Bethlehem of Judah and the Birth of the New King

Merry Christmas to all.

As we celebrate this special day, I want to offer below a brief meditation about Bethlehem as the birth of the Messiah. This meditation is a section of a previous post, Micah’s Hope for the Future, which was posted on March 10, 2014.

In announcing the birth of Jesus the Messiah, Matthew wrote:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah1 was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’” (Matthew 2:1-6).

The wise men from the East told Herod that the prophet who had prophesied that the king of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem was the prophet Micah. This was Micah’s prophecy about the coming of the new king:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).

Micah prophesied in the days of King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz was an evil king who introduced many practices that were contrary to God’s will. Micah’s prophecy was a condemnation of Ahaz as king. The following is a section of the post in which I explain why Bethlehem would become the place where the new king would be born.

Micah’s Hope for the Future

Ahaz’ commitment to the God of Israel was not very strong. As a result, he introduced some pagan practices into the religious life of Judah. According to the writer of the book of Kings, Ahaz “did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his ancestor David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree” (2 Kings 16:2-4).

In his book, Micah condemned several of these pagan practices. His condemnation of these idolatrous practices may be a reference to these religious innovations introduced by Ahaz. Micah proclaimed that Israel’s new ruler would act powerfully to destroy these pagan practices:

“I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers; and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you, and you shall bow down no more to the work of your hands; and I will uproot your sacred poles from among you and destroy your towns (Micah 5:11-14).

Micah also proclaimed that since Ahaz had been unfaithful to the demands of the covenant and had abandoned the laws of God and introduced sorceries, witchcraft, and the worship of pagan deities, the Lord would raise another ruler in Judah who would bring the nation back to God. Micah’s hope for the future was the coming of this new leader.

“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).

Most Christians who read this prophecy about the coming ruler do not grasp the full intent of Micah’s words. When Micah proclaimed the coming of a new king, the king of Judah was ruling from his throne in Jerusalem.

In fact, all the kings of Judah were the descendants of David and all of them ruled from Jerusalem because David had conquered the city and had established Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom.

But, according to Micah, the new king would not be born in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem, the city where David was born. What Micah is proclaiming is a judgment on the king who lived in Jerusalem. God was bypassing the present king and going back to Bethlehem, to begin again.

Thus, the new king will be a new David. God was beginning the process all over again because the present king had failed to represent the true interests of God.

According to Micah, when the new king comes, he will accomplish several things.

First, he will reunite the nation: “then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel” (Micah 5:3). This oracle indicates that the people who were taken into exile will return and Israel will be united.

Second, “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD” (Micah 5:4). Ahaz had failed to provide leadership to God’s people in times of crisis, but under the new leader, the people will live in peace and security.

Third, the new ruler will defeat those who threaten God’s people. In Micah’s day the enemy was Assyria, but in Micah’s vision, this ruler will destroy all nations who seek the destruction of God’s people.

Fourth, Israel will purify the religion of Israel by removing all kinds of pagan practices (Micah 5:12-14). These pagan practices had been introduced by the kings of Judah, but this new ruler will bring the people back to God.

When one reads Micah’s book, one realizes that Micah is critical of the religious and political life of Judah. To Micah, the immediate future is filled with gloom and distress, but, with the coming of the new ruler, the distant future will be bright and glorious.

Micah’s preaching is simple but compelling. As long as the people follow the ways of the Lord they receive God’s favor: “My words do only good to anyone living uprightly” (Micah 2:7). However, when they reject God’s words, they remain under God’s judgment.

Micah had high hopes for the future of Israel, but this hope rested on the coming of a new David. Under this new ruler, a remnant would be saved and God’s people would enjoy a life of permanent peace and prosperity.

Unfortunately, Micah did not live to see his vision become a reality. The time of peace and prosperity which Micah foresaw was in the distant future, beyond the ability of human eyes to see.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4).

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I will be taking a break from blogging for a while. I know that several readers have posted comments which remain unanswered. When I return to blogging again, I will address your comments and post a response to your comments. Until then, enjoy the blessings of the New Year.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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