Saturday, February 04, 2023

Mining the Minors: Micah (22)

Sometimes the writers of the New Testament directly quote the prophets of old. Other times, they make allusions or obscure, paraphrastic references to prophetic subject matter. Readers may find it a little more difficult to be confident about whether these really mean what people say they mean. There are also cases, I think, where the writers of the New Testament are said to have a particular Old Testament passage in mind, and on closer examination it turns out they were probably thinking of something else entirely.

Let’s finish up our study in Micah by examining a few such passages in the New Testament. Some of these we can be very sure of, others not so much.

Micah in the New Testament

1/ Matthew 2:6 makes reference to Micah 5:2

Upon being visited by wise men from the east, Herod inquired of his religious professionals where the Christ was to be born. They pointed him toward Bethlehem of Judea, “for so it is written by the prophet”. That prophet was indisputably Micah. The result was a massacre, fulfilling a second prophecy by Jeremiah.

No arguments about this one.

2/ Matthew 10:35-36, Mark 13:12 and Luke 14:26 come from Micah 7:6

Likewise, there can be no real doubt the Lord had Micah’s prophetic description of pre-exilic Jerusalem (and probably the Israel of the great tribulation) in mind in all three of these passages, though not all are direct quotations. Micah said, “The son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.”

Like Micah, the Matthew passage anticipates the great tribulation, but we tend to apply it to the divisive nature of the gospel in our present era. I don’t think we are presuming too much to do so. In Mark, the Lord is speaking about the end of the age, whereas in Luke, he is more obviously talking about the cost of discipleship in the present era.

3/ Luke 1:33 possibly references Micah 4:7

In Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her child “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In Micah, the promise was given that “the Lord will reign over them [the remnant of Jacob] in Mount Zion from this time forth [the promised day of restoration] and forevermore”. I think it’s more likely Gabriel was referring to Isaiah than Micah. Isaiah said, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” But even if Micah’s wording is a little different, the concept of the eternal reign is the same, and Mary may well have thought of either passage, or both.

4/ John 4:37 may allude to Micah 6:15

Micah warned the rich in Jerusalem of God’s judgment for their injustices, saying, “You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.” Some commentators suggest the Lord Jesus had this in mind when he said, “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ ”

Considering the unlikely ways prophetic scripture gets repurposed in the New Testament from time to time, it’s remotely possible this is the case. However, the differences between the two situations are greater than the similarities. Micah’s pronouncement on the Lord’s behalf is essentially a curse. The rich in Judah would sow, and the Babylonians (or the poor left behind, or sojourners from the Babylonian Empire) would be the beneficiaries of their hard work. In the Lord’s scenario, the two are working in harmony in the gospel so that “the sower and the reaper may rejoice together”, rather than at cross-purposes.

It may be that the Lord was referring to another saying entirely, or that the average Israelite had come to use Micah’s words in a looser and more general sense in the intervening centuries.

5/ John 7:42 refers to Micah 5:1-2

Early in John’s gospel, some of the people are debating whether Jesus might be the long-promised Messiah. Not knowing the circumstances of his birth later described in Matthew and Luke, they feel he cannot be the one they are looking for. They know him only as a Galilean, so they argue, “Has not the scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?”

When they refer to “the scripture”, it is unquestionably Micah’s prophecy of which they are speaking: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” This has to be one of the clearest and most explicit Messianic prophecies in all of the Old Testament, and everyone in Israel understood its importance even if they failed to apply it correctly.

6/ Hebrews 13:14 possibly alludes to Micah 2:10

The writer to the Hebrews reminds his first century Jewish readers, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come”. Some see a connection with Micah’s description of a pre-exilic Jerusalem that was “no place to rest, because of uncleanness that destroys with a grievous destruction”. There are certainly similarities between the two passages in that both speak of the impermanence of the things man builds, and the necessity to look for something transcendent, rather than something that is passing away. But in Hebrews the city is just one of three metaphors (the other two are “camp” and “gate”) used to reinforce the need for the believing Jew to step outside the spiritual system with which he was familiar and comfortable in order to be where Christ is. The Jew probably would not have to physically leave his people to do this. In Micah the city is definitely literal, as is the leaving of it.

7/ Revelation 12:1-2 possibly alludes to Micah 4:9-10

Revelation 12 begins with a great sign in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. This woman is pregnant and “crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth”. Some suggest the imagery of Revelation is an allusion to Micah 4, where the prophet inquires, “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.”

Frankly, I don’t buy it. Sure, in both cases the woman is clearly Israel. But “like a woman in labor” and similar expressions are exceedingly common in the prophetic Old Testament. Jeremiah uses it about the warriors of Moab, the inhabitants of Lebanon and the citizens of Jerusalem under Babylonian siege. Isaiah uses it concerning Babylon. The psalmist uses it of the nations assembled against Zion. Almost every time anybody is in terrible distress, this simile pops up. Furthermore, the Israel of Revelation is indisputably giving birth to Christ, while Micah is describing the conditions in Judah prior to the Babylonian exile. In the first case, the birth agonies are resolved by our Savior coming into the world; in the latter case, by national relief from God after a period of discipline.

8/ Revelation 12:1-2 possibly alludes to Micah 5:3

Micah makes more than one reference to a woman in labor. Perhaps this verse from the following chapter informed John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun:

“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.”

However, if the words “he shall give them up” refer to God giving up his people into captivity — which I believe they do — it seems unlikely the “birth” in question is that of the Lord Jesus. Christ’s first advent solved nothing for Israel as a nation. Nationally, they “stumbled over the stumbling stone”, as Paul puts it, and found their branches broken off from the olive tree of God’s blessing and testimony. The Lord’s birth, life and death benefited the Gentiles greatly, as they benefited those Jews who have since become Christians, but the nation as a whole would be “given up” once again for a further two thousand years … and counting.

I think probably the “labor” to which Micah is referring in chapter 5 is the same sort as in chapter 4: the distress of a nation under discipline waiting for promised relief from God, after which “the rest of his brothers” — those Jews currently dispersed throughout the world — “shall return to the people of Israel”.

In my view, there’s really nothing to tie these passages together with the book of Revelation beyond the fact that both passages speak of women in labor.

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