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Micah: Corrupt leaders, future hope

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Judgement on the leaders

The second cycle of oracles (Micah 3:1 – 5:15) focuses on corruption within the leaders and prophets. A section on judgement (Mic 3:1-12) is followed by a section dealing with redemption (Mic 4:1 – 5:15). The judgement section can be divided into three parts:

Mic 3:1-4 the perversion of responsibility, which leads to Yahweh refusing to accept responsibility for keeping them safe

Mic 3:5-8 the perversion of proclamation, which leads to Yahweh refusing to give them any more revelation

Mic 3:9-12 the perversion of promises, which leads to the end of the temple as a sign of God's covenant promise

Micah castigates the magistrates who fail to do their duty (Mic 3:1). Instead of pursuing justice they pervert it. The graphic imagery of v 3 "Who tear the skin from my people and eat the flesh from their bones; who eat my people's flesh, strip off their skin and beak their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot" indicates the devastating effect this has on ordinary people (it is like they are being butchered, they prey on the helpless). God's response is to ignore their cry for help when they call on him (v4). The words to cry out (Heb za aq) denotes a cry for help but not necessarily repentance, it was also a legal term used when appealing to a judge for judgement.

The prophets (Mic 3:5-8) are more interested in greed than in truth. If they are well paid they give helpful prophecy, if not they turn their wrath on the individual. The verb translated "feeds them" (Heb nasak) is often used to refer to a snake bite. Prophets were often paid (1 Sam 9:7-9, 1 Kgs 14:3, 2 Kgs 4:42) but the issue here is that the fee dictates the response rather than truth. The judgement is to replace prophetic vision with darkness as God withdraws his word. The passage suggests that these prophets knew the truth, but they preferred money instead. Micah is presented as a contrast (Mic 3:8) he is filled with power (Heb koah), i.e. physical and mental strength, justice (Heb mispat) in contrast to the leaders who despise justice (Mic 3:1, 3:9) and might (Heb gebira), i.e. courage to declare the authentic Word of God.

The leaders (Mic 3:9-12) are again castigated for despising justice, distorting what is right and building Zion with bloodshed. This suggests that anyone who opposed their corruption was removed and Micah mocks their passions, "Her leaders judge for a bribe, her prophets tell fortunes for money" (Mic 3:11), clearly money is all that matters. Yet they nevertheless claim to believe in God ("they lean upon the Lord") and look to him for protection. They refer to the promises given to Solomon (1 Kgs 6:12-13) that God would live among his people and not abandon them ("Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come before us"), but they ignore the conditionality of the promise, "If you follow my decrees, carry out my regulations and keep all my commands." The judgement on them is to remove the physical presence of those promises, the Temple. Instead "Zion will be turned into a ploughed field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets." (Mic 3:12) Although Zion was the Jebusite stronghold captured by David (2 Sam 5:7) it becomes synonymous with Jerusalem. A ploughed field was totally cleared of debris in order to be planted and becoming a heap of rubble is the same expression used earlier of the northern kingdom's capital Samaria (Mic 1:6).

Micah's message, delivered in Hezekiah's reign (715-686 BC) saves Jeremiah's life during Jehoiakim's reign (608-598 BC). Jehoiakim wants to kill Jeremiah but "Some of the elders of the land stepped forward and said to the entire assembly of people, 'Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah, 'This is what the Lord Almighty says, 'Zion will be ploughed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.' Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else in Judah put him to death? Did not Hezekiah fear the Lord and seek his favour?" (Jer 26:17-19)

Issues of scholarship

Scholars are divided over whether the next section (Mic 4:1 – 5:15) is original to Micah or whether it was written and inserted after the post-exilic period (i.e. after the return from Babylon and after the temple had been rebuilt in 516 BC). Two reasons are cited, first, because it seems to be such an abrupt transition compared to the judgement in Chapter 3 and secondly, because Micah refers to the exile in Babylon (Mic 4:10), which took place in 587 BC, whilst the Assyrian threat (and Micah's lifespan) encompass the events of c701 BC. Biblical scholars committed to the tenets of historical criticism do not accept that the prophetic gift extends to divine prediction of events that have not yet taken place. However, other scholars do accept that the prophetic gift, although always inspired by contemporary events, is able to reach beyond the immediate and posit future happenings.

On the first point, note that the hope being expressed has no date attached, it doesn't preclude the judgement from happening, it depends on it happening. On the second point, there is no satisfactory answer, it depends on your understanding of prophetic vision. Some scholars locate the composition of the oracle to c705 BC when the embassy from Merodach-Baladan, king of Babylon, came to Hezekiah requesting assistance to throw off the Assyrian yoke. Hezekiah initially responded favourably (2 Kgs 20:12-19) but Isaiah denounced the alliance and also predicted that Babylon would one day take the nation into exile (Isa 39:1-8). The overlap between Micah and Isaiah is also subject to intense scholarly debate, for example Micah 4:1-5 is virtually identical to Isaiah 2:2-4 and scholars are divided over who may have been the original author.

In that day – the nations

What follows is a series of oracles contrasting the current situation with a future promise, designated "In the last days..." It denotes a time when God will personally intervene to establish (Heb nakon) his kingdom, it denotes a time of stability and permanency. In the Ancient Near East temple mountains symbolised a deity's presence with his people, his victory on their behalf and the mountain's rule over the territory it dominated, and they represented a gateway to heaven. Micah says that Zion will be established as the superlative mountain, "chief among the mountains" and "raised above the (other) hills." (Mic 4:1)

The beneficiaries are to be the nations of the world "Many nations will come...."(Mic 4:2). They include those currently outside the covenant relationship with God, so they refer to God as "the God of Jacob" rather than their own God, but they are keen to learn his ways. Micah is clear that this event does not depend on humanity, but on God. It happens because (in the original text this sentence is preceded with for...) "The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Mic 4:2). It is God who will judge between peoples, which means that he will put things right. The consequence is that nations will no longer resort to war to sort things out, so the weapons of war will be put to peaceful use, "They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks". (Mic 4:3)

Note the contrast between Micah's vision of God's kingdom, "Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more." (Mic 4:3) and Christ's prediction of the signs of the end of the age, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom." (Mark 13:8). Every man sitting under his vine and fig tree was a common metaphor for people who were in control of their own destiny without foreign interference, hence "no one will make them afraid" (Mic 4:4). The peace is universal but the benefits are particular ("every man").

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