Sermon: Idolatry

As we prepare to hear God’s word from the book of Micah, I want to offer a word of clarification and a word of warning. First, clarification. Micah is a prophet and therefore the book of Micah is a book of prophecy. As we study Micah, we will find that some of his words refer to moments of ancient biblical history, some words will point to Christ, and some words will point ahead to Christ’s return. And sometimes the same words will do all three. However, prophesy’s primary purpose is not predicting the future, but to reveal the heart of God. I will say it again because this is so important: prophesy’s primary purpose is not predicting the future, but to reveal the heart of God. It often speaks of the future, but the goal of prophesy is to show them and us the very heart of God.

This is important because we will be learning about the original context of Micah’s ministry to help us understand what God is saying. But history is not the point, it is a tool to help us clean out our ears to hear what God is saying to us today. Prophesy has not just happened or will happen, but it reveals the God who makes a claim on our life today. One last time: Prophesy’s primary purpose is not predicting the future, but to reveal the heart of God.

Now a word of warning. Our passage this morning is difficult to hear. But if all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness – that includes hard passages of judgment. Our conviction, shared by the Reformed tradition, is that we must never move around or jump over difficult words, but must always go through. For as we wrestle with God’s word, like Jacob on bank of the river Jabbok, we may come away limping, but we will come away blessed. Before we hear God’s word, please pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah – the vision he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.

Hear, you peoples, all of you

Listen, earth, and all who live in it,

that the Sovereign Lord may bear witness against you,

the Lord from his holy temple.

Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling place,

he comes down and treads on the heights of the earth.

The mountains melt beneath him,

the valleys split apart,

like wax before a fire,

like water rushing down a slope.

All this is because of Jacob’s transgression,

because of the sins of the people of Israel.

What is Jacob’s transgression?

Is it not Samaria?

What is Judah’s high place?

Is it not Jerusalem?

Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble,

a place for planting vineyards,

I will pour her stones into the valley,

and lay bare her foundations.

All her idols will be broken to pieces,

all her temple gifts will be burned with fire,

I will destroy all her images.

Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes,

as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used.

Because of this, I will weep and wail.

I will go about barefoot and naked.

I will howl like a jackal

and moan like an owl.

For Samaria’s plague is incurable.

It has spread to Judah.

It has reached the very gates of my people,

even to Jerusalem itself.

Tell it not in Gath,

weep not at all.

In Beth Ophir,

roll in the dust.

Pass by naked and in shame,

you who live in Shaphir.

Those who live in Zaanan

will not come out.

Beth Ezel is in mourning.

It no longer protects you.

Those who live in Maroth writhe in pain,

waiting for relief,

for disaster has come from the Lord,

even to the gates of Jerusalem.

You who live in Lachish,

harness fast horses to the chariot.

You are where the sin of Daughter Zion began,

for the transgressions of Israel were found in you.

Therefore you will give parting gifts to Moresheth Gath.

The town of Akzib will prove deceptive

to the kings of Israel.

I will bring a conqueror against you

who live in Mareshah

the nobles of Israel will flee to Adullam.

Shave your head in mourning,

for the children in whom you delight,

make yourself as bald as the vulture,

for they will go from you into exile.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

I promise you: there is good news. But there is a lot of bad news first. In our time together, I want us to walk through this passage together to make sure we understand what we heard and then I want to show you something remarkable. That was Micah, chapter 1. I invite you to turn there with me. Micah is in the Old Testament, known as one of the minor prophets because of length, not significance. Micah is after Obadiah and Jonah and before Nahum and Habakkuk.

Let’s begin in verse 1: The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah – the vision he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.

The book opens by telling us that these words were not Micah’s invention. He is not stating his opinion or making his own judgments, but speaking the words that God gave him, recording the vision he saw. Micah himself was from a small town southwest of Jerusalem called Moresheth. His ministry coincided with the reigns of three separate kings of Judah – Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. What we know about these kings comes from 2 Kings 15-19. Jotham was, for the most part, a good king. He feared God and was not prideful like his father Uzziah. Yet, the people continued to practice idolatry during his reign. They would worship the Lord at the temple, but also worship other gods on the side. This usually happened at what were known as ‘high places’ – under trees or on the top of mountains, where little shrines were set up to various gods (even the one true God) and worship at the high places often involved, how shall I put?, activities between a man and woman usually reserved for more private venues.

So, during the reign of Jotham, the people of Judah had a problem. They were in a covenantal relationship with God, but wanted to get a little something on the side with other gods. Jotham’s son Ahaz was much worse. He was a wicked king. He supported the Assyrian empire and set up idols in the temple of God. He even nailed the temple doors shut at one point. Ahaz modeled idolatry for the people and they readily followed him in it.

The last king mentioned was Hezekiah. He was one of the best kings in Judah’s history. He loved and trusted God and urged the people to do the same. He removed the idols and cleaned up worship in the temple, but still worship on the high places continued.

These three kings reigned between around 750BC and 686BC. We do not know the exact dates of Micah’s ministry, but it was likely a roughly 30-35 year period within that range of dates. At some point in his ministry, Micah sees a vision from the Lord. Verses 2-4:

Hear, you peoples, all of you

Listen, earth, and all who live in it,

that the Sovereign Lord may bear witness against you,

the Lord from his holy temple.

Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling place,

he comes down and treads on the heights of the earth.

The mountains melt beneath him,

the valleys split apart,

like wax before a fire,

like water rushing down a slope.

The vision begins with God descending from heaven to earth. Like a great earthquake, God’s presence causes the mountains – so strong and permanent – to melt like wax. The valley split apart and flow like water rushing down a slope. God’s presence is so awesome, so powerful, so holy that creation itself cannot stand before it. This is the very presence of God, for which we need crash helmets, seat belts, and life-preservers. The God who said ‘let there be light’ and there was light. Micah sees this God coming down to earth. The God who hid Moses in the cleft of the rock and only let him see his back so that he would not be overwhelmed and die. Micah sees this God coming down to earth. And the very foundations of the earth quake at his coming.

Why has God come down? Verse 2: that the Sovereign Lord may bear witness against you. The image is of God holding court. God comes as both judge and prosecution and calls the earth and every people and nation living in it as witnesses. The living God comes to bear witness against the people of Israel and Judah. Against them? Against our enemies, sure? We know God will come to judge the wicked. Against us? Aren’t we God’s chosen people? Surely, God is on our side. Surely, we have God’s favor.

What are God’s charges? Verses 5-7:

All this is because of Jacob’s transgression,

because of the sins of the people of Israel.

What is Jacob’s transgression?

Is it not Samaria?

What is Judah’s high place?

Is it not Jerusalem?

Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble,

a place for planting vineyards,

I will pour her stones into the valley,

and lay bare her foundations.

All her idols will be broken to pieces,

all her temple gifts will be burned with fire,

I will destroy all her images.

Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes,

as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used.

After the reign of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split in two. Solomon’s son Rehoboam had the ten northern tribes taken from him because of his unfaithfulness and given to Jeroboam. This kingdom, with its capital in Samaria, is often called Israel. The remaining two tribes, with their capital in Jerusalem became known as Judah – after the tribe of Judah. Israel had one unfaithful king after another, spiraling further and further away from God. In 722BC, God sent the Assyrian army as his judgment on the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The country was decimated, the people carted off, and the capital reduced to rubble. The kingdom of Israel ended and was never recovered. This all happened while Micah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah.

God charges the people of Israel with unfaithfulness – adultery, really. They have placed their trust in idols. Jeroboam set up two golden calves in the city of Bethel where would come and worship them. For hundreds of years, this went on. High-place sex-shrines, Baal-worship, Asherah poles and worse. God was patient, sending prophet after prophet to call the people back to him. But they would not listen.

Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble,

a place for planting vineyards,

I will pour her stones into the valley,

and lay bare her foundations.

All her idols will be broken to pieces,

all her temple gifts will be burned with fire,

I will destroy all her images.

The most terrifying part of the story for me this week was realizing that most of these people would have still called themselves God-fearers. We might say that they would have still called themselves Christians, even though they were neck deep in idols. They still worshipped God, but as one among many other things. They still trusted God, sort of, but alongside a whole host of other gods. The Heidelberg Catechism defines idolatry as “Having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.” Instead of OR alongside of God. Israel placed all sorts of things ahead of God or even alongside of him. They had names for these gods – Baal, Asherah, Molech, Dagan, Mammon. The names have changed in our day, but the temptation is still the same – Power, Pleasure, Money, Security, Sex. Even if we call them by different names, trusting someone or something alongside of God or instead of God is idolatry and there are consequences for idolatry.

This is what has Micah so distressed. Verses 8-9:

Because of this, I will weep and wail.

I will go about barefoot and naked.

I will howl like a jackal

and moan like an owl.

For Samaria’s plague is incurable.

It has spread to Judah.

It has reached the very gates of my people,

even to Jerusalem itself.

The plague of Israel has spread to Judah. Micah weeps and wails. He visible marks himself as mourning cries out like a jackal or an owl. The plague has spread to the heart of Judah – to Jerusalem. And so will God’s judgment.

After speaking about the spread of the Samaria’s idolatry into the very heart of Judah, God reveals the consequences for the cities of Judah. Beginning in verse 10, Micah lists a series of cities and their fates before the judgment of God. We are not going to go through each one, but simply notice two things. First, the judgment God passes on these cities is connected with their name – the core of their identity. Beth Ophir means ‘the house of dust’ and its people will roll around in the dust – either in defeat, or shame, or agony. Zaanan means ‘they will come out,’ but the people of that city will be so afraid they will not come out, but will hide. Lachish was known as the fortress city that protected southern Judah, but it will fasten horses to its chariots – not for battle, but to flee. Hence ‘fast horses.’ Akzib means ‘deception or disappointment’ and it will be so to the kings of Israel. Adullam was filled with caves, the very caves David hid in when he fled from Saul. Those caves again would be the hiding places of the nobles of Israel. First, the judgment God passes on these cities is connected with their names – the core of their identity.

Second, the order of the cities is similar to Assyria’s path of destruction through Judah. In 701BC, during the reign of Hezekiah, the Assyrian empire invaded Judah. They conquered towns and ravage the countryside, eventually reaching the gates of Jerusalem and laying siege to the city, before God miraculously saved his people. We do not know the exact location of all the cities Micah names, but those we do tend to follow the path that King Sennacherib took as he conquered and brutalized the land of Judah, all the way to the gates of Jerusalem.

The picture of the Assyrian invasion is horrific – writing in pain, fleeing, naked and in shame. This may be troubling or disturbing to some of us, to think that such punishment could come by the will of God. However, what should be more troubling is that God is completely just in his judgment. Scripture reveals how grave our sins really are.

No wonder this chapter ends with verse 16:

Shave your head in mourning

for the children in whom you delight;

make yourself as bald as the vulture,

for they will go from you into exile.

There is a reason that Micah weeps and wails when he hears the judgment that will come upon Judah. For Judah, it will not be those living who will go into exile – God miraculously delivers Jerusalem and scatters the Assyrian army in 701BC, during the reign of Hezekiah. It will not be those living who will finally be carted off into exile, but their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 586BC, God sends the Babylonian Empire to take his people from the land and cart them off into exile. The temple is torn down, the walls of Jerusalem reduced to rubble, and the people scattered.

I cannot make this easier for you to hear this morning. Micah has a message of hope, of salvation, of restoration by the hand of God by sheer grace. The Word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth has good news, but there is bad news first. Remember, prophecy’s primary purpose is to reveal the heart of God.

I cannot make this easier for you this morning, but we need to know that God is both grieved about and angry toward sin. Particularly the sin of idolatry. “Having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word” is destructive for us, even apart from the direct judgment of God.

Micah chapter 1 spoke initially to the people of Israel long ago, but by the power of the Holy Spirit it speaks to us today. It faces us with God’s just judgment on sin – on unfaithfulness. It confronts us each with the question of whether we are placing our trust in something alongside or in place of the only true God. Micah calls us to self-examination and repentance.

I want to show you something remarkable. I believe there is hope in the opening chapter of Micah. I believe we see Jesus, even here.

Micah’s vision begins with God descending. God comes down to earth – his very presence soften stone so that it melts. God comes down onto the very heights of the earth – likely the temple itself – in order to judge the earth.

Where else do we see this in Scripture? Jesus. God himself come down upon the earth. the eternal Word made flesh, whose very presence softened stony hearts. And, in Matthew 21, we see Jesus enter the temple courts as Judge of the earth. Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

The same God we see in the book of Micah, we see in Jesus. Judgment on sin, passion to root out idolatry is not exclusive to the Old Testament. It is part of the very character of God. The same God we see in the book of Micah, we see in Jesus. A few days after this, Jesus sat down for a meal with his disciples. He broke bread and said, “This is my body given for you.” He poured out the cup. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Before that night was through, he was arrested and sentenced to death. Jesus refused to let the cup pass from him. So that we could drink the cup of the new covenant, Jesus drank the cup of judgment that we deserved. As the Spirit revealed through Paul, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” God’s heart did not change. His judgment on sin did not change, only the one who stood under judgment. In love, God took it on himself. In love, Jesus took the just judgment that we deserved. The same God we see in the book of Micah, we see in Jesus. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. The God who is Judge also came to save, to bear that judgment in his own body on the cross.

Believe this good news and be at peace.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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