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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Micah 6

 

 

Verses 1-8

THE REASONABLENESS OF TRUE RELIGION

Micah 6:1-8

WE have now reached a passage from which all obscurities of date and authorship disappear before the transparence and splendor of its contents. "These few verses," says a great critic, "in which Micah sets forth the true essence of religion, may raise a well-founded title to be counted as the most important in the prophetic literature. Like almost no others, they afford us an insight into the innermost nature of the religion of Israel, as delivered by the prophets."

Usually it is only the last of the verses upon which the admiration of the reader is bestowed: "What doth the Lord require of thee, O man, but to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with thy God?" But in truth the rest of the passage differeth not in glory; the wonder of it lies no more in its peroration than in its argument as a whole.

The passage is cast in the same form as the opening chapter of the book-that of the Argument or Debate between the God of Israel and His people, upon the great theatre of Nature. The heart must be dull that does not leap to the Presences before which the trial is enacted.

The prophet speaks:-

"Hear ye now that which Jehovah is saying; Arise, contend before the mountains, And let the hills hear thy voice! Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s Argument, And ye, the everlasting foundations of earth!"

This is not mere scenery. In all the moral questions between God and man, the prophets feel that Nature is involved. Either she is called as a witness to the long history of their relations to each other, or as sharing God’s feeling off the intolerableness of the evil which men have heaped upon her, or by her droughts and floods and earthquakes as the executioner of their doom. It is in the first of these capacities that the prophet in this passage appeals to the mountains and eternal foundations of earth. They are called, not because they are the biggest of existences, but because they are the most full of memories and associations with both parties to the Trial.

The main idea of the passage, however, is the trial itself. We have seen more than once that the forms of religion which the prophets had to combat were those which expressed it mechanically in the form of ritual and sacrifice, and those which expressed it in mere enthusiasm and ecstasy. Between such extremes the prophets insisted that religion was knowledge and that it was conduct rational intercourse and loving duty between God and man. This is what they figure in their favorite scene of a Debate which is now before us.

"Jehovah hath a Quarrel with His People, And with Israel He cometh to argue."

To us, accustomed to communion with the Godhead, as with a Father, this may seem formal and legal. But if we so regard it we do it an injustice. The form sprang by revolt against mechanical and sensational ideas of religion. It emphasized religion as rational and moral, and at once preserved the reasonableness of God and the freedom of man. God spoke with the people whom He had educated: He plead with them, listened to their statements and questions, and produced His own evidences and reasons. Religion-such a passage as this asserts-religion is not a thing of authority nor of ceremonial nor of mere feeling, but of argument, reasonable presentation and debate. Reason is not put out of court: man’s freedom is respected; and he is not taken by surprise through his fears or his feelings. This sublime and generous conception of religion, which we owe first of all to the prophets in their contest with superstitious and slothful theories off religion that unhappily survive among us, was carried to its climax in the Old Testament by another class of writers. We find it elaborated with great power and beauty in the Books of Wisdom. In these the Divine Reason has emerged from the legal forms now before us, and has become the Associate and Friend off Man. The Prologue to the Book of Proverbs tells how Wisdom, fellow of God from the foundation of the world, descends to dwell among men. She comes forth into their streets and markets, she argues and pleads there with an urgency which is equal to the urgency of temptation itself. But it ‘is not all the earthly ministry of the Son of God, His arguments with the doctors, His parables to the common people, His gentle and prolonged education of His disciples, that we see the reasonableness of religion in all its strength and beauty.

In that free court of reason in which the prophets saw God and man plead together, the subjects were such as became them both. For God unfolds no mysteries, and pleads no power, but the debate proceeds upon the facts and evidences of life: the appearance of character in history; whether the past be not full of the efforts of love; whether God had not, as human willfulness permitted Him, achieved the liberation and progress of His people.

God speaks:-

"My people, what have I done unto thee? And how have I wearied thee-answer Me! For I brought thee up from the land of Misraim, And from the house of slavery I redeemed thee. I sent before thee Moses, Aharon and Miriam. My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab counseled, And how he was answered by Bala’am, Beors son-So that thou mayest know the righteous deeds of Jehovah."

Always do the prophets go back to Egypt or the wilderness. There God made the people, there He redeemed them. In law book as in prophecy, it is the fact of redemption which forms the main ground of His appeal. Redeemed by Him, the people are not their own, but His. Treated with that wonderful love and patience, like patience and love they are called to bestow upon the weak and miserable beneath them. One of the greatest interpreters of the prophets to our own age, Frederick Denison Maurice, has said upon this passage:

"We do not know God till we recognize Him as a Deliverer; we do not understand our own work in the world till we believe we are sent into it to carry out His designs for the deliverance of ourselves and the race. The bondage I groan under is a bondage of the will. God is emphatically the Redeemer of the Will. It is in Chat character He reveals Himself to us. We could not think of God at all as the God, the living God, if we did not regard Him as such a Redeemer. But if of my will, then of all wills: sooner or later I am convinced He Will be manifested as the Restorer, Regenerator-not of something else, but of this roof the fallen spirit that is within us."

In most of the controversies which the prophets open between God and man, the subject on the side of the latter is his sin. But that is not so here. In the controversy which opens the Book of Micah the argument falls upon the transgressions of the people, but here upon their sincere though mistaken methods of approaching God. There God deals with dull consciences, but here with darkened and imploring hearts. In that case we had rebels forsaking the true God for idols, but here are earnest seekers after God, who have lost their way and are weary. Accordingly, as indignation prevailed there, here prevails pity; and though formally this be a controversy under the same legal form as before, the passage breathes tenderness and gentleness from first to last. By this as well as by the recollections of the ancient history of Israel we are reminded of the style of Hosea. But there is no expostulation, as in his book, with the people’s continued devotion to ritual. All that is past, and a new temper prevails. Israel have at last come to feel the vanity of the exaggerated zeal with which Amos pictures them exceeding the legal requirements of sacrifice; and with a despair, sufficiently evident in the superlatives which they use, they confess the futility and weariness of the whole system, even in the most lavish and impossible forms of sacrifice. What then remains for them to do? The prophet answers with the beautiful words that express an ideal of religion to which no subsequent century has ever been able to add either grandeur or tenderness.

The people speak:-

"Wherewithal shall I come before Jehovah, Shall I bow myself to God the Most High? Shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings, With calves of one year? Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for a guilt-offering The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

The prophet answers:-

"He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; And what is the Lord seeking from thee, But to do justice and love mercy, And humbly to walk with thy God?"

This is the greatest saying of the Old Testament; and there is only one other in the New which excels it:-

"Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

"Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls."

"For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."


Verses 9-16

THE SIN OF THE SCANT MEASURE

Micah 6:9-16; Micah 7:1-6

THE state of the text of Micah 6:9-16; Micah 7:1-6 is as confused as the condition of society which it describes: it is difficult to get reason, and impossible to get rhyme, out of the separate clauses. We had best give it as it stands, and afterwards state the substance of its doctrine, which, in spite of the obscurity of details, is, as so often happens in similar cases, perfectly clear and forcible. The passage consists of two portions, which may not originally have belonged to each other, but which seem to reflect the same disorder of civic life, with the judgment that impends upon it. In the first of them, Micah 7:9-16, the prophet calls for attention to the voice of God, which describes the fraudulent life of Jerusalem, and the evils He is bringing on her. In the second, Micah 7:1-6, Jerusalem bemoans her corrupt society; but perhaps we hear her voice only in Micah 7:1, and thereafter the prophet’s.

The prophet speaks:-

"Hark! Jehovah crieth to the city! (‘Tis salvation to fear Thy name!) Hear ye, O tribe and council of the city!"

God speaks:-

"… in the house of the wicked treasures of wickedness, And the scant measure accursed? Can she be pure with the evil balances, And with the bag of false weights, Whose rich men are full of violence, And her citizens speak falsehood, And their tongue is deceit in their mouth? But I on my part have begun to plague thee, To lay thee in ruin because of thy sins. Thou eatest and art not filled,"

"But thy famine is in the very midst of thee! And but try to remove, thou canst not bring off And what thou bringest off, I give to the sword. Thou sowest, but never reapest; Treadest olives, but never anointest with oil, And must, but not to drink wine! So thou keepest the statutes of Omri, And the habits of the house of Ahab, And walkest in their principles, Only that I may give thee to ruin, And her inhabitants for sport-Yea, the reproach of the Gentiles shall ye bear!"

Jerusalem speaks:-

"Woe, woe is me, for I am become like sweepings of harvest, Like gleanings of the vintage-Not a cluster to eat, not a fig that my soul lusteth after. Perished are the leal from the land, Of the upright among men there is none: All of them are lurking for blood; Every man takes his brother in a net. Their hands are on evil to do it thoroughly. The prince makes requisition, The judge judgeth for payment, And the great man he speaketh his lust; So together they weave it out. The best of them is but a thorn thicket, {cf. Proverbs 15:19} The most upright worse than a prickly hedge. The day that thy sentinels saw, thy visitation, draweth on; Now is their havoc {cf. Isaiah 22:5} come! Trust not any friend! Rely on no confidant! From her that lies in thy bosom guard the gates of thy mouth. For son insulteth father, daughter is risen against her mother, daughter-in- law against her mother-in-law; And the enemies of a man are the men of his house."

Micah, though the prophet of the country and stern critic of its life, characterized Jerusalem herself as the center of the nation’s sins. He did not refer to idolatry alone, but also to the irreligion of the politicians, and the Cruel injustice of the rich in the capital. The poison which weakened the nation’s blood had found its entrance to their veins at the very heart. There had the evil gathered which was shaking the state to a rapid dissolution.

This section of the Book of Micah, whether it be by that prophet or not, describes no features of Jerusalem’s life which were not present in the eighth century; and it may be considered as the more detailed picture of the evils he summarily denounced. It is one of the most poignant criticisms of a commercial community which have ever appeared in literature. In equal relief we see the meanest instruments and the most prominent agents of covetousness and cruelty the scant measure, the false weights, the unscrupulous prince, and the venal judge. And although there are some sins denounced which are impossible in our civilization, yet falsehood, squalid fraud, pitilessness of the everlasting struggle for life are exposed exactly as we see them about us today. Through the prophet’s ancient and often obscure eloquence we feel just those shocks and sharp edges which still break everywhere through our Christian civilization. Let us remember, too, that the community addressed by the prophet was, like our own, professedly religious.

The most widespread sin with which the prophet charges Jerusalem in these days of her commercial activity is falsehood: "Her inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceit in their mouth." In Mr. Lecky’s "History of European Morals" we find the opinion that "the one respect in which the growth of industrial life has exercised a favorable influence on morals has been in the promotion of truth." The tribute is just, but there is another side to it. The exigencies of commerce and industry are fatal to most of the conventional pretences, insincerities, and flatteries which tend to grow up in all kinds of society. In commercial life, more perhaps than in any other, a man is taken, and has to be taken, in his inherent worth. Business, the life which is called par excellence Busyness, wears off every mask, all false veneer and unction, and leaves no time for the cant and parade which are so prone to increase in all other professions. Moreover the soul of commerce is credit. Men have to show that they can be trusted before other men will traffic with them, at least upon that large and lavish scale on which alone the great undertakings of commerce can be conducted. When we look back upon the history of trade and industry, and see how they have created an atmosphere in which men must ultimately seem what they really are; how they have of their needs replaced the jealousies, subterfuges, intrigues which were once deemed indispensable to the relations of men of different peoples, by large international credit and trust; how they break through the false conventions that divide class from class, we must do homage to them, as among the greatest instruments of the truth which maketh free.

But to all this there is another side. If commerce has exploded so much conventional insincerity, it has developed a species of the genus which is quite its own. In our days nothing can lie like an advertisement. The saying, "the tricks of the trade" has become proverbial. Everyone knows that the awful strain and harassing of commercial life are largely due to the very amount of falseness that exists. The haste to be rich, the pitiless rivalry and competition, have developed a carelessness of the rights of others to the truth from ourselves, with a capacity for subterfuge and intrigue, which reminds one of no, thing so much as that state of barbarian war out of which it was the ancient glory of commerce to have assisted mankind to rise. Are the prophet’s words about Jerusalem too strong for large portions of our own commercial communities? Men who know these best will not say that they are. But let us cherish rather the powers of commerce which make for truth. Let us tell men who engage in trade that there are none for whom it is more easy to be clean and straight; that lies, whether of action or of speech, only increase the mental expense and the moral strain of life; and that the health, the capacity, the foresight, the opportunities of a great merchant depend ultimately on his resolve to be true and on the courage with which he sticks to the truth.

One habit of falseness on which the prophet dwells is the use of unjust scales and short measures. The "stores" or fortunes of his day are "scores of wickedness," because they have been accumulated by the use of the 'lean ephah,' the balances of wrong," and "the bag of false weights." These are evils more common in the East than with us: modern government makes them almost impossible. But, all the same, ours is the sin of the scant measure, and the more so in proportion to the greater speed and rivalry of our commercial life. The prophet’s name for it, "measure of leanness," of "consumption" or "shrinkage," is a proper symbol of all those duties and offices of man to man, the full and generous discharge of which is diminished by the haste and the grudge of a prevalent selfishness. The speed of modern life tends to shorten, the time expended on every piece of work, and to turn it out untempered and incomplete. The struggle for life in commerce, the organized rivalry between labor and capital, not only puts every man on his guard against giving any other more than his due, but tempts him to use every opportunity to scamp and curtail his own service and output. You will hear men defend this parsimony as if it were a law. They say that business is impossible without the temper which they call "sharpness" or the habit which they call "cutting it fine." But such character and conduct are the very decay of society. The shrinkage of the units must always and everywhere mean the disintegration of the mass. A society whose members strive to keep within their duties is a society which cannot continue to cohere. Selfishness may be firmness, but it is the firmness of frost, the rigor of death. Only the unselfish excess of duty, only the generous loyalty to others, give to society the compactness and indissolubleness of life. Who is responsible for the enmity of classes, and the distrust which exists between capital and labor? It is the workman whose one aim is to secure the largest amount of wages for the smallest amount of work, and who will, in his blind pursuit of that, wreck the whole trade of a town or a district; it is the employer who believes he has no duties to his men beyond paying them for their work the least that he can induce them to take; it is the customer who only and ever looks to the cheapness of an article-procurer in that prostitution of talent to the work of stamping which is fast killing art, and joy, and all pity for the bodies and souls of our brothers. These are the true anarchists and breakers-up of society. On their methods social coherence and harmony are impossible. Life itself is impossible. No organism can thrive whose various limbs are ever shrinking in upon themselves. There is no life except by living to others.

But the prophet covers the whole evil when he says that the "pious are perished out of the land." "Pious" is a translation of despair. The original means the man distinguished by "hesedh," that word which we have on several occasions translated "real love," because it implies not only an affection but loyalty to a relation. And, as the use of the word frequently reminds us, "hesedh" is love and loyalty both to God and to our fellowmen. We need not dissociate these: they are one. But here it is the human direction in which the word looks. It means a character which fulfills all the relations of society with the fidelity, generosity, and grace which are the proper affections of man to man. Such a character, says the prophet, is perished from the land. Every man now lives for himself, and as a consequence preys upon his brother. "They all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net." This is not murder which the prophet describes: it is the reckless, pitiless competition of the new conditions of life developed in Judah by the long peace and commerce of the eighth century. And he carries this selfishness into a very striking figure in Micah 7:4 : "The best of them is as a thorn thicket, the most upright" worse "than a prickly hedge." He realizes exactly what we mean by sharpness and sharp-dealing: bristling self-interest, all points; splendid in its own defense, but barren of fruit, and without nest or covert for any life.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Micah 6:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/micah-6.html.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2019
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