This Sunday, the selection of Hebrew Scripture that is offered by the lectionary comes from the book of the prophet Micah (Mic 6:1–8). This book is best known for a number of oracles, including a verse (6:8) that is included in this Sunday’s reading.
The first well-known oracle is the the vision of universal peace that Micah utters: “many nations shall come and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:1–4).
Second, there is an oracle best known because it is quoted in Matthew’s Gospel: “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” (5:2–6; see Matt 2:6). In the context in which Micah speaks these words, they refer to a coming ruler of Judah. In Matthew’s narrative, the prophetic word provides support for the notion that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3–5; also John 7:42), which then means that the story of the birth of Jesus needs to take place in Bethlehem. Two evangelists work independently to tell stories that, in quite different ways, adhere to this requirement (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4).
The third oracle of Micah which is well known—the one offered in this Sunday’s lectionary—appears within an extended scene that reads like a lawsuit being prosecuted in court. It begins with the charge: “rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice … for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1–2). Then it moves through some argumentation, before the famous rhetorical question is posed: “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).
In its immediate literary context, the verse stands as a climax to the case being mounted by the prophet, as he instructs the people,of a Israel what they are to do: to do justice, offer kindness, and live with humility. This verse has gained a life of its own; it is regularly quoted to support people of faith undertaking acts of social justice, and it adorns a multitude of t-shirts as a succinct “quotable quote”.
This verse has been the inspiration for many organisations bearing the prophet’s name—locally, there is Micah Australia (“empowering Australian Christians to advocate for global justice”; see https://www.micahaustralia.org), which is part of the Micah Challenge International (birthed by the World Evangelical Alliance and Micah Network; see https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2015-03/micah-challenge-international).
The historical context for this verse is instructive. The prophet Micah is introduced in the opening chapter of the book bearing his name, as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah” (Mic 1:1). This places him in the second half of the 8th century BCE. As he was active in the southern kingdom, he did not directly experience the conquest and exile of people in the northern kingdom in 721 BCE, although he must have been aware of the disasters falling his countrymen to the north. His prophetic activity is thus a couple of decades after Amos and Hosea.
Indeed, the southern kingdom of Judah directly experienced a military attack from the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701, attacking several towns in Judah (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16) before retreating from Jerusalem. As Micah says, “the sins of the house of Israel” (1:5) have reached down and infected the house of Judah; “her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem” (1:9, 12).
Under Hezekiah, the economic patterns in Judah changed from a reliance on barter, to an international trading society. Literacy rates rose, and the size of Jerusalem grew to be a city with a population of around 25,000—which is considered to be about five times larger than the population of Jerusalem under Solomon!
Associated with this growth was the development of corrupt practices and the rise of hypocrisy amongst the people. The rulers in Jerusalem “give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us’” (3:11).
Micah, like many other prophets, conveys God’s deep concern about the way that some in society were profiting unjustly from their mistreatment of the poor. He rails against those who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (2:2). Their haughty demeanour will swiftly turn to lamenting, as they cry out “we are utterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me!” (2:4).
In another oracle, he dramatises the state of the people, attacking the heads and rulers of the people as those “who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (3:1–3). He decries their selfish actions in very specific terms: “its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” (3:11).
Still later, Micah remonstrates with the people for “the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed” (6:10). He conveys God’s displeasure: “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:11–12). He laments that “the faithful have disappeared from the land” (7:2); of those who are left, he says, “their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice” (7:3).
The people are accused of following “the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab” (6:16)—two kings who are condemned for their idolatrous and evil ways (on Omri, see 1 Ki 16:25–26; on his son Ahab, see 1 Ki 16:30, 22:37–39).
Micah, like Amos before him, declares that punishment will come on the people in a time of deep darkness: “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation; the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” (2:6; cf. Amos 5:18–20). Because of the evil deeds of the heads and rulers, “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (3:12).
In a future time of anger and wrath, says the prophet, God will wreak vengeance: “I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots; and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds; and I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers; and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you” (5:10–15). The disdain with which the people have treated their covenant with the Lord, described in some detail here by the prophet, will merit this savage punishment.
The passage that appears in this Sunday’s lectionary offering thus provides the key to behaviour for the people of Israel in their situation of turmoil and upheaval. The prophet calls them back to fidelity to the covenant. His words stand also as a clarion call to people of faith in subsequent times who stand in the heritage and tradition of Micah: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”. May this be how we live!