The last week of advent features a common Old Testament passage because it predicts Bethlehem as the birthplace of Messiah, and is quoted as such by Matthew. However, Matthew doesn’t quote the whole prophecy. Let’s take a moment to examine the text, but then I want to also address a second issue.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler of Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until he time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.
Bethlehem means “house of bread” in the language of the Hebrews, and the further demarcation Ephrathah, an alternate name, means “fruitful.” I will resist the urge to draw too many connecting lines, but Jesus is the bread of God born of a woman–the fruit of her womb. Surely that can’t be completely coincidence. Micah sees the smallness of Bethlehem as a tiny village, not even a clan, as a grand reversal in that the Messiah will arise from there. Matthew cites this passage, but he also cites a non-biblical prophecy (unless Matthew is making a play on words and is referring to the word “branch” in passages like Isaiah 11) in Matthew 2:23 that says Messiah will be a Nazarene.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but he is raised in Nazareth (Galilee). Sometimes, two things can be true at the same time.
It is quick work to note details of Messiah–which would form a very good outline for a sermon or Bible study.
- His coming is from of old–ancient.
- He shall give them up–enigmatic to be certain, but I take it as a reference to ‘leaving Israel to her own devices for a period of time’
- The rest of his brothers . . . return–I think this is future and refers to the repatriation of Palestine by Hebrews. You can pick your time period–distant past, recent past, or future. Or all of the above.
- He shall shepherd–This is a kingly usage as David was the shepherd. Messiah will exert real power to protect the people.
- They shall dwell secure–this is the people, his brothers, in Israel.
- He shall be great to the ends of the earth–The name of Messiah will be feared by all peoples.
- He shall be their peace–Messiah will ensure peace for his people.
Some of this prophecy is the past–the birth of Jesus. Some of this is also fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus as he has come to bring us peace and he is also our good shepherd. But much of it has not. Which is why this Micah oracle is applied across multiple timelines. We should also not rule out that some of it might have been fulfilled before Jesus’ birth, such as the return of exiles. Nevertheless, the bulk of it will not be fulfilled until the ultimate return of Christ and eternity begins.
Now, to the dirty work. The scholars of Israel in Herod’s time knew this oracle, and they knew where to tell the Wise Men to look for the baby. The actual timetable for when these things happened is hard to know, but the location is not. They said, look in Bethlehem. For this same reason, Herod knew where to do his butchery. He sent the soldiers to Bethlehem too. This leads us to the unsettling reality of prophetic and biblical material. In the wrong hands, it can be used for evil. If I were preaching this passage this Sunday (and I am not), I believe I would make this the actual focus of my sermon–“When the Good Word is turned into Evil Actions.”
This isn to about poor hermeneutics or misunderstandings. This is about people who are evil in their heart and turn the words of the Lord upside down.
- Terrorists quote the Bible as they murder abortion doctors.
- Politicians quote the Bible as they oppress millions or start wars.
- Churches cite scripture and verse to justify the tolerance of abuse.
You probably can come up with your own, but it is a real problem. Does this make God culpable? A co-conspirator? Absolutely not. People who twist the scriptures in violent and immoral ways will be punished. We, as people of faith, have an obligation to be alert for these particularly heinous kinds of false teachers.