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Commentary: Micah 5:2-5a

Neither the literary nor the historical context of this unit of scripture, which some scholars join with 5:1 (4:14 in the Hebrew Bible; see The Jerusalem Bible), is certain. The Hebrew text is too indefinite and elliptical to say more than that it could apply to Israel's situation most anytime from the eighth to the sixth centuries. This uncertainty in the specific historical setting, however, alters little the general situation out of which the text arose, whether one is thinking theologically, historically, or existentially.
The situation is dire, Israel is without a faithful king and the enemy is threateningly close at hand. Under Micah's hand, that enemy was Assyria, but glosses to the text give it the flavor of Isaiah and the Exilic experience (see below). Divine action, through the instrumentation of a ruler in the line of David, can alone save Israel and establish peace and security both near and far.
The lectionary context is vivid and appealing. The Micah text, joined by resonance to Isaiah 7, exhibits a prophetic expectation which periodically kindled hopes and visions of an immanent act of God within history. The tradition, reaching from Micah in the eighth century to the letter to the Hebrews in the late first century, understood this act of God as centering on one "born of woman," on one so inspired by the mind of God that the shepherding nature of God (Ps 80) would be part and parcel of the one anointed by God over Israel (Mic 5). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews knew that such oneness of mind and purpose could obtain only in one whose will was given to God ("Here I am Lord, I am coming to obey your will," 10:7, 9); just as Luke knew, as revealed by the Magnificat, that such a person and such an act would be the reversal of all ordinary expectation and yet the fulfillment of the faith handed down through the ages (1:55).
The image of the expectant woman is, therefore, fitting. The nation (like Paul's "creation," see Romans 8:22f.) groans in travail with the expectation that at some point the mysterious and redemptive power of God would again graciously become manifest in one so divinely inspired as to lead his people tenderly to fields of peace. The early church quickly saw in Mary the subject of the prophet's promise.
The "messianic oracle" in vv. 2 and 4 has variously been understood as a later gloss, stemming perhaps from the exilic period, or as a continuation of verse 1 or earlier material in chapter 4, with vv. 5f. completing the unit. Verse 3 may also be a gloss, since it interrupts the promise in vv. 2-4. Whatever the answer, the text reveals the conviction that God has and will act in the world for the redemption of his people, and that God will do so through the instrumentation of an individual of his choosing.
Verse by Verse
V.2 Bethlehem was, it seems, included in and served as the gathering point for the region known as Ephratha. From this insignificant place had come David (1 Sam 17:12), and from it again would come one anointed by the God whose astonishingly creative and redemptive power had repeatedly made something of nothing. (Cf. 1 Sam 9:21; Jg 6:15; and esp. 1 Cor 1:27ff.) Note, however, that Matthew gives this reference a new, historically irrefutable twist: Bethlehem has become significant by virtue of her Son.
The new messianic king will arise from a line "of old," i.e., stretching back over three hundred years to David (cf. Amos 9:11). In short, the God who acted in the past in the person of David will act again in a new and more decisive way.
V. 3 This alludes to the time of trial and to the delay of God's redemption. It fits the period of the Exile and the hoped for return of at least a remnant of the dispersed to Israel.
V. 4 Here the promise begun in verse 2 is continued using the traditional imagery of the ruler as shepherd (also 5:5; 7:14). The one anointed will guide, protect, and provide for them, not of his own power, but by the power of God. The threat from foreign powers will wane, as the influence of his reign extends to the ends of the earth.
Although the text at hand presents a challenge of significant proportions to the exegete, the text of the preacher remains intact. Whatever the specific historical exigencies, the underlying prophetic faith remained constant, viz., that the leader (s) of a people (king or otherwise) determined the destiny of the people, and that the only leader worthy of trust and devotion was one submissive to, even anointed by, God, and that although in any given present such a king may be lacking, harmony between divine and human governance must be ever prayed for, sought after, and believed in.
Richard N. Soulen