Israel’s Golden Age, Micah 3:9-4:1


Micah 3:9-4:1

Text Comments

3:9-12 is the third of these three oracles against the corrupt leadership of the people of God that make up the third chapter. The first one addressed the political/judicial leadership, the second the prophets, and this last the leadership in general, adding the priests by name to the other two groups as you will see in v. 11.

v.11     We mentioned the age-old problem of the ministry being suborned by the promise of worldly advantages if the message is tailored in a certain way.  We should be more worried than we are in the American evangelical church by the now universal custom of charging people — at seminars, conferences, etc. — to hear the Word of God. I don’t know exactly what the answer to that is, but there is a great danger here; anyone should be able to see that. A similar danger applies to other now universal practices — copyrighting the Bible, for example! — which are designed to protect the income potential that exists in the Word of God.

What is left out of the message in such cases is the bad news, sin and divine judgment. What is always kept is the comforting news. Here these false prophets have retained the doctrine of eternal security, the only really popular doctrine in the five points of Calvinism, though only popular in its debased and corrupt form: eternal security instead of perseverance.

v.12     This is the only verse in the OT that is cited word for word somewhere else in the OT, viz. Jeremiah 26:18, some one hundred years later. And, as a matter of fact, the Lord relented because of Hezekiah’s faithfulness and this prophecy did not come to pass. So says Jeremiah 26:19. Jerusalem later was destroyed, but not as the fulfillment of this prophecy. As with so many prophecies there is always the implication of contingency. If God’s people repent, the promised doom will be withheld.

I’m going to content myself simply to read that last oracle, repeating as it does the general substance of the previous two oracles in chapter 3. And I’m going to read v. 1 only as an introduction to chapters 4-5 in which Dr. Waltke purports to find seven oracles of salvation, following upon these three oracles of judgment in chapter 3. (Remember, in chapters 1-2, four oracles of judgment were followed by one brief oracle of salvation.) There are some questions about the division of the material as we shall see later, but clearly chapters 4 and 5 contain oracles of salvation. And, what is more they contain the second of two types of salvation oracles. There are salvation oracles which prophesy specific deliverance in the near future. We had such a prophesy in 2:12-23, where deliverance was forecast for those bottled up in Jerusalem by Sennacherib’s siege in 701 B.C. But there are also oracles, a great many of them in the prophets, that forecast a golden age in the distant future, after the time of the doom and judgment that is promised for Israel’s sin, oracles predicting a golden age, a time of consummation of the kingdom of God in Israel. This is the type of oracle we have before us in chapters 4 and 5.

Read 4:1 (You recognize the theme, the tone, even the prediction itself from many other instances of the same prediction elsewhere in the OT prophets.)

As I said, before we begin the consideration of the individual oracles, we need to set the prophecies of Israel’s golden age in some larger context. And it is for this purpose that I have supplied you with the simple chart that you carried with you into church this evening. It is very simple, I realize. Too simple for many purposes, for there are a very large number of permutations of each of these general positions. But, for our purpose this evening, which is to consider where we are to find the fulfillment of the prophecies of Israel’s golden age, this simple approach is enough. Anything more would confuse rather than clarify.

Briefly put:

In the following descriptions we are using the term “millennium” to refer to the golden age when the kingdom of God finally flourishes in the world. It is a time of unprecedented salvation, peace, and prosperity, and of the public, world-wide vindication of the gospel and rule of Jesus Christ. The term itself is drawn from Revelation 20 and the prophecy of the one thousand years when the devil was chained, thrown into the abyss and held there, and so prevented from deceiving the nations.

Now, it is important to understand that only pre-millennialists connect the prophecies of Israel’s golden age to the promise of the one thousand years in Revelation 20. The post-millennialists believe that there will be a period of gospel triumph in the world, in human history, but they do not ordinarily connect that prospect with what is said in Revelation 10. We speak of a millennium for post-mills, but in their case the term is used in a different sense, a derived sense. If you call the golden age a millennium, then they believe in one, but they don’t think that is what Revelation 20 is talking about. The a-millennialists do not really believe in a golden age in human history at all. They either relate the prophecies of the golden age to this period in which we are now living today and think simply of the progress of the gospel through the nations — not triumphant progress as the pre- and post- mils expect, but still noteworthy — or they relate such golden age prophecies to heaven itself. I hope that is not too confusing. The question, remember, is where to find in human history the fulfillment of such a promise as Micah 4:1ff. (Note v. 3: “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…” When does this happen?)

1. Dispensational pre-millennialism sees the fulfillment of these prophecies in a Jewish millennium, that is a golden age for ethnic Jewish believers — not for Christians in general — following the second coming.

2. Historic pre-millennialism sees the fulfillment of these prophecies in a millennium which all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, participate in following the second coming. [I should say here, that historic pre-millennialists, are not concerned about the word “millennium.” They are happy to admit that in prophetic writing numbers are used in highly symbolic ways. “1,000” may have more to do with the image of perfection and completeness than with a statement as to the duration of the golden age.

3. Post-millennialism, which comes, as do all the different views, in a variety of forms, in some ways quite different from one another, finds the golden age in human history before the second coming. The kingdom of God will be ushered into its golden age, its period of triumph in the world, simply by the Lord’s blessing the ordinary means of the kingdom’s advance: gospel preaching, covenant nurture of children, etc. In fact, most post-mils today think of the golden age as simply the greatest revival in the history of the world, by far! And it will precede the second coming. (Many will admit that it will be followed by the great tribulation that will immediately precede the second coming.)

4. A-millennialists hold that the golden age is either another way of referring to the age from Pentecost to the Second Coming, viewed as the time when the nations are called to faith and the elect are gathered in, or maintain that there is no golden age, per se, except for the new heavens and the new earth.

Rather than give you a set of arguments for and against these various views, I thought it might be helpful to reproduce Dr. Waltke’s highly autobiographical account of his pilgrimage from dispensational pre-millennialism to a-millennialism. Let him tell you his reasons and the thinking that he is come to, and I will add my comments.

Let me say at the outset, so you know where I am coming from, that I do not know, I do not have any confidence that anyone can know from the data of Holy Scripture exactly where to place the golden age prophesied so often by the prophets. I feel confident in excluding the dispensational view that divides Jewish and Gentile believers in the golden age. That view, I believe, falls afoul of too many explicit statements of the Bible.

But as for the other views, I cannot say with any confidence. Many speak very confidently. There is a conference being held in Vancouver, Washington, January 18-21, promoting post-millennial eschatology (the doctrine of the end times, the events and the order of events making up the consummation of all things). They will confidently tell you why you should believe post-millennialism to be the eschatology of the Bible. But I guarantee you they will not spend much time telling you why a lot of bright and devout men who have read these same arguments and thought about them are not persuaded by them. Post-millennialism, like the other two views, has real strengths. I am, frankly, drawn to those strengths and by some of the arguments offered on its behalf. However, as an interpretation of biblical data, it also has some punishing problems. I’m not very impressed by the efforts of post-mils to get round those problems. At the conference, I imagine they will concentrate on the strengths! For all I know, they may be right. But I don’t think the case is nearly so clear or certain as they think it is. Which is one reason why, though there have been post-millennialists in significant numbers arguing their case to the Protestant church for four hundred years, there are still large numbers of pre-millennialists and a-millennialists. But each of those other two positions is in exactly the same fix. They have good arguments to offer for their viewpoint and punishing difficulties to get round.

I don’t think the biblical data can be, in our present circumstances, reduced to a certain conclusion. I’m not sure who is right, or that anyone is entirely right. I also wasn’t nearly as impressed with Dr. Waltke’s thinking at this point, as I usually am impressed by everything he says and writes. You’ll see why as we proceed.

Dr. Waltke used to be a dispensationalist and taught at Dallas Theological Seminary which, in those days, was a theological school committed to dispensational pre-millennialism. But, over the years he abandoned that view and tells us why.

1. First, he came to notice that there are no clear passages in the NT that teach the so-called Jewish millennium. And he is committed to the priority to be given to the NT, as the completed form of divine revelation, in the interpretation of the OT. That is, the NT must control the interpretation of the OT. I don’t have any particular problem with that principle in theory. I’m not sure it means very much, however.

Nevertheless, it came more and more to bother him that this golden age that features so prominently in the prophetic literature of the OT does not surface in NT prophetic teaching, at least he thought not in any clear passage. The texts that some people pointed to in his dispensational circles (Acts 1:7; 3:19-20) I agree were very weak evidence. But what of Revelation 20:1-6. The text from which the term “millennium” is taken? So many have found there evidence for the NT prophecy of a golden age.

Well, says Dr. Waltke.

1. The text is highly symbolic, apocalyptic in form. And so not too much weight can be put upon it. Moreover, the chain is certainly not literal, the pit is not literal, so why should the one thousand years be literal.

That’s not much of an argument for dispensing with Revelation 20 in my mind. First, virtually all prophetic texts are highly symbolic and a great deal of biblical prophecy is apocalyptic in form, including, for example, the Lord’s “Olivette Discourse” (so called because he delivered it to his disciples while they were sitting on the Mt. of Olives; Matthew 24 and par.). If we are not going to put much weight on texts of an apocalyptic, symbolic form, we are left with very little to work with in the Bible regarding the future.  I have discovered in reading works on biblical prophecy that this argument surfaces a lot and always with regard to the other guy’s texts. The other man’s proof text is our muddle and vice versa!

Further, to say that the one thousand years is symbolic and not literal is no objection to a pre-millennial use of the term. Many pre-mils have no interest in insisting that the golden age is a thousand years of 365 days each. The thousand years are a title for the golden age in the same sense in which the tribulation is a period of seven years. Are these numbers to be taken literally? It matters not. The point is, is there a prophecy here of a time of gospel triumph and of kingdom prosperity in the world, in human history?

Well, says Dr. Waltke, there is another argument. Nothing in Revelation 20 matches the expectations of the golden age prophecies of the OT prophets. There is nothing in Revelation 20:1-6 that matches up specifically with such statements, for example, as you find in Micah 4:1-4.

Well, not exactly. There are similarities in some cases and, in any case, the general account of the millennium there squares pretty well with the other material even if there are not many verbal correspondences (there are some; e.g. Isaiah 24:22 with Revelation 20:2; Daniel 7:9 with Revelation 20:4.) Still, I take his argument. It isn’t by any means conclusive, but it is worth adding to the mix.

Then Dr. Waltke says that the absence of that OT cast to the prophecy of the millennium is significant because Revelation is a book that draws its imagery from the OT but does not turn to the OT for its imagery in describing the one thousand years. Fair enough. As I said, there are some conceptual parallels, even a few linguistic parallels, but Revelation 20 does not simply repeat the language of the golden ages prophecies of the OT. That may be significant, but one has to demonstrate that it is.

Then he turns to Romans 11. As you know, this is the passage in which Paul seems to prophecy a great work of grace among the Jews in the last days. The day when, as he says, in Romans 11:26 “all Israel will be saved.” Is not this a NT prophecy hooking up with the OT prophecies of a golden age. It certainly seems to be so, given the fact that in making his case for a future salvation of the Jews, Paul cites several texts from the OT prophets (Isaiah 59:20-21; Isaiah 27:9 [with perhaps Jeremiah 31:31,34]). Those texts from the OT are typical “golden age” texts, fully representative of that large class of texts prophesying a time in the distant future when Israel will be faithful to God and the kingdom of God will triumph in the world.

It is not entirely easy to tell what Dr. Waltke thinks about Romans 11. The typical a-millennial interpretation of Romans 11 holds that Paul means not that there will be a great revival among the Jews at the end of the age, but rather that either “all Israel will be saved” is a reference to the church per se, Jews and Gentiles alike — so is equivalent in meaning to the statement that by the end of the age all the elect will have been gathered in –, or that “all Israel” simply means all the elect Jews will be saved, as they are called to faith in Christ through the whole course of this age of gospel preaching. There is no teaching here of a great and very different day at the end of the age.

If that is Dr. Waltke’s view, and it seems to be, then I am unimpressed. I have always thought that a-mil efforts to get the golden age removed from Romans 11 had about them the air of desperation, an effort to get round the plain meaning of Paul’s words and, still more, the burden of Paul’s argument (two arguments offered to prove God has not been unfaithful to his covenant: 1) there remains a remnant of believing Jews; 2) he will return to Israel in salvation some day). John Murray, long professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, had always taught his classes a-millennialism and had taken the a-mil view of Romans 11. But, when he came to write his commentary on Romans he abandoned that exegesis of Romans 11 as simply not faithful to Paul’s argument.

[Now you understand the issue here. A-mils concentrate on Romans 11 because, as it is ordinarily interpreted, it is death to their system of interpretation. For if Paul cites OT golden age prophecies as to be fulfilled in a great work of grace among the Jews at the end of human history, then there is a golden age and a-millennialism is not true. It is the same reason why post-mils spend all of their time in Matthew 24. For the usual reading of Matthew 24 is deadly to post-millennialism, for it seems to have Jesus answering the question: “what will be the signs of your coming again” and saying nothing about the millennium which, in the post-mil scheme ought to be the most obvious and important sign that the end of the age had been reached. Make no mistake about it, lots of clever men have worked over Romans 11 on behalf of a-millennialism and Matthew 24 on behalf of post-millennialism and constructed interpretations consistent with those viewpoints. I’m willing to say that they may be right. But it is by no means obvious that they are.]

But, actually, in another place Dr. Waltke seemed to suggest that there may be a great salvation for Israel still in the future.  How he fits that into his system I am not sure.  It is deadly to a-millennialism in the main, but perhaps he has figured out a way to hold both ideas together.

In any case,

4. His fourth reason for rejecting the pre-millennial scheme (in this lecture he does not distinguish between the dispensational and historic pre-millennial schemes though there are very important differences between them) is that in places in the NT where the end of the age is discussed the golden age is not taught, is, in other words, conspicuous by its absence.

This in my judgement is the most serious problem for pre-millennial schemes. The Lord never mentions anything remotely suggestive of a millennium, even when he is speaking about the end of the age and his coming again. Paul doesn’t either, except for a doubtful reference in 1 Corinthians 15. But you have many texts where one might expect a reference and there is none. In 2 Peter 3:10, for example, there seems to be no room left for a millennium between Christ’s return and the destruction of the world.

In any case, he says, these arguments led him to wake up one morning and realize that he was no longer a pre-millennialist.

So, in Dr. Waltke’s view, the golden age prophecies are fulfilled in two ways according to the NT: some of them are fulfilled in Christ and the church and the spread of the gospel throughout the nations in the way in which we have seen the gospel spread; others are fulfilled in heaven. One interesting implication of his viewpoint, basically an a-millennial viewpoint, is that he does not see the restoration of Israel to the land (1948) as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The way he puts this is to say that there is a generic character to these golden age prophecies, or, as he puts it also, a “thickness” to them. There is a developing fulfillment, in other words. Just as Christ conquered the seed of the woman at the cross, but the final destruction of the devil has not yet taken place; just as there were many seeds of the woman before the seed appeared, Jesus Christ, so the nations gathering in Jerusalem is being fulfilled in the Gentile mission but will not be consummated until the world to come. There is more immediate fulfillment and a fulfillment par excellence, the consummation.

I am willing to grant that as a principle, but I think it works against his view of the golden age prophecies. I don’t think it is easy to see prophesies that are of the gathering of the nations in this world, in human history, consummated outside of history in heaven. They are prophesies either of one thing or the other. If they are prophesies of what is to happen in this world, the triumph of the gospel, then, it seems to me, that their consummation must happen in this world in a golden age. It is not easy to see how they can be prophesies of two completely different things, two completely different worlds and states and developments. If the Gentile mission and the gathering of the church from all the nations after Pentecost is the beginning of what Micah prophesies in 4:1ff, then, it seems to me, the consummation of that expectation must be a triumph of that mission, which is to say, a golden age of the gospel in this world.

Now, let me tell you what remain for me major problems with Dr. Waltke’s way of construing the golden age prophecies and why among the three alternatives a-millennialism is least attractive to me.

1. I have already mentioned the problem of Romans 11. If Paul takes those representative OT golden age prophecies and applies them to a time in the future of the age when the Jews will be swept into the kingdom of God again with living faith and indeed to an extent never before experienced in Israel, then there is a golden age of some kind and it cannot be accounted for by the ordinary progress of the gospel since Pentecost. Paul looks for a great new day at the end and uses these golden age prophecies to prove the expectation.

2. Further Dr. Waltke has to argue that these golden age prophecies must be interpreted in a spiritual way, a very general way, if they are to be understood as fulfilled in what has happened since Pentecost. After all, the world has not yet actually beat its swords into plowshares and all the kings of the earth have not yet come to Jerusalem to worship God. In other words, the way Dr. Waltke takes these prophecies, he turns them finally into prophecies of a greater day that are fulfilled in the NT age. Even if they are also prophesies of heaven, there must be a way to take them so that “beating their swords into ploughshares” also describes what is happening today and what has happened over the past two thousand years, viz. the gospel mission of the church. But this means, these prophesies must amount to a predication of a fundamental change in character between the situation of the OT and that of the NT. Only in that way can the NT era become the golden age. It hadn’t existed in Micah’s time, but it does today. It is this assumption of a fundamental change in situation, in the character of the life of God’s people in the world, of the church’s condition, and, in particular, of the magnificent improvement of the church’s condition, Israel’s condition in the world, when we pass into the NT from the OT, that is the fatal mistake in his view, in my judgment. There is no such change anywhere taught, illustrated, or suggested in the NT itself. For example, Dr. Waltke sees “all nations shall come to Mt. Zion in 4:1 as meaning what Hebrews 12:2-24 means. Turn. “But you have come to Mt. Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God…”

But the problem there is that Hebrews is not distinguishing between the OT situation and the NT situation. He is distinguishing between unbelief and faith as the previous verses and the verses that follow make clear. In this sense, the OT believer had also come to Mt. Zion and to the heavenly Jerusalem…”

All efforts to distinguish between the quality and character of faith and religious experience from the OT to the NT founder on the actual teaching of the Bible. There is no difference. We have the same situation in the church today that the prophets had. Dr. Waltke is brilliant in pointing out the identity of situation in his lectures on Micah. The situation that the OT prophets predict as an alternative to that situation they faced — a remnant, a divided church, unbelieving leadership, judgment upon the church, etc. — is not the situation of this age, which has reproduced all of that in spades. It is another situation we have not yet come to, not yet seen. We Christians are not living in the golden age. Not in the terms Micah uses of that age, not so as to fulfill Micah’s expectation of that golden age.

It lies somewhere in the future, before or after the second coming: that, in my mind, is the question. Not whether, but when? It does not surprise me that we are left in uncertainty about the timing of these events, even about the exact nature of them. As Dr. Waltke perceptively notes, the very form of prophecy in the Bible, highly symbolic, evocative, non-specific, seems designed both to reveal and to conceal, both to disclose and to leave much uncertain. In other words, I believe the day predicted by Micah in 4:1ff. is still to come and will be a day, as his words suggest, like no other day that mankind has lived through before, a day of the Lord, of the triumph of the kingdom of God in the world. Exactly when it is coming is an interesting question; that it is coming is a fabulously important part of our philosophy of history and of our faith in the Lord Christ and his gospel.