Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a
In order to understand the benevolent image in today’s reading of the coming ruler who “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…” (5:4), it is necessary to fill in the landscape in which this savior will bestow nourishment and salvation.
At the outset, it is also important to suspend the notion that this is a foretelling of the coming Jesus of Nazareth. Doing so will help you first to see Micah’s own times and hear his own voice before layering onto it the Christological lens so familiar to Christian preachers.
If we think only in terms of this coming one as Jesus, we miss Micah’s message to his own people. We lose scripture’s assertion — and the proclamation of the prophet — that YHWH speaks in each moment of history to that particular time. If we think of Micah’s words only as foretelling a future savior, YHWH’s concern for the present is lost.1
The speeches of the prophet we know as Micah are believed to refer to events around the eighth century BCE, a time of great unrest and turmoil for the northern kingdom and Jerusalem because of the domineering strength of the Assyrian nation. The people to whom Micah’s words were directed had no chance to match the warring might of their neighbors. Micah insisted that the only hope for them was to trust in YHWH’s power by remaining faithful.
Micah’s prophecy rails against the social and moral abuse rampant in the land. We know the situation by looking at the book of Micah as a whole. Those with power have taken away from the poor their land and inheritances (2:1-5), evicted widows from their homes (2:9), fixed the scales and weights to cheat customers (6:10-11), taken bribes (7:3), and more. The language is as graphic (3:1-3) as the butchery of Sweeney Todd, so horribly do the “haves” treat those who have less. Baal worship is officially endorsed by the rulers (6:16). YHWH will not tolerate this disobedience.
But YHWH’s wrath is not just against the political rulers and the wealthy, it is also against the prophets and religious authorities whose words serve only themselves: “who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (3:5). There is no hope for them, for “the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them…” (3:6). Micah declares the ruin of the holy city Jerusalem.
From out of the devastation, however, the day will come when righteousness and peace will be restored. Micah’s familiar image of swords being beaten into plowshares forms part of this portrait of a coming peace when, once again, everyone will sit under vines and fig trees on land they own (4:3).
The seven chapters in Micah can be outlined as collections of speeches containing oracles of punishment and then prophecies of salvation. Chapter 5 includes the first promise of restoration. The people will have their land back. Because land is vital to survival, identity, and a future, retrieving a place on which to fashion a life means salvation. Much of the language here is about protecting the land from the Assyrians, the great power menacing the little nations around it.
The reading for today proclaims that out of one of those little nations will come the one who brings security. That savior is, of course, interpreted in the Christian scriptures as Jesus, making it natural that we should immediately think of him. Matthew 2:5-6 gives us the scene in which the wise men ask King Herod how they are to find the child who is the king of the Jews. The suddenly alarmed king calls his advisors into the situation room and asks where this Messiah was to be born. The advisors remind Herod of the scripture that addresses Bethlehem: “for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (2:6b)
The verses from Micah are also recalled in John 7:32-43: “Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (7:42)2 Another interpretation might see the promised salvation as a social, political, or economic arrangement that creates justice for all and whose origin is not known for dominance over others.
The great rhetorical summation of Micah’s preaching — “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8) — permeates both Micah’s prophetic word, and in truth, the teachings of Jesus. Keep this vision of life lived in the divine presence in your thoughts as you work with the lectionary for this last Sunday of Advent, because we also hear these qualities in Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement. She sings of the savior who is filled with justice, mercy, and care for the least among people.
By pondering the image that Micah sets out rather than leaping to the assumption that this coming savior is the Christian Christ, the preacher can look for the correspondence between disparate ages of human history with divergent needs, all being saved by a God who is justice, kindness, and humility itself. Faith in God and joy in the coming incarnation is not dependent on the prophet’s accurate future predictions. That would be proving a point. The power of Micah’s image is not in its foretelling but in its truthfulness. The God who cared for “the little clans of Judah” still cares for the faithful needy ones. And we are everywhere.
1Timothy M. Pierce, “Micah as a Case Study for Preaching and Teaching the Prophets,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology 46:1 (Fall 2003), 81.
2See also 2 Samuel 7:12-13, Ps. 89:3-4, and Ps. 132:11-12.