Saturday, December 17, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (16)

Micah 6 plays out like a courtroom drama, but with a few notable differences from your average episode of Law and Order. The God of Israel is both plaintiff and judge. The defendant is the nation of Judah. The prophet Micah takes on the role of prosecuting attorney. The witnesses are the personification of eternal solidity: the backbone of the earth.

It’s an unusual cast of characters, and the trial proceeds a little differently than people familiar with Western justice systems might expect. For one, there is no cross-examination of the Plaintiff’s testimony: who would dare call the Eternal God a liar? There is no jury to give a verdict, which is what we might expect when the only things in the courtroom other than God, his people and his prophet are inanimate objects.

Verse 1-2 opens the courtroom to the witnesses and invites the defendant to make its case. Verses 3-5 reveal the Plaintiff’s spotless credentials. Verses 6-7 allow the defendants to speak and protest their innocence. Verse 8 is Micah’s reply that the defendants have the requisite guilty mind, and knew God’s law before they broke it. Verses 9-12 have God laying out his case against the nation, and in verses 13-16, he delivers Judah’s sentence.

Micah 6:1-2 — An Invitation to Make a Case

“Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.”

It’s axiomatic that God is always right. He’s God. One who is all-powerful, all-knowing and infinitely wise has no need to make his case against men in a courtroom. Nobody has the right to demand he put on a show for the world. If he wanted to, he could move straight to executing the sentence against sinners without saying a single word, while remaining absolutely righteous, just and fair. Even if anyone thought him unreasonable, nobody in the universe has the power to stop him.

But God doesn’t work like that. For God, it is not enough to be right. It also matters to him that he be seen to be right, and that his creation agrees with him about his judgments. Moreover, he takes no pleasure in passing judgment and executing sentences. That is always a last resort. He is looking to produce repentance in the guilty so that he can bless rather than destroy.

Some commentators have pointed out that in scripture, mountains and hills may symbolize larger and smaller nations. In such a scenario, when the Lord invites Israel (through Judah, the only part of Israel remaining at this point, and the group Micah was directly addressing) to plead its case before the “mountains”, he would be saying that even the pagan nations would reject their arguments if they were to make them.

Then again, mountains have more than one significance in scripture (they are most frequently associated with both worship and revelation), and in this case the aspect of the mountains that makes them appropriate to stand in judgment is that they are the “enduring foundations of the earth”. Nations come and go. One would hardly refer to them as enduring or foundational. Where are the great empires of history today? I confess I find it hard to imagine the Lord inviting Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or even Rome to weigh in on his judgments.

The scriptures also speak of mountains as if they have human qualities from time to time, a literary trick called personification. Micah’s contemporary Isaiah, for example, has mountains singing more than once. We must remember that there is no actual trial occurring. The scenario is a poetic device used to set out God’s case against Israel. I believe what God is saying here is that the mountains have been present since creation. Unlike men who come and go in a flash, and nations, which come and go over centuries, the mountains are witnesses to everything that has ever happened on earth and therefore qualified to examine a case where the crimes extend over centuries. The implication is that if the mountains were sentient, they would hardly be sympathetic to Judah’s cause.

Micah 6:3-5 — The Plaintiff’s Spotless Credentials

“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”

Some commentators on this chapter put God in the dock, to steal a turn of phrase from C.S. Lewis. For example, with respect to these opening lines, Terence Fretheim writes, “God interacts with the people about their concerns; God does not dismiss their complaining as inappropriate or bring them into court because they have dared to question God!” If you read Fretheim, you might think God is defending himself. But if you look carefully at the context, it is the other way around. “The Lord has an indictment against his people.” He is contending with Israel. He challenges them, “Answer me!” No, Judah is in the dock, not YHWH. This is not an invitation for the nation to air its grievances with God so he can explain himself to them; there is none of that to be found in the chapter. Rather, this is a plea for a change of heart. The Lord is challenging Judah to explain the way they have failed to respond to repeated acts of grace. He is pre-emptively stripping them of any defense for their behavior and revealing their ingratitude and forgetfulness.

God reminds Israel that he has redeemed them, given them leadership and direction, protected them and given them a home. He brought them out of Egypt. He gave them Moses, Aaron and Miriam. When Balak sought to have them cursed, God ensured Balaam blessed them instead. The Sermon Writer website points out that “Shittim was the Israelites last campsite prior to crossing the Jordan River, and Gilgal was their first campsite inside the Promised Land.” The phrase “from Shittim to Gilgal”, then, is shorthand for giving Israel entry into the Promised Land by way of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River. God’s credentials with respect to Israel were spotless. In every way, he had dealt with his people favorably, and they had rewarded his goodness with persistent idolatry and injustice to one another.

Micah 6:6-8 — Judah’s Case

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Here Micah puts the thoughts of Judeans into words in response to God’s query. He gives their legalistic state of mind a rhetorical voice, and exposes the disingenuousness of their position. Perhaps he had heard such theological niceties debated in the temple or on the streets of Jerusalem. The questions he asks on behalf of his nation are similar to those posed by the lawyer and the rich young ruler to the Lord Jesus: “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The implication is that God is looking for something too difficult from them, as if God is a “hard man”, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he scattered no seed. “What should we do?” they ask, as if this is the first time they have ever been pressed to consider the question.

They then give five suggestions about what might please God, which start reasonably and end in increasingly obvious exaggerations. The “burnt offerings” and “calves a year old” are in keeping with Levitical requirements, but the “thousands of rams” and “ten thousand rivers of oil” are ridiculous images for anyone possessing riches on a smaller scale than Solomon. The vast majority of Judeans would be hard pressed to find a single cask of oil to spare, let alone endless quantities. Thousands of rams? Impossible. The implicit argument seems to be that God’s expectations are outrageously high and nobody can meet them, and that it is therefore reasonable that they have given up trying.

Finally, they propose that God might be satisfied with human sacrifice, with the offering of their firstborn children, the most prized members of their families. Such were the practices of the pagan nations around them in times of great desperation, and God had made it very clear in his law that he had no interest in such sacrifices, however costly they might be to the men and women offering them.

The correct answer to each of these hypothetical and rhetorical questions is an emphatic “No.” God is not a legalist. One cannot trade goods to God to offset one’s sins, even if those goods are plentiful and precious.

Micah 6:8 —Micah’s Rebuke

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Now Micah plays prosecuting attorney, establishing the guilty mind of the nation. Replying to their exaggerations and hypotheticals, he tells them in plain language that they already know precisely the qualities God is looking for from them: humility, kindness, justice. They do not need to be told over and over again what God requires to maintain a relationship. He has already declared it on numerous occasions:

Justice. Way back in Genesis 18, God says he has chosen Abraham “that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice”. What God wanted from Abraham’s children had already been revealed over a millennium earlier.

Kindness. David wrote repeatedly in the Psalms that mercy (kindness) and truth were qualities God possessed in endless abundance, and preservatives for those who practiced them. God’s kindness is mentioned by Jacob as early as Genesis 32:10.

Humility. Solomon wrote, “With the humble is wisdom.” Again, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” These would surely have been familiar sayings in Israel.

Moreover, the prophets repeatedly emphasized the importance of these qualities. Had Judah bothered to pay attention, there was no question what God was really looking for from them. It had all been written down for them years before. They sang it in their psalms. Their history recorded it. Their proverbs preserved it. Their prophets demanded it.

“He has told you, O man, what is good.” It’s not complicated, and it’s certainly not impossible.

Thus the case for Judah’s defense fails utterly.

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