1 Hear what the Lord says:
Arise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth,
for the Lord has an indictment against his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The conclusion to this legal brief against Israel is among the more famous bits of the Old Testament; it is as familiar to most of us as the opening of Genesis, the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5), and the Commandments. It is a preferred verse for many people who are anxious to show the Gospel has something to do with pursuing justice in a fallen world—for obvious reason.
The preceding verses, though, are lesser known but are exceedingly interesting. The Lord compels Micah to arise, to go before the mountains and the hills and make God’s complaint against Israel before them. The “righteousness of God is like the highest mountains, the justice of God like the great deep,” Psalm 36:6 tells us. God created the heavens and the earth: and if the injustice of humanity prevails, the justice of God endures. One thinks of Jesus’ claim that if humanity does not praise God, the very stones will cry out. In this way, injustice is not narrow: it entangles not only the individual and the society, but the broadest reaches of the cosmos God has made.
God then launches into his complaint against Israel, which we might describe as their ingratitude for His saving works. All God has been is good to His people: he brought them out of slavery, and into the promised land. As Bruce Waltke points out in his (terrific) commentary on the book, the two episodes in Scripture mentioned here have parallels: God saves Israel from Egypt through his servant Moses, and saves them from the hand of Moab by the pagan prophet Balaam and his estimable ass. If the former required Israel to walk through the Red Sea, the latter happens on the banks of the Jordan—just before crossing into the Promised Land. In both ways, God acted to preserve his people.
It is against this complaint that the defendant—an Israelite, presumably, speaking for the whole people—responds. “With what shall I come before my God…?” “What must I do to be saved,” the rich young ruler asks in Matthew. Jesus’ answer is similar to that which the Lord gives in Micah 6:1-8: do the commandments, and then sell all your possessions and give to the poor. Yet where the rich young ruler leaves sad, unwilling to abide by Christ’s injunction, here the Israelite raises the sacrificial ante—presumably in hopes of buying off God. Burnt offerings? Okay. Calves, sure! What about a thousand rams? I’ve got ten thousands of rivers of oil you might want. Would that do? Oh, no? Perhaps I should just sacrifice my firstborn, as the pagans do. Surely that will suffice.
The irony, of course, is that a firstborn son is required for the sacrifice to be sufficient—only not the firstborn son of which the Isrealite speaks. Absent the infinite revelation of grace and forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ, though, all the Israelite can do is try to come as near as possible to matching it. The need to issue recompense for wrongs is voracious, because such wrongs are intrinsically impossible to overcome: the wrong always exceeds our abilities to set it right. No one who suffers an injustice can ever be made whole, not in the sense that they receive back everything that they lose. If nothing else, those who are victims of injustice suffer the loss of time—and time only works, for now, in one direction. In this way, the cry for justice is infinite: there is no sacrifice one can make which will fully compensate the gods.
Against such an offering, the simplicity and directness of the Lord’s command to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God is all the more powerful. The categories themselves are subtle: they enjoin one to live rightly within the gracious faithfulness of the covenant between God and humanity, and to walk in such a way that one has a careful wisdom and judiciousness. But they indicate a kind of freedom from the tyranny of making recompense for our past wrongs: we know what we ought do, and our repentance begins by doing it.
Who knows? “O man.” While it is the Israelite who speaks, the Lord directs his exhortation to the adam, the man of Genesis 2 who lives before Eve is formed. The command of God is not bound to the cult of Israel—nor is the justice, mercy, and humility which God has made known He requires of us.