False Worship in the World
If you look around the United States today (with apologies to our overseas readers), several things stand out. First, we are a military power. We face threats, but we have confidence in our military might.
Then there is our economy – the most robust in the world. We live in a time of almost unprecedented prosperity.
But there are problems we sense too. We have had confidence in our security for years, but how secure are we?
And what about the economy? While it’s true that wealth is increasing, the worldwide gap between rich and poor seems to be widening. And in many cases, it seems as if the wealthy are able to exploit these gaps.
Interestingly, some of this parallels the situation in Judah during the time of Micah. Micah’s ministry took place during the reign of three kings – Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. That puts us somewhere between 742 and 686 BC. Most likely, Micah operated for a shorter time within this 56 year span.
We know a few other things about the setting of this book. We know about the economics of the time – a subject which Micah frequently addresses. Judah was growing in wealth. The economy was good. But economic disparity was also at a high point. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. And the rich were getting richer at the expense of the very poor.
And there was uncertainty on the horizon, militarily speaking. The king of the neo-Assyrian empire was poised to sweep through Samaria. Judah, the southern kingdom, reacted by seeking alliances with Egypt to the south. But the people, amidst their fear, were complacent about their idolatry and disobedience – the very things for which the northern kingdom was judged.
The beginning of Micah’s first sermon, however, is not simply addressed to Judah, or even to Judah and Samaria. It is addressed to the whole world. Although verse 1 says that the subject of his sermon will be Judah and Samaria, the message of Judah and Samaria is a message to the world. When we hear these sermons, we must realize that they speak to us. They are from the LORD, and His authority extends to the whole earth. God addresses the primary problem – for Judah, Samaria, and the world – false or misplaced worship.
You see, Israel as a nation had forsaken God. Some still worshipped at the Temple, but they also worshipped gods of fertility, commerce, and war on the high places and hills of the land. They did not worship God exclusively. So, as God comes down to take the stand, He tramples those high places.
There is an irony to the picture, highlighted by God’s action. When Israel worshipped an idol at a high place, they were worshipping something created, instead of worshipping the Creator. And even the mountains and valleys which were held in such awe were nothing compared to the God of Israel: “The mountains will melt under Him and the valleys will be split, like wax before the fire, like water poured down a steep place.”
What do we worship? Whom do we serve? Do we put our desire for a house above God? Does our thirst for wealth suffocate our thirst for Him? Think about that for a moment. How would this sermon read today? The Lord is coming to judge us, trampling on our homes, wiping out our bank balances, crushing the secret empires of indulgence we’ve built for ourselves – the things that keep us from God. Perhaps we too have not rejected God completely. But there are some other things we trust in too. We believe in God’s provision, but we’re really counting on our retirement fund. We believe in God’s plan for marriage, but we have our own ways of dealing with the stresses and strains of life. Like wax before the fire, like water poured down a steep place…
What were the specific sins of Israel, God’s chosen people? Micah’s sermon asks the same question and the answer is surprising: “What is the rebellion of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? What is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem?” The rebellion of Israel can be seen in her northern capital, Samaria. As in many cities, wickedness flourished, idolatry reigned, and true obedience to God was hardly to be found. God begins with the centers of worship. They were the problem.
And the high places, upon which the Lord had trodden – what about those? Well here Micah has surprising news: The high places of Judah are Jerusalem itself. Those words would have come as a shock to the ears of Micah’s hearers. Wasn’t Jerusalem the center of worship? Wasn’t it the place where God dwelt, and where Israel came and presented to Him their offerings of thanks and worship? It was. And yet that was the place where idolatry was most rampant. It had become one of the high places, which God Himself had trampled on his way to take the stand.
Why was this? Well, worship is very important to God. And, although Israel was going through some of the motions of worship, she was also worshipping other gods on the side. And that mattered to God. It matters today too. Jesus teaches that we cannot worship God rightly unless we are worshipping Him truthfully. Those who worship must worship in truth. He says that it is impossible to worship God and money.
We need to think clearly about this, especially today. When we gather to worship, our interests and preferences are irrelevant compared to the commands of God. To entice someone to worship by promising them that their concerns will be addressed in a way they find agreeable is to entice them to something God hates – worship of Him mixed with worship of our own interests. We only worship God rightly when we worship Him alone. And we must ask ourselves another question: Are you present at worship services on Sunday morning, even though you worship something else the rest of the week? It was these kinds of things that turned the holy city into a high place. “Is it not Jerusalem?”
That was the problem. Now what was God going to do about it? He would destroy Samaria completely: “For I will make Samaria a heap of ruins in the open country, planting places for a vineyard. I will pour her stones down into the valley and will lay bare her foundations.” Did you understand that imagery. The city would be turned into a farmer’s field; the homes would be torn down with only foundations remaining to signal their former strength.
What about the idols and the profit gained from false worship? “All of her idols will be smashed, all of her earnings will be burned with fire and all of her images I will make desolate, for she collected them from a harlot’s earnings, and to the earnings of a harlot they will return.”
That is quite an opening sermon, isn’t it? And that is only the first half. That is the type of sermon that could make people get up and leave. A preacher like Micah, with that message from God, would not be bringing welcome news. And yet, this is a message aimed not only at Israel but at the whole world – “Hear, O peoples, all of you.” And so, after understanding this sermon to Israel, we need to apply it to ourselves. Are we rebellious, like the city of Samaria? Is our worship of God mixed with worship of other gods? If God came to us, would He have to come as a judge, trampling our high places? In Micah, even during times of prosperity, false worship was at the heart of God’s judgment.