YEAR C: ADVENT 4
In our reading from the Book of Micah this week we step back in time, well before the prophets we have read so far in Advent, Jeremiah, Malachi and Zephaniah. Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem. Micah is usually located in the last third of the eighth century BCE (Mic 1:1), about a century before Zephaniah and Jeremiah.
Clearly Mic 5:2-5a has been selected for Advent 4 because of the mention of Bethlehem and the one who will come forth from it and who will be ‘great to the ends of the earth’. Other themes such as peace and the woman in labour support the connection of this passage to the story of Jesus’ birth. The fact that Micah is the only prophet to refer to Bethlehem further suggests a connection with the Gospel story. Mic 5:2 is quoted in Matt 2:6 where Bethlehem is identified with the prophecy of a coming Messiah. However, Old Testament texts which can be considered ‘messianic’ in some way, or which have some surface connection with the story of Jesus, should not be ‘blindly’ co-opted to our later Christian understanding. Such Old Testament texts are not just pointers to the later events recounted the New Testament. We can only understand how they might shed light on the Gospel story, or how they even shaped that story, if we first give thought to their meaning for ancient Israel.
Micah was from the small village of Moresheth in Judah (1:1). Like others around him, Micah observed the injustice and oppression exercised by the rich and powerful in society (e.g. 2:1-2), the false utterances of prophets (3:5), the indifference of rulers (3:11), commercial malpractice (3:9) and the wickedness of priests (3:11), all of which had grown widespread in Judah in the early to mid-eighth century BCE. He also observed the rising hegemony and military might of the superpower of the region, Assyria. In his visions, Micah speaks of these things but also opens up for us an alternative world view, a ‘God’s-eye view’ of things if you like, that speaks to the root of the immediate human circumstances even as it looks beyond to a different future.
In chapters 1-4 Micah has been speaking against the sins and corruption rife in Jerusalem and Judah. He speaks vividly of God’s judgment upon the people toward the end of chapter 4 describing Jerusalem as a woman writhing in labour, as one sent forth to camp in the wilderness and finally as one besieged (Mic 4:9-11). These images, however, are not just meant to evoke thoughts of pain and distress. The woman in labour will give birth and there will be joy in that. Camping in the wilderness evokes thoughts of the exodus and the hope embodied in that tradition. So Micah also speaks at the end of chapter 4 of the lame, who will be the remnant of God’s people, becoming a strong nation (v. 7) and of rescue from Babylon the place of captivity (v. 10). The prophet proclaims that neither the dim political prospects, seen as God’s judgment upon the people of Judah, nor the view of the nations that Judah is ripe to be plundered for its wealth, is the way God sees things (v. 12). In Mic 5:1 the prophet speaks of the people besieged and their ruler struck by a rod on the cheek, but he then begins v. 2 with a definitive ‘but’, indicating a marked transition from judgment to salvation. This transition focuses on Bethlehem, as the prophet addresses the little town.
This transition points to the deeper reality that with God there can be hope in the unexpected reversal of circumstances. Such a reversal is a vital element in many Old Testament texts, especially in the prophets. With God, we encounter the unexpected and the paradoxical. Hope arises out of devastation. Suffering embodies salvation. This is a profound element of our faith which was already present in the Old Testament, is shared today with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and is manifest in the Gospel story. This is part of what we all look for with hope in the advent of God. In preaching in Advent, we may want to consider what this cycle of judgment and salvation means in our present world. How can we maintain a sense of divine irony and reversal when we preach of hope and waiting in Advent season?
The new circumstances Micah sees are linked to a coming ruler (5:2). Surprisingly, and in keeping with a sense of divine irony, this new ruler will arise from one of the least of the clans of Judah. The ruler’s origin in Bethlehem evokes thoughts of King David (cf. 1 Sam 16:1) whose dynasty ruled over Jerusalem and Judah for over 400 years. However, Micah does not identify this ruler with David, nor does he refer explicitly to the ‘anointed’, i.e. the messiah. These identifications were made by many much later, including some New Testament writers (e.g. see John 7:42). What Micah does is clearly indicate that this ruler will be one whose reign will be consistent with that of God. This he does by saying that this ruler’s ‘origin is from of old, from ancient days’, words reminiscent of deities in the ancient Near East and used of God in Dan 7:9-22.
Mic 5:3 then speaks of a woman in labour, a theme found also in Isa 7:14 and 9:6 and elsewhere. This reference to labour and the birth process echoes the reference in Mic 4:9-10 mentioned above. However, it differs from that passage in that there is no reference to pain in 5:3, with the emphasis firmly upon the inevitability and yet unexpected nature of a birth. There is an eschatological allusion implicit in this reference. The phrases ‘the time’ (Mic 5:3) and the more common ‘that day’ (e.g. Mic 4:1, 6; 5:10, 7:11 etc.) direct our thoughts not so much to a particular time of divine intervention, but to a hope in the final reign of God.
This ruler will be a majestic figure. The language of ‘shepherd’ in relation to kings was common throughout the ancient world. It signalled both protection and care (cf. the critique of shepherds in Ezekiel 34). It will later be used to speak of God in Isa 40:10-11, as it is in Psalm 23. Significantly this figure will be identified as ‘the man of peace’ (v. 5). The title is used more explicitly later in Isa 52:7: ‘the one who announces peace’. Micah also envisions a universal rule for this figure: ‘to the ends of the earth’ (cf. also Isa 45:22; Jer 16:19). This language is typical of the idealised king in ancient Israel (see Psalm 72). It is a picture not of any run of the mill king, even a very good one, but rather of one in whom the reign of God is seen in a new way.
But we should not forget that in the midst of the grandeur of the language used to describe this coming ruler, there is mention of Bethlehem, ‘who (is) one of the little clans of Judah’. A world view that is shaped by hope in God’s reign not only speaks of hope arising out of devastation and suffering embodying salvation, but of hope and salvation coming from places and people that are as nothing in the eyes of the world. So in the Book of Micah, a prophet from an obscure village speaks about another small place from which will come one who is from of old and who shall be great to the ends of the earth. As Paul says in 1 Cor 1:28: ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are’. Part of the paradox of God’s action in the world is that what is of no account in the eyes of others is held closest to the heart of God. It is the preacher’s task in Advent not only to direct their people’s attention toward the angel choirs in heaven proclaiming the glory of God, but also to direct their attention to the meagre human context in which that glory is manifest. Part of preparing for Christmas is learning to see the divine present where least expected.
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