My Background Notes on Micah 5:1-4a

Please note that the biblical references and links follow the verse numbering of the NRSV which on occasion differs from that of the NAB in its various editions. For example, Micah 5:1-4a in the NAB is Micah 5:2-5 in the NRSV.

The name Micah was employed in various forms (Micaiah, Michael) and means “who is like unto God?” In its various forms it is found applied to at least a dozen individuals in the OT.

The superscription (i.e., Micah 1:1 see also Jer 26:18) dates Micah’s ministry to the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, establishing a time period (roughly) between 759 BC (the beginning of Jotham’s reign) and 698 BC (the end of Hezekiah’s reign).  When exactly the prophet’s ministry began or ended is uncertain. Some scholars doubt the superscription’s dating of Micah’s ministry to the reign of Jotham because none of the contents of the book can be related to his reign. Such doubt presupposes that the book itself contains the sum total of Micah’s prophetic activity; an assumed “fact” on the part of these scholars which itself cannot be established from the book.

According to the superscription to the Book of Micah, the prophet was a native of Moresheth, apparently a reference to Moresheth-Gath (Mic 1:14), a small village in the Shephelah (i.e., foothill) region of Judah. It was located about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, stood on an elevation some 1,200 feet above sea level, and looked out over the coastal plain. The plain was an important commercial and travel route and, therefore, a prime target for an invading army.

The united monarchy consisting of the Twelve Tribes of  Israel had disintegrated after the death of Solomon (circa 926 BC) as a punishment for his sins (see 1 Kings 11:1-13:34). Ten of the twelve tribes formed a new nation which retained the name Israel, and Samaria eventually became its capitol. This new entity is often called the “Northern Kingdom” by modern scholars. The “Southern Kingdom” became known as Judah and remained under the rule of the Davidic kings.

The end of the united monarchy seriously weakened both states, but especially the Kingdom of Judah. This necessitated the establishment of military fortifications in the Shephelah (2 Chron 11:7-11) to protect Jerusalem lest the Philistines who lived along the coastal plain rose up against their political overlords (they had been subjugated by David, see 2 Sam 8:1; and ruled over by Solomon, see 1 Kings 5:1). The Philistines did on occasion represent a threat to both the Northern Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 15:17, 1 Kings 16:15), and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (2 Chron 21:16, s Chron 28:18), but in Micah’s day the looming threat was the mighty Assyrian Empire.

“Because of her geographical position in north-central Mesopotamia, without natural frontiers and surrounded by enemies on every side, Assyria developed naturally into a nation of warriors. By the beginning of the ninth century she had become the first purely military empire in history. The speed of her armies, the efficiency of her siege machinery, and the frightful cruelty of her soldiers made her the scourge of the Fertile Crescent for the best part of the ninth to seventh centuries.” (Peter F. Ellis, THE MEN AND MESSAGE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, pg. 277).

In 842 BC Assyria subjugated many of her western neighbors, including Syria (also called Damascus or Aram) and  the Northern Kingdom of Israel, turning them into vassal or tributary states. But it wasn’t long before internal political intrigues and attempted usurpations of the throne put and kept Assyria in a somewhat weakened state until Tiglath-pilesar III came to power in 745 BC.  During his reign Assyria began to rise again and to trouble the western nations anew.

Israel, Syria, and a number of other states planned to form a military coalition against Assyria and they wanted the Kingdom of Judah to join them, however, King Ahaz of Jerusalem refused. Syria and Israel them decided to attack Judah, remove Ahaz from the throne and set up a puppet king. a frightened and desperate King Ahaz, acting against the advice of the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 7:1-8:20), appealed to Assyria for aid. Tiglath-pilesar moved quickly, he destroyed Damascus and conquered Israel, annexing its territories of Galilee and Gilead into his kingdom and forcing Israel to pay a heavy annual tribute tax. But he also took the opportunity to invade the Southern Kingdom of Judah, turning it into a vassal state and demanding a tribute tax (2 Chron 28:16-21).

Tiglath-pilesar III was succeeded by Shalamaneser in 727 BC and for some reason the Northern Kingdom of Israel allied itself with Egypt and once again rebelled against Assyria, forcing the new monarch to act. He imprisoned King Hoshea of Israel but this didn’t stop the rebellion which lasted another three years (see 2 Kings 17:4-5). In 722 (or 721) Samaria, capitol of the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and the nation conquered, and a large part of its population deported, never to return (2 Kings 18:9-12). For Micah, the disaster which fell upon the Northern Kingdom was a warning of the impending doom of Judah(Micah 1:2-16).

The well-to-do have been oppressing the poor and powerless (Micah 2:1-2). Confident in their wealth they demand that the prophet not speak (Micah 2:7). They are more apt to listen to the “prophesying” of drunkards (Micah 2:11). Though they are members of God’s people they are portrayed as enemies of that people because they rob the poor even of their clothing (Micah 2:8. See Exodus 22:26; Deut 24:12-17; Amos 2:8; Ezek 18:12); and they drive women and children from their homes on the basis of “crippling” pledges (Micah 2:9-10). This was a violation of the Law of Moses (see Exodus 22:24-26; Deut 24:6; Deut 24:10-13).

Because the wealthy have taken land from their own people, showing themselves to be enemies of their people, they will lose their land to “captors” (Micah 2:4-5). Having violated the covenant law they are now subject to the covenant punishments (see Deut 28:36-57).  Many in the Kingdom of Judah will be taken into exile, just as had the people of Israel. But in a future time the dispersed people of God will be gathered back together under a King according to the messianic prophecy of Micah 2:12-13. (Note: the terms “Jacob” and “Israel”, though often used for the Northern Kingdom after the division of the monarchy, are also often used to designate the people as a whole, i.e., the twelve tribes; such is the case here in Micah 2:12. In chapter 3 the terms are clearly used in reference to the Kingdom of Judah. See Micah 3:9-10).

But it is not just the wealthy who are indicted by the prophet; the leaders of the people are condemned as well. It was their duty to know what was right but by their actions they showed that they loved evil and hated justice. They are portrayed as butchering and devouring the people, an image of oppression (Micah 3:1-3. See also Psalm 14:4; Psalm 27:2; Prov 30:14; Zephaniah 3:3). A day will come when they will pray to the Lord and he will ignore them for what they have done (Micah 3:4. See Isaiah 1:15-17). One cannot ignore the wise counsel of God for long without retribution (Prov 1:20-33).

Greedy prophets too are condemned. Note that it is not a question of their being false prophets; rather, they are real prophets who are abusing their gifts. They  prophesied peace to the one who gave them a morsel of food; but they  prophesied war against anyone who failed to pamper their paunches (Micah 3:5). Their visions, said the prophet, shall become as nightfall, and their divination will be turned to darkness, and they will be put to shame (Micah 3:6-7).

In contrast Micah is and will remain filled with power, the spirit of the Lord and authority to do what the other prophets should have also been doing: declaring “unto Jacob his wickedness and to Israel his sin”, and foretelling the coming doom of Jerusalem and the devastation of the temple mount, Zion (Micah 3:9-12).

Micah, as a righteous prophet who refused to abuse his office, could both prophesy war and peace. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple mount was not the final word. A time will come when Zion, “the mount of the Lord’s house”, shall be exulted, and many peoples from many nations will stream to it to be instructed by “the God of Jacob” (Micah 4:1-4).  Jesus’, who died and rose again in order to draw all men to himself (John 12:32) is the new Temple (John 2:19-21), and the Church is his Body (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:12-13; Ephesians 1:22-23) and, therefore, his temple (1 Cor 3:16-17).

A time will come when God will gather the lame, the outcast, and the afflicted; all those most easily subject to oppression and bring them to Jerusalem, called symbolically “Magdal-eder” (tower of the flock), and “hillock of daughter Zion” (Micah 4:6-8), and there he will rule over them (see Rev 21:9-27). These symbolic names are pastoral, providing a link with the shepherd imagery of Micah 5:4.

All this is in the future and Micah had closer pending realities to deal with. Whatever the distant future might bring couldn’t obscure the problems facing Jerusalem and the people of Judah. In less than a century and a half the neo-Babylonian empire would replace Assyria as the dominant power in the near east and that power would remove the rightful Davidic heir (Jehoichin) from his throne, replacing him with his uncle (2 Kings 24:10-17). It is this event that Micah alludes to in Micah 4:9, and which foreshadowed the Babylonian exile (Micah 4:10).

The problems with Babylon which were to come are portrayed by the prophet as foreshadowing a much more dire future event: the great eschatological (end time) assault of evil against God and his people which will culminate in victory over evil (Micah 4:11-13).

Before this end-time battle takes place a Davidic king must first be smitten (Micah 4:14, or Micah 5:1 in some translations). That king will be born in Bethlehem and his rule shall reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:1-4a). See Matt 2:6; Luke 2:4; John 7:42.

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One Response to My Background Notes on Micah 5:1-4a

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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