Saturday, January 21, 2023

Mining the Minors: Micah (20)

I find the next three verses of Micah’s prophecy very difficult to interpret, so much so that I almost put this post off another week to let it percolate. I like to do the spadework first, reading a passage repeatedly and then doing any relevant word studies before consulting the commentaries.

In this case, repeated readings and word studies still left me with major questions. I finally tapped out after checking eight or ten popular commentaries, few of which provided any satisfying insights, and concluded another week wasn’t likely to produce an epiphany.

So then, nothing dogmatic this week. Maybe what I can do is point out where the difficulties arise for me in the passage, and perhaps one or two of our older readers may be able to provide some insights.

Micah 7:11-13 — Walls or No Walls?

“A day for the building of your walls! In that day the boundary shall be far extended. In that day they will come to you, from Assyria and the cities of Egypt, and from Egypt to the River, from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain. But the earth will be desolate because of its inhabitants, for the fruit of their deeds.”

Three Predictions

Some commentators seem quite confident about their interpretations, but since few of them agree with one another, it may be that what they see in these verses is not quite as obvious as they think.

Regardless of which of our timeframes we consider (the Judean return from exile begun in Ezra 1-3 or the early millennial reign of Christ), the repetition of the phrase “In that day” stitches the first three predictions together. This requires that the building of Jerusalem’s walls, the extension of the city’s (or nation’s) boundary, and the nations flocking to Jerusalem must all happen in the same timeframe.

Assigning verses 11-13 to Judah’s return to Jerusalem under Sheshbazzar, and the rebuilding of its literal walls as detailed in Nehemiah, successfully fulfills the first prediction. However, it’s difficult to see any sense in which the latter two predictions were fulfilled during that post-exilic timeframe even if we include the inter-testamental period. There is nothing in those books or in history to suggest a post-exilic extension of Israel’s historic boundaries or people from the nations flocking to Jerusalem.

Walls in the Millennium

So then, let’s try the millennial timeframe. If we consult Ezekiel, we can certainly find Israel’s millennial boundaries will be extended dramatically when compared to any post-Solomonic time period. If we look to Isaiah as well as earlier in Micah, we also find the nations streaming to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the Lord. That’s two of three predictions we can definitely check off. Yet Ezekiel says nothing about rebuilding walls. In fact, Zechariah speaks of millennial Jerusalem as follows:

“And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand! Then I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said to me, ‘To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.’ And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him and said to him, ‘Run, say to that young man, “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.” ’ ”

A wall of fire, metaphorical or otherwise, implies mere walls of stone would be superfluous.

In Micah, the word translated “walls” is gāḏēr, which may mean a constructed wall, but can also mean “fence” or “hedge”, so some commentators view it metaphorically as simply referring to the outer limitations of God’s vineyard, Israel, which Ezekiel describes in terms of borders and boundaries. The problem with that less-literal interpretation is that Micah says it is a “day for the building of your walls”. The word bānâ strongly suggests these boundaries are not just implicit, but actually constructed by men.

A Stumper

So then, will millennial Jerusalem have walls or no walls? It’s a bit of a stumper. And if it doesn’t, how will that time period be “a day for the building of your walls”? I don’t doubt in the slightest that the Lord will fulfill his word through Micah in these three verses, but as with many predictions in scripture, it remains to be seen exactly how he will accomplish it.

Moreover, Micah’s final prediction in these verses is this: “The earth will be desolate because of its inhabitants, for the fruit of their deeds.” As we have seen many times previously, that word translated “earth” may mean either “earth” or “land”. If we go with the latter (“land”, as in Israel), it seems a jarring disconnect from the rest of this section, which foretells an increasingly positive outcome for repentant Israel, both in the short term and long term. It’s not impossible the prophet is speaking of the condition of the land of Israel during the exile, as the final prediction is not tied to the same timeframe as the first three (no “In that day”). Nevertheless, it seems as if “earth” is a better translation in this context, since Micah will go on to speak of the nations licking the dust like a serpent and turning in dread to the Lord.

Micah 7:14-17 — Marvelous Things

“Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, who dwell alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them graze in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, I will show them marvelous things. The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth; they shall come trembling out of their strongholds; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall be in fear of you.”

The “forest in the midst of a garden land” may suggest a people coming out of a time of separation in Babylon (spiritual or literal) into the full blessing of their God in the Promised Land: the pastures of Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old, before Israel fell into sin with the gods of the nations.

Shepherd Your People

Here the faithful remnant appeals to the Lord to care for his flock. Some of the pronouns are a little ambiguous in English, but I think we can get the gist of what Micah is saying here. If we read the first sentence as the appeal, then the next reads like God’s reply (“I will show them marvelous things”, “you came out of the land of Egypt”). When we get to the final line, “they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God”, it is apparent we have returned to the voice of the remnant. Assuming these are accurate translations of the underlying Hebrew, then the speaker changes twice in the course of four verses: remnant (v14), the Lord (v15), remnant again (v16-17).

We don’t need to appeal to the Lord to shepherd his people. God has a tender heart. The expression “sheep without a shepherd” occurs repeatedly in scripture, beginning with Moses’ plea for a successor in Numbers 27 so that the people of God would not be “as sheep that have no shepherd”. That is always an undesirable state. Young, foolish sheep might temporarily desire the freedom of going their own way, but the results of being without leadership and care are always dangerous. The Lord Jesus was moved to compassion by the crowds that followed him. He saw them as harassed and helpless, “like sheep without a shepherd”.

So then, nobody needs to tell a loving God to do what comes most naturally to him. What the remnant is saying here, I think, is that these sheep are now prepared to follow their Shepherd; to respond to his commands and rejoice in the benefits of his care. They will no longer resist his rule. Accordingly, the Lord will respond by restoring his people and making them the envy of the world.

Marvelous Things and Fearful Nations

This held true even in the comparatively feeble return to Judah in times past. As we read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we see God’s miraculous provision for his people. Marvelous things like disposing Cyrus king of Persia to send them home laden with silver, gold, goods and beasts. Why would he do that? God touched his heart. Marvelous things like disposing Darius to enforce Cyrus’s decree, but also to pay for all the incidental expenses of rebuilding the house of God and threatening with impalement anyone who dared oppose it. What could account for this? Only a Shepherd who cared for his sheep.

We also see the fear and envy of the nations in the historical accounts. First Bishlam, Mithredath and Tabeel opposed the rebuilding and accused the Jews to King Artaxerxes. Then Tattenai and Shethar-bozenai tried to prevent them unsuccessfully. In Nehemiah, we read of hostility from Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, Ammonites and Ashdodites. All these were men of the nations in fear of a revived Israel and desperate to prevent it.

Israel in Triumph

But these words are even more applicable to the millennial revival of God’s people. The prophets tell us the nations will turn in dread to the Lord in a future day. John Walvoord sums up the relationship of the nations to Israel during Christ’s millennial reign in these words:

“A survey of the countries surrounding Israel demonstrate that prophecies of their coming judgment and subjugation to Israel are set in a context of Israel’s exaltation in the kingdom age. Although in some cases the reference may be largely geographic rather than to the nations themselves, for racial continuity may be difficult to sustain, the language of Scripture is sufficiently clear to make plain that Israel will triumph over her enemies and in the process be restored to a place of glory and blessing under the rule of the Messiah. The fact that Israel is already in her place in the Middle East is a foreshadowing of these ultimate triumphs which await the second coming of her Messiah and Saviour.”

Those nations that accept the verdict of Heaven will benefit greatly during the millennial reign. Those that don’t will find themselves fulfilling Micah’s prophecy.

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