Social Justice in the Minor Prophets, Part 3: The Nations

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Social Justice in the Minor Prophets, Part 3: The Nations

It is difficult to see how much of the language concerning the nations is applicable today. I say that because sometimes the nations are God’s instrument to punish His covenant people[1] and sometimes God gives messages about His judgment against the nations.[2]

I find it interesting that modern notions of social justice that try to utilize the Hebrew Bible (OT) tend to focus on those passages where God is judging the nations. So, it makes sense to hear a balanced perspective on how to understand the relationship between justice and the nations.

RELATED ARTICLE: Social Justice and the Minor Prophets, Part 1

The Bad or the Good: What do you want to Hear First?

Most Christians know about the book of Micah for two major reasons; the Messianic prediction of Bethlehem being the birthplace of our Savior Jesus (Mic 5:1–2) and the popular phrase “what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8). While these are great reasons to open its pages, the reason these messages are there is because God’s people are indicted for their rebellion against Him and a complete transformation is needed.

Whereas today Christians “repent” when they sin, for Israel it was more involved because God’s presence was with them in the Temple and their vocation was to be a community light to the nations. So, just saying a prayer in their heart did not do justice to the type of shame they brought upon the Lord’s name among the nations.[3]

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The structure of Micah alternates between Judgment and Hope:

  • 1:2–2:11- Judgment
  • 2:12–13 Hope
  • 3:1–12 Judgment
  • 4:1–5:15 Hope
  • 6:1–7:7 Judgment
  • 7:8–20 Hope

Why is it necessary to know this? Because if we want to understand the biblical notion of social justice, we need to hear the whole story, not just hold a buffet style theology. So, let us briefly look at what particular issues were going in Israel that warranted judgment from the nations.

In the first judgment section, the first sin described is idolatry. To us, that may not seem to warrant the definition of injustice. However, because idolatry in the ancient world involved child sacrifice, prostitution, body mutilation, and a host of other spiritualistic rites it touched the very fabric of social interactions about God’s people.

It was so bad during the reign of Ahaz; God said He had had enough. What did Ahaz do? He doubted God’s word,[4] adopted pagan worship practices;[5] offered his sons as sacrifices,[6] and Isaiah informs us that the powerful were also engaging in economic injustice.[7] This is why Micah says, “her wound is incurable.”[8]

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The second judgment section deals with social justice and false prophecy. The leadership was engaging in judicial injustice (3:11), which connects money with injustice. This state of affairs was exasperated by the prophetic activity that also was engaging in bribery of a sort. They would only give positive messages to people who financially benefit them and messages of damnation to those who would not be a party to their wicked ways (3:5). God’s summation of their actions was that they “detest justice and make crooked all that is straight” (3:9).

It is significant that their optimism about God’s response to their ethical failures was what Christians would consider cheap grace. The false leaders assume that because they have a form of godliness (“God is among us”) that they would experience no negative encounters (3:11). Professions of faith without justice is lifeless.[9]

RELATED ARTICLE: Growing in Grace and the Knowledge of God

It’s interesting that James speaks of justice in the context of wealth since this is also Micha’s issue with the Judean leadership (6:11–12). The whole Bible makes it clear that the misuse of wealth is one of the prime sources of injustice! In this final judgment section, one of the most appealed to texts when it comes to social justice occurs is 6:8.

He has told you, O man, 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?

The impact of that statement must be heard in its immediate literary context. The chapter begins with what is known as a “covenant lawsuit” (rib; it sounds like reev). This is a judicial speech that charges Israel with being in breach of God’s covenant. The elements usually include:

 

  1. A summons to trial
  2. A trial
  3. Sentencing

 

The summons to trial typically includes a call to creation:[10]

 

Hear what the LORD says:

Arise, plead (rib) your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment (rib) of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the LORD has an indictment (rib) against his people, and he will contend with Israel. (Micah 6:1–2).

 

So, before the call to live justly is the indictment that the people have not been faithful to their covenant Lord. In other words, Micah is not just giving a blanket statement to the world about how they should live irrespective of God. He is specifically speaking to the people of God about returning to covenant faithfulness.

 

Any use of this passage that does not call the people to covenant faithfulness in God Almighty is an incorrect use of this passage. Scholars use a fancy word (eisegesis) to describe this method of “reading into the Bible what one wants it to say” rather than a proper use that allows the biblical meaning to emerge from the passage’s context, which is a part of a book.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Enmity in the Air

 

To Do Justly

 

In the trial section (vv. 3–8), God appeals to His people to consider His ways. He lays out His defense of saving the people, giving them godly leadership, and protecting them from demonic attacks. In light of such gracious acts, God then makes the point about what should be the response. He first corrects the problematic approach of the people. They are just offering sacrifices without a heart transformation.

 

It would be like coming to church every Sabbath and then over-charging your tenants’ rent or underpaying your employees or sexually harassing your subordinate workers and threatening to fire them if they complain. God doesn’t want religiosity, He wants justice, equity, and holiness in the hearts of His people. What does that look like?

To do justice is a broad concept;[11] it includes: Abraham’s obedience to God,[12] Abraham’s appeal to God to act faithfully as Judge,[13] covenant obedience to God’s statutes and covenant decrees;[14] God’s care for the unfortunate,[15] the reason for God’s blessing upon Gad,[16] and God maintaining the cause of His people.[17] An assessment of all these passages suggests that for us to “do justly” means that we are reflecting the character of God. Any notion of justice that does not highlight that God’s character is to be reflected to fulfill this command is not biblical justice.

 

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To Love Mercy

 

The second command, to love mercy is used only this once. God’s people are typically the object of the Hebrew verb.[18] It also is used as a motivating factor in wholeheartedly loving God.[19] So, this type of covenant is reciprocated between God and His people. Love is relational! The object of this love finds an unusual target, mercy.[20] This word used with God typically speaks about His character.[21]

 

Micah’s message is, love everything about God’s character and let that be the motivating force to live in faithfulness to Him! Any notion of justice that does not include loving God and everything about Him is not biblical justice.

 

Walk Humbly with Thy God

 

The last aspect of biblical justice in this beautiful picture of what it means to enact social justice in the world as God’s people to walk respectfully, humbly with your God. The association with wisdom[22] suggests that walking humbly is the product of wisdom that gives[23] which allows us to have a true understanding of our standing before God and that we have no reason to boast. So, biblical justice involves having a correct understanding of ourselves before God.

 

Micah and the Bad News—Babylonians

What happens to God’s people when they refuse to love and reflect His character to the world? Every prophet makes it clear that God will use the nations to punish His people when they are unfaithful to His call to justice.[24] While it may seem unfair that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, a question the people of God need to ask themselves is not whether we want justice, but whether we are walking in harmony with God’s way of justice, which will bring Him alone glory.

If a man gets the glory for what is God’s mighty acts, then the purpose of justice has not been fulfilled. As Satan accuses God of tyrannical rule, we need to ask ourselves are we supporting the enemy’s thesis? If we try to substitute some other form of justice in the world that does not lead people to God, then we agree with Satan that God’s way is not the best way and God will allow the consequences of our choices to play out in our lives.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Extra Ordinary Way God Saves His People

Nahum and Nineveh

Having stated that God sometimes uses the wicked to punish His unfaithful people, that does not mean that He advocates their ways or lifestyle. This is the other ditch some Christians fall into. Just because God does not send lightning from heaven and destroy the wicked does not mean that He supports their actions or that their actions reflect His ultimate intentions for the world.

The prophet Nahum brings balance to how we should understand justice and the nations. Nahum’s depiction of God’s wrath against Nineveh shows God’s fairness. He allowed the Assyrians (Nineveh was the capital city) to bring judgment against His rebellious people, but they went too far.[25]

God will bring justice to the nations, that is not the mission of the people of God today. God used His people to bring about justice in a warfare context earlier in Israel’s history while He was their direct King.[26] But His ultimate plan involved His people being a light to the nations and inviting them to become a part of the people of God.[27] When it comes to holding the nations accountable, God takes responsibility for that.[28] The destruction of the wicked is part of God’s restoration project for His true people.[29]

RELATED ARTICLE: When It Doesn’t Feel Fair

A balanced picture is expressed by these two prophets concerning the nations. The book of Revelation expresses these two perspectives vividly and gives the people of God courage to live justly in a world devoted to selfishness and self-seeking. It also gives us pause to ask ourselves whether we are reflecting the spirit of the Lord or the spirit of the world when it comes to justice.

The people of God understand justice in terms of reflecting the character of God, while the world understands justice punitively because they have neither the wisdom, grace, or character to incite the type of loving selfless equity God calls for. As the people of God, we need to show the nations what true justice looks like so they will know what God is like.

And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:23).

Amen!

Read the rest of Jerome’s series on Social Justice and the Minor Prophets

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Notes.

[1] cf. Isaiah 10:5–11.

[2] cf. Isaiah 13:1–22.

[3] Ezekiel 36:22.

[4] cf. Isaiah 7:1–13.

[5] 2 Kings 16:10–18.

[6] 2 Chronicles 28:3.

[7] Isaiah 5:8–10.

[8] Micah 1:9.

[9] cf. James 2:14–18.

[10] cf. Deuteronomy 32:1; Psalms 50:1–4; Isaiah 1:2–4.

[11] The grammatical construction appears 59 times in the Hebrew Bible (OT).

[12] Genesis 18:19.

[13] Genesis 18:25.

[14] Leviticus 18:4.

[15] Deuteronomy 10:18.

[16] Deuteronomy 33:20–21.

[17] 1 Kings 8:45, 49, 59–60.

[18] ʾahab, “to love”; Deuteronomy 10:15.

[19] Deuteronomy 10:12; 11:13.

[20] khesed, “steadfast loyalty, fidelity.”

[21] Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalms 145:13, 17.

[22] Proverbs 11:2.

[23] Proverbs 2:6.

[24] Micah 4:10.

[25] cf. Isaiah 10:12–34; 14:24–27.

[26] Joshua–2 Kings.

[27] cf. Isaiah 2:1–4; 56:1–61:12.

[28] Nahum 1:9–11, 14.

[29] Nahum 2:1–3:19.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.