In December 1865, the Rev. Philipps Brooks travelled to the land of Israel. As he stood and overlooked the town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Brooks was so moved by what he saw that he penned the words of the celebrated Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Writing home to his congregation about this experience, Brooks said,
“Last Sunday morning we attended service…After an early dinner, took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens…Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it…in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.”
The prophecy regarding the birthplace of the Savior comes out of the book of Micah—the eighth century prophet of Israel. This prophecy was so well-known among covenant people that when Herod inquired about where the Christ was to be born, the chief priests and the scribes instantaneously directed him to Micah 5:2, saying,
“In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matt. 2:4-6).
Although the religious leaders in Israel could quickly identify this prophecy, they failed to realize its spiritual fulfillment in Jesus at the time of His birth. Only the magi went to Bethlehem to seek out the child and to worship him. The original context of this messianic predication sheds light on the meaning of the prophecy as well as on the religious leaders’ antagonism to the one in whom it would be fulfilled.
A contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, Micah prophesied during the reign of “Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Mic. 1:1). The Lord gave Micah a message of the impending judgment of His people. God Himself would bore witness before the inhabitants of earth of the certainty of this judgment (Mic. 1:2-4). Micah brought a covenant lawsuit against the inhabitants of Samaria and Jerusalem for their wickedness (Mic. 1:5), and pronounced the forthcoming judgment against the Southern kingdom, Judah (Mic. 1:15-16). He set out the misery they were about to experience on account of their rejection of the Lord (Mic. 2:1-13), and brought an indictment against the rulers of Israel for their love of money, falsehood, divination, and extortion of the poor. O. Palmer Robertson summarizes the sweeping nature of this judgment, when he writes,
“In view of Israel’s failure to meet its covenantal obligation, Micah prophesies devastation and exile for the capitals of both kingdoms. Samaria will be turned into heap of rubble (Mic. 1:6). Jerusalem will be plowed like a field, and the temple hill will resemble a mound overgrown with thickets (Mic. 3:12). If any doubts exist about the authenticity of this precise prediction two hundred years before the actual occurrence, its genuineness is attested in during the days when the people were urging Jeremiah’s execution for his similar prophecies of doom, and specific references made to this early prophecy of Micah (Jer. 26:18). Even more specifically, Micah announces that Babylon will be the destiny of those people who are expelled from the land (Mic. 4:10).
Rather than heeding the warning, the people expressed their dissatisfaction with the message. In Micah 2:6, the prophet reiterates the response of the people, when he says,
“’Do not preach’—thus they preach—
one should not preach these things;
disgrace will not overtake us” (Mic. 2:6).
The people were desirous of only hearing words of prosperity from their compromised religious leaders. In contrast to the message Micah spoke to the people, the false prophets of Israel only brought messages of peace and prosperity (Mic. 2:11; 3:5, 11). Robertson draws out the contrast between the true and the false prophets when he notes,
“The false prophet lies because of his covetousness and his desire to be liked by the people, while the true prophet speaks things the people will not want to hear because of a compulsion from the Lord, and our unselfish concern for the good of the people.”
The paradox of Micah’s message of judgment and exile is that it was meant to prepare the people for the message of salvation and restoration (Mic. 4:1-13). In this prediction of restoration, the Lord prophesied of peace and prosperity (Mic. 4:3-4). In order for the people to come to a place of understanding their need for the saving grace of God, they needed to be brought to a place of brokenness over their sin. The other side of Micah’s message was the prediction of salvation and restoration for a remnant of God’s people (Mic. 5:7-8). The promised salvation and restoration is bound up with the promise of the Lord reigning over His people (Mic. 4:7, 9). He would be the Shepherd of His flock (Mic. 2:12; 4:8; 5:4; 7:14). Robertson again explains,
“Their only hope…rests in the covenantal hope sworn to the fathers, to Abraham and Jacob (Mic. 7:20). That commitment now finds an expanded expression in the promise of a Davidic ruler from the clan of Judah, who will come out of Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). For his kingdom of peace will eventually reach to the ends of the earth (Mic. 5:4-5)…As the kingdom is restored, so the king will be restored and paradise as well will be renewed. As Bethlehem was the birthplace of great king David, so Bethlehem will be the home of the greater than David, even though his origins have been from eternity (Mic. 4:8; 2:13; 5:2-4).”
The restoration that God promises through the eternal one to be born in the little town of Bethlehem, is the promise of a renewed dwelling place comparative to the Garden of Eden. Micah explains that in this cosmic renewal, every man will “sit under his vine and under his fig tree” (Mic. 4:4). Ultimately, the promised restoration was bound up with the provision for the forgiveness of the sins of the remnant. Micah ends his prophecy with the focus on God’s covenantal provision for the forgiveness of sin,
“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from the days of old” (Mic. 7:18-20).
Anyone reading Micah’s closing words should ask the question, “How is it that the Lord will pass over transgression for the remnant?” The answer is found in the substitutionary sacrifice of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 53:1-12)—the Shepherd who was struck with the sword of God’s wrath in the place of the sheep (Zech. 13:7). The One whose going forth is from of old—even from everlasting—was born to die for the sins of His people. The exile and restoration structure of Micah’s message is ultimately fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In His death, the ruler who came out of the little town of Bethlehem, was exiled from the presence of God in the place of His people. Robertson explains the importance of viewing Micah’s prediction of exile and restoration in light of the saving work of Jesus, when he writes,
“While nothing in Israel’s national history since the time of the restoration after exile fulfills their expectations, the sufferings of Jesus as the Christ in the establishment of His throne in the heavenly Jerusalem introduce the final stage that fulfills the expectations created by the predictions of the prophets…As God’s own nation ultimately underwent righteous judgment, so all peoples eventually will undergo the Lord’s judgments. But even as Israel experienced restoration after exile, so all those who repent and call on the name of the Lord will be saved in the ultimate sense of being fully restored.”
This becomes all the more evident when we read of the birth narratives of Jesus. While the rulers of Israel and Rome rejected the King of the Jews, who was born in Bethlehem, the Gentile magi and despised shepherds received Him (Matt. 2:9-12; Luke 2:9-20). They were the firstfruits of the remnant referred to in Micah’s prophecy. We too—who believe in the everlasting one who was born in Bethlehem—are given the full benefits of His redemption.
Rev. Nick Batzig served as founding pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Savannah, Georgia. He is the editor of Reformation21 and The Christward Collective. He blogs at Feeding on Christ and writes regularly for Ligonier Ministries. You can find him on Twitter (@nick_batzig) and Facebook.
 O. Palmer Robertson The Christ of the Prophets (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008) loc. 6492 of 6754 – kindle edition
 Ibid., loc. 1184 of 6754 – kindle edition
 Ibid., loc. 3041-3050 of 6754 – kindle edition
 Ibid., loc. 6496 of 6754 – kindle edition