Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mining the Minors: Micah (21)

Among the religious documents of the world, the Bible is unique in many respects. Not the least of these is the assurance it provides to those who believe it. We may better understand the appeal of the worship of YHWH in ancient times when we set it side by side with the worship of other ancient deities.

No other religious experience of that era in human history was framed in terms of relationship. The historians who write about the worship practices of other nations do not even use the word. The pagan invoked “my god” repeatedly, but there was nothing about his religious experience that would assure him the deity he addressed (assuming he or she could even be identified) cared for anything but a peace temporarily negotiated through blood sacrifice and offerings.

YHWH accepted offerings, but he was not like that.

Micah 7:18-20 — A God of Relationship

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.”

A God Like You

There is no God like our God.

Well, the plain truth is that there are no other Gods at all. There are lower case ‘g’ gods, of course. Causes, people, inanimate objects and abstractions; lesser reasons for being that men make into objects of worship. Then there are spirit beings who pose as gods. There are even “gods to whom the word of God came”. But none of these is “a God like you”. The prophets of Baal could not get the attention of their god even by cutting themselves with knives. Baal was not there to be roused.

Assyria was the great political power of the day during the years when Micah preached repentance and judgment in Judah, but Babylon was on the ascendancy. A century down the road, the Chaldeans would take most of the Judean people into exile. In the thinking of the Babylonians (and probably some of the more muddled Judeans), their gods had conquered the God of Israel and granted them victory over their enemies.

Historians can tell us what the pantheon of Babylonian deities were thought to be like. Moon gods and sun gods and lords of wisdom: Bel, Nanna, Ishtar, Shamash, Anu, Enlil, Ea, Ninib, Nebo, and Marduk; each the master of a particular domain, but none of them transcendent or all-powerful. More importantly, historians can tell us how their worshipers felt about them and the words they used when they prayed to them.

A Prayer for Forgiveness

This Babylonian “Penitential Prayer to Every God” dates from the mid-seventh century B.C., around the same time Micah prophesied. It provides a stark contrast to the text we are considering today:

“May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the goddess who is unknown to me be pacified!
May the known and unknown god be pacified!
May the known and unknown goddess be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
The misdeed which I have committed I know not.

My god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
My goddess, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins!
Known and unknown god, my sins are seven times seven; forgive my sins.”

No wonder the New Testament speaks about “vain repetitions”! Gods and goddesses unknown. Sins unidentified and unidentifiable. A sense of guilt and a plea for forgiveness, but no way to know whether forgiveness would actually be extended, because without personal knowledge of one’s object of worship, nothing could ever be said in confidence about him, and no outcome could be anticipated with certainty. This was the contemporary pagan alternative to the worship of YHWH, and it was not pretty.

A God of Forgiveness

Micah knew a God of forgiveness. The psalmist expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote these words:

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

Our God is unique in that only he can be absolutely relied upon to respond in character and extend forgiveness as required. First century Jews knew this, and accused the Lord Jesus of blasphemy:

“Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Indeed. There is nothing nebulous about the character of YHWH or about that of the Lord Jesus. His uniqueness among the “gods” is not just in his unity, his domain, his power or his knowledge, but in the fact that he can be known and relied upon to provide what mankind needs most. He is to be feared because he is the only source of forgiveness in the universe. If you can’t obtain absolution for your sins from him, forget getting it anywhere else.

Know and Unknown

Our God has revealed his character to men. He is not “unknown”, or even “known and unknown” like every Babylonian deity. Those who appeal to him are not strangers but “his inheritance”. His messengers could say, “He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us.” And they could say it with absolute confidence, because they had promises going back generations to rely on (“you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old”).

Jacob knew it. Abraham knew it. Micah confirms it. And we can rejoice in the absolute certainty of it. Nothing about our God has changed in the last two and a half thousand years, and nothing ever will.

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