Prophesying toward the end of the eighth century BCE, Micah was a witness to the antagonism of the Assyrian Empire against Israel and Judah, including the capture of Samaria in 722 BCE and the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, when the capital of Judah survived by the skin of its teeth. Instability and war were all around, and that sense of danger is reflected in the many judgment oracles found throughout the book, especially in the first three chapters. Chapters 4-5 take on a more hopeful tone, while chapters 6-7 are a mix of both judgment and hope. In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Judy Fentress-Williams points out that those final two chapters of Micah in particular have a “call and response” structure, producing a “literary tempest that swings from judgment to mercy” and that “calls subsequent readers to respond.”1
These three verses serve as a paradigmatic example of Micah’s judgment oracles. The striking metaphor of God’s descending over the earth like a gush of hot wax, melting mountains and valleys and the idolatrous “high places,” reminds us that Micah, like many of the prophets, is a poet, using evocative images to communicate God’s words of judgment. Notably Micah, who hails from the more rural town of Moresheth-Gath, refers to the city Jerusalem as a “high place” (verse 5b), that is, a site of apostasy.
With its reference to Bethlehem and its messianic imagery, this oracle features prominently in Christian tradition, which understands the promise of a great king—“the one of peace”—as being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod consults the chief priests and scribes for information on where the messiah will be born, and they respond by quoting Micah 5:2 (Matthew 2:5-6). Micah’s prophecy regarding Bethlehem is also discussed briefly in John 7:40-42. For its original audience, though, the hope for a new Davidic king to shepherd the people Israel was probably more immediate—a ruler to bring Judah out of its eighth-century turmoil and into a time of peace and prosperity. In keeping with his more rural focus, Micah looks to David’s hometown of Bethlehem, not his capital of Jerusalem, for the birth of this new king.
These three verses are the culmination of what is perhaps the most famous passage in Micah: the covenant lawsuit (rib) God brings against God’s people. God calls upon creation to hear the case (6:1-2), before addressing the people directly: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (6:3). God then proceeds with a reminder of past saving acts (6:4-5), before the people respond in verses 6-7 with an escalating list of possible sacrifices to please God. The tone of the people’s response seems exasperated, as if God could only be satisfied with more and more burnt offerings, culminating in the possibility of human sacrifice, “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” (6:7b).
The prophet’s litany in verse 8 pivots away from sacrificial worship and toward a new orientation for everyday life, reminding the people what God requires of them. These three requirements are worth unpacking:
The prophet’s call to do justice rather than pile on sacrifices recalls an oracle from another eighth-century prophet, Amos:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6).
Amos criticizes the businesspeople of his day who diligently keep the sabbath and yet cannot wait to cheat the poor the other six days of the week. In neither Amos nor Micah is there a call to dispense with sacrificial worship, liturgy, or other more formal observances. Rather, both of the prophets emphasize that living in right relationship with God is not simply a matter of a perfunctory visit to a worship service. Right relationship with God is an ongoing, seven-days-a-week orientation to life, one that prioritizes the well-being of the neighbor, making a life of worship also a life of doing justice, loving with generosity and fidelity, and journeying in humility with God.
God of justice, you sent your servant Micah to proclaim justice and peace to a world that lacked both. Make us instruments of justice and peace, so that your world might prosper. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
We are called ELW 720 Let justice roll like streams ELW 717 Amazing grace ELW 779, H82 671, UMH 378, NCH 547, 548 Take my life, that I may be ELW 583, 685, H82 707, UMH 399, NCH 448
Help us accept each other, John Ness Beck