Connections 12.23.2018: Peace for a Day

Micah 4:9–5:5a

It happened over forty-five years ago, but I still cringe when I think about it.

As you may know, some teenagers can occasionally be a little dramatic. I was not immune. My situation was complicated by the fact that I grew up attending a church where if someone felt moved by the Spirit (or by pretty much anything else) to speak to the congregation, the pastor usually allowed it. This wasn’t always a good idea.

It was 1972. Christmas Eve fell on Sunday. During the invitation hymn at the end of the morning service, I came down and asked our pastor if I could say something. He said okay. I was fourteen.

I don’t remember everything I said, but the gist of it was, “I’d like to ask you to join me in praying that we’ll have peace on Earth on Christmas Day.” I was quite emotional about it.

After the service, a few people said to me, for far from the last time in my life, “That was a nice little talk.”

I don’t why the world’s lack of peace was on my mind at that particular time. Maybe it was because of Operation Linebacker, the intense bombing of North Vietnam that President Nixon had ordered earlier that month.

But other conflicts were going on in the world. They always were.

They always are.

To be fair, as best I can recall, my intentions were mostly good. I wasn’t above trying to impress people, so there may have been some of that. But I remember thinking that it really would be nice to have peace on Earth on Christmas Day. And we were a praying church. If we prayed for Sister Susie’s bunions, surely we could pray for some Christmas peace.

By “peace” I meant a temporary cessation of conflict: I wanted us to lay down our guns for twenty-four hours. I didn’t know then that the peace the Bible talks about and that the Messiah came to bring is much more and much greater than that; it is the true peace that comes from having a sound relationship with God, with self, and with others. It is utter wellbeing. It is shalom.

Most days, I’d settle for an absence of conflict. I’d count it as progress if we stopped killing each other.

We need to remember that God has much more than that in store. We look forward to the time when God will make it so. But that time is not yet.

We need to remember that Jesus the Messiah came to be “the one of peace” (Mic 5:5). We live in the meantime between Jesus’ first coming when he made peace available and his second coming when he will make it ubiquitous. We are to live in light of his words: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9).

In the hard realities of the real world, we who follow Jesus are not to just sit back and wait for peace to come.

We are to do all we can to increase its presence here and now.

Discussion

1. What challenges do we face in trying to apply the words of the Old Testament prophets to our context?
2. How do we think and talk about the language of conquest Micah uses in 4:11-13?
3. What does this week’s Scripture passage teach us about God’s purposes?
4. What kind of peace does the Messiah bring? How can we share that peace with other people?
5. How does Micah use the imagery of a woman in labor to communicate his message (4:10; 5:3)? What is he trying to say?

Reference Shelf

Bethlehem, a village six miles south of Jerusalem and home of David, is now addressed as a person (masculine). The “for me” of 5:2 suggests that this opening verse is a word from God. This word is a promise in response to the “now” of 5:1. At the same time, the birth of this child is an event that occurs for God, not just for the world. In parallel with the promise of the restoration of God’s rule in Micah 4:7-8, a strong hope is repeated that God would raise up a ruler from the line of David (David was anointed king in Bethlehem, 1 Sam 16:1-13). This ruler would reverse Israel’s fortunes (see 2 Sam 7:8, 12 for similar language in Davidic covenant texts). The text considers it significant that Bethlehem (also called by its clan or district name, Ephrathah, see Ruth 1:2; Ps 132:6) is a “little” place, which is parallel to David’s modest beginnings. As commonly in God’s ways of working in the world (e.g., 1 Sam 16:1-3; Isa 53:1; 1 Cor 1:26-31), God chooses to work in and through agents that are renowned, not for their worldly power but because they draw on the “strength of the LORD, in the majesty” of God (5:4).

The origin of this royal line is “from of old, from ancient days” (5:2), a reference to a “former dominion” (4:8) that stretches back several centuries to the time of God’s promises to David (2 Sam 7:4-17). But between the present difficult time (“now”) and this anticipated rule of God’s chosen one, the people of God (“them”) will experience great hardship, likened to a period of labor pains (5:3). The reference to childbirth links this text with 4:9-10, which refers to Zion’s labor pains. So also in this context, Israel’s labor pains are in view, not the labor pains of the mother of the coming ruler (though it is commonly so thought).

“Therefore,” God will “give them up” (5:3; see also Ps 81:12; Rom 1:24-28) to the consequences of their own sin and they will enter a time of judgment. But God will not give up on them! This language probably refers back to the siege noted in 5:1; the people of Israel will live through such a time “until” the child is born!

Only after this period of suffering has been endured will the new birth of God’s people take place (see Isa 7:14; 49:19-21; 66:7-9). The scattered and exiled remnant of the people (from both north and south), “the rest of his kindred,” will be restored to their homeland. While this reunification of kindred probably has reference to the tumultuous events of the time of Hezekiah (see 1:8-16; 5:5b-6), the experience of the later Babylonian exile may also inform this language.

When the reunification of the scattered Israelite family has occurred, the new king/shepherd will follow in God’s shepherding steps (see 2:12; 4:6-8). He will provide for the needs of the people (“stand and feed his flock”), and they will once again “live secure” in the land. This new king, who embodies the peace of God, will “be great to the ends of the earth” (a great reputation, not necessarily universal rule; see 2 Sam 7:9) and inaugurate a time of stability and security. A down-to-earth understanding of the future of the people of God is thereby illumined, not a triumphant otherworldly perspective. The earthiness of the vision is important to recognize.

These verses are familiar to the Christian community; they are commonly read during the Christmas season. Micah 5:2 (with some additional phrasing from 2 Sam 5:2) is referenced by the wise men in response to King Herod’s question about the place in which the Messiah would be born (Matt 2:6). The link between the town of Bethlehem and an expected one from the line of David would have been known in Micah’s time (and later). So the specificity of the Bethlehem reference should not be reduced to an unusual “prediction,” but honored as genuine insight into the positive future that God has in store for this people during a time of great difficulty for Israel and its king (see 5:1). Jerusalem has been besieged and the Davidic ruler humiliated. But God will raise up a new king who will rule truly as God’s representative, bringing peace. New Testament authors were able to interpret this promise in ways that reached beyond the time of the prophet and linked it with the coming of the Christ child. They recognized that the words of the prophets were able to live again in a new time and place.

Terence E. Fretheim, Reading Hosea–Micah: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013) 210-12.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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