In the 16th Week of Ordinary Time, the first reading for daily Mass comes from the Prophet Micah. So, take a moment find out more about this amazing prophet of the Lord.
Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. Like his better-know contemporary, Micah proclaimed God’s word during the reigns of three kings of Judah: Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It was during a particularly turbulent era when each of the three Judaean kings had to face the machinations of four Assyrian kings with empire expansion on their minds. The Assyrian goal was simple: completely dominate the western Fertile Crescent that also included the Kingdoms of Israel (north) and Judea (south). There is not a great deal of biographical information in the text itself to narrowly date the time of Micah’s ministry, but the consensus of scholars is that his earliest writings preceded the fall of the northern kingdom, Israel, in 722 BCE. The majority of his writing are associated with the 701 BCE threat again Jerusalem/Judah by King Sennecherib of Assyria. This leads to the best estimate of a ministry that covered some 20+ years. The solitary reference to Micah outside the book (Jer 26:17–18) places him in the reign of Hezekiah and reports that he went from his small town to proclaim the word of the Lord in the capital, and asserts that his announcements of judgment against Jerusalem moved the king and the people to repentance.
The Book of Micah identifies him as a resident of Moresheth, a village in the Judean foothills. Unlike Jeremiah and Isaiah who were residents of Jerusalem, it is perhaps the case that Micah came and went from the city as his prophetic all inspired him.
Like some other brief biblical books, it is sometimes overlooked. Many Christians are familiar with certain verses from Micah, yet they may not be aware of their source. The promise of a time of peace when nations will “beat their swords into plowshares” (Mic 4:3), the prophecy about a new ruler to come from the town of Bethlehem (5:2), and the response to the question of what the Lord requires of them (6:6-8), signal Micah’s importance
Unlike Isaiah, who was a native of the holy city, Micah was an outsider from the countryside and must have been a controversial figure. He would have been unpopular with the leaders whom he condemned (3:1–4) and the wealthy whom he criticized (2:1–5). He was quick to separate himself from priests and other prophets, whom he considered to be corrupt (3:5–8).
Like Is 1–39, the Book of Micah is focused on Jerusalem, Zion, and the Judean leadership. The Micah who speaks in this prophetic book knows the tradition that Zion is the Lord’s chosen place, but he is critical of the popular view that this election ensures the city’s security (2:6–13; 3:9–12). Through the prophetic voice, the Lord announces the impending punishment of God’s people by means of military defeat and exile because of their failure to establish justice. After that punishment God will bring the people back to their land and establish perpetual peace. The will of God for human beings is that they do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with God (6:6–8).
Micah lived in a period of economic revolution, which was proving a mixed blessing. Unfortunately, the influx of material prosperity had spawned a selfish materialism, a complacent approach to religion as a means of achieving human desires, and the disintegration of personal and social values. As a countryman from the fertile lowlands of southwest Judah, doubtless he had firsthand knowledge of the sufferings of the rural proletariat and was thus providentially prepared to voice God’s own indignation. Wealth was invested in land, with the result that the traditional system of agricultural small holdings collapsed with the growth of vast estates, and material and emotional distress ensued. Age-old sanctions associated with the divine covenant were shrugged off, and social concern was at the bottom of the list of priorities of national and local government officials. Even religious leaders—priests and prophets—did little more than echo the spirit of the period, buttressing the society that gave them their livelihood.
Addressing himself to the nominal theocracy of Judah, the prophet attacked the establishment for abandoning divinely ordained standards in favor of self-interest, to the point of neglecting or actively ill treating the underprivileged. He saw Judah to be on the brink of disaster, whose causes he interpreted in typical prophetic fashion not as solely political but as theological at heart. Claiming God-given insight, he discerned a close link between the social and economic abuses of the Judean law courts and general civil administration on the one hand, and the irresistible, glacier-like menace of Assyria on the other.
The power of his prophetic utterances had lasting reach – even recorded by the Prophet Jeremiah:
“Micah of Moresheth used to prophesy in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and he told all the people of Judah: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Zion shall become a plowed field, Jerusalem a heap of ruins, and the temple mount a forest ridge. Did Hezekiah, king of Judah, and all Judah condemn him to death? Did they not rather fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, so that he repented of the evil with which he had threatened them? But we are on the point of committing this great evil to our own undoing.” (Jer 26:18-19)
Micah provides insights into the nature of God and to the way humans relate to God and to each other. Some passages from Micah may strike us as “answers” to our deepest questions of meaning. Other texts disturb us and raise hard questions about what we are doing with our lives. In some cases, Micah may drive us to other biblical texts for words of assurance and a renewed sense of acceptance by God.
Leslie C. Allen provides a nice summary of some of the theological issues encountered in the book of Micah include the following:
- Despite its brevity, the book of Micah presents a complex variety of ways in which God relates to humanity. God seemingly acts differently in some situations than in others. God is angry and destructive, but the same God overflows with compassion and pity and comforting promises that abandonment will never be permanent. God is judge and savior, acts in the world and remains hidden, has a special covenant with the people of Israel and cares for the whole world. How can God be all of this and more? It is the question St. Paul takes up in Romans – how justice and mercy are contained in the “righteousness of God.”
- The anger of God is an issue too often avoided. Prophetic books like Micah do not permit us to sidestep it. Many people believe they have experienced God’s anger, especially if they have suffered great trials in their own lives. Too often the church has not provided an opportunity for them to think about this issue. The book of Micah gives one an occasion to reflect upon God’s wrath.
- What does God expect from us? Micah answers that question in 6:6-8. Are we saved by our piety, our sacrifices, the way we perform and participate in liturgy? Are we saved by our ethical practices? Can we ever be good enough? What about God’s grace and forgiveness? Can we save ourselves through proper understanding, the correct theological formulation, a right reading of the Holy Scriptures? Micah helps us think about these questions, even as we continue to struggle with how to be right before God.
- The interpretation of disaster and suffering as judgment for sin needs constantly to be examined. Micah clearly states that the calamities the people will endure are the consequence of human behavior. All will suffer, though their leaders are most culpable. When bad things happen, is there always some sin lurking in the background that explains human suffering and sustains our belief in a just God? The doctrine of retribution retains its hold in the lives of many faithful people. The book of Micah gives an occasion to think about it, to see what is valid and what needs critique, what should be applied personally and communally, and what should be rejected as not fitting one’s own circumstances.
- From whom do the prophets (or other pro-claimers of a word from God) receive their authority? What makes a prophet true or false? Often, prophets are judged to be true or false on the basis of the accuracy of their predictions (Deut 18:22; Jer 28:9). Why does the message of Micah end up in a canonical book, whereas many of ancient Israel’s prophets were either forgotten or remembered only as those with whom true prophets had to contend?
- The task of the prophet can be very painful. Often the prophets tried to say no when God placed a heavy task upon them. Their message often includes a painful criticism, and the listeners’ first impulse is to reject the message and condemn and isolate the messenger. Unless the prophet actually hates those addressed, the message of doom will bring personal pain. Although we know very little about Micah, we can detect in his laments the inner pain that all proclaimers of God’s Word must sometimes feel.
- How does one articulate a message of hope that is honest, realistic, and able to revive the spirit of one who has been crushed? There are wonderful words of hope in Micah. Promises contained there continue to sustain and comfort troubled persons in our own day. The promises of hope in Micah remain a rich pastoral resource.
- For Christians, the passage about a new ruler to come from Bethlehem (5:2-5) bears special significance. We are uplifted by it every Advent and Christmas season. What does Micah really say about the coming Messiah and the new age? Did Jesus fulfill these prophecies? In what way? Is there still more to come, if Micah’s hopes for the future are to be fully realized?
- When is the appropriate time to speak of hope? This is a very important question for scholars of the book of Micah. Many debates about the authenticity of certain oracles in the book are based on the assumption that Micah would not have issued a word of hope when his main motive was to announce judgment. Could Micah utter doom and hope at the same time? Does hope come only after disaster, when it is no longer appropriate to speak of destruction? When people have lost every. thing they become desperate to hear words of encouragement. In public preaching and private counseling, when is it time to proclaim the law, the consequences of continuing misdeeds, the need for repentance? Should we wait until someone has finally “hit the bottom” before we begin to speak of hope? The struggle to discern the right word for the right time remains very much with us.
Want to learn more about the Prophet Micah – watch this video from our friends at The Bible Project:
Leslie C. Allen, “Micha” in The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976) part of The New International Commentary on the Old Testament series