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Micah 1:1-7

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1:1       This is what distinguishes the Bible from all other books. It is the product of the prophet Micah, to be sure, but still more, it is the word of God, his communication to the world and to his people in the world. I fear that this appreciation for the divine character of the Bible is being eroded all over again in the evangelical world. In evangelical scholarship, aping the interests of liberal biblical scholarship which has no interest in the Bible as a truly divine book, all manner of attention is being paid to the differences that can be detected in the style or the editorial principles of various biblical authors — as if these differences were a new discovery — and as if they mattered a great deal. Evangelical scholars devote a great deal of labor to uncovering the most modest and, quite honestly, most uncertain insights into the literary and theological characteristics of various biblical authors and books. The different perspectives and editorial interests that, supposedly, animated Luke in distinction from Mark, and so on. They have advanced a true understanding of the Bible very little, but in the process have deeply affected the church’s reverence for the Bible as the Word of God! There is nothing wrong with such investigations, so long as they are openly, carefully, publicly and repeatedly acknowledged to be the relatively trivial investigation of the Bible’s interesting details and so long as far greater attention is paid to the divine authority of Holy Scripture. This is not happening, I fear. I am sick to death of evangelical commentaries on the Bible that are no different in tone or type from a commentary that might be written on the writing of an early Christian father or, for that matter, some entirely secular work of history. What makes Micah important is not what he brings to his writing — difficult as that is to determine in any case — but that what he wrote was, at the same time, being written by the Holy Spirit. This can be said of no other book, of no other writings — even of no other writings by Micah, to the extent that he wrote other things. God is speaking here. Micah recedes gladly to the role of minor player, servant, spokesman. [I’m very happy to have one quite new commentary on the book that takes its divine character seriously, and you will not be surprised to learn it is written by Dr. Bruce Waltke!]

It is widely thought that Micah only mentions the southern kings — though he mentions the northern kingdom (Samaria) as well as the southern (Jerusalem) — because he did not regard the northern kings as legitimate and did not want to dignify them by mentioning them by name.

1:2       The call goes out to the entire earth even though the message concerns Samaria primarily and Jerusalem to a lesser degree. They are all being summoned to a trial, to face the Judge of all the earth. The capitals are mentioned both as standing for the entire nation and because there one would find the living embodiment of the corruption that had destroyed the nation. (The greater problem is not that President Clinton is promiscuous, but that his behavior reflects the ethics and practices of the nation he represents.) The punishment that will be visited on Samaria and Jerusalem is like that he will bring upon all peoples who forsake the living God to worship idols. Jehovah is no provincial deity, but the Judge of all the earth.

It is important to note that God does deal with men collectively, as nations. There is a moral character to the United States and she will be judged according to that moral character. (The mistake was to identify a nation with Israel or the kingdom of God as many nations of the West have done through the centuries.)

1:4       In the image, the Lord appears from heaven as an avenging judge.

1:5       The specific sins for which Israel is being arraigned before the bar of Almighty God will be enumerated in chapters 2 and 3 and again in chapter 6. But here the case is put generally: they have broken God’s covenant, they have abandoned God’s law. The reference to “idols” in v. 7 indicates that Israel had embraced a pagan worldview, attractive to the desires of the flesh and requiring nothing of the moral purity and life of love that God required in his covenant.

1:6       “Therefore” means that the punishment will fit the crime.

1:7       The meaning of the second half of the verse is apparently this: The fashioning of the idols was paid for out of the revenues of the cult prostitutes. The conquerors whom God will use to punish Israel will break them up, for their precious metals, but use the money on the same prostitutes as soldiers will.

We begin the prophecy of Micah with the announcement of judgment upon the people on account of their sins against God, their unfaithfulness to the covenant, the relationship that God had so graciously established with them. This, as you know, is a major theme of the prophets, leading up to the destruction of the northern kingdom in 721 B.C. and the devastation and exile of the southern some 200 years later.

But in all of this prophesying of doom the prophets are also revealing the nature of divine justice, the ferocity of divine wrath, and the final and conclusive judgment of all men at the end of the world. Sometimes their sight is lifted to the end of time, as at the end of Isaiah, but, in any case, the NT and Jesus himself uses the prophetic description of the divine judgment that befell Israel to describe the Last Judgement at the end of the world.

We need to say over and over again that the doctrine of divine judgment, of his wrath against those who rebel against him and reject him and his Son, of the punishment that will befall those who die in their sins, is absolutely fundamental to the Christian faith and the meaning of the gospel.

Jesus Christ and his work, as they are presented in the Bible, are meaningless without the prospect of a divine judgment from which sinful men must be saved and cannot save themselves. Jesus himself is always preaching the judgment and the wrath of God — frequently in terrifying terms — as the presupposition of his message of salvation. Paul begins his exposition of salvation in the epistle to the Romans by demonstrating the inevitability of divine judgment upon sinners and that the divine wrath is inescapable apart from faith in Christ.

Without this divine wrath the gospel of Christ loses its point and purpose and meaning. Or, as Billy Sunday once said, “if there is no hell, a lot of preachers have been collecting money under false pretenses.”

And it has to be preached in our day still more and more persuasively and effectively, because never has there been a time when people are less prepared and less willing to believe in the reality of divine judgment. In a relativistic age and a licentious age it is unthinkable to people that they should be made to suffer for behavior they don’t even regard as particularly bad. Ours is a very sentimental age. We believe what we wish to be true.(NB The complete absence of fear of divine wrath in the public discussion of the behavior of the President, Miss Lewinsky, and others.)

A few weeks ago, Florence and I were having lunch in Patras, Greece, waiting for the time when we could board our ferry to Italy. I was reading the International Herald Tribune [August 20, 1998] and came across an article headlined “Remarks on Diana Spark Outrage.”

It seems that two Sunday School teachers in the English Midlands had created a stir by telling their pupils that Diana, Princess of Wales, had ‘gone to hell’ after her death a year ago. “Jeffrey Jones and Chris Mansfield told their class of 20 children aged from 5 to 13 in Walsall, West Midlands, that the princess had led an ‘immoral lifestyle,’ had not repented of her sins before dying in a car accident last August 31 in Paris, and thus could not have gone to heaven.”

Predictably, some parents and religious figures were up in arms. One mother, whose son came home from the class in tears, was quoted in the article as saying, “I was absolutely horrified. How could they tell Darryl that the woman he thought was a star in heaven was actually in Hell.” The Archdeacon of Aston, the Venerable John Barton was quoted as branding the thinking of the two Sunday School teachers “barmy and perverted theology.” The two teachers, for themselves, were sticking to their views, saying that they were only teaching the Bible.

Now, no one can judge the heart of another. But the idea that Diana should be a star in heaven or that she should be assumed to be in heaven — with her lifestyle and absent any evidence of any sort of commitment to Christ — has no basis in the Christian faith. Whether the Sunday School teachers were wise to make that point to the children in their class is another matter. But, we should stop to consider and ponder its meaning for ourselves that the notion that Diana’s death should have ushered her into judgment and doom is simply incomprehensible to the largest part of people today. So incomprehensible that I daresay there are some of you sitting here this evening who find even now yourselves struggling with that thought. But there are lots of ideas that are incomprehensible to our decadent and corrupt age. People find it incomprehensible that they should have to wait for marriage before engaging in sex, or that homosexuality should be condemned as sinful, or that you have to be a Christian to be saved and go to heaven. The fact that this culture finds something incomprehensible means absolutely nothing about how likely anything is to be true or false!

And, then, the other evening, I was reading the last pages of a biography of Oswald Chambers. At his death he had been for some time serving with the YMCA among the English and Commonwealth soldiers encamped in Egypt. Many of them came to Egypt from Gallipoli, either as wounded evacuees or in the mass evacuation of mid-December 1916 when that ill-fated operation was finally given up and the soldiers pulled out. Chambers’ biographer describes the challenge such men presented to Chambers in this way:

“Many of the men who survived returned sickened by the slaughter they had seen and disillusioned with a God who could allow it to happen.” [218]

Well, if you have ever read a history of that campaign in the Dardanelles, you can easily understand men returning from it sickened by the slaughter, senseless slaughter with nothing to show for it. It is, without question, one of the great military catastrophes of the century and the human suffering was appalling.

But, isn’t it interesting, worthy of note, that men so naturally find in that carnage and suffering a reason to be “disillusioned with God for letting it happen.” Gallipoli was, without question, a foretaste of hell. No, it is fair to say that it was actually hell itself on this earth. But why be disillusioned with God for allowing it to happen? Why not conclude rather that hell must exist, the wrath of God must be real, for such a thing to happen in this world, and, therefore, I must be sure to find a way to escape it? Yet men, with few exceptions, never draw this obvious lesson from such terrible experiences.

They have seen hell and, instead of learning to fear hell, they become disillusioned with God. Such is the antipathy toward the very idea of human accountability to the wrath of God. A man can see that wrath being poured out from heaven and still refuse to accept the evidence of his own eyes as to the reality of the divine wrath and of the specter of divine punishment. Instead they think the moral lesson is the necessity of a change in one’s view of God.

For, you see, the problem with hell and with the apologetics of hell — that is, the Christian defense of its reality — is not, really, the prospect of something later, after death, after this world. The problem exists already.  Hell is already here, we have intimations of it, foretastes of it everywhere we look. We find it inside of ourselves in both the wailing and the gnashing of teeth — both the crushing sorrows and disappointments of life and the bitter regret over lost opportunities. A materialist might well say that hell doesn’t exist because life after death does not exist. But what no one can say is that heaven exists as a real reality and active prospect, but that hell either does not exist or is an irrelevance, so few people will there be in it. No observation of life in this world could possibly lead anyone to that conclusion.

Rutherford says [The Trial and Triumph of Faith, 64-65]:

Reason would say, if hell and judgment were before our eyes, we should hear, and come to Christ. Suppose we saw with our eyes, for twenty or thirty years together, a great furnace of fire, of the quantity of the whole earth, and saw there, Cain, Judas, Ahithophel, Saul, and all the damned…in a dungeon of everlasting brimstone… [He is using the imagery the Bible itself uses, which need not be literally pressed, though the veterans of Gallipoli might not have so many problems with such images.] and if we saw there our neighbors, brethren, sisters…fathers and mothers, swimming and sinking in that black lake; and heard the yelling, shouting, crying…blaspheming the spotless justice of God — if we saw this, while we are living here on earth, we should not dare to offend the majesty of God; but should hear, come to Christ, and believe and be saved. But the truth is, if we believe not Moses and the Prophets, neither should we believe for this; because we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, even while we are in this life, daily, pieces and little parcels of hell … little hells [that are] certain documents to us that there is a hell, yet we neither hear nor come to Christ… Alas! Our senses are confined within time.”

The utter destruction of the northern kingdom did not put the southern kingdom off of following in her sister’s moral and spiritual corruptions. Samaria’s fall did not cause Jerusalem to repent. And so it is today. All the judgment, all the punishment all around us does not make mankind ready to believe in the reality of the divine wrath. One must be given faith to believe that; really believe it, believe it so as to act upon it. The world has relatively few people who base their actions, their commitments on their certainty of the reality of divine wrath. And the Devil is determined to keep it that way.

As Bishop Wordsworth [the same one who wrote the verses we often sing after the offering: “We lose what on ourselves we spend…”] once said [Sermons on Future Rewards and Punishments, 36],

“There is nothing that Satan more desires than that we should believe that he does not exist, and that there is no such a place as hell, and no such things as eternal torments. He whispers all this into our ears, and he exults when he hears a layman, and much more when he hears a clergyman, deny these things, for then he hopes to make them and others his victims.”

But, without question divine wrath is a presupposition of our faith. What is more, if there is no such thing as the divine wrath, it will be very difficult to retain any form of the Christian God, for if it is not the wrath of God, where does all of this woe, this punishment, this doom come from that we see everywhere we look in this world?  Is a God without wrath unable to stem this flood of woe? Is a God of love unwilling?

It was of this that John Henry Newman was speaking when he wrote:

“[Hell] is the turning point between Christianity and pantheism, it is the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it — it is the very character of Christianity. We must therefore look matters in the face. Is it more probably that eternal punishment should be true, or that there should be no God? For if there be a God, there is eternal punishment…” [Apologia pro vita sua in V. Grounds, JETS (1981) 215]

Our faith is all of a piece. This is what C.S. Lewis was talking about when he said that he had “met no people who fully disbelieved in hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in heaven.” [Letters to Malcolm, 76] Or, as another put it:  ”

“The kindhearted humanitarians decided to improve on Christianity. The thought of hell offended their sensibilities. They closed it, and to their surprise the gate of heaven closed also with a melancholy bang.” [H. McNeile Dixon, Ibid.]

So, as we begin our study of Micah let us begin here, where Micah himself began: with the threat of divine wrath against those who do not trust in God and walk with him. However unwelcome that message, especially in a day like ours, it is not only the foundation of the Christian faith, the presupposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a doctrine that is, in a way sentimental views will never be, in harmony with the facts, the hard facts, of human existence.

Micah’s contemporaries, like our own, did not take his message seriously. They could not, would not believe themselves to be so endangered by divine wrath. Like countless multitudes of others they minimized the divine holiness and emphasized the divine mercy.

And, remember: there were lots of “nice” people in Samaria and Jerusalem. I daresay there was a popular princess or two. We tend to demonize the people that fall under the divine wrath in the Bible and imagine that they must be very different people than the people we encounter in our world. Truth is, they were just like people today. And the result of these perfectly ordinary folks’ indifference to Micah’s message of coming judgment was that that holy wrath overtook them, overwhelmed them, and destroyed them. It was too late for them when they finally realized that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Let us not be among those who make the same mistake nor among those who know the danger and refuse to sound the warning.