One of the most well-known passages in the Old Testament springs from an argument between God and his people. The prophet Micah writes to the people of Israel—there’s some in there for the Northern Kingdom, but primarily he focuses on Jerusalem—and brings a word of judgment: “the mountains will melt,” he says (Mic 1.4).
For rebellion—and specifically, for idolatry (Mic 1.5) and for abuse of fellow Israelites through fraud (Mic 2.1-2).
For three chapters the warning continues, alternating between a catalog of Israel’s sins and a catalog of the judgments that are coming.
Then, suddenly, the tone shifts. God’s looks beyond the judgment to the days that will follow. God will establish his kingdom in Jerusalem for a time of peace, prosperity, unity, and true worship (Mic 4.1-8). Even in the face of judgment, God’s people can look forward to his mercy (Mic 4.9-13). He will send a deliverer, born in Bethlehem (Mic 5.2), who “will arise and shepherd his flock” (Mic 5.4). The rest of chapter 5 eagerly anticipates the day of blessing.
But with chapter 6 the tone returns to the earlier chastisement. God has an indictment against Israel (Mic 6.2), and justice must be done.
You would think that God’s people would respond to all this with repentance, either out of fear or out of eagerness for the blessing. On the contrary, though, their response is shocking.*
What do you want from me?! Do you want all my animals, my entire flock, in sacrifice? Would that make you happy? How about if I slaughter my firstborn son for you? Will that be enough?!
What do you want, anyway?!
You can practically see the veins popping out on Israel’s neck.
If you and I were God, there would be a smoking crater where Israel was standing.
But we’re not God—and all the universe is infinitely better for that. God’s response to his insolent children is as shocking as their insolence. In calm, measured tones, he surprisingly de-escalates the confrontation with words of invitation and reconciliation.
You know what I want; I’ve told you before. I don’t want anything unreasonable or destructive or confiscatory.
I want you to do justice. I want you to love mercy. And I want you to walk humbly with me, your God.
In Jesus’ time, the rabbis argued about which of the 635 commandments in the Scripture was the greatest. One of the favorite candidates was this passage. (As we know, Jesus chose another, Deuteronomy 6.4.) It’s easy to understand why some of the rabbis argued for this one. It’s theologically, logically, and rhetorically deep, and brilliant, and pleasant to the soul.
I think it’s worth spending a little time on. I plan to spend the next 3 posts meditating on the 3 things that God kindly and patiently requested from his estranged people.
* Scholars disagree on the tone of Micah 6.6-7. I think the context justifies the tone I’ve ascribed to it here.