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v. 1 The first phrase, “Listen to what the Lord says” is what rhetoricians call an “anacrusis”, something that stands outside of the poetry.
The rest of v. 1 is best taken as the Lord’s address to Micah the prophet, telling him what to say on the Lord’s behalf.
That the Lord has a “case” or lawsuit against his people is a common theme in the prophets. The Lord is the plaintiff, witnesses are called, the evidence is presented, and a judgment is rendered. And the basis of the accusation is the covenant, whose stipulations have been betrayed by the people and whose curses or judgments must now be imposed. This is the great theme of the prophecy of Hosea, for example.
v. 2 The mountains are personalized and called upon as witnesses for several reasons. They were the original witnesses of the covenant God made with his people when they entered the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 27:12-13). They heard, as it were, the stipulations of the covenant and the blessings for faithfulness and the cursings for unfaithfulness that were promised when the covenant was made. Still more, as Micah indicates here, they are enduring things, unchanging things, things that outlast a single generation or a thousand generations of God’s people and so can bear witness to the everlasting validity of God’s covenant with his people.
v. 3 In vv. 3-5 God defends himself against the complaint of his people, especially as they as much as blamed him, instead of themselves, for the present calamity.
v. 5 These two verses, 4-5, are an example of the figure of speech merism, which is a variety of synecdoche (or, part for the whole). What you have is a reference to the beginning of God’s deliverance of Israel — the exodus from Egypt — and to the end Balak, Balaam, and the journey from Shittim (where she was at the end of the Balak/Balaam episode, just before crossing over into the Promised Land) to Gilgal (her first stop in the Promised Land). With the beginning and the end of that history, everything in between is included as well: all the “righteous acts of the Lord.” (Similar expressions we use indicate the totality by the extremity: morning and evening, day and night = all time; summer and winter = at all times; etc.) So it is not just these things that are mentioned, but everything else: Passover, the Red Sea, the water from the rock, manna, Og and Sihon, etc.
Dr. Waltke thinks it likely that the setting of this oracle is also the city of Jerusalem during the siege imposed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. You can so easily imagine the people, trapped in the city, pressing into the temple precincts in hopes of gaining the Lord’s favor and help in their distress. And that setting provokes the prophet to speak of their false theology in terms of temple worship in vv. 6-7.
He uses this illustration to lay the foundation for an understanding of this oracle. Off of the grand reading room of the Library of Congress, one of the really beautiful buildings in the world, are various alcoves dedicated to the “humanities.” There is one for history, one for music, one for philosophy, one for poetry, etc. And there is one for religion. When the building was being designed, a survey was sent out to leaders of these various “arts” to determine what quotation or legend ought to be written above the door of each of these alcoves. Religious leaders were polled as to the most appropriate text for the religion alcove. Micah 6:8 was chosen as the text that best embodied the spirit of religion. Almost certainly, however, Micah 6:8 was chosen in those days as a social gospel text, as simply an exhortation to be just and merciful toward one’s fellow men, as if that were the real summation of religion.
That is what comes from separating what is undeniably a tremendous and tremendously important text from its context. The context leads to a very different understanding of Micah 6:8.
I. What Micah demonstrates in the first place is Israel’s fundamental failure of faith, her complete failure to trust in the God of grace and mercy.
He describes the people’s understanding of salvation in vv. 6-7, in which he has someone, a hypothetical someone, express the people’s ritualistic and legalistic conception of salvation. But he elaborates their viewpoint in a way that demonstrates the utter futility of it.
How shall we obtain the favor of God? Well, we will give a burnt offering? Just a simple sacrifice. But, what if that is not enough? Well, then, we will give for sacrifice calves a year old, that is, the very best offering conceivable. But what if that is not enough? Well, we will give God thousands of rams, a gift only a king could afford. But, what if that is not enough? Well, then how about 10,000 rivers of oil? Well, there isn’t that much olive oil in the world. No one can pay that much. And, if you base your hope of God’s favor and blessing on such things, you will finally end up — where Israel did end up — where the pagans are, actually sacrificing their own children in hopes of finding something valuable enough to induce God to bestow his favor. [Not at all unlike what is being done in our modern world, by the way. Children, and not only infants in the womb, being sacrificed to the idols of our culture!]
But this, Micah is saying, completely mistakes and profoundly betrays the covenant God has made with his people, its nature and character as a covenant of grace.
It cost them nothing to come out of Egypt and to travel through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. God did everything, he provided everything: the manna to eat, the water to drink, deliverance through the Red Sea from the Egyptian army, etc. Their sandals did not wear out by the provision of the Lord.
This is the significance of the appeal to “remember…the righteous acts of the Lord.” “Remember” in the OT means much more than simply mental recall. It means to participate in, to relive and so reclaim events of the past. Through imagination, informed by Holy Scripture, and practiced through faith, one actualizes that history once again, makes it live in the heart, and lays hold of it for oneself. [Childs, Memory and Tradition in Ancient Israel] This is very much the same thing that is involved, or is to be involved, in the Lord’s Supper when we are told to do this “in memory” of the Lord. It isn’t merely that we are to remember that he did something, but we are to bring what he did into our present experience, into our own personal reality, to actualize it, embrace it, stand upon it, practice it. Remember, the history recalled in vv. 4-5 was an embodied prediction of a still greater salvation to come. The Passover, the manna, the water from the rock, this was all speaking ahead of time of Christ and his salvation. So, we are talking about the same things, the same salvation, in vv. 4-5, as we would speak about today in talking of Christ and his cross and his resurrection from the dead.
Paul, in a similar passage, tells the Corinthians the same thing when he also refers to the history of the exodus and wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10. That history is to have a living force in the hearts of his Corinthian readers, forcing them to reckon with their present circumstances in terms of it. And, if they do, that history will lead them to a greater care to be sure that they are living by a true faith in Christ and not making the mistake that Israel did who came out of Egypt on eagles’ wings and then died in the wilderness for want of living faith. Well, exactly so here. The issue is the same because the salvation is the same.
Micah is telling his contemporaries that the problem is clearly not the Lord’s. The problem is Israel’s failure to trust a God who has proved himself mighty to save over and again in her own history. She has constructed a view of salvation through ritual and through observance that ignores and betrays the mighty works that God has performed for his people and which demonstrate that salvation is to be found in no one else but the Lord and by no other means but by faith in him. Israel is trusting in her own works not in God’s.
II. It is in this context and this only that v. 8 is to be read and understood.
Verse 8 is not a “social gospel” text, as if it is telling us that the true burden of religion is ethics. We have already had an emphatic account of the Lord’s gracious deliverance of his people and of Israel’s mistaking and forgetting that to take salvation back into her own hands. But v.8 is a magnificent account of what true covenantal life involves and requires, what God’s gracious salvation must and will bring to pass in the lives of those who trust in him.
Verse 8, in other words, is the sanctification that flows from and out of the justification of v. 5. But, it cannot be reversed, as Israel had it reversed.
But, in this context, v. 8 does not simply serve as an account of what justification leads to. It is also a description of the great commitments of a true and faithful believing life.
Israel had gotten justification and peace with God completely wrong. But, she had also corrupted and perverted the nature of covenant faithfulness as well. There was a great deal in the covenant, of course, about worship and about sacrifice and about the observances of the temple. And Israel had latched on to those, albeit in a legalistic way. But there was also a great deal in the covenant about the love of others, about treating others with justice and mercy, especially people who were poor or who were vulnerable to injustice because less able to control their own situations. Israel hadn’t put much emphasis on this, she had satisfied herself with liturgical observances. Or, to put it in modern terms, she was content to go to church, she felt her religious obligations had been satisfied by going to church; she then went on the rest of the week serving herself and largely ignoring the needs of others, and, in the case of the rich and powerful, as we have already seen in Micah, trampling on the weaker brothers in a mad dash to greater wealth for themselves.
This has been one of Micah’s chief emphases. The failure of Israel’s faith is demonstrated in people’s indifference to justice and mercy toward others, especially toward those who are poorer or weaker than themselves.
Listen, the conservative, Bible-believing church has always had plenty of people in it who have made the same mistake to a killing degree and all of us know we are guilty of the same failing, more or less. We think ourselves religious because of acts of devotion to God that we perform, but we do very little, if anything for periods of time, that could be described as acting justly and loving mercy toward other people. But this justice and mercy are fundamental to God’s purpose for our lives and fundamental to the intention of his grace in our lives. If acts of worship are loving God, then justice and mercy are loving our neighbor as ourselves. Which, of course, is also loving God! These are the commandments that Jesus meant when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Israel thought of changing God but not of the need to change herself. She did not cry out to God for the forgiveness of her sins and ignorant of God’s grace she was not gracious herself, blind to God’s justice, she was not just herself.
Some of you will remember the story of Boris Kornfeld, told in a variety of places, but, perhaps especially for American evangelicals, in Chuck Colson’s book, Loving God. Kornfeld was a Russian Jew and a doctor. Apparently his family had embraced the Communist Revolution — were not religiously oriented Jews in any case — and, no wonder. The Czar’s vicious anti-Semitism had made life terrible for Jews for two hundred years before 1917. But at some point Kornfeld had run afoul of the Communist government and landed in prison. It was a political crime, but no one knows what precisely it was that he did. Perhaps he had the temerity to criticize the government or its leader, Stalin, in some public setting. At any rate, in the early 1950s, Kornfeld was sent to a concentration camp.
It was there that he became a Christian. Talk about the power of divine grace. For a Russian Jew to become a Christian, in the teeth of the anti-Semitism of the so-called Russian Christians, the Russian Orthodox Church that considered itself the purest Christians of all.
But in the camps, all was different. There Kornfeld found real Christians who were, as he was, suffering for their beliefs. One devout Christian, well-educated and very kind — we don’t know this man’s name — spoke to Kornfeld of a Jewish Messiah who had come to save his people from their sins. He tailored his witness to this Jewish doctor, reminding him that Jesus had preached almost exclusively to Jews and that his coming was in fulfillment of promises God had made to the Jews. He would say the words of the Lord’s Prayer over and over again in Kornfeld’s hearing. Kornfeld had already lost his hope of salvation through socialism, but to accept Christ seemed to him a betrayal of his people, his family, his past.
Kornfeld had it easier than most in the camps because doctors were scarce and very much needed. He had occasion in his work as a doctor to provide medical care, even surgery for the guards. He was tempted to suture an artery, for example, in such a way that it would reopen after surgery, the guard would bleed to death and no one would be the wiser. He hated these men with a passion for their cruelty. And was then appalled by his own hatred and the violence he found in his own heart. He was trapped, he found, by the evil he despised. And, then, he began to cry out for forgiveness, as his friend had taught him, and began to see how that forgiveness could come only through Jesus Christ.
Now doctors were required, among other things, to sign authorization for the assignment of prisoners to the punishment blocks. There prisoners who the authorities wanted out of the way were confined to solitary life in cold, dark, and tiny cells. A doctor’s signature certified that a prisoner was strong enough to withstand such punishment. It was almost always a lie and usually a death sentence.
Right after he began to pray for the forgiveness of his sins, Kornfeld began refusing to sign the punishment forms. He had signed hundreds of them before, but no longer. Whatever had occurred inside of his heart, it would not permit him to treat other human beings that way any longer.
What is more, Kornfeld turned in an orderly. The orderlies were drawn from the ranks of prisoners who were willing to cooperate with the camp authorities. As a reward they were given better conditions, better jobs. The rest of the prisoners hated them because of their treason, but also because they abused their power and got away with it because the guards turned a blind eye. The guards needed these men to control the prison and let them get away with most anything.
While making his rounds one day, Kornfeld came upon a patient with a disease common in the camps, pellagra. Malnutrition induced pellagra which, in turn, made digestion difficult and finally impossible. Its victims literally starved to death. Kornfeld had ordered chalk, good white break, and herring to stop the diarrhea and to get nutrients into the man’s blood, but he was too far gone. His face had become dark; just one deep bruise; his skin was peeling off his hands. Just after leaving this patient, Kornfeld came across an orderly with his mouth stuffed with the white bread that had been meant for the pellagra patients. Kornfeld had known about the stealing, had known it was one reason why the pellagra patients did not recover, but now, with the sight of the dying man so fresh in mind, he could not go on as before.
Everyone knew what was going on. What is more, there were countless other reasons why patients died and did not recover from illness. The sanitation was primitive and completely insufficient, the medical supplies virtually non-existent, his surgeries were performed in such conditions as to make many of them virtually mercy killings. But, Kornfeld could not go on as before. He reported the orderly to the commandant and the commandant, strangely, put the orderly in the punishment block for three days, perhaps, so it was thought, to solve the problem of Kornfeld’s refusal to sign the punishment forms. By reporting the orderly and having him punished, so the commandant reasoned, Kornfeld had arranged his own execution.
Kornfeld was not an especially brave man. He knew his life was now at risk. He began sleeping in the hospital, catching sleep when he could, afraid to sleep in his bed for fear of being murdered. But, having taken the fateful step, he now found a new freedom to do what he felt was right. He signed no more papers to send men to their deaths; he no longer turned his eyes from cruelty; he said what he wanted and did what he could. And soon he realized that the anger and hatred that had filled his own soul were gone. And he found himself wanting to tell someone else about his discovery, his new life of obedience and freedom. The Christian who had spoken to him had been transferred to another camp, so the doctor waited for the right man and the right moment.
And before long he found that man, a patient recovering from cancer surgery, a young man whose face betrayed already the years he had spent in the camps. All through the afternoon and into the night he told this young man, now suffering from a fever, of his conversion to Christ and his new found freedom and passion for mercy and justice.
Near the end he said this: “On the whole, you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially, it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.” Imagine that. A Jew who had thought of himself the innocent victim of the cruelty of others, now confessing that he had suffered only according to his own deserts. The patient knew that he was hearing an astonishing and deeply important confession.
The patient woke up the next morning to the sound of running feet, of commotion in the operating area not far away. He wondered why the doctor did not return to his bedside and soon, from other prisoners, he learned the truth. During the night, while the doctor slept, someone had snuck up beside him and hit him on the head eight times with a mallet. The other doctors tried to save him, but to no avail.
You remember, of course, the name of the patient, who heard Kornfeld’s confession the night before his murder: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Lord saw fit to have Kornfeld’s testimony written down and published to the world by perhaps the 20th century’s greatest writer! [Loving God, 27-34]
You see, that insight of Kornfeld’s was precisely what escaped Israel in Micah’s day. They did not understand that it was their own sins that had brought Sennacherib to Jerusalem’s gates. And they did not see themselves as sinners needing divine grace, because they were incapable themselves of satisfying the demands of God’s holy justice. For that reason they never experienced the liberating power of God’s grace nor did they become gracious themselves, merciful, or humble.
Salvation by God’s grace makes you gracious; the experience of God’s mercy makes you merciful; the knowledge of divine justice being satisfied for you by God’s own righteousness in Christ, makes you humble. It must. It is a fixed and unchangeable law. Israel got salvation wrong and so she got life wrong. Let us pledge ourselves, brothers and sisters, never to make her mistake, but to rest ourselves always and only in the grace of our most merciful God, and to judge our grasp of that grace by the measure of its presence in our treatment of others.