Tonight we begin our 18th and last in this series of studies in the prophecies of Micah. I hope and pray that you have found these studies at least something of the education that I have found them to be, not least, I say once more, owing to the magisterial scholarship and the warm devotion that Dr. Bruce Waltke brought to a series of lectures on the prophet that I have listened to with such appreciation. Alas, Dr. Waltke’s lectures finished in chapter 6. I would have loved to have heard him on the final chapter!
Now, remember where we are. 7:8-13, which we considered last Lord’s Day evening, began with Jerusalem’s confession of her own sin and of her hope in God’s eventual restoration of his people and vindication of them before their enemies. Micah, in vv. 11-13, then promised Jerusalem just that momentous future: the day of Jerusalem’s glory — as multitudes from the whole earth stream to her to find salvation — and the destruction of her enemies. Verse 13, we said, was an OT way, an historically contextual way, of describing what we call today, “the Last Judgment.”
v.14 Now the prophet turns from addressing Jerusalem, to addressing God in prayer.
“Shepherd,” remember, was the image of the ideal king in the ANE.
“In the middle of Carmel” — see NIV margin — indicates a “garden-like forest”, that is, a place fit for a king’s sheep to graze. Bashan and Gilead were both known for their rich pastures. Israel doesn’t possess these places anymore; they have been lost to her because of her infidelity to God. But Micah is asking that Israel be restored. It is not a presumptuous request, because God has already promised that Israel’s former dominion would be restored to her (4:8). The prayer is that God’s Word, his promise, would come true. “Marantha!”
v.15 The Lord now interrupts and speaks himself. And he promises to show his people in the future wonders of his grace and power such as he showed Israel when he brought her out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
v.16 We are back to Micah once more. He describes, as he has before, the Lord vanquishing the enemies of his people. Certainly as he did in 701 B.C., but, still more, in the death and resurrection and second coming of Christ.
v.18 Micah’s name means “Who is like Yah?”
v.20 We are given three terms for sin: “sin”, “transgression” and “iniquities” in vv. 18-20 and six for God’s mercy: “pardons”, “forgives”, “does not stay angry”, “delights to show mercy”, “have compassion”, and “will be true.” Four of these terms are found in Exodus 34:6 where the Lord identifies himself to Moses as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.”
“Tread our sins underfoot” and “hurl our iniquities into the depths of the sea” are among the great images of the perfection of our deliverance from sin: “separate us from our sins as far as the east is from the west”, “remember our sins no more” and God’s “casting our sins behind his back” are among the others.
An unworthy, undeserving, but repentant, people can hope in a glorious future precisely because of God’s unchanging mercy and because of his fidelity to his promise and his covenant made long ago with the fathers. He kept that promise made to Abraham in Moses’ day by bring Israel out of bondage in Egypt. He kept it in Micah’s day by preserving the remnant in Jerusalem by destroying Sennacherib’s army. He kept it in Jesus’ day by raising him from the dead. He keeps it in our day by continuing to deliver us from the sin and spiritual sloth that would otherwise destroy us. And he will keep it at the last by restoring his people in a mighty demonstration of his favor upon them and by destroying their enemies. And it will be kept finally in heaven and hell.
I want to treat these last verses of Micah, and, especially, vv. 18 to the end, as a description of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is to be grasped and embraced by each and every lost sinner. It is true that these verses immediately have to do with the promise of Jerusalem’s restoration — a corporate vision of the future of God’s people and the triumph of God’s grace in the entire world –, but the text itself concludes not on that note, but on the note of the Lord’s forgiveness of our sins. It may be that Micah is raising our sight to the most distant horizon of world history, to show us how the story must end, but he gets us there by means of our knowledge of a God whose mercy overcomes our sin and guilt — each of us, individually.
In any case, we already know that what is true on the grand scale, is true precisely because it is true first on the individual scale. Jerusalem is doomed precisely because the people who lived in her during Micah’s day were themselves still in their sins and had not turned to God and trusted themselves to his mercy for their own forgiveness. In Christianity there is the perfect integration of the individual and the corporate in human history. Each of us, in and of himself or herself, is that broken down city, lying in ruins, all of our promise, all of our hopes, in tatters. We have all squandered the gifts that God gave us at the first, we have all turned away to the gods of this world and have brought upon our heads his just judgment. And if anyone of us is to be restored, it must be by the mercy of God, just as the same must be true of any generation of the church or the entire church in its entire history.
So we begin. And what do we find here?
Well, in the first place, we find the gospel, the message of salvation, as a message about something that comes from God, that is done by God.
We are always in danger of minimizing this to the great detriment of a true understanding of salvation and of our own lives. We can see and sense and touch and hear the lives we live each day — but we cannot see God. And there is that in our hearts that inevitably influences us to consider more important what we do than what God does. But here, at the magnificent climax of Micah, as in a thousand other places in Holy Scripture, in the matter of our hope, of our salvation, we see God only and we hear about God only. Who is a God like you? That is the real question. Not, what are we like, but what is God like!
And in the matter of understanding salvation, while Micah does not ignore our faith and repentance — he has talked about those things already in his prophecy — all of that, all of our doing and thinking is left behind. Everything rests on what God does — his mercy, his overcoming our sins by his own powerful compassion, his fidelity to the promise he made long ago. Our hope, as Micah makes absolutely and emphatically clear in the last verse of his book, the final statement he leaves with his readers, rests not on our fidelity to God, but his fidelity to his people and his covenant.
That is what we must be thinking about every day — what God has done and what God will do for us. That is what we ought to rest our hopes on. That is what we ought to remember even as we seek to obey and serve the Lord. We start with God and finish with God.
I will leave that point there, because the next ones elaborate it in different ways. But, in the gospel, we have to do with God himself. That is the chief thing and the thing we can never forget, which we all can and do, even when using God’s name a hundred times on a Sunday!
Second, we find here in Micah’s magnificent conclusion the supernatural character, the miraculous character of the gospel, of God’s salvation.
The real miracle is that our sins — great and ugly as they are should be buried in the deepest sea by the very same Holy God against whom they were committed, the God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who will by no means clear the guilty, the God who devastated Jerusalem precisely for her sins. But to make that point, Micah reminds the remnant in Jerusalem of the mighty works of God in history that illustrated and stood for these still greater but invisible works of divine power. The exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna, the parting of the Jordan River, and so on, as we read in v. 15.
It is an out and out miracle that sinners should be saved. Fallen angels — more powerful and more glorious than we — are not saved. But we are. And how does it happen? By the incarnation of God the Son, by his death and resurrection and ascension to the Right Hand, and by the Spirit’s mighty work in us that the Bible can describe only with such potent terms as “new birth” and “new creation.” That is what we are talking about. Downright miracles. If we could see hell and heaven and could see our sins as God sees them every day, we would be stunned beyond our power to express our amazement, our wonder at what God has done for us and in us.
Now, the world does not see the gospel this way; and, alas, far too many in the church do not see it this way. And what is worrying is that the church herself, the believing church, seems to be shaping her message so as to ensure that people will not see the gospel as this titanic, this earth-shaking, this utterly miraculous thing.
The real religious tragedy in our day is not that people do not believe in the Christian religion. Most people assert that they do believe it. Our President goes to church virtually every Sunday. The problem is not that there is no profession of faith. That wasn’t the problem in Micah’s day either. The problem is rather that those who believe it are not changed by it, but rather use it rather cavalierly to suit what they judge to be their needs — their “felt needs” as the church growth folk put it. The result of that is that the Christian religion far too often today soothes the conscience rather than awakens it and produces a sense of self-satisfaction rather than a sense of unworthiness and a desperation for God.
As Lloyd-Jones put it years ago, “Emotionalism is ever the most real, because the most subtle, enemy of evangelicalism.” [OT Evangelistic Sermons, 235] And that is what we seem to have on so many sides and that is what we are all being influenced by as well. A spiritual culture that leads us to believe in a salvation that is really self-flattery and self-contentment — not, as Micah thought, stupefied amazement and wonder at the mighty power of divine grace delivering sinners from a holy and very severe wrath and judgment they both deserved and could never have escaped by themselves, the same fate that will overwhelm countless of their friends and neighbors in due time.
Listen, there are a lot of educated, powerful people in this culture of ours, who believe that Christianity really is, as Marx said long ago, superstition serving as dope. It helps people forget their problems by transporting them temporarily, week by week, to an atmosphere where all seems well. People are religious because it gives them relief. People get from religion what other people get from reading a good novel or watching television, escape from the real world and, at least for the time being, a better feeling about their lives. And, unfortunately, there is a great deal in the way Christianity is being taught and practiced in our day that would confirm that judgment.
But, no one would think that about the life of Israel who saw the waters of the Red Sea part, or who heard the thunder from Mt. Sinai, or who ate the manna for forty years, or who saw the walls of Jericho tumble at the sound of a trumpet. No one would ever imagine that to be simply man-made psychology for the weak. No, this salvation is great beyond words, great like God is great, a feat of immeasurable love and power mixed together. Something mighty that happens to men rather than something that they make happen.
They may not believe it, as the Canaanites did not believe in the face of Israel’s onslaught. But terrified and amazed and speechless they were. This is not like reading a novel or watching television! Not this!
You remember several years ago my telling you about David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” who terrorized New York City in the mid-1970s over a period of two years. During those terrible months — some of you remember them — David Berkowitz murdered six young women, injured others, and blinded one young man with a gunshot to the head. He was so difficult to catch because he killed at random. Finding someone walking in the street or sitting in a car, he would open fire at point-blank range. He became still more notorious when he began writing to Jimmy Breslin, the New York Post columnist, who had written extensively about the murders. It was to Breslin that he disclosed his name, “The Son of Sam.” Sam happened to be the name of a neighbor whose dog kept him up at night with his barking. His letters to Breslin reminded criminologists of the letters that Jack the Ripper had sent to officials in London a century before. When he was finally apprehended — almost by accident — he claimed insanity, but psychiatrists testified that he was faking it. He eventually pled guilty and was never tried. Those were the days when no one could be executed for any kind of murder, so he was sentenced to 365 years in prison.
Now, I mention this again because I was reminded the other day in a news report that David Berkowitz is today a committed Christian, active in his prison chapel in helping to spread the gospel to other inmates. It is always hard to know what to make of such professions of faith. I had used Berkowitz as an illustration several years ago, because a PCA elder friend of mine, who lives in Tennessee, had had contact with Berkowitz and vouched for the apparent seriousness of his profession of faith in Christ. Indeed, this elder’s sixteen year old son, had been carrying on a correspondence with Berkowitz for some time. But now his profession of faith had surfaced in the national press. I was glad to hear that he continues to maintain a serious profession of Christian faith now some several years after I first heard that he had become a Christian.
But what a perfect example of the true wonder and mystery and mighty power of the gospel — that it should transform such a man, such an evil and hideous man, into a saint. And, at the same time, what an illustration of the supernatural, the miraculous character of this salvation that it should find out a David Berkowitz, after all the terrible misery he had inflicted upon human beings, after all the cruelty he had shown to others, while, at the same time, perhaps leaving his victims — for all we know –, those he murdered, who left this world so cruelly and so suddenly, still subject to divine wrath in the next world.
This is not merely some form of religious psychology, a mechanism of self-help and self-comfort. This is a rumbling, thundering power in the world — that completely upsets our expectations, even offends us! — that Berkowitz should be in hell and his victims in heaven, so we think, and certainly so the world thinks, seems a monstrosity. This is not God being “nice.” This is God revealing an almighty compassion and power of forgiveness that take our breath away, that unsettles us, but that assures us that if we trust in God, our sins will be no match for his mercy.
And, still more, this message of salvation as a divine miracle, requires us to identify ourselves with a David Berkowitz, that we needed divine grace with all its power, as much as did this pitiless murderer. He needed above all else a compassionate God, a God of infinite compassion, and so do we! For we are more like David Berkowitz than we are different.
Is that the Christianity that the world is hearing from the church or is seeing in the church today? Is it this amazing, mysterious, even troubling power in the world that Micah says the gospel is and will always be — making its terrible and wonderful division between human beings, all of whom are desperate for this one thing and this thing only: God to show them his infinite mercy.
Then, in the third place, we find here the gospel to be, as the word suggests, a matter of very good, marvelous news.
You see, every action of God is not good news. Micah has been full of bad news, and even in these last, climactic verses there is bad news for many. We read in vv. 16-17, the enemies of God have doom staring them in the face. But, against that background, there is another message that causes Micah to cry out in wonder, “Who is a God like you?” Indeed, perhaps it precisely because of that background, that divine judgment, that Micah has foretold and that Israel has already seen the first fruits of in the invasion of Sennacherib, that the news of God’s pardoning sinners is so astonishing and so delightful.
It is only in contrast to the threat of divine wrath, only in contrast to the disintegration of life that sin produces, only in contrast to the woe that God already and will someday visit upon men and women for their sins that his salvation is seen to be wonderful beyond words.
And that is the problem we face today. With that background having virtually disappeared from sight in our spiritual culture, with Christ and the gospel being valued for other things rather than for the deliverance from sin and guilt that Micah says here is the key to everything, the gospel is no longer wonderful enough, no longer good enough news, to take its rightful place above all other things in our hearts and lives. It must take its place among many other things that are as important to even Christian people today: self-fulfillment, the enjoyment of life, freedom from feelings of failure and personal fault and unsuccess.
But in that context the gospel can be, at most, nice news, not wonderful news, not exhilarating news. We can speak perhaps of the love of Christ, for love is a debased word in our culture; but we cannot speak of “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” For unsearchable riches are things that must throw everything else into the shade.
You remember the story that John Newton tells in one of his letters. He had a preacher friend who had been in the ministry for some years. He was a moral man and had had a moral influence on his parish. Indeed, he had even been singled out in a publication of, The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, as a perfect example of a parish priest. One day he was reading Ephesians 3 and came across Paul’s phrase, “the unsearchable knowledge of Christ.” And he was arrested by that phrase. He thought to himself, the Apostle uses such extravagant phrases to describe the gospel, while everything seems quite plain and rational to me. Paul finds mysteries where I find none. This led him to read the Bible again with new interest and new questions and he came, in due time, to an embrace of the gospel as the love and power of a holy God that he had never embraced before. He had known all the words before — faith, pardon, love — but he had never known their power, their mystery, or the unfathomable mercy that lay beneath them.
Micah thought as Paul would later think. The whole reality of divine grace — in the teeth of our sins and God’s wrath against sin, a wrath that would consume vast multitudes of sinners no more unworthy than we are — is surpassingly great and wonderful news. “Who is a God like you?” Where is there anywhere a love like this? How can it be that such as we can have peace with God? How can there be such a future as that in the middle of Carmel, in that forest glade, for people who absolutely deserve to be bottled up in Jerusalem, smelling the stink of city under siege, nearing the point where we might well begin eating one another, as they would a century later in Jerusalem? It is a complete mystery! There is no explanation, but it is wonderful beyond the power of words to express!