Yesterday (fourth Sunday of Advent), we had a short section from the prophet Micah as our first reading. Tomorrow is his liturgical memorial and I thought it was about time to treat his prophecy with a short summary. First, his martyrology entry:
“Commemoration of Saint Michaeas the prophet, who in the days of Kings Jotham, Achaz and Ezechias (Hezekiah) of Juda, defended the oppressed with his preaching, condemned idolatry and wickedness, and announced to an Elect people the birth in Bethlehem of Juda of a Prince emerging from eternity, a Prince Who would pasture Israel in the strength of the Lord.”Roman martyrology, December the 21st
The theme of the prophetic books in general reappears again here: idolatry has wrested the promise of the Holy Land from the tribes of Israel, and God is utterly fed up with them. But the prophets tend to end on a hopeful note: the terror to come is a punishment, and one day the people will be restored. Michaeas is a Judaite prophet and a contemporary of the greater and more famous Judaite prophet Isaias, and he uses some of the same texts that Isaias uses, and I’ll put some of that in this post. Beautiful material. And Michaeas has his own character, different from Amos and Hosea, who went before him. Let’s begin with the great accusation against primarily the northern kingdom of Israel, which had introduced Egyptian-style pagan worship under its very first king, Jeroboam I. This was inevitably carried down as a contagion into the southern kingdom of Juda, leading to the fall of those people too into idolatry.
“See, where the Lord comes out from His dwelling-place; and, as He makes His way down, the topmost peaks of earth for His stairway, melt hills at His touch, melt valleys like wax before the fire, like water over the steep rocks flowing away! Alas, what betokens it? What but Jacob’s going astray, what but guilt of Israel’s line? Head and front of Jacob’s sinning Samaria needs must be, sure as Jerusalem is Juda’s place of pilgrimage. In ruin Samaria shall lie, a heap of stones in the open country-side, a terrace for vineyards; all down yonder valley I will drag the stones of her, till her very foundations are laid bare. Shattered all those idols must be, burnt to ashes the gauds she wears; never an image but shall be left forlorn; all shall go the way of a harlot’s wages, that were a harlot’s wages from the first.”Michaeas, 1: 3-7
The talk of the harlot is meant to say, as with Amos, that God has taken the aspect of a jilted husband, whose wife (Israel) is prostituting herself to the Chanaanite gods – that is, she has joined to her worship of the one God simultaneous worship of other deities. The people have been hedging their bets in their pursuit of well-being and prosperity. And, naturally, with the new philosophies of the pagans come different moral philosophies, so that the people have fallen away further and further from the righteousness desired by God in the Torah (love God, love your neighbour as yourself). In return for this, they will face God’s wrath:
“Out upon you, that lie awake over dreams of mischief, schemes of ill, and are up at dawn of day to execute them, soon as your godless hands find opportunity! Covet they house or lands, house or lands by robbery become theirs; ever their oppression comes between a man and his home, a man and his inheritance. And I, too, the Lord says, am devising mischief, mischief against the whole clan of you; never think to shake it off from your necks and walk proudly as of old; ill days are coming.”Michaeas, 2: 1-3
And, of course, the court prophets that surround the Israelite king only foretell good things for the kingdom, for the People of God. God is with them, etc. Prophet’s like Michaeas are troublesome for their foretelling doom on the people. After a round condemnation in chapter two, Michaeas gives a nice slap to the face to such false prophets.
“And this message the Lord has for prophets that guide My people amiss, prophets that must have their mouths filled ere they will cry, ‘All’s well;’ sop thou must give them, else thou shalt be their sworn enemy. Visions would you see, all shall be night around you, search you the skies, you shall search in the dark; never a prophet but his sun is set, his day turned into twilight! Seers that see nothing, baffled diviners, acknowledge they, finger on lip, word from God is none. But here stands one that is full of the Lord’s spirit; vigour it lends me, and discernment, and boldness, fault of Jacob to denounce, guilt of Israel to proclaim.”Michaeas, 3: 5-8
That last sentence is the voice of Michaeas, as full of the Holy Ghost as the Apostles were on Pentecost day. He proceeds to scold the kings and princes of both Juda and Samaria for their injustice, the judges for their corruption, all the while claiming to be protected by God, on account of His promises to the Patriarchs and to Moses. And the great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem would fall too, the prophet mourned. And then he uses identical verses to the great prophet Isaias, proclaiming the eventual restoration of the promise to King David and the arrival of the Gentile people into the ancient promise. This portion is comparable to the second chapter of the book of Isaias:
“The Temple hill! One day it shall stand there, highest of all the mountain-heights, overtopping the peaks of them, and the nations will flock there together. A multitude of peoples will make their way to it, crying, ‘Come, let us climb up to the Lord’s mountain-peak, to the house where the God of Jacob dwells; He shall teach us the right way, we will walk in the paths He has chosen.’ The Lord’s command shall go out from Sion, His word from Jerusalem; over thronging peoples He shall sit in judgement, give award to great nations from far away. Sword they will fashion into ploughshare and spear into pruning-hook; no room there shall be for nation to levy war against nation, and train itself in arms. At ease you shall sit, each of you with his own vine, his own fig-tree to give him shade, and none to raise the alarm; such blessing the Lord of hosts pronounces on you. Let other nations go their own way, each with the name of its own god to rally it; ours to march under His divine name, who is our God for ever and for evermore! ‘When that time comes,’ the Lord says, ‘I will gather them in again and take them to Myself, flock of Mine that go limping and straggling, ever since I brought calamity on them; lame shall yet be a stock to breed from, and way-worn shall grow into a sturdy race; here in Sion they shall dwell, and the Lord be King over them, for ever henceforward. And thou, the watch-tower of that flock, cloud-capped fastness where the lady Sion reigns, power shall come back to thee as of old, once more Jerusalem shall be a queen.'”Michaeas, 4: 1-8
What a beautiful dream! Peace and prosperity, atonement with God and the glory of Jerusalem: food for the Messianic expectations. But alas, great turmoil should precede it, and all on account of the infidelity of princes and people. And then, hidden in chapter five is this little gem used by Saint Matthew in his Gospel (Gospel of Matthew, 2: 6).
“Bethlehem-Ephrata! Least do they reckon thee among all the clans of Juda? Nay, it is from thee I look to find a prince that shall rule over Israel. Whence comes he? From the first beginning, from ages untold! Marvel not, then, if the Lord abandons his people for a time, until she who is in travail has brought forth her child; others there are, brethren of his, that must be restored to the citizenship of Israel. Enabled by the Lord his God, confident in that mighty protection, stands he, our shepherd, and safely folds his flock; fame of him now reaches to the world’s end; who else should be its hope of recovery?”Michaeas, 5: 2-5
Who indeed will restore the nation but He Who is to come, the Desired of the nations? Here we begin to see the origins of the concepts of the Messiah as Shepherd, Prince, King, etc. These are used later by Christ to describe His own ministry to the people. But again, this is far in the future. Ruin must come first. But first, the people must have their chance to stand trial: what God had wanted was religion accompanied by morality, and what he got was superficial religion (animal sacrifices) and wickedness:
“Listen to this message I have from the Lord: Up, and to the mountains make thy complaint, let the hill-sides echo with thy voice! Listen they must, yonder sturdy bastions of earth, while the Lord impleads His people; Israel stands upon its trial now. Tell me, My people, what have I done, that thou shouldst be a-weary of Me? Answer Me. Was it ill done, to rescue thee from Egypt, set thee free from a slave’s prison, send Moses and Aaron and Mary to guide thee on thy way? Bethink thee, what designs had Balach, king of Moab, and how Balaam the son of Beor answered him … from Setim to Galgala; and canst thou doubt, then, the faithfulness of the Lord’s friendship? How best may I humble myself before the Lord, that is God most high? What offering shall I bring? Calf, think you, of a year old, for my burnt-sacrifice? Fall rams by the thousand, fattened buck-goats by the ten thousand, will the Lord be better pleased? Shall gift of first-born for wrong-doing atone, body’s fruit for soul’s assoiling? Nay, son of Adam, what need to ask? Best of all it is, and this above all the Lord demands of thee, right thou shouldst do, and ruth love, and carry thyself humbly in the presence of thy God.”Michaeas, 6: 1-8
Again, there are echoes here of Psalms 49(50) and 50(51). God doesn’t desire simply animal sacrifices; what He wants is a humble and a contrite heart, and the sacred rites of religion are tokens of that. And then the beautiful ending – the ingathering of the people – when all will be made new again. It makes even me feel hopeful for our own dismal days.
“With that staff of thine gather thy people in, the flock that is thy very own, scattered now in the forest glades, with rich plenty all around them; Basan and Galaad for their pasture-grounds, as in the days of old. Now for such wondrous evidences of power as marked thy rescuing of them from Egypt! Here is a sight to make the Gentiles hold their valour cheap, stand there dumb; ay, and why not deaf too? Let them lick the dust, serpent-fashion, crawl out from their homes, like scared reptiles, in terror of the Lord our God; much cause they shall have to fear Him. Was there ever such a God, so ready to forgive sins, to overlook faults, among the scattered remnant of His chosen race? He will exact vengeance no more; He loves to pardon. He will relent, and have mercy on us, quashing our guilt, burying our sins away sea-deep. Thou wilt keep Thy promise to Jacob, shew mercy to Abraham, Thy promised mercies of long ago.”Michaeas, 7: 14-20