Friday, December 03, 2021

Jesus' Fulfillment Of Micah 4-5

A few years ago, I wrote about Isaiah 9:1-7, and much of what I said there is relevant to chapters 4 and 5 in Micah. I won't repeat everything I said in those posts. See here regarding issues like the origins of the Israelite monarchy in 1 Samuel 8 and some material that Isaiah and Micah have in common. In another post, I explained why we shouldn't think Isaiah 9 was fulfilled by Hezekiah or some other Jewish king of the Old Testament era. Some of what I said there is applicable to the material in Micah. Since there's so much overlap between what's said in Isaiah and what's said in Micah, those posts from a few years ago provide a lot of background for this post.

Micah 5:2 is often singled out in discussions of prophecy fulfillment, but the remainder of the chapter and the previous one should get more attention than they usually do. Chapters 4 and 5 are both eschatological and messianic. Chapter 4 opens with a discussion of Yahweh ruling the nations forever from Jerusalem in "the last days", and chapter 5 concludes with a reference to his executing vengeance on the nations. Both are addressing what will happen "in that day" (4:6, 5:10). Some of the same or similar themes are found in both chapters, and they often shed light on one another.

Before I proceed, though, I want to address an objection I've come across before, which doesn't get discussed much. Chapter 5 refers to the threat of the Assyrians and the presence of Asherim. Doesn't that suggest Micah's time or a time shortly after was being addressed rather than a more distant context? No, since putting distant eschatological events in terms so familiar to the people of Micah's day would make sense and has precedent. It's common to use a group name, place name, or some such thing from one period to refer to something similar in another period (e.g., Armageddon, Waterloo, Watergate and variants of it). 2 Chronicles 10:16 refers to Rehoboam as David. Think of the references to Sodom, Egypt, and Babylon in the book of Revelation (11:8, 14:8). Many people think 1 Peter 5:13 refers to Rome as Babylon. And so on. Furthermore, see my article about Hezekiah and Isaiah 9 linked earlier for a discussion of how absurd it is to suggest that the people of Isaiah's day thought a passage like Isaiah 9 was in the process of being fulfilled or was going to be fulfilled in the near future. The same principles apply to Micah. The eschatological kingdom of Israel in Micah 4-5 is universal, spanning the whole world. The occasional references to Babylon (4:10) and Assyria (5:5-6) just provide some significant examples of enemies of the Jewish people within a context that's larger than those examples, a context about "many nations" (4:2, 4:11), "distant nations" (4:3), "all the peoples" (4:5), "all the earth" (4:13), "the ends of the earth" (5:4), "many peoples" (5:7-8), "all your enemies" (5:9), "the nations which have not obeyed" (5:15), etc.

Francis Andersen and David Noel Freedman refer to how chapter 4 focuses on Yahweh alone ruling the earth, without any suggestion that a mediator is involved (Micah [New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000], 430). They go on to note that "In v 6 Yahweh takes on the role of shepherd as well as king (v 7b)" (431). There are references to shepherding in both chapters, and the cities focused upon, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, are the cities David was most associated with. Daniel Smith-Christopher explains that we see something similar in Ezekiel 34 (Micah: A Commentary [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015], approximate Kindle location 4781). God refers to how he'll become Israel's shepherd ruler in the future in Ezekiel 34:11-16, but the passage goes on to refer to how David will shepherd the sheep (34:23-24). The Christian concept of a Davidic Messiah who's God makes the most sense of what we see in contexts like the ones in Ezekiel and Micah. The "tensions" between chapters 4 and 5 in Micah that Andersen and Freedman refer to in their commentary cited above (471) are resolved by a Christian understanding of the passages, which sees the Davidic ruler of chapter 5 as the Yahweh of chapter 4. The Jewish Study Bible (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) refers to the opening verses of chapter 4 as depicting "a messianic age without a personal messiah" (n. on 4:3 on p. 1199), but there's only an absence of the Messiah if Yahweh isn't the Messiah.

Since chapter 4 tends to be so neglected, I want to highlight some aspects of that chapter that are significant, but can easily be overlooked or underestimated. Verse 8 in chapter 4 uses language similar to what we see in 5:2 ("as for you", followed by comments addressed to a location with shepherding involved, though the shepherding references come shortly after verse 2 in chapter 5). And both verses are about the restoration of a former kingdom. The parallels between 4:8 and 5:2 provide evidence that 5:2 is referring to a place, Bethlehem, rather than a group, as is sometimes alleged. (For further discussion of the evidence that 5:2 is referring to a place, see Bruce Waltke, A Commentary On Micah [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], 266-67 and Glenn Miller's article here.) Andersen and Freedman are right to put a lot of emphasis on how Yahweh is portrayed as ruling on earth in Micah 4. Notice how much Yahweh is said to do. He teaches (verse 2), judges (verse 3), and gathers his people like a shepherd (verse 6). There are multiple references to the nations going to him and his being in Jerusalem. The shepherding language of verse 6 is accompanied by another reference to shepherding in the tower of the flock in verse 8. God is among them as a shepherd. The ruler from Bethlehem in chapter 5 is referred to similarly.

Is Bethlehem being referred to as his birthplace in 5:2? Even if the city weren't being identified as the ruler's birthplace, being born in Bethlehem would be a valid means of fulfilling the passage. Not only is being born there a valid form of fulfillment, but it's also likely to be what Micah was thinking of. When we refer to where somebody came from, especially in an ancient context in which people didn't change locations as much, we usually have a birthplace in mind. Furthermore, 5:2 is surrounded on both sides with references to a woman giving birth (4:9-10, 5:3), and it makes more sense accordingly for Micah to have a birthplace in view. That's true regardless of what position one takes on the identity of the woman in 5:3. And just after the reference to Bethlehem, there's a discussion of the ruler's goings forth, sometimes translated as "origins", which also makes more sense if the place name just brought up is a birthplace. Additionally, David apparently was born in Bethlehem (given his presence there so early in life, the presence of his birth family there, and the presence of other ancestors there, as we see in Ruth 4:11-17), and the Davidic Messiah's birth in Bethlehem would provide a better parallel to David than the Messiah's only residing in Bethlehem after his birth or only having had ancestors there without residing there himself. Lastly, the birthplace understanding seems to have been the most popular one among the oldest sources to comment on the subject, as reflected in the New Testament (Matthew 2:4-6).

Early Christian sources, like the passage in Matthew just cited, can't be dismissed because of their bias. For one thing, bias is only one factor that needs to be taken into account among others. We don't decide whether to accept a source's claims based merely on bias. And we need to explain why Christians wanted to claim a Bethlehem birthplace to begin with. If there was no pre-Christian expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, it doesn't make sense to suggest, as critics of Christianity often do, that the early Christians made up Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace to meet an expectation people had for the fulfillment of Micah 5:2. If nobody had that expectation, there would be no need to make up a fulfillment to meet an expectation nobody had.

What does 5:2 tell us about the nature of the ruler mentioned there? Andersen and Freedman note in their commentary cited above, "A legitimate sensus plenior is that this Ruler will be a superhuman being, associated with God from the beginning of time." (468) Notice that the ruler's goings forth, not his ancestry, a promise related to his ancestry, God's planning of his life, or some such thing, are said to go back so far in time. Thomas McComiskey and Tremper Longman III write:

"Some commentators apply the phrase 'from ancient times' to the remote beginnings of the monarchy, but this view is unsatisfactory. The term applies grammatically to the ruler. It is he whose activities stem from the distant past, yet whose coming is still future." (Tremper Longman III and David Garland, edd., The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Hosea, Amos, Micah [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008], approximate Kindle location 7145)

Not only does the language support a traditional Christian reading of the passage, but so does the significance of Micah's comment. If he was just saying that the ruler's ancestry goes back far in time, that God's plans for him do, or something of that nature, what significance would that have? The ancestries of all of us, God's plans for all of us, etc. can be traced far back in time. It makes more sense for Micah to be making a more significant point, which he would be doing under a traditional Christian understanding of the passage.

And how far back in time is Micah placing this ruler's activities? Michael Brown mentions that one of the terms referring to the time involved (olam) usually means eternity, usually refers to eternity in Micah, and that the nearest use of the term in Micah, in 4:7, has that meaning (Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003], 39). However, Bruce Waltke argues in his commentary cited earlier that olam doesn't refer to eternity when it's qualified by a unit of time (days, years, etc.), as it is in Micah 5:2 (277). So, Waltke has the passage referring to "his origin will be from of old, from days long ago" (261). If you look at how the passage is rendered in the translations found here, you'll see that there's widespread disagreement among the translators, with many favoring Brown's view and many favoring Waltke's. JoAnna Hoyt offers another way of translating the passage, rendering it as "his origin is from before the days of old" (Amos, Jonah, & Micah [Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2019], 725). That reading allows for eternality, but doesn't explicitly refer to it.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Waltke's view on the eternality issue, the one least favorable to Christianity, is correct. Even if the ruler's preexistence isn't being described as eternal in 5:2, he's still preexistent.

And Micah could describe the preexistence as less than eternal without intending to deny that the ruler preexisted eternally. Remember what I said earlier about how 5:2, like 4:8, is about the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. Micah may have wanted to mention that the ruler existed during or before David's day without addressing to what extent the ruler existed even earlier. Not only would discussing that earlier preexistence not be necessary for Micah to make his point, but it's also possible that the ruler's eternal preexistence is something God didn't reveal to Micah. Or if Micah understood it (on the basis of what God revealed to him in the context of 5:2 or on some other basis), he may have refrained from mentioning it because of how irrelevant or distracting it would be. The fact that something is significant, as the Messiah's eternality is, doesn't mean that it's relevant in every context or should always be mentioned when it could be.

It's also possible that the goings forth (activities) Micah has in mind are the discernable activities of this world, meaning that something like existence before the creation of the world wouldn't be relevant. Many people think some of the Old Testament events involving an angel of the Lord or another figure who's referred to as Yahweh and appears on earth are Christophanies, occasions when Jesus appeared prior to his incarnation. In that context, Jesus' goings forth predated his conception, but hadn't been occurring eternally. In other words, Jesus' activities have been eternal in some contexts, but not in others, and whether it would have been appropriate to describe his activities as eternal depends on what context Micah had in mind.

Of the two interpretations I've just outlined, I think the first is more likely than the second. But either one would be consistent with a traditional Christian view of the deity of Christ under a translation like Waltke's.

I'll close with a summary of some of the points I've made in this post and in the posts I've linked:

- The background of the Jewish monarchy, as reflected in passages like 1 Samuel 8, suggests that the monarchy will return to God alone. That implies the deity of the Messiah.

- Other passages that are highly similar to Micah 4-5, such as the material I've discussed in Isaiah and Ezekiel, support the deity of the Messiah.

- Chapters 4 and 5 in Micah are eschatological and messianic. The material doesn't just have a secondary or typological relevance to Christian views of eschatology and the Messiah.

- If the Messiah is Yahweh, that makes better sense of the focus on Yahweh in Micah 4, a highly eschatological and messianic passage, and the lack of any other relevant figure in that chapter.

- The parallels between Yahweh in chapter 4 and the figure of 5:2 make more sense if the two figures are the same.

- The reference to coming from Bethlehem in 5:2 makes the most sense as a comment about the ruler's birthplace.

- The individual in 5:2 seems to be referred to as having existed for a long time prior to his conception, and he's referred to as ruling forever. He's "superhuman", as Andersen and Freedman put it.

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