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SCRIPTURE: Micah 6:1-8
The first verse of this book tells us that the word of Yahweh came to Micah “in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This was in the eighth century B.C. when Assyria was the reigning superpower.
Assyria was located in Mesopotamia, far to the east and north of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom), but Assyria’s power was such that it dominated Syria (directly to the north of Israel) as well as Israel.
Jotham inherited the throne of Judah from his father, Uzziah, about 750 B.C. and reigned for about 20 years. Uzziah had enjoyed a long and peaceful reign, but during Jotham’s reign Assyria, under Tiglath-pileser III, became quite powerful and intrusive. Israel (the Northern Kingdom) allied itself with Aram against Assyria, a move that would ultimately spell the downfall of Israel. While 2 Kings notes that Jotham “did that which was right in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Kings 15:34), it also notes that he failed to remove the high places, which were centers of idol worship.
Ahaz succeeded his father, Jotham, about 730 B.C. and reigned over Judah for 16 years (2 Kings 16:2). He is portrayed as one of Judah’s worst kings (2 Kings 16:3-4). Ignoring the advice of Isaiah the prophet, who counseled Ahaz to remain neutral, Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Syria, and out of the hand of the king of Israel, who rise up against me” (2 Kings 16:7). As a result, he became a vassal of Assyria. During the reign of Ahaz, Tiglath-pileser attacked the Northern Kingdom (Israel), killed many of its inhabitants, and deported most of the rest to Assyria, thus ending the existence of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom once and for all time.
Hezekiah succeeded his father, Ahaz, about 715 B.C., and reigned until about 687 B.C. While a much better king than his father, Hezekiah led a coalition in a failed attempt to rebel against Assyria. Surprisingly, Assyria did not destroy him, but it did force him to pay tribute.
The prophet Micah carried on his work in this turbulent period. In the first chapter of the book of Micah, he foretold the coming of Yahweh against Israel, the Northern Kingdom (vv. 3-7) and Judah, the Southern Kingdom (vv. 8-16). In the second chapter, he denounced the social evils prevalent in Israel/Judah. In the third chapter, he spoke of rulers “who hate the good, and love the evil; who tear off their skin, and their flesh from off their bones” (3:2) and “prophets who lead my people astray” (3:5)—and foretold their punishment.
Nevertheless, in the midst of all these troubles, Micah also foretold days to come when faithfulness and peace would be restored in Judah (4:1-5; see also Isaiah 2:2-4). He promised restoration after exile (4:6-13).
In 5:2-5a, Micah speaks of the ruler who will come forth from Bethlehem—a passage quoted in Matthew’s Gospel as applicable to the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-6). He also relates the future role of the remnant (5:7-15).
MICAH 6:1-2. YAHWEH HAS A CONTROVERSY WITH HIS PEOPLE
1Listen now to what Yahweh says:
“Arise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear what you have to say.
2Hear, you mountains, Yahweh’s controversy,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for Yahweh has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel. ”
“Listen now to what Yahweh says“ (v. 1a). Micah is speaking, but his words are not his invention. Yahweh has called him to speak, and has given him the words to speak.
“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear what you have to say” (v. 1b). This is the language of a law court. Yahweh (speaking through the prophet) orders the people of Judah to rise and present their case. In the scenario that Yahweh presents, the people are the plaintiffs (the ones bringing the lawsuit—the ones who claim to have been injured) and Yahweh is the defendant (the accused—the one who allegedly injured the plaintiff). This lawsuit motif continues through verse 5.
Yahweh invites the people to address their complaints to the mountains and the hills, which have been standing from time immemorial.
The mountains and hills are well suited to serve as witnesses, because they have seen what Yahweh and the people have done. They have watched the history of Israel unfold. They know that Yahweh brought these people into the Promised Land and gave them the victory over their enemies. They have seen the people build altars to pagan gods on the high places. The mountains and hills know who is right and who is wrong.
The language of this verse sounds as if Yahweh is inviting the people to address the mountains and hills as if the mountains and hills constitute the jury. If so, this will pose quite a challenge. How will the people convince the mountains and hills of the equity of their case when the mountains and hills know otherwise? (See Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1; Psalm 50:4; Isaiah 1:2).
“Hear, you mountains, Yahweh’s controversy, and you enduring foundations of the earth” (v. 2a). Again, it is the prophet speaking—delivering the Lord’s message.
Yahweh invites the mountains and the “foundations of the earth” to serve as the jury—to determine who has broken the covenant relationship that has existed for centuries between Yahweh and Israel. From the bottom of the oceans to the top of the mountains, God’s creation has witnessed the relationship between Yahweh and these people. God’s creation is well-suited to reach a just verdict in this case.
“for Yahweh has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (v. 2b). Yahweh has invited the people of Judah to present their case before the mountains and the foundations of the earth. Now the Lord makes it known that he is prepared to defend himself against whatever accusations that the people of Judah might make.
But in spite of the controversy, these people are nevertheless “his people”—Yahweh’s people. The covenant relationship has been damaged by the unfaithfulness of the people to the covenant, but the covenant relationship still stands.
MICAH 6:3-5.MY PEOPLE, REMEMBER THE RIGHTEOUS ACTS OF YAHWEH
3My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened (Hebrew: la∙ah) you?
4For I brought you up (Hebrew: alah)out of the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you out of the house of bondage.
I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of Yahweh.”
“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened (la∙ah) you? Answer me” (v. 3). Once again, Yahweh commands the people to state their case—to tell him how he has wronged them—to present their evidence against him.
Has Yahweh wearied them—failed them—caused them frustration—given them reason to become impatient? Or is the shoe on the other foot? Have the people wearied Yahweh—failed him—caused him frustration—given him reason to become impatient?
“For I brought you up (alah) out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage” (v. 4a). Yahweh begins to present the evidence in his favor. His first exhibit is a part of their history with which they are all familiar—the Exodus.
Note the play on words. Yahweh asked if he had wearied (la∙ah) the people. Now he answers that he has not wearied them, but has instead brought them up (alah) from the land of Egypt and redeemed them from slavery. He has not brought them down, but has brought them up. He has not hindered them, but has helped them.
Yahweh brought them up out of Egypt and redeemed (padah) them from slavery. This word, padah, has to do with deliverance. Yahweh delivered Israel from a land of bondage and led them to the Promised Land—a land of milk and honey. They went into Egypt as an undistinguished family (with the exception of Joseph) and emerged from Egypt as a nation.
Yahweh parted the waters so the Israelites could pass through the sea and escape the pursuing soldiers. Yahweh had given them water to drink and manna to eat in the arid wilderness. Yahweh had parted the waters of the River Jordan so they could enter the Promised Land (Joshua 3). Every Jewish child knew these stories. Yahweh is reiterating stories well-known to every Jew.
“I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (v. 4b). Now Yahweh presents his second exhibit—Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—the emancipator, the priest, and the prophetess. Yahweh had favored Israel greatly with these leaders—and many more who are not mentioned here—Joshua, David, the list is long.
“My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him” (v. 5a). Yahweh’s third exhibit seems a bit odd. He could have spoken of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. He could have mentioned David and Goliath. The story of Balak and Balaam seems minor by comparison—but perhaps that is the intent. The mention of Balak and Balaam illustrates the depth of Yahweh’s involvement with Israel’s history. For every great story, such as David and Goliath, there are dozens of smaller stories such as Balak and Balaam.
Balak, king of Moab, was afraid of the Israelites, so he summoned Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel, “for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). But the Lord intervened so that Balaam blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them (Numbers 23-24).
“from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of Yahweh” (v. 5b). Shittim was the Israelites last campsite prior to crossing the Jordan River, and Gilgal was their first campsite inside the Promised Land. In other words, what happened “from Shittim to Gilgal” was that Yahweh stopped the waters of the Jordan River so that the people of Israel could cross into the Promised Land. “Shittim to Gilgal” serves as shorthand for the miraculous entry into the Promised Land.
MICAH 6:6-7. HOW SHALL I COME BEFORE YAHWEH?
6How shall I come before Yahweh,
and bow myself before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams?
With tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience?
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
“How shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” (v. 6). “Micah 6:6-8 is in the form of a question and answer, with a worshiper speaking in verses 6-7 and another voice responding in verse 8. The form borrows from priestly and liturgical practice. When a layperson wished to enter the temple for worship or proposed to offer a sacrifice, there was a ritual of inquiry and instruction…. Our text is thus a priestly or prophetic torah or instruction” (Tucker, 96).
The central question is what must do to please God.
The first proposal is that the worshiper should bring Yahweh burnt offerings, with year-old calves. There is much to commend this proposition. The first seven chapters of Leviticus give detailed instructions regarding a variety of offerings that Yahweh requires Israelites to make. The burnt offering is the first offering mentioned (Leviticus 1), which suggests that it has special importance. The requirement was for a male without blemish. A calf could be offered as a sacrifice once it was seven days old (Leviticus 22:27), but a truly devoted worshiper would feed and care for the calf until it was a year old and then offer the sacrifice. A year-old calf was the best offering that a worshiper could make.
“Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams? With tens of thousands of rivers of oil?” (v. 7a). The second proposal escalates the requirements substantially. A ram is a male sheep that constitutes an acceptable offering (Leviticus 5:15; 6:6). When Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, the Lord provided a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place (Genesis 22:13). If one ram is an acceptable sacrifice, thousands of rams must be super-acceptable. If the Lord would be pleased with one ram, surely he must be overjoyed at the prospect of thousands of rams.
Olive oil was one of Israel’s primary agricultural products. It was made by crushing ripe olives to extract the oil. Lesser grades of oil could be extracted by various processes, but the oil that resulted from the first pressing was considered to be the best. Oil was used for cooking, lamps, and a variety of religious purposes (to fuel lamps in the tabernacle and temple, to accompany various sacrifices, and for anointing). Only the best oil—virgin oil from the first pressing—was acceptable for religious purposes. If the Lord would be pleased with the offering of a small quantity of oil, he must be especially pleased with the offering of a river of oil—or, even better, ten thousand rivers of oil.
The mention of thousands of rams or tens of thousands of rivers of oil constitute hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), because no one could afford such lavish offerings.
“Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (v. 7b). The third proposal escalates the requirements beyond acceptable limits. The Israelites are familiar with child sacrifice, because it is a common practice among some of their neighbors. The question posed here is whether a person would have to go so far as offering his own firstborn child as a human sacrifice.
Jewish law says, “You shall give the firstborn of your sons to me. You shall do likewise with your cattle and with your sheep. Seven days it shall be with its mother, then on the eighth day you shall give it to me” (Exodus 22:29b-30; see also Exodus 13:12-13; 34:20).
HOWEVER (and this is a big however), the Lord did not require the Israelites to offer their firstborn as sacrifices on the altar. Instead, they were to redeem their firstborn children by the payment of five shekels to the priest (Exodus 13:11-15; 34:19-20; Numbers 3:44-51; 18:15-17). When Israelites practiced child sacrifice, they typically did so to Molech or other gods—not to Yahweh—and Yahweh condemned such practices (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10; 1 Kings 11:5; Psalm 106:37-38; Ezekiel 16:20-21; 23:37-39).
We must conclude, then, that the offering of a firstborn as a sacrifice would not please the Lord. Such an offering would constitute a grave sin.
MICAH 6:8.WHAT DOES YAHWEH REQUIRE OF YOU?
8He has shown you, O man, what is good.
What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly (Hebrew: mis∙pat),
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
“He has shown you, O man, what is good“ (v. 8a). Verse 6a asks what the worshiper must do to please the Lord. Verses 6b-7 suggests various possibilities, all of which involve some sort of sacrificial offering.
However, the prophet takes the idea of pleasing the Lord in an entirely different direction. He doesn’t say that the offering of sacrifices is bad. Such offerings, after all, are required by Jewish law. However, the focus of this verse is not on external acts, such as the offering of sacrifices, but on attitudes that come from the deepest part of a person’s life—from the heart—and manifest themselves in positive actions toward God and fellow humans.
“What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly (mis∙pat), to love mercy (he∙sed), and to walk humbly with your God?” (v. 8b). This verse is an excellent summary of true discipleship, because each of these three actions has many ramifications, as noted below. Biblical scholar J.M.P. Smith called it “The finest summary of the content of practical religion to be found in the OT” (Barker & Bailey, 112).
Verse 8 is an excellent candidate for memorization, because it says so much in so few words—and is so easily understood.
To really please God one must act in positive ways toward other humans and toward God. The prophet spells out three of those positive actions:
“to act justly (mis∙pat)“ (v. 8b1). Justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. Justice requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires fair treatment in the courts for all people, but especially for people who have limited resources to defend themselves. It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17).
“to love mercy (hesed)“ (v. 8b2). The word he·sed has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. “When applied to Yahweh, hesedis fundamentally the expression of his loyalty and devotion to the solemn promises attached to the covenant…. Though the majority of the occurrences of hesed are translated ‘steadfast love,’ there are undeniable elements of ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’ that underlie each of these occurrences” (Renn, 633-634).
Like the Greek word, agape, in the New Testament, he·sed is a word that involves action—kindness or love as expressed through kind or loving actions rather than just feelings.
“and to walk humbly with your God?” (v. 8b3). There are two components to walking humbly with our God:
• First, if we are to please God, we must walk with God. God must be a significant part of our everyday lives—a constant companion, guide, and stay. We must allow God to lead us.
• Second, if we are to please God, we must walk humbly with God. A person who is humble is not arrogant or boastful. A person who walks humbly with God understands that everything that he or she possesses is a gift of God. A person who walks humbly with God will try to determine where God would have him/her to go rather than trying to set his/her own direction based on his/her own wisdom.
To be truly humble, we must give up all pretense to self-sufficiency and must instead rely on God as “our help and our shield” (Psalm 33:20).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Allen, Leslie C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
Barker, Kenneth L. and Bailey, Waylon, The New American Commentary: Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Vol. 20 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999)
Brown, William P., Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Kaiser, Walter C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Micah-Malachi (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Resner, Andre, Jr., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (GrandRapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Simundson, Daniel J., The New Interpreters Bible: Micah, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Smith, Ralph L., Word Biblical Commentary: Micah-Malachi, Vol. 32 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1984)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Waltke, Bruce, in Baker, David; Alexander, Desmond; & Waltke, Bruce, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Vol. 23a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Waltke, Bruce, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan