Early in my seminary education, I developed an interest in studying the prophet Micah. One of my professors told me that my interest in Micah came because of my background as a pastor working with poor and oppressed people in California.
What brought me close to Micah was that I realized that the central theme of Micah’s message was his commitment to justice and the righteous treatment of the poor. According to Micah, the poor were being oppressed by the leaders of Israel and Judah. Micah believed that the ethical treatment of the poor and the marginalized people was essential to a proper relationship with God and for Israel and Judah to survive as independent nations.
A study of the book of Micah will show that one of the emphases of the book is God’s concern for the injustices perpetrated against the poor. Micah also criticizes the moral corruption of the leaders of Judah. This concern for the poor and the moral corruption of the political and the religious leaders of the Southern Kingdom was at the heart of Micah’s pronouncement of judgment. His message of judgment, however, was balanced with promises of salvation.
Micah was a prophet who ministered in the Southern Kingdom in the last part of the eighth century BCE. Micah was active from the relatively peaceful days of Jotham until the stormy days of Hezekiah, king of Judah. Micah witnessed a double threat to the survival of Judah. The first threat was the arrival of the Assyrian army which conquered Samaria in 722 BCE and deported 27,290 people. The people deported from the Northern Kingdom were resettled throughout the Assyrian Empire. The second threat was the social decay and the corruption that were widespread in eighth-century Judah.
Micah is known as a prophet of social justice who opposed the oppression of the poor and the abuses of the rich class. Micah was called to be the voice of God, to summon the exploiters of the weak to prepare themselves for the coming judgment of God.
The nations of Israel and Judah were enjoying a period of great economic prosperity and expansion during the reigns of Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom, and under Uzziah and Jotham in the Southern Kingdom. It was during this period of prosperity that a number of people became rich and powerful. During this period, an elite group of people, both secular and religious, emerged with social, political, and economic power who used their position of power to oppress the poor and marginalized people of Judah. Micah called this elite group of people “social cannibals.”
The economic prosperity of the few produced a culture driven by materialism and by a desire to acquire more wealth, especially by dispossessing the poor of their land. Micah proclaimed, “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellow man of his inheritance” (Micah 2:1–2 NIV).
The oppression of the poor resulted in the deterioration of moral values and to the abandonment of the social obligations required by the covenant established with the people on Mount Sinai. The violation of the demands of the covenant resulted in the failure of promoting social justice for the poor (Alfaro 1989:6).
The superscription of the book reveals that Micah’s prophetic ministry happened during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. During Micah’s ministry, Assyria was the dominant power in Syria and Palestine. During the reign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, Assyria began a process of expansion and empire building. Because of Tiglath-pileser’s policies of total conquest, Assyria became a major threat to the survival of Israel and Judah as independent nations.
In response to the Assyrian threat, Syria and Israel formed an alliance and tried to force Judah to join forces to resist Assyrian expansion. When Ahaz refused to join, the alliance attacked Judah. The invasion of Judah by the alliance of Israel and Syria is known as the Syro-Ephraimite War. Ahaz decided to appeal to Assyria for help, “Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, ‘I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me’” (2 Kings 16:7).
To assure Ahaz that the alliance would not prevail against him, Yahweh sent the prophet Isaiah with a message of hope and deliverance, “Be firm and be calm. Do not be afraid and do not lose heart . . . It [the invasion] will not take place, it will not happen” (Isaiah 7:4, 7). However, instead of trusting in God as advised by the prophet Isaiah, Ahaz submitted himself to Tiglath-pileser and became a vassal of Assyria. It is possible that Ahaz’s appeal to Assyria for help and his voluntary submission to Tiglath-pileser may have spared Judah from destruction by the Assyrians.
At the request of Ahaz, the king of Assyria went up against Damascus. He conquered the Arameans and took its people away as prisoners to Kir, “The king of Assyria listened to [Ahaz]; the king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir” (2 Kings 16:9). As for Pekah, Tiglath-pileser invaded the Northern Kingdom and deported many people to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29).
As a result of Ahaz’s submission to Tiglath-pileser, Judah became a vassal of Assyria and Ahaz was forced to pay an annual tribute to Assyria. Moreover, under the terms of his vassalage to the Assyrians, Ahaz incorporated many of the pagan religious practices of the Assyrians into the temple worship at Jerusalem.
Ahaz was succeeded by his son Hezekiah as king of Judah. Hezekiah became king of Judah in about 715 BCE, a few years after the fall of Israel and the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrian army in 722 BCE. Hezekiah was a good king who implemented a policy of religious reform.
Hezekiah’s religious reform included the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem and the destruction of pagan shrines where the people had angered Yahweh with worship of foreign gods. Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:3-4).
Hezekiah was keenly aware of the Assyrian threat and took steps to build up Judah’s defense against a possible invasion by Assyria. Subsequently, when Hezekiah refused to meet the demands of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, the Assyrian army laid siege on Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem were warned by the Assyrian king that their God could not save them from the fate of the other nations, and that their only hope was to surrender (2 Kings 18:17–25).
Hezekiah had faith in God and following the advice of the prophet Isaiah, he refused to surrender. The siege was ended by divine intervention when an angel of the LORD went out and smote the camp of the Assyrians, “the angel of the LORD set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineveh” (2 Kings 19:35–36). The struggle between Judah and Assyria serves as the historical background for a proper understanding of Micah’s oracles.
To be continued
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Juan I. Alfaro, Micah Justice and Loyalty. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.