From Bethlehem in the Majesty of the Name of the Lord
The book of Micah begins by telling us when Micah prophesied and the cities he addressed. “The word of the Lord which came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom, Israel, and Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom, Judah. The years of the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah extended from about 735 to 700 BC. So Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah and prophesied during those tragic days when Assyria conquered Samaria, took the ten northern tribes into captivity (722 BC), occupied Judah, and besieged the holy city, Jerusalem.
Micah is a hard prophet to understand because the book alternates back and forth between threats of doom and promises of hope. It is hard to figure out what situations he is referring to and how the hope and doom relate to each other. Probably the reason the book is arranged like this is to make the point that where God and his people are concerned, there is always hope, even in the darkest catastrophe. So Micah mingles gloom and glory through his book. We will take a look at the gloom first and then focus in on his great promise about the Messiah who will come from Bethlehem in the majesty of the name of the Lord.
Israel’s Sin Brought Their Doom
Prophets like Micah didn’t bring doom; they simply announced the doom which Israel and the nations brought on themselves through sin. For example, in 1:6, 7, God’s judgment on Samaria is owing, first, to its idolatry, “Therefore, I will make Samaria a heap in the open country, a place for planting vineyards; and I will pour down her stones into the valley, and uncover her foundations. All her images shall be beaten to pieces, all her hires shall be burned with fire, and all her idols I will lay waste.” In a universe created by God for the display of his glory, the rejection of God brings down omnipotent opposition. God cannot be righteous and yet be indifferent to unbelief.
Idolatry, then, always leads to sins which ruin human life. In 2:2, 3, Micah puts his finger on covetousness and stealing and oppression and pride:
They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. Therefore, thus says the Lord: Behold, against this family I am devising evil, from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.
Idolatry and haughtiness go hand in hand, and lead to covetousness and stealing and oppression.
This spirit of greed was widespread even in Jerusalem, not just Samaria. In 3:9–11 Micah tells us how covetousness corrupted justice and even made the leaders and priests and prophets take bribes:
Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire; its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us.”
The rulers abhor justice, pervert equity, shed blood, and take bribes. Priests teach for money, and prophets tell you what you want to hear if you will pay for it. For all this Micah promises doom and destruction: Samaria will become a heap of ruins (1:6) — that happened in 722 BC — and Jerusalem will go into exile in Babylon (4:10) — that happened in 586 BC. Micah was long since dead when Jerusalem fell. He didn’t destroy the nation. They destroyed themselves with idolatry, covetousness, and perverted justice.
Gloom and Glory
But mingled with all this gloom are glimpses of future glory for a repentant and humble people. Micah describes in 6:7, 8 what God requires if glory is ever to dawn over Israel.
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In reverse, the three requirements are a humble fellowship with God, that is, childlike dependence on him; then a love for kindness, that is, a heart that loves to show mercy; and then deeds of justice, that is, an active life, especially on behalf of those who are mistreated. I think these are the same three things Jesus had in mind when he criticized the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.” Humble faith in God’s mercy to us inclines our own hearts to show mercy, and that leads us to seek justice for the mistreated.
But if that is true, then what assurance does Micah give us that God will have mercy? The picture of sin and judgment is so dark. Is there mercy and forgiveness with this avenging God? Micah closes his book with words that leave no doubt in our mind.
Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love (cf. 6:8). He will again have compassion upon us, and he will tread our iniquities under foot. Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as thou has sworn to our fathers from the days of old. (7:18–20)
So there is great hope ahead for Israel if they will turn and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.
The Promise of the Coming Messiah
But if we stopped here, Micah’s picture of the future would be like a portrait without a person. I don’t mean that God isn’t a person; he is. And he will dwell in the midst of his people. But you can’t see God. He is spirit; he is invisible. Yet God wills to show us himself as much as possible. Therefore from the days of David he promised to send a human king through whom he would rule the world. And he would be so closely and mysteriously identified with this king that the king would be called, “Mighty God, Everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6). So when Isaiah or Micah paints a picture of God’s future, the visible person at the center is the Messiah. Therefore, to get Micah’s whole picture of the future glory, we have to go to Micah 5:2–4, where he predicts the coming of Messiah out of Bethlehem.
In prophesying these words about the coming of the Messiah, Micah reveals to his contemporaries and to us at least three things about God which should turn us away from idols and cause us to want to trust God above all else. Let’s read the text and then look at these three things.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore, he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
The three things revealed about God are: first, God always acts to magnify his glory, especially the glory of his freedom and mercy. Second, God keeps his promises. Third, God protects his people. If those three things are true, then who would not want the Lord above any idol? Who would not want to be protected by omnipotence and made an heir of promises which involve infinite glory? So let me try to whet your taste for God by showing how Micah reveals these three things.
God Magnifies His Glory
First, God acts to magnify his glory. In 5:2, God speaks and contrasts the littleness of the town of Bethlehem with the greatness of the ruler who will come out of her. Bethlehem is scarcely worth counting among the clans of Judah, yet God chooses to bring his magnificent Messiah out of this town. Why? One answer is that the Messiah is of the lineage of David, and David was a Bethlehemite. That’s true, but it misses the point of verse 2. The point of verse 2 is that Bethlehem is small. God chooses something small, quiet, out of the way, and does something there that changes the course of history and eternity. Why? Because when he acts this way, we can’t boast in the merits of men but only in the glorious mercy of God. We can’t say, “Well, of course he set his favor on Bethlehem; look at the human glory Bethlehem has achieved!” All we can say is, “God is wonderfully free; he is not impressed by our bigness; he does nothing in order to attract attention to our accomplishments; he does everything to magnify his glorious freedom and mercy.”
When God chose a replacement for king Saul, he sent Samuel to the little town of Bethlehem. When he chose the sons of Jesse, he set his favor on the youngest, not the oldest (remember Jacob and Esau: “the elder will serve the younger” — Romans 9:12). When God chose a man to defeat giant Goliath, it was little David. When he chose a weapon, it was a slingshot. Why? Why does God do his great work through little towns and youngest sons and slingshots and mangers and mustard seeds? David tells us in 1 Samuel 17:45–47, just before he slays the giant. He says to Goliath,
I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand . . . that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all the assembly may know that the Lord saves not with the sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.
God uses little towns and youngest sons and slingshots to magnify his glory by contrast, to show that he is not the least dependent on human glory or greatness or achievement. The apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 1:27–31. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. . . . Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” God chose a stable so no inn-keeper might boast, “He chose my inn!” God chose a manger so that no wood worker could boast, “He chose the craftsmanship of my bed!” He chose Bethlehem so no one could boast, “The greatness of our city constrained the divine choice!”
What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? The principle of works and human merit? No! But on the principle of faith in God’s mercy. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:27–28).
The divine choice of little Bethlehem as the place of the incarnation is essentially the message of justification by faith apart from works of the law. Bethlehem means that God does not bestow the blessing of salvation on the basis of our merit or our achievement. He does not elect cities or people because of their prominence of grandeur or distinction. When he chooses, he chooses in freedom in order to magnify the glory of his mercy. So when Micah contrasts little Bethlehem with the greatness of the Messiah, he shows God acting in his typical fashion: to magnify his glory and to turn human boasting into gratitude and praise and faith. “Glory to God in the highest,” the angels said, and so should we.
God Keeps His Promises
Second, God keeps his promises. Any Jew, hearing Micah predict the coming of a ruler out of Bethlehem who would feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, would think immediately of two people: David and the coming son of David, the Messiah. David was from Bethlehem; David was a ruler in Israel; David was a shepherd. The link between the coming Messiah and king David is the link of promise. What Micah is doing is reasserting the certainty of God’s promise to David. You recall from 2 Samuel 7:12–16 how God said to David, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever . . . And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” The amazing thing about Micah is that he reasserts the certainty of this promise not at a time when Israel is rising to power but at a time when Israel is sinking toward oblivion. He witnesses the destruction of the northern kingdom, and he predicts the fall and exile of Judah.
You can tell how firmly someone believes God’s promise by whether it gives him strength and hope when life caves in around him. And Micah, it appears, never wavered. He knew God would keep his promise.
There are not many things in our lives that are sure and unshakable. And the older we get, the less sure and the more shakable everything around us becomes, because our very lives become fragile. I think that when I am 86 instead of 36, Christmas will be pleasant with nostalgia and tinged with the sadness of loss. I think it must not be easy to know that the Christmases you have left you can count on one or two hands. What does the world offer to an octogenarian? Ah, when we were in our twenties and thirties and forties, we are prime targets for the PR of the flesh. Everything seems to have a firmness about it. But near the end we get wiser. If the secular social worker at the nursing home lets me see her eyes, I can tell: beneath her projects and games and therapy she has nothing to offer, nothing. Everything is withering, everything is fading, unless the Word of God is sure. And if it is, there will be strength and hope and joy to the end. The point of Micah is that two centuries and terrible circumstances do not nullify the Word of God. What he has spoken will come to pass. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field . . . The grass withers, the flower fades; but the Word of the Lord will stand for ever” (Isaiah 40:6–8). God keeps his promises. And there is nothing more firm in all the world.
So the first thing we learn about God from Micah 5:2–4 is that God magnifies his glory, and the second is that he keeps his promises. There’s a beautiful passage in Romans 15:8, 9, which shows how the coming of Christ confirmed both these truths. Paul said, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Christmas is intended to magnify the glory of God’s mercy and confirm the truthfulness of his promises.
God Protects His People
Finally, we learn that God protects his people. Verse 4: “He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” God’s purpose in sending the Messiah is not only to glorify himself but also to shepherd his people. Everybody in this room needs a divine Shepherd. You may not feel that need now in your strength, but you will feel it keenly, especially if you have to go through the valley of the shadow of death without the comfort of his rod and staff. We need a shepherd, and God has sent Christ just for that need.
Look what he offers in this verse. First, he will stand. He won’t lie around waiting for us to serve him. He will be on his toes, alert, working for those who chose him as their shepherd. Second, he will feed his flock. He will not leave us to find our own food. He will lead us in green pastures and beside still waters. There will be no want unsatisfied. Third, he will serve us in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. His good intentions for us will not be hindered by lack of strength. The strength of the Lord is omnipotent strength. Therefore, if you are trusting in Christ, omnipotent strength is on your side. Walk like an obedient sheep behind him, and he will overcome every obstacle to your purification and joy forever. Finally, notice that he shall be great to the ends of the earth. There will be no pockets of resistance unsubdued. Our security will not be threatened by any alien forces. Every knee will bow and confess him Lord. The whole earth will be filled with his glory.
So the sum of the matter is this. Jesus Christ has come out of Bethlehem. Like his town, he was humble and obscure and poor in his first coming. But he will come again in great glory to gather his flock into the kingdom. Micah’s promise of his coming proclaims three things to us about God that should make us want him above all else this Christmas. (1) He magnifies the glory of his freedom and mercy. (2) He keeps his promises, through the darkest times. (3) And he protects his people. Is there anybody here who doesn’t want to be protected forever by divine omnipotence? Is there anybody who doesn’t want to be the beneficiary of promises which involve infinite glory?