The prophet Micah lived during the last quarter of the eighth century before Christ, during the reigns of kings Ahaz and Hezekiah of the southern kingdom of Judah. Micah was called to offer social, political and religious critique of the southern kingdom in particular, but of all the people of God. Assyria has come calling, battering down the gates, and, as he did with Nathan, God charged Micah with the task of holding up the mirror. There is still time. But not much. Judgment is seen as the first step of repentance and renewal and return.
3For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. 4Then the mountains will melt under him and the valleys will burst open, like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place. 5All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel.
Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek. 2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And 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 live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace.
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now … that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The prophet Micah begins his oracle with a memorable, visual metaphor of God rushing over the earth like gushing hot wax, melting mountains, splitting open valleys, and pressing down the idolatrous “high places.” Micah is a poet, using images to communicate God’s words of judgment. He lives in a village outside of Jerusalem, a location that gives him insight into how the policies and behaviors of their own leaders oppress the peasants and poor rather than defending or helping them. In Micah’s eyes the fatal sin of the nation is moral corruption.
He rails against the political and religious leaders of his day because they have abandoned their divinely ordained responsibility to exercise justice throughout the land. The common good was being usurped by personal self-interest in the law courts, by large landowners and merchants. The rich are full of violence, the rulers speak lies; the leaders pervert justice and cause much suffering. They are a people who walk haughtily. God will not let this stand in the nation chosen to show forth God’s way. The armies of Assyria will address their arrogance and complacency if the people do not choose change themselves.
In spite of the gloom of his predictions, Micah insists that his message is for the good of his people. He preaches a vision of redemption beyond judgment and destruction. God will forgive the remnant of his inheritance and cast their sins into the depths of the sea. The day will arise when each shall sit under his own vine, under her own fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. Even in divine anger, there is compassion.
Indeed, we hear God’s longing for a return to faithfulness. “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”
This is the Solemn rebuke of our Good Friday liturgy. “What more could I have done for you? Answer me!”
Micah’s response pivots away from sacrificial worship and ritual toward a new orientation for daily life, reminding them – and us – what God requires.
Just three things: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
That job description hasn’t changed in the 2800 years since Micah spoke it.
Do justice: we are not simply to appreciate the concept of justice, or to expect justice done for us, or agree that justice should be an inalienable right, but, actually, we are required to do justice, to make it happen. We are to actively pursue making ours a just society. Actively be just in our interpersonal relationships, in our advocacy, in our dealings with one another. Fair, honest, open-minded, persistent, proactive.
Love kindness: the Hebrew word is hesed; it’s a deep word of covenant fidelity—the kind of unflagging loyalty that God shows Israel, or the deep, sacrificial love spouses bear for one another. Being kind is an important value, and kindness seems in short supply these days. But Micah pushes our understanding of being kind beyond ‘nice’ and into the realm of lasting, meaningful relationships. In the same way that the Hebrew word shalom encompasses wholeness and healing, not just absence of conflict, so hesed calls up a deep relational goodness that doesn’t stop with being kind.
Walk humbly with your God:
I attended a synod Bible study on Thursday preparing us to preach on Matthew. This isn’t the same word, but I think it carries the same meaning as when Matthew has Jesus say, “Come to me all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In the ancient world that meaning of humble is used of kings or persons of power, who lower themselves to serve instead of claiming the rights of their status. It isn’t said of one who is already at a lowered status, but of one who comes to walk alongside. Though humans were given dominion in creation, it is a role of service and protection, a humble status of rule for the sake of, not lording over or exploiting others.
It’s interesting to hear this description both of humility and of what God expects of us after all the political ads we’ve been bullied by in the past month. This is what we want from our leaders, isn’t it? Honesty, justice, humility, service, an awareness that we are in the room, that it is governance of, by, and for the people. Not election for the sake and status of the elected. Not election based on fear of the others.
Micah is calling out the leaders. His prophecies aren’t aimed at the peasants and working poor, but at those who have options, those who are positioned to effect change. His counterpart, the prophet Amos, describes the kind of corruption that seems to be another perennial:
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may again sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.…” (Amos 8:4-6).
Amos criticizes the CEO’s of his day who diligently keep the sabbath but cannot wait to cheat the poor on the other six days of the week. Both prophets emphasize that living in right relationship with God is not simply a matter of worship. Right relationship with God is an ongoing, seven-day-a-week orientation to life, one that prioritizes the well-being of the other, doing justice, loving with generosity and fidelity, and an attitude of humility.
The proof is in the pudding, not the rhetoric.
I’m mostly annoyed by politics and the election drama. The bigger issue, to my mind, is the climate summit and ecological justice that political parties aren’t willing to prioritize because they won’t win votes if they’re honest with the cost of change. And because their vision is short-sighted. We need Micah or Amos or Nathan – although as Jesus pointed out, they stoned the prophets back then, too. We are microscopically small players individually. But collectively, we need to change in major ways, we have to start behaving differently in our daily lives and expectations. It’s easy to agree with this, but how will we practice it, how will we, collectively, implement it?
We have experienced notable opportunities for change in the last three years. Racial disparity and arrogance in the valuation of human life in our country and genocide in others; a novel virus that has shown a spotlight on medical, social, and economic systemic injustice worldwide; and the invasion of Ukraine that – among other things – turned off the energy pipeline to Europe and grain market to hungry people on several continents. What have we learned from these disasters that are also opportunities for real change?
We’ve learned how quickly things go back to the status quo. How badly we don’t want to see progressive change if it means we have to change. How startlingly quickly the earth can heal itself if we give it a chance. How unlikely it is that commerce and stock markets and the national security of constant, unsustainable growth will give it a chance.
When Israel failed, they believed it was their behavior that caused God’s judgment.
When we fail, we look for someone else to blame.
I would say that most of us don’t believe that God uses acts of nature and enemy armies and viruses to smite and force change. But reading the Old Testament prophets causes me seriously to wonder. If God has power in all things, and change is truly necessary for the survival of the earth as we know it, then… is it so backwards to see judgment and redemption mixed together? I don’t know. We have learned that we are all vulnerable and all connected. Maybe that’s a starting place.
What will it take for us to change? For us to sit up and take notice? For those of us with privilege to walk humbly, live humbly, with justice and liberty and kindness for all?