Saturday, December 31, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (17)

Two weeks ago, before our Christmas sabbatical, we looked at the first half of Micah 6 and suggested it plays out like a courtroom drama, though with major differences from the typical examples we see on TV of how Western justice operates. The nation of Judah is on trial, and God is both plaintiff and judge. The prophet Micah assumes the role of prosecutor. God calls upon the earth itself to witness his complaint against his people.

In the latter half of the chapter, the Lord makes his case against Jerusalem and pronounces sentence.

Micah 6:9-12 — God’s Case Against the Nation

“The voice of the Lord cries to the city — and it is sound wisdom to fear your name: ‘Hear of the rod and of him who appointed it! Can I forget any longer the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights? Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.’ ”

The Voice of YHWH

The expression “the voice of YHWH” [qôl Yᵊhōvâ] occurs 47 times in the Old Testament. Obedience to the voice of the Lord is a greater delight to him than offerings and sacrifices, and those who heed it benefit greatly. But that same voice is consistently a terror to evildoers and those who do not recognize and respect the one with whom they are dealing. Adam and Eve had sinned, and when they heard the voice of the Lord in the Garden, they hid themselves among the trees. Israel quailed in terror at Sinai at the voice of the Lord, and begged Moses to go away and talk to God in private on their behalf lest they die. The choice is repeatedly set before men: pay attention to the voice of the Lord, or be utterly ruined.

Men say that God has not spoken, but scripture repeatedly testifies that he has made his voice heard, making all men everywhere accountable to him. Today, we are even more accountable, since God has spoken once and for all in the person of his beloved Son, as we are still reminded every year at this time. The voice of the Lord is not to be equated with the vague mutterings of some local pseudo-deity mediated through a pagan priestess to superstitious heathens; rather, the Lord of all the earth claims in plain language what he is rightfully due: the humble obedience of his creatures. Indeed, YHWH is the one name that it is sound wisdom to fear.

Hear of the Rod

The Lord specifically addresses himself to the city of Jerusalem.

On the one hand, we recognize that Jerusalem symbolizes and epitomizes both the nation of Judah and also the entire divided nation of Israel. What is true for all of Jacob’s children is most true of those in its capital city.

On the other hand, Micah makes it plain that the Lord is primarily addressing the rulers of Judah — the princes, noble houses, elders of the people and affluent landowners who called the shots — rather than the downtrodden and marginalized, who were orders of magnitude less accountable. Just as Assyria did when they captured Samaria, the Chaldeans would leave most of the poor people alone when they besieged and eventually captured Jerusalem. Their interest was always in the leadership, whether for good or ill. That is how the great empires of history sustained themselves: by taking the elite from the nations they conquered and incorporating them into their own political system (as with Daniel and his three friends), and by destroying any leaders they suspected might try to oppose them.

The rod was both a symbol of authority and a means of oppression or discipline. When the voice of the Lord cries, “Hear of the rod”, both meanings apply. Babylon was God’s rod to discipline a wayward people, but that discipline was at the discretion of “him who appointed it”. The Chaldeans would not conquer Jerusalem in their own might, but rather because the Lord had ordained it. He was the true authority behind the invasion.

Injustice, Lies and Wickedness

Judah sinned in various ways at different times in its history, and sometimes in multiple ways at the same time. For example, the editor(s) of Chronicles note that one of the reasons the Judean nobles went into captivity was a failure to give the land its Sabbath rest prescribed in the law. Seventy years of captivity were decreed “until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths”. Another reason the prophets identify for the desolation of Jerusalem was rampant idolatry. Isaiah says, “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.” Both of these are perfectly valid reasons for God to render judgment against Judah, but they are not the reasons Micah gives.

In Micah’s prophecy, the Lord is concerned with how the nobles, princes and rich treated the poor. The subject here is injustice. Those who made the rules took advantage of those who had no voice. They accumulated “the treasures of wickedness” not to share them with others but to hoard up for themselves. Micah speaks of a “scant measure”, “wicked scales” and “deceitful weights”, indications that these men enriched themselves by stealing the hard work of others. “Your rich men”, he says, “are full of violence.” They used all the tricks at their disposal to feather their own nests while stripping the heritage of Judeans who could not defend themselves. Small wonder God’s punishment would fall most severely on them.

In our courtroom drama, these four verses serve as the indictment, God’s case against the nation. Naturally, no one is qualified to give the Lord an answer.

Micah 6:13-16 — The Sentence

“Therefore I strike you with a grievous blow, making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger within you; you shall put away, but not preserve, and what you preserve I will give to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine. For you have kept the statutes of Omri, and all the works of the house of Ahab; and you have walked in their counsels, that I may make you a desolation, and your inhabitants a hissing; so you shall bear the scorn of my people.”

A Grievous Blow

Finally, God renders his judgment. Those who have enriched themselves at the cost of others will invariably find there are bigger bullies in the schoolyard who God can use to teach them a much-deserved lesson. This is a well-established principle of scripture going back to one of its earliest books. Job spoke concerning the heritage that an oppressor receives from the Almighty: “Though he heap up silver like dust, and pile up clothing like clay, he may pile it up, but the righteous will wear it, and the innocent will divide the silver.” Solomon wrote that the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” When God settles accounts, he takes from those who have taken from others, and gives to those they have robbed. It reminds me of the words of Abraham to the rich man in the story Jesus told: “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”

The nobles of Judah may have cheated their poor neighbors out of fields and flocks, vineyards and olive crops, but they would not be the ultimate beneficiaries. God would see to that. Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. How about that irony?

Statutes of Omri, Works of Ahab

Omri and Ahab were the first two Israelite kings in one of its longer dynasties. Micah is addressing Judah, almost surely some time after the northern kingdom had gone into Assyrian exile. Instead of learning a lesson from the cautionary tale of the ten tribes, Judah had imitated them.

I’m not sure we can be too precise about identifying the specific sins referred to here. The successive reigns of Omri and Ahab were a terrible period in Israel’s history, characterized by rampant idolatry, persecution of God’s prophets and all who clung to the worship of YHWH, and all manner of social injustice. Any or all of these could be in view, and we could rightly accuse the nobles of Judah of sinning in each of these ways.

What all the members of Omri’s dynasty had in common was a penchant for grasping after things that didn’t belong to them. As commander of Israel’s army, Omri seized the kingdom from Zimri, another conspirator, then promptly put to death his only competition for Israel’s throne. His son Ahab is known for conspiring to seize a vineyard he coveted by having its owner falsely accused and put to death. Omri’s daughter (or possibly granddaughter) Athaliah seized the kingdom of Judah, killing off her own family to secure the throne for herself. This casual disregard for the lives and rights of others was the besetting sin of Omri’s dynasty. Judah’s nobles were emulating this the sort of evil, destructive behavior. It is quite understandable that they came under God’s judgment.

The Scorn of My People

It is not entirely clear what is meant by “you shall bear the scorn of my people”. Some translators go with “You will bear the scorn of nations.” Others say, “You shall bear the reproach of my people” or “You will suffer the taunting of my people.” Any or all of these were probably true, at least initially, of the social upper crust Nebuchadnezzar’s troops summarily carted off to Babylon. Some suffered terrible fates, getting exactly what they deserved. The Gentiles who swept them away took out much of their accumulated anger against the Jews on this first generation of captive nobles.

To men and women in such a sorry state, precisely identifying the ethnic origin of their mockers and taunters was probably of minimal importance.

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