Opening The Old Testament
What Did Micah Really Want?: Reflections on Micah 5:2-5a
The early Christians took this Davidic promise and applied it to their Bethlehem-born Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, thereby emphasizing his birth in Bethlehem and his direct connection to the older Bethlehemite king, David of Israel. And the rest of the passage added to their certainty that Micah was prefiguring the coming of Jesus. Verse 5:3 is somewhat vague, but whatever else it means, it surely refers to a woman giving birth: "Therefore, he shall establish them until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth, and the remnant of his kindred has returned to the people of Israel."
One thinks immediately of the parallel passage in Isaiah 7:14 where "the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, calling him Immanuel." The next verse of that oracle claims that the boy will "eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good." And before even that happens—that is, the ability of the boy to know good from evil—"these two kings (Pekah and Remaliah), Ahaz, before whom you are in dread, will be destroyed" (Is. 7:16).
Micah Predicts Unity for God's People
As in Isaiah, so here in Micah, the birth of a child augurs a great change in Israelite fortunes. I think verse 3 then means that God (the "he" of the first verb) will keep Israel before the Bethlehem child is born. But when the child is born, the remnant of the scattered people will return to Israel. And after their return, the child, perhaps now grown up, "shall stand and feed the flock in the power of YHWH, in the mighty name of YHWH, his God" (5:4). As a result of his standing and feeding the flock of Israel, "they shall live, because now he is great until the ends of the earth, a person of shalom" (5:4b-5a).
Here the Christians saw Jesus, the shepherd of Israel, both feeding and securing the people "until the ends of the earth." Furthermore, he was defined best by the wonderful word "shalom." This word does not finally mean "peace," although that may be a part of its fuller meaning. The word more basically means "unity" or "wholeness." This miraculous boy will bring all together again, remnant and those who are still unborn.
But what does Micah mean?
Much the same thing, I would say. He looks for a David-like king to defeat the forces that would destroy the land and one who would bring unity and peace to a newly reconstituted community, one who would feed the people and secure their rights in a land finally ruled by YHWH.
Thus, it could be said that the choice of this passage for the fourth Sunday of Advent is not a bad one after all. What Micah wanted for Israel and the nations is precisely what the early Christians believed that the coming of their Christ meant for their world: justice, unity, peace. It is the hope of every Christmas. It is the hope of this Christmas.
I wish each of you a Merry Christmas. But more importantly, I wish each of you a just Christmas, a peaceful Christmas that strives always for unity and wholeness for the world.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.