Micah the Prophet of the Poor

Kenneth Lasser

I. Name – Micah, the sixth of the Twelve, bore a name which itself was a creed, the fuller and probably older form, Mikayahu, signifying “who is like unto Jehovah?” (Mic. 1:1; 7:18; Jer. 26:18). Like Michael, meaning “who is like unto God?” the name contains a challenge. Our prophet should not be confounded with Micaiah ben Imlah, whom Ahab hated (I Kings 22:8).

II. Home – He is called “the Morasthite” (Mic. 1:1), having been born in Moresheth-gath (1:14), a dependence of Gath, about 20 miles distant southwest of Jerusalem. Jerome locates Moresheth definitely a little east of Eleutheroplis, the modern Beit Jibrin. Like Amos, he was a native of the country. There is usually more home religion in the country than in the city. Micah apparently had no special love for cities (1:5; 5:11; 6:9).

III. Personality – Micah must have been a very striking personality. Possessed of strong convictions, he showed corresponding courage. The secret of his power is told inn 3:8, “But as for me, I am full of power by the Spirit of Jehovah, and of judgment, and of might, to declare unto Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin.” As a true patriot and like every true preacher, he fearlessly uncovered sin and pointed to Christ. He was preeminently a prophet of the poor and a friend of the oppressed. His whole soul went out in loyal sympathy to the downtrodden. “He had Amos’ passion for justice and Hosea’s heart of love” (J.M.P. Smith). His unfeigned sincerity stands out in sharp contrast to the flattering teachings of his contemporaries, who, as false prophets, regulated their messages by their income (3:5).

IV. Times – According to the title of his book, Micah prophesied “in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1), a date amply confirmed by internal evidence, and also by Jer. 26:18, which quotes Mic. 3:12. Micah, accordingly, was a younger contemporary of Isaiah. More explicitly, he seems to have preached both before and after the downfall of Samaria (722 B.C.), very probably from about 735 till 715 B.C.; Mackay thinks “over forty years.” Under Jotham splendid luxury reigned. His ambition to build fortresses and palaces in Jerusalem cost many a peasant’s life. Under Ahaz, Judah was forced to pay tribute to Assyria, which, together with the coast of the Syro-Ephraimitic war of 734 B.C., fell as a heavy burden upon all classes. Both rich and poor suffered. The grasping, avaricious landlords used their power to oppress, confiscating the property of the poor and even evicting widows from their houses. All sorts of economic crimes were perpetrated, the plutocrats devouring the humbler classes as “sheep crop grass.” Under Hezekiah, who attempted to reform the state, conditions became even more hopeless. Men ceased to trust one another, Jerusalem became a hotbed of factions and intrigue. The advisers of the king became divided in their policies, some urging alliance with Egypt against Assyria, others submission to Assyria. The custodians of the law abused their powers; nobles fleecing the poor, judges accepting of bribes, prophets flattering the rich, and priests teaching for hire (chap. 2). Lust of wealth ruled on all sides. The moneyed tyrants laughed at possible judgment. Commercialism and materialism were supplanting almost the last vestige of everything ethical and spiritual. At such a crisis Micah appeared and attempted to call the nation back to God and to duty. Sellin feels that 3:11, 12 would be more intelligible after the centralization of the cults which Hezekiah undertook.

V. Message – Micah’s message supplemented Isaiah’s. They were contemporaries. Isaiah was a courtier, Micah a rustic from an obscure village. Isaiah was a statesman; Micah an evangelist and a sociologist. Isaiah addressed himself to political issues; Micah dealt almost exclusively with personal religion and social morality. He was more democratic than Isaiah. His personal relationship was not with kings, but with the people. He was a prophet of the people. Isaiah taught the inviolability of Zion; Micah predicted her destruction (3:12). The nobility had a totally mistaken conception of God. They fancied that because they were respectable judgment was impossible. “Is not Jehovah in the midst of us?” they asked, “no evil shall come upon us” (3:11). Micah possessed advanced ideas of the kingdom of God and raised the standard of religion and ethics very high (6:8). His whole message might almost be summed up in this one sentence: those who live selfish and luxurious lives, even though they offer costly sacrifices, are vampires in the sight of God, sucking the life-blood of the poor. His words fairly quiver with feeling.

VI. Analysis – Despite the thrice-repeated formula, “Hear ye” (1:2; 3:1; 6:1), which introduces the three main sections of the book, the best division of the material, according to the character of the subject-matter, is as follows: chaps. 1-3, judgment; ch. 4-5, comfort; ch. 6-7, the via salutis, or way of salvation, -a model outline for even a modern sermon!

1. Chapters 1-3 – Sharp denunciation and unrelieved doom; full of impassioned invectives against the officers of church and state, accompanied by peals of judgment, menace, and threatening, until the prophet’s censures are no longer welcome and his auditors bide him stop (2:6). Micah was the first of the prophets to threaten Jerusalem with destruction (3:12): but the fate of the nation he kept clear and distinct from the fate of the capital. His threats are followed happily with promises of restoration.

2. Chapters 4-5 – Glimpses of coming glory, with promises of salvation, including messianic and eschatological hopes. Micah looks backward as well as forward. As always in the Old Testament, his vision of the future is founded upon the actualities of the present. In the coming deliverance of Judah, perhaps from Sennacherib (701 B.C.), he sees the future triumph of righteousness. Two pictures flash across his mind, the exaltation of Zion and the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem:

(a) Chapter 4:1-5 is a picture of Zion, destined, he sees, to become the spiritual
metropolis of the whole world (cf. Isa. 2:2-4); pilgrims flocking thither from all quarters forming “a federation of the world” under the suzerainty of the God of Israel; the law of the Lord accepted as their universal arbiter in an age of universal peace; Israel religiously supreme; the long-looked-for golden age, accordingly, becoming a reality.

(b) Chapter 5:2 ff. prophesies that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, as David was. Isaiah had foretold his virgin birth (7:14); Micah predicts his village birth. Seven hundred years later, in the days of Herod the Great, the Magi in search of the spot, through the help of Jewish rabbis, obtained from this passage the direction in which to continue their journey (Matt. 2:1-6).

3. Chapters 6-7 – The Lord’s controversy, a dialogue exceedingly dramatic, vindicating Jehovah’s providence. The people regard God as a hard, grasping, and exacting master, trying to wring out of them unjust requirements. They wish to know, therefore, how much will satisfy him. By cruel and mistaken methods they have been trying to propitiate God, offering the fruit of their bodies for the sins of their souls (6:7). Jehovah responds to them in what is considered by one the greatest saying of the Old Testament, “And what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (6:8); which Huxley calls “the perfect ideal of religion,” embracing at it does the whole duty of man: true worship, true ritual, and true morality. Then the prophet proceeds to give with trenchant force one of the most poignant criticisms of a commercial community in all literature, denouncing the “scant measure” (6:10) and the social sins of the nation which are driving them headlong to doom (6:15, 16). In this section all classes, not the leaders only as in ch. 1-3, but the people as a whole, are pronounced bad. There is not a good man left; “The best of them is as a brier” (7:4). The prophet concludes with a most beautiful prayer, and a noble apostrophe to Jehovah, as the incomparable God of forgiveness and grace (7:7-20).

VII. The Three Great Texts of Micah

1. Chapter 3:12 – “Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and
Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest.” This text, which is the keystone and climax of the prophet’s message of judgment, is famous because it was remembered for over a century, and was the means, literally, of saving Jeremiah’s life (Jer. 26:18). Very rarely does one prophet in the Old Testament ever cite another. Evidently Hezekiah’s reformation may have been stimulated to some degree at least by Micah (cf. II Kings 18:4).

2. Chapter 5:2 – “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” Micah was the first of all the prophets to focus men’s eyes upon Bethlehem as the birthplace of a coming Deliverer; a yeoman at that! He will not be born up there in the capital, ignorant of rural needs and a foster-brother of the patricians, but a man of humble origin and a sharer of the poor man’s burdens; in fact, the poor man’s Deliverer. That is to say, Micah, the prophet of the poor, foresaw a poor man’s Messiah.

3. Chapter 6:8 – “he hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?” This verse stands as the motto of the alcove of religion in the reading room of the Congressional Library in Washington. It contains the three major requirements of all true religion, namely, do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly! Micah thus sums up quite comprehensively in these three phrases the cardinal teachings of the Hebrew religion. The simplification of religion has always been the prophet’s vocation. David reduced, as the Talmud suggests, the 613 requirements of the Pentateuch to eleven (Ps. 15); while Micah summed them all up here in three. Jesus, we know, reduced them to two (Matt. 22:35-40). Compare also James’ estimate of religious duty when reduced to its lowest terms (Jas. 1:27).

(a) To do justly: Justice, in the Bible, is recognized as elementary morality. It is the basis of all moral character, the essential of a good man, one of God’s own attributes! No man renders to his fellows all his fellows have a right to expect. The justice here spoken of is not the justice of Shylock, who pertinaciously insisted upon his pound of flesh; nor that of Rob Roy, who maintained that “they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can.” Mere justice is not enough. Rather the ideal justice of the prophet here is the eternal justice of the Golden Rule: “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them : for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). The last clause is often overlooked.

(b) To love kindness (hesed), compassion, mercy: This is Hosea’s favorite word, expressing a higher quality than mere justice. Many fulfill the one, but stop short of the other. Mercy postulates goodness; for while justice implies a debt, kindness implies grace and favor. Kindness, indeed, is the guaranty of justice. If a man does not love a principle he will evade if possible its application. And it is only true to say that “the man who does good, but does not love, is not a good man. He pretends to be, but would be different if he could.” God wants not so much ours as us!

“The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed; It blesses him that gives, and him that takes.”

This article “Micah the Prophet of the Poor” by Kenneth Lasser, was excerpted from “Major & Minor Prophets of Israel”, written by Kenneth Lasser. Broadman Publishers, 1958. It is no longer in print. This article may be used for study & research purposes only.