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Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-4
by Dr. Andrew Bartelt

Preliminary observations:
As with many familiar texts, the preacher may struggle to say something that goes beyond the obvious, that God predicted the place of Jesus' birth, and that Bethlehem bespeaks the humility of the incarnation, not only in the person of Jesus but also in the humble connections to the ancestral home of the house and lineage of David. These are, of course, valid points, and always worth saying again. After all, Matthew relates how this verse was cited to recall the place of Messiah's birth (though it lies beyond the scope of this study to deal with the interesting differences between the text cited in Matthew and the Massoretic text of Micah 5).

One helpful approach is to seek to understand this passage more fully within the context of Micah's day and relate the theological realities then to contemporary issues now, only to discover that the prophetic words of the text speak the same message.

Exegetical notes:
1. A contemporary of Isaiah, Micah lived in the last third of the eighth century B.C., one of the most traumatic periods of Old Testament history. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was on the rise, forcing the frightened states of Syria, Israel, and Judah to take drastic defensive action. Isaiah 7 (cf. 2 Kings 16-19) relates the attempt of Ahaz to form a friendly alliance with this hated enemy, simply to avoid losing his throne to the coalition of Israel and Syria, whose defensive alliance had become offensive to Ahaz in Judah. By the end of the century, Israel would fall to Assyria (722 B.C.) and Judah would be all but overrun (701 B.C.).

The essential issue was one of security in a world of insecurity, especially for the People of God. It was difficult to know whom they should trust, and even their earthly leaders (such as King Ahaz) were less than trustworthy.

2. The text (in the original, 5:1-3; our English translation, 5:1, clearly concludes chapter 4) is part of a piece that seems to begin in 4:8 and to run through 5:5 (ET). While chapters 4-5 focus on hope, the emphasis is clearly on a future hope, beyond the present groaning. The analogy of natural childbirth (4:8ff,) is apt. But the pain will get worse before it turns to pleasure: Assyria is not the final enemy; Babylon is (v, 10).

3. But the story begins and ends with good news. The "you" of 4:8 is clearly match by the with which the pericope begins. The tower of strength will again be great, with the greatness of the Messianic ruler now filling all the earth. The use of the verb in the final verse of the lesson echoes the word for "tower" () in 4:8.

4. In between these two uses of the pronoun , the prophet highlights the now/not yet tension with four uses of the adverb "now" (). (The BHS format sets off nicely vv. 9, 11, 14 but hides the word in v. 10b.) Hebrew loves a pun, and one suspects some soundplay may be at work, The future redemption described in verses 10-13 is set in tension with the "now" of verses 9-14. In fact, the final "now" (4:14, ET 5:1) describes a siege in which the ruler ('judge") will be struck by a rod ().

5. If the referent of "you" in 4:8 is Jerusalem, our lesson turns attention to Bethlehem, the sleepy ancestral village home of Jesse. Great things come in small packages, from the most humble origins. But the point is greater than this: the proud Jerusalem has forgotten the lesson of humility and must first be laid low in a reminder that it is the last and the least who shall be first and the greatest. The text cited in Matthew has already made this point - the least is "by no means" (oudamwz) least.

6. Whether is translated "thousands" or "clans" (both are defensible. "clans" is probably better), the promised ruler (not called "king") comes from a return to the source (cf Is. 11:1, where the Messiah comes from the roots of Jesse). He is not just another "Davidic" king, but a new "David." While one should probably understand "his origins" as located in human history, the point is that God's promise is going far back in time, certainly before the monarchy had become like the nations. Not to mention God's eternal perspective, even His temporal perspective goes far beyond what our lifetimes, even across generational lines, can experience or know.

7. Finally there is the birth. The period of waiting, of writhing, of wondering is over. The one who is "about to give birth" (participle) "will have born" (a good example of a "prophetic perfect"). This clearly echoes the simile in 4:9-10, where the "daughter of Zion" (perhaps better translated as "daughter Zion") is compared to "the ." Who is the referent, who is "about to give birth?" "Daughter Zion" usually means Jerusalem, the people in that place, i.e., the people of God located in space and time and gathered around the presence of YHWH in Zion, those who are to wait in hope as a woman in labor (see note #2 above). One wonders if perhaps the queen herself were expecting, generating very real messianic expectations at that time which would only be dashed when the next Davidic king would not fulfill the rest of the prophecy.

8. For the fulfillment would wait for the final Shepherd-King, who would tend his flock in the strength of YHWH and gather the remnant of Israel. A fifth use of makes a seventh and final use of the punning pair . But the "now" in this final line is really a "then," yet at the same time the "not yet" gives hope and confidence to the "already."

Homiletical application:
This "now/not yet" tension, a major motif of the Advent season, lies at the heart of messianic expectations. Throughout the Old Testament, the "kingdom of God" was already there, as the people of God were gathered around the presence of God. Yet the final and true Messianic King had not yet come. Their lives were filled with the tensions of uncertainty, and they lived out their lives amidst a world filled with insecurity.

In like manner, we, too, continue to face the troubles and trauma of life. As Micah proclaimed a prophetic word of trust and confidence in God's sure promise, so we have that Prophetic Word Made Sure, to which we cling in faith and confidence as we wait for Him to come again. The pain of pregnancy awaits the joy of birth.

That prophetic Word calls us, as well, back to the source, to the humility of a little town called Bethlehem, away from the false pomp and pride that can infect even those within the household of faith. God ties His salvation to that which shames the power of this world, and His Messiah humbles Himself to die the death of salvation for us.

Yet here is the true King, shepherding His people in the power of His love, gathering all Israel to Himself. The "now" of the final verse has come. The kingdom of God has entered the present reality.

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