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A BESEECHING GOD
‘O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against Me.’
The history of God’s dealings with us is a history of benefits on His side, of ingratitude on ours. It is a history of persistent kindness and goodness from Him Who knows what our needs are and what is good for us, and of careless neglect of this goodness on our part, who know neither what we need nor what is best for us. Old Testament and New alike present this picture both of God and of man.
I. There is something very remarkable about all this.—Usually, when a man has anything to give which is worth having, people are only too ready to receive it. Usually, instead of his having to press it on them, they beset him with petitions to give it them. So much so that what is offered as a free gift is usually looked upon with suspicion, as if it could not be worth much, or it would not be offered gratis. Nay, if any one asks you very earnestly to accept anything, you almost begin to think you do him a favour in accepting it, instead of your receiving a benefit. This is the way with men. So much is this the case that the generality of people who do not think much about religion get into a mistaken way of looking at God’s action in the matter. People talk of repenting by and by, of becoming religious at some future time, of putting off the consideration of God’s message till they are more at liberty to attend to it, just as if they thought that it was they who were doing God a service, instead of God offering them an inconceivable benefit. I do not affirm that people deliberately say this to themselves, but it comes to pretty much the same thing. They never think of asking, Why does God thus plead with us? What is it that God thus offers? What will become of me if I do not attend to His message? They go on as if they thought that any time would do for listening to it; as if they thought that if God be so very anxious that they should listen to His message, He would take care that somehow or other they should not ultimately lose the good of it, and so they let the Gospel message slip by year after year, until it is to be feared that in many cases it never gets heard to any good purpose at all.
II. The devil has many ways of ruining souls, and getting them to think in this way is one of them.—Look at the facts as they stand. Why is God so urgent with us? Why is God so anxious that we should listen to His Message—that we should leave off sinning, begin at once to practise Holy Living, and close with the offers of His Grace? It is just because God knows, if we do not, that our eternal welfare depends upon it; and He wants to awaken us to see our danger. God desires our good, not His own advantage. See how earnestly any one of you that is a parent warns his children against those evil courses in youth which will lead to a manhood of disgrace, misfortune, and failure. Opportunities once lost never return. The past is past. Neither God nor man can bring it back again. And yet I imagine there is many a child who acts by its parents as some of us do by our God, and fancies that his parents’ entreaties need not be taken so very seriously, that if his parents are so very anxious for his welfare, they will somehow see that any bad consequences of his conduct will be turned aside, and that, at any rate, he need not take the matter so seriously. Now, you know what a mistake this is on your children’s part. God knows that if we do not grow good now, and get the mastery over evil now, evil will have got the mastery over us, and that in the next world it will be too late to mend. Therefore, God is so urgent with us to lose no time in beginning to grow good men betimes, since He knows its importance. God desires our good, as you desire your children’s good, and so He takes all the pains that can be taken to bring us into good ways now, that we may escape having to suffer for it then. When men fancy that if God presses our good upon us so very earnestly, He will not let us miss it in the end whatever we do, they make the saddest mistake possible. God Himself cannot bring back a lost opportunity, and God wants to prevent our losing our opportunities.
III. Then, again, God knows the evil that is in us better than we do, and He knows how blind we are to it.—We do not see our own sinfulness, any more than we see the harm it will do us. We do not know the disease of our nature. If we did we should seek its cure. But we do not. And God knows that we do not. Therefore, again He tries to awaken us to see how we really stand. This is the explanation of all those earnest calls to repentance.
IV. This shows you why Satan is so anxious to make men put off their repentance, and to make men think that if God is so anxious for their good He will somehow take care of them, even if they do not attend to Him at once.—The Devil knows what we do not know, or at least what we will not think about, namely, that this life is the time for growing out of our sins and into goodness, and that every year that he can get us to put it off is so much lost to us, and so much gained to him. God wishes our good. God desires that life should be to us one progressive growth in goodness, and a constant dying out of evil. And as this is a work of time—a progressive work—it follows that in every stage of our lives there is a special portion of this work to be done, and which, if left undone, can either never be done at all, or else becomes infinitely more difficult to do afterwards. We cannot be standing still. We must be either growing better or growing worse: either growing in goodness, and therefore more fit for God’s world beyond the grave, or growing in evil, and therefore less fit for it. It is just because it is ‘hard to be good’ that Christ our Lord died for us, and that the Holy Spirit came into the world on the Day of Pentecost, and that the word of God is given us in the Bible. But God has given us help enough if we use it, not merely to grow good, but also to rejoice in it, as He says, ‘My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’ He willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, wherefore turn again and live ye.
‘This chapter doubtless contains a distinct address. Jehovah condescends to plead His cause against Israel, calling upon the mountains and hills of the land—its most enduring characteristics—to witness between Him and them. But the verdict had to be given by the people’s hearts.
‘Jehovah asks what evil He had done that His people had turned away from Him. He had brought them out of Egypt, and redeemed them from slavery. He had sent His chosen servants to help them. He had nullified the stratagems of Balak which he devised against their well-being. What more could He have done!’
WORSHIP AND CONDUCT
‘What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.’
It is not right to say that this inspired summary of wherein true worship, true ritual, true religion consists was a wholly new thing when Micah spoke.
The law had been all along a schoolmaster to bring the people unto Christ. Before Abraham was Christ’s Spirit was at work.
It was, however, given to a man of the soil, a simple vine-dresser, to whom ‘life was real, life was earnest,’ to put into words that burn and shine for ever the noblest views as to the reality of religion ever delivered by a prophet of Old Testament times to the world, the briefest and most appropriate definition of wherein the essence of true worship consists. As we read these words, ‘He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ we are obliged to confess that ‘Christ,’ as has been well said, ‘added nothing to Micah’s summary of human duty except the power to act on it.’
Micah, the man of the country, in contrast to Isaiah, the city man, was a lover of the woods and of the fields.
I. It was the crofter trouble of those old times which in part caused Micah to speak burning words.—As Isaiah had cried woe to the plutocrats who joined house to house and laid field to field till there was no room, who did away with the small holdings, so Micah cries woe upon them also. And the worst of it all was that the rich tyrant class felt itself so respectable that it could not think the judgment of God was possible, and while the heads of Jacob and the princes of the house of Israel had forgotten the elements of justice, were ‘spurning justice and twisting all that is straight,’ were plucking the very flesh from the bones of the poor by exaction, and by their extortions were devouring the people, the hireling prophets, who were living upon the gains of the great, cried peace so long as they could have a good dinner, and hounded on destruction against those who would not satisfy their demands. ‘While they have aught between their teeth they proclaim peace; and against him who will not lay food to their mouths they sanctify war.’ Meanwhile, the great palaces at Jerusalem were rising upon the ruin of the people. ‘They all laid in wait for blood. They hunted every man his brother with a net.’ And that was not the worst of it, for all the while they went about their religious duties with assiduity. ‘They leaned on Jehovah and said, Is not the Lord among us? no evil can happen to us.’ It was at such a crisis of sham religion divorced from righteousness and justice, sham worship divorced from the walk of godliness, that the patriot Micah perceives that the sin of Jerusalem is not want of zeal in worship, nor rebellion against God, but a real lack of understanding that religion, to be anything, must mean conduct and character, and that Jehovah, if He is God, is a God Who demands that men shall give Him their reason and thought, as well as their emotions and their desire, to fulfil the minutest regulations of ritual or religious ceremonial.
II. An appeal to history.—He urges them to believe that like as a father pitieth his children, so as a father will God reason with their reasonable minds. He introduces the idea of a debate or argument between the God of Israel and His people upon the stage of the vast amphitheatre of nature and the silent, listening hills. It is an appeal to history that he makes in every direction. To the south, he tells them, is the wilderness of Egypt, from whence God redeemed His people; there are the clover fields through which Abraham aforetime led his flocks. Here to the north is Adullam, that saved David from the sword of Saul; there the plain of Elah and the brook that runneth like a white ribbon through the plain, where David sought and found the pebbles for his sling. Away over the hills to the north-east is little Bethlehem Ephratah and the tower of the flock that shall one day humble the pride of Jerusalem, when the true Shepherd-Lord shall be born there—Bethlehem where Jesse dwelt, and Jesse’s son first proved himself a man after Jehovah’s heart. If men are silent, these historic scenes will find a voice to proclaim the purpose, the patience, and the lovingkindness of the Lord Who redeemed them. Surely these hills and vales will proclaim the righteous deeds of Jehovah, the Deliverer mighty to save; of Jehovah, the covenant God Who keepeth His promise for ever. Now, as one gazes back upon the Old Testament heroes, one sees that, with all their faults, their righteousness lay in conduct. Righteousness was for them not holiness so much as right dealing and kindly dealing between man and man as members of a nation. It was not till later times that righteousness became identified with worship and almsgiving, or, rather, that worship and almsgiving superseded conduct. Not purity of heart so much as right doing—this was what the prophets demanded: justice between class and class, kindness between rich and poor, and humbleness of heart for all the elect of Jehovah. They lifted up their voice in protest against the mistaken importance given to outward forms of religion; they demonstrated its worthlessness as a substitute for the moral service of God as manifested in civic rectitude and social well-doing. They did not denounce sacrifices, for the idea of sacrifice was as much a matter of course as our idea of going to church on Sunday. But they did denounce the hypocrisy of all this outside show of worship when the heart refused to humble itself upon the altar of self-sacrifice by deeds of mercy and justice.
III. The eternal antagonism of letter and spirit, which Christ, in His words to the woman of Samaria, so clearly declared, was as clearly made manifest by the prophets of the Lord eight centuries before.—And as long as the world standeth we shall honour the fig-gatherer of Tekoa for his brave saying, ‘I despise your feast days.… Though ye offer me burnt offerings and meat offerings, I will not accept them.… But let judgment run down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’; yea, and we shall feel the splendid note of accord ring like a trumpet in men’s ears that Micah, the vine-dresser, sounded, when to the perplexed people who had begun to realise the hollowness of their religious services, and the need of some more consistent union between conduct and worship, and who asked, ‘Wherewith shall I come before the Lord?’ he answered in the words of my text, ‘He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ Micah’s voice has never been silenced. It may sound paradoxical, but the very fact that men are forsaking the ordinances of religion in all the churches in this money-seeking age of commerce and competition and unreality in religion, is a sign that they feel that till our ways are more just and kind, and full of reverence in our dealings between man and man, it is mockery to attend church services, and for a pretence make long prayers. Micah’s voice has never been silenced. I see the results of it in Toynbee Hall, in the University Settlement movement in East London, in the Sweated Industries Exhibition, in the Garden City and the City-Planning Conference, in the anti-smoke crusade, in the demand for medical inspection of schools, in the League of Mercy and Pity, in the care of our crippled children, in the Food Reform League work, in the movement for homes for consumptives, in Temperance work, in the Trades Union rally, in the legislation for small holdings, yes, even in the cry for labour churches without creeds, for undenominationalism without catechisms in our schools, and the passionate preaching of a socialistic gospel. But though, if one reads church papers, one would believe that justice and mercy and a humble heart before God and man were of less import to national well-being and the glory of God than the objection to a church catechism on the part of the Free Churches, or the colour and shape of a sacramental vestment on the part of the Anglican communion, there is surely going on in this matter-of-fact and grossly material age a recall to first principles and spiritual truth. Conduct and creed, and not creed alone, is the message, not only of Micah, but of Christ the Lord, that is more and more entering into our ears. The Lord’s controversy with this people is not being held in vain.
‘ “Do justly.” That is the foundation virtue, without which you can rear no superstructure of noble character. A man who has no sense of justice is utterly lost to all good influences, and, labour as you may, nothing can be made out of him. One’s sense of justice may be perverted. and needs to be rightly educated; but it must be there, else there can be only vileness and corruption. Justice is the one foundation on which all character must rest. Jesus gives justice this first place also. “Justice, mercy, and truth” are His words. Not that justice is more important than her sister virtues, but that it is the first—the one upon which the others rest, and without which they deteriorate into vices, as mercy without justice becomes weak and indifferent to wrong.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Micah 6". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent