The Book of Micah and Forgiveness
He has shown you, oh man 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.— Micah 6:8
Life in the Time of Micah
There are 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament, 46 in the Catholic, and 24 in the Hebrew scriptures. (The discrepancy is due to early Christians who divided some of the original scrolls into separate books; such as 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, etc. Catholics have a few extra as they have included a few books which Protestants and Jews don’t regard as canon.) Among those Old Testament books is the Book of Micah, this small book, only seven chapters long, often gets overlooked. Micah is considered a minor prophet, one who often gets lost in the shuffle. Micah lived during one of the darkest periods in Israel’s history, yet had some of the most uplifting messages in the entire Old Testament.
By the time of Micah, Israel had been split into North and South, the two groups had become bitter enemies. War had broken out between them, 2 Chronicles 28:6 tells us that 120,000 casualties had been inflicted on Judah in a single day. The Civil War weakened the country and opened the Northern Kingdom up to attack by the brutal Assyrians, the ruthless super-power of the Iron Age. 2 Chronicles 32, 2 Kings 18, and Isaiah 36 all give details of the Assyrian invasion, led by King Sennacherib. Archeologists have found detailed records of Sennacherib’s merciless military campaigns. Eventually his war- mongering came to an end when was assassinated in 681 BC for offending an Assyrian god. Such was life in ancient history. 2 Chronicles 32 details the siege on Jerusalem and credits King Hezekiah with keeping Jerusalem intact. 2 Chronicles is quite clear that it was Hezekiah’s moral strength, and his prayer with Isaiah that saved the city.
It was in the midst of all this warfare and brutality that Micah prophesized. He witnessed the sins of the Northern Kingdom. They had become infected with the sins of other nations and had fallen prey to the most sadistic crimes against God; Baal worship, child sacrifice, and sorcery, Israel had become everything that God had warned against. If the Northern Kingdom was bad, the south really wasn’t much better. King Ahaz had set up an altar to an Assyrian god right in the middle of God’s holy temple. What blasphemy! 2 Kings 17 details how they worshiped idols made of gold and sacrificed their own children to the gods of the Assyrians.
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.... He will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace.— Micah 5:2, 4-5
It is Obedience That God Desires
In addition to the grievous sins, the Book of Micah details smaller sins that infected everyday life; bribery, injustice, corruption, and dishonesty. These minor sins pale in comparison to child sacrifice but pulled at the threads of society causing it to slowly unravel. Micah bore witness to these terrible sins and begged the Israelites to repent and turn back to God. The Northern and Southern Kingdoms had become immersed in ritual to foreign gods and Micah tried desperately to bring them back to earth. The ritual observance to foreign gods is worthless. The God of all creation isn’t even that impressed with ritual to Him, chapter 6:7, 8 bluntly states:
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, oh man, 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.”
Faith and goodness, mercy and justice, humility before the God of all creation is what God asks for, not sacrifice, not ritual. Jesus reiterated this in Matthew 23:23,
“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former.”
Jewish Rabbi Hillel once summarized the entire Jewish law when he famously said “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary--go now and study.” Jesus said much of the same thing in Matthew 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law of the prophets.” Justice, mercy, and love are what matter to God, so why don’t we do it? God asked the Israelites for obedience, but they couldn’t give Him that. There is an old saying; It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. The Israelites appeared to have lived by this creed. Unfortunately, that’s not what God wanted.
God desires obedience. The Israelites didn’t give Him that. Do we? It is very easy to look down on the Israelites who had witnessed God in action and rebelled against Him anyway. They bowed down to foreign gods, we don’t worship idols made of gold. However, we tend to forget that an idol need not look like a god to be an idol. We may not physically bow down to golden calves, but an idol is anything that we put before God, and, the Bible is explicitly clear-- God frowns on that.
What do we spend our Sundays doing? Even if you don’t go to church, are you still taking the time to honor and worship God? Are we chasing God with that same enthusiasm with which we chase money? Does God consume us as much as our hobbies? If the Israelites were guilty of idol worship, so are we; it is a difference in degree, not kind. The Israelites thought that they could slaughter a couple of rams to atone for their sins and call it a day. Are we different? Do we partake of the Holy Communion, say a prayer, and go about our lives unchanged? God desires obedience, not ritual. Are we so thick that we miss that?
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance? You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our inequities into the sea.— Micah 7:18,19
God Forgives Our Sins
Ask any Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Muslim, (all the groups that recognize the prophet Micah) what makes a person religious. Many of them will mention the ritual that they follow. How many will mention the fruits of the spirit? We tend to put a lot of weight on the observances, and indeed, if they bring us closer to God who can complain? But we should not view the ethics as optional. In Micah’s time the lesser sins were leading to the bigger sins and he saw the bad that it was causing. In truth, it was horrendous. Micah reminded us what was good: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Is that really too much to ask? The Book of Micah is replete with doom and gloom, but it ends with hope. Chapter 4:3 optimistically speaks of a time when all nations will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.” The following chapter predicts the joyous news of the coming Messiah who will come from Bethlehem and will “stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord.” (5:4) Things were bleak in the time of Micah, but he ends with a reminder that God does not stay angry forever but enjoys showing mercy. For Micah, the whole of God can be summed up in word: forgiveness. The Israelites' sin, as do we all, but God does not stay angry forever, He forgives us our sins. And He proved it that day on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago.
© 2018 Anna Watson