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Justice, love and humility
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 19, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Micah 6:3-8
In Micah 6, we see a series of indictments and promises of punishment. The initial call for Judah to plead its case, as if in court, sums of the disposition of this chapter. As we have been told, the Lord has a case against the people because they have disregarded the covenant. They have not worshiped God purely, and as a result, they have not acted justly toward one another. And despite the fact that God has worked faithfully to save and preserve them, this is the reality of the situation (6:3-5). Indeed, when the people have responded, they have responded the wrong way with outward signs of devotion (sacrifices) rather than true devotion that results in right living. Because of this, God will bring disaster on Judah. As scholars point out, the exact nature of this disaster or punishment is not mentioned, but it is clear that it will have something to do with food and harvest. They will not be able to produce what is needed.
Micah clearly points out God’s indictment of Judah when he states in 6:2, “For the Lord has a controversy with His people…” By using the word controversy, Micah is using a term that literally means “court case.” Without question, God has a formal indictment against the people. Note here that it is a common theme to call the natural elements to hear a case (Deuteronomy 32:1), and it is also common to challenge the defendant to “rise” and speak in their own defense (Jeremiah 1:17).
In verse 9, God speaks to “the city,” that is to Jerusalem, as a personification of the people of Judah. The issues God identifies here are the same issues Micah has spoken of previously: the people cheat others in the market place and oppress, even using violence, against their neighbors. Pointedly, these are actions that go against the will and purposes of God.
God’s last indictment of Judah compares the people of Micah’s time to the time of Omri and Ahab, kings of Israel about a hundred years earlier. Scholars tell us that Omri was a very successful king by secular standards. But he introduced the worship of foreign gods into his kingdom. Things came to a head when he married his son, Ahab to Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. Jezebel was a worshiper of Baal and she made the Baal cult popular in Israel.
In addition, the worship of foreign gods brought the ethical practices of Israel into question. The result was widespread injustice. One notable example was Ahab’s stealing of Naboth’s vineyard and having him killed (1 Kings 21). Micah accused the wealthy Israelites of similar thefts (2:2).
As far as Micah is concerned, right action begins with right thinking, the right awareness of the nature of God. Thus, Micah calls for the people of Judah to reflect on God’s actions on their behalf so that they will overcome their injustices and do the right thing.
As Micah calls the people of Judah to reflect on God’s deeds, his priority command is for them to “remember” (6:5). They are to remember the ways God delivered them, particularly how God brought them up from Egypt and guided them safely to the land of Canaan. The importance of this historical review of Israel’s salvation story begins in verse 3 with God asking, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” That is, as scholars inform us, God asks the rhetorical question, “In what ways have I depended or put demands on you?” The intended answer, of course, “In no way.” Thus, Israel’s salvation was due to God’s action alone. Israel did nothing whatever to deserve it or make it happen. At the conclusion of this saving experience of Israel’s salvation, God says, the purpose of remembering is “that you may know the acts of the Lord” (6:5).
Micah then summarizes what is to be remembered. Specifically, he mentions the experience Israel had with Balaam (Numbers 22-24). Micah then gives the general reference “from Shittim to Gilgal” which covered the movement from the wilderness to Canaan. Micah’s focus here, however, is not on specific events so much as on the memory of God’s overall past deeds. It is hoped that this past memory, of compassion received, will produce humility and compassion in God’s people.
The Insufficient Sacrifices
We are told that the description of sacrifices in Micah 6:6-7 is meant to answer the question of what is needed to humble oneself before God. Here, Micah downplays the practice of making sacrifices. But he doesn’t do this concerning sacrifices per se, but to point out that God doesn’t primarily want the sacrificial animal. As Micah explains, God first and foremost wants the person who gives the sacrifice. A gift on the altar may be a legitimate expression of devotion to God if it is assigned of the human heart turned toward God, but Micah’s message spoke to people who lacked the latter.
In these verses (6, 7), the list of possible sacrifices moves from possible sacrifices to impossible to the unthinkable. The expression “burnt offerings” is the only type of sacrifice that Micah mentions. This offering refers to an offering that was consumed completely on the altar as opposed to some offerings that were eaten in whole or part by priest (Leviticus 2:3). Calves were the primary animal used for burnt offerings. Next, Micah begins to give a number of extraordinary examples of sacrifices: “Thousands of rams” and “10,000 rivers of oil.”
As scholars point out, the final one is the most extreme “My first born (6:7).” This reference to child sacrifice is meant to be shocking. Child sacrifice is forbidden (Deuteronomy 12:31), and the prophet speaks against anyone who practices it (Jeremiah 7:31). Nevertheless, it was known in the ancient world, and many non-Israelites thought of it as the ultimate sign of a devotion to a god. By listing the first-born child as if this was an acceptable sacrifice, Micah raises to the absurd the value of things that could be sacrificed. The point, according to scholars, is that no outward expression like this, no matter how valuable the sacrifice, did God desire.
If God does not require sacrifices, of various kinds, what is expected of those in relationship with God? In contrast to Judah’s readiness to offer sacrifices, God presents what is truly “good.” And the good, as Micah points out is how to treat one another as influenced by God’s mercy.
Micah points out what God expects of us with these beautiful phrases: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). As scholars point out, these three phrases present three increasingly broad characterizations of life before God. They describe a way of life that points to other centeredness that would prevent the abuses and injustices Micah railed against.
First, do justice! Note the emphasis is not on justice but on “doing justice.” Justice is something one does. For Micah, this includes particularly the right treatment of the poor in the legal system and in settings in which the rich could take advantage of them.
As scholars attest, there is a tangible quality to these expectations. There is something to do. In other words, there are issues of justice all around us in terms of the poor, and we need to be involved in dealing with these issues – issues of hunger, poverty, housing, etc.
Now, the Christian way of sharing or justice includes many things, but definitely these two things: personal generosity and public justice.
In talking about the ministry of his church, a church member said, “We don’t want anyone left behind.” That is true! “Do justice,” Micah said.
Second, love kindness! This second statement “love kindness” involves a more general orientation in life. The word “kindness” translates a Hebrew word “hesed” that often refers to God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and the prophet’s use of the term should be measured against such references. The word is sometimes translated “steadfast love” or “faithful, loving kindness” or “covenant love.” The term implies steadfastness, reliability, and faithfulness to one’s obligations.
Scholars remind us that since God’s “hesed” for Israel is characterized by graciousness and unmerited care, it also implies mercy. Human expressions of “hesed” therefore include showing mercy and forgiveness and compassion to those around us. Therefore, “love kindness” means to “devote one’s life to kindness.”
The last statement of verse 8 is broader than the second, but adds still another characteristic of the person who stands in right relationship with God.
Third, walk humbly! As scholars attest, “To walk humbly with your God” refers to action that is modest and careful. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 11:2, walking humbly does not refer to the downplaying of one’s ability. Rather, it has to do with the constant awareness of God’s sovereignty. And such awareness produces in turn and awareness and consideration of other people. If we are informed, if a person is truly humbled before God, he or she will naturally do justice and show mercy as a by-product of having mercy and justice from God.