Prophetic Whiplash…God of Mercy or God of Wrath?
Reading the Biblical prophets (like Micah) can give the reader emotional whiplash. The prophets often alternated abruptly between communicating God’s good news and bad. So which one is it: does God graciously forgive his people’s sins, or does he harbor his anger against them in judgment?
The prophets didn’t feel a need to necessarily resolve this tension; both are true in some measure. But in the end the witness of the Hebrew Bible–very much confirmed in the New Testament–is summed up in Exodus 20:5-6 (AKJV):
Do not worship any idol, and do not serve them, for I am Yahweh your God, a zealous God. For the sins of parents I hold accountable their children, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I show covenant loyalty to thousands of generations of those who love me and who keep my commandments.
Insofar as the tension between God’s mercy and God’s anger finds resolution, the Bible indicates that mercy is the overriding attribute of God.
Micah’s bifid structure, alternating as it does between woe and weal, seems to resolve at the end in favor of God’s mercy to his unfaithful people. This is Septuagint Sunday at Words on the Word, so a bit of Greek is in order. (You don’t have to know Greek to follow here.)
Micah 1:1 is the book’s superscription (=title page, essentially) where Micah identifies himself as a messenger of Yahweh, who has received his word to give to his people. The very first prophetic utterance, in the next verse (AKJV, from the Greek), is,
Hear these words, people, and let the earth and all that is in it pay attention. The Lord will serve as a witness (εἰς μαρτύριον) against you, the Lord from his holy dwelling place.
What follows in chapter 1 is fairly damning lawsuit language that calls God’s people into a courtroom setting for their transgressions of God’s covenant… where, of course, they have no defense. The woe-weal or wrath-mercy alternation continues through the rest of the book, until Micah concludes in 7:18-20 with a hymn of praise to God (AKJV again, from Greek):
Who is a God like you, who forgives injustices and overlooks the sins of the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger as a witness (εἰς μαρτύριον), for he is one who delights in mercy. He will turn and have compassion on us. He will sink our injustices and hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.
You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, just as you swore to our ancestors from ancient days.
Of special note is how εἰς μαρτύριον (“as a witness”) serves as bookends for the book. In the first few verses, God himself is a witness against his people that they have committed sin against him. But in the final verses, he chooses not to call himself (specifically, his anger) to the stand as a witness (εἰς μαρτύριον) against his people. Rather, he overlooks (ὑπερβαίνων) their sins, sinking them into the depths of the sea.
Quite a different use of εἰς μαρτύριον to close out the book! In his last verses, Micah echoes the Exodus passage, that God forgives our wrongdoings and shows mercy, even with all he has to call as a witness against us.
God’s wrath is real, and our sins deserve it, yet in the end he has chosen to have mercy on his people.