[K:NWTS 22/3 (Dec 2007) 4-11]

Micah's Bethlehem and Matthew's

Micah 5:2-5

James T. Dennison, Jr.

It was a wee village, nestled in the mountains of Judah, elevated 2500 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. Its terraced orchards of figs, stair-step vineyards and groves dotted with olive and almond trees decorated the slopes just below the small cluster of homes astride the town hilltop. Caravans to and from Egypt passed by on the major trade route just outside the tiny hamlet. But commerce didn't pause in her shops, nor swell her mercantile—these international caravansaries were bound for Jerusalem, five miles to the north. Rachel—Jacob's beloved wife!—Rachel's tomb was here, a few miles east of town. Ruth and Boaz met here in the gleaning fields just beyond the village. And David—yes, King David had been born here; had tended his father's sheep here; had left here for a palace in Jerusalem. And in 586 B.C., at the destruction of the city-capital of David's and Judah's monarchy, this wee town—this tiny hamlet lay desolate—desolate until the return from the Babylonian captivity. Ezra said only 123 returned (2:21)—only 123 came back: a tiny remnant of a tiny, insignificant town—quiet, sleepy inconsequential little town of Bethlehem.

"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity." Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of his brethren will return to the sons of Israel. And he will arise and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will remain, because at that time he will be great to the ends of the earth. And this one will be our peace.

We are reading a text from the 8th century B.C.—from the period 800-700 B.C. Micah, the prophet, is eye-witness to the social, political and military turmoil of this turbulent century. As he mentions in chapter 1:1, his commission occurs during the reigns of King Jotham, King Ahaz and King Hezekiah. And in that century, Micah joins his eyes and voice to the prophetic testimony of his contemporaries: Isaiah, Hosea, Amos. These four horsemen of the 8th century B.C. proclaim the Word of the Lord to Israel-Judah. The 8th century B.C. and the resurgence of Assyria—the resurgence of the mighty Neo-Assyria Empire galvanizes the eye of each inspired prophet, energizes the words of each God-breathed seer. Isaiah's Emmanuel Christmas-child with the Assyrian wolf at the gate (11:6). Hosea's wilderness honeymoon reprised after the spiritual harlotry of Baal-idolized, Assyria-decimated Samaria (722/21 B.C.) (10:5-7). Amos's fallen booth of David, resurrected after the Assyrian brings the great and terrible day of the Lord (5:18-20). And Micah? Micah foresees the Assyrian horde blitzing the land, trampling the citadels, ravaging the flock like a lion (5:8). The inexorable Assyrian march of Tiglath-Pileser III, of Shalmaneser V, of Sargon II, of Sennacherib and the 8th century B.C. Iraqi terrorists.

Micah as Isaiah as Hosea as Amos sees; he/they prophesy; Assyria comes to lay waste the cities of Israel and Judah—to level, burn, destroy Samaria in 722/21 B.C.—to besiege, to terrify, to shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem in 701 B.C. What is insignificant Bethlehem against such an onslaught? Of what use is this inconsequential little village—once upon a time birth place of Israel's king, now superseded by Jerusalem with Samaria smoldering from Assyrian torches and Jerusalem herself surrounded by Assyrian muscle? What is Bethlehem Ephratah among the clans of Judah—among the sons of Israel?

The triviality of Bethlehem at the height of Assyrian hegemony—at the zenith of Assyrian imperialism—the irrelevance of Bethlehem in that time is the dramatic context out of which Micah pours forth the words of our text. Bethlehem—little Bethlehem!—against Assyria—against the decimators of Samaria—against the siege towers before the walls of Jerusalem. O little town of Bethlehem—what of you?

Bethlehem Ephrathah
Little among the clans of Judah

One goes forth from you, Ruler in Israel
Whose going forth originates in eternity.

Whose time will be as the birth of a child;
Return remnant, sons and daughters of Israel.

Whose up-rising as Shepherd is in the strength of the Lord
Whose up-rising as Shepherd is in the majestic name of the Lord our God.

Return for this Great One
                      Great to the ends of the earth

He will be our Shalom
He will be our Peace.

These words of Micah 5 are literally poetic; they are prophetic poetry. And these poetic lines are like all Hebrew poetic lines—they are parallel expressions—in this case, parallel expressions centered about two words: the word ruler (v. 2) and the word peace (v. 5). And what is even more remarkable about the central parallel between these two words—ruler and peace—is the parallel between the Hebrew consonants which make up each of the two Hebrew words: moshel (ruler), shalom (peace). The very same four Hebrew consonants appear in both words—the same four Hebrew consonants (mem, shin, vav, lamed), to underscore the parallel—this ruler is peace. What is this ruler! and what is more, he is peace!!

Poetic Symmetry

I want to exploit this matter of parallelism or symmetry in Hebrew poetry just a bit longer. Let's go back over our text once more.

You, Bethlehem Ephrathah
And what is more—you are little among the clans of Judah.

(Notice the relation between the first and second line is one of symmetry via expanded parallelism.)

From you, a forth-comer who will be ruler in Israel
And what is more—his forth coming is from all eternity.

(Again, notice the expanded parallelism.)

His time will break like a woman with child in labor
And what is more—his remnant sons will return/will be (re)born.

(Expanded parallelism.)

His Shepherd role is in the Lord's strength
And what is more—His Shepherd rise is in our Lord God's majestic name.
And what is even yet more—His remnant flock will be due to his greatness—a greatness which extends to the ends of the earth.

(Threefold expanded parallelism.)

Shalom is this One                                               Peace is this One
And what is more—Moshel is this One                Ruler is this One.

The lines of Micah's prophecy must be read in context (the 8th century B.C. Assyrian crisis); the lines of Micah's prophecy must be read in parallel—one line augmented by the line which follows so as to give a rich, full portrait of this coming Ruler who is called Shalom.

Micah gives us a prophetic, poetic portrait—a narrative portrait of this Great One who emerges from the least one. Note the contrast between v. 2 ("little/least") and v. 4 ("he will be great"). Bernard of Clairvaux caught it: "O Bethlehem, thou art little, but now made great by the Lord; He hath made thee great who being Great was in thee made little."

The reverse fortune in Bethlehem's destiny is not due to any inherent exaltation in her. No! the reverse fortune for little Bethlehem is in the Great One who arises from her. Insignificant Bethlehem becomes significant Bethlehem because of eternal, majestic, glorious greatness extant in this One who comes forth from her.

Who is the Forth-Comer?

And who is this Great One? He is child of Bethlehem; he is son of Judah; he is Ruler over Israel; he is Shepherd; he is strength and the nominal majesty of the Lord; he is Peace; he is from the days of eternity.

Does not the prophetic, poetic portrait—this prophetic, poetic narrative recapitulate another narrative portrait? Did not the story of King David begin in Bethlehem? Did not the history of David the king begin among the clans of Judah? Did not King David become ruler over Israel? Did not David shepherd his father's flocks? Did not King David go forth in the strength of the Lord? Did not King David beget a son; and was not that child's name (in Hebrew) Shelomo—the man of peace (Solomon)?

But you will observe one line here in Micah's portrait does not recapitulate David or Solomon. That line is v. 2—his going forth is from eternity. The subject of Micah's portrait possesses a biographical trait that neither David nor any mere descendant of David can match. This One is an eternal person—an eternal Ruler—an eternal Shepherd, eternally Great. He is eternal Peace.

The Eschatological David

Micah's poetic, prophetic portrait projects a new David—a second David—yet a David who exceeds the first David as eternity exceeds time; yea, as God exceeds man. Micah's portrait is of an eschatological David—an everlasting David, of whom the historical David is but a faint representation.

This David—this eschatological David—this David, as it were, from heaven will prevail where the David of history failed. He will raise up the fallen booth of David because he will be great David's greater resurrection-Son (Am. 9:11). He will be the Christmas child of Isaiah—Emmanuel, yea, God with us, for he is God—God in the flesh (Is. 7:14). He will marry a Bride to himself and carry her through the land in between to a heavenly wedding supper—for he is the heavenly Bridegroom (Hos. 2:14, 19-20).

This One of Amos and Isaiah and Hosea—this One of Micah 5:2-5—this One is the beginning of your story—your Christmas story, your resurrection-story, your kingdom-story under his rule, his strength, his majesty, his Shalom. For your story was joined to the prophetic story on that night in Bethlehem when that little town became the city of God—God the Son; on that night when the tribe of Judah was raised up to be revealed as the genealogy of the Son of God; on that night when a different shepherd was cradled in a manger; on that night when the strong and majestic name of the Lord was trumpeted, was hymned, was caroled in Glorias; on the night when the "prince of Peace his reign of peace upon the earth began" (Milton).

Matthew 2:1-6

And now, we read Micah's text in the light of the rest of the story.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him." And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, `And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a ruler, Who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

This child—this babe—is the full portrait of Micah's prophetic narrative. Micah's eschatological David is your eschatological David—Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. But Matthew's portrait contains a narrative not related in Micah's prophetic poetry. Matthew's portrait does not include King Herod or the chief priests and scribes. They remain outside the narrative—only on-lookers—curious about the texts—even diligent students of the texts, but haters of the text. They do not put themselves in the portrait—in the prophecy—in the poetry—in the fulfillment of the prophetic poetry. They stand apart—though they read the Scriptures—though they study the Scriptures—though they have memorized the Scriptures and can turn to chapter and verse. They are not part of the Scriptures—do not participate—do not identify—are not united with Micah's portrait and Christ Jesus' biography. They will not, no they will not make Christ's story their story, though they carry their Bibles and worship each Sabbath day and observe all the rituals of the faith: they will not join themselves to the story.

Their story—the story about them—that is the great story, the important story, the only story. And so, in their hypocrisy, in their hard-heartedness, in their deceit and duplicity, in their fake religious façade, they will perish outside of the story. For they will not—no, they will not have this Shepherd-King to rule their stubborn hearts; no, they will not have this Prince of Peace to pacify their turbulent, arrogant, angry hearts; no, they will not have this Son of David who is eternal Son of eternal God to be theirs, for then, he would be more important than they; he would have to take first place in their minds, their hearts, their lives. And they will not, no, they will not have any other god save themselves—save their own almighty selves. Their story is all about themselves; they will rather put him to death together with his story.

And so, the end of their story is death—death with King Herod and the scribes, whose next generation, King Herod Antipas and the scribes did just that. They crucified Micah's Shepherd, Ruler, Peace, Eternal One. They put to death Matthew's Shepherd, Ruler, Emmanuel, Son of God. They cut themselves off from Micah's story, from Matthew's story, from Jesus' story, from God's story.

But the Shepherd, though slain, was raised from the dead. And he shall feed his flock like a shepherd. And he shall gather the lambs with his arms and carry them in his bosom.

And the Ruler who was crucified in shame was raised to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!

But the Prince of Peace whose blood was shed is that peace that passes all understanding. Peace I leave with you; my peace, I give unto you.

From little Bethlehem came forth the Eternal One, Son of God, Savior of sinners, King of kings, Lord of lords, Hallelujah, Amen!

You who love him, more than your own life—he is your story. Your Shepherd, your Ruler, your Eternal One, your Shalom, your Lord and your God.