Israel’s Trial Teaches True Righteousness
Almost everyone loves a good courtroom drama. Whether the lawyer is Perry Mason or Matlock, afficionados look for clues to see if they can figure out who committed the crime before the perpetrator is finally unveiled.
But the greatest courtroom dramas are not on television at all. They’re in Scripture. The trials I have in mind are Adam’s trial in the Garden of Eden following his fall, Christ’s trial before Herod and Pontius Pilate, and the final trial of all men before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ.
Micah tells us about yet another trial, one that has all the excitement of the best television shows but without a surprise ending. It’s the trial of northern kingdom. God is the plaintiff. He has a controversy, a complaint or, even more literally, a lawsuit against his people. Israel is the defendant. But in spite of the heinousness of the accusation, throughout the proceeding God refers to the Israelites as his people (v. 2; cf. vv. 3, 5). This trial even has a jury. God summons the mountains and hills to hear his case (v. 1). Here the mountains probably refer to the surrounding nations. The fact that pagan nations will sit in judgment of God’s people only highlights the depths of Israel’s depravity.
As you read these verses, you’ll probably notice that one thing is still missing — there is no verdict. This is probably due to the fact that God’s testimony against Israel is so compelling that nothing other than a guilty verdict could possibly be rendered.
The basis of God’s lawsuit is simple: Israel had violated God’s law. But it’s not just that there were occasional lapses in obedience. That’s true of all of us. Even David, the greatest king of the united kingdom, sinned once in a while. Rather, the people had cast off God’s law completely. As Micah reports, they preferred idolatry, covetousness, cruelty and false prophecy to the Word of God.
But God’s greatest complaint against the people was something more basic. The sins that I just mentioned were symptoms of systemic ingratitude. You see, when Micah prophesied, which was roughly the same time as Isaiah, Hosea and Amos, both the northern and southern kingdoms were experiencing tremendous economic prosperity. In fact, Uzziah and Jeroboam II helped to create one of the longest periods of prosperity in the Old Testament. But the prosperity of some led to the abuse of others. For example, when the poor ran out of money, they were forced to sell their inheritances for a tiny fraction of their value. Once they sold their property, they had to moved into the cities where the only jobs did not provide them with enough income to stay alive. A poor man taken to court would surely be punished, but a man of means could buy his freedom. Even priestly ministrations were bought with money.
It’s no wonder that Paul wrote that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (I Tim. 6:10). Avarice ignores the reason why God blesses men with prosperity, viz., so that we can use his blessing for good. In the New Testament Paul wrote, Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth (Eph. 4:28). But the people of Micah’s day used God’s blessing only to increase their own position and hurt others. This simply was not acceptable.
Micah had preached against these sins for fifty years. God had been more than patient with his people. Although he had given them plenty of opportunity to repent, they chose not to do so. The time for trial had come.
Our text begins with God calling the courtroom to order and seating the jury. But then something unexpected happened in verse 3. The Lord exchanged seats with the defendant. Instead of listing his grievances against the people, he asked them how it was that he had offended them: O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me.
If the Lord had abandoned his people, they might be somewhat justified in casting off his law. But had the Lord forsaken them? When he brought them out of Egypt, did he fail to provide everything they needed? Did their shoes and clothing wear out? Had he promised them something that he had not given them? Was his law too heavy for them to bear? The Lord asked the same thing of his people in Jeremiah’s day: What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain? (Jer. 2:5).
These are, of course, rhetorical questions. Their answers are so obvious that they need not be answered at all. The fault was not in the Lord, who had shown incredible kindness and patience toward a stiff-necked and rebellious people. The Lord’s character is unimpeachable, but the character of the people is another story.
Even so, it’s amazing how often men, sometimes even Christians, presume that God is something less than God. About a year after 9/11, a PBS program attempted to examine the spiritual impact of the attack on our nation. One man was convinced that, although God the Son is loving and kind, God the Father is a warmongering “barbarian.” A woman said that she was not yet ready to forgive God. Then there’s the poem called “Footprints in the Sand.” The sand represents a man’s life. Sometimes he sees two sets of footprints walking together — his and the Lord’s. Other times he sees only one set of footprints. His first inclination is to assume that these were made during times of trial, when the Lord apparently left him to face the trial alone. It never dawned on him that the single set of footprints belonged to God, as the poem said later.
To counteract this sinful tendency, the Lord provided us a record of his faithfulness in verses 4 and 5.
First, God was faithful in providing a great deliverance for his people in the exodus: For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (v. 4). And not only did he rescue them from fierce oppression, he also gave them leaders. Moses gave them the law, Aaron prayed for them, and Miriam was an example to the women.
In the Old Testament, the exodus was the one redemptive act that they always looked back to. It was what believers remembered when they anticipated the greater redemption that would come through the woman’s seed. It not only typified, but it was itself a contest between the God of the Bible and all the imaginary pagan deities of Egypt (cf. Exod. 12:12), in which God manifested the righteousness of his judgment.
By citing the greatest redemptive act, God reminded the people that it was also he who delivered them whenever they were oppressed. Yes, he sent Gideon, Samson, David and others, but these were not deliverers in the ultimate sense. They were men through whom God worked to rescue his people. Micah takes note of this by placing an obvious emphasis on the pronoun I in verse 4. God says, I brought thee up … and redeemed thee … I sent before thee Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
Second, God showed himself faithful to his people by preserving them from destruction: O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the LORD (v. 5). This incident comes from the book of Numbers. Balak, king of Moab, had hired Balaam, an extremely greedy prophet, to curse the people of God. Balak was afraid that the Jews would destroy him as they had destroyed other nations. But when the time came for Balaam to curse the Jews, he could only bless them (Num. 24). And when he realized that he could do nothing more, Balaam suggested that Balak use the Moabite women to seduce the men of Israel, thus causing them to expose themselves to God’s heavy wrath (Num. 25:1–5; cf. 31:16; Rev. 2:14). We might say that, when he could not curse them directly, he tried to curse them indirectly.
In any case, two places are connected with this particular incident in our text. Shittim, the place where the Moabite women seduced the Israelite men, reminds them of what they merited apart from God’s mercy, viz., utter destruction. The second place, Gilgal, was the first place of Israel’s encampment once they entered the promised land (Josh. 5:2–11). There God renewed the covenant with them by having Joshua circumcise the men who had been born during the forty-year wilderness wandering. Shittim to Gilgal, then, is the place of Israel’s defiance and the place where God brought them across the Jordan. In spite of their rebellion, God delivered his people, showing them, as Micah says, the righteousness of the LORD. God had kept his Word. He had good reason not to, but he chose to do so anyway.
This shows that the Israelites had much for which to be thankful to God, but they were not. They had taken advantage of God’s kindness over and over and over. This contrast made the awfulness of their sin appear for what it really was.
Superstition or True Religion?
At this point the people respond to God’s accusation with a series of questions about what he wanted from them. But this only exposes another aspect of their sin, viz., insincerity. They were not looking for a way to please God. They didn’t want to make amends for their offenses. Such things never entered their minds. You can see this in the fact that they mocked the ceremonies of law by going beyond the sacrifices that God commanded.
The list begins in verse 6. The burnt offerings were a general sacrifice for sins. They were offered, for example, on the Day of Atonement. Now, if burnt offerings were accompanied by a penitent and contrite spirit, then they would be pleasing to God and he would accept them. David wrote, The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar (Ps. 51:17–19). A man’s brokenness of spirit shows that he’s looking to God, rather than himself, to provide the ultimate remedy for his sins. The people of Micah’s day, however, did not have a broken spirit. Instead, they mocked not only the ceremony but also the Savior that the ceremony foreshadowed.
Then they drifted a little farther afield by suggesting calves of a year old as the remedy for their sin. Year-old calves were prescribed in the law to sanctify the Lord’s priests (Lev. 9:2–3). Thus, they took what was specifically used for these particular servants and tried to make it common. From this point on, the people get more and more ridiculous. Thousands of rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? Human sacrifice? Contrary to pagan religions, God doesn’t need anything from us, and he won’t be any happier if we endlessly multiply these things.
Earlier King Saul had mocked the law of God and his holy character in much the same way (cf. I Sam. 15). God commanded him to kill all the Amalekites — men, women, children, animals. Nothing was to be spared. But when Samuel heard the lowing of the oxen upon Saul’s return and asked him about it, Saul asserted rather defiantly that he had obeyed the Lord. He killed all the Amalekites. He just spared Agag their king and a few of their choicest animals because he knew how much God loved sacrifice (vv. 14–21). But Samuel made it clear that partial obedience is no obedience at all. It is not obedience when we take it upon ourselves to modify God’s law to suit our own desires. In fact, this kind of behavior is so far from obedience that Samuel said that it was as the sin of witchcraft … and idolatry (vv. 22–23). It’s tantamount to devil-worship.
Micah responded to the Israelites’ foolishness in verse 8. He began by reminding them that God had already shown them what is good. He showed them in his law. Shortly before Moses died, he wrote, For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it (Deut. 30:11–14). The law taught them not only what was good for them to do, but also what to look for in the Savior yet to come.
So, what did the law require? Toward our fellow man, it required justice and mercy. Justice is what we would call fairness or equity. As Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs, we shouldn’t have one weight for one person and a different weight for another person. Our dealings should be fair and our prices constant. Mercy, on the other hand, is a suspension of what we have a right to demand from others. It might involve, for example, forgiving the debt of one who lacks the ability to repay it. And in regard to God, we are to walk humbly with him. The word walk suggests covenant fellowship with our Maker. God walked with Adam in the Garden, i.e., until Adam chose to walk contrary to God (Gen. 3:8). God commanded Abraham to walk before him and be blameless (Gen. 17:1). The New Testament uses this word repeatedly: walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4); walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:1, 4); let us walk honestly (Rom. 13:13); and walk as men (I Cor. 3:3). Before our conversion, we walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2), but now we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). Therefore, we must walk in love (Eph. 5:2); walk as children of light (Eph. 5:8); and walk circumspectly (Eph. 5:15Eph. 5:15). And these are just a small sampling of the verses that require us to walk a certain way. But perhaps John summarized it best when he wrote, I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth (III John 4).
It’s a tragedy, I believe, that the New International Version translates every single verse that I just quoted, except III John 4, with something other than walk, although this is without a doubt what the Greek word περιπατέω means. Not only does this destroy the beauty of Biblical phraseology, it undermines the theological connection that they have with the Abrahamic covenant and our text.
What Micah required of us in our dealing with our fellow man and in our walk with God is expressed in a variety of ways throughout Scripture. Jesus, for example, said that our greatest responsibility is to love God with all our being, and then to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). In another place, he reminded the Pharisees that the weightier matters of the law are judgment, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). Hosea wrote, Therefore turn thou to thy God: keep mercy and judgment, and wait on thy God continually (Hos. 12:6). And James exhorted us to practice pure and undefiled religion, which requires us to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [ourselves] unspotted from the world (Jas. 1:27).
You see, these are the things that God delights in. They identify the true purpose of the law, and they teach us how to show our gratitude to God for his mighty deliverance. What we have in Christ so far surpasses the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt that it ought to make our works of love and gratitude shine forth all the more brightly!
Now that we’ve come to the end of the trial, you might have noticed that something else was missing. Not only was there no verdict, there was no defense attorney. How could anyone defend Israel’s mockery?
But, beloved, we have a defense attorney, viz., the Lord Jesus. John wrote, If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:1–2). We fail to satisfy the demands of God’s law just as much as the Israelites did in Micah’s day, but the difference is that we have a Savior who pleads his own blood in our defense. Burnt offerings, calves of a year old, a thousand rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, and even the blood of our first-born could never accomplish what the blood of the Son of God did for us on the cross. Through him we have full forgiveness of all our sins. And because our sins are completely forgiven, we can also live to the honor and praise of his magnificent grace. What a wonderful salvation we have through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
May we show forth our appreciation by lives of grateful obedience. Amen.