Deliberate Tears, Micah 1:8-16


Micah 1:8-16

Text Comments

The next paragraph, vv. 8‑16, now describes the judgment that will fall upon Judah, the southern kingdom. She committed the same kinds of sins and will receive a similar punishment. Samaria was the chief object of the attention of the first oracle or sermon summary (vv. 6‑7), now it is Jerusalem’s turn. Both had been mentioned in the introduction (vv. 1‑5).

v.8       “barefoot and naked” is not a picture of penitence, but of exile. Exiles, barefoot and naked, tramp miserably away from home in long lines under the supervision of enemy soldiers. The same idea is expressed with the howling of the jackal. Jackals howl in the waste places, in the wilderness, and that is what Judah will be reduced to. (So nakedness in v. 11)

Dr. Waltke mentions the interesting fact, by the way, that Hebrew has only three words for high flying birds. You cannot, for example, distinguish between an eagle and a vulture in biblical Hebrew. But there are 17 different words for the owl. Simple enough to explain really. In a day before telescopic lenses and binoculars, the owl could be seen much closer and studied and minor differences observed. Not so easy with birds that were always further away.

v.9       One of the indications that what Micah is prophesying here is the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib and his Assyrian forces in 701 B.C. Sennacherib did come right up to the gates of Jerusalem, and devastated Judah along the way, but did not conquer the city. Hezekiah repented and the city was spared when the Lord devastated the army of Sennacherib with a plague (2 Kings 19).

That was the history immortalized in Lord Byron’s poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the angel of death spread her wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the form of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock‑beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord! (1815)

vv.10‑14          The following verses mention several Judean towns, all of them within fourteen kilometers of Micah’s hometown of Moresheth Gath which is mentioned in v. 14, the same town that is called simply Moresheth in 1:1. All of the names are “omens” or are given some special significance by means of a play on the name, either on the meaning or the associations of the name or on its sound. Dr. Waltke gives a few examples. We might say, if we were in New Hampshire, “In Concord there is Discord.” Or, in Alberta, we might say about some upcoming disturbance, “There will be a stampede in Calgary.”

The first name, “Gath” (the only non‑Judean town; it was a Philistine town) is significant because of its use, in a similar phrase (“Tell it not in Gath”) in David’s lament for the house of Saul after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, 2 Sam. 1:10. That is clearly the significance of the illusion, for the Philistine city of Gath did not exist at this time, having been destroyed by Sargon in 711 B.C. The idea, as any Israelite would immediately realize, is that the house of David is now falling just as the house of Saul had done before.

You’ll see in your NIV margin notes how the plays on the names of the towns work, one after another.

v.10     Don’t weep before your enemies (that is the sense of David’s original “Tell it not in Gath” for the Philistines would gloat over Saul’s death); but let your heart go in the presence of your own fellow citizens. “Dust” is a symbol of abject humiliation and defeat. The serpent had to eat dust!

v.12     The idea is that the towns of Judah were hoping for help from the capital, but she herself is under siege.

v.13     Lachish was apparently the place where idolatry got its foothold in Judah and then it spread outward from there. Dr. Waltke suggests that Hollywood’s role in our culture might be a similar idea.

v.14     With the loss of Lachish, which was a key defensive point, and which, in fact, held out longer in 701 than the other towns and villages of Judah, the nation must expect to pay tribute. There are different interpretations of verse 14, too complicated to explain, but the idea of the entire verse is that towns that belonged to Judah and contributed to her, now must be paid for instead, in enemy hands as they are.

And that suggests a general application, Dr. Waltke says. What the Lord is saying is that the punishment will meet the people at the point of their rebellion and sin. The rulers who once fleeced their people (3:2) are now being fleeced themselves. In the same way, in America, our sexual “revolution” has brought us AIDS and VD (and the scourge of abortion and divorce and their terrible human costs). What remains, Dr. Waltke says, is for America to be judged in the area of its other great idol ‑‑ money. He thinks the prophets teach us to expect that a terrible economic catastrophe is inevitable for a money‑worshipping country such as ours.

v.15     Again the allusion is literary, not literal. As David had to flee from Saul to the Cave of Adullam, so the sons of David ‑‑ the kings and the nobles (“the glory of Israel”) will be driven out. Ichabod will have come, the glory will have departed.

Now, I hope that the drift of those verses is clear to you. We can read a section like that and feel like we haven’t a clue as to what is being said, but just a bit of background can clear it all up. Given the difficulty modern Christian readers have in understanding the prophets, someone asked Bruce Waltke once if the people of that time, who first heard these prophets, understood them. Dr. Waltke replied, “Well enough to want to kill them!”

But what is the burden of this oracle? Micah identifies it by leading with it and finishing with it. It is, in other words, an “inclusio” of the passage, an introduction and a similar conclusion that identifies the theme of the material in between. In v. 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.” And in v. 16: “Shave your heads in mourning…make yourselves as bald as the vulture…”

In other words, Micah sees the future destruction of Judah on account of her sins and he considers that the appropriate response on his part, and on the part of all right thinking people, is to mourn. He conceives of mourning in terms of the actions that conveyed lamentation in that culture and time. But, the point is: lamenting is what righteous people do in the face of sin, decadence, and the prospect of its judgment. There are situations that call for mourning and that require God’s people to mourn.

With reference to Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept…”) Matthew Henry speaks of “deliberate tears.” The idea is of a weeping that is done because it is appropriate, it is the fitting response to a situation. We tend to think of the mourners we encounter in biblical culture ‑‑ who come to funerals and weep with the bereaved ‑‑ as hypocrites, people who only feign sadness.

But, while that might have become true, especially later, as customs hardened, think for a moment. In the law of God there are provisions for mourning that lasts a week or a month. Great men such as Moses and Aaron were mourned for a month before the nation got back to business as usual. And mourning customs often included public actions, such as shaving the head, tearing the clothes, putting dust on the head, and weeping aloud.

Now, all of this ought to be done, ought then to have been done with true sincerity. But, it is perfectly obvious that it wasn’t always done with as great a depth of feeling. An official mourner does not grieve the loss of a husband as a loving wife does, or of a child as her parents do. And, frankly, many of us know very well we do not feel certain losses as deeply as we should.

As with everything else in the godly life, many things are to be done which ought to be done with the deepest conceivable feeling, but which are to be done, nonetheless.

We are to worship God in this house on the Lord’s day: sing our joy, confess our sins, offer our gifts, hear the Word, receive the blessing, and so on. And we know with what a depth of true feeling all of this ought to be done ‑‑ the purest grief for sin, the highest joy for our forgiveness and salvation, the most delicious thrill in praising a present God. But, rightly, we do not imagine that we ought to do less of this if we aren’t feeling as powerfully the emotions appropriate to such acts of worship. Rightly, we confess and sing our joy to God and pray inwardly that we might feel that joy more than we do. We confess and grieve over our sins before God and pray inwardly that we might feel a deeper disgust and hatred of them and a greater sense of wonder at their forgiveness. We say the truest words to God, the words that ought to be said, and we pray alongside those words that we might feel as we ought, as we long to feel, the reality those words are expressing. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Lord, I feel, help my dullness of heart.” It is the same thing.

Well so with mourning. We know that the godly felt, as we often do, that they should feel more deeply than they do the convictions they know to be right and holy. Jeremiah, in 9:1, says: “Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” Later in the same chapter, Jeremiah even gives us a glimpse into what the genuine believers thought the true purpose of wailers was. (vv. 17‑18): “Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them. Let them come quickly and wail over us till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids. …Now, O women, hear the word of the Lord… Teach your daughters how to wail; teach one another a lament.”

Women, naturally, were the “wailers” and “mourners” because these strong feelings of sadness and tears themselves come so much more easily to them. As Richard Sibbes said in patriarchal and man‑dominated 17th century England, “For the most part women have sweet affections to religion, and therein they oft go beyond men. The reason is, religion is especially seated in the affections: and they have sweet and strong affections. Likewise they are subject to weakness, and God delights to show his strength in weakness.” [Works, vol. 6, 520] But, the point of these women wailers, was to assist in experiencing and expressing the purest grief, the grief appropriate to the loss, the sorrow, the tragedy.

Put all of this together and you come to this: there is a mourning that is to be done as part of Christian living and loving. It is best done when the heart is truly broken and feels powerfully the sorrow that is being expressed, but it is to be done no matter, for it is right and fitting and the appropriate response to certain circumstances.

Now we do not have elaborate mourning customs in our day. I don’t know what would be the modern American equivalent of public mourning and its demonstration such as was common in the ANE and still in the Near East today. But, I know of one place where it is to be done and how it may be done and that is in our speech. We have a miserable, dishonorable, distressing situation before us in our land at this moment that is the subject of untold conversations, and, for us, there ought to be mourning in those conversations. The state of the republic ‑‑ insofar as it is professedly a Christian nation (and every poll suggests that most Americans continue to identify themselves that way) ‑‑ and, still more, the state of the church herself ‑‑ unbelief, worldliness, idolatries of various kinds; these are reasons for mourning.

And, believe me, if you take Micah to heart with an open and active mind and memory, and can visualize the punishments that must eventually descend upon this people, this church, this nation, you have cause to mourn. What Micah saw happening to Judah, her destruction and eventual exile, really did take place. It was as bad as he said it would be, worse perhaps. We say it so glibly, “the exile.” But what it was, of course, was Judean soldiers killed in mass, Judean cities entered, looted, and destroyed ‑‑ family homes vandalized, burned, and torn down ‑‑ wives and daughters raped by the pillaging army that made sport of an abject people; babies were an inconvenience so they were murdered, literally dashed against rocks, and then thousands were made to march away in complete humiliation and despair, to where they knew not, never to see their homeland, often their families again. That is what Micah said would happen to Judah for her sins and that is what happened to her. Nothing antiseptic about that. Human suffering and despair on a level this generation of Americans and American Christians knows anything about.

Now we talk about what is happening in our country and the condition of the Christian church and we hear many others talk about them. But do we mourn? Do we speak as people who know the offense these things are to God, who can see the devastation that these sins must eventually bring upon nation and church? Can we see America a wasteland, left to the Jackals? Do we speak as those who are pained over the dishonor done to God in all of this and the loss that it all is to human hearts and eternal souls.

There is so much of this weeping and mourning in the prophets, but how much in our speech and in the speech of the church today?

I’m sure there are people who think that critical speech is the equivalent of this mourning. After all, Micah has a lot of criticism in his oracles. He points out the sins of Israel and Judah in detail; he condemns her bluntly and repeatedly; he doesn’t just tell them to “Shave your heads in mourning…” No doubt. And no doubt there is a place for that condemnation and for identifying the sins that are being committed. But does that lead to mourning, a true confession of sadness? Criticism can very subtly become not God‑honoring but self‑serving, proud, and inhumane. This is the difference, in my mind, between Micah and Rush Limbaugh. But I find Rush Limbaugh in myself. I catch myself criticizing what I see in the nation and the church but without Micah’s spirit of misery and despair.

It is only the sadness, the grief, the mourning that makes the criticism pure and worthy. Here is a man who sees the wrong but, as well, cares about it being wrong for the right reasons. Here is a man who is not condemning others to elevate himself, but because he cares about the dishonor being done to God and the harm being done to human beings. His is a selfless grief, which is the only pure grief there is, the only grief that serves a good and holy purpose in the heart and in the world.

Think of how common it is for us all to lack Micah’s spirit. We criticize the gay lobby but not with the sadness that communicates both that our views are part and parcel of our loyalty to God and his Word and that we really care about the consequences of these practices for human beings ‑‑ including homosexuals. Or feminists, or politicians or liberal churchmen or Hollywood producers and actors, and so on.

If we cannot mourn over what we see that is wrong and dishonoring to God, let us leave the criticism to better men and women than we are!