The fate of Samaria is reason enough to weep (Micah 1:6-7), but Micah’s symbolic act of lament is because Samaria’s incurable wound has come to Judah, even to the gate of Jerusalem itself (Micah 1:9). Micah laments the future of Judah, especially the towns in the southwestern region. This is the region of Micah’s own hometown, Moresheth-Gath. These are the cities of his childhood and the homes of his own people.
Micah’s lament language is vivid and his actions are symbolic. The word “lament” in Micah 1:8 refers to the act of beating one’s breast. The pain is so deeply felt in the chest that lamenters beat it to express the hurt. The term “wail” may also be translated “howl,” and this makes more sense of the parallel with the jackals and ostriches who are known for their loud, screeching mourning songs.
Micah will not only voice his sorrow, but he will act it out. He will walk barefoot about these cities in a loin cloth (the probable meaning of “naked”). There may be a double meaning here as such attire characterizes captives and slaves as well as mourners. The prophet’s behavior may not only be an act of lamentation but also a prophetic symbol. Micah preaches, like other prophets have and will, in both word and deed.
Indeed, these towns in the Shephelah of Judah will soon be overrun by Sennacherib’s army in 701 B.C. The Assyrian king established a permanent encampment in Gaza which borders the Shephelah. That army, joined by another that marched down the coast from Tyre to Ashkelon, will defeat an Egyptian force and then march through southwestern Judah. Before it settles at the gate of Jerusalem to lay siege, the Assyrians will destroy 46 walled cities and take over 200,000 captives. The immediate future of these Judean cities is bleak.
Micah’s lament is prophetic warning, but it is also a divine grieving. This is the word of Lord. Micah laments because God laments. The message gives God no pleasure; it carries a bitter taste.
The lament itself (Micah 1:10-16) names eleven cities affected and characterizes their doom in some way. Each characterization is a play on words which is not apparent to English readers but is obvious to those who know Hebrew.
- Gath — sounds like the Hebrew word for “tell” and might mean something like don’t tell the enemy of our misfortune or don’t speak of the disaster; it is so horrible that we won’t even weep over it.
- Beth-le-aphrah — means “house of dust” and the city is told to roll itself in the dust as the city will become dust.
- Shaphir — means “pleasant or beautiful” such that the inhabitants of the beautiful-town will experience devastation; they will experience the nakedness and shame of captivity and lament.
- Zaanan – sounds like the Hebrew word for “come out;” the inhabitants of the “going out” city will not get away or perhaps that they will “go out” as slaves.
- Beth-ezel — means “house of another” but the Assyrians will take away any support or help so that they stand alone.
- Maroth — sounds like the Hebrew word for “bitter;” bitter-town will wait for something good but it will not come.
- Lachish – sounds like the Hebrew word for “team” (as in a team of horses); Lachish, a fortified city with chariots, is about to do battle as they must hitch up their horses to the chariots.
- Moresheth-gath – sounds like “dowry;” the inhabitants of the “dowry” town will depart to live with their new husband the King of Assyria.
- Achzib — means “deception” and she will prove deceitful to the kings of Israel (Judah?) who depend on her; she will fail to live up to the king’s expectations.
- Mareshah — sounds like the Hebrew word for “conqueror” and its verbal root means “possessor;” perhaps the pun is that those in the “possessor town” will be possessed by the king of Assyria.
- Adullam — reminds Judah of the stories of David who hid in the region’s caves; now the glory of Israel will hide in the caves.
The list contains several elements of theological commentary on the devastation of these cities. Lachish, for example, is the beginning of Samaria’s idolatry in Judah. We know that some of kind of idolatrous temple was erected in Lachish and the text probably refers to that (though some think it was the introduction of chariots and horses as a form of military security rather than trusting in Yahweh). Whatever the case, this region–where the invasion of Judah begins–is where the sins of Judah began.
The “disaster” that has come to the “gate of Jerusaelm” is from Yahweh. The term “disaster” literally means “evil,” but it does not necessarily entail a kind of moral evil. Rather, it refers to trouble. Yahweh introduces chaos into Judah and up to the gate of Jerusalem because of Judah’s sins.
After moving through the Shephelah city by city, Micah’s lament ends with a final piece of advice. Parents should join Micah in his mourning ritual. They should cut their hair because their children are going into exile. The “disaster” is devastation and exile. The wound of Israel is coming to Judah. It is time to lament.
Nations and communities must learn to lament over their sins and the self-destruction sin brings to a nation or community. Sometimes all we can do is lament as the consequences of sin are inescapable.