The Messiah in Micah

by Glenn on October 15, 2014

Recently finished the book of Micah and am learning the truth that the older I get, the less I know. As I read this minor prophet, I found myself both inspired and demoralized.

The prophet Micah wrote,

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

So I, the Christian reader, say, “Aha! Bethlehem. I get it! This is a prophecy about Jesus. Hooray, I understand the prophet Micah! Look how the Hebrew scriptures foreshadow the coming of Jesus. This is great.” (That’s the feeling inspired part—excessive use of exclamation points to indicate strong affect.) And then I continue reading,

“Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites. (Micah 5:3)

Well, this is a little more difficult, if only in implication. So God is going to let Israel be on its own until Jesus is born? I think that’s what’s meant here and makes sense with those silent 400 silent years between the end of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. I’ve got the meaning of that even if I don’t understand God’s purpose in handling things the way he has.

But then there is that line, “and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.” What’s going on there? Is that a conditional statement? Israel is to be abandoned until Jesus is born “AND the rest of his brothers return”? (Emphasis added.) I don’t know, so I keep reading,

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. (Micah 5:4a)

Ahhh, yes, there’s Jesus again. Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, even described himself as a shepherd. Here we are comfortably back with Jesus and I am understanding prophecy again … until Micah continues,

And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
We will raise against them seven shepherds,
even eight commanders,
who will rule the land of Assyria with the sword,
the land of Nimrod with drawn sword.
He will deliver us from the Assyrians
when they invade our land
and march across our borders. (Micah 5:4b–6)

Now I’m at a complete loss. Demoralized. Some questions:
Who is “they”? Is that the twelve tribes or spiritual Israel (i.e. the Church)?
Weren’t we just talking about Jesus being born in Bethlehem and being a shepherd? Where and for whom is/was/will be that secure living?
Who are the Assyrians—literal, depicting a region?
What is the significance of the seven shepherds and the eights commanders—those numbers have kind of a poetic/symbolic feel about them.
What does any of this mean in historical terms?

Micah pointed to an event, the coming of Jesus as a shepherd, but then added a whole lot of this and that which will be happening, too. This really complicates this prophecy. I don’t know when and where and how these words connected/are connecting/will connect with reality.

I imagine this prophecy is tough for whoever has heard it.

If you are the people Micah is talking to, there is the realization that you will not see any of this that has been predicted. You could at least understand that God had purposes he would accomplish in/for/through future generations. But the reality is that these words did little for the people in Micah’s audience. They were promised God would abandon them. Can you imagine? Perhaps there was some comfort or peace in knowing that something good was coming for future generations.

There are people who read this prophecy after it had been given but before it had been fulfilled. I guess I will call them the expectant waiters, those who were supremely confident that the prophecy would come true, but unable to see how they were living in the time of fulfillment of these prophecies.

The New Testament tells us there were those who were waiting and were lucky enough to see it come to pass. Simeon comes to mind. (See Luke 2:22–40)

How did he and others come to understand that they were actually seeing the fulfillment of these prophecies? Further, if you reflected on this prophecy and were living in the time of Jesus, how could you not think that Jesus would establish some sort of kingdom on earth right then and there?

Finally, there are those of us who think we are looking back on prophecies fulfilled. Are we? Some of this seems clear, some not so much. How does the working out of these things in time work with a God for whom a day is a thousand years? All those prophecies quoted above, it would seem they should have happened all at once, you know on a particular Tuesday or something.

Has all of this happened? Are we looking back on everything or are we still waiting on some things? How do we know? When were those prophetic times fulfilled? Can we correlate all of Micah to history? Have parts of Micah’s prophecy come true, giving proof that God keeps his word? How do we parse those words dividing them into the things that have happened, are happening, and will happen? Why was God not a little more systematic in his statements about the future? And why are some verses so clear in their meaning and then the rest so out there? (At least to me. I imagine there’s at least some one out there for whom the meaning of this all is crystal clear.

Wherever we are on the timeline, there is the big so what? How does this apply to us? How should these prophecies inform the way we live, whether we were prophecied to, waiting expectantly, experiencing the fulfillment, or looking back in time?

What is most clear is how unclear this all is—how many questions are raised by the plain reading of Micah. I am alarmed by how opaque so much of this prophetic writing is. I’m a preacher’s kid who attended three, four, five services a week growing up and don’t have a handle on these scriptures. I think I’m in good company, although I don’t find that thought very comforting.

There is a principle of scripture reading that I can fully support. It goes something like this:

“As you read the Bible, don’t worry about the parts you don’t understand; worry about the parts you do understand.”

I think that’s right, and while I struggle to know what all those prophecies mean,

Micah 6:8 is pretty clear.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

The meaning of these words seems quite plain if the implications of living them out isn’t. At the same time, I don’t like that principle of not worrying about the parts I don’t understand if it means remaining ignorant about the rest of the scripture. I wonder if it encourages a certain mentality of going for the low-hanging fruit only as it pertains to the Hebrew Scriptures.

When it comes to prophecy, how much ignorance is permissible? I imagine there were those who heard Micah’s prophecy and ignored it, going about their lives. Then there were those who didn’t know they were supposed to be waiting. There were and are people who were unaware that scriptures were being and have been fulfilled.

I suppose there’s one other group. It’s another kind of ignorance or perhaps confusion: people who don’t understand the times in which they are/were living. They think they are are seeing the fulfillment of prophecies, but they aren’t. They point to what has happened, but it actually hasn’t happened or they point to what will happen although it has already taken place.

Yet another question is who do you trust for guidance when it comes to prophecy? I remember as a teenager and adolescent being keenly aware that we were living in the last days. To paraphrase a popular book at the time, we were counting down to Armageddon. President Gorbachev was ruling the then U.S.S.R. and he had that birth mark that we just knew was the mark of the beast. And here I am 30 years later trying not to be cynical and wondering how to sort through it all.

Wherever we are on this timeline there is a two-fold question of awareness: Do we know when we are living as it relates to prophecy? And how do we relate to those prophecies? These are questions I am looking to answer or have answered.