Micah as a Case Study for Preaching and Teaching the Prophets

Timothy M. Pierce  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 46 - Fall 2003

Introduction

As a Christian I am interested in seeing our Scriptures handled properly. As a professor whose specialty is the study of the prophetic materials, I am keenly aware that the prophetic corpus presents some of the most rewarding and difficult texts with which any exegete must grapple. Indeed, I do not think it an overstatement to suggest that the prophetic materials represent the most misunderstood and misused section of the canon.

 

Problems Presented by the Prophetic Material

The realities that contribute to misappropriation of the text are either internal (within the text) or external (within the interpreter). The internal difficulties spring from the gaps between the modern and ancient worlds. Whether it is the ambiguity of the symbolism of Ezekiel or the lack of a coherent ordering of the oracles as represented by Jeremiah, there is a foreignness to the materials that is often difficult to overcome. One can relate to the other forms of literature in the Bible because of similar modern expressions; however, there is no directly comparative genre to the prophetic materials in modern expressions.[1]J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 357. Additionally, the scope of the prophetic materials is difficult to grasp. The prophetic materials, at the same time, find meaningful expression in the totality of God’s revelation and maintain the historical particularity of the individual prophet. As VanGemeren writes, “An exploration of the prophetic word requires an openness to the whole revelation of God in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, to the cultural context of the prophets, to the prophetic language, metaphors, and forms of speech, as well as to the canonical importance of the prophetic message.”[2]Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 71.

The external difficulties arise from improper presuppositions about the prophetic materials. Some approach the prophetic materials with an ease and carelessness that prevents them from seeking outside help. Eschewing scholarly aid in interpreting any biblical material is illogical. As John Goldingay points out, every interpreter already depends upon the expert who has evaluated the ancient cultures, examined the various linguistic relations, and determined the best translation of the biblical text. For one then to move to the interpretative process without consulting the experts for how those same issues impact interpretation makes little sense.[3]John Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 169. This is not to say that all scholarly opinions are of equal value, for those sources must also be built upon proper perspectives about the nature of prophetic materials. To this end, each interpreter must familiarize him or herself with the ground rules of understanding prophetic literature in order to be able to evaluate the validity of a position.

 

Foundational Guidelines for Interpreting the Prophetic Texts

The starting point for any proper methodology is recognition of the supernatural origin of the biblical writings. This is important because it both establishes a hermeneutic of trust concerning the material and recognizes that any conclusions that are further outlined also speak to one’s view of God. This is not to say that valuable insights cannot be found in even the most radical scholarship, only that one must determine whether a putative insight comes from a faulty perception of God’s nature. A second guideline for interpretation is that one must let the prophet and his materials speak for themselves. This principle finds expression both in the need to maintain the historical particularity of the text and in the requirement that any exegete of the prophetic material also know and understand the nature of prophetic writings.[4]Historical particularity is defined here as the principle that the Bible was written in a particu­lar historical context from which context its original meaning is derived. Subsequent meanings and applications are derived from and constrained by the original meaning. Indeed, without this presupposition in place, a reader-like the lovesick person who turns every “Hello” from the object of his affection into an “I love you!”-is in danger of making the text say whatever he wants.[5]Illustration taken from Joel Green, How to Read Prophecy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 25.

 

The Value of Maintaining Historical Particularity

Maintaining the historical particularity of a prophetic statement is a principle that has been lost in many circles today. Some interpreters have abandoned this approach in favor of a solely predictive reading of the materials. This is driven in many circles by an apologetic concern. That is, if one demonstrates enough fulfilled predictions, the Bible is proven to be authentic.[6]One need only open any study Bible for its charts of fulfilled predictions or notice that many apologetic discussions include a section on the topic to recognize the truth of this statement. See, for example, apologetic works such as the compilation by Bill Wilson, The Best of Josh McDowell: A Ready Defense (San Bernadina: Here’s Life Publishers, 1990), 56-73. There is nothing inherently wrong with an apologetical approach to the prophets; nor is there a lack of fulfilled predictions in the Bible. However, when this becomes an end in itself, the word ceases to speak to the myriad of concerns that God sought to address through the prophets. Others have forsaken the principle of historical particularity in favor of eschatological presentations of the prophets. The turn of the millennium and the desire to make the Bible speak directly to modern realities drives much of this eschatological fervor.[7]The desire to make the Bible speak to today addressed here is not the necessary and appro­priate recognition that the word is a living word and thus applicable to the Christian life. Rather, I am specifically addressing the goal of some who suggest that prophetic passages were designed to outline our present or near future experience. The impact is felt when teachers and preachers either skirt the prophets in order to avoid an end times discussion or become immersed in the eschatological discussion to the exclusion of other elements of the prophetic message. The former is disconcerting in that a significant portion of the canon is lost to our churches and membership;[8] The prophetic material is significant for both its theological import and its length-the prophetic books are slightly longer than the New Testament. the latter is troubling because only one percent of the prophetic materials relate to events yet to come.[9]Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2d ed. ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 166. This means that a purely eschatological approach either misrepresents or ignores large portions of the prophetic message.

In contrast to much of the popular approaches to the prophetic materials, the prophets themselves seem to require their readers to pay attention to the historical context of their expressions. Repeatedly within the prophets there is an intentional expression of authorship, setting, date, and audience. Furthermore, while some may suggest that an approach linked with historical particularity somehow limits God or robs the material of its supernatural import,[10]Such conclusions are usually found within expositions of certain passages, rather than in monographs or articles on proper hermeneutical approaches. as Goldingay points out, “It is striking that the scriptural material that most overtly claims a divine origin is also the material that most consistently draws attention to its own historical background and thus to the need to understand it against its background.”[11]Goldingay, 167. Maintaining a hermeneutic of historical particularity is important for two reasons. It demonstrates a central element of God’s nature as a God of history and it establishes a broader foundation from which further understandings can be drawn.

To illustrate these factors consider one of the passages from Micah that is often understood as being solely predictive, Mic. 5:2.

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too
little to be among the clans of Judah, From you
will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His
goings forth are from long ago, From the days
of eternity.[12]All Scriptural quotations are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

It is quite easy with such a passage to jump immediately to, the birth of Christ and speak only of its fulfillment, especially given Matthew’s use of the oracle in Matt. 2:6.[13]The issue of the New Testament’s use of the Old, including Matthew’s slight alteration of the Micah passage, is beyond the scope of this paper. For discussion of the issue in general, and Matthew’s use of Micah in particular, see E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic tn Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993) and David Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible, rev. ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991). If one is too quick, however, to make the connection or sees only that relationship and import in Micah’s statement, much is lost. First, understanding God’s message to the Israel of Micah’s day reinforces the position that God is a God of history and therefore in relationship with his people. That is, if one removes the passage entirely from Micah’s circumstances, the implicit result is that Micah’s word has no power to transform or offer hope to the audience to whom he spoke. The result of such a position is a disinterested God who sends messengers to deliver a message that offers no real answers, direction, or hope. One must remember that the revelation of the prophets is God’s demonstration of himself to that audience, it is theocentric. Therefore, to limit the passage only to a prediction-fulfillment level is to limit God’s ability to express his nature as history progresses.[14]VanGemeren, 80-82. In contrast, a recognition of the voice of God to Israel in the days of Micah reveals a God responsive to his people’s needs and involved in resolving their problems. The coupling of this passage with the Assyrian approach suggests a call on the part of Micah for the people to turn away from self-reliance and recognizes that victory comes only from God. In other words, Israel had their own plans to respond to Assyria (5:5-6), but God had a better way.[15]Whether or not 5:5-6 is an oracle of salvation (applicable to the Messianic era) or a nationalistic song of victory that Micah disputes is an unsettled issue. Compare H. W. Wolff, Micah: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 147, with Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah Jonah and Micah New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 347-48. The Jerusalem monarchy was devoid of power and legitimacy but reliance upon God, typified by the monarch born in Bethlehem, would result in victory.

Beyond reasserting a proper understanding of God, a hermeneutic of historical particularity in relation to Micah 5:2 also helps one better understand the ministry of Jesus. This is true because the corrupt, illegitimate powerbase in Jerusalem which Micah addressed is the same reality that Matthew speaks to in Christ’s birth narrative.[16]Craig Blomberg draws the comparison of the corrupt Jernsalem establishment to new Bethlehem Icing in his commentary on Matthew, though he does not draw Micah’s similar position into his interpretation. Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary, ed. David Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 63-64. In other words, the relationship between the promise and fulfillment is not simply one of place of birth, for both contexts also suggest an illegitimate versus legitimate monarchy. Additionally, Mic. 5:2 introduces another important feature concerning the Messiah. Both Micah (Mic. 5:2) and Isaiah (Isa. 11:1) make a radical assessment of the future Messianic king that takes how he is to be understood further than earlier Messianic expectations (Amos 9). For them, it is not enough that the future Messiah would be a descendant of David. Such individuals had proven themselves to be less than satisfactory. Instead, the one who is to come would arise outside of the corrupt influences of the royal house; he would be of humble beginnings.[17]John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R K. Harrison and Robert Hubbard (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 278-79. He would sprout from the shoot of Jesse and would be born in the city that gave birth to David. In short, he would not simply be a descendant of David, he would be a new David!

 

The Importance of Understanding the Nature of the Prophetic Materials

Understanding the nature of prophetic materials is important because one cannot accurately read a type of literature unless one knows what rules apply to that literature. Prophetic literature is essentially built around three realities. First, the text is generally read in individual sections rather than as a totality. Second, there are speech forms within the prophetic material that are distinctive to the genre of prophecy. Third, the prophets served a specific function within Israel’s life and culture that is essential to understanding the applications of their message to our situation. Again, Micah illustrates these factors.

The concept that the prophetic books generally represent an anthology of individual sections rather than a progressive argument is one that is well-recognized by scholars. The links between various oracles is somewhat tenuous often being spoken at different places, to different audiences, separated by several years. As such, the prophetic oracles require more of an individualistic approach than one would apply to other genres, such as narratives.[18]Fee and Stuart, 176-77; William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 302. This means that one needs to identify when a unit begins and ends in order to appropriately identify the intention of the sermon. For instance, note the way that modern translations seeking to group oracles divide Mic. 5:4-6. Whereas the traditional break in the passage has been verse 5, beginning with, “This One will be our peace,” modern translations recognize that 5a actually belongs with the preceding oracle. Interpretively, whether one sees Mic. 5:5b-6 as a continuation of the salvation oracle of 5:2-5:5a or as a shift to a nationalistic hymn makes a difference in the application one draws from the passage.[19]See note 15 above.

The prophets utilized a variety of embedded genres within the broader prophetic structure in order to express the message that God had given them. The usefulness of being able to identify and properly apply interpretive rules to the various genres hardly needs to be demonstrated. An element that does need to be pointed out before proceeding with a brief description of the various genres present in Micah is the issue of deviations from the normal expressions. Every interpreter needs to recognize that each form of speech can be altered and molded to express the prophet’s goals. Furthermore, one needs to recognize that, when this alteration takes place, a theological point is being made.[20]Rick Byargeon, “Thus Saith the Lord: Interpreting the Prophetic Word,” in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, 2d ed., ed. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2002), 303. For instance, in the judgment oracle of Mic. 3:1-4, there is a redundancy of the accusation section,[21]Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, trans. Hugh White (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 180. for the purpose of heightening the nature of the crimes and to express further the outrage of the prophet and his God to the actions of the leadership.[22]Allen, 309.

Judgment oracles (1:2-7; 3:1-4; 3:9-12; 6:1-8; 6:9-16) are the most common form of speech found in the prophetic materials. Within Micah they share about equal space with the oracles of salvation. Westermann identified six elements of the judgment oracle: introduction, accusation, development, messenger formula, God’s intervention, and the result of that intervention.[23]Westermann, 130-75. Generally speaking, having located these essential elements, the student can then look for alterations that might direct the interpretation – such as the example presented above. There are variations of the judgment oracle that have given rise to alternative or sub­genres. In relation to Micah, the most prevalent of these is the sub-category of covenant lawsuit (1:2-7; 6:1-8; 6:9-16). Many scholars argue that the expression of judgment through this means is more stylized and reminiscent of a courtroom drama, adding both life and flair to the prophetic message.[24]Kenneth Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, New American Commentary, ed. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1999), 48. It is recognized that the “lawsuit” terminology is somewhat anachronistic; however, for bridging the interpretative gap, it is probably the best equivalent available.

Woe oracles (2:1-5) represent another form of judgment speech; however, the pattern is distinctive and numerous enough that it can hardly be labeled a sub-category. There is scholarly consensus that the woe oracles derive primarily from funeral laments for victims of violent crimes, so that the intention is to express both grief and condemnation against those guilty of the outlined crime. In this way the prophet portrays the event as not simply the breaking of a regulation against humanity, but as an attack on a loved one of Yahweh.

The lament (1:8-16; 7:1-7) is closely related to the woe oracle, although it seems to be more liturgical in origin. The lament expresses sorrow over an event for the purpose of allowing God to deal with the issue at hand. Within the prophetic corpus, the lament is often utilized as an invitation for the hearers to recognize the difficulties surrounding them, identify the role that sin has played in the difficulties, and move from where they are to where they need to be. This technique is quite skillfully used in Mic. 1:8-16 as the prophet expresses sorrow over the impending loss of cities throughout Judah. The desired goal seems to be that, by recognizing certain doom at the hands of Yahweh himself, Israel might avert it by transforming her sinful ways.[25]Mays points out that there is no mocking tone in this lament as found elsewhere (cf. Nahum). Instead, the tone is serious and sober about the impending doom and Yahweh’s role in it. James L. Mays, Micah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, ed. Bernhard Anderson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 53-54. It is a fundamental presupposition of the writer that the essential purpose of the prophets is always to transform for the purpose   of salvation, even as they express judgment (cf. Amos’s shift in Amos 9 and Jonah’s recogni­tion that his sermon of impending destruction carried an implicit condition of the lack of repentance on Nineveh’s part).

Of the prophetic forms of speech, perhaps the most rhetorical is the prophetic disputation (2:6-11; 3:5-8). In this genre, the prophet takes on the role of a logician. The argument of his opposition is sometimes implicitly related, but more often is expressly stated and a response is offered. The approach is both subtle and effective as the prophet can, at the same time, demonstrate the superiority of his message and the sinfulness of those who pursue different paths than the one laid out by him.

The final major expression of prophetic speech in the book of Micah is the salvation oracle (2:12-13; 4:1-5; 4:6-8; 4:9-5:4(?); 5:7-9; 5:10-15(?)).[26]Mays appropriately argues that 4:9-5:4 and 5:10-15 are essentially salvation oracles that have statements of woe couched within them to indicate that the salvation only comes through judgment. Mays, 104-5 and 124-25. Besides the major prophetic speech patterns, Micah also utilizes non-prophetic genres to further his prophetic message. These include the nationalistic war hymn (5:5-6), psalms and hymns (7:8-10; 7:18-20). Generally speaking, the salvation oracle can be understood as the positive counterpart to the judgment oracle. It has much the same pattern and structure and its blessings are similarly built upon covenant promises. The purpose of the salvation oracle was essentially to identify a future hope, while at the same time recognizing the seriousness of the present situation. As with all of the prophetic speeches, the intention is theocentric, in that it places the future restoration squarely on the shoulders of a gracious God who is committed to keeping his promises.

 

The Significance of Appreciating the Role of the Prophet

One final element of the prophetic work involves the prophets’ role as covenant enforcers. It has been recognized for some time that some of the prophets’ messages that promise impending doom, are in reality the application of covenant promises to their present situation.[27]Van Gemeren, 78-79, and Fee and Stuart, 168-69. The tightly knit relationship between the outlined sins and their punishments and the corollary laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus can hardly be ignored. Therefore, one must be careful when applying the prophets to a modern situation, since the sin and judgment that are sometimes identified come within a covenant context. That is, one cannot hold non-covenant entities to covenant expectations.[28]This is not an unfounded presupposition, but grows directly out of biblical texts. Note the difference in expectations between the gentile nations (all crimes against humanity) and Judah (covenant laws) in Amos 1-2. Also, note Paul’s often overlooked assessment in Acts 17:30 that in former times God “looked past” the idolatry/ignorance of the gentiles. While most Christians would readily recognize the impropriety and de-contextualization of the United Nation’s use of Isa. 2:4 (Mic. 4:3), the case could equally be made that the application of Mic. 6:13-15 to a modern nation, complete with sermons on drought being the result of a nation’s sin, are equally irresponsible and lack contextual grounds. In teaching and preaching, then, one must take pains to recognize and apply the passages only to similar groups (modern covenant communities), rather than simply assuming that a similar event today has a similar cause.

 

The Process of Exegeting Prophetic Texts

There are many paths to proper exegesis that the student can follow. These range from the general and simple to the involved and complex.[29]An involved but useful methodology is that of Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3d ed. (Lousiville: Westminister/John Knox, 2001). A simple but appropriate methodology is that of Duvall and Hays. For a middle of the road approach, see Bruce Corley, “A Student’s Primer for Exegesis,” in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, 2d ed., ed. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2002), 2-20. In this section the writer will outline his own approach as informed by other methodologies. This will be accomplished by focusing on three areas of concern: the exegesis proper, the application, and the delivery.[30]The interrelatedness (some might say inseparableness) of exegesis and application is recog­nized. I distinguish the two in this context for sake of pointing out specific problems and issues related to the application portion of the process.

 

Identify Presuppositions

The starting point for any proper interpretation is recog­nition of where the interpreter and his prospective audience reside in their attitude toward the material in question. The interpreter must ask what presuppositions concerning this material will hinder or help exposition. Furthermore, at times those presuppositions will be shared by the audience, at other times they will not. Considering one’s own presuppositions is important because if the disparity between speaker and audience is too great, either the speaker will spend more time in defense than in exposition or the community will shut out the message. If the disparity is great enough, it is recommended that the exposition be reserved for the teaching environment, rather than the pulpit. For, of course, such an environment allows for questions and answers and is, therefore, more likely to instill trust rather than suspicion.

 

Establish Context

The first step in the exegetical process is contextualization- both literary and historical. Contextualization involves many of the issues that have already been discussed concerning prophetic purpose, literary genre, and historical particularity. In relation to the prophets, it is important to identify the proper scope of the passage. While one wants to keep in mind the individual nature of the oracles, if one focuses too narrowly on a passage within an oracle, this can lead to erroneous conclusions. Fee and Stuart use the application by some of Isa. 49:23 to the Christ event to reveal this problem. Because the passage relates a group of kings that “will bow down before you with their faces to the ground,” the passage has been applied to the visit of the magi to Jesus in Matthew. The problem resides in the fact that the Isaiah passage relates to Israel’s elevated status after the exile, that both queens and kings are mentioned in Isaiah, and in the fact that the magi were not kings, but wise-men.[31]Fee and Stuart, 181-82. Such realities reinforce the axiom that the smaller the amount of material being used, the greater the danger of erroneous conclusions being drawn from it.

 

Classify the Genre

After establishing the context, the identification of the genre is the essential next step. To this end, numerous books and essays deal specifically with the genres of the prophetic materials.[32]Some already used by this article include Westermann; Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard; Byargeon; and VanGemeren. The writers selected a particular form of speech because that form best illustrated the message they were conveying. Here, as with the historical context, commentaries can be most helpful to the average reader. Seek out commentaries that apply proper principles of interpretation and take seriously the divine nature of the message.[33]See Sheri Klouda’s annotated bibliography elsewhere in this journal.

 

Define Key Words and Phrases

As the process continues, the interpreter must become more specific in his observations. The next step is the identification of key words and idioms within the text. Are there expressions around which the argument is built? Are there idioms that have been used by other prophets that apparently have an overarching intention in their use? What do the key words mean as they are utilized by this particular prophet? These questions must be asked. If the interpreter is proficient in Hebrew, it is important to use a lexicon. If the exegete is not proficient in Hebrew, then a concordance, an interlinear Bible, and at least two word-for-word translations should be used and compared in order to acquire the proper contextual meaning of a word.

 

Fuse the Conclusions

The final step of the exegesis is the summation. The fundamental principle to apply at this point is not to disregard the study that has already been done. In grading exegetical papers, I have observed students who have spent significant time collecting data regarding a passage, only to ignore that data in assigning meaning. In reality, the process ends where it begins, because the root cause of ignoring the gathered information is that the interpreter already had a meaning determined before he began the process. When proper summation is achieved, one recognizes the principle being related to the original audience, which one then applies to the modern audience.

 

The Necessity for Appropriate Application

Regarding application, much has already been said about recognizing the covenant aspect of some of the prophetic oracles and the necessity of avoiding mixing covenant and non-covenant realities. There are other factors to take into account in achieving proper application from one’s exegesis: What changes in history, science, culture, language, and religion have taken place that might affect how this text is applied? Is the issue being addressed one of specific action or general attitude? How do the Incarnation and New Testament affect the application? Indeed, in making application, the Christian minister must look for corollaries within the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament writers.[34]This is not to play Jesus and the New Testament against the Old, such attempts being fruit­ less, but rather to reinforce continuity between the Testaments.

 

Basic Rules for Delivery

The final step in developing a study is the delivery. Many things could be said about delivery. Both teachers and preachers must be passionate, instructive, exhortative, well-informed, and compassionate. The message must grow out of the exegesis and application that have been developed, without using a text to say whatever the preacher has on his mind for that week. To this end the prophets present the perfect opportunity for expository preaching in that the texts are unified in origin, but diverse enough to allow variety in presentation and theme.

Concerning the issue of variety of presentation, the preacher and teacher must know who their audience is and to what they will respond. While creativity plays an important role, and using a variety of techniques is helpful and biblical,[35]Grant Lovejoy, “Shaping Sermons by the Literary Form of the Text,” in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, 2d ed., ed. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2002), 399. one needs to recognize that not all audience are open to all forms of delivery. In preaching the prophets, it might be tempting to use their speech pattern of lament, satire, or prophetic sign; however, it must be remembered that while they chose those genres because they best revealed the truth to their audience, that does not mean that it is the best approach for a modern audience.[36]Ibid., 401. One need only look at some of the methods of the prophets, such as walking naked (Isa. 20:2-3) or eating food cooked over dung (Ezek. 4:12-15), to see a severe disjuncture between our world and theirs.  One needs to be careful not to lose one’s audience through one’s presentation. Grant Lovejoy presents the tension well when he writes, “If preaching lacks the biblical world, it has nothing substantial to say; if preaching fails to connect with the contemporary world, its speaking is irrelevant and ineffective.”[37]Lovejoy, 401.

 

A Working Example Using Mic. 6:1-8

In conclusion, perhaps it would be helpful to apply the process proposed here as it relates to Mic. 6:1-8. The scope of this passage is determined by the introductory refrain. 6:1 opens with a call to listen and is followed by verses which connect God’s past actions to his present expectations concerning Israel. Since v. 9 also opens with the command to listen, it is clear that the prophet is moving on to a new list of circumstances and evaluations thus establishing the closure of the passage at v. 8.

Though the exact historical setting of this passage is not disclosed, Micah’s ministry as a whole takes place during the trying and difficult years within which Judah sought direction for dealing with the oppression inflicted by Assyria. Micah also makes reference to several historical events in succession. He alludes to the delivery from Egypt with the exodus, the protection God offered against Balak on the threshold of the promise land, and the miraculous crossing of the Jordan as Israel moved from Shittim to Gilgal. These events mark the beginning of Israel’s salvation history and establish the certainty that Yahweh has been faithful to his covenant promises.

The specific prophetic genre is that of an oracle of judgment couched in terms of a covenant lawsuit. As one reads the passage, certain expectations grow concerning the path down which Micah takes his audience. Oracles of judgment almost always end with a judgment sentence; its absence here creates three possibilities. The first is that Micah is building a case that continues into vv. 9-16 where the judg­ment is then outlined.[38]Barker and Bailey, 116-20. While this approach has the advantage of completing the pattern for this type of literature, Micah seems to be purposely distinguishing between the case of vv. 1-8 and that of vv. 9-16. The second response is that the judgment is implicit in Judah’s present situation or that the case speaks for itself and Judah is invited to judge herself. The third response is that the purpose of the lawsuit is not to exact judgment on Judah, but to bring her to repentance.[39]Allen, 363. This approach has the added advantage of the alteration in structure being a further picture of the theology called for in the passage. That is, God is not an oppressor, but is abundant in justice, covenant love, and self­ sacrifice.

The next aspect of the study involves key words and phrases, which are found in the comparison of what Judah is willing to offer and what God desires. Micah takes on the role of the people of Judah, listing things they are willing to offer. What is most striking about the list is that he does not characterize their offerings as menial or unimpressive. Instead of identifying the crowd as disinterested in pleasing God, Micah portrays them as committed but misdirected.

He starts with the whole burnt offering. This offering is special because the whole thing was given to God; no part of the animal went to the participant or the priest. In short, it was the most costly of the sacrifices. He then moves to the offering of a yearling. As Allen points out, any calf seven days old or older was eligible for sacrifice; a yearling was most costly because a year’s worth of food and time went into its care.[40]Ibid., 370. The discussion then moves to great quantities of goods; thousands upon thousands of rivers of oil are suggested, reminiscent of Solomon’s gifts at the dedication of the Temple. Finally, the worshipers express their willingness even to offer their children if they are what God wants. At this point it is important to recognize that there is little warrant to the suggestion that such practices were taking place within Judah as a whole.[41]The practice of Ahaz and Manasseh along these lines does not apply. This is especially true given the fact that the stated reasons for the offerings are antithetical to the motivations of child sacrifice elsewhere in the area.[42]Allen, 370. Instead, the expression is best understood as one final plea to determine what it takes to please God.

In relating what God does desire of Judah, Micah chooses three words, translated “justice,” “kindness,” and “humbly.” This first word “justice” (mišpāt) represents the central message of the prophets. The command covers responses to a variety of realities from perjury and bribery to basic mistreatment and oppression.[43]The New Brown, Drivers, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, 1979 ed., s.v. mispat. The second word “kindness” (chesed) expresses covenantal love. It is divine in origin and all at once expresses the actions of kindness, loyalty, mercy, love, and unmitigated devotion.[44]The New Brown, Drivers, Briggs, Genenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, 1979 ed., s.v. chesed. See also the discussion in Ralph Smith, Old Testament Theology: Its History, Method, and Message (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1993), 196-99. The third phrase “to walk ‘humbly’” (hashnēa) suggests a pattern of life characterized not by self-effacement, but by careful, measured conduct.[45]The New Brown, Drivers, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, 1979 ed., s.v. hashnea. See also Mays, 142. The construction and syntactical relationship of the three phrases suggests that Micah is not relating three separate requirements, but ascending constructs of behavior from the specific to the general. Micah is calling for an adoption of the “specific requirement to do justice which is a way of loving mercy, which in turn is a manifestation of walking humbly with God.”[46]Mays, 142.

The summation of the text grows directly out of the conclusions of the previous sections. Micah is interested in moving his audience from living with a disconnection of worship from lifestyle to a recognition that our secular life impacts spiritual life. His methodology is as ingenuous as his message is radical. Instead of tearing down the practices of Judah and their concerns for pleasing God, he uses their ardent desire to please, and seeks to redirect their energies.[47]Micah stands apart somewhat from his counterparts (Amos 5:21-25, Hos. 6:6, Isa. 1:11-15, and Jer. 7:21-22) at this point in that he does not overtly reject the offerings. On the other hand, he is very much with them in his elevation of chesed over sacrifice. He establishes a paradigm of justice and covenant commitment with Yahweh’s past actions, asks Judah to make sacrifices-sacrifices of life more than material goods-and culminates by drawing the two concepts together, stating that the ability to accomplish what he asks comes from linking oneself to the covenant keeper himself, Yahweh.

The task of application is now accomplished by bringing the meaning into the present and linking it with comparable New Testament expressions. One area of application involves our treatment of others as it relates to our commitment to God. The balance that Micah achieves between putting one’s own desires to the side and recognizing the mandate to act justly and seek justice for others is needed in a church committed to one or the other but seldom both. It grows out of the intrinsic value that the Bible places on the whole person. Whereas the modern expression of walking with God chooses either to focus on only the spiritual or the physical, or the physical, the Bible rejects that dichotomy and recognizes that, without attention to both realities, one’s service to God is incomplete. These lessons are clearly expressed within the New Testament: note James 1:26-27 and 2:14-26, 1 John 4:7-5:4, Mark 12:28-34, and Matt. 23:1-12 and 25:31-46.

Another application is found in the final instruction of Micah that the path to a successful life as a person of God involves careful consideration and commitment to connecting oneself to one’s creator. The task of godly living is not accomplished by redirecting one’s efforts toward doing what is right, it is accomplished by latching ourselves to God’s side and walking with him. Again the New Testament proclaims this truth through Paul’s call in Eph. 5:15-17 to walk circumspectly.

A final application grows out of the rehearsing of Judah’s salvation history in the opening stanzas. Micah’s call to repentance is couched within a reminder of where Judah had been and what God had done on the people’s behalf. As Allen points out, the function of such history within the community was the instillation of a sense that they too were rescued from Egypt.[48]Allen, 364-69. One of the roles of the narrative sections of the Old Testament is that it invites the reader to take part in the deliverance that God brings and to see him or herself as the recipient of God’s salvation as well. To a world focused on tomorrow, Micah reminds his audience and us of the value of rehearsing our own salvation history. For in seeing our history, we come to appreciate our God who is a covenant keeper and also to recognize the great debt that we owe him for what he has done. Is this not part of the purpose behind the narratives of the Gospels and Acts?

 

Conclusions

I have attempted to outline appropriate steps for dealing with the prophets and, at the same time, present the fact that such practices enhance rather than diminish the possibilities for preaching and teaching the prophetic material. Micah provides many opportunities for pastors and teachers to help their congregations see God’s demand for a well rounded lifestyle. The variety and genius of the prophets, which I have barely been able to demonstrate in this article, is both challenging and invigorating. Indeed, who could not agree with John Calvin that “those for whom the prophetic teaching is insipid ought to be thought of as lacking taste”?[49]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1845), 1:8.2.

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