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Alex's Blog for September 2, 2011 - The Promised Ruler from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-5)
By Alex Dodson
In studying the Old Testament Prophets, we have to be careful not to read something into the scripture that is not there. Also, many of the Old Testament prophecies are not that easy to understand and we should not be too quick to come up with an interpretation. It may not be that clear what the prophecy means, and more than one interpretation may fit the prophecy. That doesn't mean that all the interpretations are correct. The prophecy does have a correct meaning even though we may not know for sure what it is. Therefore, we should not be so dogmatic about an interpretation of prophecy but should realize that we might not be completely correct in our interpretation. That doesn't mean that we should shy away from coming up with an interpretation for the prophecy. We can interpret it by comparing it with other scripture and the whole teaching of the Bible.
Having said these things, let me also point out that many times a particular interpretation is forced upon a passage to make it fit into a specific prophetic scheme or system. If one holds to a dispensational scheme of prophecy, that will certainly have a bearing on how he interprets a prophetic scripture. On the other hand, if one holds to a postmillennial understanding of prophecy, that would also influence him on how he interprets a prophetic passage. This especially holds true if the prophecy is subject to more than one interpretation and is not so clear. Today, the dispensational scheme of prophecy is most popular in evangelical circles and definitely influences on how Old Testament prophecy is interpreted. This has not always been the case. From shortly after the Reformation to the latter part of the 19th century, the postmillennial understanding of prophecy held sway. Men like Jonathan Edwards and many of the pioneer missionaries of the modern era held to a much more optimistic view of prophecy than today's popular prophetic writers.
So, when I come to Micah 5:1-5, I realize it can be interpreted in different ways. My interpretation will follow a more optimistic view of church history and the future for the church and will largely be in line with the views of the majority of evangelical Christians before the later 1800's. I believe it would be agreed by all that this passage is definitely talking about the Messiah especially since verse 2 is referred to in the New Testament as referring to the Messiah. When King Herod asked the Jewish leaders where the Messiah was to be born, they referred to Micah 5:2 which says, "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." The Jews recognized that this passage was talking about none other than the Messiah. Of course, we know that when Jesus was born, He was born in Bethlehem. There seems to be no doubt on the interpretation of this verse that it refers to Jesus Christ. He is the one who was born in Bethlehem of Judea and who would be the ruler or King over Israel and whose origins were from ancient times being the very Son of God. Keil and Delitzsch write, "It is now generally admitted that the Ruler proceeding from Bethlehem is the Messiah….the words affirm both the origin of the Messiah before all worlds and His appearances in the olden time, and do not merely express the thought, that 'from an inconceivably remote and lengthened period the Ruler has gone forth, and has been engaged in coming, who will eventually issue from Bethlehem.'" (Commentary on Micah, p. 480) So, verse 2 is pretty clear and straight forward. It refers to the Messiah, to Jesus Christ. Therefore, the rest of the passage must be in some way related to the Messiah and his coming.
Now, let's look at Micah 5:1. This verse is not so easy to interpret. It can be understood in more than one way. The verse says, "Marshall your troops, O city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod." What is the city of troops? Who is Israel's ruler who will be struck on the cheek? In the commentaries I read on this, there seem to be at least two possible interpretations of this verse. The first interpretation would refer this back to the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. The troops would be the Babylonian troops coming against Jerusalem. The ruler would be King Zedekiah or the Jewish princes over the nation. Matthew Henry writes, "…it is meant of the besieging of Jerusalem, not by the Romans, but the Chaldeans, and was fulfilled in the indignities done to King Zedekiah and the princes of the House of David." (Matthew Henry's Commentary, p. 1322-1323) John Gill also writes that the above may be the interpretation of the verse when he says, "'they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek' - that is, either, they, the besiegers, the king of Babylon and his army, when they shall have taken Jerusalem, besieged by them, shall use Zedekiah the king of Judah, and judge of Israel, and his princes and nobles, very ill, signified by this phrase; yea, in a very cruel and barbarous manner, first slaying his sons and his princes before his eyes, then putting his eyes out, binding him in chains, and carrying him to Babylon, and there laying him in prison (See Jeremiah 52:10-11)". (John Gill's Commentary on Micah, www.biblestudytools.com) This first interpretation would then point to the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem and the taking of the rulers to Babylon and the Babylonian captivity of Judah.
The second interpretation would point to the attack on Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. The reason for the attack would be God's punishment upon Israel for rejecting the Messiah and putting Him to death. Mark 15:19 says, "Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him…" Mark 14:65 also says, "Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, 'Prophesy!' And the guards took him and beat him." These verses would correspond with the words, "They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod" in Micah 5:1. It would also tie verse 1 to verse 2 which clearly refers to the Messiah. John Gill allows for this second interpretation when he writes, "..unless the Romans should be intended, to whom this character of 'daughter of troops' well agrees, of whose legions all have heard; and since the Babylonian attempt on Jerusalem, and the carrying the Jews captive into Babylon, are before predicted, with their deliverance from it, and what they should do in the time of the Maccabees; a prophesy of the Romans, or a representation of them, a gathering their troops and legions together to besiege Jerusalem, very naturally come in here." (Gill's Commentary on Micah) In commenting on the second part of the verse, Gill writes, "…or else they, the besieged, would use the Messiah, the King, Judge, and Ruler in Israel, in such a spiteful and scandalous manner; and so the Messiah was to be used by them, who according to prophecy gave his cheek to them that plucked the hair, and hid not his face from shame and spitting; and so Jesus, the true Messiah, was smitten, both with rods, and with the palms of men's hands, and buffeted and spit upon (Isaiah 50:6; Matthew 26:67); and this is mentioned as a reason why Jerusalem would be encompassed with the Roman armies, and besieged by their troops and legions and become desolate, even for their rejection and ill usage of the Messiah." (Gill's Commentary on Micah) This second interpretation would seem to fit well with the context of the whole passage that we are considering.
We have already mentioned verse 2 as a clear reference to Jesus Christ having been born in Bethlehem of Judea. So, we turn now to verse 3 which says, "Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites." Again, we have two interpretations of this passage either of which could fit it. One interpretation puts this time period before the coming of the Messiah. The other puts it after the coming of the Messiah. The first points to Israel's troubles that will continue until the Messiah is born. The other points to the long period of the Jews being scattered from 70 AD onward until her conversion later in the age. Again, John Gill gives a good summary of both interpretations. In commenting on the first part of the verse concerning the abandonment of Israel, he writes, "'Therefore will he give them up' or 'notwithstanding,' as this particle signifies…; though all this shall be, yet, previous to the birth of this person, the Lord would give up the Jews to trouble and distress, and into the hands of their enemies; and the time from this prophet to the birth of Christ was a time for the most part of great trouble to, the Jews, not only was their country invaded and their city besieged by Sennacherib in Hezekiah's time, but some years after that, they were wholly carried captive into Babylon, and when they returned it was troublesome times with them; they met with many enemies that disturbed them while they were rebuilding the city and temple; and after that they endured much tribulation in the times of Antiochus Epiphanes, or of the Maccabees, nor were they long in any quiet, nor in any settled state, unto the coming of the Messiah." (John Gill's Commentary on Micah) The verse could very well have this meaning. We cannot know for certain because another scenario could also fit the verse. Again, John Gill sums up the other interpretation as follows: "Or else this is to be understood of what should be after his coming, for though Jesus was born at Bethlehem, according to this plain prophecy, and had all the characters of the Messiah in him, yet the Jews rejected him, and would not have him to reign over them; wherefore he, the Messiah, as Japhet interprets it, gave them up to judicial blindness and hardness of heart, and into the hands of their enemies the Romans; by whom they, were destroyed or carried captive, and dispersed among the nations; in which condition they still remain and will, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled; so long will Jerusalem be trodden under foot, or the Jews be given up to their will, according to Luke 21:24." (John Gill's Commentary on Micah)
The second part of verse 3 says, "until the time when she who is in labor gives birth…" This places a time limit on the abandonment of Israel. It will be until she who is in labor gives birth. Who then is "she"? Again, two interpretations are possible. Matthew Henry gives the first when he says, "…he will give up his people Israel to distress and trouble, and will defer their salvation, which has been so long promised and expected, until the time, the set time, that she who travails has brought forth, or that she who shall bring forth shall have brought forth, that the blessed virgin, who was to be the mother of the Messiah, shall have brought him forth at Bethlehem, the place appointed." (Matthew Henry's Commentary, p. 1323) The reference then is to Mary, the mother of the Messiah. However, John Gill points out that there is the possibility of another interpretation when he writes, "…or according to the latter, until Zion, or, the church of God, travailed in prayer, in the ministry of the Word, and brought forth many children to Christ, both among Jews and Gentiles, and the sense is, that the Jews shall be given up to distress and trouble, till the time of their conversion (Isaiah 66:7-8)" (Gill's Commentary on Micah) In this second case, the woman is Zion or the church and the giving birth refers to the conversion of the Jews later in the age. Either of the above interpretations fit. Which interpretation we choose depends on our overall view of the passage as well as our overall view of Scripture.
The third part of verse 3 says, "and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites." Various interpretations can be found for this part of the verse. Generally speaking we could see it as referring to both Jews and Gentiles being converted after Christ's first coming or we could see it as pointing to a future conversion of all of Israel later in the age. John Gill sums up both of these interpretations when he writes, "'then the remnant of his brethren shall return to the children of Israel' - Meaning either the remnant, according to the election of grace, among the Gentiles; who with those among the Jews should be converted to Christ in the first times of the Gospel, those immediately following the birth of Christ; the Gospel being preached both to the Jews and Gentiles, and some of both were called and converted, and whom Christ owned as his brethren, and were not ashamed of (Matthew 12:49-50; Hebrews 2:11), or the Lord's chosen people, and brethren of Christ, those of, the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and those of the ten tribes of Israel, who shall join and coalesce together in seeking the Messiah, embracing and professing him, and appointing him the one Head over them, when they turn to the Lord, and all Israel shall be saved (Jeremiah 50:4; Hosea 1:11; Romans 11:25,26)." (Gill's Commentary on Micah)
Now we come to verse 4 which says, "He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth." This verse would seem to fit into the future glory of the church in this age when the reign of the Messiah will cover the whole earth. Today, many would put this period beyond the present age into another dispensation after the Lord returns. I tend to agree with the older interpretation which puts this period in the latter part of our present age. I believe this would fit a more positive interpretation of scripture and the mission of the church in this present world. The old interpreters of prophecy referred to this period as the "latter day glory". This comes out in John Gill's commentary on this passage where he says, "'for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth' - as he was in the times of Constantine, and will be again. Christ is great in himself, in, his person and offices; and will appear to be so unto the ends of the earth, when his Gospel shall be preached and spread, everywhere, when his kingdom shall be enlarged, and be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth; even then shall he appear to be a great king over all the earth, and the great Shepherd of the sheep, the man, Jehovah's fellow; and to have such a flock, and so large, as never any had, when there will be one fold, and one shepherd, for the prophecy respects the latter day glory." (Gill's Commentary on Micah) This verse seems to fit in with Habakkuk 2:14 which says, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." Matthew Henry comments on this verse saying, "Now he shall be great, to the ends of the earth, for the uttermost parts of the earth shall be given him for his possession, and the ends of the world shall see his salvation." (Matthew Henry's Commentary on Micah, p. 1324)
The passage we are considering closes out with the first part of verse 5 which says, "And he will be their peace." Ephesians 2:14 says that Jesus is our peace. When we come to Christ we have peace with God. Jesus is also the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). This could also refer to a time of peace that comes when the Messiah's greatness reaches to the ends of the earth. Isaiah 2:4 describes the reign of the Messiah in this way - "He will judge between nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." Now, this can refer to any group of people who come to know Christ on a smaller scale or to a larger degree in times of great revival or on a more worldwide scale in the latter day glory envisioned by the old theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and many others. Concerning this latter day glory, Edwards writes, "Those will be times of great peace and love. There shall then be universal peace and a good understanding among the nations of the world, instead of such confusion, wars, and bloodshed, as have hitherto been from one age to another." (History of Redemption, p. 322) Edwards saw this time of peace coming about as a result of the preaching of the gospel and great worldwide revival. This is in stark contrast to the more modern view which would put this time of peace not in this age but in an age to come only after Christ returns. Those who hold to this second view do not believe that through the preaching of the gospel and revival can worldwide peace come in this age.
John Gill comments on verse 5 saying, "…so Jesus the true Messiah is called 'our peace' (Ephesians 2:14); and is the cause and author of peace, not only between Jew and Gentile, but between God and men, which he has made by the blood of his cross, and speaks and gives peace to men, and he is the author of peace in his churches, whose kingdom is a kingdom of peace, of which there will be an abundance in the latter day…." (Gill's Commentary on Micah) Gill and many others of his day saw this time of peace to come about in this age through the preaching of the gospel all over the world and through the blessing of God's Spirit. Jonathan Edwards in talking of prayer for revival wrote that we should pray "that he would appear in his glory, and favor Zion, and manifest his compassion to the world of mankind, by an abundant effusion of his Holy Spirit on all the churches, and the whole habitable earth, to revive true religion in all parts of Christendom, and to deliver all nations from their great and manifold spiritual calamities and miseries, and bless them with the unspeakable benefits of the kingdom of our glorious Redeemer, and fill the whole earth with his glory." (quoted in As the Waters Cover the Sea by James A. DeJong, p. 146-147) I might point out that Edwards as well as Gill were not referring to a far off millennium that would be issued in after Christ returns but they were referring to a time in this age yet to come when the gospel would prevail and there would be worldwide revival.
We have then looked at Micah 5:1-5 and pointed out what could be the interpretation of this passage if we look at it from a more positive point of view concerning the church. These verses could very well show that one day the Messiah would come and be born in Bethlehem and that he would be rejected by the Jews as a whole. As a result, Israel would be abandoned until the time when the Jews as a whole people would be converted to Christ. This conversion of Israel as a people would be associated with worldwide blessing as the Messiah's kingdom prevails to the ends of the earth and there will be a time of peace. This interpretation seems to correspond with Romans 11 where the conversion of Israel is foretold along with a blessing of the Gentiles at the same time. This all happens in the age in which we live and not in some future age after Jesus returns. Before Jesus returns, we look for the conversion of the Jews and worldwide revival brought about by the preaching of the gospel and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The bringing of the Jews as a people into the Christian Church will be accompanied by a correspondent blessing on the Gentiles and world wide revival. Israel will become a Christian nation that acknowledges and serves Jesus Christ as their Lord and Master and the nations of the world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. (Rev. 11:15)
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1978) unless indicated otherwise
De Jong, James A. As the Waters Cover the Sea, Audubon Press, Laurel, MS, 2006.
Edwards, Jonathan. The History of Redemption, The National Foundation for Christian Education, Marshallton, Delaware, originally in 1773.