Text: Micah 1-2
Micah – historical and geographical background
Let me read you the following quotation. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
That’s from Richard Dawkins, shortly after he swallowed a dictionary.
But is God of the Old Testament really like that?
In the first two chapters of Micah, three truths about God are revealed. These are not obscure or esoteric truths; they are essential and fundamental.
1. A Speaking God
Micah 1:1. Here we have some history, some geography, and some theology.
History. Micah is dated by the three kings under whose reigns he prophesied: Jotham, who was a pretty average king; Ahaz, who was a cruel tyrant; and Hezekiah, one of the best. Just as it is relevant to know that the Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a famous book called, ‘The Cost of Disciples’, “in the days of Adof Hitler”, so it’s important to know that Micah prophesied during the times of these three kings, and during a period marked by serious social and spiritual decline.
Geography. Three place-names: Moresheth (25 miles south-west of Jerusalem), Samaria (capital of the northern kingdom of Israel), Jerusalem (capital of the southern kingdom of Judea).
Theology. ‘The word of the Lord’, 1:1. This stands over the whole book.
God is not silent. We have not been left in the dark. We are not left wondering, guessing, what God is like. God has spoken.
‘The word of the Lord came to Micah’. And now we come to the word of the Lord. Let us receive it and respond to it with gladness and obedience.
2. A Warning God
The scene in 1:2 and following is that of a cosmic law-court. But who is in the dock? Last week, with Obadiah, the focus was on the enemy without, Israel’s neighbours the Edomites. But today, with Micah, the spotlight is on the enemy within. The problem is with the people of God themselves. And especially with the rich and powerful living in Samaria and Jerusalem.
The Lord has a twofold complaint against these people.
There is a chilling reference in 1:5 to Jerusalem as Judah’s ‘high place’. Jerusalem was the holy city, the city of David, the centre of worship of the true and living God. And it had become a ‘high place’, that is, a pagan shrine associated with fertility rites and other practices. Then in v7 there is a reference to ‘all the idols’ of Samaria, and to the prostitutes who were involved in the worship of those idols.
All this talk of idolatry may seem very remote to us. But let’s be clear that the problem of idolatry is not limited to so-called ‘primitive’ peoples bowing down before statues. The essence of idolatry is to serve and worship anything or anyone more than God. Whenever we love created things – cars, clothes, houses, money, work, music, sport, our friends, our spouses, our children, more than the Creator, then we too have become idolaters.
If the Lord’s first complaint is against idolatry, then his second is to do with injustice.
In ch 2 there’s a withering description of the rich and powerful.
V1 – They lie awake at night plotting their schemes, and at first light they rush to carry them out.
V2 – They covet other people’s fields and houses, and fraudulently seize them.
V8 – They steal people’s best clothes from their very backs, as if they were their enemies rather than their neighbours.
V9 – They drive women from their homes.
We have here the scandalous exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful.
Is this relevant to us today? It is probably more so than we care to imagine. Here in the UK, most of us are able to enjoy comfortable and civilised lives precisely because many people on the other side of the world can’t. A person in this country can afford to buy a cheap pair of Levis because the girl making them in Cambodia is paid just £15 a month and has to share an 8’ x 12’ apartment with seven others. The exploitation may be less obvious than in Micah’s day, but is it any less real?
Two sins, then, are highlighted: idolatry and injustice. The first, a failure in our relationship with God. The second, a failure in our relationship with our fellow human beings.
What is the punishment that is being threatened?
Well, it is divine punishment all right. 1:3f ‘Look! The LORD is coming from his dwelling-place; he comes down and treads the high places of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope.’
And yet history records that the instrument of punishment was a purely human one. Israel and Judah were attacked by the Assyrian armies, who brought them to their knees.
They have brought it upon themselves, and it is remarkable how in ch 2 Micah shows that the punishment fits the crime:-
2:3 – Those who have plotted and schemed against others now learn that the Lord is plotting against them.
2:4 – Those who have brought ruin to others will find themselves utterly ruined.
2:10 – Those who have stolen the lands and houses of others, will themselves be homeless.
This idea of the divine punishment fitting the human crime is highlighted in the early chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In his devastating analysis of sin and its consequences, the apostle says, in effect: ‘they gave God up’, Rom 1:21. And then, three times, he says, ‘God gave them up.’ Not easily, not quickly, not lightly, but eventually. In the final analysis, unrepentant sinners don’t just get what they deserve; they get what they want.
C.L. Lewis famously put it like this: ‘In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.’
How does Micah speak of God’s warning?
In ch 2, there are those who preach a positive, encouraging, uplifting, message. But they are false prophets. V6 “Do not prophesy,” their prophets say. “Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.”
There is plenty of scope in the Christian message for encouragement and reasurance. But please do not always be expecting your preachers to be serving up amusing, entertaining, uplifting messages. Let us welcome faithful preaching, even if it isn’t exactly what we might like to hear. Let us value faithfulness to the whole counsel of God.
Ch 1:8 ‘Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl.’
Micah is no sweaty, finger-pointing, tub-thumping hellfire preacher. He takes no delight in his message of doom. Like Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem, (Lk 19:41) Micah weeps as he warns of judgment.
We need to be like the evangelist D.L. Moody, of whom it was said that he never spoke of hell without tears in his eyes.
Micah has much to say, then, about a warning God. But that is not his last word.
3. A Merciful God
In fact, Micah’s whole purpose in speaking his message of warning was to avert disaster, not to relish in it.
Alongside the message of warning is a message of hope. There are several hints of this in the text, but the clearest indication is in the last two verses of chapter 2.
12f “I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head.”
So, how did things turn out?
A century later, Jeremiah’s life was under threat because he too was prophesying bad things for the people of God. He is about to be killed for his trouble when someone remembers Micah:-
Jer 26:18f “Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: “‘Zion will be ploughed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.’ “Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else in Judah put him to death? Did not Hezekiah fear the LORD and seek his favour? And did not the LORD relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them? We are about to bring a terrible disaster on ourselves!”
‘God is more inclinable to mercy than wrath. Mercy is his darling attribute, which he most delights in, Mic 7:18…The bee naturally gives honey, it stings only when it is provoked; so God does not punish till he can bear no longer, Jer 44:22. Mercy is God’s right hand that he is most used to; inflicting punishment is called his ‘strange work’, Isa 28:21. He is not used to it. When the Lord would shave off the pride of a nation, he is said to hire a razor, as if he had none of his own, Isa 7:20.’ (Thomas Watson)
Micah’s message of hope stretches out like a beam of light piercing the darkness. It reassures God’s people that they will not be completely wiped out by the Assyrians. It promises a return to the land after exile. It speaks of one who will come out of the tiny clan of Bethlehem Ephrathah, ‘who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’ But more of that next week, and the week after.
But how thankful we can be that the God we serve is not the fictitious god imagined by Professor Dawkins, but a true and living God who speaks, and warns, and relents; more inclinable to mercy than wrath.