From Little Bethlehem Will Come a Ruler in Israel

For the sake of the Sunday before Christmas we are taking a little detour from our usual exposition of Romans 11. But the path to Micah 5 does not lead far away from the burden of Romans 11. The burden of Romans 11 is to answer the question: Has God rejected his people, Israel? Is he finished with Israel or is there a future for this people in Christ?

Micah, like most of the prophets, was burdened by that same question in view of Israel’s sin and God’s judgment. Micah is writing at the same time as Isaiah in the 8th century before Christ and was alive when Assyria captured the northern kingdom and took the ten tribes into captivity. He knew this was all owing to God’s judgment. So the question of Israel’s future was heavy in his mind.

Look at verse 3: “Therefore he [God] shall give them [Israel under God’s judgment] up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth [referring to the time of the coming of the Messiah]; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” Typically, prophets are vague about timing. “Then the rest of his brothers will return.” He does not tell us when. It’s after the Messiah comes, and it’s connected with his coming, but when he doesn’t say. He just knows this: the Messiah is coming, and his coming will mean some great ingathering of Israel.

This is what Paul sees in the prophets and teaches in Romans 11. For a season there is a hardness on Israel and they are unresponsive. But the day is coming when the hardness will be taken away, and all Israel will be grafted in to the tree of true, redeemed Israel — that is, into Christ.

Listen to the way Leslie Allen makes the connection between Romans 11 and Micah 5:

Paul is heir to Micah in Romans 11, where in [a] similar vein he views a mainly Gentile Church as a lopsided thing and looks forward to the time when Jewish believers would be added in appropriately large numbers. (The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, NICOT, 351)

In other words, when verse 3 says, “The rest of his brothers will return,” this is Micah’s way of saying all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:25).

“You and I will be saved because this Messiah is coming.”

But let the focus today be on the wonder of the prophesy of Christ’s coming. Let it be not on fact that all Israel will be saved, but that you and I will be saved because this Messiah is coming. And let Micah himself help us feel the wonder of being saved and the greatness of our Savior, Jesus the Messiah.

The Connection Between Micah 5 and Jesus Christ

First, let’s get the connection between Micah 5 and Jesus Christ crystal clear. In Matthew 2:1–6 it says:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet [then they quote, and partially misquote, our text]: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

The chief priests and the scribes knew that Micah 5 was a reference to the Messiah. So they told King Herod: he will be born in Bethlehem. That is why God saw to it that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though his mother and Joseph were living in Nazareth when she got pregnant. He had to be born in Bethlehem, because he was this ruler of Micah 5.

This was the popular understanding among the people as well, because in John 7:42 they ask, “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So both the leaders and the people knew that Micah 5 predicted the coming of the Messiah — the ruler who would be king in Israel. And oh so much more than king in Israel.

Micah 5:4b says, “For now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” The coming Messiah — the coming king — was not just a tribal king. He would be King of kings and Lord of Lords. He would be great to the ends of the earth, not just in Israel.

Now let’s look at what Micah tells us about Jesus the Messiah.

The Insignificance of Bethlehem and the Great Significance of the One Born There

First, is the contrast between the insignificance of Bethlehem and the great significance of the one born there. Verse 2:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah [an old name for Bethlehem meaning “fruitful”; see Genesis 48:7], who are too 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.

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 two. The point of verse two is that Bethlehem is small — not that it is great because David was born there. (That’s what the scribes missed in Matthew 2:6.) God chooses something small, quiet, out of the way, and does something there that changes the course of history and eternity.

“God chooses the lowly so we can’t boast in merits, but only in his mercy.”

Why? Because when he acts this way we can’t boast in the merits or achievements 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.” 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 innkeeper could boast, “He chose the comfort of 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!” And he chose you and me, freely and unconditionally, to stop the mouth of all human boasting. This is the point of Romans 11 and this is the point of Micah 5.

The deepest meaning of the littleness and insignificance of Bethlehem is that God does not bestow the blessings of the Messiah — the blessings of salvation — on the basis of our greatness or our merit or our achievement. He does not elect cities or people because of their prominence or grandeur or distinction. When he chooses he chooses freely, in order to magnify the glory of his own mercy, not the glory of our distinctions. So let us say with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!” Not glory to us. We get the joy. He gets the glory.

Christ Secures for Us the Promises of God

Then notice a second thing Micah shows us about Jesus, the Messiah. He makes clear that Christ secures for us the promises of God. Christ is the yes of all God’s promises, so that if you trust Christ, you will inherit the promises. How does Micah show us this?

Any Jew in those days, 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 the King and the coming son of David, the Messiah. There are at least three links with David in this text. (1) David was from Bethlehem — that’s why it was called the “city of David.” (2) David was a ruler in Israel — he was the greatest ruler, a man after God’s own heart. And (3) David was a shepherd as a boy, and later he was called the shepherd of Israel (Psalm 78:71).

The point of these three links with David is this: Micah is reasserting the certainty of God’s promise to David. Recall from 2 Samuel 7:12–16 that 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 forever. . . . And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

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. The northern kingdom is destroyed and the southern kingdom will come under the judgment of God.

The point I am making is this: the coming of Christ was the confirmation of the promises of God. Here’s the way Paul put it in Romans 15:8: “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.” Or as he said in 2 Corinthians 1:20: “All the promises of God find their Yes in him.” If you are in Christ by faith, you will inherit all the promises of God. Christmas is God’s great nullification of all human boasting and confirmation of all divine promises. So give up all boasting and enjoy all the promises.

Christ Will Protect His People and Give Them Peace

Finally, Micah shows us that Christ will protect his people and give them peace. Verse 4:

And he shall stand and shepherd 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. And he shall be their peace.

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 trust him as their shepherd.

Second, he will shepherd 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 need unmet in Jesus Christ.

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 behind him like a trusting sheep and he will overcome every obstacle to your purification and joy forever.

Fourth, 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.

And finally (at the beginning of verse 5) he will be our peace. And, yes, in this context that includes final, earthly, political peace. Micah spoke of it already in 4:3:

He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

One day the ruler — the King of kings and Lord of Lords — will return and make that a reality. I do not minimize the glory of it.

The great Christmas carol will finally be fulfilled:

He rules the world with truth and grace
   And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
   And wonders of his love.

“Our deepest peace is when unbelief and God’s wrath is removed.”

But I end this message with another deeper peace. A peace that must happen before there can be peace on earth. There must be peace between us and God. Our unbelief and his wrath must be removed. That is our deepest peace — and our deepest need at Christmas.

Micah knew it was coming. He had experienced it personally (Micah 7:8–9). He describes it beautifully at the very end of his book (Micah 7:18–19):

Who is a God like you, 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. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

This was the great work of the Messiah yet to be done. Yes there were enemies on earth that must be defeated if we are to have peace. But oh, the great enemy called sin and judgment — that is the greatest and worst enemy. The gospel at Christmas is: This enemy Christ has trampled underfoot at the cross. So, for everyone who trusts in him, their sins are cast into the depths of the sea. Therefore we say, not glory to us, but glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! Amen.