July 26 lesson: God Shows Clemency
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God Shows Clemency
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 26, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Micah 7:14-20
In Chapter 7:11-20, Micah concludes his book with the hope of restoration and the assurance that God will forgive the people of Judah for their sins. Scholars inform us that this hope includes three main features: God will lead the people as a shepherd, the nations that oppressed and abused God’s people will be ashamed of themselves, and God will forgive the people of Judah whom God punished. With this conclusion to his book, Micah joins with other prophetic books that begin with and/or are dominated by messages of judgment and then moves to promises of restoration. In broad terms, this is how God is more widely understood in the Old Testament. To be sure, God judges and punishes, but God’s judgment is for the purpose of restoration and renewal.
The background scripture of our lesson (7:11-13) presents a grand vision of a day that is totally new for Judah and the world. “Day” here is an expression similar to the “day of the Lord” in other prophetic texts (example Amos 5:18-20). It is a world’s changing “day.” For Micah, this day will be marked first and foremost by the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. As previously noted, reference to tearing down the walls had come to signify God’s judgment (Psalm 80:12). Therefore, the rebuilding of the walls signals God’s forgiveness and restoration.
Verse 11 then refers to boundary expansion. Though the meaning is not clear, this border expansion may be another sign of renewed life and vigor brought on by God’s forgiveness.
At any rate, the next significant issue of this “day” will be the movement of nations to Judah that once oppressed Judah. Later in this chapter, we will see that these nations were ashamed for their abuses of Judah (Micah 7:16). But here the picture is like Micah 4:1-5, that depicts nations streaming to Jerusalem to receive instructions from Israel’s God. And while Jerusalem will be acknowledged as the place of universal truth and blessing, the rest of the earth on that day will be desolate.
Shepherd of Israel
The image of God as shepherd is one of the most enduring images of God in the Old Testament. It is also the dominant image of God in Micah 7. Though perhaps the image is best known from Psalm 23 where an individual speaks of God as “my shepherd,” the label is more commonly applied to God’s leadership of Israel as scholars point out, Psalm 100 uses the language of sheep and shepherd to describe Israel’s relationship to God. Micah himself alludes to the Exodus event, which was the primary time that God shepherded the people as a whole (see Psalm 80).
In addition, Micah’s reference to “staff” is suggestive of Psalm 23:4 (“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”). Thus, Micah’s call, on behalf of the people, to God to “shepherd your people” (7:14), is to ask God for protection as a king would be expected to give his people.
And by mentioning the name of Bashan and Gilead, which were known as places of lush pastures and healthy livestock, Micah was pointing out that God provides for more than just the necessities of life. God provides abundantly for the Israelite people.
Scholars go on to point out that the expectations Judah had when it called on God as shepherd also carried with them a sense of dependence and helplessness. The people looked to God for guidance and care and did not pretend they could protect themselves or secure their own future. And this Old Testament way of being before God is an example of how we, ourselves are to live in relationship with God – in humility, faith, trust, and dependence.
Someone once asked a saint of the ages, “What must I do in order to please God?” The saint replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you...always have God before your eyes.” That’s it! Always have God the Shepherd before your eyes – in humility, faith, trust, and dependence.
The Nations Shall Be
The picture here is of God, as Shepherd of Israel, leading his people into their good pastures. As that happens, the nations who oppressed them “shall see and be ashamed.” That is, as we are informed, they will have public opinion turn on them. Once these nations were considered powerful and mighty. At the time of Micah’s ministry, Assyria was a major threat from the east, and Egypt was always a dominant power to the south and west of Judah. In their arrogance, their armies ruthlessly conquered vast territories and took whatever they wanted. The Assyrians were particularly known for their ruthless assaults and their left-behind artwork depicted piles of dead bodies.
But when God comes as shepherd of Israel, these nations’ powers will be revealed as an illusion. A grand revival would take place among all the nations. No earthly power can match the power of the King of the universe.
Now, the description of the nations’ response to God may sound cruel. Scholars suggest that images of them licking the dust (7:17) seem sadistic and the question of how the imagery fits Christian theology is appropriate. However, the setting of Micah’s audience needs to be recognized. They are at the mercy of the great empire. Therefore, this passage does not and cannot encourage gloating over victory or excessive pride over Judah’s place in the world. Micah’s predictions about the nations humbly coming to Judah seem almost absurd given the state of military realities in that day. By Micah’s predictions are not absurd at all. Rather, they are faith-filled visions of the world ruled by God.
The message here is that the nations will come humbly before God. They “shall see and be ashamed” of their arrogance and cruelty and “shall come trembling” (7:17) before God. The point is that those who live by violence will one day be brought to justice.
Before we move on, there is one other significant note here concerning the nations. In Micah 4:1-5, the prophet pictures the nations streaming to Jerusalem to be instructed by God’s law. According to scholars, this image in turn provides the basis for the Gentile mission in the New Testament. The hope for and openness to people outside the covenant community is grounded in Micah 7:16-17. No doubt the language here is of shame and fear, but the prophet’s vision for the nations is repentance. As we know or should know, repentance is a requirement for anybody who seeks the kingdom of God.
The story is told of a rabbi who was walking with some of his disciples when one of them added: “Rabbi, when should a man repent?”
The rabbi quickly replied: “On the last day of your life.”
“But,” protested several of his disciples, “We can never by sure which day will the last day of our life.”
The rabbi smiled and said, “The answer to that problem is very simple. Repent now.”
As I stated, repentance is a requirement of anybody who seeks the kingdom of God. For nations and individuals, the time to repent is now.
The Lord, Merciful and Gracious
The Book of Micah concludes with a grand statement about the character of God. God is by nature patient and forgiving.
To this point, the book has been filled with Micah’s critique of Judah and his promise of Jerusalem’s destruction. Over and over again, Micah has pointed out Judah’s unfaithfulness to God, which has been expressed in the mistreatment of the poor and vulnerable. Micah 7:2 states clearly that “the faithful have disappeared from the end.”
But, according to Micah, judgment is not the last word. God will forgive and restore Judah.
Scholars declare that this conclusion to the Book of Micah is important for two reasons: first, to understand the nature of true prophecy in the Old Testament, and second, to understand the true nature of God as the Old Testament presents it. The image some people have of the prophets in that they are an angry bunch representing a wrathful God. But Micah 7:18-20 seems to argue against that conclusion, at least concerning the nature of God.
Micah begins the presentation of God’s character with a question: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgressions of the remnant of your possession?” (7:18). Scholars tell us that the question is rhetorical and the expected answer is “No one!” Micah then proceeds to make a declaration about God’s character: “He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency (7:18). Note that Micah does not say that God does not get angry and does not punish God’s people. Micah does insist however, that God’s anger and judgment are not the final word on God’s interaction with the people. In the end, there is forgiveness and reconciliation.
We are informed that what Micah says about God seems to be drawn from a notable theological statement that resounds throughout the Old Testament. It first appears in Exodus 34:6: “A God Merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” The context of the declaration is God’s response to the Israelites worshipping the golden calf and rather than destroying the people as God considered doing (Exodus 32:10). God forgives.
God is more gracious than we can ever comprehend, and Micah makes that clear in his word about God’s nature.
Before concluding today’s lesson, two other things need to be noted. First, Micah declares that God deals with our sins and overcomes them: “he will tread our iniquities under foot” (Micah 7:14). God treads our sins like enemies and conquers them.
Second, Micah states that God will show “unswerving loyalty to Abraham” (7:20). God will honor the promises he made to Abraham by showing “steadfast love” and “covenant faithfulness” to him and his descendants. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation (Genesis12:1-3), and Micah 7:11-20 promise that pledge will be realized. The bottom line here is that God will show Abraham’s descendants mercy and forgiveness. And therein is our hope.
- What might God be saying to the church today through Micah?
- How have you, members of the class, found Micah’s description of God to be true in your own life?