The Rectilinear Prophecy of Our Savior in Micah 5:2
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” —Micah 5:2
The prophet Micah was moved by the Holy Ghost to proclaim the wrath and punishment of the Lord against the Children of Israel—particularly against the southern kingdom of Judah—on account of their idolatrous practices (1:1–7), their unloving treatment of their fellow human beings (2:1–2; 7:2), the perversion of justice by those in authority (3:9–12; 7:3), and the lies of the false prophets among them who sought to make the people carnally secure in their wicked ways (3:5–8). By their sins and unbelief, God’s chosen nation had certainly violated His justice and provoked His wrath, and thereby were bringing upon themselves most dreadful consequences—both temporal and eternal. Accordingly, Micah proclaimed the Lord’s threats of punishment against the unbelievers (1:6; 6:13–16; etc.).
However, notice the beautiful expression of God’s gracious forgiveness and love with which the book of Micah concludes in the last three verses: “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy. He will turn again; He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham, which Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old” (7:18–20). But how is it possible for the holy and just Lord God to show such love, compassion, and forgiveness to those who deserve only the full fury of His righteous wrath according to His immutable Law? This was made possible only through the redemptive work of the Messiah, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose advent in the flesh was still a little over 700 years away at the time of Micah’s prophecy, but through whom God would perform that “truth” and “mercy” which He had sworn to His believing people “from the days of old.”
The Savior’s coming had been anticipated by the believers in the Old Testament going all the way back to Adam and Eve, after their fall into sin, when the promise was given about the Seed of the woman who would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Gradually, over the next 4,000 years, the Lord revealed more and more specific details about the Messiah’s advent, person, and work through various prophets. It was through the prophet Micah that God foretold exactly where Christ would be born—pinpointing the location to a small town in Judea, named Bethlehem. In the prophecy of Micah 5:2, the town is called “Bethlehem Ephratah” because it was originally called “Ephrath” [“the Fruitful”] at the time when Jacob buried his wife, Rachel, in that area (Genesis 35:19; 48:7). Thus the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth, “the city of David” (Luke 2:4), was clearly distinguished by the Lord Himself through His prophet from another “Bethlehem,” Bethlehem Zebulun, a town in Galilee just northwest of Nazareth.
Concerning this little town, which lies approximately five miles to the south of Jerusalem, Micah wrote by inspiration of God: “Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” Could this prophecy refer to anyone other than Christ? Absolutely not! From the hindsight of history, we know that there were no other rulers to come forth from Bethlehem after that time. But how could the people at the time of this prophecy, as well as the people of future generations, know that Micah was foretelling the birthplace of the promised Messiah-Savior, and not any ordinary “ruler in Israel”? Chapters four and five of Micah are clearly Messianic—picturing both the spiritual peace and the victory over the enemies that Christ would bring to His people. Furthermore, the phrase, “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (not merely “from ancient times,” as the NIV has it) can only refer to One who is eternal, namely God Himself. The Hebrew word translated as “everlasting” is “oh • LAHM”—the same word used in Psalm 90:2, “even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.” (Incidentally, the NIV does translate “oh • LAHM” as “everlasting” in Psalm 90:2.) So we see that both the divine and human natures of the Messiah are set forth in Micah 5:2. Christ according to His human nature is referred to when Bethlehem is stated to be the place from which He would “come forth” (His human birth from the virgin Mary); whereas Christ according to His divine nature is referred to when His “goings forth” are declared to be “from everlasting” (His eternal generation from and existence with God the Father).
There was, indeed, a common understanding among the Jews, on the basis of Micah 5:2, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem Ephratah; and because of this, some people actually thought that Jesus could not be the Messiah, since He was generally thought to be a native Galilean (John 7:41–42). But even though Joseph and Mary had been residents of Galilee prior to Jesus’ birth, and even though Jesus spent most of His child and adult life in Nazareth, He was, indeed, born in Bethlehem of Judea, as this is recorded in Luke 2:1–7 and in Matthew 2:1. That Micah’s prophecy was understood by the Jews to be a clear foretelling of the Messiah’s coming and of the place of His birth can also be seen from the fact that “the chief priests and scribes” referred to it without hesitation in answer to Herod’s inquiry concerning “where Christ should be born” (Matthew 2:4–6). Now a comparison between the Old Testament prophecy of Micah 5:2 and the way that the chief priests and scribes paraphrased it (blending it together with II Samuel 5:2) in Matthew 2:6 shows an interesting difference, which might seem to be contradictory at first glance. Referring to Bethlehem, the prophet Micah wrote: “Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah.” But the chief priests and scribes paraphrased this as: “Art not the least among the princes of Juda.” (The first emphasizes its smallness; and the second minimizes its smallness.) Both statements set forth truths that are not mutually exclusive. Of course, it should be readily acknowledged that being little is not the same as being the least; so there is no contradiction here (simply a stressing of a different point). Especially in consideration of the fact that it was the birthplace of the Messiah, little Bethlehem was far from insignificant. The important point here is that the Jews correctly understood that Christ, the promised Savior, would be born in the town of Bethlehem Ephratah at the time of God’s appointing.
So “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman” (Galatians 4:4)—being born as a true human being, and fulfilling all of the prophecies concerning His birth, including the prophesied location of this glorious event in “the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4–7). The accuracy of Micah’s prophecy (given by inspiration of the Holy Ghost over 700 years before the birth of Christ) bears witness to the divine authorship of this book of the Old Testament, as well as of the Scriptures in general. The modernists, who deny the verbal inspiration of the Bible, rather than conceding that Micah accurately foretold the location of Jesus’ birth, say that “Bethlehem Ephratah” does not refer to a place at all, but to a person (or a clan) named “Bethlehem Ephratah” from whom a great earthly ruler would arise. They cite I Chronicles 4:4 and claim that a man named Bethlehem, who was the son, or grandson, of a woman named Ephratah, would have been called “Bethlehem Ephratah” and is the person to whom Micah refers. However, the Hebrews would not use a mother or grandmother as part of a man’s name. They would sometimes use a father or grandfather as part of a man’s name; but even then, the usual construction would include a “Ben-” (“son of”) prefix. Furthermore, as was stated before, the Jews themselves regarded the “Bethlehem Ephratah” of Micah 5:2 to be a specification of the town in which the Messiah would be born (Matthew 2:4–6; John 7:42).
Another objection put forth by critics is that the ruler mentioned in Micah 5:2–6 is described as being an earthly ruler, which Jesus was not, who would bring earthly peace and deliverance from earthly enemies, which Jesus did not do. And it is true that this section of Scripture does use descriptions of physical situations to make spiritual points—as Jesus Himself did when He said: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Christ was not talking about giving people physical rest from a physical burden, but granting them the spiritual relief of heart and mind that takes place by virtue of the forgiveness of their sins and the “peace with God” that every true believer enjoys when he is personally “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1). Other examples of how Jesus figuratively referred to physical things from the situation at hand in order to make spiritual points can be found in John 4:7–14, 31–34, and Matthew 16:5–12. In much the same way, through the pen of the prophet Micah (5:2–6), the Lord God used some physical things relating to the current situation to make deeper spiritual points. In the midst of great turmoil between the kings of Judah, Israel, and the other nations around them, the Lord foretold the coming of the greatest King ever to walk the earth—not an earthly king, but the King of all creation, God Himself, the spiritual Ruler of all true believers (compare Isaiah 9:6 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 with John 18:36–37). At a time when the Assyrians threatened to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord foretold the coming of Him who would grant His believing people (spiritual Jerusalem) deliverance from and victory over their most dangerous enemies—the spiritual enemies of Satan, the world, and the old man within (compare Luke 1:71–75). As the prospects of war and fighting mounted, God pointed the people to the Messiah, who would bring a peace that is far greater than any kind of earthly peace—peace with God through the forgiveness of sins earned by the vicarious life, suffering, and death of the Messiah Himself (compare Isaiah 40:1-2, Luke 1:77–79; Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:14; etc.).
However, although the Jews of Jesus’ day rightly understood the prophecy of Micah 5:2 as referring to the coming of the Messiah from the town of Bethlehem Ephratah, they wrongly believed that He would be an earthly ruler who would lead them to victory over their earthly enemies. But because this was completely contrary to the divinely ordained purpose of His mission, Christ resisted their attempt to make Him an earthly king (John 6:14–15) and steadfastly held that His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36). Sadly, most of the Reformed hold to a variation of that old Jewish error in their expectation of a future millennial rule of Christ in an earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem. This false belief was already starting to gain acceptance in Luther’s day (see Augsburg Confession, Article XVII, §5). But why would anyone who knows and appreciates the kingdom of grace and the spiritual peace earned for him by Christ let hopes of earthly peace predominate in his thinking? Why would anyone who knows and appreciates the kingdom of glory that awaits him in heaven allow hopes of a future earthly kingdom to gain preeminence in his heart? This happens for the same reason that even those who know and appreciate the great Christmas Gift that God gave us in sending His Son to be our Savior from sin still often focus more of their time, energy, and thoughts on earthly gifts at Christmas time. It happens because of our old sinful flesh, which is constantly at work to draw our focus away from the priceless treasure of the Gospel and place it instead on the things of this world.
What then is the remedy for this innate worldliness that affects us all? In the first place, we must constantly be reminded by the mirror of God’s Law of our innumerable transgressions, including our sins of worldliness, and of our wretched condition by nature on account of which we justly deserve God’s righteous wrath and punishment; for only then will we understand our desperate need for a Savior to rescue us from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:10, 13). Then, having come to true contrition or Godly sorrow for our sins, we need to hear, heed, apprehend and be comforted by the sweet Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus which announces to us and to all men His perfect satisfaction of God’s justice by both His active and passive obedience, so that God, for His sake, has already forgiven the sins of the whole world — including our own. For it is by faith in that blessed fact that we have “peace with God” (Romans 5:1) and an ever greater appreciation for the eternal kingdom of heaven that Christ has purchased and secured for us with His own blood. May the Holy Ghost, through the power of His Word, “guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us nor seduce us into misbelief, despair and other great shame and vice” [Luther, Sixth Petition] by setting our affection upon this deceitful pleasures and fleeting treasures of this present life, including earthly peace and prosperity; “and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome and obtain the victory” by steadfast faith in and humble appreciation for the invaluable spiritual and eternal blessings that are ours through the advent and work of the Lord Jesus and are laid up even now for us in the heavens
(I Peter 1:3-5).
Hark! A voice from yonder manger,
soft and sweet,
“Flee from woe and danger.
Brethren, from all ills that grieve you
you are freed;
all you need
I will surely give you.”
Hither come, ye poor and wretched.
Know His will
is to fill
every hand outstretched.
Here are riches without measure;
fill your hearts with treasure.
(TLH 77, 7 and 11)
—P. E. B.