The previous oracle has linked the earlier prophesies of a golden age, a time of the triumph of the kingdom of God in the world, with the coming of the Messiah. The golden age will be the messianic age; his rule and work will bring it to pass.
In this new oracle, we are taught that the Messiah will expand his kingdom through the nations of the world by means of the remnant, his faithful people whom, we have already learned, he will make into a great and powerful force in the world, able to conquer all the enemies of the kingdom of God. And we see both effects in the prophesy: both the salvation of a great multitude and the destruction of those who do not believe and submit to the will of God.
Once again it seems that we are introduced, in fact, though, because of prophetic foreshortening, this is not obvious in the oracle itself, to a process — a process with which we are well familiar over these now 2,000 years since Pentecost — but a process that will find eventually a more complete and sweeping fulfillment and consummation in some still future epoch. That is, the kingdom of the Messiah proceeds in the world and we can see the principles of its working and the power of its working on a smaller scale, but the day will come when the entire world will fall under its sway. Or, to put it in the terms of the oracle itself, we can see the remnant in the midst of many peoples, being used by God both to save and to judge, but we have not yet seen that salvation and that judgment on the grander scale that is described and forecast in Micah’s various oracles of the future golden age.
v.7 The idea is the water comes from God and man is powerless to provide it by himself. So this life-giving water comes “from the Lord” to and for man.
v.8 You will have seen, as we have seen before in Micah, a parallel structure in vv. 7-8. Each has a subject — in each case the remnant among the nations –; each has a description of what the remnant will be among the nations and in each case it takes the form of two similes (like dew and like showers in the first case; like a lion and like a young lion in the second); and each concludes with an explanation of the similes (in the first case an image of salvation — “dew and showers” are always signs of divine blessing and refreshment — and in the second, judgment and destruction).
Micah has already said both things: that the remnant will triumph by bringing the nations into the salvation of God (4:6-8) and that the remnant will triumph by destroying the enemies of the kingdom of God (e.g. 4:17)
v.9 “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
v.10 God will see to the accomplishment of his purpose by punishing his own people in order to purify them (vv. 10-14) and then their enemies to protect his people from them (v. 15). The punishment of Israel is remedial, of the nations is penal. (Waltke)
v.11 He is doing this in Micah’s own day by means of the Assyrian invasion, will do it still more in the exile to Babylon (which has already been foretold by Micah) and will continue to do it, as he has, in the day in which we live.
The word translated “destroy” is the word for “cut-off” and is often used (e.g. Leviticus 17:10, 20:3) for removing unholiness by punishment in order to preserve true faith and life in the community of God’s people.
“strongholds” indicates that Israel will not prevail by her own devices, resources, as Hezekiah’s futile military build-up had demonstrated. It hadn’t stopped the Assyrians. Only God could do that, and he did! Still today the church’s confidence in her own devices threatens her covenant with God because it draws her away from a living trust in God. The Bible doesn’t deny the importance of means or that God uses them, but it utterly rejects the placing of our confidence in them.
v.13 Nor will she find help in other “powers” than the Word of God that has been revealed to her and by true faith in the living God.
Now, one way of understanding this oracle, its subject, and the circumstances it foretells is to shrink the picture it paints, drawn on this large sweeping canvas so typical of the Old Testament Prophet’s depiction of the messianic age, down to the narrower and more immediate picture that the Apostle Paul paints in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16.
In this particular context Paul is speaking of his work as a minister of the gospel of Christ and of the consequences of his preaching in various places.
“But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?”
Is this not the very thing that Micah has described. The remnant (and remember that he has just finished describing the fortunes of the Messiah’s kingdom in terms of the work and success of the human leaders of that kingdom — vv. 5-6 — Paul was such a leader; preachers or preachers are, as a rule — so it is both the influence of the remnant as a whole, and its influence as exercised through its leadership that are in view) will progress triumphantly through human history, sweeping into its membership the nations — or, at least, large numbers of people from the nations (5:3-5) — it will make disciples of the nations as the Lord Jesus put it in his Great Commission, but, as well, the remnant will destroy the enemies of the kingdom of God.
Now, we do not see this fulfilled yet in such comprehensive terms, in such a visible way, as it will someday be seen when the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea and then when the enemies of God array themselves against him and are destroyed (that is the culmination of this vision of the future and it is often described in the Prophets and which we have already had Micah predict). But, then, Paul didn’t see this coming to pass that visible and catastrophic way in his life either.
It took faith for Paul to see his preaching as making that infinite and eternal division between human beings. Or, as Dr. Clowney put it once, it took faith on Paul’s part to see preaching the gospel to those who will not believe as, in fact, ringing against them the “funeral bell of eternal loss.”
I was reading the other day, as I made my way to the end of this year’s Bible Reading, the account of the wicked king Ahaz and the Lord’s punishing him because he led the people of Judah into idolatry and even, for the first time, into the practice of child sacrifice. And for that God punished him by giving him into the hands of Israel’s king, Pekah, who, in a single day, killed 120,000 soldiers of Judah’s army. All this happened, the defeat in battle, the death of so many, the humiliation of Ahaz, the Chronicler writes, “because Judah had forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 28:6)
Well, no doubt: that is exactly why it happened. But most of the people on the battle field that day didn’t gather that, didn’t understand the catastrophe for Judah in those terms. Ahaz didn’t think that he suffered that calamity for the sins he himself had committed. He became afterwards still more unfaithful to the Lord! It takes faith to see the real spiritual issue and meaning of events. And, in the same way, it takes faith to see the real spiritual divide, chasm really, that the remnant, God’s faithful people, is always creating between human beings, those who respond in faith to the gospel of Christ and those who do not. Some day, even in the history of this world, it will become visible to the eye, but it is not yet so visible.
In other ways there can seem to be very little difference between such people. In fact, is this not a problem for all of us from time to time, that the differences between Christians and non-Christians do not seem large enough, immense enough, dramatic and obvious enough to account for the difference between life and death, heaven and hell, which is what we say is the real consequence of the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?
Someone once asked C. S. Lewis about this and in what I think was a very perceptive answer, though hardly one that solves the problem, he pointed out that there are far too many factors that cannot be calculated in comparing a Christian to an unbeliever. He said, “Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian, and how much more likeable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can’t judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases.” [God in the Dock, 59] Well, that is true enough.
Still more, of course, the hale and popular fellow might become less popular with some folk precisely because, as a Christian, he would begin to care about the moral character of life much more than he did, he would be more committed to changing his friends’ beliefs, to their great annoyance, and so on.
Still, the fact is, while we know that Christians should be distinctly different because they follow Christ and love God, we know they are not yet nearly as different as they ought to be. We spoke of that this morning. Still more, much of what will be true of the most devout Christians will not necessarily endear them to unbelievers and so unbelievers will not notice such features as commendable and worthy of note. They will associate them instead with the disagreeable features that many unbelievers have. They will take their zeal for the gospel to be arrogance and a cocksure attitude; they will take their loyalty to God’s law as a judgmental spirit; etc.
This is one of the reasons why, I believe, Christians are so prone to invent ways of distinguishing between themselves and those who do not believe — more obvious, unmistakable distinctions, such as not smoking, drinking, or dancing. But these don’t work either, of course, as many non-Christians don’t do these things either and genuine believers did and do.
Fact is, there is no way to avoid this problem entirely. We should strive to be distinct in the world in all the ways our Savior has summoned us to be different — love, purity, godliness, etc. — but the difference will never seem to most people to be the difference between life and death, heaven and hell. Only faith can see that! And that is why we live by faith and not by sight; the truly great distinctions, the immensely important issues can be grasped only by faith.
We had an interesting reminder of this this past week in the newspaper. An article on the front page of Wednesday’s paper (Tacoma News Tribune, Dec. 23, 1998) reported that a growing number of studies show that people with a strong religious belief are more likely to be healthy, less likely to die prematurely after heart surgery, and more likely to recover from depression, and tend to have lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems. They also tend to be chubbier than unchurched people.
Now, even if that were true, and it is hard to know how it could be shown to be true, for measuring what a “strong religious belief” amounts to in practice seems to me a strict impossibility — it concerns too many factors that cannot be known even to the soul itself, which is notoriously unreliable an authority on its own religious convictions and practices! — it would reveal a situation utterly irrelevant from a biblical point of view. It may well be also that the most rapacious people, the people who care least about other people, make more money than do people who have an interest in other human beings. So what? The fact is, the world tends to think in these terms. It tends to think there is something akin to “strong religious belief” that has some significance, some meaning. According to the Bible, everyone has strong religious beliefs that control their lives. That tells you nothing. What matters is what religious beliefs one has. One can even profess Christian belief, but that does not make someone a living participant in the life of Jesus Christ. One must be truly a believer in Christ, born again, a new creature by the Spirit and power of God. One must be a follower of Christ in fact and not simply in name. That is what makes a person a part of the remnant and that is what places him or her on the right side of this great divide, this eternal division, that the world is always locating in the wrong spot! It doesn’t lie between religious people and irreligious people; it doesn’t lie between the good and the bad as the world measures such things. It lies between those with a true and living faith in God and those without that faith.
The article was entitled: “Doctors taking note of health-faith link” and the subtitle read: “Studies show devout do better with illness, stress.” But, from a biblical point of view, the title would have to be “Doctors taking note of health-false faith link” with the subtitle altered to: Studies show advocates of false religions do better with illness, stress.” The biblical worldview taught by Micah is utterly alien to most people in our world today and certainly to most people writing for newspapers. They do not understand it at all.
The people in Corinth did not see Paul painting a wide, dark, line among them, separating by that line those who were going to heaven and those going to hell. But, in fact, that was what he was doing.
And that is what is being done today. And the remnant, the faithful Christians in the world, are those who have that paintbrush in their hand — in the lives of their own children, their neighbors, their workmates, every time they open their mouths on behalf of the truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ and provoke a response from people.
The day is coming when that line will be obvious to all, even in this world — in the time of the consummation of the kingdom of God. Everyone will see the citizens of God’s kingdom on one side of that line and the enemies of that same kingdom on the other. But now, only faith can see it.
But, and here is the point: faith should see it! We have been taught to see the world in these terms! When Micah saw the future from his perspective, this is what he saw. He didn’t see people the way we see them: successful or unsuccessful, rich or poor, of this nationality or that, this race or that — he saw them either as those upon whom the dew of the Lord will fall to refresh them and give them life, or, on the contrary, those who will feel the lash of the Lord’s vengeance. And making the separation between them will be the remnant, causing this eternal and infinite separation.
You cannot see history in Micah’s terms, in the terms of all the OT prophets — no wonder they have the reputation they have for severity and seriousness — and not see the world around you chiefly in these terms. Remember, I have said before: the great significance of the prophets is the way they teach us to view the world in which we live always and ever in terms of God’s judgment and salvation. This is what lies behind their repetitiveness, the very thing we find most trying when we read the Prophets; they go over the same ground time and time again. They are dinning into us this view of life and the world and the meaning of human history.
We are too often like near-sighted people, who can see what is immediately before them, the details of life close by, but cannot see into the distance — that is all a blur. They can see everyday life, coming and going, houses, jobs, personalities, even life and death, but they cannot see what any of this amounts to in the distance. Until we put on the glasses that Micah furnishes us, and suddenly everything out there in the distance becomes clear and sharp. We see now the connection between these thousands of things in daily life, right before our eyes, and their eventual outcome in the future. And that changes everything and the meaning of everything, and much that we thought good we now see is really bad (it is no blessing to have a false faith lower your blood pressure only to be condemned forever for that false faith eventually!) and much we thought bad is really good, because everything really means what it means not for the moment but forever, means what it means for God and not for a human being at the time.
The believing church is like the blade of a great plow, throwing up huge ridges of humanity on each side — making this deep furrow between human beings: throwing up some on God’s right and some on God’s left. No wonder Paul should have asked: “Who is sufficient for these things?”
But if that is what we do as Christians, if that is the effect we have on the people of this world, if that is our role, then with what seriousness we ought to see the world and our lives in this world! You know the verse by Charles Kingsley. I have quoted it to you often enough. But is he not giving you almost the perfect state of mind that a philosophy of history such as Micah has given us here should produce in those who really believe, really know this to be the Word of God?
God! fight we not within a cursed world
Whose very air teems thick with leagued fiends–
Each word we speak has infinite effects —
Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell —
And this our one chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the brake…
Be earnest, earnest, earnest, mad if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.
The day will come soon enough when everyone will see that what Micah prophesied has come to pass. Then everyone will know how foolishly so many wasted their lives on what could not be reconciled with Micah’s vision of the future. But we have faith to know these things even now, when most cannot see them. It is our calling to live by that faith. That is what distinguishes the remnant in the world and what makes the remnant God’s instrument of dividing all mankind! As the new year begins, here is a summons. To survey the future as Micah has shown it to us, and to live in the present according to that future and to permit ourselves to live in no other way.