Bethlehem Becoming the House of Bread
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. serves as a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas, as well as on the visiting faculty of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
Dr. Johnson’s thorough exposition of Micah 5:2 is Christ-exalting and appropriate in anticipation of another Christmas season.
Religious disorder and spiritual chaos characterize our day. The church of Jesus Christ is no longer “the little flock,” meeting in Jesus’ Name to worship the Father according to the Holy Scriptures under the oversight of godly elders. Generally the church has become a large worldly organization meeting in the name of a unitarian God to canvass modern religious views according to the latest “discoveries” of human reason under the oversight of organizational puppets trained and handled from secularized and politicized headquarters. The words are strong, and that is why I have used the word, “generally.” I believe, however, that the sentiments are true although, I am happy to say, not universally true.
Fifteen years ago a well-known Baptist minister, at one time minister of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote, “We are living in a day of hazy standards of right and wrong. The old line of demarcation has practically disappeared from modern thinking (he did not know the chaos that would produce in the 80s). A prominent minister said: ‘The delineation of sin has undergone a transformation somewhat similar to that which has taken place in the world of painting. The old clear-cut lines have given way to an impressionistic indefiniteness, the black and white contrasts to low-toned grays. The churches have adopted a hush policy on the doctrine of depravity and a rotarian gospel takes the place of repentance.’
“I like his reference to painting. There was a time when you could look at a picture and tell what it was. Today black and white have become gray. Someone has said: ‘The religion of China is Confucian; the religion of America is confusion.’ A country schoolteacher, applying for a job, was asked, ‘Do you teach that the earth is round or flat?’ ‘Which way do you want it taught?’ was the reply. ‘I can teach it either way.’ Something like that is the attitude of many a pulpit today.”
How limpid and lucid is God’s Word! Even its prophecies are not vague and hazy as those of modern false prophets, such as Edgar Cayce and Jeanne Dixon. The promises of the Redeemer to come illustrate the point. They narrow systematically in the Old Testament revelation. The first of them declares that the Redeemer shall come from mankind, being the Seed of the Woman (cf. Gen. 3:15). Then the Scriptures foretell Him as coming from the Semetic division of mankind (cf. 9:26), and next the Abrahamic family line (cf. 12:3), and then from Judah’s tribe (cf. 49:10), and then from David’s family in Judah (cf. 2 Sam. 7:1-29; Isa. 11:1-5), and finally born of a virgin mother in the town of Bethlehem of Judah (cf. Isa. 7:14; Mic. 5:2).
Bethlehem was the place of Rachael’s death, the scene of the love affair of Boaz and Ruth, and the birthplace of David but, while its name means house of bread, it never was the “House of Bread” until He, the Messiah, was born there. The prophecy of His birth is found in Micah 5:2, the text to which we now turn.
The Description of the Place
The context (cf. 4:9-13). Micah, an eighteenth century B.C. contemporary of Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos, ministered to his land in the days of their departure from the Word of God and the consequent moral decline. Morals were low (cf. 1:7), the government was decadent (3:9), the courts were corrupt (3:11), religion was formalistic (2:11; 3:11). The nation had lost its integrity. Assyria had captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and resumed the deportation of its people. About twenty years later in 701 B.C., the southern kingdom, Judah, was also overrun by the Assyrians, although Jerusalem was spared. Around this time and in these circumstances Micah uttered the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem.
If the occasion of the prophecy is the seige of the city by Sennacherib, Micah may well have spoken this great prophecy at the time to which the proud Assyrian king refers in his boast of his seige of Jerusalem and King Hezekiah in 701 B.C. Sennacherib in his account said that he beseiged “Hezekiah the Jew … I shut him up like a caged bird.” He says nothing, however, of God’s miraculous deliverance of Judah and his defeat by the hand of the Lord(cf. 2 Kings 19:32-37). Herodotus describes the defeat as caused by a multitude of field mice devouring during the night the Assyrians’ quivers and bows and the straps by which they held their shields.
A well-known Old Testament scholar once said that Isaiah foretold the Messiah’s virgin birth, while Micah foretold His village birth. One might also add that Isaiah is the first prophet cited in our New Testament, while Micah is the second, one speaking of His birth and the other of His place of birth.
The opening verse of the fifth chapter of Micah opens with the kingdom facing a desperate condition. The city is addressed and commanded to prepare itself for a seige by the enemy. Her king is to be treated in humiliating fashion. It was the custom for the king, when acting as judge, to strike with his sceptre wrongdoers. Now, however, cooped up in his capital, the king himself, “the judge of Israel,” is to be struck with a soldier’s club. To be struck on the cheek was a deep insult (cf. Job 16:10; Lam. 3:30).
The astonishing divine design. The present humiliation for city and king is not the end. Discipline may be necessary, but the future is surprising but glorious. The prophet writes, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah.” The forcefulness of the prophecy is seen in the method of address. It is direct, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah.” And the words suggest the comfort of the promise, for they mean house of bread, fruitfulness, suggesting things far different from the present situation. As Allen says, Hezekiah, the figure of failure, stands over against the Davidic Ruler, the figure of majesty. From the rack and ruin of a disciplined Judah shall come Abraham’s Seed and David’s Son, the King. The covenants still stand! Yahweh remembers them in everlasting love. With Him even lowly shattered Bethlehem can produce the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is not strange that God called His Man from such a lowly source. He wishes it to be known that, “He can take acorns and turn them into mighty oaks.” As a matter of fact, He does not even need an acorn to do the trick! As Paul puts it, He “calleth those things that be not as though they were” (cf. Rom. 4:17). He takes a Gideon, a self-confessed, “the least in my father’s house” (Jude 6:15), and conquers 132,000 Midianites.
One other thing calls for notice here. The prophecy concerns “Bethlehem Ephratah.” Now there were two Bethlehems, one in Judah and one in Zebulun. God had need, like the Delphic Oracle, to phrase His prophecies carefully so that they might be fulfilled in many ways just to increase the odds against failure. His are definite. The Bethlehem in Judah is meant, as the “Ephratah,” the district in which Bethlehem lay, indicates.
The Description of God’s Purpose
Still speaking to Bethlehem, the prophet describes the purpose of God in this way, “yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.” Initially God had told Samuel to visit Jesse, David’s father, “for I have provided me a king among his sons” (cf. 1 Sam. 16:1). Still another, long after David’s death, is to come and be God’s ruler in Israel.
I think it is rather important to note that God promises that the ruler will be a ruler “in Israel.” This prophetic promise seems to demand that there exist at the time of His coming and service an “Israel,” the ethnic people, for that is the sense of the term here. In other words, the promise secures the people’s future existence and blessing.
In the New Testament the text from Micah is cited by the chief priests and scribes, who reply to Herod’s question about where the Messiah was to be born (cf. Matt. 2:6). Matthew gives their reply in these words, “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, for out of you shall come forth a ruler, who will shepherd my people Israel.” The words “for me,” found in Micah, appear to be expanded into the clause, “who will shepherd my people Israel,” taken probably from 2 Samuel 5:2, where they are the Lord’s promise to David.
The saintly Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) in a touching sermon on the text from Matthew took the New Testament citation to say that He would be our Guide and, therefore, inclusive of His three offices of prophet, priest, and king. Now He is our great Prophet who guides our feet in the way (cf. Deut. 18:18; Luke 1:79), our meditating Priest who feeds us (cf. Heb. 5:1; Mic. 5:4, “feed”), and our exalted King who guards us in the way (cf. Jer. 30:21). However, the text clearly lays the principal stress upon His royal office of Ruler, and the context makes it plain that that sense receives the emphasis. He is the Ruler who inherits the Davidic throne.
The note of the royalty of our Lord is often neglected in the church today. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is the syrupy stress of the pulpit today. Horton Davies, in a book on the varieties of English preaching, describes the preaching of Leslie Weatherhead in this way, “In a Christmas sermon he speaks of the strangeness of the gifts of the three Magi for the Christ child, and then continues: ‘I do not mean to be in the least irreverent, but did no one give Him in a soft wooly, cuddly toy, the ancient equivalent of a teddy-bear? Did no one give Him a rattle? Did no one treat Him as a little baby thing? Here R. W. Dale’s rebuke would be apt — that this is to ‘forget that Christ is King, that He is not to be fondled but to be reverenced.’” We must not, as Davies adds, in our references to Christ allow pathos to degenerate into bathos.
The wise men from the East, when they came to Jerusalem, asked about the One, “who has been born King of the Jews” (cf. Matt. 2:2). To be born a king is rather unusual; in fact, it may be unique. “Very few have ever been ‘born king,’” Spurgeon remarks. “Men are born princes, but they are seldom born kings. I do not think you can find an instance in history where any infant was born king. He was the Prince of Wales, perhaps, and he had to wait a number of years, till his father dies and then they manufactured him into a king, by putting a crown on his head; and a sacred chrism, and other silly things; but he was not born a king. I remember no one who was born a king except Jesus; and there is emphatic meaning in the verse that we sing—
‘Born Thy people to deliver;
Born a child, and yet a King.’”
The Description of the Person
The prophet concludes his striking prophecy of the King to come with the words, “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (2c). Paul’s words come to mind here, “Great is the mystery of godliness,” for the final words have been understood in different ways. Some have seen a reference to the eternity of the Messianic King in the words, “from of old, from everlasting.” The usage of the terms in the original text argues against that interpretation. The expression translated, “from of old,” for example, is found in Nehemiah 12:46, rendered by, “of old,” and there it plainly is used of the age of David.
Further, the expression translated, “from everlasting,” is found also in Micah 7:14 and refers there to a historical time, not to eternity. In fact, elsewhere it is always found in historical contexts (cf. Isa. 63:9, 11; Amos 9:11; Mal. 3:4). It, therefore, seems better to refer the phrases here to the distant historical past, the glorious time of the beginning of the dynasty of David.
The words are meant to encourage the nation in its difficult times by assuring them that the election of David and his dynasty for future glorious national blessing through a divine unconditional covenant still holds. As God said of the Davidic dynasty in the 89th Psalm, “Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David. His descendants shall endure forever, And his throne as the sun before Me. It shall be established forever like the moon, And the witness in the sky is faithful” (vv. 35-37). The ancient glory shall return, only magnified, to the glory of the Triune God.
“Out of thee shall He come forth unto me” is, then, a declaration that the royal house established by the Messiah in the future has its root in the ancient city of David and the covenant established with its famous historical king.
The final words state that the Messiah to come has hereditary right to the throne, being of kingly Davidic lineage. In His human veins there flows royal blood, for he is not only David’s Lord. He is also David’s Son and Heir.
There may be some doubt about whether Micah’s words in verse two refer to a divine Messiah, but the following context makes it quite clear that the majestic Shepherd-King who is to come and deliver Israel is more than a man. To Him shall come universal empire (cf. v. 4) as the prophesied Davidic sovereign, whose deity is explicitly declared by our Lord in His incarnate ministry (cf. Matt. 22:41-46).
Bethlehem means house of bread, but only on the night of His birth did the village reach its potential. Then she truly became the house of bread when the Bread of Life was born there in the manger (cf. John 6:35), having first come down from heaven (v. 51).
Israel tried Sinai and Moses’ Law but, while it is holy, just, and good, it cannot save sinners from their sin. Bethlehem and her Davidic Shepherd-King can alone feed His people with the bread of life. He is no blind guide to heaven and eternal life, for he has been there and has that life eternal with the authority to convey it to the ones given Him by the Father (cf. John 17:2).
Why will we not be led, guarded, and fed by Him? Is it, as in the inn-keeper’s case, who assigned the royal family to the stable and manger, that we are ignorant of who He is, when He should come, and for what purpose He should submit to crucifixion? The Scriptures are clear when they say, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).
Let us abandon the liberal unitarian gods of fallible human reason that cannot save and the false views of human self-righteousness that keep us from fleeing to Micah’s Shepherd-King and God’s divine Son. Let us throw off the little gods of our day and give ourselves to our majestic Savior God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all power in heaven and in earth has been given.
Some years ago the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in Edinburgh, heard Sir Bernard Lovell speaking on the immensities of the world of astronomy. Professor Burleigh, the Moderator of the Church, thanked the astronomer for a fine address, but concluded with the telling words, “But we believe that our God rules over all your worlds.” It is this Father-God who has given to His Son authority to give eternal life to those who trust Him and His saving sacrifice. May the Lord enable us to recognize our sin and need and cast ourselves upon Him for time and for eternity.