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A Standard of Morality
This is Micah when he has lost his mantle. This is not the Micah we have been accustomed to hear. A man is not always his best self. Do not find a man in a period of gloom, and represent his depression as being the real character and quality of his soul. Micah has been working hard; he is undergoing the misery of reaction. Micah came forth from the village thinking he would convert the whole kingdom, north and south; that men had only to hear his ringing and dominant voice, and they would instantaneously begin to weep and pray and repent. It is the old routine. Bless God for young enthusiasm. It dashes forth into the fray, saying, I have only got to show this banner, and that battlefield will become a church. We could not do without such high rapture and chivalrous passion. We know the end of it all. But he would be a cruel man who would discourage young devotion. Micah the villager begins to feel that he has been toiling all day, and has taken nothing. This is personal disappointment. The moment we cut our relation with the Infinite we are shorn Samsons. Micah hand-in-hand with God makes the kingdom reel again under the volley of his thundering; but when Micah withdraws his hands, and becomes a simple unit, he wraps his head with the mantle of midnight, and groans and complains, and says he has wasted his strength for nought. But that could not be. No man ever wastes his strength who gives it to God. "In all labour there is profit." The young scribe is nearer being a good writer for the last attempt he made, though his friends smile at the rude caligraphy; the musician is nearer being master of his vocation through the last song he sung as the result of industry, though he was wrong in every note. "In all labour there is profit," not always palpable, and estimable in figures; but there is some increase in the quality of the mind, some cunning added to the craft and skill of the fingers. So Micah should not have complained with so utter a depression. He has added something to the store of the world's best riches. Every life well lived makes its addition to the sum-total. The world would not have been so rich had you, poorest mother of the race, never lived. You exclaim, What have I done? You cannot tell what you have done; it is no business of yours to make up the account. There is a registrar; running night and day through the ages, there is a recording pen: you will have the issue in the future. We are so impatient that we want to see results now. When did you sow the seed? Yesterday. When did you look for the harvest? This morning. This is impatience; this is ignorance; this is want of that restfulness which comes of deep practical learning in the school of experience.
Let us hear Micah, and, listening, we shall discover a tone that has come down to the present moment,
"The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net" ( Mic 7:2 ).
When we ourselves are down it is hard to believe that anybody else is up; when our prayer is choked in our throat it is easy to believe that God hears no prayer at all, nor cares for petitioning and supplicating man. We interpret all things by ourselves. There is a curious self-projection of the soul upon the disc of history, and we read according to the shadow which we throw upon that disc. This is what we call pessimism. We are always inventing strange words, and imagining that thereby we are making some kind of progress. Man has a fatal gift of giving names to things, and once give a name, and it will be almost impossible to obliterate it. We call this pessimism, that is, seeing all the wickedness and none of the goodness; seeing all the darkness and none of the light; seeing the utter desolation of all things, and not seeing in all the wilderness one green blade, one tiny flower, or hearing in the grim silence one trill of lark or soft note of thrush or nightingale. There are persons gifted with the genius of darkness. It may do us good to visit them occasionally; but on the whole it is better to live in the sunshine, and to hear the music, and to come under the influence of intelligent vivacity and cheerfulness. If people will shut themselves up in their own little houses for the biggest house is little, the palace is a mere hut and never keep any company but their own, they will go down. It is so ecclesiastically. There are persons who never see the universe except through their own church window, and as no window is as big as the horizon, there steals insidiously upon the mind a disposition to deny the existence of the horizon itself. It is so with reading. There are those who read only a certain set of books. They go down; there is no mental range, no scope, no variety, no mystery of colour, no hopefulness, no imagination. The very earth needs to have its crops changed. If you will go on growing the same crops you will cease to have any crop to grow that is worth gathering. There is, on the other hand, what is termed optimism. That is the exact contrary of pessimism. Optimism sees the best of everything. There is a danger along that line also; the danger is that we may not be stern enough, real enough, penetrating enough, going into the heart and inmost fibre of things to find out reality and truth, how bad or good soever the case may be. A most mischievous talent is this of giving names. You cannot now introduce an idea but some pedant will say, That is Buddhism. Well, suppose it is Buddhism, where is the crime? If you introduce another proposition there will be those who will tell you that it is a Greek thought Well, suppose it is a Greek thought, may it not have modern applications, new meanings, fresh aspects? May it not be utilised in the civilisation of to-day? Propound some doctrine that is apparently novel, and there will be those who will fasten upon it a term as if the term were an argument. Do not be afraid of such men. Polysyllables never broke any bones. Have you the truth? Then utter it. Do you believe you have it? Make it known, submit it for discussion; and be sure that if you see no blue sky above you, your eye is wrong, not the sky. The good man is not perished out of the earth. This is reaction. Elijah thought the same thing, and the Lord told him there were seven thousand men in the world better than ever he was perhaps; at all events they were faithful, loyal, constant hearts. But do not believe that the prophet is literally signifying the absolute non-existence of good men. You must read the Bible imaginatively as well as grammatically; and you must hear all your friends through the medium of your imagination as well as through the medium of the dictionary and the grammar, or your friendship will soon come to nothing. There are those who can be measured by dictionary and grammar, because they never say anything with any colour in it, any vitality, any possibility of expansion; by all means give them the largest lexicographical hospitality you can, and let them be interpreted through the medium of the alphabet. But there are other men who, when they say, "The good man is perished out of the earth," do not mean it in the literal definite sense which the literalist would attach to the term. They simply feel that a process of decay has set in, that things are not so far on as they ought to be, and that the old mystery and glow of prayer are not so predominant and visible as in the former days. Thus read the prophets, and you will find that in them there is that central average truth which looks all ways, and takes in all passing time, and all days and ages to come.
Then we err so much in having a false standard of the good man, and the progress of society, and the results of earnest work. Thus the Lord sends upon us the punishment of perplexity, because he is growing plants we do not know the names or the uses of, and he is continually rebuking our faithlessness by new miracles of production. The Lord will not let us hold the reins. Sometimes he permits us to sit on the front seat as if we were actually taking part in the administration of the chariot. There is but one Lord, one Captain, one Sovereign, one Ruler, great, gracious, wise, tender, sympathetic, pitiful, and redeeming; and thou, poor man, seated on the box-seat, and imagining thyself of consequence to the chariot, take care that thou do not fall oft", and be crushed under the wheels thou didst falsely imagine to be under thine own direction. We are sailing in God's ship, we are being driven in God's chariot, we are part and parcel of a great system of economics we cannot understand, and wise is he up to the point of rest who says, Let the Lord have his own way: the darkness and the light are both alike to him; he made every road he drives upon; he made every sea he sails over, he first created the tempest, and he holds the whirlwinds in his fist. Fretful, meddlesome, selfish, vain, eccentric man would like to sit upon the throne, if only for one moment, but in that one moment God knows he would wreck eternity.
Micah says, that in his day they were doing evil "with both hands earnestly." A better word is "well," and a better word is perhaps "skilful"; but we see the paradox more clearly by putting in the word "well," then we read, "That they may do evil with both hands well." There is no contradiction of terms. There are men who make a study of doing things that are wrong, skilfully, cunningly, well. There are thieves who are discovered, and there are thieves who are not discovered, because they thieve so well, so skilfully; they shake hands with the man they have robbed, and say Good-night to the soul they have plundered. Men may become experts in the devil's academy. The cleverness does not excuse the iniquity; the ability does not restore the character. If that ability had been devoted otherwise, what fortunes lay within its grasp, what influence belonged of right to its mastery! But men love to work in the dark, they seem to be more at home there than in the sunlight; they have a gift of sight which enables them to see all their spectral comrades in the black darkness of night. How was it in the time of Micah? Once more he falls back on the prince and the judge and the great man. Not a word does he say about the poor, the oppressed, and the despised; he says, The wickedness of my age I trace to the prince and the judge and the great men to the men who have been to school and to college and university; certificated men, gold-medalists men who have had every advantage that society and civilisation can give them. We are so busy in looking after the small fry. Here we have seized upon a little boy who has stolen a pocket-handkerchief, and we say, We have got him now! And the man who took him up what may we say of him? And the judge who sentenced him, the grey-haired judge, the judge with the ploughed cheeks, the wrinkled forehead, the judge with solemn voice, the voice of doom? Open your hand, judge! What is there in it?
Micah said they did things so well in his day, so cleverly, that "they wrap it up." They made an intricacy of it. The man who was not in the ring did not understand what was going on; they had a system that they called a quid pro quo (men do many things under dog Latin they would not do in plain English) they understood one another. Nothing was said; the reporter looked up for the purpose of catching the incriminating sentence, and the men said nothing; the prince nodded to the judge, and the judge made a sign to the great man, and so they wrap it up. But there it is, and it will be opened out, and it will be read, and every signature will be attested, and every writer will be called for to say whether he wrote it, how much he wrote, why he wrote it: they shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. This is a terror; but on the other hand this is a joy, for righteousness then shall shine forth as the morning and judgment as the noonday, and misrepresented and misunderstood men will have all the advantage of morning light.
Micah continues his threnody,
"The best of them is as a briar: the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge" ( Mic 7:4 ).
This is pessimism in all the completeness of its depression. The best is bad; the most upright, the picked men of society, are all thorns. Take care how you try to get through a thorn hedge; the scratches may identify you, the wounds may be witnesses against you in the day of visitation. This is what society comes to without God. Lose the religious element, and society falls to pieces. Society thinks not; for a time society thinks it can keep itself very well together, but experience shows that when the morale of society goes down, its money securities are waste paper. The reputation of a country is in its morality, and morality properly interpreted is the active or practical side of true spiritual religion. Morality may be derived from a word which signifies mere manner, attitude, posture, and the like; but not from this contemptible mos is morality truly derived, but from the very Spirit of God, and the very genius of the Cross. No morality can be trusted in the dark that is not metaphysical, spiritual, divine.
The Lord would send upon the people who acted criminally what is called "perplexity." The word "perplexity" has a singular meaning. Herod was "perplexed." He saw things in crosslights; all the roads came together, and he could not tell which one to take; it was not a question of two roads, but a question of five roads, bisecting and intersecting, and leaving the mind in a state of whirl and puzzle. That is perplexity. The Lord will send upon people who disbelieve him and disobey him the spirit of perplexity; they shall not know one another. Perplexity shall enter into the very use of words; terms shall lose their natural application. Man shall say to man, What sayest thou? And man shall reply to man, Fool, hearest thou not what I say in thy mother tongue? And thus the fray shall increase until it become fury and craziness and disintegration of social bond and trust. The Lord hath many ways of judgment; in heaven there are many bolts of fire; we cannot tell when one will fall, or how it will come. In such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh: what I say unto one I say unto all, Watch. The Lord goeth forth at all hours at midnight, at the crowing of the cock, at the early dawn, in the midday sun, and in the evening twilight; none can tell when he will open the door and step forth in majesty and rigour, and in the spirit of judgment. Thus we are trained, thus we are kept on the alert; we have no notice; our breath is in our nostrils, and we may die now: there is but a step between thee and death. The broadest, most herculean man always walks by the side of his own tomb a false step, and he is in. Be sober, be vigilant; walk as children of the light.
What is to guarantee society against this apostasy and this infamous declension in all high and sacred energies? There is only one guarantee, and that is the indwelling and perfect sovereignty of God the Holy Ghost. Do not try to evade the term, or to make a mystery of it; there is mystery enough in it, but there is more in it than mystery a simple, solemn, profound fact. We cannot keep ourselves; our lamps are only of a certain little size, and our oft is but a spoonful, and there is no independence in man; we live and move, and have our being in God. No man can go to the fountain once for all and take out water enough to keep his life going evermore. He may take his vessel full of water, and may quench his thirst for the moment, but he must keep the way to the fountain always open; never shut up the road: you are full and you abound for the present, but the time of necessity and of pain will inevitably recur. Here is the glory of Christianity: it provides for all time and for all need; it is the salt of the earth, it is the light of the world, it is the disinfector of all pestilential atmosphere. Do not make an argument of it, but submit it to practical test. Why should you make an argument of the ship when you want to go across the ocean, and the ship is ready to receive you into its hospitality? If you make an argument of it you will never risk the deep, and cross the ocean and touch the farther shore. There are questions which Christianity invites you to ask; there are inquiries which it is eager to consider and discuss with you, and so long as you keep within the lines of intelligence and reason and fair inquiry, you are entitled to push your interrogations; but when you begin to wriggle, and confuse yourselves, and use words that have more meanings in them than you have ever grasped, you are allowing the time to escape, and presently the ship will weigh anchor and be off, and you will be left behind. If society with a Christian element in it has come down to a state that may be described as unrighteous and unworthy, it is not because of the Christianity that was in it, but because the Christianity was misunderstood, or ignored, or misapplied. Do not blame Christianity because Christian countries are among the worst in the world. They are only amongst the worst because they are amongst the best That is not paradoxical; it is practical, simple, and literal. This colour that you hold in your hand may appear to be very white, but if you take in the other hand a real white, as pure as it can be obtained under our conditions, and bring the two together, you will then see that what you thought was white falls far short of the standard. And so there are many countries that are thought to be very good, very excellent really countries that might be lived in; but try them by comparison with Christian countries, even Christian countries of an inferior grade, and there will come a time when you will say, After all there is something in Christianity that is not to be found out of it; there is a standard of morality peculiar to itself; in it there is a unique righteousness. There may be a world of hypocrisy, but the hypocrisy would have been impossible but for the very glory of the thing that is simulated. Go forth into society, and take its best aspect. Do not believe yourselves when you are all moaning and complaining and reproaching. You are not yourselves; for the moment you are beside yourselves, and know not the real reason and progress of things. The progress of society is guaranteed by the existence of God. It is not guaranteed by the existence of your pulpit and your institutions and your literature and your fretful impetuosity: the progress of society is guaranteed by the Spirit of God, and heaven is guaranteed not because of your worth, but because of God's purpose. God cannot be turned aside, his word cannot fail; the word of the Lord abideth for ever, and though it be oftentimes night and storm and cloud and strenuous battle, yet through it all there goes the soul of eternity, the spirit of the Cross, the purpose of God, and in the wilderness we shall find garden, and in stony places we shall find habitations of comfort. This is not the voice of human poetry. The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
"In the last section (6, 7) Jehovah, by a bold poetical figure, is represented as holding a controversy with his people, pleading with them in justification of his conduct towards them and the reasonableness of his requirements. The dialogue form in which chap. 6 is cast renders the picture very dramatic and striking. In Mic 6:3-5 Jehovah speaks; the inquiry of the people follows in Micah 6:6 , indicating their entire ignorance of what was required of them; their inquiry is met by the almost impatient rejoinder, 'Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of torrents of oil?' The still greater sacrifice suggested by the people, 'Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions?' calls forth the definition of their true duty, 'to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God.' How far they had fallen short of this requirement is shown in what follows (9-12), and judgment is pronounced upon them (13-16). The prophet acknowledges and bewails the justice of the sentence ( Mic 7:1-6 ); the people in repentance patiently look to God, confident that their prayer will be heard (7-10), and are reassured by the promise of deliverance announced as following their punishment (11-13) by the prophet, who in his turn presents his petition to Jehovah for the restoration of his people (14, 15). The whole concludes with a triumphal song of joy at the great deliverance, like that from Egypt, which Jehovah will achieve, and a full acknowledgment of his mercy and faithfulness to his promises (16-20). The last verse is reproduced in the song of Zacharias ( Luk 1:72-73 )." Smith's Dictionary of the Bible.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Micah 7". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27