According to Micah, Yahweh begins to restore Zion by gathering the lame, outcasts, afflicted, all who has suffered the invasion of Assyria and been devastated by the nations.
Like a shepherd gathering His flock, Yahweh is going to gather the remnant. In Micah, as in other places in the OT, the “remnant” is literally “those who remain.” The word is used after the Lord has brought a devastating judgment on His people, and then He takes those who have survived, those who have been snatched from the burning, and begins to build a new people. This is of course what Jesus does later in His ministry. He gathers the lame and outcasts and afflicted to become His people.
This is what Yahweh has been doing since the beginning. He has always been gathering the lame and the outcasts and the afflicted to be His people. It starts with Jacob. Three times in this passage, Micah uses the name “Jacob” (4:2, 5:7-8), and the story he tells about the restoration of Jerusalem is a retelling of the story of Jacob. M.A. Sweeney writes, “the return of the blind and lame remnant of Jacob to Jerusalem (Jer 31:8) points to the lame (solea) figure of Jacob in Gen 32:32. Jacob’s exile from the land of Israel to Aram in order to find a bride and to escape the wrath of his brother Esau and his eventual return (Genesis 25-35) forms the basis for prophetic conceptualizations of the exile of Israel and its return to the land.”
Jacob limped back to the land after his exile, but he limped back a victor with God and man. Jacob’s limp was not a sign of his defeat but of his victory. So too with the remnant restored to Jerusalem after exile: They are afflicted, lame, outcasts, but the Lord will make them a “strong nation” as He reigns over them in Mount Zion forever.
This is not the only allusion to the Jacob story here. In 4:8 and again in 5:2, Micah addresses a particular place. The first, 4:8, is an address to “Daughter Zion” which is also identified as “Migdal-eder,” a phrase that means “tower of the flock.” This reminds Israel of Yahweh’s promise to be the shepherd to His people, replacing the false and oppressive shepherds, the cannibal kings that now rule Israel. But the place is significant for another reason. According to Genesis 35:21, Migdal-eder, the tower of the flock, was the place where Jacob camped after he buried Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin near Bethlehem.
This explains the references to childbirth in the following verses (4:9-10). The image of a woman in labor is a common one to describe the return of exiles. Exile is pictured as labor, and the return is pictured as the birth that follows a long and painful labor. Sweeney again: “the traditions tend to portray the exiled and returning Israel as a woman who has lost or regained her children, i.e., Rachel . . . or Lady Zion. . . . Apparently, the image of the dying Rachel from the Jacob tradition (Genesis 35) and the images of Israel as bride of YHWH (Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2) play a role in this construction of Israel’s exile to the wilderness. This would explain the feminine formulation of the terms for ‘lame’ and ‘outcast’ in Mic 4:6, i.e., the ‘lame’ and ‘outcast’ represent YHWH’s cast-off bride who was exiled to the wilderness like Jacob and Rachel and who will now be restored as YHWH establishes the ‘remnant’ of Israel as a ‘strong nation’ . . . in Zion.”
There is multilayered imagery here: Jerusalem is Daughter Zion, who is in anguish like a woman in childbirth. Daughter Zion is like Rachel, who died in childbirth; Jerusalem is also dying because of her sins and the punishment Yahweh is sending. These death-pangs of childbirth are literally the exile of Jerusalem into Babylon (v. 10).
But these pangs are in fact the pangs of childbirth, not the pangs of death. It feels like death. Jerusalem writhes like she is dying. She cries out in anguish. But this is not death. This is birth. And not just birth. Rachel died in the pangs of childbirth, giving birth to Benjamin, the ancestor of Israel’s first king. She cries aloud because there is no king or counselor, but her cry is the cry of labor for a future king. This is the labor of Israel in exile as well: Through this labor and the anguish of exile, the Lord is going to raise up a ruler for His people Israel. This is the labor of Mary as well, the labor that represents the labor of Mother Israel, giving birth to the King who will shepherd Yahweh’s people, Israel.
And this means that the two addressees are in fact one and the same. Micah addresses Migdal-eder, the tower of the flock, where Jacob camped after the birth of a future kingly tribe. Then he addresses Bethlehem, a town among the clan of Ephrata, the man who founded Bethlehem. Both addresses are addresses to places associated with kingship. The first addresses Migdal-eder as the place where Rachel’s birth pangs were transformed to the glory of kingship. He addresses Bethlehem as the birthplace of the younger son who was raised above his brothers.
That’s the force of the phrase in verse 2: “one of the young clans of Judah.” David was a younger son who was chosen in preference to his brothers, but so was Jacob, so was Joseph, so was Israel as a nation, chosen in preference to the Canaanites who populated the land before they did. Here, Bethlehem is pictured as being like David, one of the younger among the clans of Israel. From this younger clan, from this small down, comes one who will be ruler in Israel.
This ruler is going to be a victor over Israel’s enemies. He will shepherd the flock of Yahweh (5:4), and He will be at the head of the Shepherds who not only repel the Assyrian invasion but shepherd Assyria back to Nineveh with the sword. But that will not happen immediately. Verse 3 indicates that there will be a delay until the bride in labor has given birth: “He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child.” As Sweeney puts it, “the one who shall give them up must be identified as the David ruler who will emerge from Bethlehem Ephrata, and those who are given up must be identified as the clans of Judah. Apparently, this statement points to a period of waiting in which Israel is subjected to the oppression of enemies before the projected monarch is able to act.”
The upshot of all this is that the assaults of Assyria and the other nations that attack Jerusalem are turned inside out. They don’t know “the thoughts of Yahweh, and they do not understand His purpose” (4:12). The nations think they are gathering to thresh Jerusalem, but they are gathering to be threshed. They think they are coming to take over Jerusalem and destroy it forever, but Yahweh’s mysterious cunning plan is to use the birth pangs of Assyrian invasion as the means for restoring His people. His cunning plan is that the Messiah will be born from death. His purpose is the death and resurrection of Israel, the true Israel, the Davidic king, and His people. The Gentiles who thought they were going to put Israel out of commission once and for all have become the means to put the woman in labor so that she gives birth to the Son who will shepherd Israel. The nations have unwittingly become the instrument for Israel’s salvation.
Yahweh’s plan is even more cunning than this. In the light of the New Testament, Micah’s prophecy is not just of a king who will defeat Israel’s enemies and so bring peace in that sense. This is not just a story of the tables being turned on the Gentiles who thought they were defeating Israel, and proved to be the instrument for the restoration of Israel instead. It’s a more deeply ironic story: The Gentiles who thought they were defeating Israel not only do not defeat Israel, but through their attacks become the means for bringing the King who is Himself peace, the King who will ultimately rule the Gentiles as well as the Jews.