How can anything written more than 2700 years ago be relevant to us today? We are living in the technological age. In the midst of finding a new normal during the COVID pandemic, superpowers are flexing their muscles amid economic instability. Are we at the time of the end?
The biblical prophet Micah is speaking to a nation whose circumstances are eerily similar to today. Materialism was rife. The religious leaders were corrupt. The rich ruthlessly crushed the poor. Government was focused on self-interest. Public expenditure was high. End time events were real—the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist midway through Micah’s ministry.
In Micah chapter 6, the “Chosen of God” were reminded that God had acted in mercy and grace in their history. He’d brought them out of Egypt. He’d redeemed them with mighty righteous acts. Gilgal is mentioned because it is pivotal in their salvation history and the first stop in the Promised Land. The manna ceased there. Twelve large rocks taken from the bottom of the Jordan River became an altar there. The covenant was renewed there. Circumcision was re-instituted there. Passover was celebrated there. Saul was crowned at Gilgal and David was re-established as king after Absalom’s rebellion there. [pullquote]
But Israel’s focus is on external religious rites. From the required offering, according to the Law of Moses, to offering thousands of rams, to the supreme offering of their firstborn for their sins. The progression is from lesser to greater to hyperbole in Micah 6:6,7. But then comes a resounding rejection of earning their own way to God’s favour.
Micah 6:8 is the most succinct statement in the Bible of God’s will for His people. Rabbi Simlai (AD 250–290) is seen by Judaism to be the first rabbi to reduce Moses’ 613 commandments to principles. He stated, “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses; then David came and reduced them to eleven in Psalm 15; Isaiah (33:15), to six; Micah (6:8), to three: ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’.”1
These three principles summarise all prophetic teachings on true religion: a life that displays justice and mercy because of a close walk with God. Thus, Micah 6:8 is the verse par excellence for biblical ethics and describing the true Christian lifestyle.
We need to recognise that Westerners tend to want to logically move from cause to effect. In Hebrew thinking, the move is from effect to cause. This principle works from the visible to the invisible; from the superficial to the real; from the outside to the inside. In other words—to understand what Micah is really saying we need to reverse his sequence of thought. We need to begin studying the text from the end.
First: “walk humbly with the Lord”
This is the cause of all other actions described. It is based on the first four commandments.
- Humility is not about how you feel. It is about knowing who you are and who you belong to.
- It is about looking out for others as an instinctive first choice.
- Humility requires us to love mercy and to act justly.
- Humility comes most naturally when we live in the presence of God.
- Walking with God means putting God first and living in conformity with His will.
- Walking with God is like a toothbrush. We all need one—but it works best when it is our own. My journey with God is like that—it needs to be individual and authentic, and it needs to be personal.
- Only when we walk humbly with God can we practise the first two principles in Micah’s list.
Second: “Love mercy”
This is the first result based on the last six commandments.
• Mercy is doing the loving and gracious thing despite the sacrifice it requires of oneself.
• Mercy means to freely and willingly show love, loyalty and faithfulness to others. The Hebrew is chesed—which is more accurately conveyed as “loving-kindness”—fully revealed in God’s own character throughout the Exodus wanderings. God’s loving-kindness is that sure love that will not let His people go. Even Israel’s persistent waywardness could never destroy His loving-kindness for them. Though Israel is faithless, yet God remains faithful still. This steady, persistent refusal of God to wash His hands of wayward Israel is the essential meaning of chesed.
Finally: “Act justly”
This is the ultimate consequence for those who walk with God.
• Justice is doing the right thing, no matter how difficult or inconvenient it may be.
• Justice is something that people show when prompted by God’s Spirit. It has to do with fairness and equality for all, especially the weak and powerless who are exploited by others.
The sentiments of Micah 6:8 are echoed three times by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus becomes more pointed in upholding mercy over sacrifice with each occasion. A supper with Matthew’s friends prompted the first response after the Pharisees accused Jesus of associating with crooks and riffraff. Jesus said to the enquiring Pharisees that He was after “mercy, not religion” (Matthew 9:13, The Message). Jesus defended His disciples’ Sabbath observance against the protesting Pharisees in Matthew 12:7 when He said, “I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual” (The Message). On the final occasion in Matthew 23:23 Jesus gave the Pharisees a direct rebuke and said, “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required” (The Message).
As Adventists, we naturally make great Pharisees. As conservative Christians with very specific lifestyle choices, we can lose our focus on Jesus and think more about the externals. We can fall into the trap of thinking of salvation by denomination rather than by God’s gift of grace. Too often we are focused on being right rather than doing right.
Whether we are at the time of the end or not is not the question here—what is important is that we have a vibrant, growing relationship with God.
What does the Lord require? God reminds us in Micah that it is not the externals, it is not the tick-a-box approach that He is after. He wants us to recognise that we need to be broken at the cross. We need to realise that only when we are fully dependent on God will we love mercy and act justly.
Dr David McClintock is Adventist Education director for the South Pacific Division.