There have always been trials throughout history. Man has an insatiable appetite to take one another to court and seek justice. Whether it is for medical malpractice or too hot a cup of coffee today or the great dilemmas of ages past, trials are a part of our fabric. Consider the trials of ages past that shaped history. The trial of Socrates in 399 bce led to his death, one of the first deaths for free speech. The trial of Martin Luther brought forth the great divide between the Catholic and Protestant churches of the West. Galileo’s trial in 1633 marked a division between Science and Faith that hasn’t been successfully rejoined, even to this day. The Amistad Trials (1839/40) marked the first time slaves who mutinied at sea were also freed because of international laws banning the importation of slaves into the new world. There was the Scopes Monkey trial which continued in the vein of Galileo’s trial, only this time involving the teaching of evolution in public schools, The Nuremberg trials laying out the foundation for international human rights and their violations.These were great trials that changed the course of history and galvanized nations and people, but if we go back even further, there was a trial held in Micah’s day with God as the defense and the people of Israel as the prosecutor. Those two positions may sound funny, but truly that is the way God laid out the scene in order to show the absurdity of the prosecution’s case.
The case opens in a courtroom where the defense attorney, God, asks for the charges to be read. But this is no ordinary courtroom, it lacks finely paneled walls and a large high bench, even the jury is inanimate, but truly these witnesses can be counted on. God summons Israel to make her case before the mountains and the hills. Creation is the jury who to decide upon the truth of the charges. Why the mountains and the hills? Could it be they are in a position of grandeur and height, able to look down upon the people and declare a fair verdict based upon their grand vision and ability to look over the whole landscape? Maybe it was because the mountains and the hills were old and therefore wise? But maybe it is because God knows that the mountains and the hills have witnessed firsthand the violence, sin and idolatry of the chosen people. For it was on the high places that false worship occurred; it was in the hills and valleys that the thugs could go forth and seize the land of the widows and the poor. Might it be that God summons the mountains and the hills because they will be able to cry out against the sin of Israel and Judah, when Israel and Judah level their complaints against God?
God knows that nature is a reliable witness, for the prophet Habakkuk appeals to the stones of the wall and the beams of the woodwork to testify to the violence of the people (Hab. 2:11 The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.) and even Jesus himself testifies that if truth isn’t found on the lips of men, then the rocks will cry out and proclaim the truth of Christ (Luke 19:40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”)
So a jury as old as creation itself is summoned and Israel is called to make her case. Essentially that case is found in verses 6 and 7 and could be paraphrased by these words, “What will it take to make you happy and get you off our backs God?” That is the case. They want to know how to placate God in worship and to that end they propose 4 options.
1) They would gladly come to him with sacrifices and give the whole thing, not keeping even a piece of it for them if God would let off (burnt offerings).
2) And if that isn’t good enough, then they would bring the most desirous of offerings, yearling calves, tender and choice, surely this would appease the Lord, the best quality animals in the land, but if quality isn’t what God wants then we will go for quantity.
3) Maybe God you desire sheer quantity to be pleased, thousands of rams or exponential quantity ten thousands rivers of oil (Micah 6:7). We would even bring that to you Lord, if that would please you, but tell us.
4) And in case none of those are good enough, then here is our most treasured possession, better than any other sacrifice, we will give you our firstborn children, slaughtering them on the altar to atone for our sin, just tell us, God what do you want that we can bring?
What will make you happy? What will get you off our back? You are hard to please and demanding. We will do it, we will worship however you want just tell us and then be satisfied.
That is the case of the people against God. They look at God and see a demanding, unsatisfied, difficult Master who is never satisfied and willing to just back off. Isn’t that the way of humans when they approach God? Doesn’t humanity look and see a killjoy, a god unwilling to take what we are willing to offer? Don’t we get frustrated, saying, “How much more do you want God? When will enough be enough and when will you leave us alone to spend our time as we please, or our money as we please? God, what can we do to make a deal with you and get you off our case? Maybe if we come to church on Sundays you would be happy? Maybe if we voted highly conservative you would be happy? Maybe if we gave you 20% of our wage and 10 hours of time you would finally leave us alone the rest of the time – would that be enough God? We are apathetic and presume upon grace to such an extent that we can’t even fathom God as requiring anything of us.
We have believed a truncated gospel that says, you are saved and nothing is ever required. In many respects we have gone to the same extreme as the Israelites by divorcing Salvation from Discipleship, or in theological terminology, justification from sanctification. By preaching a fire insurance kind of salvation, we have created an apathetic people in the church, but to either the sinful Hebrew of Micah’s day or the apathetic Christian of our day, God’s response is the same and it begins with God reminding his people of their salvation.
He brought them out of Egypt and physically freed them from oppression. He provided spiritual leadership for them by giving them Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and he provided Spiritual and Physical protection on their journey from Shittim to Gilgal and amidst the Moabite attempt to curse them through Balaam. Shittim was on the eastern side of the Jordan and Gilgal was on the western side and it was in their journey across that God miraculously made a way by piling up the Jordan river and allow the people to walk over on dry ground. You can read about the story in Joshua 4:19-24 if you like. All of these acts were the distinctive acts of God to care for his people, and he reminds them of this before he answers their charge.
And doesn’t God deal with us the same way he dealt with the Israelites? Has he not physically freed us from the oppression of sin by sending us his son to liberate us from death, sin and the devil? In the last book of Scripture, the apostle John writes, Rev. 1:4-5 To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood… Jesus is the great liberator and the author of Hebrews reminds us of the redemption we have experienced at the hands of Christ. Heb. 2:14-15 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
But just as God physically freed the people, so he also provided spiritual leadership for them as well. In Jesus’ time it was the birth of John the Baptist who served as the spiritual guide to point people to Christ, for Zechariah testified of his own son, Luke 1:76,79 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,…79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” This we too experience by the testimony of the apostles, the provision of elders in our churches to guide and shepherd them and the indwelling Holy Spirit who leads us and directs us into all truth and holiness. (John 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.)
And furthermore, we get the same kind of protection that the Exodus people received. As they were physically and spiritually protected, so are we safe in Christ where no harm can befall us in the spiritual realm and the way across into the New Jerusalem has been opened up miraculously by God himself in Christ. All of these wonderful things God reminds the people of Micah’s day just as he reminds us before he tells us what else belongs as part of a covenant relationship.
It is imperative that we understand this. Salvation has been secured and God reminds the hearers of this before he answers their complaint. Salvation is not up for purchase, you can’t make God leave you alone, quite the contrary, you have been purchased. The Saints of Revelation remind us of this truth as they sing, Rev. 5:9 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
And after God reminds them of this truth, they are his, specifically redeemed, then he moves to shift the focus of the question, from appeasing God to understanding that they are in relationship with God and relationships are continuous affairs, not just single event acts of worship or sacrifice, but continuous ways of relating with God and man in gratitude for the salvation that has been secured. It is from here that Micah shifts the focus of the complaint of the people to one of what it means to be in relationship with this covenant God who has freed you from sin and misery. It is a relationship lived in an expectation of justice and mercy and humility.
This is one of the most often quoted verses of the progressive Christians – What does the Lord require? Do justice, Love mercy and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Relating to God and others as redeemed people requires justice. The term is mishpat in Hebrew. It is a fairly common term in the Old Testament occurring 425 times. But frequently it is used to refer to Laws of God. In Exodus 21:1 God tells Moses, “These are the laws (mishpat/justice) you are to set before them (Exodus 21:1). Micah is telling the Jewish people, their covenant obligation and response is to do the law of God. This is why Calvin says the 10 commandments are a response of the covenant people.
Specifically, Micah has charged them with perverting justice and showing partiality to the rich. In Micah 3:11 we were told, Her leaders judge for a bribe, the priests teach for a price, and their prophets tell fortunes for money. Essentially Micah is convicting them of tailoring the message to the highest bidder, whether it is in law or religion. But the law says, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15).
The merchants and powerful had been cheating men of the land but the law says, “If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other…The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:14, 23). And the recipients of all this were the poor – women and children, and those without material wealth. And if we go a little further on in book we find that these powerful people were cheating in the marketplace and also lying to one another. Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales…her people are liars…(Micah 6:11,12). So when Micah is talking about Justice he is speaking about not stealing, lying, bribing or cheating anyone, but especially the poor. That is justice. Giving to each what is rightfully due – honesty and respect and fair judgment when wronged.
We pride ourselves on being a just society, but are we just when the powerful and rich can file petition after petition to get a trial delayed or thrown out, but the poor man is left only to the whims of a court? Is that justice or a perversion of justice? Why is it that Black males are incarcerated 6.5x more often than white men and Hispanics are jailed 2.5x more than whites? Is that justice, or do whites have more access to legitimate forms of bribery – like fancy legal maneuvering? I don’t know the answer to questions like this, but I have some suspicions?
Even if our justice truly is blind and people are being caught prosecuted and tried without any bias, Micah doesn’t leave his covenant audience on easy terms. For his very next statement is love mercy. Literally love loving or love grace. What is grace, it is an unmerited acting on behalf of another person for their ultimate betterment. It isn’t required, that is why it is called grace, but it is expected from redeemed people because they themselves have experienced it. God wants his covenant people to lovingly help others, even when the law doesn’t require it. In our above example of prison populations, grace would say, “Okay, maybe there are more people of this race committing crimes and so they are guilty. How can I help them to not commit the crimes?” Grace wouldn’t let them off, or excuse away the actions, but would seek to correct the fundamental problems. Maybe it is quality education? Maybe it is job opportunity? Grace would seek to find their betterment. The problem is that when you legislate it, which is the classic American solution, you have actually violated the first instruction of doing justice by legislating partiality. Grace isn’t a political change; it is a covenant people change. It is the way a church and a congregation, the way an individual Christian and a family of Christians interacts with others.
So we hold to God’s law and we go beyond by changing people’s situations.
And that brings us to the final point; Micah reminds us that all of this upholding of the law and extending grace must be permeated by humility before our God. We must never forget the salvation he has secured for us. We must never forget his majesty and power and we must never confuse our loving mercy and doing justice as our meal ticket to salvation. That is arrogance, not humility.
At this 3rd week of advent let us remember why our savior came to earth, it wasn’t just to save us, but to empower us to live the law of God – to be people who are truly just, truly grace filled and truly humble. Come lord Jesus come.