No rest for the wicked
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 5, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Micah 2: 4-11
Micah was a powerful prophet who came from Moresheth (pronounced mor’ uh sheth), a small town south of Jerusalem. He was the prophet of Judah, a contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah. He prophesied in the time period of 735-700 B.C. Micah’s prophesy was about both Israel (Samaria) and Judah (Jerusalem) but appears to be primarily directed to Judah since only southern kings are mentioned in Micah 1:1. We are informed that Micah means “who is like Jehovah” (“who is like God”).
It is believed that Micah was a powerful prophet. One reason being that he was quoted as an authority in Jeremiah 26:18, 19. This was at a dramatic moment when Jeremiah was threatened by an angry mob. He was suspected of treason because he had prophesied that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians. In Jeremiah’s defense, elders referred to Micah as a prophet who had also foretold the fall of Jerusalem. Scholars assert that for the book of Jeremiah to cite Micah at this key juncture means that Micah’s status must have been extraordinary.
Like Amos, Micah spoke against the injustice that was rampant in the marketplace and the mistreatment of the poor by the wealthy. Micah 2 states the basic argument against the people of Judah in verses 1-3 and 6-11. The resulting coming judgment is described in verses 4-5 and 12-13. We see that Micah clearly denounced the wealthy citizens of Judah for taking away the ancestral land in order to enrich themselves. As we are reminded, God called these people, however, to share the land equally and to recognize that they did not own it. It was all a gift from God.
The specific evil mentioned in verse 1 is described is verse 2. Those who “devise wickedness ...covet fields and seize them” are in direct disobedience with the commands of God not to covet what belongs to one's neighbor (Exodus 20:17). The implication here is that they also steal, therefore, breaking another commandment (Exodus 20:15).
Scholars tell us, however, that perhaps the greatest injustice is that they were stealing the “inheritance” of their fellow citizens. Inheritance refers to property passed down in a family from one generation to the next. As you know, when the Israelites settled the land, each family received a portion of land as an inheritance that was to be passed down from generation to generation. For sure, such land gave the family a basis for economic security. But more important for ancient Israelites, that inheritance gave the person his/her place in society. Thus, without the inheritance, a person essentially had no share in the Promised Land and became a slave as their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. In Micah’s time, this system of family inheritance was breaking up as the wealthy and powerful members of society were stealing the land of those who were poor and less powerful.
“Thus says the Lord,” Micah speaks for God concerning the people who do injustice. God promises to bring evil upon them. Then God gives a description of the circumstances of the people of Judah when the evil comes. A song will be raised over them. At first, the song will be a taunt song (2:4). But then the song is identified as “lamentation,” a term that refers to the funeral song used to mourn the dead.
As with the other prophets, Micah speaks of a funeral for those still alive. The uniqueness of this funeral, however, is that the mourning seems to be for what the people have lost, not for the people themselves. These wealthy and powerful folks will soon cry out that God has given away their inheritance to those who defeat them. Thus, the very people who took away the inheritance of others (2:2) will now lose their own inheritance.
As scholars point out, the prophet complains that the people of Judah reject his very calling and vocation. They deny the truth of the prophet’s words because they cannot accept the idea that God might act against them. “Do not preach,” the people of Judah shout at Micah. These people do not want to hear the criticism that the prophet is giving (2:6). They first want to hear lies about how wonderful they are doing.
But as Micah suggests, the wishes of these people should not be a surprise since they act as an enemy toward their own people (2:8). The wealthy take advantage of the weaker people in society, that is, those who represent faith and dependence on God (those who trust; 2:8). At this point, Micah declares that the one who would preach about something as frivolous as “wine and strong drink” would be the preacher for these people (2:11). The implication here is that any such preacher would not be a true prophet.
Scholars are not sure whether this last portion of chapter 2 is an oracle of judgment or a promise of salvation. Much of the language in verses 12-13 seems to suggest that it is a promise of salvation. The assumption is that God’s people have been scattered (by defeat and exile) and now need to be gathered and restored. Therefore, the word “gather” (2:12) and the description of God bringing the people together like sheep in a fold suggest that God is protecting the people like a shepherd looks after the sheep. We are then told that if this interpretation is correct, the reference to the king in verse 13 is a reference to God who is the righteous king of the people. He is also their protective shepherd who brings his flock to safety.
Now, the confusion about whether this section is indeed a promise of salvation arises from the unusual location of a salvation oracle here. Scholars remind us that the rest of chapter 2 and all of chapter 3 are pronouncements of judgment and predictions of destruction.
Do not preach
One of the most noticeable responses of the people of Judah to Micah’s preaching is “Do not preach.” Micah was preaching what they didn’t want to hear.
This has been a problem for Old Testament prophets all along. When Amos preached to the people in the sanctuary at Bethel, the priest there told him not to prophesy, but to go to Judah and proclaim his message (Amos 7:20-17). Amos’s words were not welcome because they predicted Israel’s destruction.
Jeremiah also stated that the people of Jerusalem listened to deceptive words about their security rather than the prophetic truth about their impending downfall (Jeremiah 7:26).
Scholars inform us that perhaps the reason the Old Testament prophets’ words were so often rejected is that such rejection of unwanted rebukes is a common human problem. Any denials here?
Now, this “Do not preach” brings up the issue of the modern church today. What was a problem for the people of ancient Judah is still a problem for us in the church of our time. The word of God often tells us what we do not want to hear about ourselves. For liberals, who pride themselves in their open-mindedness, God’s Word may be a call to holiness. For conservatives, who hold strict theological and ethical insights, God's Word may be a call to greater compassion and forgiveness. At any rate, the essential challenge for all of us in the church is being humble enough to allow the word of God to transform our lives and prejudices.
Robbing the poor of inheritance
One of the main societal problems Micah is condemning is that wealthy citizens are engaging in ruthless business practices. They are taking land from ordinary people in order to satisfy debts. This is bad business because inherited land was understood as God’s gift – a sign of God’s grace. Therefore, to take away this land was like removing the person from the covenant community. For the poor, especially, it was crucial to know that God cared for them and provided for them.
Big problem! God’s gift of the land to the people, the most concrete sign of God’s grace, was in danger of being lost to everyone but the wealthiest and most powerful of Judah. Micah 2:9 describes the result of this taking away of inherited land. The most vulnerable members of society will suffer – women, children and the poor.
Another result of this unfortunate land grab that Micah mentions, is being separ’ted from God’s glory (2:9). Now, this does not mean that God will be absent but that signs of a society under God will be absent.
Abusing the patience of God
A huge issue of Micah, and other prophets, proclaiming the impending judgment of God has led some people to conclude that the God of the Old Testament is primarily wrathful and angry. For them, grace is secondary to God’s character. Those who believe this way think that somehow things got reversed in the New Testament through the ministry of Jesus.
Scholars tell us that two points need to be stressed to correct this false idea. First, as Micah 2:7 indicates, the Old Testament has no concept of God as primarily angry or vengeful. When Micah refers to the patience of God (2:7), he is addressing this notion. Perhaps this patience of God is most powerfully seen in the story of Israel making and worshiping the golden calf in Exodus 32-34. Here, God revealed his essential character: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). Therefore, God’s wrath is certainly part of the Old Testament, but the emphasis is on God’s patience and mercy.
Second, the New Testament, despite its focus on God's grace, also gives much attention to judgment. Examples are Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees (Matthew 23) or Paul's assurance that God brings judgment on the unrighteous (Romans 2:1-16). These examples confirm the New Testament’s interest in God's wrath.
The bottom line of all this is that the God who is gracious also has expectations for us. God’s mercy itself requires us to act with gratitude and faithfulness. Otherwise, we will show no sign of an experience of God’s grace.
Finally, because the people of Judah did not believe God would act against them, they continued in their injustice. They took advantage of God’s patience (grace), and the result was judgment. Maintaining the balance between God’s grace and God’s judgment is essential for Christians.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.