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Who Is a God like You? Micah's beautiful hymn in Micah 7:18-20

God's justice and mercy intersect at our repentance.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Micah 7

God's case against His people is watertight. They are guilty and deserve their punishment. But Micah knows there is more to the story -- for his God delights to show mercy and faithfulness to His covenant promises. Those who repent, the remnant of His inheritance, will indeed share all of the blessings God promised to their forefathers.

He does not hold on to his anger forever because he delights in faithful love. (7:18)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

It's Advent!

I've shared this picture before, but it can't hurt to share it again. There's a thing called "The Christian Year" or "The Church Calendar" that some churches are probably more familiar with than others. We're all familiar with Christmas and Easter, right? Well, over the centuries, church leaders have tried to tell a coherent story with the events of Jesus' life and ministry that Christians can "rehearse" every year as part of their discipleship -- we follow Jesus better by knowing the path of His life. I like the way this graphic summarizes it:

Back in the 4th century, church leaders set aside a 40-day fast to prepare for Jesus' birth. The sermons during that period focused on the wonder of the Incarnation (remember that in those days, they didn't have books and movies about the Nativity). "Advent" means "coming" -- Jesus is coming to the earth. By the Middle Ages, churches had settled on 4 Sundays, and eventually they put "hope, peace, joy, and love" on the Sundays.


Somewhere along the way, the month leading up to Christmas was hijacked by Big Business and turned into eating chocolate candies while we wait for Santa Claus. But we're going to stick with the better tradition -- let's take a month to prepare our hearts for Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus.


I think it would be a great use of group time to orient everyone on the importance and purpose of the Season of Advent.


This week's Bible passage is a beautiful hymn of hope from Micah about God's faithfulness to us and His eternal plan to fix our sin problem. And wouldn't you know it -- that's exactly what we celebrate at Christmas!


Favorite Hymns/Songs

If you want to do a more traditional opening discussion, you might try this: what are your favorite Christian hymns/songs and why? This week, we are going to read one of the most beautiful hymns in the Bible, though a lot of the power is lost in translation. It is so encouraging and forward-thinking. On this side of the cross, we have the blessing of seeing more of God's plan unfold. But one day, Jesus is coming again -- a Second Advent, you might say. And then, all of these promises will be finally fully fulfilled. With that perspective, you can say that we are currently living in Advent.

 

Where We Are in Micah

Ordinarily, I would a "Big Idea" here, but this week's Big Idea is a deep-dive into the translation of 7:18-20, and I'll put that at the end where it will make more sense.


Micah 6-7 is the final, glorious highpoint of the book -- God's final case against His people and the inevitable verdict of guilty. But with a twist...


  1. God's Case Against Israel (6:1-7:6)

    1. The setting of the trial -- the earth as jury (6:1-2)

    2. God presents the evidence (6:3-12)

      1. God rescued His people from slavery (6:3-5)

      2. The people responded with awful religion (6:6-7)

      3. God told them He wanted their hearts (6:8)

      4. Instead, the people are violent, dishonest, and corrupt (6:9-12)

    3. God announces the consequences -- famine (6:13-15)

    4. God presents more evidence (6:16-7:6)

      1. There is no one faithful who is left (7:1-2)

      2. The people are evil and quick to bribe (7:3-4)

    5. God announces more consequences -- betrayal (7:5-6)


7:7 -- Transition -- Micah knows this verdict is not the last word


  1. Words of Hope to Israel (7:8-13)

    1. That Her Judgment Will End (7:8-10)

      1. Though she has fallen, God will raise Israel up. (7:8)

      2. Though she is sinful, God will restore Israel’s righteousness. (7:9)

      3. Then the nations will be ashamed. (7:10)

    2. That A Time of Rebuilding Will Come (7:11-13)

      1. Israel will rebuild her walls. (7:11)

      2. Israel will rebuild her status. (7:12)

      3. Then the nations will be ashamed. (7:13)

  2. Words of Praise to Israel’s God (7:14-20)

    1. For His Power over the Nations (7:14-17)

      1. Micah pleas, “Remember Your people.” (7:14)

      2. God replies, “I will.” (7:15)

      3. Then the nations will be ashamed. (7:16-17)

    2. For His Mercy on His People (7:18-20)

      1. God’s mercy on His remnant is incomparable. (7:18)

      2. God’s forgiveness of our every sin is absolute. (7:19)

      3. God’s loyalty to His covenant is eternal and unchanging. (7:20)


The setting is dire. God's people are guilty, and they cannot defend their actions. They deserve punishment -- they deserve all the punishment. So, how can God offer hope? That's what makes this week's passage so beautiful. It's also something that we might miss (as modern American readers).


Subtle technique #1: Micah taps into the defining events in his audience’s cultural history, most importantly the Exodus and the giving of the Law. He also taps into accepted traditions about God’s nature, focusing on God’s delight in hesed, or faithful love (His delight in seeing it in His people and His delight in possessing it).


Subtle technique #2: Micah switches between a perfect and a future tense to build an argument that God’s past behavior and His present (eternal) nature can accurately predict His future actions towards the remnant of his inheritance.


Subtle technique #3: Micah switches between first-, second-, and third-person to help his audience learn more about God, direct worship to God, and to identify himself with the people.


Subtle technique #4: Micah uses poetic intensification to turn these words and arguments into beautiful and powerful pictures that have stayed with the Jews for millennia. All of these factors give Micah’s matter-of-fact declaration of hope a credibility that would have comforted his audience. The Jews had indeed sinned greatly, so greatly that they would be punished severely. But those who would repent, who would be a part of the remnant, will one day enjoy God’s forgiveness and the blessings of His covenant with their forefathers. It is a promise that they can trust, one that we can trust, as well.


This is the perfect passage to study on our first Sunday in Advent.

 

Part 1: Reality Defined (Micah 7:1-6)

7 How sad for me! For I am like one who— when the summer fruit has been gathered after the gleaning of the grape harvest— finds no grape cluster to eat, no early fig, which I crave.
2 Faithful people have vanished from the land; there is no one upright among the people. All of them wait in ambush to shed blood; they hunt each other with a net.
3 Both hands are good at accomplishing evil: the official and the judge demand a bribe; when the powerful man communicates his evil desire, they plot it together.
4 The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is worse than a hedge of thorns. The day of your watchmen, the day of your punishment, is coming; at this time their panic is here.
5 Do not rely on a friend; don’t trust in a close companion. Seal your mouth from the woman who lies in your arms. 6 Surely a son considers his father a fool, a daughter opposes her mother, and a daughter-in-law is against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household.

This is a tough, tough passage to digest. It's as damning as anything that could be written about sinful people. The very best of them is like a thornbush. Remember how God said He would spare the people of Sodom if 10 righteous people could be found? Well, they couldn't, but the angels still rescued Lot and his family. Jerusalem doesn't even have a Lot in it, that's how bad things are!


"How sad for me" is Micah speaking. The words have the sense of "I am so disappointed". This is where we see the collateral damage of God's message. Here's Micah -- by what we know a good, godfearing man -- who is also going to lose everything (at least, his descendants will) because of the sin of the people. "Disappointing" must be such an understatement! I can imagine Micah going on the hunt for righteous people -- "surely I can find 10 righteous people in the land" -- and not finding them.


[Aside on pillars of the church. We have people in our church (and I have had people like this in every church I've been a part of) that are just wholehearted followers of Jesus. They are committed to their Bible study and prayer, they care about the people around them, they make the room "better" just by being a part of it. Micah's experience is why I actually take comfort in their presence. As long as we have "people like that" in our church, I know we're going to be okay. That might be a strange application, but there you go. It also helps to drive me to want to be that person. Maybe it will motivate you, too. Our faithfulness to God lifts up the people around us and makes our church a healthier place for everyone else.]


Verse 4: "the day of your watchmen". This is such a great phrase. Perhaps we might say something much less poetic like "the day you're glad you have insurance" or "the day you needed that first aid training". Why would a city hire and pay a watchman? To give them advance warning of an invasion. Well, the day they're paying that watchman for is coming!


Verse 5: everyone could betray you. I've read stories about living in Nazi Germany. Today, we can read similar stories about living in Russia, China, North Korea, and other places. When society erodes, you can't trust anybody. Anybody -- including your spouse or your children -- could turn you in to the authorities. (What scifi dystopia movies generate their initial tension from a scenario like that?)


Verse 6: not even your family can be trusted. I'm surprised that the basic study material didn't focus on this, but Jesus used this verse to describe the outcome of His mission in Matthew 10:

32 “Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge me before others, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever denies me before others, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven. 34 Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I came to turn
a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.
37 The one who loves a father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; the one who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Anyone who finds his life will lose it, and anyone who loses his life because of me will find it.

Perhaps your most important discussion question for these verses would be this: why do you think Jesus would cite this prophecy about His own ministry?

 

Part 2: Salvation Discovered (Micah 7:7-10)

7 But I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me.
8 Do not rejoice over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will stand up; though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light. 9 Because I have sinned against him, I must endure the Lord’s fury until he champions my cause and establishes justice for me. He will bring me into the light; I will see his salvation. 10 Then my enemy will see, and she will be covered with shame, the one who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” My eyes will look at her in triumph; at that time she will be trampled like mud in the streets.

Like I said earlier, verse 7 is a transition. Micah is aware of the evidence. He knows what the verdict will be. But his faith is not shaken.


Truly, that faith doesn't make any sense. The case is closed! What hope could Micah possibly have? I recommend flying through this section to dwell on the source of Micah's faith and hope, captured in 7:18-20.


Here's a sneak peek -- Micah understands how God's justice and mercy work together.

 

This Week's Big Idea: The Glorious Hymn of 7:18-20

(Also "Part 3: Forgiveness Celebrated")

18 Who is a God like you, forgiving iniquity and passing over rebellion for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not hold on to his anger forever because he delights in faithful love. 19 He will again have compassion on us; he will vanquish our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. 20 You will show loyalty to Jacob and faithful love to Abraham, as you swore to our ancestors from days long ago.

You see that the lesson writers skipped a few verses. There are a few things to note:

  1. Verses 11-13 explain that God's judgment isn't just for the Jews, but the whole earth will be judged and found wanting.

  2. Verse 14 is a call from Micah to God that foreshadows the final verses -- "God, you are the people's shepherd, so shepherd your people!" It seems bold, but it's the foundation of the Micah's hope.

  3. Verse 15 is a key image -- Micah is specifically calling attention to the exodus from Egypt. This will be big in the final verses.

  4. Verses 16-17 build on that -- just as the exodus caused Egypt to fear God (at least, for a little while), so Micah knows that God's future actions will cause the whole earth to fear Him.


Now let's get to the bulk of my post. You're just going to have to forgive me for this. I wrote a paper on these verses years ago, and I'm going to give you a highly edited version of that paper. (Yes, what follows is a highly edited fraction of the original paper; I love these verses.)


I am not giving you this information to direct your group discussion. This is for interested readers to become more familiar with the passage; you can decide for yourself what might be helpful to share with the group. I have tried to put a few bold markers to call attention to a few key points. It's still long -- it's a lot of information.


"Highlights" from My Paper on Micah 7:18-20

The prophet Micah has also experienced a tragic loss—the loss of the godly among the Jewish people—that he knows will bring retribution from God for his people’s sin and rebellion. Yet Micah can still end his book with a hymn of hope, a hymn that serves not only as its climax, but also its apt conclusion. In Micah 7:18-20, we will find the source of Micah’s great hope, that God is both a God of justice and faithfulness to His covenant with the Jews.

Today, many Jews (especially Sephardic), include Micah 7:18-20 as part of the reading from the Prophets (Haftarah) during the Yom Kippur services. Some place it after the reading of Hosea 14:2-10, and many place it after the reading of the book of Jonah. They do so because they feel the theological connections are very strong, especially with Jonah’s accusation of God in Jonah 4:2, “I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from disaster.” One rabbi writes, “The purpose of this [inclusion of Micah 7:18-20] is to illustrate how much can be attained through the power of repentance, both personally and for the entire community, and how merciful God is toward sinners who reform their ways.”


I propose the following outline for Micah 7:8-20 (as the context for 7:18-20).

  1. Words of Hope to Israel: (8-13)

    1. That Her Judgment Will End (8-10)

      1. Though she has fallen, God will raise Israel up. (8)

      2. Though she is sinful, God will restore Israel’s righteousness. (9)

      3. Then the nations will be ashamed. (10)

    2. That A Time of Rebuilding Will Come (11-13)

      1. Israel will rebuild her walls. (11)

      2. Israel will rebuild her status. (12)

      3. Then the nations will be ashamed. (13)

  2. Words of Praise to Israel’s God (14-20)

    1. For His Power over the Nations (14-17)

      1. Micah pleas, “Remember Your people.” (14)

      2. God replies, “I will.” (15)

      3. Then the nations will be ashamed. (16-17)

    2. For His Mercy on His People (18-20)

      1. God’s mercy on His remnant is incomparable. (18)

      2. God’s forgiveness of our every sin is absolute. (19)

      3. God’s loyalty to His covenant is eternal and unchanging. (20)

The climax to this book is Micah’s realization that God can judge sin and yet be faithful to His covenant with His people; His righteousness and His mercy intersect at the remnant of His inheritance. It also follows that God’s response in verse 15, “I will show them wondrous deeds as in the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt,” solidifies the connection with Exodus 15 as the image behind the outburst of praise that we find in verses 18-20.


Verse 18a, “Who is a god like You?”

Micah’s opening line intentionally invokes a strong theological image for his audience. This rhetorical question appears in a similar form in several key texts, all of which declare the incomparability of Israel’s God. The one Micah may have had most in mind (considering the connection between this hymn and Exodus 15) is Israel’s first such declaration in Exod 15:11, “Lord, who is like You among the gods?" Biblical authors used rhetorical questions “not to gain information, but to give information with passion,” and the clear answer to this question is “No one!”


But Micah is offering more than a declaration of praise; he is also preparing his readers to identify the outstanding qualities that make God incomparable. Though Judah has sinned and will be punished (exiled, as 2 Kgs 20:16-18), she must remember that He is the same incomparable God who brought the Jews out of slavery in Egypt by conquering Pharaoh and his so-called gods. The past informs Micah’s hope for the future, for God will not change.


Verse 18a+, “who takes away iniquity and even passes over the transgression”

Micah uses two participles here: “taking away” and “passing over.” God is not bearing the remnant’s sin on Himself, but taking it away. He is “passing over” their sins in the sense of “overlook.” The driving theme is forgiveness. For Micah, God’s incomparability comes from His willingness to forgive. This is a dominant theme in the most important texts in the Old Testament, like Exod 24:7, Lev 16:21, and especially Num 14:18: “The Lord is slow to anger and rich in faithful love, forgiving wrongdoing and rebellion”. The parallel words for sin point out the absoluteness of God’s forgiveness. Nothing Israel has done—no act or attitude or disposition—can fall beyond God’s ability to forgive. Micah must make this clear at this point because he has just said in verse 2 that no upright people remain in the land. But even this egregious condition can be made right by Israel’s incomparable God.


Verse 18a++, “of the remnant of His inheritance”

Micah does not have a general forgiveness in mind, but a very limited forgiveness of the sins of the remnant. Keeping this verse out of the later debate of General versus Limited Atonement, I have said that Micah reconciles God’s justice with His mercy at His willingness and ability to forgive (His particularly incomparable quality) or pardon the sins of the repentant remnant.


Micah switches from second to third person here (“His inheritance”) because the hymn is shifting between supplication and meditation. (We supplicate/pray to God; we meditate about God.)


The dual reference to “remnant” and “inheritance” ties the book together. Micah has spoken of a remnant five times, in 2:12, 4:7, 5:7, 5:8, and 7:18, in all the sections of hope. It is a reminder to Micah's audience that they should always have hope. They are not just any inheritance, they are God's inheritance. God has called the Jews His inheritance before (as in Deut 4:20, when Moses describes the Exodus as the proof that God had chosen the Jews “to be a people for His inheritance,” a tradition that Solomon remembers in 1 Kgs 8:50-51 when he calls on God to forgive His people as His inheritance). This particular image helps Micah’s audience understand the intimacy of their relationship with God as well as why He has such a vested interest in them. Micah uses this tradition as justification for his hope in God’s mercy and faithful love.


Verse 18b, “He does not hold on to His anger forever because He delights in faithful love.”

Continuing to use the third person, Micah further describes and characterizes the nature of God’s incomparability. Micah describes a timeless characteristic of God (which is why Micah’s audience can trust his optimism). Why does God not hold on to His anger forever? After all, as recently as verse 9 Micah made it very clear that the Jews will have to suffer for their sins. It's because God delights in showing faithful love.


Micah adds a very important adverb: forever. This is one of the ways he can reconcile God’s judgment against sin with His faithful love. God will not “keep hold of” or “cling on to” His anger any longer than necessary; once the debt has been paid, that anger can give way to love. Again, Micah knows that to be true because God “delights in” that kind of love.


Verse 19a, “He will again have compassion on us; He will conquer our iniquities”

Micah makes a very important shift in from a perfect tense to a future tense. This is not simply a prediction -- this is an obligation on God's part. God’s nature defines God’s actions. In other words, God’s delight in faithful love, which is intimately related to His incomparable quality of mercy and forgiveness, will without doubt reveal itself in His dealings with the remnant of His inheritance.


In ever greater detail, Micah gives three parallel images of God’s incomparability with respect to how He will deal with His remnant’s sin.

  • (A) God will again have mercy / on us;

  • (B) He will subdue / our sins;

  • (C) You will throw into the depths of the sea / all their sins.

This intensive use of parallelism makes it clear that God will deal with Israel’s sin absolutely; there will be no loopholes in God’s forgiveness.


Micah’s word choice establishes some earlier ideas. First, by using the word “again,” he clarifies that God’s imminent dealings with His people (as in the Exile) may seem like He has changed His policy of faithful love. Even so, God will return to that policy when His anger has subsided. Second, Micah switches to the first person suffix (“on us”). As he has throughout his prophecies, Micah identifies himself with his audience. Their suffering is his suffering; their shame his shame. Micah probably does this very deliberately, and it makes sense that Micah would end his book on this note. Third, Micah employs the word for mercy or compassion: it identifies the bridge between God’s nature in verse 18 and His actions in verse 19, and it provides the foundation for the parallel images of forgiveness in verse 19.


In verse 19, Micah uses a verb which literally means “to subdue or subjugate,” leading many translations to say “subdue,” “tread,” or “trample,” as in the NASB: “He will tread our iniquities under foot.” Looking only at the parallelism, it seems that Micah’s general sense of the word is forgiveness, and it is clear from the next verse that Micah is personifying sin. And by virtue of the intensification of the poetry, Micah must intend this to be a striking image or figure of speech. Remembering the intertextual connections with Exod 15, it seems that Micah wants his audience to compare God’s past victory over Pharaoh’s army with His future victory over the remnant’s sin—as is obviously the case with the next verse: God once saved Israel by overthrowing His adversary Egypt (cf. Exod 15:7), and He will again save Israel by overthrowing His adversary sin. To make this personification more vivid, I chose the English verb “conquer,” although the HCSB’s “vanquish” is attractive.


Though Micah uses the same word for sin/iniquity as he did in verse 18a, here he uses the plural form of the word, bringing attention to the fact that Israel has committed many sins. But in this context, Micah draws something positive from it: each one has been noted, and each one will be forgiven.


Verse 19b, “Indeed, You will throw into the depths of the sea all their sins”

Here, Micah’s parallel intensification extends not just to the imagery, but also to the length. He starts this phrase with what's called an "intensive waw", which I translate here as "Indeed". Perhaps he can think of no other way to bring his declaration to an obvious climax except by again directly addressing the incomparable God of the beginning of verse 18.


Micah does switch back from first person to third person ("their). To the Western ear, which generally considers the first person more psychologically emphatic, this might seem to be a strange shift at a point in the poetry when Micah wants to be as emphatic as possible. But he does this to enhance the connection between this verse and verse 20, a verse that drives home God’s faithful love to His people as confirmed through His covenant with the patriarchs (a third person concept), and possibly to make a theological point that will be discussed below.


Verse 19b provides a very memorable image to the Jews. Some interpret it with respect to Exod 15, as in Exod 15:4-5, “He threw Pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea; the elite of his officers were drowned in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone.” This highlights the personification of sin as an enemy that God will conquer or vanquish. If Micah has this passage in mind, he would be emphasizing the degree of God’s victory over Israel’s sin. Others interpret it with respect to Jonah, especially Jonah 2:3, “You threw me into the depths, into the heart of the seas.” Our study of Jonah demonstrated that Jonah saw the depths of the sea as the farthest distance he could go from God short of Sheol, so if Micah has this passage in mind, he would be emphasizing the distance to which God has removed Israel’s sins from her. Both possibilities have merit; both show how absolute God’s forgiveness will be. I prefer the backdrop of the Exodus passage because of the earlier comment about Micah 7:15.


In this verse, Micah uses the parallel words for sin (similarly to his poetry in verse 18) to prove that God will leave no sin unforgiven. As he did with “iniquities” in verse 19, Micah uses the plural form of the word for sin in 19. But here, he further intensifies it with the adjective “all”. Not one single sin will remain beyond God’s compassion. What greater declaration of hope can Micah give to his audience? It will truly be as the Psalmist says in 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us,” or as Jeremiah says in 50:20, “In those days and at that time—[this is] the Lord’s declaration—one will search for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for Judah’s sins, but they will not be found, for I will forgive those I leave as a remnant.”


One final question remains about the phrase “all their sins:” what is its referent? This pronoun looks back to “the remnant of His inheritance” in verse 18. This gives us another possible reason why Micah switched back to the third person here. Not everyone who reads the book of Micah will have his (her) sins forgiven, but only those who belong to the remnant. Micah gladly includes himself among the remnant when he says, “He will forgive our iniquities,” but he knows that the compassion will only extend to the remnant (the true children of Jacob and Abraham).


Verse 20a, “You will give covenant faithfulness to Jacob, faithful love to Abraham”

This is the most obvious use of intensive parallelism in verses 18-20. When these words occur together in a verse, we usually find Abraham mentioned before Jacob, and faithful love before covenant faithfulness, but Micah reverses that order here. This word-pair intensification combined with the incomplete parallelism cause me to see a most intimate connection between the words in these two word-pairs.


The verb Micah uses means very simply “to give.” Like before, Micah uses a future tense of obligation. Because of God’s incomparable nature (verse 18), He will not only not count His remnant’s sin against them (verse 19), but He will even give them His loyal love (verse 20). The indirect objects of “give” are Jacob and Abraham. Clearly, Micah intends us to see those men as representatives of the remnant. Jacob and Abraham sinned, but they continued to return to God. This, then, is the climax of the book of Micah. For all of the sins the Jews have committed, for all of the idolatry and apostasy, God still offers the benefits of His covenant to the faithful remnant, to those whose sins He is willing to forgive. As Paul wrote in 2 Tim 2:13, “if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”


Special Aside on "hesed"

The word hesed, translated here as “faithful love,” plays a crucial role in the Jews’ understanding of their relationship with God. And as a result, Micah uses it for a very specific purpose. Its range of meanings can include a joint obligation between individuals and the actions resulting from loyalty to that obligation (i.e., godly actions or mercy). But for the Jews in the Old Testament, over time it took on a technical, cultic significance uniquely related to God’s behavior with respect to His covenants.


This word appears 280 times in the Old Testament. Of those, God is the agent and man is the recipient 187 times. Man is the agent and God is the recipient 28 times. Man is the agent and recipient 64 times. When man is the agent, this word can mean “kindness” in the sense of service (Ruth 3:10), “kindness” in the sense of remembering a pledge to show mercy (Josh 2:12 and Judg 1:24), “compassion” (Dan 1:9), or “loyalty” (Gen 20:13). When God is the agent, this word has a more uniform meaning, often translated as “faithful love”, and also “covenant loyalty” (Deut 7:9), “covenant faithfulness” (Isa 55:3), “everlasting love” (Isa 54:8), and “gracious covenant” (Dan 9:4). These various translations, especially considering the theological depth of the words used, should warn us that hesed “cannot be adequately translated in many languages, including English.”


All of that comes into play in verse 18b. In a negative sense for Micah, hesed represents the end of God’s anger; in a positive sense, hesed represents the beginning of God’s covenant faithfulness.


Jacob seems to be the first man to use this word of God specifically with respect to His covenant in Gen 32:11 when he asks God to deliver him from Esau, but there he means it in the sense of kindness or mercy. As might be expected, the word makes a prominent appearance in the victory song of Exod 15, “You will lead the people You have redeemed with Your faithful love” (Exod 15:13). In that context, it could either refer to the nature of God’s leading, or the motivation for His deliverance. The cultic sense of the word has its origin in the Ten Commandments, specifically Exod 20:5-6, when God commands, “You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth [generations] of those who hate Me, but showing faithful love to a thousand [generations] of those who love Me and keep My commands.” This is a critical text because it binds God’s position as the God of the Jews with His willingness to show faithful love to His loving and obedient people. The second giving of the Ten Commandments makes this bond even stronger; God tells Moses, “Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand [generations], forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin” (Exod 34:6-7), to which Moses replies, “Even though this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wrongdoing and sin, and accept us as Your own possession” (Exod 34:9). Micah clearly alludes to these verses in 7:18-20.


Here's how a scholar (Sakenfeld) traced the evolution of the meaning of the word. She argues that the word originally strictly meant God’s faithfulness to the terms of the covenant with His people. But when it became obvious that the people could not keep up their end, the term attached itself to the Davidic dynasty and the faithfulness of the king. By the time of the prophets, it was obvious that the monarchy could do no better, so attention returned to the patriarchal traditions, and the word came to be used for fulfilling the requirements of the covenant (by the time of the New Testament, the word had adopted a fully Pharisaical sense). She concludes, “The prophets recognize that it is Yahweh’s persistent faithfulness to the people which is the sole basis for any future hope. Hesed is the covenantal ground for forgiveness and also the delivering act of succor in which the rescue from judgment takes form.”


Here's how the word is used in Micah’s closest contemporaries, Isaiah and Hosea. In Isaiah 54:10, God says, “Though the mountains move and the hills shake, My love will not be removed from you and My covenant of peace will not be shaken.” In 55:3, God says, “Pay attention and come to Me; listen, so that you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, the promises assured to David.” In 63:7, Isaiah lauds the great things God has done for Israel “based on His compassions and the abundance of His faithful love.” Hosea, on the other hand, uses the word with respect to the Jews’ lack of faithfulness to God. In 4:1, he says, “There is no truth, no faithful love, and no knowledge of God in the land!” In 6:6, God says, “For I desire loyalty and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”


Consider the Psalms. Fifty-four Psalms (more than one-third) refer to some form of hesed. Psalm 89 opens, “I will sing about the Lord’s faithful love forever.” It goes on to declare in verse 14 that “faithful love and truth” go before Israel’s incomparable God (noting two such rhetorical questions in verses 6 and 8). And God Himself says in verse 24 that His “faithfulness and love” will be with David. Psalm 107 opens, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His faithful love endures forever,” and goes on to describe God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of His people. Psalm 136 famously includes the refrain, “His love is eternal,” as it describes God’s provision through creation and the Exodus.


There is one last element to consider in this lexical analysis. When used in close connection with the word emet (often translated “truth”), as it is in verse 20, hesed seems to take on a specialized, nuanced meaning. When the two words appear together, there is always an emphasis on loyalty. As mentioned above, Exod 34:6 describes Yahweh as “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth.” In poetic texts, the words are paired as “For Your faithful love is before my eyes, and I live by Your truth,” (Ps 26:3) and “For Your faithful love is as high as the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds” (Ps 57:10 and 108:4).


In literature, this is called a hendiadys -- where two words are paired with "and" to establish an idea that has its own meaning (like saying "nice and warm" instead of "nicely warm"). This is what Micah did earlier in referencing Jacob and Abraham -- they are combined to be a symbol of the Jewish remnant. Likewise "hesed and emet"/"faithful love and truth" is a hendiadys for all of the benefits of being in covenant with God. As a result, in verse 20, Micah makes a very poetic and figurative declaration that the faithful remnant (the ‘true’ descendants of Abraham) will surely enjoy the blessings of the promises made to the patriarchs. The specific words chosen point to God’s faithfulness in giving mercy, love, forgiveness, protection, provision, etc., to those in covenant with Him, but the poetry and figures of speech point to a blessing even greater than that. On this side of Jesus Christ, we can begin to put clearer words to that blessing, but for Micah, this may be the grandest encouragement available.


To try to capture the richness and complexity of this phrase in English, I might recommend the translation "covenant faithfulness". The word “mercy” (NIV, KJV) fails to convey the full meaning, and other options, “steadfast love” (ESV), “lovingkindness” (NASB, ASV), and “unfailing love” (Waltke), have meanings in English that take them away from the central idea of “responsibility in relationship” noted above.


Back to the text.


Verse 20b, “just as You swore to our fathers from the days of ancient time”

Micah concludes his hymn with a line that stands outside the poetic structure. It's not overkill, it's an example. Micah refers to a concrete moment in history as validation of the source of his confidence—a final appeal in his closing argument, so to speak.


First, staying in the first person, Micah reminds God (for the benefit of his audience, not because God needs a reminder) that He swore these things to the patriarchs. One example is His words to Isaac in Gen 26:2-3, “Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land as a foreigner, and I will be with you and bless you. For I will give all these lands to you and your offspring, and I will confirm the oath that I swore to your father Abraham” (looking back to Gen 22:16-18). Second, Micah switches to a perfect tense of the verb because these events happened in the past. Should the Jews ever doubt that God made these promises to begin with, they only need to go to the Scriptures and re-read a recorded, historical event. Third, Micah identifies the indirect object of the oath as “our fathers.” He's talking about specific individuals that his audience would know (rather than a generic and uninspiring "them"). Fourth, Micah concludes his message with the adverbial clause, “from the days of ancient time.” It's the same phrase used in 5:2, with respect to the origin or ‘going out’ of the future Messiah, translated variously as “from antiquity” (HSCB) or “from long ago” (NASB). Micah is telling his audience that these blessings have been a part of their history since their beginnings as a people; God has had a covenant with His people since the ‘beginning’ in a loose sense of the word. It is a fitting conclusion to the book in which Micah looks forward by looking back. God will deal with the sins of the people, then through forgiveness and mercy He will restore the remnant to that blessing promised so long before. It is a message of hope, that justice and faithfulness can co-exist, and that the Jews who stay faithful will one day inherit the promised blessing.


It has just as much meaning for Christians today. A Christian congregation has the benefit of knowing that the ultimate intersection of God’s justice and faithfulness happens in Jesus Christ. Because Christ paid the penalty of our sins, we can now enjoy the greatest inheritance—eternity in the presence of God in heaven. Just as the Jews in Micah's day needed the faith and confidence that God would offer forgiveness for their sins (if they repented -- that's how someone could be identified with the remnant), Christians today can have an unwavering faith that God's love will not fail, even when we suffer the temporal consequences of our sin.


Happy Thanksgiving!

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