Voices from the Soteriological Margins: God’s Requirements in Prophetic Perspective

December 13, 2016

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,

   and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

   with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

   with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

   and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

   and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:6-8 (NRSV)

Last week, we used passages from the Old Testament to argue that there is a deep and insoluble connection between God’s nature and His requirements for those who wish to be saved.  We also saw that God is a saving God and that humans need to be saved.

This week, we will more directly address our topic by asking what exactly God said He wanted from His people.  Fortunately, there is a well-known text in which God addresses precisely this question.  It is Micah 6:6-8.

Setting the Stage: God’s Faithfulness and Israel’s Corruption

One of the most important aspects of God’s character is His covenantal faithfulness.  God makes promises that establish relationships between himself and specific people.  As such, covenant plays a vital role in how the Old Testament frames Israel’s relationship with God.

We do not have the space—and I do not have the expertise—to plumb the depths of the Old Testament’s teachings on covenant (to say nothing of how these teachings are elaborated in the New Testament).  Nevertheless, the concept must be placed on the table because it is deeply embedded in the passage that we are examining today.

The chapter opens with the announcement that God is hauling Israel into court.  The very geology of the Promised Land is called to judge the case (vv. 1-2).  But instead of presenting a specific list of charges (God will do that in vv. 10-12), the Lord first asks Israel what He has done to deserve the treatment that He has received.  God recounts a brief history of His interactions with Israel, demonstrating with palpable anguish the goodness that He has shown to His people (vv. 3-5).  The Lord demands that Israel explain how it can feel weighed down by its relationship with God.

Setting the Stage: Past Salvation and Future Destruction

The words for salvation that we talked about last week are not used in Micah 6.  Nevertheless, the imagery clearly points in that direction.  In the past, God “redeemed” Israel from slavery and protected it from the harmful plans of its enemies.  God gave Israel leaders (both male and female), and, even though Israel disobeyed those leaders (and, therefore, God), it still benefited from God’s righteous actions.

The future, however, will be different—especially if Israel does not embrace the wisdom that is synonymous with respect for the divine name (v. 9).  God has already begun to destroy His people, and further ruin will result if they continue in the practices that they learned from the royal administrations of Omri and Ahab (vv. 13-16).

Israel’s Objection

The implicit appeal that God makes for Israel to cease behaving in certain ways and to rededicate itself to God is based on two premises.  First, God has been faithful, so Israel owes Him its allegiance.  Second, Israel’s behavior is of such a quality that it deserves divine punishment.  

It is in this context that the prophet presents Israel’s hypothetical objection to the divine indictment.  The objector cannot refute the charges on the rhetorical ground that God has established, so he seeks to move the discussion to a seemingly more advantageous field of battle.  The objector does this by feigning ignorance of what God requires.

The objector’s legal strategy is no surprise.  After all, according to Old Testament scholar John Walton, it was common for people in the ancient Near East to claim ignorance of what the gods really want.  But this is exactly as the prophet wants it, for, in crafting the objection just so, he is able to put his finger on the real issue at hand.  

The Prophet’s Response: A Study in Contrasts

Speaking on behalf of God, the prophet responds to Israel’s objection with fierce clarity.  The problem isn’t that Israel is unaware of what God wants.  The problem is that Israel knows exactly what the Lord requires, and yet it has chosen not to acquiesce to God’s will.  

Nevertheless, the prophet summarizes God’s expectations for his audience, and he does so in terms of three contrasts.  First, Israel expresses its understanding of God’s desires in terms of rituals to be performed.  The objector asks,”Would God be happy if I offered some burnt offerings?  What about some other kinds of offerings?  Would God like it if I killed my children to atone for my sin?”  (The dramatic interplay of biblical texts immediately leaps to mind.  God explicitly forbids human sacrifices on more than one occasion; they were an artifact of the idolatry of which Israel was already guilty.  And yet God also required Israel’s progenitor Abraham to sacrifice his son in Genesis 22.)

The prophet, however, has something completely different in mind.  He talks about God’s requirements in terms of a lifestyle.  The verbs “do,” “love,” and especially “walk” in verse eight illustrate this point well.  There is length and breadth to God’s requirements, and the actions described occur both in the sanctuary and out in the regular world.

A second contrast is very closely related to the first.  The objector talks in terms of satisfaction for sins already committed.  The notion of not sinning in the first place is not entertained.  The prophet, however, talks in terms of conduct that is not only not sinful but that is also demonstrably “good.”  The prophet talks about divine requirements as something that can be done as well as known.

The third contrast is contained within the prophet’s presentation of God’s requirements and is a little difficult to tease out.  It has to do with how we understand the Hebrew words מִשְׁפָּט and חֶסֶד.  It is clear that these two words are placed in parallel relationship to one another, and it is likely that the nature of that relationship is, broadly speaking, antithetical.  But what kind of antithesis does the prophet have in mind?  It could be that מִשְׁפָּט is intended to denote “justice” in the sense of right judgements in favor of the innocent and against the guilty, whereas חֶסֶד denotes “mercy” or “kindness” that is shown to all (cf. KJV MEV, NASB, ESV, NRSV).  Or, it could be that the prophet intends to contrast the fair treatment that one owes to any person (“justice”) with the treatment that one owes to a member of one’s own social group (“faithfulness” or “loyalty”; cf. HCSB, NET, NIV).

It is not an unimportant matter which way is the best way to understand the prophet, but it would take more space than we have available to us to resolve the debate.  Either way, we see that the prophet describes God’s requirements in terms of a dynamic tension that governs the  relationships that His people have with the people around them.  In other words, how they treat one another matters.

God’s Response: A Life of Devotion

We have already mentioned that the prophet expresses God’s demands in terms of a way of life.  God wants Israel to prevent sin by treating people with מִשְׁפָּט and חֶסֶד rather than trying to avoid the consequences of doing otherwise through frivolous or repulsive sacrifices.  But this does not mean that God is uninterested in how Israel interacts with Him.

Perhaps we see a hint of this in the prophet’s use of חֶסֶד; after all, this term, more than any other, describes how God has related to His people, and it adequately describes how God wants His people to relate to Him.  But the prophet makes his point explicit when he calls Israel to “walk humbly” (or, perhaps, “walk wisely”) with God.  Walking is a transparent metaphor for one’s customary way of living, so the prophet’s point is to call Israel to a way of life that is appropriately “with God.”

What We Can Learn

Clearly, there are limits to what we can learn from Micah about what one must do to be saved.  The prophet does not conceive of salvation in the way that we are discussing, and Micah seems to know nothing of the ultimate solution that God has in store through Christ.  Still, Micah’s words give us a glimpse of who God is and what God is all about, and he does speak of redemption and punishment in ways that anticipate the Christian doctrine of salvation.

So, what can we take away from our journey through Micah 6?  Here are a few of my ideas.  Feel free to add your own below.

  • Salvation is about a way of life, not a single decision.  It is interesting that words like “faith” never enter into the discussion, and God does not seem to be interested in calling Israel to make a decision.  Rather, God invites Israel to pursue a particular way of life—one that is defined, at least in part, by its relatedness to God.
  • How we treat people matters to God.  This is a theme that we will see again, so we might as well get comfortable with it.  Being nice to people apart from an ongoing relationship with God won’t get us anywhere, but neither will claims to have such a relationship that are not borne out in how we treat other people.
  • No amount of “sacrifice” on our part can atone for deficiencies in our relationship with God or for transgressions in our interactions with others.  Selfish, manipulative people cannot bribe their way into God’s good graces.  In part, this is because God already loves them and wants to extend grace to them, but it is also because God cannot be manipulated in the way that fickle, self-interested humans sometimes are.  God will accept nothing less than genuine devotion to Him and His ways.
  • Divided loyalties undermine the salvation process.  It is hard to “walk” appropriately “with God” when we are constantly bowing down before other gods.  We may not have statues of fertility goddesses in our homes or visit cult prostitutes, but we are tempted every day to value sex, money, power, and fame more than we value God.  Walking with God reveals these temptations for what they are—destructive deceptions of the devil designed to distract us from the unfailing love of God.

Comments

One response to “Voices from the Soteriological Margins: God’s Requirements in Prophetic Perspective”

  1. […] Last week, we discussed the question, “What does God want from us?” We are going to do that again this week, but we are going to move our discussion one step further by pursuing a second line of questioning. What happens if I don’t live up to God’s expectations? Is there any way back into God’s good graces? […]

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