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The last verses of the prophecy seem to be a single oracle, but we will take it by halves, vv. 8-13 tonight.
v.8 The Speaker is “Lady Jerusalem” — a more specific metaphor than simply Israel herself, as vv. 11-12 suggest we are speaking of a city. But, of course, Jerusalem is a metonymy for the people of God. (“Washington told Moscow today…”)
v.11 Now the prophet speaks to Jerusalem.
The idea of “walls” here is not “ramparts,” i.e. defensive fortifications. The term used is the one that typically refers to the enclosure of a vineyard. That is, it is an image of Jerusalem’s prosperity. She will be built up and made beautiful and grand again. The walls were a very public and visible image of the condition of a city. That fact lies behind Nehemiah’s interest in rebuilding them in his day. It wasn’t just for the purpose of defense, but to convey a sense of the city’s situation.
v.12 Once again, merisms (the figure of speech that indicates totality by mentioning the extremes, indicating that everything in between the extremes is included) indicating the universal reach of this salvation. From the far northeast of Israel’s world (Assyria) to the far southwest of that same world (Egypt) and then more general still — from sea to sea and mountain range to mountain range. In Genesis 15:18 the original promise of the land made to Abraham and his descendants was that they should have an area stretching from “the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” So, this is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise in a new and still more glorious form — not just the area, but the people in that area!
v.13 These nations left Israel desolate, the “scarred battlefield of successive foreign armies” [Allen], so, justice will see to it that their territory will suffer a compensatory desolation.
Now the gist of these six verses is easy enough to follow. As we begin, Lady Jerusalem tells her enemy not to gloat over her. She is being punished justly for her sins, but, precisely because the Lord always does what is right, the remnant within Israel who acknowledge their sin and repent will once again enjoy the Lord’s favor. (We’ve heard this already, of course, as in 4:6-8). Though she sits in darkness now, she will again sit in the light. And, then, those who were the instrument of her downfall, will reap their just reward. And, of course, in both very specific as well as more general ways, that prophecy has come true. Assyria is no more; no one remembers her god, Ashur. [Waltke, TOTC, ad loc]
In response to Jerusalem’s confession of her sin, of the justice of her punishment, and of her hope in God, the prophet, in vv. 11-13, promises her a glorious future and complete triumph over her enemies. The nations will stream to her and find salvation within her walls — an image we find often in the OT prophets and already in Micah (4:1ff.) — and the rest of the peoples, those who do not “come to Jerusalem”, i.e. those who do not believe and find their salvation in God and his covenant, will be destroyed.
As one commentator puts it:
“The oracle is the counterpart to the Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment. In traditional language which Israel could understand it expresses the assurance that deficits in the moral balance sheet of the world are eventually to be paid, while the kingdom of God is to be established in triumph.” [Allen, NICOT, 398]
Now, we have spoken of the reality and severity of the divine judgment and wrath already on several occasions as that subject was raised earlier in Micah. But this preaching of judgment gives us opportunity to make some further points.
Very briefly, we have here confirmation of the Bible’s perspective everywhere else that to be saved one must be a Christian, i.e. must embrace the gospel and become a part of the Christian Church.
Salvation is found within Jerusalem’s walls in the image that is employed here and so often in the OT prophets. We are reminded that there is nothing in the Bible to support the notion, growing more popular in evangelical circles today, that someone can be saved by Christ without actually ever belonging to his people, without even ever responding in faith to the message about him. These so-called “anonymous Christians” (the terminology first used by the RC theologian Karl Rahner) are those who are saved by Christ without actually knowing him, saved by and living for a Christ they’ve never heard of or believed in. In the Bible, however, those being saved are called, summoned to faith in Christ and to enter the walls of the church. As we read in v. 12, it is no difficulty for the God of sovereign grace to bring his elect into fellowship with himself and his people from distant nations. And that is what he promises to do, to bring them; never to leave them to be saved in some other, unspecified way.
Second, we have here the Last Judgment described in highly figurative language, just as it is everywhere else in the Bible.
It is very important and very instructive to notice how the Bible does this and that it always does this. It is akin to its description of heaven: highly symbolic, imaginative, glorious literally beyond words. In fact, taken all that John says in Revelation 21-22 together, it is impossible to visualize what is described. A gigantic cube, of pure gold and clear as crystal. It is a description that is intended to overwhelm our imagination. It uses known comparisons — gold, crystal — but puts them together in a way we cannot grasp (transparent gold?).
And so with hell. We have here language that would have been intensely meaningful and powerful to the people of Micah’s day. They had seen the devastation that the marauding Assyrian Army had caused in Judea: the charred remains of cities, the dead bodies everywhere, the crops burned to the ground in the fields. Had Micah written in the American South in the later 1860s he might have described the devastation of divine wrath in terms of Sherman’s “march to the sea.” If he had lived in the 20th century he would have used the Holocaust, or the forced starvations of the Russian peasantry under Stalin, or the genocide in Thailand under Pol Pot, or some other such egregious terror.
And so it is throughout the Bible. Whether we are talking about the Last Judgment itself or its aftermath, we get pictures drawn from everyday life, pictures that we can understand, even if the Bible itself makes clear that it is not giving us a literal account of these things. The last judgment is represented by the Lord Jesus as a separation between sheep and goats, a figure easy to understand in a nation of flocks of both. But that separation is also represented as those who are welcomed and those who are shut out at a banquet, as a harvest at which tares are pulled out from among the wheat, and as a catch of fish at which the fisherman will sit down and sort out the fish, keeping the good and throwing away the bad. Paul and other NT writers will tell us that all men must give an account of their lives to the Lord Christ, the Judge of all men, Christians and non-Christians alike, but never in the Bible are we told exactly how that Last Judgment will be conducted.
In Christian art, such as the magnificent painting “The Last Judgment” that Michelangelo put on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, all of those very accessible images drawn from human life and experience are taken up into a grand picture of that scene — immensely powerful and true, but hardly literal.
And the same is true of hell itself. It is a lake of fire and an unquenchable fire and a fiery furnace. But it is also outer darkness. Those two images are hard to reconcile. But their point is clear enough. Just as crystal-like gold is something more beautiful than we can conceive, so a lake of fire in outer darkness is something more horrible and terrifying than we can conceive. And so the other images used to describe the punishment of the wicked: wailing and gnashing of teeth, being beaten with stripes, destruction, and the second death. They convey a sense of terrible frustration, of bitter sorrow, of pain, and of despair and hopelessness.
Dante was exactly right to describe hell in such an imaginative way as he does in his Inferno. There is a gate through which one passes into it, over which is written “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” And then there are descending circles of hell, levels, the higher holding those whose punishments are lighter, the lower holding those whose punishments are greater. And in each punishments that we can understand and that are made to fit the crimes of these individuals (e.g. the avaricious; those who presumed to predict the future, etc.). It is in such images, images that we can understand, that we are made to fear the judgments of the Lord. Micah has done exactly the same with his description of judgment in terms of a land rendered desolate by the devastation of a marauding army. (The 20th century has given us that image too, along with the emaciated victims of the concentration camp, hair cropped, eyes sunken, standing by the fence in their camp uniforms.) Read the accounts in Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day: June 6, 1944 of those who remember what Omaha beach looked like through the morning hours of the invasion — dead bodies floating everywhere in the surf, lying thick on the sand — some men had to walk on the corpses to get where they were going. One man recalls nearly stepping on the face of one man only to see him open his eyes a moment before he was to put down his foot, requiring him suddenly to twist out of the way; body parts scattered here and there — a boot with a leg still in it; arms and heads separated from their bodies; trucks and tanks and supplies burning everywhere, thick smoke turning the sky to a dark haze. And, the groans of men mingled with the sound of gunfire and explosions. If Micah had been at Omaha Beach, he might have used that for his image of hell.
Third, we are reminded here again of the essential place of the prospect of divine judgment in the Christian faith.
Here the very distant prospect of it is brought to bear on the present distress and difficulty of God’s people. It fundamentally alters, it must, our view of the meaning of our present lives to know that this judgment looms ahead of us.
When Polycarp, now an old man of 86, was threatened with death by fire unless he curse Christ, he replied, “The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious.” [Martyrdom of Polycarp, xi, 2]
Tertullian wrote in his day, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that [God] will one day judge the world.”
It changes everything, this prospect: our view of the importance of earthly pleasure and ease, our sense of the afflictions and sorrows of life, our conviction as to the right way to spend our time, our energies, our money; how we evaluate our daily life, decision by decision. Hear Jerome: “Whether I eat or drink, or whatever I do, I think I still hear the sound of these words in my ear: ‘Arise you dead, and come to Judgment.'” What will I think about this, when I am standing before the Lord Christ to give an account of my life, and when I can see with my own eyes the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left?
And, finally, this doctrine has the power not only to engender fear and to warn us away from sin, but to console and to comfort and to encourage.
This may seem at first sight a strange thing. How can Christians draw consolation from the prospect of the last judgment and the eternal wrath of God? Listen to Clark Pinnock, the erstwhile disciple of Francis Schaeffer, the author of books published by Inter-Varsity Press, and noted “evangelical” theologian.
“I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself…. Surely the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no fiend; torturing people without end is not what our God does.”
As an aside, Millard Erickson, a much more evangelical theologian than Pinnock, who is still referred to as an evangelical in the Christian press, responded to Pinnock’s outburst this way:
“If…one is going to describe sending persons to endless punishment as ‘cruelty and vindictiveness,’ and a God who would do so as ‘more nearly like Satan than God,’ and ‘a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz,’ [a part of Pinnock’s statement I didn’t quote] he had better be very certain he is correct. For if he is wrong, he is guilty of blasphemy. A wiser course of action would be restraint in one’s statements, just in case he might be wrong.” [Both citations in Reymond, Systematic Theology, 1068-1069 n.3]
Now Pinnock’s statement is a terrible caricature of the Bible’s doctrine and that of the Christian Church through 2,000 years. It leaves aside the consideration of a perfect justice, of punishment that is suited exactly to the crime — so that some are beaten with many stripes and some with few — and, as is customary now in our decadent world, it utterly fails to reckon with the true nature of sin. We have trouble in our day punishing anybody for anything. No wonder we should have vast doubts about God’s punishing us for our sins! What is more, as many have pointed out through the ages, the moral problem of hell is already with us, for hell can be found already in this world. The problem is not simply the possibility of torment in some other world, the problem is how a righteous God allows so much of it already in this world! Pinnock’s rhetoric notwithstanding, he does not solve the moral dilemma by eliminating a future judgment. And, finally, and most importantly, Pinnock leaves out of consideration the fact that Jesus Christ himself suffered the penalties of hell for us. The God of the Bible, the merciful and just God, is not untouched by the reality of this divine wrath and the judgment of sin. He has felt it himself, most terribly, so that he might save his people from their sins. To deny hell, in the last analysis, is to betray the Lord Christ and his great sacrifice, with a kiss.
But, still, you see the problem. How can this doctrine of divine judgment be consoling to us? How can it be right for Micah to console the faithful in Jerusalem with the thought that her enemies will someday be judged and ruined? Can a Christian find hope and consolation in this?
Well, perhaps this is one of those places where, it is alleged, the OT is sub-Christian and now, since Christ’s incarnation and the descent of the Holy Spirit, Christians would not think this way.
Well, no that doesn’t work either. In an argument that is exactly parallel to the one Micah makes here, Paul consoles the Christians in Thessalonica with the prospect of the eventual destruction of their enemies and uses, to describe their punishment when Christ comes again, some of the more ferocious language in the Bible. And, in some ways even worse, in Revelation 6:10 the desire to see themselves avenged on their enemies is put into the mouths of the saints in heaven themselves! This is as much a NT idea as it is an OT idea! Several things, I think, should be said.
First, note the generalized form of this prospect of judgment. It is not the individual unbeliever who is ruined but the inhabitants of the rebellious earth as a whole. And so it almost always is in the Bible. It must, of course, eventually descend, this divine wrath, to individual human beings, but it is presented to us, almost without exception in the Bible, as the just desert of a class of people.
That is, no one is being asked to take comfort from the consideration of the doom of any particular human being, but rather in the vindication of God’s righteousness, of his covenant with his people, of the church of God, over against the enemies of God and his people. You may, indeed, you must entertain hope and work for the salvation of individuals who do not believe, even as you eagerly await the day when Christ will be revealed as the King of Kings that he is and his enemies will lick the dust at his feet.
The fact is, in this universe one cannot have the one thing — the triumph of righteousness — without the other — the punishment of evil and those that love it and do it. And the Bible makes clear there is no inconsistency in praying for the Lord’s return and the vindication of his truth and his gospel and his church in the world, and still grieving for the lostness of those who will not believe and must, therefore, fall under that wrath. The Lord Jesus sorrowed even as he predicted the doom of those who would not believe. “Oh! Jerusalem, Jerusalem; how often I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks; but you would not. Look! Your house is left to you desolate.” [Matthew 23:37]
You can grieve over the loss of a life and over the misery of that life when one is condemned to prison or to death for a crime he has committed, while still accepting the rightness of the judgment and finding in it the vindication of justice that you long for.
The truth in our day lies trampled in the streets. The wicked are in largest part running this world. God’s name and honor are blasphemed on every hand. His laws are despised and mocked, even as our disobedience to them brings down upon our heads untold misery and hopelessness. The Church lies in semi-ruins, unfaithful in large part, loving the world more than its Savior, making a mockery of the Lordship of Christ and of his achievement as the Savior of the world. No one with Christian blood in his veins can bear this situation with equanimity. He must hope for and long for and pray for the Lord to show himself mighty, to take hold of this world with his outstretched arm, to lay his enemies in the dust before him and to make every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God the father. But we cannot hope for that, as we must hope for it, without hoping for the punishment of the wicked that comes with that manifestation of the living God. Anything else is sentimentality, not Christian faith.
In conclusion, I say to us and to the Clark Pinnocks of this world, that those who have not felt the full force of evil would do well not to pontificate about the judgments of the Lord. There have been many in our own day who have seen evil in its true colors — or, at least, if they have not seen evil in its true colors — as an offense against the holy God — at least have seen it in the enormity of its viciousness and cruelty and harm.
Of all the stories of Omaha beach that Ambrose tells, one of them stuck in my mind. [448-449]
“Pvt. Eldon Wiehe was a truck driver for HQ Battery, 1st Division Artillery. His [landing craft], carrying seven [two and a half ton] trucks loaded with ammunition, was scheduled to go at 0830, but at 1130 it was still circling offshore, out of range of the German guns. When it did turn toward shore, an LCT to the right got hit by an 88mm shell, so the skipper on Wiehe’s LCT turned around and headed back into the Channel. After a bit he headed toward shore again, came under heavy gunfire, and backed off once more. At 1200 a patrol craft came by and a control officer with a bullhorn yelled, ‘The skipper of that craft, take that craft in, you’ve been in twice and backed off twice, now take it in this time and do not come back until it is unloaded.’
The tide was receding but still high enough to cover the obstacles [the Germans had placed in the water]. Shells were exploding around the LCT. The skipper got as far in as he was going to go that day and, still well offshore, lowered the ramp. Wiehe’s lieutenant protested: ‘Take us in closer.’ ‘Get off,’ the skipper replied. The first truck drove off and immediately sank… ‘Take us in closer!’ the lieutenant screamed at the skipper. ‘Get off,’ the skipper replied. ‘I’ve got to unload and get back to sea.’
One after another, the remaining six trucks drove off and sank. The drivers climbed out, inflated their [life preservers], and swam in to shore. As he got out of the water, Wiehe heard a shell coming in. He jumped into a shell hole. ‘When that shell burst,’ he related, ‘I panicked. I started crying. My buddies got me behind a burned-out craft, where I cried for what seemed like hours. I cried until tears would no longer come. [Finally] I stopped crying…
There were pillboxes off to Wiehe’s left, at the opening of E-3 draw, firing down on the beach. He saw two bulldozers head for the positions, blades down. The dozers piled sand on the pillboxes and put them out of action. ‘On the return trip to the beach, one of the dozers took a direct hit. The man on it seemed like he flew all to pieces.’ Wiehe and the other drivers in his group picked up rifles and carbines and became infantry.
In concluding his oral history, Wiehe recalled his crying episode and declared, ‘To this day I’ve never shed another tear. I would give anything to be able to have one good cry or one good laugh. I hurt inside but I cannot get my emotions out since that day. I’ve never been able to.’
Life is serious business, precisely because there is so much evil in the world and within ourselves. There are too many people who have seen a piece of hell not to believe in its existence. And it is the existence of hell that makes the gospel of Christ and the covenant of God with his people so indescribably wonderful. We may have many questions that must remain unanswered in this world. But one thing we should not doubt — it is absolutely right and much to be longed for that God should prove himself God to all the creatures of this world, both those who love him and those who will not!