Road users in Johannesburg are all too familiar with the dip that goes over the N17 in City Deep, the site of the old Taylor’s Travel Lodge. That road and intersection have seen a number of changes over the years—planned and unplanned. The last few years have been particularly interesting.
The road traffic authorities initially installed a three-way stop to allow people exiting the N17 to safely join onto Heidelberg Road. But prior to this, one could drive freely and uninterruptedly all the way through the dip on their way into the CBD or down into Alberton, and we were all happy and used to that. The result was that many people just simply started ignoring the top and they sped on through.
The problems with this situation were obvious, even to the same traffic authorities. But, instead of policing these traffic violations and putting a stop to them, they chose to install a set of traffic lights. Numerous iterations later, we’re back to a stop street because the traffic lights weren’t stopping the people speeding through the intersections, even when they were there and were working, not stolen, or crashed out of the ground. We’ve never seen any law enforcement there ever; the drivers of the south of Johannesburg have simply been left to their own devices. Now, it’s pretty much a free for all. It might actually be less safe to stop there for fear of someone, who has no intention of stopping, ramming into the back of your car.
Road users are accustomed to seeing accidents or being delayed by accidents in that very intersection. Our text today shows us an historical example of God dealing with man’s proclivity to break the rules and to deny personal accountability and disregard authority.
We have an ethos of consistent expositional verse by verse preaching at BBC. For the occasional preacher, it can become a challenge to decide what to preach without being too topical or chasing pet issues. I have opted, in the times that I have opportunity to preach, to work my way through the prophecy of Micah.
Why Micah? The standard answer, likely offered by even children in our congregation, would be to quote 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
That is a fine answer. But what do we really benefit from considering the prophecies of this obscure minor pre-exilic prophet to the nations of Judah and Israel? There are a number of words and definitions that need explaining in that sentence and we’ll touch on them. But allow me to be so bold as to jump to the conclusion right away, to the purpose of studying this book.
Above all, and like any other book in this inspired collection of books, Micah reveals to us the character of God. We see further into his covenant faithfulness, immutability (he doesn’t change), sovereignty, justice, and merciful lovingkindness—not just over the chosen people of Israel, but even over the rogue invaders whose armies he also directs to do his bidding.
We get further insight in this book of the grand plan of redemption, a plan put into motion before the foundation of the world, a plan in which Micah, and Judah, and Israel, and Assyria, and Mary, and Jesus, and you and I, are all participants. This is a great and grand story of the ages, and it is the same story that continues from the garden to Micah’s day and now into the day in which we live and have our being.
We see the inklings of the advancement of the kingdom of the Creator, not through the vehicle of the chosen people of Israel, but in that which we now enjoy and participate: the church of God, characterised by the gospel of God. This series of prophecies and impending judgements on God’s chosen people allows us to also see more of ourselves and of our tendencies and proclivities—of our sin—so that we have occasion to consider our ways and can then be exposed to guidance and correction.
Let us consider the who, what, when, and where of this prophet.
Who was Micah? According to v. 1, Micah was a contemporary of the great prophet Isaiah. In many ways, he can be considered as the condensed version of the rather uncondensed major prophet. We know that from the description of the kings who ruled during the time of his prophecy: Jotham, Ahaz, andHezekiah, kings of Judah. He, therefore, was active just after Isaiah, who was around from a little before in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, andHezekiah. You may recall that these kings ruled in Judah, over the two southern tribes, in Jerusalem while they were still there. As we will see, these prophets prophesied of the still-to-come exile of the chosen nation and captivity in Babylon with the associated destruction of Jerusalem. So obviously then, they were pre-exilic prophets.
To whomwere these prophesies in chapter 1 directed? As we’ve read, Micah addressed at least three groups, but chiefly focuses on just one. In vv. 2–4 he addresses all the peoples of the earth, and all that is in it. His message is: “God is coming in judgement.” Why is he doing so? Because, according to v. 5, of the transgressions of Jacob—of the chosen nation of Israel—which here refers to the ten northern tribes, collectively referred to as Israel, based in Samaria. We’ll touch on the details of these transgressions later. In v. 9 we see the prophet make brief reference to Judah and Jerusalem, who were in this prophecy not the object of God’s wrath since it was concentrated on Israel and Samaria. Much of the rest of the prophecies in the book of Micah hone in on Judah and Jerusalem which we will consider on future occasions.
The historians among us will know this already, and the rest of us will know it now, but as is the way with true biblical prophecy and prophets, this all came to pass. This was not an idle threat. God was not a parent who, threatening to count to three, included two-and-a-half, two-and-three-quarters, etc. No, this was realised in space-time history when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom and destroyed its capital of Samaria, just as Micah predicted. After that, too—about 150 years—Jerusalem and the people of Judah were conquered and shipped off into captivity in Babylon.
That’s an interesting history lesson, but does it have to do with the way we live in this secular society, hundreds of years after these events? Of what relevance is the prophecy of Micah to me? As we have observed, all Scripture is profitable for us. It teaches us what is right, what is not right, how to get right and how to stay right. Verse 1 tells us that this was the Lord speaking. His eternal words were being announced and they were and still are for all of us to hear.
The Character of God and Man
Consider, firstly, that this prophecy and these announcements declare to us and clarify for us some more of the character of God and indeed the character of man. Note that this coming in judgement was complete and total. No edifice of man or any idol of his creation stood any chance of coming out the other side. No mountain height or valley depth would be safe. Fertile fields would be rendered sandy lots. Accumulated wealth would collapse and fall. A comprehensive conquering of the land of Samaria is expected.
Now, if you just picked up the book of Micah, without having any of the context and background info, you would probably come to the same conclusion that some sceptics do: that we are dealing with an angry, vengeful, capricious potentate who just has it in for various groups of people—a schoolyard bully that is throwing his weight around and picking on some cowering pipsqueaks. That is if you didn’t have the context. I mean, what transgressions could people be guilty of that would lead to such severe punishment? Such an understanding is fatally flawed because it portrays a view of God that is wholly inadequate and deficient. It’s thinking about God as one would think about a fellow human. But God is completely and utterly and wholly different and all our thoughts and imaginations and descriptions and all of our vocabulary is deficient in trying to explain and describe this God!
In trying to understand the character of God, we can gain insight by looking closer at the sins of the people of Israel, referred to here in Micah 1, and clearly defined in 2 Kings 17: blatant idolatry (v. 7); conformity to the pagan world around them (v. 8); hypocrisy (v. 9); worshipping false gods (v. 10); all manners of wickedness (v. 11); disregarding and even vilifying the prophets sent by God (vv. 13–14); and dabbling with the occult (v. 17).
These transgressions are in and of themselves worthy of being condemned and deserving of punishment. In these offences, the very character of God is under attack. His commandments clearly set out to the people are broken and all but forgotten. And their severity is only further magnified when you consider that they were performed in direct breach of a covenant made between the Lord God and this very people.
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his judgements, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey his voice, and that you may cling to him, for he is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
Israel chose to follow death and evil. What Micah is prophesying, and what came to pass under the Assyrians and Babylonians, was the end result of them choosing not to follow life and good. Despite multiple reiterations of the covenant, despite the warnings and exhortations of multiple prophets, despite the great and wonderful promises of blessing and hope and success promised to those who follow life and good, despite a history of deliverance from oppression, deliverance from enemies, success in battles, provision in the desert, and on and on—despite all these things that would surely have enabled them to choose life and good, the chosen people went down the way of destruction. Indeed, some things never change. With all these incentives and very good reasons to follow righteousness, they still chose to follow their own hurt. How foolish! How foolish must you be to chase your own destruction when you have the way to happiness and success paved before you? We look back at them and shake our heads and tut-tut them and say: “Really? How did you miss that one?” You probably see where this is going.
To the unbeliever: How foolish must you be to see the Lord God as he has revealed himself in creation, and all the things that are made as the great Creator, to have your conscience confirming that he is God, and that Jesus whom he sent is the way, the truth and the life, and there is a path that leads to life and another that leads to death, only to turn your back on him and shake your fist at him and refuse, for now, to bow before him in humble submission? What evidence do you lack that he is serious about the people that occupy his world? That he is serious about his eternal purposes and that you cannot thwart those purposes. As Piper comments on this point, “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.” Recognise his authority and then, in humble submission, bow before him, confess him as Lord—your Lord—and then walk on the path of life towards your eternal reward.
And, believer, how foolish are we? We have been delivered from the grasp of the enemy. We have been delivered into an eternal kingdom, where we are eternally secure. We have been indwelt by the living Holy Spirit, who leads us into holiness and points us to Christ who saved us. We have been made heirs with Christ and partakers of the glory that will finally be fully revealed. We have the pleasures of God awaiting us and the promises of God to claim. We have everything necessary to lead a life of godliness and holiness with God glorifying labours, and yet we get consumed by the fleeting pleasures of this passing world and by the temporary intoxications of things that don’t lead to holiness. We chase after things that make this flesh satisfied for a short time. We are like the person portrayed by Lewis in that we are far too easily pleased:
It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Why is this so normal—for Israel then, and for us now? Why do we tend to such folly? There are obviously multiple answers and factors at play, many of which we’ve considered in depth in our studies in Ephesians. The devil isn’t stupid; he knows what will allure and distract us, even though we remember that the devil is still only under the Lord’s directing. The devil doesn’t want us walking on the path to life and goodness, so he puts detours and obstacles and sloughs of despair along the way. And instead of not going into these sideshows, we stop and linger and enjoy the temporary and fleeting pleasures that they offer, until we realise just how far we’ve strayed from the narrow way.
But we also falter because we lack gratitude. Like Israel, we don’t appreciate all that the Lord has done for us in bringing us to salvation. We egotistically think that we have deserved what we have received freely from him and so we don’t feel the need to seek him out of gratitude. The Proverbs show us that we pursue righteousness because of the relationship we have with our Father. And the deeper those bonds of affection, the deeper will be our commitment to follow him. Our lack of pursuing life stems from a lack of depth in relationship from our side—and from our lack of gratefulness.
Perhaps the biggest reason that we don’t pursue life and righteousness is because it requires labour and we are lazy. It is far more convenient to cosy up to the world and make friends with the secular society than to take a principled stand, to deny ourselves and our own pleasures, to be put out of our comfort zone. Before salvation, we were committed walkers on the path to destruction and could do nothing to follow after life and righteousness. Once declared righteous, though—at salvation—we are on the narrow path that leads to life and we will ultimately reach the final destination, but the old man that was used to walking on the old path pulls us over and steers us off towards unholiness and things that prevent our sanctification. Now, we know that no true believer will receive condemnation for their straying from the path of life, but we must state loudly that it’s not so much what they would receive in judgement, but rather what they will miss out on. Like going to Mac’s Pancakes and only getting to eat the serviettes.
The Immutable God
But it is not all doom and gloom—and you know why: God doesn’t change. He is eternal, omnipotent, immutable, sovereign. He is love and truth. He is just. Not only does he always act justly, but he is justice. And that is why he responds to Israel and Judah as he does in this prophecy.
To the dismay of the sceptics, we don’t see a malicious, vindictive God, but rather a faithful, patient, gracious God, who, because he is true and perfectly just, must uphold his covenant promises. The nation had not held their responsibility to the covenant, so God in his justice fulfilled his word by bringing the Assyrians to lay waste to the land and capture the people. If God were untrue and did not uphold his covenant promises to them, he would have excused their sin and forgotten the whole sliding away. But, no, he is true and just. He has a standard to which he holds those under his authority to account. His justice requires that, if this standard is not met, the consequences of such failing must follow.
There is a deep and profound blessing when we realise that the same God who so judged his chosen people is an immutable God: He doesn’t change, cannot change. If he could change, he wouldn’t be God. He wouldn’t be omniscient, for people only change when they have to respond differently in a different situation or to a new stimulus. But since God knows all things, there is not a situation or a stimulus that can occur that he doesn’t already know about, and so therefore he has no need to change.
Now you say, how is it good news that God is immutable? Is he also going to display his justice to me? Micah certainly didn’t think it was good news. He went about howling and wailing, lamenting the coming destruction of the nation. He knew that God’s perfect justice and immutability required the exercise of his judgement on the nation. He goes on in vv. 10–15 with a whole bunch of wordplay, playing on the names of the towns and cities that will see destruction as if to further rub salt into their wounds. “In Beth Aphrah [literally, the house of dust], roll yourself in the dust. The inhabitant of Zaanan [literally, going out), does not go out.”
The total destruction of Samaria as exemplified in the ten cities that are mentioned was realised. That is historical fact. But the reason that it is good news that God is immutable and just is hinted at in v. 9: “For her wounds are incurable. For it has come to Judah; It has come to the gate of My people—to Jerusalem.”
So, follow this. We know that Micah, Hosea and Isaiah—three pre-exilic prophets—prophesied the destruction of Samaria and the northern kingdom as well as the captivity and ultimate restoration of the southern kingdom of Judah. There is no promise of the restoration of Israel/Samaria, though God did promise to always preserve a remnant (which went on to become the Samaritans due to intermarriage with pagan nations). The invasion of the Assyrians would see the end of the northern kingdom of Israel, sometimes referred to as Samaria or Ephraim. But until then, the destruction that took out Samaria only came to the gate of Jerusalem. Judah was not yet afflicted. The same prophets who spoke of the end of Samaria spoke about the captivity and eventual restoration of Judah. The rest of Micah deals mainly with this. One hundred and fifty years after the Assyrians wiped Samaria away, the Babylonians came for Judah. And for seventy years they were held in Babylon, until the Lord continued to work his sovereign plan and directed Cyrus to see the nation return to Jerusalem where the city and the temple would be rebuilt. You see, all of this turmoil was God’s doing because he has a glorious grand plan and an ultimate purpose that also doesn’t or hasn’t changed. Through the returned nation of Judah, God remained true to his promise that from the house of David would come the Messiah: the true King, not just of Israel, but of the whole world. So, despite the calamity of destruction and exile, the grand plan of salvation was still being worked out. Later in the book of Micah we see another prophecy: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, thoughyou are little among the thousands of Judah, yetout of you shall come forth to me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth arefrom of old, from everlasting” (5:2).
So, we ask again, how is the fact that God is immutable a source of comfort to me? How is the record of God judging Samaria so summarily a boost to my daily walk? Well, simply, God’s justice has always and will always require that transgression in sin must be forgiven. But the forgiveness is not granted without cost. Samaria paid for their transgressions by being wiped out. Judah’s transgressions were forgiven after seventy years in Babylon. And then the wonder and the glory that is the gospel. Your transgressions and my sins are forgiven. They are gone. How so? They are nailed to the cross and I bear them no more.
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth”; who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
(1 Peter 2:21–25)