9 September 2019Micah 5:1-4
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (v. 2)
Psalm: Psalm 45
Today's passage is related to the day in the Christian calendar when traditionally the Church says "happy birthday" to Mary, so, unsurprisingly, it takes us to a familiar place – Bethlehem (we have no idea where Mary herself was born). Christians, reading this passage, sometimes tend to get very excited about prophecy – "Wow! How did Micah know where Jesus would be born?" The thing is, Micah was looking back 300 years, rather than forward 700 years. He was writing, probably, around the end of the 8th century BC, a decade or two after the northern half of David's divided kingdom (Israel – the ten tribes living mainly in Galilee and Samaria) had fallen to the Assyrians and many had been taken into exile (verse 1), and the southern half (Judah) was increasingly under threat too. A number of prophets, including Micah and Isaiah, were urging the people not to give up hope and were promising that another king, like David (verse 2), would soon defeat their enemies, bring back the exiles (verse 3) and restore the kingdom (verse 4). And where would this great king come from? Bethlehem, of course – the birthplace of King David. They would just have to endure a little longer (like a woman in labour – verse 3) until this new king was on the throne. Isaiah made a very similar promise (see Isaiah 7-9). Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse and carried on that way.
Micah, like Isaiah, was trying to give hope to his hearers in 8th century BC Judah and Israel. They were not predicting the birth of Jesus – they were hoping for something to happen within just a few months or years, and to say to their hearers that they would have to wait another seven centuries would hardly bring much comfort! But, like plastic and paper, prophecies can be recycled, and New Testament Gospel writers found new uses for old words, weaving them into their stories of Jesus and filling them with new meaning.
- Many Christians (but very few Jews) would regard the words of Micah as 'predictive text' – foretelling events in the (very distant) future, rather than an expression of hope for the immediate future. Do you think that prophecy in this context is best understood as prediction or promise? Why?
- How helpful is it to regard Jesus as a king, like David? This might have made sense to 1st-century Christian Jews, living with the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (see Matthew 2:6, for example), but how much sense does it make to us, 2,000 years later, when we hear the words in a Christmas carol service?