THE PROPHET OF THE POOR
Micah 2:1-13; Micah 3:1-12
WE have proved Micah’s love for his countryside in the effusion of his heart upon her villages with a grief for their danger greater than his grief for Jerusalem. Now in his treatment of the sins which give that danger its fatal significance, he is inspired by the same partiality for the fields and the folk about him. While Isaiah chiefly satirizes the fashions of the town and the intrigues of the court, Micah scourges the avarice of the landowner and the injustice which oppresses the peasant. He could not, of course, help sharing Isaiah’s indignation for the fatal politics of the capital, any more than Isaiah could help sharing his sense of the economic dangers of the provinces; [Isaiah 5:8] but it is the latter with which Micah is most familiar and on which he spends his wrath. These so engross him, indeed, that he says almost nothing about the idolatry, or the luxury, or the hideous vice, which, according to Amos and Hosea, were now corrupting the nation.
Social wrongs are always felt most acutely, not in the town, but in the country. It was so in the days of Rome, whose earliest social revolts were agrarian. It was so in the Middle Ages: the fourteenth century saw both the Jacquerie in France and the Peasants’ Rising in England; Langland, who was equally familiar with town and country, expends nearly all his sympathy upon the poverty of the latter, "the poure folk in cotes." It was so after the Reformation, under the new spirit of which the first social revolt was the Peasants’ War in Germany. It was so at the French Revolution, which began with the march of the starving peasants into Paris. And it is so still, for our new era of social legislation has been forced open, not by the poor of London and the large cities, but by the peasantry of Ireland and the crofters of the Scottish Highlands. Political discontent and religious heresy take their start among industrial and manufacturing centers, but the first springs of the social revolt are nearly always found among the rural populations.
Why the country should begin to feel the acuteness of social wrong before the town is sufficiently obvious. In the town there are mitigations, and there are escapes. If the conditions of one trade become oppressive, it is easier to pass to another. The workers are better educated and better organized; there is a middle class, and the tyrant dare not bring matters to so high a crisis. The might, of the wealthy, too, is divided; the poor man’s employer is seldom at the same time his landlord. But in the country power easily gathers into the hands of the few. The laborer’s opportunities and means of work, his home, his very standing-ground, are often all of them the property of one man. In the country the rich have a real power of life and death, and are less hampered by competition with each other and by the force of public opinion. One man cannot hold a city in fee, but one man can affect for evil or for good almost as large a population as a city’s, when it is scattered across a countryside.
This is precisely the state of wrong which Micah attacks. The social changes of the eighth century in Israel were peculiarly favorable to its growth. The enormous increase of money which had been produced by the trade of Uzziah’s reign threatened to overwhelm the simple economy under which every family had its croft. As in many another land and period, the social problem was the descent of wealthy men, land-hungry, upon the rural districts. They made the poor their debtors, and bought out the peasant proprietors. They absorbed into their power numbers of homes, and had at their individual disposal the lives and the happiness of thousands of their fellow-countrymen. Isaiah had cried. "Woe upon them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room" for the common people, and the inhabitants of the rural districts grow fewer and Isaiah 5:8. Micah pictures the recklessness of those plutocrats - the fatal ease with which their wealth enabled them to dispossess the yeomen of Judah.
The prophet speaks:-
"Woe to them that plan mischief, And on their beds work out evil! As soon as morning breaks they put it into execution, For-it lies to the power of their hands!"
"They covet fields and-seize them, Houses and-lift them up. So they crush a good man and his home, A man and his heritage."
This is the evil-the ease with which wrong is done in the country! "It lies to the power of their hands: they covet and seize." And what is it that they get so easily-not merely field and house, so much land and stone and lime: it is human life, with all that makes up personal independence, and the security of home and of the family. That these should be at the mercy of the passion or the caprice of one man-this is what stirs the prophet’s indignation. We shall presently see how the tyranny of wealth was aided by the bribed and unjust judges of the country; and how, growing reckless, the rich betook themselves, as the lords of the feudal system in Europe continually did, to the basest of assaults upon the persons of peaceful men and women. But meantime Micah feels that by themselves the economic wrongs explain and justify the doom impending on the nation. When this doom falls, by the Divine irony of God it shall take the form of a conquest of the land by the heathen, and the disposal of these great estates to the foreigner.
The prophet speaks:-
"Therefore thus saith Jehovah: Behold I am planning evil against this race, From which ye shall not withdraw your necks, Nor walk upright: For an evil time it is! In that day shall they raise a taunt-song against you And wail out the wailing ("It is done"); and say, We be utterly undone: My people’s estate is measured off! How they take it away from me! To the rebel our fields are allotted. So thou shalt have none to cast the line by lot In the congregation of Jehovah."
No restoration at time of Jubilee for lauds taken away in this fashion! There will be no congregation of Jehovah left!
At this point the prophet’s pessimist discourse, that must have galled the rich, is interrupted by their clamor to him to stop.
The rich speak:-
"Prate not, they prate, let none prate of such things! Revilings will never cease! O thou that speakest thus to the house of Jacob, Is the spirit of Jehovah cut short? Or are such His doings? Shall not His words mean well with him that walketh uprightly?"
So the rich, in their immoral confidence that Jehovah was neither weakened nor could permit such a disaster to fall on His own people, tell the prophet that his sentence of doom on the nation, and especially on themselves, is absurd, impossible. They cry the eternal cry of Respectability: "God can mean no harm to the like of us! His words are good to them that walk uprightly-and we are conscious of being such. What you, prophet, have charged us with are nothing but natural transactions." The Lord Himself has His answer ready. Upright indeed! They have been unprovoked plunderers!
"But ye are the foes of My people, Rising against those that are peaceful; The mantle ye strip from them that walk quietly by, Averse to war! Women of My people ye tear from their happy homes, From their children ye take My glory forever. Rise and begone-for this is no resting-place! Because of the uncleanness that bringeth destruction. Destruction incurable."
Of the outrages on the goods of honest men, and the persons of women and children, which are possible in a time of peace, when the rich are tyrannous and abetted by mercenary judges and prophets, we have an illustration analogous to Micah’s in the complaint of Peace in Langland’s vision of English society in the fourteenth century. The parallel to our prophet’s words is very striking:-
"And thanne come Pees into parlement and put forth a bille, How Wronge ageines his wille had his wyf taken. "Both my gees and my grys his gadelynges feccheth; I dar noughte for fere of hym fyghte ne chyde. He borwed of me bayard he broughte hym home nevre, Ne no ferthynge therefore or naughte I couthe plede. He meynteneth his men to marther myne hewen, Forstalleth my feyres and fighteth in my chepynge, And breketh up my bernes dore and bereth aweye my whete, And taketh me but a taile for ten quarters of ores, And yet he bet me ther-to and lythbi my mayde, I nam noughte hardy for hym "uneth to loke.’"
They pride themselves that all is stable and God is with them. How can such a state of affairs be stable! They feel at ease, yet injustice can never mean rest. God has spoken the final sentence, but with a rare sarcasm the prophet adds his comment on the scene. These rich men had been flattered into their religious security by hireling prophets, who had opposed himself. As they leave the presence of God, having heard their sentence, Micah looks after them and muses in quiet prose.
The prophet speaks:-
"Yea, if one whose walk is wind and falsehood were to try to cozen "thee, saying, "I will babble to thee of wine and strong drink, then he might be the prophet of such a people."
At this point in chapter 2 there have somehow slipped into the text two verses (Micah 2:12-13), which all are agreed do not belong to it, and for which we must find another place. They speak of a return from the Exile, and interrupt the connection between Micah 2:11 and the first verse of chapter 3 (Micah 3:1). With the latter Micah begins a series of three oracles, which give the substance of his own prophesying in contrast to that of the false prophets whom he has just been satirizing. He has told us what they say, and he now begins the first of his own oracles with the words, "But I said." It is an attack upon the authorities of the nation, whom the false prophets flatter. Micah speaks very plainly to them. Their business is to know justice, and yet they love wrong. They flay the people with their exactions; they cut up the people like meat.
The prophet speaks:-
"But I said, Hear now, O chiefs of Jacob, And rulers of the house of Israel: Is it not yours to know justice? Haters of good and lovers of evil, Tearing their hide from upon them."
(he points to the people)
"And their flesh from the bones of them; And who devour the flesh of my people, And their hide they have stripped from them And their bones have they cleft, And served it up as if from a pot, Like meat from the thick of the caldron! At that time shall they cry to Jehovah, And He will not answer them; But hide His face from them at that time, Because they have aggravated their deeds."
These words of Micah are terribly strong, but there have been many other ages and civilizations than his own of which they have been no more than true. "They crop us," said a French peasant of the lords of the great Louis’ time, "as the sheep crops grass." "They treat us like their food," said another on the eve of the Revolution. Is there nothing of the same with ourselves?
While Micah spoke he had wasted lives and bent backs before him. His speech is elliptic till you see his finger pointing at them. Pinched peasant faces peer between all his words and fill the ellipses. And among the living poor today are there not starved and bitten faces-bodies with the blood sucked from them, with the Divine image crushed out of them? Brothers, we cannot explain all of these by vice. Drunkenness and unthrift do account for much; but how much more is explicable only by the following facts! Many men among us are able to live in fashionable streets and keep their families comfortable only by paying their employs a wage upon which it is impossible for men to be strong or women to be virtuous. Are those not using these as their food? They tell us that if they are to give higher wages they must close their business, and cease paying wages at all; and they are right if they themselves continue to live on the scale they do. As long as many families are maintained in comfort by the profits of businesses in which some or all of the employees work for less than they can nourish and repair their bodies upon, the simple fact is that the one set are feeding upon the other set. It may be inevitable, it may be the fault of the system and not of the individual, it may be that to break up the system would mean to make things worse than ever-but all the same the truth is clear that many families of the middle class, and some of the very wealthiest of the land, are nourished by the waste of the lives of the poor. Now and again the fact is acknowledged with as much shamelessness as was shown by any tyrant in the days of Micah. To a large employer of labor who was complaining that his employees, by refusing to live at the low scale of Belgian workmen, were driving trade from this country, the present writer once said: "Would it not meet your wishes if, instead of your workmen being leveled down, the Belgians were leveled up? This would make the competition fair between you and the employers in Belgium." His answer was, "I care not so long as I get my profits." He was a religious man, a liberal giver to his Church, and he died leaving more than one hundred thousand pounds.
Micah’s tyrants, too, had religion to support them. A number of the hireling prophets, whom we have seen both Amos and Hosea attack, gave their blessing to this social system, which crushed the poor, for they shared its profits. They lived upon the alms of the rich, and flattered according as they were fed. To them Micah devotes the second oracle of chapter 3, and we find confirmed by his words the principle we laid down before, that in that age the one great difference between the false and the true prophet was what it has been in every age since then till now-an ethical difference; and not a difference of dogma, or tradition, or ecclesiastical note. The false prophet spoke, consciously or unconsciously, for himself and his living. He sided with the rich; he shut his eyes to the social condition of the people; he did not attack the sins of the day. This made him false - robbed him of insight and the power of prediction. But the true prophet exposed the sins of his people. Ethical insight and courage, burning indignation of wrong, clear vision of the facts of the day-this was what Jehovah’s spirit put into him, this was what Micah felt to be respiration.
The prophet speaks:-
"Thus saith Jehovah against the prophets who lead my people astray, Who while they have aught between their teeth proclaim peace, But against him who will not lay to their mouths they sanctify war! Wherefore night shall be yours without vision, And yours shall be darkness without divination; And the sun shall go down on the prophets, And the day shall darken about them; And the seers shall be put to the blush, And the diviners be ashamed: All of them shall cover the beard, For there shall be no answer from God. But I am full of power by the spirit of Jehovah, and justice and might, To declare to Jacob his transgressions and to Israel his sin."
In the third oracle of this chapter rulers and prophets are combined-how close the conspiracy between them! It is remarkable that, in harmony with Isaiah, Micah speaks no word against the king. But evidently Hezekiah had not power to restrain the nobles and the rich. When this oracle was uttered it was a time of peace, and the lavish building, which we have seen to be so marked a characteristic of Israel in the eighth century, was in process. Jerusalem was larger and finer than ever. Ah, it was a building of God’s own city in blood! Judges, priests, and prophets were all alike mercenary, and the poor were oppressed for a reward. No walls, however sacred, could stand on such foundations. Did they say that they built her so grandly, for Jehovah’s sake? Did they believe her to be inviolate because He was in her? They should see. Zion-yes, Zion-should be ploughed like a field, and the Mountain of the Lord’s Temple become desolate.
The prophet speaks:-
"Hear now this, O chiefs of the house of Jacob, And rulers of the house of Israel, Who spurn justice and twist all that is straight, Building Zion in blood, and Jerusalem with crime! Her chiefs give judgment for a bribe,"
"And her priests oracles for a reward, And her prophets divine for silver; And on Jehovah they lean, saying: ‘Is not Jehovah in the midst of us? Evil cannot come at us.’ Therefore for your sakes shall Zion be ploughed like a field, And Jerusalem become heaps, And the Mount of the House mounds in a jungle."
It is extremely difficult for us to place ourselves in a state of society in which bribery is prevalent, and the fingers both of justice and of religion are gilded by their suitors. But this corruption has always been common in the East. "An Oriental state can never altogether prevent the abuse by which officials, small and great, enrich themselves in illicit ways." The strongest government takes the bribery for granted, and periodically prunes the rank fortunes of its great officials. A weak government lets them alone. But in either case the poor suffer from unjust taxation and from laggard or perverted justice. Bribery has always been found, even in the more primitive and puritan forms of Semitic life. Mr. Doughty has borne testimony with regard to this among the austere Wahabees of Central Arabia. "When I asked if there were no handling of bribes at Hayil by those who are nigh the prince’s ear, it was answered, ‘Nay.’ The Byzantine corruption cannot enter into the eternal and noble simplicity of this people’s (airy) life, in the poor nomad country; but (we have seen) the art is not unknown to the subtle-headed Shammar princes, who thereby help themselves with the neighbor Turkish governments." The bribes of the ruler of Hayil "are, according to the shifting weather of the world, to great Ottoman government men; and now on account of Kheybar, he was gilding some of their crooked fingers in Medina." Nothing marks the difference of Western government more than the absence of all this, especially from our courts of justice. Yet the improvement has only come about within comparatively recent centuries. What a large space, for instance, does Langland give to the arraigning of "Mede," the corrupter of all authorities and influences in the society of his day! Let us quote his words, for again they provide a most exact parallel to Micah’s, and may enable us to realize a state of life so contrary to our own. It is Conscience who arraigns Mede before the King:-
"By ihesus with here jeweles youre justices she shendeth, And lith agein the lawe and letteth hym the gate, That leith may noughte have his forth here floreines go so thikke, She ledeth the lawe as hire list and lovedays maketh And doth men lese thorw hire love that law myghte wynne, The mase for a mene man though he mote hit cure. Law is so lordeliche and loth to make ende, Without presentz or pens she pleseth wel fewe. For pore men mowe have no powere to pleyne hem though the smerte; Suche a maistre is Mede amonge men of gode"