Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Bethlehem Prophecy of Micah

The Feast of the Epiphany is meant to commemorate two things, one particular, one general. In particular, this Feast is about the coming of the Magi to adore the Christ child in Bethlehem. But in general, the Feast reminds us of the manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles - that God had come for all people, not just the children of Israel. This universal mission of the Messiah had been prophesied centuries earlier (see here), and in the adoration of the Magi, we see the first fulfillment of this prophesy as Gentiles from afar acknowledge our Lord Jesus as the King of Kings.

Of course, the Magi, being pagans and presumably not having access to the sacred writings, were guided to Bethlehem by the miraculous appearance of a star. But as today's readings remind us, King Herod also sought out the Christ child in Bethlehem, but he was guided to the City of David by the Sacred Scriptures themselves.

The famous Bethlehem prophecy comes to us from the fifth chapter of the prophet Micah (c. 737-696 BC), one of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. The prophecy begins in chapter 5:1 with an address to Jerusalem, which at the time was threatened by the Assyrians. He tells the Israelites to take heart, because though they are hemmed in by their adversaries, God is preparing a ruler who will trample down all the kings of the earth. The famous Bethlehem prophecy follows immediately in verses 2-4:

1. Now you are walled about with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike upon the cheek the ruler of Israel.
2. But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed 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.

The Lord says here that a ruler will come forth from Bethlehem, but that between that time and the time of the prophet, God will "give them up"; i.e., Israel and Jerusalem will be scattered and oppressed until she who is in travail has "brought forth"; i.e., till the ruler spoken of above is born. This prophecy is one reason why the Jews associated the coming of the Christ with the restoration of the Kingdom; even the Apostles interpreted this in light of a physical restoration, as evidenced by their urgent questioning of the Resurrected Christ in Acts 1:6 ("Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?").

But this is not the sort of restoration God had in mind. After telling Israel that they will be delivered from the Assyrian threat, the Lord goes on to say that at the time the ruler comes forth, rather than a restoration of the physical kingdom, the Israelites and their message will spread to the ends of the earth:

7 Then the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples like dew from the LORD, like showers upon the grass, which tarry not for men nor wait for the sons of men.
8 And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations, in the midst of many peoples, like a lion among the beasts of the forest, like a young lion among the flocks of sheep, which, when it goes through, treads down and tears in pieces, and there is none to deliver.

These two verse are extraordinarily important. As part of the Bethlehem prophecy, they reveal that part of the coming of the Messiah is the saturating of the nations with the people of the Lord. The remnant of Jacob "shall be in the midst of many peoples", and "among the nations, in the midst of many peoples." The peoples of the earth will receive the word of the Lord through the remnant of Jacob.

This is very closely united with the meaning of Epiphany, God's manifestation to the nations. In fact, this "leavening" of the nations with the remnant of Jacob is precisely how God is manifest to the nations. First, we must understand that this "remnant" refers to the Church, who is faithful Israel, "children of the promise." This is very clear from the New Testament (see Rom. 11:5, Gal. 4:26, 28). Therefore, when Micah speaks of a "remnant" that abides among the nations and in the midst of the peoples, this refers to the Church going out into the world to bring all nations into the one sheepfold, as commanded by Christ in Matt. 28:19.

But this "going out" into the midst only occurs after the coming of the Messiah, which is why so many Messianic prophecies relating to Epiphany concern the Gentiles coming to the knowledge of the true God. Note the references to the Gentiles coming to the knowledge of God in the following passages:

"In the latter days, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be exalted high above all other mountains and shall be raised above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it, and many peoples shall come and say, "Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths, for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:2-3)

"I will have pity on Not Pitied, and I will say to Not My People, "You are my people', and he shall say, "Thou art my God" (Hos. 2:23).

"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles...the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isa. 9:1-2).

"Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day and shall be My people" (Zech. 2:10-11).

"The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the seas" (Hab. 2:14).

"For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 1:11).

This is all inaugurated with Bethlehem, and is indeed part and parcel of the same prophecy. The mentioning of the Gentiles coming to God in the same passage with the birth of the Messiah reminds us that the inclusion of the Gentiles is not just something superfluous to the mission of Christ, but is a fundamental part of the Gospel that was inaugurated with the establishment of the Church, which St. Paul echoes in Ephesians 3, the reading for today's Feast: "It has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:5-6).

Very profound. But the Bethlehem prophecy does not stop there; it speaks of the Lord's birth, of the knowledge of God spreading to the Gentiles via the remnant of Jacob dwelling "in their midst" - and then, in conclusion, it prophesies the simultaneous triumph of God and His Ruler as well as the judgment on Jerusalem :

9 Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries, and all your enemies shall be cut off.
10 And in that day, says the LORD, I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots;
11 and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds;
12 and I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers;
13 and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you, and you shall bow down no more to the work of your hands;
14 and I will root out your Ashe'rim from among you and destroy your cities.
15 And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey.

These verses, with the exception of v. 15, are referring to Jerusalem and Judea. Thus, the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem is a portent of joy, but also of judgment. His coming means the final judgment of Jerusalem is at hand. This is why Simeon, when blessing Joseph and Mary in his famous Nunc dimittis prayer in Luke 2, mentions the birth of the Christ as an "appointment" for the "fall and rising" of many in Israel. Notice how Simeon's prayer connects all three themes: the birth of the Saviour, the revelation tot he Gentiles, and the judgment of Israel:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him.  And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (2:29-35).

So the coming of the Messiah is at once a sign of rejoicing and of doom. For the remnant of Jacob chosen by grace, the Church, "the Israel of God" (Gal 6:16), rejoicing, for this is the sign that the nations will come to the knowledge of God, just as prophesied in the writings of the holy prophets; but for those nations who would not obey, whether Jew or Gentile, a message of doom, for the coming of the Messiah means that "all the proud, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall set them on fire, saith the Lord of hosts, it shall not leave them root, nor branch" (Mal. 4:1), and as warned by John the Baptist: "For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 3:10).

Like many other prophecies about our Lord, the Bethlehem prophecy is one of hope for the righteous and doom for the wicked. And it's all right there in Micah 5.

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