Apparently, they don’t have a clue. The leaders of Judah think they know justice; they think they know the difference between good and evil. But their actions tell the truth. The nation’s leadership, including the “heads” (probably judges), the prophets and the priests, is blind to its own injustice as it pursues economic advantage. They call it “peace” (or, prosperity), but Micah calls it injustice.
This is the second oracle in Micah (note how it begins in 3:1 with “Hear” as in 1:2 and 6:1). The first oracle (Micah 1-2) answered the question whether God is responsible for the coming disaster upon Judah and the answer was “Yes!” This second oracle (Micah 3-5), as Harold Shank notes (NIV College Press Commentary) asks the question whether God is still present in Judah. Given the judgment oracle that heads this homily we might wonder what the answer to that question might be.
Micah 3 is a judgment oracle that easily divides into three sections: (1) the injustices of leaders (Micah 3:1-4); (2) the empty “visions” of their prophets (Micah 3:5-8); and (3) the coming disaster (Micah 3:9-12).
The leaders have exploited their position in the nation. Rather than seeking justice for the people, they have consumed them. The leaders have cannibalized their own people for their own economic benefit. The images are grotesque and chilling. They cut the flesh/skin off the bones and chop up their bodies like meat for a pot for food. The language is shocking and the accusation was, no doubt, appalling. Its function is to shock us and awaken the leaders to their injustices.
The rulers are supposed to know justice. These “rulers” or “heads” are probably city judges who sat at the gates where they administered justice. They were trusted to know what justice was (cf. Micah 3:8). Instead they love evil and hate good (cf. Amos 5:14-15; Isaiah 1:16-17). They consume rather than adjudicate; they enrich themselves rather than do what is right.
Consequently, Yahweh will not answer them when they cry out for their own “justice.” While Yahweh heard the cry of Israel in Egypt (Exodus 2:22), God will not respond to the cry of Judah’s leaders when the “disaster” comes upon them. Because their deeds are “evil” (ra’a‘), they will experience “evil” (ra’).
But, the leaders might respond, our prophets tell us a different story. They say that Yahweh is with us and that no disaster is coming. They claim that the future of the nation is “peace.”
Micah’s response is: “Of course! Your prophets tell you what you want to hear because they know on which side their bread is buttered. You pay them, and they will say ‘Peace.’ You don’t pay them, and they will say ‘War.’ Your prophets merely scratch your itch.”
Leaders are easily deceived when their political (prophet’s as royal councilors) and religious establishment (prophets and priests) affirm their decisions. They legitimize leaders. Civil religion’s function is to sanctify and sanction political decisions. Religious leaders that serve the interests of the state–like these prophets in Judah–are accessories to injustice. What do we make of religious leaders in the United States who want to renew a civil religion that enforced slavery, legitimized the theft of native American lands, and grounded the “manifest destiny” of imperial America? Civil religion will always serve the interests of the state.
“Therefore,” Micah says, Yahweh will not honor their office. God will give them no visions. They are blinded; they do not know the future. They don’t know what will happen. Consequently, they will be disgraced and will have to shut their mouths. God will not answer their requests for insight and wisdom. They will have nothing to say as they are revealed as false prophets who only prophesy for their own benefit. Like the leaders for whom they prophesy, they are only interested in their own economic benefit. They don’t care about justice, goodness or truth. They want their money.
In contrast, Micah is an authentic prophet of Yahweh. Empowered by the Spirit of God and dedicated to justice, Micah identifies the sins of Israel. Micah speaks the truth for the sake of the truth rather than speaking falsehoods for profit. Micah claims to appear before the leaders, unlike their own prophets, in the Spirit of Yahweh!
In the final section, Micah becomes more specific. Their acts of injustice are bribery and the erection of their power structures (“building Zion and Jerusalem”) with violence (blood) and oppression (iniquity). They insulate themselves with their wealth as well as their prophets and priests. The prophets justify their actions and the priests confirm them as neither objects to their injustices. The powerful become more powerful as they mutually encourage each other. With such confidence, they are certain that Yahweh will not permit any “evil” (disaster) to befall them. The temple, the house of God, is in their midst. Surely, they think, God will not destroy his own temple (like in Jeremiah 7).
Micah, however, announces judgment. Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the high place will become a wooded height. The temple is not permanent; it is no guarantee of God’s presence where evil abounds and leaders consume their people.
Though Micah’s promise remained unfulfilled in the immediate aftermath of the Assyrian invasion (the Assyrian emperor did not destroy Jerusalem), the prediction is realized in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Perhaps Micah’s prophesy was conditioned on their continued injustices and when God heard Hezekiah’s intercession, God decided against plowing under the temple mount.
In fact, this is what Jeremiah 26:17-19 claims. The elders use Micah in their argument with those who wanted to kill Jeremiah. While some want to execute Jeremiah for his prediction that God will make Jerusalem like Shiloh, the elders reminded the rulers that Micah made a similar prophecy. Rather than executing Micah, Hezekiah prayed and the Lord relented. While the “disaster” (evil) was averted in the time of Hezekiah, the elders fear that without repentance the disaster will yet come to Judah. The elders regarded Micah’s prophecy as a conditional one.
Micah’s ministry was, apparently, sufficient effective to avert the destruction of Jerusalem in his own time. Some leaders heeded the message (like Hezekiah), repented and God relented.
Perhaps this offers hope for every prophet or minister who advocates justice rather than scratching itching ears.