The Historical, Literary & Structural Context of Old Testament Prophet Micah.


By James Bishop (35333), 3 August 2015. (Subject: Old Testament Studies.)

The prophetic book of Micah (written between 735 and 700 B.C.E) is a fascinating fusion of hope and judgment. The prophet’s attention is focussed upon Samaria and Judah, and is grounded within a specific political, social and historical context. The way that Micah expresses his prophetic message and the structuring of the materials in the book both require special attention, as will duly be done.

In the opening of the book we read that it was “The word of the LORD that came to Micah.” This tells us that Micah, the sixth of the Minor Prophets, receives these words with a great authority. These words are not the prophet’s own, but solely that of God’s, and it is within the time of the kings Ahaz, Jotham, and Hezekiah that Micah was called to prophesy. Micah is thus called forth to publicize God’s impending judgment on the northern nation of Israel for their various evils. God reveals that the prophets have deceived his people, that their leadership has succumbed to various corruptions, that the poor are abused, and that idolatry is rampant throughout his kingdom (1:2-4). It is also revealed that cruelty and murder is a widespread and common practice in Jerusalem (3:10), that the prophets prophesy in exchange for money (3:11), and that the city of Jerusalem has been built upon deceit (3:9). It is thus Micah’s God-given mission to warn and indict the nation’s leaders, and bring to light their unjust and evil deeds. However, such is not taken kindly by those whom the prophet divulges to be full of iniquities, and he subsequently threatened to not prophesy any further (2:6-11).

The entire narrative is cemented within Israel’s special relationship with God because of their entering into covenant with him. However, as is unanimously revealed by the Old Testament prophets, they have shattered and transgressed this covenant, and in chapter 6 (1-8) we discover what is termed the “covenant lawsuit.” This is, to further borrow terminology from law, where God “sues” his people for their blatant unfaithfulness to him, and to the Sinai covenant. Here the usage of imagery and personification is vivid. It is as if judgment is demonstrated in a courtroom as we read that God asks that the mountains and hills of Earth be witness at the trial: “plead your case before the mountains, And let the hills hear your voice” (6:1). Despite God’s many blessings for his people, such as their freedom from bondage and slavery in Egypt, and their blessings in the wilderness (6:3), he is still shunned, and his righteous laws broken. It is thus this repeated act of rebellion and defiance against him that manifests his righteous judgment. Such judgment was to come to fruition in the total destruction of both Jerusalem (the capital of the northern nation, Judah), and Samaria (the capital of the southern nation, Israel).

As judgment Jerusalem would be captured by the mighty Babylonians, while the smaller cities and towns of Judah would face invasion by Sennacherib, the king of Assyria in 701 B.C.E. (1:8-16). Thus God’s people were to become slaves in a different nation (2:10), and despite their cries God “will not hear them” (3:4). Zion will become forsaken, a place “plowed as a field,” and “become heaps” (3:12).

Historically, to briefly establish the attestation of our historical record, the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions are well supported evidentially. For instance, the Assyrian siege of Judah is widely attested in the Old Testament books of 2 Kings (18:17), Isaiah (33; 36), and 2 Chronicles (32:9). The invasion is further corroborated by King Sennacherib’s Prism, a cuneiform inscription chronicling his invasion. (Norman, 2015.) The Prism is among the earliest artefacts discovered in the field of contemporary Assyriology. Lastly, the invasion is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 B.C.E), although he does not mention Judah specifically (Herodotus, 144.). Further, the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, successfully invaded Judah after his momentous victory at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. His assault on Jerusalem is confirmed by the Nebuchadnezzar Chronicle that tells us “the king of Babylon assembled his army,” and that later his army “laid siege to the city of Judah.” (British Museum, 2015.) A great many tens-of-thousands of Jews were extradited to Babylon. (Coogan, M.D. 1999: 350) This exile is further corroborated by 2 Kings that tells us “None remained except the poorest people of the land,” (24:13-1) as well as in the book of Ezekiel where we read of God’s judgment on his people (4:1–24:27; 25:1-32). Thus, this brief analysis of the historical evidence well establishes God’s judgment on Judah as a historical event by the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms.

To bring across his vital point, and as common with God’s prophets, Micah had an interesting, though sometimes unusual, way of illustrating his message. He would thus introduce an anonymous individual into his conversation (6:6). For example, in verse 6 an unnamed individual questions God about sacrifice, and whether or not he would be pleased with it. A few verses later this same anonymous person asks God what is expected of the people, Israel. Micah gives an answer to the anonymous person’s query. God expects his people to be just, kind, and humble in their walk with him (6:8). We further see the practical embodiment of his message, he tells us that he “will wail and howl,” and be “stripped and naked.” His wailing will be “like the dragons,” and his mourning like “the owls” (1:8). These are powerful similes that stand in as an indicator of God’s pain and hurt as a result of Israel’s rebellion. We are told that “the LORD’s voice cries to the city” (6:9).

Thus to be a prophet of God was certainly no trivial task, it would take everything one possessed, every fibre of one’s being. As for Micah he was “full of power by the spirit of the LORD,” something that separated him from the false prophets – Micah is speaking with authority, and power (3:8). His authority manifested itself in a poetic style; such was his way of revealing and stressing the imperative details. For example, Micah makes use of the literary device paronomasia in the context of the impending doom of the towns and cities. One online dictionary defines it thusly: “the use of a word in different senses or the use of words similar in sound to achieve a specific effect, as humor or a dual meaning; punning,” ( 2015) or as the theologian Margaret Hannan in her exegesis of the Gospel of Matthew defines it: “Paronomasia is broadly defined as a play on words” (Hannan, M., 2006: 127). For instance, we see this clearly in the context of the town Beth-le-aphrah, and its people. In English Beth-le-aphrah is translated to the “place of dust.” So, Micah builds on this when he pronounces God’s judgment on them, he tells them to: “roll yourselves in the dust” (1:10). This provides a visualization of immense grief, and prolonged mourning brought on by the Assyrian invasion. According to the Holman Bible Dictionary such imagery is “a ritual expressing grief and mourning.” (Holman, 1991.)

Micah further utilizes his powerful metaphors. In the context of God’s judgment on the wicked people in Zion (3:1-4) we read that the wicked rulers “tear off the skin,” and the “meat from the bones” of victims (3:2-3). This graphic imagery exemplifies the anger that God holds at their evil deeds. These rulers had forgotten the covenant between them and God, had abused the poor, and extorted money from the defenseless. We further may note the clear instances of anthropomorphism, where God is described in human terms. For example, Micah tells us that God will “turn his face the other way.” But does God, an immaterial, spiritual entity (John 4:24) have a face (Num. 6:24; Micah 3:4), hands (Exodus 7:5), or a mouth (Psalm 33:6)? Probably not, as such a literary device is there to help relate God to us in human terms.

It is important for us, with all this aforementioned information, to put Micah’s message into more chewable chunks. Although compared to other Biblical texts Micah is rather short, it still encompasses various genres of literature. It includes that of theophany (1:3-4), laments (1:8-16; 7:8-10), and prayer (7:14-20). Even in hindsight of its shortness we may divide it into three separate segments – section one (chapters 1-2), two (chapters 3-5), and three (chapters 6-7). Each of these sections starts with a command to “listen” or to “hear,” therefore indicating that Micah’s message starts with blame, and then subsequently moves onto judgment, and then finally hope. The finale contains a promise from God; a promise of a future for Judah and Israel after the Babylonian exile. A day will again come when God “will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (4:2). At the finale of the last section, we end in a song. It is a happy song celebrating how God will come to the aid of his people despite their judgment. God is a loyal, loving God, and he will do what he promises. He “forgives iniquity,” because he “delights in mercy,” thus despite the impending turmoil, there is hope yet for God’s people.

Words limit us, but I believe we have sufficiently established a broad outline of the mission of Micah, and the message contained therein. We have briefly touched upon the eventual fulfilment of his prophecies, as history testifies to us, and the various poetic stylistic devices (anamorphism, metaphors, similes, paronomasia, and personification) utilized by the prophet.

(Words: 1585)


Norman, Jeremy. The Taylor Prism and the Sennacherib Prism (689 BCE – 691 BCE) : 2015. The Taylor Prism and the Sennacherib Prism (689 BCE – 691 BCE) : [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 August 2015].

Herodotus Book 2. 2015. Herodotus Book 2, chapter 141. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 August 2015].

British Museum – Cuneiform tablet with part of the Babylonian Chronicle (605-594 BC) . 2015. British Museum – Cuneiform tablet with part of the Babylonian Chronicle (605-594 BC) . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 August 2015].

Coogan, MD, 1999. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. pg 350. 1st ed. England: Oxford University Press.

Paronomasia | Define Paronomasia at 2015. Paronomasia | Define Paronomasia at [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 August 2015].

Hannan, M., 2006. The Nature and Demands of the Sovereign Rule of God in the Gospel of Matthew. pg. 127. 1st ed. Australia : T & T Clark International.

Beth-Le-Aphrah – Holman Bible Dictionary – – 2015. Beth-Le-Aphrah – Holman Bible Dictionary – – [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 August 2015].

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