Preaching and Popularity
From the beginning, Israel was faced with the prospect of false prophets trying to pass themselves off as prophets of God. Anyone coming in the name of another god was to be disregarded; those coming in the name of the LORD were to be tested. Prophets were only to be obeyed if they truly spoke with the authority of God Himself.
God says this explicitly in Deuteronomy 18:20-22
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or1who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.' 21 And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?'-- 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
One of the famous stories of this mixture of true and false prophets is found in 1 Kings 22. There we read of Ahab preparing for battle. As a king of Israel, Ahab wanted an encouraging word from a prophet. All the prophets promise him victory. One prophet, Zedekiah ben Chenaanah, even acts out a scene of victory with imagery from Deuteronomy – showcasing horns of iron to vividly depict the victory of this king of Israel. But there is another prophet, Micaiah ben Imlah. His words contradicted those of all the other prophets. He prophesies defeat, saying, “I saw all Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd.” Far from victory, Ahab’s battle would lead to Israel’s ruin.
But generally speaking, when Israel most needed to hear a word of truth, all she got was a comforting lie. And the same is often true today.
Micah, whom we’ve been following, was not a prophet of lies. He told the truth, even when all the other ‘prophets’ were telling the people what they wanted to hear. Here is what we read in Micah 2:6-13:
Do not preach"--thus they preach-- "one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us." 7 Should this be said, O house of Jacob? Has the LORD grown impatient? Are these his deeds? Do not my words do good to him who walks uprightly? 8 But lately my people have risen up as an enemy; you strip the rich robe from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. 9 The women of my people you drive out from their delightful houses; from their young children you take away my splendor forever. 10 Arise and go, for this is no place to rest, because of uncleanness that destroys with a grievous destruction. 11 If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, "I will preach to you of wine and strong drink," he would be the preacher for this people! 12 I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. 13 He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king passes on before them, the LORD at their head.
It is bad enough to confront false prophets. But it is even worse when the false prophets are telling the true prophet to stop preaching! But that is exactly what we see in this enigmatic passage. The words of verse 6 seem to be the words of the false prophets: “’Do not preach’ – thus they preach.”
The false prophets were chiding the true prophet of God. They were saying that the true prophet ought not to preach. You see, the true prophet preached about the judgment of God, while the false prophets calmly assured people that God would not judge, and Judah would not face reproach.
In verse 7, Micah asks the House of Jacob three pointed rhetorical questions: 1) Is the LORD’s spirit impatient? 2) Are the things Micah predicts His doings? 3) Don’t Micah’s words bring blessing to those who are upright?
Each of these questions must be understood and addressed in their own right. The first question addresses the notion of God’s patience. The false teachers were asserting that God was infinitely patient. Perhaps the people were disobeying, but that disobedience was hardly something that a merciful, loving God would care much about. These false teachers downplayed the sinfulness of sin. And, make no mistake, theirs is an easy trap into which we can all fall.
The second question is closely related to the first. The false prophets heard Micah’s preaching and it repulsed them. They could not imagine a God of judgment and they openly questioned his portrayal. “Are these His deeds?” was their question. Could God really bring the judgment Micah prophesied, they asked. Once again, the question betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of who God was.
The third was more pointed. It concerned the application of Micah’s words. Micah knew that his words – however harsh – were words that brought life to those who walked uprightly. No doubt the false teachers accused Micah of being out-out-touch, outside the mainstream; they accused his words of being heavy on theology but short on applicability. This seems always to be the charge that false teachers make. However, Micah was committed to the truth. Although the words of the false teachers brought comfort they were a lie – and therefore they did no good.
Verses 8-9 tell a brief story. And, in a sense, they form the center of Micah’s denunciation of the false preachers. He moves from denouncing their words to denouncing their actions. The false preachers were part of the problem, not the solution. The regular people had become their enemy. Valuable garments were stripped from them (8). The women (probably widows) were evicted from their pleasant, long-time homes. And even children are deprived.
So what is Micah’s advice to those living in the land? Well, his advice to them in verses 10-11 is remarkably similar to what they seemed to be saying to him. They said, in verse 6, that he should stop preaching. Now he tells them to get up and leave. Why? “Because the land is no longer a place of rest.” No matter what they said, judgment was coming. There was no rest, “Because of the uncleanness that destroys with a grievous destruction” (v 10). Micah would not be pressured into changing his message of judgment, because his message was from God.
This is exactly the situation in which many find themselves in today’s modern world. The world wants nothing to do with a God of Law, a God of standards, a God of judgment. In fact, those who preach these things are told to keep silent. It is hard enough to face the opposition of the outside world, but Micah – and many today – face opposition from among those who should themselves be teachers.
Micah preaches on. But he is not simply a preacher of judgment, regardless of how his opponents caricatured his ministry. In verses 12-13, he preaches restoration. Remember the words of Micaiah ben Imlah. He alone was preaching God’s words, and they were words of defeat: “I saw all Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd.” Micah is just the opposite. After pronouncing judgment, he promises renewal and rebirth:
I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. 13 He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king passes on before them, the LORD at their head (Micah 2:12-13).
There is so much in these words. Micah’s image of the sheep coming together would have been known among those to whom he spoke. Most of the trans-Jordan was used for herding sheep and goats. And, at the time of shearing, the noisy flocks were led by their shepherd into the city. The sight was remarkable – thousands of animals, loud and chaotic, brought from the flock into the fold.
But here we see it. The remnant of Israel, led by a shepherd-king, the LORD. The sight is noisy, but eventually they are gathered. And the gathering is God’s work, from beginning to end.
Step back into our own context for a moment. We too have preachers who will not speak about judgment, and instead talk about a one-dimensional god of love and mercy, who never condemns, never judges. Worse than that, preachers today are often engaged in the same reckless pursuit of money and power as those to whom they preach. They cannot possibly critique the culture of celebrity and exploitation, since they are so thoroughly enmeshed in it themselves. Instead we have half-baked partial truths. And men like Micah are in short supply.
Any false teacher can preach something which reinforces the sin and blindness of his hearers. He can draw a large crowd doing it. But it is only the true preacher who can give real gospel hope – as Micah gives.
In that day, as in ours, it is very tempting to listen to those who tell us what we want to hear: We’re not so bad; God’s mercy overlooks our sin; sin is not really sinful. But there are two major problems with that message, both of which are highlighted in Micah’s sermon. First, it is not true. Painful destruction was coming to the sons of Jacob. To say otherwise was to lie. And to ignore God’s judgment on sin today would be to engage in a similar act of deception.
But not only that, such a watered-down message of lies could not and cannot give any real hope. If Israel was not going to be scattered, then they didn’t need a King and Shepherd to lead them to the fold. If we are not really sinners, then we don’t really need grace. If sin does not offend God, then there is no need for the salvation offered by Christ – secured by His death on a cross, where He bore God’s just wrath for our sins.
When evaluating a preacher or a church ask yourself: Does this preacher or this church simply tell me what I like to hear? Is the church merely comfortable or entertaining? Micah was neither, because God’s word – which he did not fail to proclaim – was neither.
But think of the glory of his message. Because Micah was preaching the LORD’s words he could preach about the coming shepherd-king who would gather His people. He could give his hearers a vision of that great throng of people, led noisily through the gates of the safe city. He could preach about the salvation of God in Jesus Christ. Why would anyone settle for preaching about anything else? Why would we exchange the glory of the immortal God for something that tickles our fancies, telling us lies we like to hear? Instead, let us fix our eyes not on ourselves but on the one who is our Shepherd, our King, our God and our Savior.