The Book of Micah
1. Micah, The Man
As is usually the case, we should keep in mind that there is a difference between a prophet and a prophetic book. That is, the book of Micah is not the same thing as the person Micah. Micah was no doubt a prophet of God in eighth century BC Israel. But we do not know much about him, except a few meager details from the book. It tells us he or his family was from Moresheth, in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. It places his ministry "in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah." That would cover the period from about 742-687 BC (see Israelite Kings Date Chart).
However, it is more likely from the contents of the book that he was active in a much shorter span of time, from just after the destruction of Samaria the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in 721 to the time of the Assyrian invasions of Judah in 701 BC. That would place his ministry during the period of Assyrian dominance of the region. It would also make him a younger contemporary of Isaiah. It is not surprising that there is a great deal of similarity between the Book of Micah and the first section of Isaiah. While there are various themes in the book, Micah the prophet is remembered as the prophet of authentic worship/service to God and social justice.
2. Micah,The Book
The Book of Micah is more complex than can be accounted for by suggesting that the prophet of Moresheth is responsible for the entire book. It is more likely that the book of Micah reflects the ongoing tradition of Micah within the community, as they reflected upon and digested Micah’s words in light of changing history, and then reapplied that message in new ways within the community in later times. This dynamic can be seen graphically in one passage in Micah (4:1-3) that is almost exactly duplicated in Isaiah (2:2-4). Since Isaiah of Jerusalem and Micah were contemporaries and shared many of the same perspectives, we simply do not know the origin of these verses, whether Isaiah or Micah. While we might want to know, it was simply not an issue in ancient Israel, because it was the word from and about God that was being preserved, not just the writings of individual people. This means that the best avenue for interpretation of the book is not from the perspective of the man Micah but from the Book of Micah
Acknowledging this dynamic will also help us avoid becoming stuck on the issues raised about the origin, collection, and editing of the book of Micah (for a survey of this process in relation to the book of Isaiah, see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah). There are various suggestions about which material in the book is from Micah and which is from a later editor. Some suggest that little of the book is from the prophet, while others defend that it must be all Micah’s to carry his name. While those debates are important in some contexts, for most purposes in dealing with this passage for proclamation, it is sufficient to know that there are various opinions, and then move on to asking about the meaning of this text within the canonical book as we have it. We may never know the origins and process of compilation of the book. But we can hear its message about God, because that message is not finally dependent on those factors.
It is very likely that the present form of the Book of Micah dates to the post-exilic period, sometime after 530 BC. However, the immediate historical setting of the book between 722 and 701 BC is important for hearing the message of the book. It is not because its truth depends on the historical details, but because the crises of history were the arena that precipitated a searching and penetrating examination of who Israel was as people of God that forms the heart of the Book of Micah. As the Assyrians threatened the very survival of the Southern Kingdom, the questions were more than idle speculation. They took on an urgency in light of the prophetic preaching that drove to the very core of Israel’s existence. What exactly did it mean to be God’s people in history? What kind of God did they serve and what exactly did God expect of his people? And, of course, in the background were always the questions of whether they would survive as a nation, and what they should become if they did.
Micah was certainly not the only prophet to struggle with those questions. Both Amos and Hosea had tackled the same questions in the Northern Kingdom. Their answer had been that the Northern Kingdom would not survive, even as they emphasized different aspects of relationship with God. By the time Micah began his ministry, Isaiah of Jerusalem had already been addressing the same questions for 20 years. The Northern Kingdom had already been destroyed, or would be in a matter of months. And as both prophets looked at the Southern Kingdom of Judah, they saw much the same conditions as had existed in the Northern Kingdom. Judah’s future was not certain. But both Isaiah and Micah consistently proclaimed that a change, a return to faithfulness to God, was essential if the Southern Kingdom was to have any future.
It is this message of both warning of impending consequences and a hope for the future that allowed the preaching of the prophet Micah to enter Israel’s tradition as a dynamic witness to God. The warnings were later used by Jeremiah as a vindication of his own preaching (Jer 26:18). The message of accountability to God has become one of the most well known passages in the Old Testament (Mic 6:1-8). And Micah’s trust in God and a hope for a redeemed future has become a favorite way to express Christian understanding of how God enters history in saving ways (Mic 5).
3. Structure and Contents
The book of Micah is very loosely organized, perhaps even a compiled collection of various prophets. It divides easily into three sections, chapters 1-3, 4-5, and 6-7. As noted, these may represent different traditions and may come from different time periods, but there is little sound evidence beyond assumptions and speculation by which to sort out these layers of tradition.
The first section (1-3) opens with the example of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom as a warning to Judah of the peril of continuing to ignore living faithfully is response to God while still claiming to be God’s people (1:2-9). Micah then addresses the evidences among the people of their lack of faithfulness: a lack of sense of social justice (2:1-5), a complacency that prevents them from hearing God’s message (2:6-13), and irresponsible leaders (3:1-8). The climax of this section is the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem as a consequence (3:9-12).
The second section (4-5) turns to the future restoration of the people after the coming destruction (4:1-5:1), including the expectation of a new Davidic king who will replace the flawed rulers of the present (5:2-9) and bring an era of peace and security (5:7-15).
The third section of the book (6-7), some of which dates to the exilic period, circles back over the themes of the first two sections, denouncing the people for theirs sins and failures (6:6:1-7:6), promising a restoration in the future in the form of a prayer (7:11-20), linked by a confession of sin from the people (7:8-10).
Given this flow within the book, the third section functions as a reflective theological summary of the previous material. In fact, some have suggested that Micah encapsulates the preaching of previous prophets, using the major themes of God’s judgment on injustice from Amos (3:2, 5:24), love and devotion from God and due God from Hosea (6:6), and the need for faith in God and faithfulness to him from Isaiah (Isa 7:9, 30:9, 15).
4. Familiar Passages In Micah
3:9-12 Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.
4:1-5 They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks...they shall no longer learn war.
5:2-4 But you O Bethlehem Ephrathah...from you shall come forth one who is to be a ruler in Israel.
6:1-8 What does the Lord require of you...do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God?