Chapter 3 contains three oracles of judgment of equal length and identical in form. An address (1,5,9); accusation (beginning with “you who” 2,5,9); and judgment (with a logical connector — then or therefore — 4,6,12) with the same theme in every case, corrupt leadership.
v.1 “I” must be Micah. No other antecedent. Micah not only preached the oracles in the first place, he edited his own material for publication in this prophecy.
We have already considered Micah’s charge that God’s people had been led astray by a corrupt leadership. He repeats that charge and develops it further in these verses. He is speaking here, especially, of that leadership that exercised authority over the justice system — a system that they had perverted to their own ends and which no longer protected either justice or those who were oppressed by the injustice of others. They were, no doubt, gifted, even brilliant men, but they used their talents for the sake of evil, not good.
The result is a fundamental reversal. As he says, these are men who ought to know justice, but they pervert it instead and have gone so far as to have come to hate what is good and love what is evil.
You know that the word “know” is a richer word than the English equivalent. It does not usually mean simply intellectual understanding. It means something deeper: full appreciation of and engagement with a subject or a person. When God “knows” his people, as he says he does, it is not that he knows about them, but that he loves them and cares for them. And here, knowing justice is not simply to have some intellectual acquaintance with the theory of justice, it is to have a “taste” for justice [Waltke] and a deep commitment to it and love of it.
It is, by the way, important to recognize that the Bible does have a theory of justice. Many use the term today who would be hard pressed to define it. But “justice” is a clear concept in the Bible. It is defined as the lex talionis, the law of retribution or a proper balance of behavior on the one side with reward or punishment on the other. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. And that theory is carried into the Bible’s doctrine of salvation. There must be an appropriate balancing punishment for guilt to be removed. Not that this can be calculated by us, of course. Infinite disvalue covered by infinite righteousness.
But this is carried through in very practical ways in the Bible. Taking the case laws together, for example, you come up with this. If a man gives me his sheep to care for and I take responsibility for that sheep, and then the sheep is lost, I must replace the sheep out of my own herd. I took responsibility for it and must then replace it, sheep for sheep. On the other hand, if the sheep my neighbor has given to me for safekeeping is injured or killed by a wild animal, the kind of thing that could just as well have happened while it was in the keeping of its owner, no restitution is required. However, if I stole a sheep from my neighbor, I must pay back four sheep. For not only must I replace the sheep that was lost, I sought to defraud my neighbor and so I must be “defrauded” myself; I sought to diminish my neighbor’s flock and so my flock must be diminished.
This principle of equal weight, or the lex talionis, is carried through everywhere in the law of God. It is the principle lying behind capital punishment and it is hard to see how any other sentence would be proper punishment for certain crimes. “Life for life…”
But the deeper problem, as I say, is not that these people do not understand the theory of justice rightly; their entire moral character has been so corrupted that they have a taste, an attraction for evil and a positive revulsion from what is good. (Like pro-abortion people today who really despise the pro-life position and its defenders; or advocates of gay rights who despise the defenders of the judeo-Christian morality, etc.)
And the result of that is that they are, in effect, cannibals — consuming the people of God. That is the point of the ferocious imagery that Micah employs in vv. 2-3. These people were, in effect, consuming people for their own gain. (We’ve seen already in chapter 2 how they stole their houses and rendered them destitute.)
Jonathan Swift had nothing on Micah. Remember his A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from becoming a burden to their Families or Country — that the English use Irish children for food. His was a similarly vicious attack on the mistreatment of the oppressed by those who had the power to twist the system to their own advantage.
We have exactly the same sort of legal perversions in our own day. We know, of course, about the refusal of the law to defend the unborn, and of the power of the law now being exercised on behalf of the liberty of certain citizens to engage in deeply sinful conduct without reproach (homosexuality; pornography).
But we can think of many more, some we are quick to recognize, others perhaps not so.
1. The lottery that advantages the rich at the expense of the poor; 2. Laws that punish the tobacco industry here — precisely because its products are harmful to human beings — while permitting its free export to other countries; 3. And, as a demonstration that this is not a new problem: the Jim Crow laws in the South; or the legal defense of industrialists whose profits were made at the cost of the death of multitudes of workers who labored in unsafe conditions.
A person’s moral convictions are not free standing. They come from his worldview, his theology, if you will. A Christian theology must produce vastly different ethics than a non-Christian theology. The problem with these folk in Micah’s day was that they had no faith in God and that changed their view of what was good and evil, as inevitably it must. Naturalism has changed our ethics today as it must. Unfortunately for Western culture, naturalism can produce little other than the ethics of competition, self-protection, and materialism. It has no basis for anything else. And while, for a time, spending the remaining capital of the Judeo-Christian world view, it may appear that naturalism and altruism may go together, they will not, and the more a society becomes naturalistic, the more cruel and self-serving people will become in that society. So it is, so it has always been. The law of God will never be entirely forgotten — it is written on the heart, after all — but its influence will become less, its voice weaker. (Abortion a splendid example of this — it is naturalism’s gift to our culture. So is feminism — a philosophy of gender competition.)
And that leads to the startling and new development in the oracle in v. 4.
The new thing is not the fact that the Lord will punish these false teachers in keeping with their crimes. That is the lex talionis. The oppressed cried out to these leaders and they would not answer or help them. So, when they cry out to God for help, he will not answer them. An eye for an eye.
The new thing is rather this notion of a point of no return.
American evangelicals are not so accustomed to thinking of God turning his back on the pleas of men. But that is often enough the case according to Holy Scripture.
Hosea speaks at greater length in 5:4-6 of this same grim reality.
“There deeds do not permit them to return to their God. A spirit of prostitution is in their heart, they do not acknowledge the Lord. Israel’s arrogance testifies against them; the Israelites, even Ephraim, stumble in their sin; Judah also stumbles with them. When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the Lord, they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.”
You see, it is not enough to say that they do not find the Lord because they do not really believe in him or repent of their sins. True enough. But that is not how the Bible represents this primarily. It speaks of them crying out to God and of his refusing to hear them. After all, none of us would ever believe or repent without the gift of God and the working of his Spirit. He says in the prophets that he will not be willing to give them such a gift; even when in fear — with the enemies closing in — they call upon him to save them. It is not only that they will not turn; the Lord will not hear them; he has withdrawn from them.
Here is the true seriousness of turning away from the Lord and his Word in one’s life. It is not only that at the time one is estranged from God. It is also that one cannot be sure that there ever will be a time when God will be again willing to hear and save. The Scripture says “Seek the Lord while he may be found…” because there are times when he cannot be found.
There is a time, we know not when,
A point, we know not where,
That marks the destiny of men,
To glory or despair.
There is a line by us unseen,
That crosses every path;
The hidden boundary between
God’s patience and his wrath.
You’ll notice that Micah is not spending his time calling upon the people to repent so that they might be spared. He is rather announcing a doom that is certain to fall. True, we could say that if the people repented all would have been different. But they cannot repent apart from divine grace and God here says he will not bestow that grace on this generation.
This is one of the reasons why we must not neglect the prophets. Too many of their great themes have disappeared from preaching and teaching in the church today and these themes are crucial to a right understanding of life and of God. And one of those themes is the great danger of forming, by practice and repetition, and especially by refusing to heed divine warnings and take action, a habit of ignoring God’s Word and of refusing to repent and submit one’s will to God. There is a point of no return in this matter of living in sin.
As with tobacco or alcohol or other vices, a point is reached sooner or later when the damage done to the lungs or the liver cannot be undone. All the repentance and all the change in behavior at that point will have no consequence and effect no change. And so it is in the spiritual realm.
And it happens in both ways. Persistent refusal to heed the Word of God can so harden the heart as to leave it, in John Owen’s phrase, “sermon proof and sickness proof.” But, in a sense we are all that by nature. So it is also true in another way. Rebellion carried out long enough can exhaust God’s patience and leave him unwilling to hear your prayers when you finally think to pray.
One of the Bible’s chief examples of this phenomenon is Israel at Kadesh Barnea. They were willing to enter the Promised Land, but one day too late. When they tried to enter the Land as they should have done the day before, God was not with them and they were defeated. That one last day of disobedience made the difference for them all, and so they perished in the wilderness.
So King Saul, whose pleas for a second chance went unheeded.
Or, so-called “Christian Europe” during the black death of the 14th century. A disease that took upwards of one-third of the population and in some places much more you might think might make a religiously informed people repent and turn to God. Actually, it made them more debauched. Their long practice of indifference to God’s will now cut them off from the grace that alone could have saved them.
But, you say: “does not the Scripture say that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”? Yes it does; but only in the context of the sovereignty of divine grace.
It is, of course, always a theoretical possibility that one might believe and repent on one’s deathbed and be saved, as it were, at the last moment. But, fact is, it almost never happens. (Augustine reminds us that there is one case of a deathbed conversion in the Bible so that no one may despair, but only one, so that no one will presume.) What is more, we don’t know the personal history of the thief on the cross. Was he a man who had often heard the Word of God addressed to his conscience and refused to heed it or, as it perhaps more likely, was he an irreligious man who knew very little of God and his salvation until he saw both in the face of the Savior of the World and heard it in his words as he hung on the cross?
The fact is, however possible in theory it may be for practiced unbelievers to repent late in their lives, repentance is God’s gift and he seldom gives it to those who have spent their lives spurning his offers of mercy and treating his warnings and his commandments with studied indifference. As Thomas Brooks, the Puritan, put it: “Though true repentance be never too late; late repentance is seldom true.” Time was when he would and they would not; but then the time comes when they would but he will not! That is Micah’s warning.
This is another reason why we should all be very serious about how we are living or failing to live our Christian lives. Do we take the Word of God as we hear it seriously enough that we set out to kill our sins — especially to nip them in the bud before they get a grip upon us much more difficult to break (Owen’s great advice: “venture all on the first attempt”). And always even more careful to be sure that we really are trusting in the Lord for our salvation, going over and over again to drink at the fountain that has been opened for us, the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Someone who knows that, as McCheyne put it, “God has last knocks” will be careful to answer as soon as he hears the knocking and to throw the door of his heart open wide. That person must be done with procrastination in spiritual things. The fact that it is possible to slip away by doing nothing more than refusing to respond to God’s Word, to slip away and never to be called back, ought to make us all ready to act upon the Word of God without delay.
Perhaps there are some here who have often intended to become a Christian or to follow Christ to become a serious Christian and to become serious about following Christ — it often amounts to the same thing. But, there has always been a reason not to do so yet. Do not delay making your answer to the Lord. The time will come when you will find yourself ready and the Lord will no longer be willing to take you! Salvation is his not yours; he must give it, you can’t take it. It requires too much over which you have no control at all.
Of this I can assure you, on the strength of Micah and the rest of the Bible: there are multitudes of people now in hell and multitudes now alive in this world with whom God is finished striving and wooing and calling. They lost their souls not because there was no opportunity to be saved and to walk with God but because they continued to put off God and his Word, to put him off until he left them, never to return. And those who are alive in this world but who have passed that point are just as surely dead forever as those who are already in hell, because God will not save them no matter what.
There is a point of no return. And no one can know that he has crossed it until it is long since too late. So now, this moment and every day, give the Lord whatever he asks of you, make it your habit and your business ever day to respond in faith and obedience to the Word of God, to protect your salvation from even the faintest trace of unbelief and indifference to the law of God.
Or, as the Holy Spirit puts it:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”
“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”