It's hard to overcome a bad leader.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Micah 3:1-12
In this week's introduction to Micah, we focus on the complaints God had against Judah's leaders -- including the judges, magistrates, and priests. Basically, they were self-serving hypocrites. And the whole land was suffering from their incompetence. We should note the contrast between them and Micah, who spoke in the power of the Spirit.
Her leaders issue rulings for a bribe, her priests teach for payment, (3:11)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
What Makes a Bad Leader?
In this week's lesson, we're going to focus on how the Jewish leaders had led the people down a ruinous path. That's a topic that keeps on giving, though I encourage all of us to be a little careful considering this is the week of mid-term elections! We could easily get sidetracked on politics and miss the point of this topic -- what makes a leader a "bad" leader? (Btw, "you disagreeing with that leader" does not automatically make him/her a bad leader! 🤔)
Because they're so fresh on our minds, you may as well get some value out of these awful, horrible, so-sick-of-them political commercials that are still not over because we have a run-off: How do political ads try to convince you that the "other" candidate will be a "bad" officeholder?
Note: be clear that your discussion is going to have a lot of "assuming this commercial is accurate", which we all are skeptical of. Perhaps you'll want to set that aside and just focus on the method being used. (To help get you started, here are two examples. I've seen many personal attacks in these commercials -- that method is "they're a bad person". I've seen even more attacks on their voting record -- that method is "they support bad policies". No, I don't think these ads are really meant to sway your thinking; just rile you up.)
And here's a follow-up question for the thinking group member: how would you determine whether or not the person who will be elected did a "good" or "bad" job in office? I think we'll find that the answer has everything to do with how we define "good" and "bad" (and I truly hope our definitions line up with what the Bible says...)
If you're sick of politics right now, here are two more generic topics:
Who are considered historically "bad" leaders, and how did they get that reputation? If you Google this, you'll get lists of "evil" and "ruthless" leaders, which isn't the only way a person can be a bad leader!
If you've been through leadership training or a leadership course, how does the secular world explain the difference between a "good" and a "bad" leader? (At the very bottom of the post, I remind of New Testament characteristics of good leaders; if you go with this topic, I strongly encourage you to come back at the end and evaluate everything that was said in light of what the Bible says.)
I want to focus on three characteristics of bad leaders (because these are going to come into play in this week's passage): leaders who are hypocrites, leaders who are incompetent, and leaders who are self-serving. To be honest, I think the safest way to explore these would be to ask for fictional representatives of each. Think of the boss in Death of a Salesman. The bureaucrats in 1984. Every character in Great Expectations. Here are some cringe-worthy pop-culture references:
The Hypocritical Leader. I don't think I need to tell you how demoralizing it is to have a leader who is a hypocrite. For example, the CEO who mandates severe job evaluations but never undergoes one himself. Or the CEO who mandates diversity in hiring but only personally hires/promotes people who look suspiciously like him. But I'm going to throw Liam Neeson under the bus for this one, who seemed to be positioning himself as a supporter of equal pay. This sound bite is incredible. I particularly like how he followed up his "no" with "no, no, no, no, nooo".
The Incompetent Leader. I've mentioned the "Peter Principle" before -- the tongue-in-cheek rule that says people will always be promoted one level beyond their competence. We've all had experiences with leaders who have no idea what they're doing (and might have no idea how incompetent they are). Most of the Dilbert comic strips I've shared over the years focus on Dilbert's incompetent boss. The boss from The Office could be used to demonstrate any and every bad leadership quality, but this horrifying clip of him incompetently giving sensitivity training is stupefying.
The Self-Serving Leader. Every boss in every movie about the stock market probably qualifies as a poster child for the leader who is in it for himself and doesn't care what happens to anyone below him. But I'm going to call back this clip from a 90s movie called "Office Space" that captures what we so dislike about self-serving bosses. Working for an incompetent leader is soul-crushing, but I just don't know if there's a worse work experience than the boss who just wants to get rich off of your hard work.
Making a Transition to Church Leadership
If you decide to use any of those leadership topics, be listening for this misapplication: believing that the principles and priorities of the secular world are interchangeable with those of the church. Let's not artificially mix those up.
That said, there are plenty of pop culture references to "bad" church leaders. There's a show on HBO called "The Righteous Gemstones" whose tagline is literally "Serving the Lord. And themselves." The premise of the series seems to be how they enrich themselves from income to their ministry. Not too hard to guess how they fit into the "bad" leadership paradigm.
But I think I'm going to blow your mind with this one. Did you know that a movie came out this fall about a "Southern Baptist megachurch" whose leaders were trying to rebuild after a major scandal? And it was released in theaters? Here's the trailer. Don't think I plan on watching it (not sure who the target audience is). But just from the trailer alone, it's clear that this Pastor and First Lady check all of the above boxes for "bad leader".
Anyway, here's the point -- write down the "qualities" of "bad" leaders on a whiteboard. Then, as you go through this week's passage, check off those qualities as you encounter them, or add new ones. What leadership qualities are important to God in the book of Hosea? And then your "bonus" assignment is to compare your lists to what Paul says in 1 Timothy.
This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Book of Micah
Let's start with the Bible Project video:
Micah was Isaiah's and Hosea's contemporary. He preached to Judah while Hosea preached to Israel. You should remember all of the accusations Amos and Hosea made against Israel -- (1) their wealthy class was oppressing the poor, (2) their rulers were guilty of corruption and injustice, and (3) their priests had failed to teach the law of God. Well, according to Micah, all of those things were also happening in Judah, and it would bring about Judah's downfall just like Israel's.
An outline shows the depth of Judah's sin:
God judges all people (1:1-2)
God judges His people (1:3-3:12)
Religious infidelity (1:3-16)
Economic injustice (2:1-5)
False preaching (2:6-11)
[The remnant remains! 2:12-13]
Unjust leaders (3:1-4)
False preachers (3:5-7)
Corrupt officials (3:9-12)
There will come a day of worldwide peace and worship (4:1-5:15)
God's case against His people (6:1-7:6)
God will forgive and restore (7:7-20)
Note that those same three accusations will appear throughout the book.
About Micah. "Micah" means "who is like?" (it's a shortened form of "Micaiah" -- "who is like Yahweh?" and "Michael" -- "who is like God?"). The very last verse of the book asks "who is a God like you?" creating a bookend with the first verse.
Micah was from Moresheth (likely Moresheth Gath, a village about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem). He preached in Jerusalem during the reigns of Jotham (750-732 BC), Ahaz (735-715 BC), and Hezekiah (715-686 BC). We don't know anything about Micah. People have speculated that he was a landowner, a shepherd, a village elder, or a cult prophet. There's no sense in indulging those speculations. We do know that he was a committed prophet who believed in the power of the message God sent him to declare.
Some of his prophecies were directed against Samaria (which fell in 722 BC). Remember that after Assyria conquered Samaria, they also laid waste to much of Judah and even attempted to conquer Jerusalem (they failed during Micah's lifetime). The suffering Judah experienced at the hands of Assyria may have helped some of the people begin to take Micah more seriously and been the context for his messages of hope and peace.
I have four particularly favorite passages in Micah. We are covering two of them specifically in our lessons. Here are the other two:
4:2 and many nations will come and say, “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us about his ways so we may walk in his paths.” For instruction will go out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He will settle disputes among many peoples and provide arbitration for strong nations that are far away. They will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives. Nation will not take up the sword against nation, and they will never again train for war.
(you can probably find a way to work that in as a Veteran's Day illustration)
6:6 What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the offspring of my body for my own sin? 8 Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
(this should be memorized and used as an illustration every week)
Like with Hosea, there will be a strong balance between judgment and restoration. The emphasis on peace between nations, however, suggests that war is already taking its toll on the people. Micah only offers one prophecy of the Messiah, but it's a biggie.
We will hit the key points of Micah as we go through the three lessons our schedule has set aside for Micah.
Part 1: Self-Serving Leadership (Micah 3:1-4)
Then I said, “Now listen, leaders of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel. Aren’t you supposed to know what is just? 2 You hate good and love evil. You tear off people’s skin and strip their flesh from their bones. 3 You eat the flesh of my people after you strip their skin from them and break their bones. You chop them up like flesh for the cooking pot, like meat in a cauldron.” 4 Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them. He will hide his face from them at that time because of the crimes they have committed.
First, note that chapter 3 consists of three parallel 4-verse prophecies:
Address (leaders/rulers, prophets, priests)
Let's cover the first one. This is a pretty rough passage to include, but so be it. It's directed against the leaders and rulers (of both Judah and Israel). This refers to judges, magistrates, governors, elders, and anyone else in the "ruling class". This is not literal (like Krampus!!!) but intended to be the most upsetting possible way to describe the behavior of the leaders -- comparing them with cannibals. (Not that this is worth dwelling on, but I can't think of a worse reference than calling someone a cannibal.) They're supposed to be the shepherd (see 2:12), but they're just eating their own sheep! The betrayal!
Tread briskly through this (because these examples are so upsetting) but ask your group what they consider the worst betrayals by leaders. I'll offer three:
King David -- the cruel military betrayal of his soldier (and friend!) Uriah, who trusted David and fought for David.
Kenneth Lay (Enron) -- he was willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of countless employees and investors to save his own fortune.
Larry Nassar -- a team doctor who used his position to sexually assault countless girls and young women under his care.
That's the level of anger God has for the leaders of Judah. They're not just "skimming off the top" or "raising prices" -- they are creating conditions that are killing their own people through poverty, starvation, and exposure!
Consider these accusations from chapter 2:
1 Woe to those who dream up wickedness and prepare evil plans on their beds! At morning light they accomplish it because the power is in their hands. 2 They covet fields and seize them; they also take houses. They deprive a man of his home, a person of his inheritance.
8 But recently my people have risen up like an enemy: You strip off the splendid robe from those who are passing through confidently, like those returning from war. 9 You force the women of my people out of their comfortable homes, and you take my blessing from their children forever.
The leaders of Judah are behaving like a conquering army, taking whatever they want whenever they want it. But these are their own people! They are leveraging their own wealth and influence to take from the poor.
It's a tale as old as time, isn't it? And it's just as much of a problem in our world today. Otherwise, how could Nathan's parable resonate so strongly with us all?
2 Sam 12: 1 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When he arrived, he said to him:
There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very large flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised her, and she grew up with him and with his children. From his meager food she would eat, from his cup she would drink, and in his arms she would sleep. She was like a daughter to him. 4 Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man could not bring himself to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.
5 David was infuriated with the man and said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 Because he has done this thing and shown no pity, he must pay four lambs for that lamb.” 7 Nathan replied to David, “You are the man!"
David would be remembered as a "good shepherd" because he repented of his horrible behavior. But Micah is confronting these rulers just as Nathan confronted David, and these rulers are shamelessly ignoring Micah.
It's all very, very upsetting. And the consequence is that when they do call out to God for help, God will not listen to them, just as they did not listen to the poor.
Let's unpack that. Remember that last week's lesson was based on the assumption of "true" repentance. We established that God will always respond to a true demonstration of repentance. Well, I think we can conclude that when these "cannibalistic" rulers cry out to God for aid, it will not be with a spirit of true repentance; it will be self-serving and manipulative, just as they treated the people. And God will see through their hypocrisy.
Assuming you've talked at least a little bit about the difference between "good" and "bad" leaders, the general accusation is that these rulers abused their authority to enrich themselves at the cost of everyone below them. That's one of the three characteristics I mentioned above.
What are specific ways leaders can do this today? What other behaviors might God be condemning in these verses?
Part 2: Corrupt Prophets (Micah 3:5-8)
5 This is what the Lord says concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who proclaim peace when they have food to sink their teeth into but declare war against the one who puts nothing in their mouths. 6 Therefore, it will be night for you—without visions; it will grow dark for you—without divination. The sun will set on these prophets, and the daylight will turn black over them. 7 Then the seers will be ashamed and the diviners disappointed. They will all cover their mouths because there will be no answer from God.
8 As for me, however, I am filled with power by the Spirit of the Lord, with justice and courage, to proclaim to Jacob his rebellion and to Israel his sin.
Based on the words in verse 8, it seems that Micah was just as upset about these false prophets as he was the wicked rulers. Which do you think is a bigger deal -- wicked rulers or corrupt prophets? Why? (I believe they're both equally destructive, just in different ways.)
Micah briefly mentioned these prophets in chapter 2:
6 “Quit your preaching,” they preach. “They should not preach these things; shame will not overtake us.”
(In the Hebrew, the same word can connote a "prophet" or a "preacher", reinforcing our belief that "prophecy" is primarily "declaring the word of the Lord" which may or may not have anything to do with predicting future events.)
Verse 5 is harsh. These prophets are in it for the money -- saying whatever they need to say to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy class. The only people they will speak against are the people who are already not giving them any money.
I've known pastors who have served by this principle. I've known churches who have made doctrinal decisions based on keeping the biggest tithers in the church. Without dropping names, how can pastors (modern "prophets") and churches reflect verse 5 today?
Just as importantly, why is that a big deal?
About "false prophets". These were just as common in Micah's day as they are today. Jeremiah gave us two pretty good identifiers:
14:13 And I replied, “Oh no, Lord God! The prophets are telling them, ‘You won’t see sword or suffer famine. I will certainly give you lasting peace in this place.’” 14 But the Lord said to me, “These prophets are prophesying a lie in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a false vision, worthless divination, the deceit of their own minds."
23:16 This is what the Lord of Armies says: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They are deluding you. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the Lord’s mouth. 17 They keep on saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord has spoken: You will have peace.’ They have said to everyone who follows the stubbornness of his heart, ‘No harm will come to you.’”
A false prophet (1) makes up his own message (which can be known by the "fruit" of the message), and (2) says things that are pleasing to God's enemies (who are also known by their "fruit"). In short, they are hypocrites -- claiming to speak for God all the while knowing they're not.
If life were all just a game, and if God didn't really exist, then who cares, right? Say what you need to say to make a buck and live comfortably. But life is not a game, and God is real.
Anyway, the consequence will be that God will completely shut them off. False prophets use witchcraft/occult practices that tap into satanic powers -- God will block them even from that. My guess is that God would go so far as to scramble their thinking when they finally resort to making up a good lie. God can do that (Satan cannot). And they will be ashamed and disgraced when it finally becomes clear that they are frauds.
Micah contrasts himself with those frauds by pointing out that he speaks with power. He is not ashamed of who he is or what God sent him to say. This should make us think of something Paul the apostle said --
1 Cor 2:1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery[a] of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. 2 I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.
This makes for the simplest test (to me) for how to evaluate the prophet/preacher's words -- are they super-clever, or are they clearly built on the Bible? The same must be true of us when we're leading Bible studies. Are the group members going to remember our clever applications, or what the Bible said?
Our power is in the Word of God.
Part 3: Responsibility Declared (Micah 3:9-12)
9 Listen to this, leaders of the house of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert everything that is right, 10 who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice. 11 Her leaders issue rulings for a bribe, her priests teach for payment, and her prophets practice divination for silver. Yet they lean on the Lord, saying, “Isn’t the Lord among us? No disaster will overtake us.” 12 Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become ruins, and the temple’s mountain will be a high thicket.
Once again, this is addressed to the "leaders" and "rulers" (clearly identifying judges as part of that group), but now also to the priests. It seems like Micah is just repeating what he said in the previous verses -- so why say it again?
First, Micah is clarifying the sins he poetically described in the previous verses (kinda like how Jesus would sometimes explain His parables). Your assignment: how does this description line up with what you speculated in parts 1 and 2?
Second, Micah is clarifying the offending parties. No one can get away with "I'm not technically a prophet, so he's not talking about me". Every person with political, social, or religious influence is in Micah's crosshairs.
They make decisions and rulings based on a perverted sense of right and wrong ("perverted" meaning "twisted" from the original).
They make progress at the cost of human life (perhaps like how thousands of migrant workers have died building Qatar's World Cup stadiums).
They "improve" the city unjustly (by evicting people and claiming their houses).
The courts make decisions based on bribes.
The priests teach the people who can pay them most.
The prophets are no different from fortune-tellers.
That's a pretty rough description of a nation that's in big trouble, right? We certainly have all three characteristics in play here. Hypocrites -- claiming to act for justice but clearly behaving unjustly. Self-serving -- in all of the ways we've talked about already. Incompetent -- they clearly can't do their job well, so they do whatever they feel.
Reminder: The difference between nations and churches. It would be very easy to go down the tangent of talking about how America has been guilty of each of these sins. I think that would be missing the point and application for us today. There are a lot of non-Christians in authority in America, and they do not operate on a biblical foundation. That would be the equivalent of "cursing the darkness" rather than "shining our light".
Instead, we need to focus on our circles of authority. If you are a business owner, or an employer, or a public servant, you need to evaluate what you are doing based on God's righteous principles. But we do come together as Christians to live out the Word of God -- in our churches. The clearest application we have of these verses is to our churches. What are the ways that churches can follow in the sinful footsteps of the leaders of Judah?
I'm not going to suggest any more possibilities because I want to focus on what the New Testament says about church leaders, but I think you can come up with some good lists in your groups. But the purpose of such an exercise would not be to be destructive but constructive. After you've identified the potential problems, ask this -- what can we do as church members to keep our churches from taking that path? As long as our churches are populated with humans, we're going to make mistakes. This discussion should not be gossip about church leader failings but commitment to build one another up.
Verse 12 tells us what will eventually happen to Jerusalem ("Zion" being its prophetic name) -- it will be destroyed. Do you think that God could bring about the end of an unrighteous church today?
Closing Thoughts: New Testament Pastoral Leadership Principles
I just want to share a few verses from the New Testament that are specifically directed at church leaders so you can see the overlap between them and what Micah said. (Check out our study of 1 Timothy 3 for more commentary.)
3 This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” 2 An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. 4 He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil. 7 Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.
8 "Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money, 9 holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must also be tested first; if they prove blameless, then they can serve as deacons. 11 Wives, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything. 12 Deacons are to be husbands of one wife, managing their children and their own households competently. 13 For those who have served well as deacons acquire a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus."
I chose this passage because it focuses on what kind of person a church leader should be, not what a church leader should do. I know this will take some creative thinking, but go through the characteristics of a church leader as described by Paul. How do they compare with what God complained about in Micah? How do they compare with the other characteristics you've talked about in this week's discussion? (To be clear, you will want to change your thinking to match the Bible, not the other way around.)
[Note: Paul is specifically speaking about pastors and deacons and their wives, who are assumed to be their partners in ministry. For our purposes, I believe this list also applies to leaders in our churches who might go by other titles -- like Sunday School leaders, Bible study leaders, trustees and committee chairs, anyone who has influence and authority over part of the life and ministry of the church. Churches might not put them on the same pedestal as a pastor, but we should all aspire to the same high standards for all church leaders.]