Micah Sheds Some Light: an informal commentary, Parts 4 & 5

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Through three chapters, the book of Micah has been pretty bleak. Like other biblical prophets, Micah tells the unpleasant truth about impending doom.

It is a striking characteristic of true prophecy: not easily swallowed.

Micah has laid out the reasons why Babylonian overthrow and Judah exile are pending, and they are surprisingly “natural” by analysis. The rulers have acted improperly, and there must be consequences (see parts 1, 2, and 3 of this commentary).

Chapter 4 signals a shift in mood, and the shift is transition-free. Recall that the last verse of Chapter 3 read:

“Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a pile of ruins, and the Temple hill will become a forest.”

Micah 3:12 (Good News Translation)

The first verse of chapter 4?

“In days to come

the mountain where the Temple stands

will be the highest one of all,

towering above all the hills. Many nations will come streaming to it…”

4:1 (GNT)

This dramatic shift regarding the Temple’s fate, in back-to-back sentences (chapter and verse designations were added much later), is indicative of God’s ability to change outcomes quickly. For this reason, hope yet lives, even as a scattering of the nation is promised.

The remainder of the poem at the beginning of Chapter 4 tells of God’s people thriving under his rule: “He will teach us what he wants us to do; we will walk in the paths he has chosen” (v. 2).

Starting in verse 3 is one of the most memorable sections of Micah, quoted often by George Washington during his lifetime:

“They will hammer their swords into plows

and their spears into pruning knives.

Nations will never again go to war,

never prepare for battle again.

Everyone will live in peace

among their own vineyards and fig trees,

and no one will make them afraid.

The Lord Almighty has promised this.”

4:3b-4 (GNT)

A beautiful picture, to be sure.

And then comes verse 5, striking for its implications:

Each nation worships and obeys its own god, but we will worship and obey the Lord our God forever and ever.

4:5 (GNT)

The distinction between the gods of the other nations (the god each possesses as its own) and “our God” is notable. The classic interpretation, at least by Protestant theology, holds that all the other gods were false gods. The Bible says that many gods were made by human hands, in many places.

But why does Israel (Judah) call the Lord “our God,” in a similarly possessive way? The passage does not say “the God of all, the God of the universe.” Perhaps this is because it was directed at the Israelites, and served as a reminder of who they were supposed to serve.

Of other possible consideration is the theory that human thought evolved from polytheism to monotheism over time (see Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning pg. 134, among other sources). The creation story of Genesis, for example, is thought by some to have been written with the express purpose of asserting the Israelite God’s primacy over the gods of the surrounding nations in the time of Moses.

Food for thought, but I have digressed.

Verses 6 through 12 represent a back-and-forth account of what is to come. In essence, the chronology runs: the people of Judah will be exiled, then used to punish the nations they are exiled to, then brought back as an Israelite nation.

The ultimate purpose behind such a timeline is made clear in the final verse of Chapter 4:

“People of Jerusalem, go and punish your enemies! I will make you as strong as a bull with iron horns and bronze hoofs. You will crush many nations, and the wealth they got by violence you will present to me, the Lord of the whole world.”

4:13 (GNT)

In short succession the people have claimed God as their own, and God has declared himself Lord of the whole world.

And on to Chapter 5.

The opening of Chapter 5 contains another sudden shift, and it is a little perplexing as to where the verse belongs – Chapter 4, 5, or as something of a standalone:

“People of Jerusalem, gather your forces! We are besieged! They are attacking the leader of Israel!”

5:1 (GNT)

Who is this previously unmentioned “leader”? The king of Judah? God? The city of Jerusalem itself?

The proceeding passage may provide some clarity. Whereas other passages of Micah are more oft-quoted, this may be the most vital to the ultimate arc of the Bible. It’s worth quoting at length:

“The Lord says, ‘Bethlehem Eprathah, you are one of the smallest towns in Judah, but out of you I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times.’

“So the Lord will abadon his people to their enemies until the woman who is to give birth has her son. Then those Israelites who are in exile will be reunited with their own people. When he comes, he will rule his people with the strength that comes from the Lord and with the majesty of the Lord God himself. His people will live in safety because people all over the earth will acknowledge his greatness, and he will bring peace.”

5:2-5 (GNT)

This echoes the famous passage in Isaiah 9:2-7, and is directly quoted at least once in the New Testament (Matthew 2:4-6).

Much significance comes from Bethlehem being mentioned as the birthplace of this ruler-to-come. The Messiah is said to come from the line of David, who was similarly from this small town (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

To be fair, it’s easy to see why this passage and ones like it were confusing to those seeing Jesus as that Messiah. It sounds militaristic in nature, with the peoples of the world acknowledging his greatness (out of fear, perhaps). Understanding perhaps turns on interpretation of the phrase “his people,” however. If his people are those from the nation of Israel exclusively, it seems that they would have to be reunited through military conquest.

If his people are more broadly “those who wrestle with God” though (see Genesis 32:22-30, where the name Israel was initially given), then “peace” would be more nuanced.

Verses 6 through 13 again oscillate between hope and despair, ruin and rebuilding. Of note:

“They will depend on God, not people.”

5:7b (GNT)

and

I will destroy your idols and sacred stone pillars; no longer will you worship the things that you yourselves have made.”

5:13 (GNT)

This is one of several places already mentioned that designate other gods as man-made. But in the concluding verses a god(dess) is mentioned by name. Following that is an explanation of why the other nations will be punished, using the instrument of God’s punished people:

“I will pull down the images of the goddess Asherah in your land and destroy your cities. And in my great anger I will take revenge on all nations that have not obeyed me.”

5:14-15 (GNT)

Because no action is truly without consequences.

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