these prophetic “valleys”, and Micah is leaping from peak to peak, the devout in his audience no doubt attempting with some difficulty to trace his path through their future.

In this case, we have leapt forward once again from Judah’s return to Jerusalem around 538 BC to the millennial reign of Christ. In the process, we have bypassed: (1) the Lord’s first coming to his own; (2) the nation’s rejection of their Messiah and subsequent period of being “cut off” from the blessings of God; and (3) the great tribulation, the “time of Jacob’s trouble”, which scripture also compares to the travails of a woman in labor. All these intermediate events would have been invisible from a 7th century BC perspective, though a careful reader might infer them from other prophetic scriptures. And of course the Judeans of Micah’s day never even imagined the church.

Here, the prophet stresses the security of God’s people during the millennium, and the glory of their King. The “prince of peace” will bring peace to his people and impose it on the nations as well.

Micah 5:5-6 — The Mysterious Assyrian

“When the Assyrian comes into our land and treads in our palaces, then we will raise against him seven shepherds and eight princes of men; they shall shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod at its entrances; and he shall deliver us from the Assyrian when he comes into our land and treads within our border.”

Literal and Figurative

Micah prophesied at a time when Assyria was the dominant empire in his part of the world. But the Assyrians would never take Jerusalem; the angel of the Lord saw to that. We do not know whether Micah’s prophecy of chapter 5 was given prior to, during or after the failed Assyrian invasion of Judah, but it does not correspond well either with what is known of secular history or with the Old Testament account of that period. While Jerusalem miraculously rebuffed the Assyrian army, its people could never claim to “shepherd [rule] the land of Assyria with the sword”. When the Assyrian Empire finally fell and was subsequently absorbed into the next major world power, it was to Babylon, not Judah.

Accordingly, some interpreters believe “the Assyrian” is a figurative designation for some great enemy of God’s people. Ellicott mentions commentators who refer “the Assyrian” to the intertestamental Maccabean period, making him an analog for the Seleucids or Syrians, and the “seven shepherds” the Hasmoneans who rebelled against these enemies with some degree of success. However, this passage and the verses that follow indicate not just resistance but conquest of these enemies. The Maccabees successfully resisted conquest and even at times re‑established Israel’s borders as in its glory years, but they were not conquerors of other nations.

More Speculation

The number seven also has spiritual significance, being often called the number of completion, so it is suggested the “seven shepherds” simply indicates a sufficiency of leadership rather than an actual number of leaders. Getting even further afield, a few commentators see in the “seven shepherds” the leadership of the church successfully resisting the enmity of the world, or the chiefs of the Medes and Babylonians who ultimately overthrew (literal) Assyria. Some see the Assyrian as Satan himself. Needless to say, there are significant problems with each of these interpretations.

At least one modern commentator identifies the Assyrian of whom Micah speaks with the Antichrist and his kingdom with the heavily Islamic modern nations of Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (historically, Assyria). I am not quite there in my thinking at this point, but since none of the historical or purely figurative interpretations of the passage is particularly satisfactory, I am likewise leaning toward a futurist reading, not least because the words “he shall deliver us” suggest a personal appearance from future Israel’s shepherd-ruler of verses 2-5. Comparing Isaiah and Ezekiel, Ted Montgomery suggests the Assyrian may be the “Gog” of Ezekiel 38, which seems a better fit than the Antichrist.

Knowing Our Limitations

In the end, we are more than a little bit like the Judeans of Micah’s day staring at mountain peaks in the distance. They gazed at the mountain range from one side, while we are in the middle of the range, in a valley between two peaks. Trying to map the invisible territory outside our own valley and field of vision with pinpoint accuracy is almost as much an exercise in speculation as it would have been for Micah’s original audience.

One thing is for sure: we’ll know it when we see it.

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