Our Incomparable God
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? (Mic. 7:18)
What’s in a name? As the prophet Micah sees things, much in every way. At numerous points in this book we see the prophet deriving significant meaning from names. During Sennacherib’s invasion, Micah took the names of towns and cities as harbingers of their fate (cf. Mic. 1:10–15). He seems to see his prophecy of Christ’s birth as a fulfillment of the names of Bethlehem (house of bread) and Ephrathah (bountiful). How appropriate, then, that Micah would conclude his book with a reference to his own name. The name Micah means “Who is like the Lord?” As the prophet completes his record he identifies himself with this testimony, writing: “Who is a God like you …?” (Mic. 7:1).
It is fitting that Micah should conclude his book with this question, which is really an assertion of God’s incomparable glory. The prophet really means, “There is no one like the Lord, for the God of Israel is greater than all gods!” Micah not only asserts this claim, but he also goes on in these final verses to say, “Let me count the ways!” James Montgomery Boice comments: “Micah rehearses the ways in which the true God is unlike all others. Deliverance by mighty acts is among those ways. Yet his emphasis is on God’s willingness to forgive sin and show mercy, which he concludes is the supreme measure of God’s surpassing excellence.”
Our Incomparable God
Before we focus on Micah’s specific reasons for declaring God’s incomparable excellence, it will be profitable to consider the picture of God given throughout the book. When reading the Bible, we should always be concerned to gain a clearer knowledge of God. So as we conclude our studies in Micah, we should ask, “What does Micah reveal to us about God?”
Since so much of Micah describes God’s judgment on Israel’s sin, our first thoughts should turn to God’s holiness. The God presented by Micah is a holy God, that is, one who will not abide with sin.
Strictly speaking, God’s holiness means that God is set apart from all others. God is in a unique category. He says through Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). It was because of God’s holiness, so integral to his deity, that Moses was required to take off his shoes before the burning bush. J. Gresham Machen writes, “From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator.” Yet when the Bible speaks of God’s holiness, it invariably relates this to his absolute separation from all evil and sin. To quote Geerhardus Vos: “Jehovah’s holiness … involves not merely that his nature is stainless, empirically free from sin, but means that he is exalted above the possibility of sin—in him, as the absolutely good, evil cannot enter.”3
We are confronted with this reality all through Micah. The book opens with a scene of frightening cataclysm, with the high places trodden down and the mountains melting in fire (Mic. 1:3–4). Micah explains why: “All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel” (Mic. 1:5). Most humans think of sin as a slight matter, except perhaps for the sins committed against us. But God, who is the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, is grievously offended by all sin. Why? Because he is transcendentally holy. Sin is a gross offense to his person and a stench in his holy nostrils. Even when it is God’s own beloved people who give themselves over to sin, God declares his intention to judge it with great severity. “Woe to those who devise wickedness,” Micah cries, “and work evil on their beds!” (Mic. 2:1). “Lately my people have risen up as an enemy,” God declares (Mic. 2:8). Why? Because they have given themselves over to sin. Our holy God is a just God, so sin will be judged. Our holy God is bitterly, personally opposed to all evil, so his wrath burns against the wicked.
A second attribute of God that Micah highlights is his almighty power. We see this, too, in the book’s opening verses, which speak not only of God’s anger at sin but also of his power in judging it: “I will make Samaria a heap in the open country … and I will pour down her stones into the valley and uncover her foundations” (Mic. 1:6). Man’s strongest fortress is no match for God’s power. No locked door can keep God out and no foundation is solid enough to withstand his stroke. When the Assyrian conqueror Sennacherib besieged God’s city and mocked God’s name, the Lord struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers of the Assyrian army in a single night.
A third attribute of God laid bare in the book of Micah is his sovereignty. It is not the king on his throne, the power broker in his mansion, or the general on his stallion who determines the fate of peoples, but only the Lord in his sovereign majesty. This is, in part, a function of his infinite might: God’s will reigns supreme in that no other force can hope to thwart him in the least. God is omniscient, knowing even the secret thoughts of the wicked in their bedrooms (Mic. 2:1). While many nations assemble against God’s people, Micah points out their folly: “They do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan” (Mic. 4:12). God employs even the wicked acts of men for his own sovereign purpose: the pagan armies gathered against Jerusalem only because God purposed judgment for his people, and because God summoned them for their own destruction: “He has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor,” Micah says (Mic. 4:12).
God’s absolute sovereignty over all history, including the minutest details of the affairs of men and nations, is best seen in the many and specific prophecies Micah makes regarding the future. Early in his ministry, he foretold that the judgment recently visited upon wicked Samaria was soon coming to wicked Jerusalem (Mic. 1:9). He predicted details of the Assyrian advance prior to the event (Mic. 1:10–16). As the threatened invasion draws near, he prophesies God’s deliverance of his people when the enemy comes to the very gate of the city (Mic. 2:12–13). Looking farther into the future, Micah sees the Christian age of the gospel, when people from all over the world will come to God to worship and learn: “Many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up … to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’ ” (Mic. 4:2). Most dramatically, Micah provides one of the most detailed and accurate predictions of the Messiah’s birth, nearly 700 years in the future: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). How can a prophet dare to speak with such boldness about specific events that have not yet happened, some of which lie many centuries in the future? Because he speaks for a sovereign God, who exercises perfect control over all things, past, present, and into eternity.
We might continue this survey of the doctrine of God in the book of Micah, but the prophet himself should be given the last word. We ask, Is there one thing about God that causes Micah to celebrate his incomparable glory? If there is, what is it? The answer, according to these final verses, is that the majesty of the holy, almighty, and sovereign God is seen most wonderfully in his grace. “Who is a God like you,” Micah marvels, “pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?” (Mic. 7:18). Following Micah’s hymn of praise for God’s forgiving grace, we observe, first, what God forgives; second, how God forgives; third, God’s attitude in forgiving; and, finally, the finality of God’s forgiveness. In all of these aspects, Micah would have us join with him in wondrous praise for the incomparable grace of God.
First, what is it that God forgives? Micah employs three terms to describe the offense that sinners have given to God. First, Micah says that God pardons “iniquity” (Mic. 7:18). This word (Hebrew, ‘avon) refers to our guilt. Our sins have incurred a debt to God’s holy justice that must be paid. The second word is “transgression” (Hebrew, pesha), which denotes rebellion against God’s authority. Whenever we sin we are flouting God’s right to govern our lives, and as traitors we deserve to be punished with death. Jesus speaks of this in his parable of the ten minas, in which the rebels insist, “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). The king rightly responds, “As for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). Third, Micah speaks of “sin” (Hebrew, chatta’ah), referring to wickedness or evil. As ruler of creation, God cannot tolerate evil, but must destroy it. All three of these terms—guilt, rebellion, and wickedness—have been ascribed to Micah’s Jerusalem, just as they can all be ascribed to us. Judging by the standard of God’s perfect law, Paul concludes: “None is righteous, no, not one.… no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10, 12).
This was the great problem of Micah’s generation: not only enemy armies or inept leadership, but the just wrath of the holy God against their iniquity, transgression, and sin. It was because of their offense against God that Micah’s generation suffered such misery and that their immediate future was so dark. It is our great problem, too; just like the Jews of old, we need to be forgiven.
So how can a holy God ever forgive his people’s sin? Micah’s language is vivid and instructive, containing the very heart of the Bible’s gospel. First, speaking of our guilt, the prophet says that God displays incomparable grace by “pardoning.” The Hebrew word (nasa’) literally speaks of God lifting our guilt, taking it away. The Israelite would naturally think of the Day of Atonement ritual, when the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the scapegoat, who was then taken outside the camp and sent far off into the wilderness. Along with the scapegoat, another spotless animal was slain in sacrifice. The meaning was that by the substitutionary death of a God-appointed sacrifice, our guilt is lifted and taken away. Bruce Waltke explains, “God does not wink at sin, but provided the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the only one who kept his covenant obligations (Rom. 3:21–26) both to bear and to take away sin.”
The New Testament applies this teaching directly to the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul writes that God forgave our trespasses: “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The theological term for the transfer of our sins to Christ is imputation. Paul explains this by saying, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
With what joy Micah would have witnessed the scene when John the Baptist first identified Jesus as the Messiah, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This was the same hope of forgiveness foretold by Isaiah in his prophecy of the coming Messiah as the Suffering Servant of the Lord: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). By looking to the cross of Jesus, we who believe can all rejoice to see our sins imputed to Christ and taken away from us forever.
Micah uses a second verb to describe God’s gracious response to our rebellion: “passing over” transgression (Mic. 7:18). Because of his compassionate love, God does not demand retribution on his rebellious people, but overlooks their offenses instead. The language here also points to the cross, this time through the events of the Passover. God had determined to punish Egypt for its rebellion, sending his angel of death to strike down all the firstborn of the land. But the Israelites were instructed to place the blood of a Passover lamb on their doorposts; when the angel of death saw the blood, God’s wrath passed over the sins of God’s people. Paul applies the significance of this event directly to Christians, whose rebellion against God is passed over, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). So it is today for those who seek refuge in the blood of Jesus. Micah praises God for “passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance” (Mic. 7:18), ultimately, for those who have confessed their sins and believed in the gospel of Christ.
We see why Micah glorifies the incomparable grace of our God. What other god ever spoke of sending his own Son to die on the cross for the sins of his people? What kind of deity responds to our wickedness against him by placing our guilt onto himself? Yet this is exactly what God has done for us. “Who is a God like you?” we marvel. Michael Bentley points out that this is the main difference between Christianity and all other faiths:
Unlike all other, so-called, deities, our God pardons sin and forgives transgression. This is one of the things that any serious reader of the Gospels noticesabout Jesus Christ: he often forgave people their sins (e.g., Mark 2:5). He is the same today. He still shows his wonderful mercy to sinners by forgiving them when they confess their sin, repent of it and turn in faith to him.
Just as marvelous is God’s attitude in forgiving our sins. Does God forgive begrudgingly, resentfully, or halfheartedly? Micah responds, “He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love” (Mic. 7:18). This is Micah’s great hope for his people. Yes, God intended to chastise them for their great sin. But judgment would not last forever, and it would lead to forgiveness and the restoration of blessings. Why? Because of the God that he is! Because of the mercy and compassion in his heart for his people. Micah’s hope is in the incomparable God, whose heart is moved by grace.
Micah describes God’s heart with the Hebrew word chesed, the great Old Testament word for the covenant mercy and love of God. This word is so rich that it can hardly be given a single English translation. It is rendered as “steadfast love” by the English Standard Version; “faithful love” by the Holman Christian Standard Bible; “unchanging love” by the New American Standard Bible; and, perhaps most familiarly, as “mercy” by the King James and New International versions. What is the attitude of God’s heart in forgiving our sins? Walter Kaiser writes, “He does not delight in holding a grudge, or in bottling up His anger over our sins.” Instead, he delights in tender, loving, mercy for his people.
The Scottish minister Alexander Whyte told of an evening when an older minister came to discuss some pastoral matters. When their business was completed, the old man seemed to linger, not wanting the conversation to end. Finally he asked, seemingly in jest, “Now, sir, have you any word of comfort for an old sinner like me?” Whyte realized that behind the half-smile was a real seriousness and even a deep agony. He wrote later, “It took my breath away. He was an old saint. But he did not know the peace of forgiveness.” Whyte walked over and sat beside the older minister, opened his Bible to Micah 7:18 (nkjv) and read, “He delights in showing mercy.”
It was on this mercy that Micah relied as well. We can imagine the power of this statement in the prophet’s heart as he grasped for hope of Israel’s forgiveness. In themselves, God’s people had nothing to offer to gain their forgiveness. Jerusalem had partaken in the same idolatry that had doomed Samaria. But Micah would have answered, “He delights in showing mercy.” Yes, but Jerusalem’s leaders were lying awake at night devising new and more wicked schemes of robbing the poor. Nevertheless, “He delights in showing mercy.” Corruption had so permeated society that Micah believed no godly people were left. He wrote, “They all lie in wait for blood.… Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well” (Mic. 7:2–3). Such wickedness had spread that a man could not even trust his wife or children. How could such depraved people be spared by a holy God? Because “he delights in showing mercy.” Micah’s hope lay in God’s delight in mercy, and there he rested his burdened heart.
This was also Dr. Whyte’s answer to the suffering old minister: “He delights in showing mercy.” The next morning he received a letter in reply. It read: “Dear friend, I will never doubt Him again. Guilt had hold of me. I was near the gates of Hell, but that word of God comforted me, and I will never doubt Him again. I will never despair again. If the devil casts my sin in my teeth, I will say, ‘Yes, it is all true, and you cannot tell the half of it, but I have to deal with the One who delights in showing mercy.’ ”
Finally, Micah notes the finality of God’s forgiveness: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). The word for compassion (Hebrew, racham) speaks of tender affection, the way a mother loves a child. God responds to our sins the way a protective parent destroys a snake in the children’s playground: “he will tread our iniquities under foot.” Kenneth Barker writes, “Sin is pictured as an enemy that God conquers and liberates us from.” A. R. Fausset adds, “When God takes away the guilt of sin, that it may not condemn us, He takes away also the power of sin, that it may not rule us.”9 Here is God’s answer to the third of our offenses: our guilt he takes away to the cross; our rebellion he covers with Christ’s blood; and the corrupting power of evil in our hearts he treads under foot.
Not only does God tread on our sins, but he “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). Here, the allusion is to the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots in the Red Sea. Just as the Egyptians were prevented by God from catching up to the Israelites so as to destroy them, God will not allow our sins to catch up to us. John Mackay comments, “Just as not one of the entire army of Pharaoh that followed the Israelites into the Red Sea survived (Exod. 14:28), so too the consequences of ‘all’ their iniquities will be swept away by God.” With this in mind, no wonder that Micah echoes the praise the Israelites sang while looking back over the Red Sea:
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exod. 15:11–13)
How important it is to our relationship with God, and to our peace and joy in salvation, that we realize the finality of our forgiveness in Jesus Christ. David Prior points out that in passages like this from Micah, God not only cast our sins into the sea, but he placed a sign on its banks ordering, “No fishing.” Another place where we read of the complete removal of our sins is the great new covenant promise made by Jeremiah and echoed in the book of Hebrews. God declares to us: “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12). How can an all-knowing God forget that we have sinned against him? Because, in Micah’s language, he has lifted our sins and taken them to the cross; he has covered them with the blood of Christ; he has trodden them under his own foot; and he has cast them into the sea of his incomparable grace. Truly, Micah wonders, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression?” Or as Samuel Davies put it: “Who is a pard’ning God like Thee? / Or who has grace so rich and free?”
Can we count on God extending this same grace to us? Will God continue to delight in showing mercy to sinners today? Micah provides the answer in the concluding verse to his book of prophecy, a verse that convinced Micah of God’s continuing mercy: “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Mic. 7:20). In other words, God shows mercy to his sinful people because of his incomparable faithfulness to his covenant promises of old in the Bible.
Micah praises God because he will “show faithfulness to Jacob.” The word for “faithfulness” is emet, which also means “truth.” God will be true to Jacob. In Genesis 28:14 God promised Jacob, Israel’s namesake patriarch, that his offspring would be “like the dust of the earth,” spreading abroad “to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.” How could God fulfill this promise if he annihilated Jacob’s descendants because of their sin? Moreover, he promised that “in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” How could Jacob’s children bring salvation to all the world if Israel itself fell victim to sin? The answer is that God could not be true to Jacob unless he worked salvation for Jacob’s descendants, physical and spiritual, and in faithfulness to the promise God was delighted to show mercy to his people, ultimately by sending his own Son to die for their sins.
God will also show “steadfast love to Abraham.” Here is the Hebrew word chesed again, which here might be translated best as “merciful, covenant fidelity.” Abraham received promises that were even greater than those given to his grandson Jacob. On one occasion, God brought Abraham out under the bright panoply of the sky and said: “ ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’ ” (Gen. 15:5). In all the vast starry host Abraham beheld in that ancient desert sky, one star shone for every sinner who trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, Abraham looked upon a star that represented you. How could God be faithful to Abraham unless you entered into the fullness of the promised salvation?
Micah thus concludes, “as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Mic. 7:20). All through the Bible, believers read promises of forgiveness and salvation given by God. Those promises now belong to us, who take possession of them by trusting in God’s Word. Prominent among them all is the promise of Micah 7:19: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
The writer of Hebrews said of God’s promises, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:19). What other hope do we have but that God will be faithful to his promises of grace? Can we hope that we will win the battle with sin by our own strength? Can we imagine that we can reform our lives so as to make ourselves presentable to the holy God? Neither of these is a realistic hope. God’s promises of faithful, covenant, forgiving grace not only assure us of his love for us in Christ, but they also give us the strongest of all incentives to live holy lives to the praise of his incomparable name.
Donald Grey Barnhouse explains how grace motivates us to holiness by telling of a man who was paralyzed by the fear of his sin. During the First World War the man had fallen into bad company, and while living in Paris he became engrossed in sexual sin. After the war, he became a Christian and fell in love with a wonderful Christian girl. But he was afraid to propose marriage to her out of the fear that his past sin would rise up and cause him to betray his marital vows. He came to Barnhouse and asked for advice. Barnhouse told him that if he wanted to marry the girl, he should start trusting her with his heart and tell her the truth about his past.
Barnhouse also told the man of another couple with a similar issue. After they had married, the husband told his wife of his sinful sexual past, and his fears about a future recurrence of those sins. She responded by kissing him and gently saying this:
John, I want you to understand something. I know my Bible well, and therefore I know the subtlety of sin and the devices of sin working in the human heart. I know you are a thoroughly converted man, John, but I know that you still have an old nature and that you are not yet as fully instructed in the ways of God as you soon will be. The Devil will do all he can to wreck your Christian life, and he will see to it that temptations of every kind will be put in your way. The day might come—please God that it never shall—but the day might come when you will succumb to temptation and fall into sin. Immediately the Devil will tell you that it is no use trying, that you might as well continue on in sin and that above all you are not to tell me because it will hurt me. But, John, I want you to know that here in my arms is your home. When I married you I married your old nature as well as your new nature. And I want you to know there is full pardon and forgiveness in advance for any evil that may ever come into your life.
Barnhouse finished telling the story, during which the former soldier held his face in his hands. But after the final words, he lifted his eyes and said wonderingly, “My God! If anything could ever keep a man straight, that would be it.”
That is it. God delivers us from the power of sin by first assuring us of our complete forgiveness through the blood of Christ. Why would he do this? Because “he delights in steadfast love” (Mic. 7:18). Because of his faithfulness to the promises of the Bible. Because in our salvation by grace alone, the holy, almighty, sovereign God proves the glorious truth of Micah’s words of praise: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?” (Mic. 7:18).
18. The Prophet here exclaims that God ought to be glorified especially for this—that he is merciful to his people. When he says, Who is God as thou art? he does not mean that there are other gods; for this, strictly speaking, is an improper comparison. But he shows that the true and only God may be distinguished from all idols by this circumstance—that he graciously forgives the sins of his people and bears with their infirmities. It is indeed certain, that all nations entertained the opinion, that their gods were ready to pardon; hence their sacrifices, and hence also their various kinds of expiations. Nor has there been any nation so barbarous as not to own themselves guilty in some measure before God; hence all the Gentiles were wont to apply to the mercy of their gods; while yet they had no firm conviction: for though they laid hold on this first principle,—that the gods would be propitious to sinners, if they humbly sought pardon; yet they prayed, we know, with no sure confidence, for they had no certain promise. We hence see that what the Prophet means is this,—that the God of Israel could be proved to be the true God from this circumstance—that having once received into favour the children of Abraham, he continued to show the same favour, and kept his covenant inviolably, though their sins had been a thousand times a hinderance in the way. That God then in his goodness surmounted all the wickedness of the people, and stood firm in his covenant, which had been so often violated by vices of the people—this fact may be brought as an evidence, that he is the true God: for what can be found of this kind among idols? Let us suppose that there is in them something divine, that they were gods, and endued with some power; yet with regard to the gods of the Gentiles, it could not be known that any one of them was propitious to his own people. Since then this can apply only to the God of Israel, it follows that in this instance his divinity shines conspicuously, and that his sovereignty is hence sufficiently proved. We also learn, that all the gods of heathens are vain; yea, that in the religion of heathens there is nothing but delusions: for no nation can with confidence flee to its god to obtain pardon, when it has sinned. This is the sum of the whole. I shall now come to the words of the Prophet.
Who is a God like thee, taking away iniquity, and passing by wickedness? By these two forms of expression, he sets forth the singular favour of God in freely reconciling himself to sinners. To take away sins is to blot them out; though the verb נשא, nusha, often means to raise on high; yet it means also to take, or, to take away. To pass by wickedness, is to connive at it, as though he said, “God overlooks the wickedness of his people, as if it escaped his view:” for when God requires an account of our life, our sins immediately appear, and appear before his eyes; but when God does not call our sins before his judgment, but overlooks them, he is then said to pass by them.
This passage teaches us, as I have already reminded you, that the glory of God principally shines in this,—that he is reconcileable, and that he forgives our sins. God indeed manifests his glory both by his power and his wisdom, and by all the judgments which he daily executes; his glory, at the same time, shines forth chiefly in this,—that he is propitious to sinners, and suffers himself to be pacified; yea, that he not only allows miserable sinners to be reconciled to him, but that he also of his own will invites and anticipates them. Hence then it is evident, that he is the true God. That religion then may have firm roots in our hearts, this must be the first thing in our faith,—that God will ever be reconciled to us; for except we be fully persuaded as to his mercy, no true religion will ever flourish in us, whatever pretensions we may make; for what is said in Ps. 130 is ever true, ‘With thee is propitiation, that thou mayest be feared.’ Hence the fear of God, and the true worship of him, depend on a perception of his goodness and favour; for we cannot from the heart worship God, and there will be, as I have already said, no genuine religion in us, except this persuasion be really and deeply seated in our hearts,—that he is ever ready to forgive, whenever we flee to him.
It hence also appears what sort of religion is that of the Papacy: for under the Papacy, being perplexed and doubtful, they ever hesitate, and never dare to believe that God will be propitious to them. Though they have some ideas, I know not what, of his grace; yet it is a vain presumption and rashness, as they think, when any one is fully persuaded of God’s mercy. They therefore keep consciences in suspense; nay, they leave them doubtful and trembling, when there is no certainty respecting God’s favour. It hence follows, that their whole worship is fictitious; in a word, the whole of religion is entirely subverted, when a firm and unhesitating confidence, as to his goodness, is taken away, yea, that confidence by which men are enabled to come to him without doubting, and to receive, whenever they sin and confess their guilt and transgressions, the mercy that is offered to them.
But this confidence is not what rises spontaneously in us; nay, even when we entertain a notion that God is merciful, it is only a mere delusion: for we cannot be fully convinced respecting God’s favour, except he anticipates us by his word, and testifies that he will be propitious to us whenever we flee to him. Hence I said at the beginning, that the Prophet here exhibits the difference between the God of Israel and all the idols of the Gentiles, and that is, because he had promised to be propitious to his people. It was not in vain that sacrifices were offered by the chosen people, for there was a promise added, which could not disappoint them: but the Gentiles ever remained doubtful with regard to their sacrifices; though they performed all their expiations, there was yet no certainty; but the case was different with the chosen people. What then the Prophet says here respecting the remission of sins, depends on the testimony which God himself has given.
We must now notice the clause which immediately follows, as to the remnant of his heritage. Here again he drives away the hypocrites from their vain confidence: for he says that God will be merciful only to a remnant of his people; and, at the same time, he takes away an offence, which might have grievously disquieted the weak, on seeing the wrath of God raging among the whole people,—that God would spare neither the common nor the chief men. When therefore the fire of God’s vengeance flamed terribly, above and below, this objection might have greatly disturbed weak minds,—“How is this? God does indeed declare that he is propitious to sinners, and yet his severity prevails among us.—How can this be?” The Prophet meets this objection and says, “God is propitious to the remnant of his heritage;” which means, that though God would execute terrible vengeance on the greater part, there would yet ever remain some seed, on whom his mercy would shine; and he calls them the remnant of his heritage, because there was no reason, as it was stated yesterday, why God forgave the few, except that he had chosen the posterity of Abraham.
He also adds, He will not retain his wrath perpetually. By this second consolation he wished to relieve the faithful: for though God chastises them for a time, he yet forgets not his mercy. We may say, that the Prophet mentions here two exceptions. He had spoken of God’s mercy; but as this mercy is not indiscriminate or common to all, he restricts what he teaches to the remnant. Now follows another exception,—that how much soever apparently the wrath of God would rage against his elect people themselves, there would yet be some moderation, so that they would remain safe, and that their calamities would not be to them fatal. Hence he says, God retains not wrath; for though, for a moment, he may be angry with his people, he will yet soon, as it were, repent, and show himself gracious to them, and testify that he is already reconciled to them;—not that God changes, but that the faithful are made for a short time to feel his wrath; afterwards a taste of his mercy exhilarates them, and thus they feel in their souls that God has in a manner changed. For when dread possesses their minds, they imagine God to be terrible, but when they embrace the promises of his grace, they call on him, and begin to entertain hope of pardon; then God appears to them kind, gentle, and reconcileable; yea, and altogether ready to show mercy. This is the reason why the Prophet says, that God retains not his wrath.
Then follows the cause, for he loveth mercy. Here the Prophet more clearly shows, that the remission of sins is gratuitous, and that it has no foundation but in the nature of God himself. There is then no reason, since Scripture declares God to be reconcileable, why any one should seek the cause in himself, or even the means by which God reconciles himself to us: for He himself is the cause. As God then by nature loves mercy, hence it is, that he is so ready to forgive sinners. Whosoever then imagines that God is to be propitiated by expiations or any satisfactions, subverts the doctrine of the Prophet; and it is the same thing as to build without a foundation: for the only prop or support that can raise us up to God, when we desire to be reconciled to him, is this,—that he loves mercy. And this is the reason why God so much commends his mercy, why he says, that he is merciful to thousand generations, slow to wrath, and ready to pardon. For though the unbelieving harden themselves against God, yet when they feel his wrath, there is nothing so difficult for them as to believe that God can be pacified. Hence this reason, which is not in vain added by the Prophet, ought to be especially noticed.
Let us now see to whom God is merciful. For as Satan could not have obliterated from the hearts of men a conviction of God’s mercy, he has yet confined mercy to the unbelieving, as though God should forgive sinners only once, when they are admitted into the Church. Thus the Pelagians formerly thought, that God grants reconciliation to none but to aliens; for whosoever has been once received into the Church cannot, as they imagined, stand otherwise before God than by being perfect. And this figment led Novatus and his disciples to create disturbances in the Church. And there are at this day not only deluded men, but devils, who, by the same figment, or rather delirious notions, fascinate themselves and others, and hold, that the highest perfection ought to exist in the faithful; and they also slander our doctrine, as though we were still continuing in the Alphabet or in the first rudiments, because we daily preach free remission of sins. But the Prophet declares expressly that God not only forgives the unbelieving when they sin, but also his heritage and his elect. Let us then know, that as long as we are in the world, pardon is prepared for us, as we could not otherwise but fall every moment from the hope of salvation, were not this remedy provided for us: for those men must be more than mad who arrogate to themselves perfection, or who think that they have arrived at that high degree of attainment, that they can satisfy God by their works. It now follows—
18 The question “Who is a God like you?” points to the uniqueness of Yahweh. The name “Micah” means “who is like the Lord?” Whether we have here another characteristic play on words is hard to say. The words “sin” and “transgression” recall the affirmation of Exodus 34:6–7, wherein the Lord proclaimed an essential aspect of his nature to be his willingness to forgive sin.
19–20 Because God’s anger does not continue forever, the believing remnant can know that an end will come to their humiliation. God will not simply ignore his people’s sin and its punishment, but he will take the sin, destroy it, and get rid of it. Israel’s sin is like an enemy that God defeats and disposes of. The sea in the ancient Near East represented the forces of chaos; thus the sea is where Israel’s sins belonged.
After the great statement of forgiveness of v. 19, the prophet recalls the promise given to Abraham and reaffirmed to Jacob (v. 20). The remnant’s optimism is rooted in the promise sworn to Abraham and “our fathers” (“our ancestors,” NRSV, TNIV).
18–20 The fourth and last movement of this liturgical symphony is a choral piece of devotion and doxology. It begins in the style of a hymn, extolling the compassionate nature of God. A theme from the opening movement is taken up and developed, the burden of God’s wrath resting upon the sin-conscious hearts of the community. They have come in repentance, but that is not enough to win back the blessing of God. He is no petulant princeling to be wooed away from a fit of capricious temper. Nothing they can do will avail of itself to secure God’s acceptance. The sole ground of their hope lies in the noble character of God as one who forgives, forgets, and offers a fresh beginning. Superficially this claim sounds like the one made in 2:7 and categorically denied by Micah. But the respective attitudes of heart are poles apart. The complacency that shrugged off prophetic warnings in the spirit of pardonner—c’est son métier had given way to a deep sense of the seriousness of sin. The heartfelt appreciation of divine grace that impassions this finale is an emotion that can be experienced only by those who have come to see sin through God’s eyes.
The community rise in spirit far above their doleful environment in joyful, lilting contemplation of the grace of God. Their rhetorical question concerning God’s matchlessness is usually reserved for a consideration of Yahweh’s mighty acts, as for instance in Exod. 15:11, There were many nations around who claimed power for their gods; Israel was always glad when their own God, whom they believed to be invested with universal omnipotence, was proved to be so in a manner convincing to those to whom seeing was believing. But with an insight born of richer experience, God’s people have come to see that his majesty is most evident in his grace.
Countless acts of pardoning grace
beyond Thine other wonders shine.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee
or who has grace so rich and free? (Samuel Davies)
In the term remnant they glance briefly but poignantly back along the path they have trodden. It is a term that sounds a persistent echo through the hope sections of the book with deliberate emphasis on the harrowing losses suffered by Israel. Paradoxically it opens a door of hope, since they have the pledge that after judgment is to come salvation.
But if the people of God find themselves in a new and awesome situation, the language they use is hallowed by long tradition. It echoes the classic characterization of Yahweh in Exod. 34:6f. as the God “who forgives wrong, rebellion, and sin,” who is “slow to anger and full of constant love.” The God of ancient Israel has not changed; he has remained the same down to the present. A new generation take up the old formulation and make it their own by faith. They look away from their wrath-laden situation and affirm again, as they had at the outset in vv. 8f., that this must be a temporary phenomenon. Now they argue from the character of God: it is grace that better reveals his very heart:
For his anger lasts a moment,
but his favor a lifetime.
Weeping may stay the night,
but with the morning comes joy. (Ps. 30:5)
Believers know that the purpose of God’s dealings with them is to train them in the ways of righteousness and harmony with himself. To this end chastisement may play a part, but over and beyond it lies the mystery of grace.
It is this vital truth concerning the revealed nature of God that they apply to themselves, treasuring it as the guarantee of their future blessing. Standing on the promise inherent in God’s character, they make an attestation of faith concerning their prospects. They can glimpse the certainty of a renewed demonstration of divine goodwill toward them in the forgiveness of their sins. They know that their lives must remain unblessed as long as they are separated from God by the guilt of sin. They rejoice therefore in the assurance that the heritage of sin, which dogs their stepsand has cast over them its disastrous shadow, will be thrown off for good and all. Has the Song of Moses in Exod. 15, echoed at the beginning of the section, influenced the piece again? Just as once God’s incomparable power shook off the pursuing Egyptians and overcame them, so now God’s incomparable grace is to triumph over sin. Thus would the second Exodus prayed for in v. 15 be realized. No longer would his people be slaves to sin and its consequences. No longer would they be held captive to the frustration of its thraldom. Paul echoed this very theme in Rom. 5f.
The wonder of it whirls the worshippers from meditation to a renewed intimacy of prayer. They confront God with their heartfelt conviction that he would drown their sins forever, just as Pharaoh’s charioteers were “hurled” into the sea and sank “down into the depths like a stone” (Exod. 15:5). The black shadow of guilt for past sin that had dominated their experience would disappear from their lives, never to threaten them again. Another psalmist sang in similar vein:
As far as the east is from the west
he removes from us our guilt as rebels. (Ps. 103:12)
But as yet the cloud is still there for this congregation; they look forward to its future removal. Then the way would lie open for unbroken harmony with their covenant God. Their community would become strong and healthy both in spiritual relationships and in their social and political outworking. It is this corollary of divine forgiveness that is the closing melody of the passage. Further echoes of Exod. 34:6 may be heard in the joint reference to faith, i.e., faithfulness, and constant love. The traditional attributes of the God of the covenant, of which the phrase “grace and truth” in John 1:7 is the descendant, are borrowed for inclusion in a larger canvas than that of the covenant of Sinai. The community delve further back into their religious past to find an even deeper foundation for their confidence. They lay claim to patriarchal promises. At the moment they languish in a corner of the promised land, numerically a vestige of what the nation once had been and spiritually victims of divine indignation. Their situation is the very opposite of that envisaged in God’s sworn pledges to the patriarchs concerning the land of promise, posterity as numerous as stars, sand, and dust, and the fullness of divine blessing.93 In a sense the patriarchs lived on in their descendants: Jacob stands for the people of God to whom the ancient voice of blessing comes afresh, as at Bethel of old. Even Abraham is a bold individualization of the community in whom the patriarch survives to remind God of his solemn promises. The present congregation profess the ties of solidarity binding them to the great heroes of the past, around whom clustered even greater expectations. This oneness is fittingly portrayed in order to stress that these folk, weak and feeble as they are, yet are heirs to promised glory. Therefore tightly they cling to God’s ancient word of grace. The Christian Church is no stranger to this assurance, for the same theme of laying claim to the heritage of promised grace reappears in Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:6–29.
Martin Luther provided what amounts to a remarkable summary of the whole passage, vv. 8–20:
Though great our sins and sore our wounds
and deep and dark our fall,
his helping mercy hath no bounds,
his love surpasseth all.
Our trusty loving Shepherd he,
who shall at last set Israel free
from all their sin and sorrow. (E.T. by Catharine Winkworth)
The piece forms a worthy climax to the book of Micah. It builds upon the prophetic word with the assurance and tone of spiritual reality that marked Micah’s own ministry. It is a monument to the faith of men who transcended their earthly woes and climbed to a spiritual vantage point. From there they could survey the present in the reassuring light of God’s past and future dealings with his covenant people. As Micah’s prophesying was marked by a holy boldness that enabled him to confront a corrupt society as fearlessly as Peter, John, and Paul in a later age, so here is an earnest of boldness toward God in approaching “the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace in the form of timely help” (Heb. 4:16). It exudes a confidence akin to that of which Charles Wesley testified:
Bold I approach the eternal throne
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
The Incomparable God of Forgiveness (Micah 7:18–20)
The dialogue between God and the people of Israel, personified in the figure of Jerusalem, that began with 6:1, now comes to an end, with Israel “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” Who is a God like you? Jerusalem exclaims, verse 18a. The question is often expressed in wonder in the ot, but often too the answer is that Yahweh is incomparable because he does glorious and mighty deeds (Exod. 15:11; cf. Ps. 77:13), because he delivers from threatening death (Ps. 71:20), because he comes to the aid of the weak, poor, and needy (Ps. 35:10; 113:7), or because he is more powerful than all other gods (Ps. 89:6). Here, however, Israel exclaims that God is incomparable because God forgives sin. It is not might, nor wonders, nor succor that finally make God absolutely unique. Rather, Yahweh is qualitatively different from all other gods and human beings and things because, having great power, Yahweh also faithfully forgives humankind. With justification, Micah would say, the Christian faith has put the cross, the symbol of triumph over and forgiveness of all sin, at the center of its worship.
7:18–20 / The three most frequently used words for sin are employed in verses 18 and 19: ʿāwōn, which includes the thought of guilt and crime, and which the niv has translated with sin or iniquities, verses 18b and 19c; pešaʿ, which comes from political usage and means “rebellion,” but which the niv has weakly translated with transgression, verse 18b; and ḥēṭʾ, which can have the meaning of missing the mark or falling short, and which the niv also translates with sins, verse 19b. Thus, the passage intends to deal with every form of sinfulness.
God pardons ʿāwōn, verse 18b; and passes over (niv: forgives) pešaʿ, verse 18b; he treads ʿāwōn underfoot, verse 19b; and hurls ḥēṭʾ into the depths of the sea, verse 19c. By using the four verbs to describe God’s treatment of sin, the message is conveyed that sin is utterly removed from God’s sight—passed over of no longer any importance, or violently trampled into pieces in the dust, or sunk like a stone in the depths of the sea.
Why does God do such acts of forgiveness? Because of God’s delight to show ḥesed, covenant faithfulness (niv: mercy), verse 18e. In other words, above all else, God wants to remain faithful to his covenant with his people. The Lord loves his chosen folk, and though they have been reduced to a remnant, they are God’s inheritance (v. 18c), a special people, bound to God since the days of the fathers by his choice and love of them (cf. Exod. 19:5–6; Gen. 12:1–3; 17:7). Thus, God will not stay angry with them forever, verse 18d, a statement which reminds us of Psalm 103:9–13. God may visit the sins of the fathers upon the third and the fourth generation, but God’s steadfast, covenant love endures for thousands of generations (cf. Exod. 20:5–6). And so God will have compassion (rāḥam) upon Israel, a word used to denote the tender, unconditional love of a mother for the child of her womb (reḥem).
This passage does not concern Israel alone, however. The niv and most commentators emend the possessive pronoun in verse 19c to read, “you will cast our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” That is not what the mt text says. It reads, “their iniquities,” and what the verse is saying is that not only will Israel be forgiven, but also the foreign nations who will turn to Yahweh (v. 17), will have their sins sunk like a stone in the sea. Just as Israel cannot approach its God, unless God forgives its sins, so too other peoples cannot approach and worship the Lord unless they are forgiven also. Micah looks forward to the time when Yahweh will reign as Lord over all the earth (4:2, 7; 5:4), and that reign will be made possible by Yahweh’s universal forgiveness of the nations as well as of Israel. The message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ encompasses that universality.
The final word of Micah, therefore, is that God will be true to the promise to Jacob and show covenant faithfulness (ḥesed; niv: mercy) to the descendants of Abraham, as was promised in the days of those patriarchs. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be the means through which God would bring blessing on all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4), and that promise was renewed for both Isaac (Gen. 26:3) and Jacob (Gen. 28:14). Micah therefore foresees the time when the undeserved forgiveness and salvation of Israel will result in all peoples turning to Yahweh as their sole Lord in worship and obedience. When the nations see what God does in Israel, they too will give their allegiance to Israel’s Lord. Two centuries later, Second Isaiah sang the same song (Isa. 52:13–53:12). But Micah begins the song of wonder and praise in this final word of his prophecy.
18. Grateful at such unlooked-for grace being promised to Israel, Micah breaks forth into praises of Jehovah.
passeth by the transgression—not conniving at it, but forgiving it; leaving it unpunished, as a traveller passes by what he chooses not to look into (Pr 19:11). Contrast Am 7:8, and “mark iniquities,” Ps 130:3.
the remnant—who shall be permitted to survive the previous judgment: the elect remnant of grace (Mic 4:7).
retaineth not … anger—(Ps 103:9).
delighteth in mercy—God’s forgiving is founded on His nature, which delights in loving-kindness, and is averse from wrath.
- turn again—to us, from having been turned away from us.
subdue our iniquities—literally, “tread under foot,” as being hostile and deadly to us. Without subjugation of our bad propensities, even pardon could not give us peace. When God takes away the guilt of sin that it may not condemn us, He takes away also the power of sin that it may not rule us.
cast … into … depths of the sea—never to rise again to view, buried out of sight in eternal oblivion: not merely at the shore side, where they may rise again.
our … their—change of person. Micah in the first case identifying himself and his sins with his people and their sins; in the second, speaking of them and their sins.
- perform the truth—the faithful promise.
to Jacob … Abraham—Thou shalt make good to their posterity the promise made to the patriarchs. God’s promises are called “mercy,” because they flow slowly from grace; “truth,” because they will be surely performed (Lu 1:72, 73; 1 Th 5:24).
sworn unto our fathers—(Ps 105:9, 10). The promise to Abraham is in Ge 12:2; to Isaac, in Ge 26:24; to Jacob, in Ge 28:13. This unchangeable promise implied an engagement that the seed of the patriarchs should never perish, and should be restored to their inheritance as often as they turned wholly to God (De 30:1, 2).
Ver. 18.—In view of the many provocations and backslidings of the people, Micah is filled with wonder at the goodness and long-suffering of God. Who is a God like unto thee? The question seems to recall the prophet’s own name, which means, “Who is like Jehovah?” and the clause in Moses’ song (Exod. 15:11), “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?” Such comparisons are made from the standpoint of the nations who believe in the real existence of their false gods. That pardoneth iniquity (comp. Exod. 34:7; Numb. 14:18). Passeth by the transgression; Septuagint, ὑπερβαίνων ἀσεβείας, “passing over iniquities;” Vulgate, transis peccatum. To pass by, or pass over, is to forgive, as Amos 7:8. There is probably an allusion, as Jerome says, to the night of the Exodus. As the destroying angel passed over the Israelites and destroyed them not, so God spares his people, imputing not their iniquities unto them. The remnant (ch. 2:12; 4:6, 7). The true Israel, which is only a remnant (Isa. 10:21; Rom. 9:27). He retaineth not his anger for ever (Ps. 103:9). The word rendered “for ever” is translated by Jerome ultra, and by the Septuagint εἰς μαρτύριον, i.e. to testify the justice of his punishment. He delighteth in mercy. As the Collect says, “O God, whose nature and property is always to have mercy and to forgive” (comp. Wisd. 11:24).
Ver. 19.—He will turn again, and have compassion upon us. The verb “turn again,” joined with another verb, often denotes the repetition of an action, as in Job 7:7; Hos. 14:8, etc.; so here we may translate simply, “He will again have compassion.” He will subdue; literally, tread underfoot. Sin is regarded as a personal enemy, which by God’s sovereign grace will be entirely subdued. So, according to one interpretation, sin is personified (Gen. 4:7; comp. Ps. 65:3). Cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt blot out and bury completely and for ever, as once thou didst overwhelm the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Exod. 15:1, 4, 10, 21). The miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Exodus is a type of the greater deliverance of the true Israelites in Christ (Ps. 103:12; 1 John 1:7; comp. Isa. 43:25).
Ver. 20.—Thou wilt perform (literally, give) the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham. Jacob and Abraham are mentioned as the chiefs and representatives of the chosen family; and “the truth” (i.e. God’s faithfulness to his promises) and “mercy” are equally given to both, separately assigned only for the sake of the parallelism. Knabenbauer compares such passages as Ps. 114:1, “When Israel went forth out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language” (Ps. 105:6; Isa. 41:8; 63:16, etc.). The general meaning, therefore, is that God will perform the promises made to the forefathers, as Luke 1:72, etc. Hast sworn, as in Gen. 22:16, etc.; 28:13, etc.; Deut. 7:12. With the close of the ode Hengstenberg compares Rom. 11:33–36. Thus the checkered prophecy ends with the glow of faith and happy hope.
7:18–20. Micah closes his book with praise to God for a number of His attributes that benefited the remnant, that is, the faithful among Israel. He acknowledged Him as unique (Ex 15:11), forgiving, relenting of anger, and immutable in His love for them. In addition, He was compassionate and protective. The beautiful metaphor of v. 19b pictures God casting their sins into a deep sea, far from His sight. The phrase you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea is the basis for the Jewish custom of Tashlich (which means “you will cast”), when Jewish people cast bread into a body of water on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize God’s removal of sin. His last words recall the unconditional covenant with Abraham (Gn 12:1–3; 15:12–21; 17:1–8). Although God would chasten them for their sins, He would never cast them away. A kingdom will one day come upon the earth in which all the promises to the patriarchs will be fulfilled (Is 2:1–4; 9:1–7; 11:1–10; 35:1–10). The nation of Israel has a bright physical and spiritual future to which she may look forward. God’s faithfulness to Israel is a reminder for contemporary believers that they should exult in the astoundingly faithful nature of God who watches over them with loving discipline and grants forgiveness freely and fully to those who seek it.
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