The first verse of this book tells us that the word of Yahweh came to Micah “in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This was in the eighth century B.C. when Assyria was the reigning superpower.
Assyria was located in Mesopotamia, far to the east and north of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom), but Assyria’s power was such that it dominated Syria (directly to the north of Israel) as well as Israel.
Jotham inherited the throne of Judah from his father, Uzziah, about 750 B.C. and reigned for about 20 years. Uzziah had enjoyed a long and peaceful reign, but during Jotham’s reign Assyria, under Tiglath-pileser III, became quite powerful and intrusive. Israel (the Northern Kingdom) allied itself with Aram against Assyria, a move that would ultimately spell the downfall of Israel. While 2 Kings notes that Jotham “did that which was right in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Kings 15:34), it also notes that he failed to remove the high places, which were centers of idol worship.
Ahaz succeeded his father, Jotham, about 730 B.C. and reigned over Judah for 16 years (2 Kings 16:2). He is portrayed as one of Judah’s worst kings (2 Kings 16:3-4). Ignoring the advice of Isaiah the prophet, who counseled Ahaz to remain neutral, Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Syria, and out of the hand of the king of Israel, who rise up against me” (2 Kings 16:7). As a result, he became a vassal of Assyria. During the reign of Ahaz, Tiglath-pileser attacked the Northern Kingdom (Israel), killed many of its inhabitants, and deported most of the rest to Assyria, thus ending the existence of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom once and for all time.
Hezekiah succeeded his father, Ahaz, about 715 B.C., and reigned until about 687 B.C. While a much better king than his father, Hezekiah led a coalition in a failed attempt to rebel against Assyria. Surprisingly, Assyria did not destroy him, but it did force him to pay tribute.
The prophet Micah carried on his work in this turbulent period. In the first chapter of the book of Micah, he foretold the coming of Yahweh against Israel (vv. 3-7) and Judah (vv. 8-16). In the second chapter, he denounced the social evils prevalent in Israel/Judah. In the third chapter, he spoke of rulers “who hate the good, and love the evil; who tear off their skin, and their flesh from off their bones” (3:5)—and foretold their punishment.
Nevertheless, in the midst of all these troubles, Micah also foretold days to come when faithfulness and peace would be restored in Judah (4:1-5; see also Isaiah 2:2-4). He promised restoration after exile (4:6-13).
MICAH 5:1. HE HAS LAID SIEGE AGAINST US
1Now you shall gather yourself in troops,
daughter of troops.
He has laid siege against us.
They will strike the judge of Israel
with a rod on the cheek.
This verse tells of a troubled time—a terrible time—a time of siege, and thus of deprivation, even starvation. It speaks of the humiliation of the king, which is what later happened to Zedekiah. His enemies killed his sons before his eyes, and then put out his eyes and took him into captivity (2 Kings 25:6-7).
This verse, then, sets the stage for verse 2, where Micah will begin to tell of the redemption of Judah. Our lectionary reading is very hopeful, but it is important that we not lose sight of the troubled times out of which the hopeful words sprang.
MICAH 5:2. OUT OF BETHLEHEM WILL COME FORTH A RULER
2But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
being small among the clans of Judah,
out of you one will come forth to me
that is to be ruler in Israel;
whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah“ (v. 2a). Bethlehem means “house of bread” and Ephrathah means “fruitfulness.” These names, then, suggest a very different picture than the one we saw in the preceding verse. They also provide linkage to David, Israel’s greatest king, because David’s father was Jesse, “that Ephrathite of Bethlehem Judah” (1 Samuel 17:12; see also 1 Samuel 16:1, 18).
The word “Ephrathah” apparently is derived from the region in which Bethlehem was located—a name that probably originated in one of the clans of the tribe of Judah. When Matthew alludes to this verse, he speaks of “Bethlehem, land of Judah” (Matthew 2:6) rather than Bethlehem in the land of Ephrathah.
“being small among the clans of Judah, out of you one will come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel” (v. 2b). Bethlehem is a small town located just a few miles from Jerusalem, the grand city. God’s choice of Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem as a place to begin the redemptive process reflects God’s preference for the lowly and unassuming rather than the grand and mighty. There are many examples of that in the scriptures. The examples that are most “on point” for this text are God’s choice of David, Jesse’s youngest and least likely son—and God’s gift of his own son as a baby in a manger—a son who would die on a cross to save the world.
“will come forth to me” (v. 2b). The ruler who is to come from Bethlehem will come forth for Yahweh. He will serve Yahweh’s purposes. He will seek Yahweh’s glory rather than his own.
This ruler is called a ruler rather than a king. “He is to be no rival to the divine King, but is to rule with due subordination” (Allen, 343).
Who will this ruler be? “All the ancient Jewish interpreters regarded the ruler as the Messiah. The testimony of the Targums also favors the Messianic interpretation of the prophecy. Longnecker includes 5:2 among the passages accepted in Judaism as applying directly to the Messiah” (Barker and Bailey, 96). Christians believe that this Messiah is Jesus.
“whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (v. 2c). This promised ruler will have roots going back to the covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:9-21), which was renewed on several occasions, most notably between God and David (2 Samuel 7).
In the New Testament, Matthew will trace “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Luke also mentions “Joseph, of the house of David” as Mary’s intended husband (Luke 1:27).
MICAH 5:3-5a. HE SHALL SHEPHERD IN THE STRENGTH OF YAHWEH
3Therefore he will abandon them
until the time that she who is in labor gives birth.
Then the rest of his brothers (Hebrew: ‘ah—brothers)
will return to the children of Israel.
4He shall stand, and shall shepherd in the strength of Yahweh,
in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God:
and they will live, for then he will be great to the ends of the earth.
5a He will be our peace.
“Therefore he will abandon them until the time that she who is in labor gives birth“ (v. 3a). “He” refers to Yahweh, and “them” to Israel (see v. 2)—but to whom does “she who is in labor” refer?
Christians often see this as a veiled reference to Mary and the birth of Jesus the Messiah.
However, in the last chapter, Micah said, ” pains have taken hold of you as of a woman in travail ” (4:9) and “Be in pain, and labor to bring forth, daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now you will go forth out of the city, and will dwell in the field, and will come even to Babylon. There you will be rescued. There Yahweh will redeem you from the hand of your enemies” (4:10). Micah has talked about the travails that Judah will experience because of her unfaithfulness, it seems certain that he intended “she who is in labor” to refer to Judah’s suffering and “gives birth” to refer to Judah’s relief from suffering (or her return from exile).
But it is also quite possible that this is one of the many instances in the Bible where God inspired the person who was writing or speaking to say more than he or she knew. In its original context, it surely referred to Judah’s suffering and relief, but it could be legitimate to believe that it also points to the birth of the messiah in a stable.
“then the rest of his kindred (‘ah—brothers) shall return to the people of Israel” (v. 3b). This almost certainly refers to the remnant who will return to Jerusalem from exile.
“He shall stand, and shall shepherd in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God” (v. 4a). “He” in this instance refers back to “one will come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel” (v. 2), and is clearly a messianic prophecy. This ruler/messiah will exercise a benevolent rule, in which he will act in the role of a shepherd—protecting the flock—feeding the flock—providing for the flock’s every need. He will do so “in the strength of Yahweh”—by Yahweh’s power.
“in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God” (v. 4b). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character and embodied something of the power of the one who bore that name.
This ruler who is to come—this messiah—will bear the majesty associated with Yahweh’s name.
“and they will live, for then he will be great to the ends of the earth” (v. 4c). “They” in this instance refers back to “the children of Israel” (v. 3)—the people who are about to experience a great travail, but who will ultimately be redeemed from their suffering. When that happens, they will be secure, because “he” (the ruler/messiah) will be great, not just in Israel, but throughout the earth.
One of the tasks of a shepherd (v. 4a) is providing security for the sheep. Part of that involves keeping the flock together. Part of it involves leading them to good grass and water. And part of it involves protecting them from enemies, such as bears and lions. In this instance, the ruler/messiah will perform those tasks for “the children of Israel” (v. 3).
“He will be our peace“ (Hebrew: salom) (v. 5a). Salom (or shalom) is more than the absence of warfare. It involves the kind of tranquility that comes from knowing who you are and where you come from. It involves the kind of prosperity that arises, not from an accumulation of material possessions, but from a thankful spirit. It involves the kind of security that comes from faith that God loves you and will provide for your needs.
The lectionary reading cuts off at this point for good reasons, but the preacher should be aware that verse 5a was intended to go with that which follows (vv. 5-6) rather than that which precedes it. Those following verses speak of warfare with the Assyrians, in which Israel will prevail.
But nothing is to be gained by including that in this reading or in a sermon based on this reading.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Allen, Leslie C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
Barker, Kenneth L. and Bailey, Waylon, The New American Commentary: Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Vol. 20 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999)
Brown, William P., Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
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Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
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Simundson, Daniel J., The New Interpreters Bible: Micah, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Smith, Ralph L., Word Biblical Commentary: Micah-Malachi, Vol. 32 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1984)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Waltke, Bruce, in Baker, David; Alexander, Desmond; & Waltke, Bruce, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Vol. 23a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Waltke, Bruce, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan