The Lord’s case against Israel, 1-16

In chapters 6 and 7 Micah describes the sin of the people, and also their repentance and consequent blessing.  The whole is presented in the form of a lawsuit (Yahweh v. Israel), with Micah himself as prosecuting attorney for Jehovah, and with the mountains and hills (perhaps symbols of unchangeable justice) as the courts and judges.  Jehovah pleads through the prophet; the people reply; the mountains and the hills sit in silent judgement.

Allen and others notes that the present passage differs from the usual pattern in that it does not end in a prediction of disaster, but rather with an opportunity for reformation.

According to Phillips, ‘it is not unlikely that Micah delivered God’s message in the temple courts, where many of Jerusalem’s leaders would be present. Moreover, his speech might well have been given during one of the great feasts when the whole nation was assembled, especially the Passover, with its remembrance of the historical events Micah recounts.’

Boice notes how Micah’s story has a contemporary feel: a man from the country who went to the city.  ‘He saw that the sins of the city, committed by the leaders who lived and worked there, were the chief sins of the nation for which the judgment of God was coming. Micah had concern for the city.’ (See Mic 1:1; 6:9).  Boice adds that today’s religious leaders have little to say to the city; they need to get back to the spirit and message of Micah.

Micah 6:1 Listen to what the LORD says: “Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say.

Listen to what the Lord says – The prophet calls the court to order; the Lord demands that his words be heeded.

‘What the prophet speaks he speaks from God, and in his name; they are therefore bound to hear it, not as the word of a sinful dying man, but of the holy living God.’ (MHC)

“Stand up, plead your case before the mountains…” – Micah portrays a scene of immense grandeur and solemnity.  When God established his covenant with Moses, he called heaven and earth to witness (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28).  Now the mountains, which have gazed silently upon generations of men’s misdeeds, are called to witness the courts’ proceedings.

Waltke says that the Lord is here addressing Micah (the verbs are singular, turning to plural in the next verse), and that he is to plead ‘my case’ (not ‘your case’).

Micah 6:2 Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the LORD has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.

“The Lord has a case against his people” – he is lodging a charge against Israel. God’s reference to Israel as ‘my people’ is full of pleading and pathos.  The charge will be breach of covenant, which is tantamount to spiritual adultery.

‘Sin begets a controversy between God and man. The righteous God has an action against every sinner, an action of debt, an action of trespass, an action of slander.’ (MHC)

He is lodging a charge against Israel – The southern kingdom, Judah, is here referred to by its covenant name.  As Allen says: ‘One partner is to confront the other, with the charge of breach of contract.’

Micah 6:3 “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.

“My people, what have I done to you?” – God satirically asks if it is his own fault that is people have gone so grievously astray.  A reply is demanded; but only a negative reply is possible. Cf Isa 5:4, ‘What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?’

Note the tenderness with which the Lord refers to “my people”.  ‘The language here is personal and passionate, far more like a father’s pleas to his child or a husband pleading with his wife.… This is the plea of a loving God, whose heart has been broken by his people’s rejection of him’ (Prior).  Allen quotes Pusey: ‘This one tender word contains a whole volume of reproof.’

“How have I burdened you?” – The Lord invites his people to consider whether they blame him, rather than themselves, for having gone astray.  Of course, the Lord has not burdened his people.  He is entirely innocent in this matter.  But they have become so wearied with him that they have ceased to obey him.

Phillips notes that many professing Christians today seem to have grown tired of travelling God’s narrow way.  The pleasures of the world and of the flesh seem much more inviting.  So it is also with those who reject God altogether: ‘There can be no true cause shown why any should choose to forsake God. Yea rather, all should cleave unto him, since his commands are not grievous, his yoke easy, his trials not above measure, his punishments not above deserving, and a Mediator ready to undertake for his people in all exigencies.’ (Hutcheson, cited by Phillips)

‘He never deceived us, nor disappointed our expectations from him, never did us wrong, nor put disgrace upon us; why then do we wrong and dishonour him, and frustrate his expectations from us? Here is a challenge to all that ever were in God’s service to testify against him if they have found him, in any thing, a hard Master, or if they have found his demands unreasonable.’ (MHC)

“Answer me” – The Lord ironically invites his people to testify against him.  But no answer is forthcoming.  ‘So it will be on the day of judgment when all mankind stands before the Lord, and many discover too late that they have no reply to God’s indictment.  If God’s faithful love for Israel formed the basis for Micah’s complaint, God’s mercy in Jesus Christ for all mankind will stand behind God’s angry condemnations at the end of history ‘ (Phillips).  See Rom 3:19.

It is such a habit of sinners to blame someone else (“S/he made me do it”; “It’s his/her fault”) that Israel might as well be given an opportunity to blame God for their misdeeds.  We do something similar today when we seek to shift responsibility for our moral actions by pleading, “God made me that way.”

The agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell, when asked what he would say to God (if there turned out to be a God after all) on the Day of Judgement, replied: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”

Micah 6:4 I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.

In the spirit of Isa 5:4 (“What more could I have done?”) the Lord reminds his people of his previous acts of grace.  For from wronging them (v3) he has always acted in their best interests.  How could the people think that they could secure God’s favour by costly acts of piety (v7) when he has demonstrated his free grace so clearly?

Our faith is rooted in history.  If God can point Israel to his previous acts of redemption, how much more can he point us to what he has done in Jesus Christ and ask: “What more could I have done for you?”

“I brought you up out of Egypt…” – Without waiting for an answer (for the answer is obvious), Jehovah recites the history of his gracious guidance and protection of Israel. This recitation is intended, not simply to evoke gratitude, but to arouse a slumbering conscience. The Exodus was an act of grace which has central importance in the OT: it is referred to time and again by the psalmists and prophets as proof of God’s power and love. Apart from this underscoring of the importance of the history of God’s dealings with his people, we are also reminded in the present passage of the essential unity of God’s people in all ages: referring to a much earlier generation (700 years previously), God says, ‘I brought you up…’

“Redeemed you” – Redemption comes before law.  ‘The law…was given to the redeemed people of God as a means of expressing their love to God as well as a means of governing their relationship to God and to each other. The law “was not a way of salvation but a way to enjoy an orderly life and God’s fullest blessing within the covenantal, theocratic arrangement. Thus God’s grace precedes the covenantal law he gave to his people and represents a use of salvation history to inspire grateful obedience.”’ (NAC)  Israel has broken that covenant, as the book of Micah amply demonstrates.

As Phillips remarks: ‘Every believer can see a similar redemption in the cross of Christ. We were slaves in bondage to sin, held fast in its power, condemned by its guilt. But God had mercy and sent his Son to receive sin’s punishment in our place on the cross. Remembering this great salvation, how can we ever grow bored with God or resent our discipleship to Jesus?’

“Moses…Aaron…Miriam” – God’s gracious provision extended beyond the deliverance from Egypt to the raising up of human leaders.  So it is with the Christian church: God has redeemed us in Christ, and then has given to us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 3:7-13).

Moses was the archetypal prophet, and Aaron the first of a line of priests.  Miriam was a prophetess, Ex 15:20f.

‘Note, When we are calling to mind God’s former mercies to us we must not forget the mercy of good teachers and governors when we were young; let those be made mention of, to the glory of God, who went before us, saying, This is the way, walk in it; it was God that sent them before us, to prepare the way of the Lord and to prepare a people for him.’ (MHC)

Micah 6:5 My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the LORD.”

“Remember…Balak…Balaam” – The deliverance from Balak and Balaam is recorded in Num 22-24. Balak had plotted against Israel and so threatened their entry into the promised land. He enlisted Balaam to put an evil spell on the Israelites. He, however, ended up as the mouthpiece of Israel’s God instead.

“Remember your journey…” – this is a reference to the crossing of the Jordan (Josh 3:1; 4:19). Shittim was the last stop before the crossing, and Gilgal the first encampment on the west side. The description of God’s miraculous intervention as ‘righteous acts’ is fitting within the law-court drama which is now unfolding: they vindicate God as the party ‘in the clear.’

Such is their solidarity with their forbears that the Lord can refer to this ancient journey as ‘your journey’, just as he has previously said that he brought them up out of Egypt.  Over against modern individualism, the Bible understands God’s people as constituting a corporate unity both over extended time as well as extended place.

“That you may know the righteous acts of the Lord” – God has not simply come to their aid: he has, through these acts, demonstrated his faithfulness to his covenant.

‘If God miraculously saved Israel from the affliction of Egypt and Moab, can he not unshackle their descendants from the tyranny of Satan in whatever guise he takes? And can he not do similar deeds for his servants down the ages?’  (Waltke)

“Remember…remember” – But Israel has forgotten; not, perhaps, the events themselves, but their meaning and significance.  ‘They had forgotten it in the sense that it no longer made any difference in their lives’ (Boice).  Because she has forgotten these things, she no longer knows who God is, in terms of his character and will.

In summary, the Lord would have his people remember four things: (a) redemption and the consequent giving of the law; (b) the appointment of competent leaders such as Moses and Aaron; (c) how he turned their enemies’ curses into blessings; and (d) how be brought them from the plains of Moab into Canaan.

If the Lord has done all this for Israel, how can she complain that he does not know or care?

Phillips comments that Christians, too, should be able to look back at God’s gracious provision for them, redeeming them in Christ, providing for them through gifted leaders, protecting them from their enemies.  And we can be sure that he who began this work will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).  ‘Believers are to reason, “The God who did all this for me will not fail to meet my present or future needs.”’

The same author adds: ‘the essential work of each generation is to recount and pass on the good news of what God has done all through history, especially in the gift of his Son Jesus to deliver us from sin. God had instructed Israel, “Remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness” (Deut. 8:2). Likewise, the chief purpose of preaching today is to hold before the church the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. It was for this same reason that Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, signifying his atoning death, instructing us, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).’

We note the concern of J.C. Ryle to educate his readers in God’s works at the time of the Reformation and of the Great Awakening.

Boice concedes that modern America (and, we may add, any modern Western nations) is not God’s covenant people in the sense that ancient Israel was.  But ‘we have been richly blessed by God. We are in danger of judgement for having forgotten both God and those blessings.’

Boice cites a sermon by the Scottish preacher Thomas Guthrie (1803–1873) entitled “Sins and Sorrows of the City.  ‘Guthrie bemoans the decline of Scotland’s cities. But he says that however much we must cry over our cities, our tears are not like those of Jesus when he wept over Jerusalem but rather like Jesus’ tears shed at the tomb of Lazarus. Jerusalem was doomed beyond redemption. But our cities are not  necessarily doomed. So long as we have the case of Nineveh and its repentance, and so long as the return of Christ in final judgement is postponed, we have always before us the possibility of a spiritual and moral resurrection.’

A ‘ministry of reminding’ is prominent in 2 Peter – see 2 Pet 1:12; 3:1f, 17.

Davis points out that for Christian believers the list of God’s ‘righteous acts’ can be updated: Christ has died, and therefore the burden of our sins has been lifted (1 Pet 2:24); he has risen, and therefore death has been defeated (2 Tim 1:10); he is ascended, and therefore he reigns over all (Eph 1:2-23); he intercedes at God’s right hand, and therefore he can keep us from falling (Lk 22:32); and will come again, as therefore life has a purpose and a goal (Acts 1:11).

Micah 6:6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

‘In a series of parallel lines, each beginning with a question, a representative ‘worshipper’ seeks to establish the price that will win God’s favour by raising the bid ever higher.’ (Waltke)

With what shall I come…? – Now commences Israel’s reply to the Lord, related with biting satire by Micah. With what sacrifices should Israel approach God? Let the exalted God only state his demands, and they will be fulfilled in full.

‘We know we must come before God; he is the God with whom we have to do; we must come as subjects, to pay our homage to him, as beggars, to ask alms from him, nay, we must come before him, as criminals, to receive our doom from him, must come before him as our Judge.’ (MHC)

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings…? – Unlike the peace offering, which led to a meal, a burnt offering was completely consumed by the fire, and left nothing for the offerer.

Or perhaps Jehovah would prefer year-old (i.e. the best) calves?

Micah 6:7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

The suggested offerings to appease the Lord turn from quality to quantity.

“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams…?” – perhaps the Lord will be impressed by quantity.

This series of suggestions builds up to a ghastly climax, with the contemplation of offering up to God the most precious thing possible:-

“Shall I offer my firstborn…?” – The grisly practice of child sacrifice had been widespread among neighbouring pagan nations, and had from time to time been adopted by the Israelites along with the worship of other gods such as Molech. Both Ahaz (a contemporary of Micah) and Manasseh sacrificed their sons in this way, 2 Ki 16:3; 21:7. See also Isa 57:5.  In this part of the poem Micah seems to be representing an attitude very prevalent in his day, since the same enthusiasm for sacrifice is reflected in Isaiah’s writings, Isa 1:10ff. It is as though Israel is saying to Jehovah: ‘You accuse us of being rebellious and neglectful; well we are prepared to offer you anything you like to make up for it. There – now are you satisfied?’

Achtemeier: ‘Child sacrifice was never required in Israel (cf. Gen. 22:1–18; Exod. 34:20), it was specifically forbidden by law (Lev. 18:21; 20:2–5; Deut. 18:10), and it was condemned in the strongest terms by the prophets (Jer. 7:31; 19:5; Ezek. 16:20–21; 20:26; Isa. 57:5) as a pagan practice (cf. 2 Kgs. 3:27; 16:3; 21:6). The implication is that the Israelite speaker knows such prohibitions of child sacrifice, but is sarcastically maintaining that nothing whatsoever can please God.’

Religious practices, be they never so thorough and costly, are worse than useless if they are not accompanied by obedience to the Lord’s ethical demands.  Phillips points out that they are like Jacob, who made increasingly extravagant efforts to appease Esau (Gen 32).  ‘This was the problem with Israel’s attitude toward the Lord. They would offer burnt offerings, year-old calves, thousands of rams, and tens of thousands of rivers of oil. But they would not offer God what he asked for: themselves, their hearts, their undivided faith, their unfeigned devotion.’

Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible) outlines two opposite errors in interpreting this passage: (a) thinking that it condemns all external religious practices in favour of a totally internal spirituality; (b) understanding it to teach that God requires nothing more from us than upright moral behaviour.  ‘This saying is not an invitation, in lieu of the gospel, to save oneself by kindly acts of equity and fairness. Nor is it an attack on the forms of sacrifices and cultic acts mentioned in the tabernacle and temple instructions. It is instead a call for the natural consequence of truly forgiven men and women to demonstrate the reality of their faith by living it out in the marketplace. Such living would be accompanied with acts and deeds of mercy, justice and giving of oneself for the orphan, the widow and the poor.’

As Matthew Henry says, ‘they bid high’, but ‘they did not bid right.’  Some of what they propose is (a) impractical – ‘rivers of oil’; or (b) wicked – ‘my firstborn’; and all is (c) external, and (d) insufficient: ‘they could not answer the demands of divine justice, nor satisfy the wrong done to God in his honour by sin, nor would they serve in lieu of the sanctification of the heart and the reformation of the life.’

McGrath and Collicut (The Dawkins Delusion) remark that the noted atheist fails to acknowledge that religion itself is critiqued in the Old Testament scriptures and in the Gospels.  ‘The prophetic tradition is predominantly (though not exclusively) in tension with the cult throughout the Old Testament, especially where the priestly cult and the king are seen to have lost the spirit of the law, and the powerful are exploiting the weak. In an important critique of the cult, the prophet Micah compares the cultic demands for ‘burnt offerings’ or ‘thousands of rams’ with God’s real requirement: to ‘do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:6–8). The prophet Isaiah’s criticism was that Israel was so obsessed with cultic rituals that they had failed to ‘rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, or plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:12–17).’  We agree with Dawkins that it is necessary to critique religion; but we say that biblical faith has the means within itself for reform and renewal.  ‘This is especially evident in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, where it often took the form of the criticism or flagrant transgression of cultic regulations or ritual practices, where these were coming between God and his people. The breaking of Sabbath regulations exemplifies this well. The phenomenon of religion is a provisional, human institution, which is open to reform and renewal. Jesus’ mission was to challenge the religious forms of his day and, in the end, that is what led to him being crucified.’

Micah 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

How many commandments?

The Talmud records the saying of one of the rabbis that ‘Moses gave Israel 613 commandments, David reduced them to 10 Psa 15, Micah to three, (Mic 6:8) Isaiah to 2, (Isa 56:1) but Habakkuk 2:4 to one: the righteous shall live by his faith.’

Towner (Feasting on the Word) notes that this verse takes a surprising turn.  We would normally expect at this point a verdict and sentence.  Instead, Micah turns to positive moral teaching in what many consider to be one of the ‘golden’ texts of the OT.

‘The people of God have been put on trial in this text. God has already outlined the specifics of the charge: the powerful “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away” (Mic 2:2); they “tear the skin off my people” (Mic 3:2); they send violence on the poor (Mic 3:5); the political leaders take bribes, and the religious leaders sell out for money (Mic 3:11). By the time Micah poses his rhetorical question in verse 8, an indictment has already been handed down. Israel is on the defensive.’ (Feasting on the Word)

He has showed you, O man, what is good… – The prophet deals with the preceding series of hypothetical questions with an answer of abiding validity; a classic statement of our duty towards God and man. Cf Mk 12:29ff.

He has showed you indicates that the people cannot plead ignorance of what God desires.  They have already been taught this, e.g. in Deut 10:12f.  See also Psa 24:3ff.  Nor can we plead ignorance of God’s will today (for example, by claiming that ‘you can make the Bible say anything’).

What does the Lord require of you? – Many Christians struggle endlessly with the question of guidance.  What is God’s will for my life?  What does he want me to do?  Where does he want me to go?  This great verse shows us that too often we misframe the question.  To do what God has already commanded, and will bring him honour: that is my guidance.

To ‘act justly‘ is to live in a right relation to one’s fellow human beings in personal, social and political affairs. It prohibits oppression, perjury and bribery, and calls for a sense of responsibility towards weaker members of society.

‘Three types of justice include (1) commutative justice, which focuses on relationships between members of the community; (2) distributive justice, which functions to ensure the equitable distribution of goods, benefits, and burdens of a community; and (3) social justice, which affects the social order necessary for distributive justice.’ (Feasting on the Word)

Boice comments on the patience required to promote justice.  We must not expect ‘quick fixes’, or become frustrated if we do not instant results to our efforts.

Gary Smith notes that injustice has already been amply exposed by Micah: ‘When people in Micah’s audience forcibly confiscate other people’s land or possessions (Mic 2:1-2,8-9), treat people inhumanly (Mic 3:1-2), and selfishly cheat others so that their financial position will be enhanced (Mic 3:9-11), these are unjust social relationships.’

To love mercy is to show that steadfast love which is a quality of God himself. Phillips comments that the word chesed ‘is one of the hardest words in the Old Testament to translate with just one term. In different contexts it is translated mercy, faithfulness, and loving-kindness. It is the great description of God’s faithful, kind, and merciful covenant love. As Peter Craigie explains: “it gives, where no giving is required, it acts when no action is deserved, and it penetrates both attitudes and activities.” To “love kindness” is to look on the weak and vulnerable with the eyes of God’s love and give them not what they deserve, but what they need.’

Just as God has shown such love to Israel, so Israel is to demonstrate such love towards God and others.  It is to care for those in need not reluctantly or from a sense of compulsion, but out of a spirit of gratitude and generosity.

Continuing his theme of ‘the city’. Boice remarks: ‘It is easy for us to be judgmental of city life and of those who live in urban areas. We say, “Look at those people, how bad they are!” Or, “Look at that irresponsible behavior!” We are proud of the fact that we are not like that, and we remain aloof. We have to love such people and show mercy in our dealings with them. The presence of Christians in a sinful city can be just and merciful at the same time.’

To walk humbly with your God is to offer the acceptable sacrifice of devotion to God which leads to godly attitudes and character.  According the Waltke, the primary meaning of the word translated ‘humbly’ is ‘circumspectly’ or ‘carefully’.

As Davis remarks, ‘with your God’ implies a covenant relationship, clarifying, once again, that this verse cannot be construed as teaching salvation by works.

Thus Israel’s duty is both religious and social: and it is characteristic of the OT prophets to keep these two dimensions together. To them our customary distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ would have been nonsensical. All of life belongs to God, and all is to be consecrated to him.

‘These ethical requirements do not comprise the way of salvation. Forgiveness of sin was received through the sacrifices. The standards of this verse are for those who are members of the covenantal community and delineate the areas of ethical response that God wants to see in those who share the covenantal obligations. These standards have not been abrogated for Christians, for the NT affirms their continuing validity. We are still called to the exercise of true religion (1Co 13:4; 2Co 6:6; Col 3:12; Jas 1:27; 1Pe 1:2; 5:5). Christians are in a covenant relationship with God in which the law has been placed within their hearts (Jer 31:33; cf. Heb 10:14–17), not abrogated. But our obedience is inspired by the indwelling Holy Spirit, not by the letter of the law.’  (EBC)

Jesus himself seems to have been alluding to this verse in Mt 23:23.

‘If God’s saving acts at the founding of Israel merit a loving surrender to God, how much more should his love displayed in Jesus Christ move people to become his disciples? Christians, like Micah’s contemporaries and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, are also in danger of substituting monetary gifts and a dead moralism for the radical and continuing repentance that Christ demands.’ (Waltke)

Kaiser concludes: ‘Thus this saying is not an invitation, in lieu of the gospel, to save oneself by kindly acts of equity and fairness. Nor is it an attack on the forms of sacrifices and cultic acts mentioned in the tabernacle and temple instructions. It was instead a call for the natural consequence of truly forgiven men and women to demonstrate the reality of their faith by living it out in the marketplace. Such living would be accompanied with acts and deeds of mercy, justice and giving of oneself for the orphan, the widow and the poor.’

A warning against taking this verse out of its context: ‘This text is a challenge to do justice as part of our worship experience, and to do worship with our acts of justice as part of the liturgy. We forget the “controversy” that the Lord has with the people prior to the chosen snippet of text and conveniently ignore the judgement that immediately follows it.’ (Feasting on the Word)

Connors (Feasting on the Word) remarks that today’s church must not shrink from tackling ethical specifics for fear of damaging Christian unity.

Micah 6:9 Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.

Micah 6:10 Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures and the short ephah, which is accursed?

Micah 6:11 Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?

Micah 6:12 Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully.

Micah 6:13 Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins.

Micah 6:14 You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword.

Micah 6:15 You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil on yourselves, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.

Micah 6:16 You have observed the statutes of Omri and all the practices of Ahab’s house, and you have followed their traditions. Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations.”