Micah in the Middle

In scripture, Jonah and Nahum are neighbors, and they can be hard to find. They are each only a few pages long, and it’s just too easy to flip from Obadiah right to Habakkuk and miss them all together. Jonah and Nahum are neighbors, but not next door neighbors; Micah lives between them. What they have in common, is their close connection with a city, Nineveh.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, a middle eastern super power before the rise of Babylonia and Persia. In Israel, Nineveh was a hated city. Painful experience had turned it into a symbol of sinful and violent oppression. Nahum’s entire proclamation is infused with pain and rage against Nineveh.

Ah, city of bloodshed,
utterly treacherous,
full of violence,
where killing never stops!
Crack of whip and rattle of wheel,
galloping steed and bounding chariot!
Charging horsemen,
flashing swords and glittering spears!
Hosts of slain and heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without number—
they stumble over bodies.
Because of the countless harlotries of the harlot,
the winsome mistress of sorcery, [Nineveh]
who ensnared nations with her harlotries
and peoples with her sorcery,
I am going to deal with you—
declares the Lord of Hosts.[1]

I am going to deal with you; violence for violence. The city must fall. The book of Nahum ends with a question:

All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has not suffered from your constant malice?[2]

In 612 BCE the city was totally destroyed and never rebuilt. For people who are oppressed and abused by brutal regimes, Nineveh’s fall from glory can be a source of hope, and they can draw strength from the greater power of the Lord who declares, “I am going to deal with you,” and brings down the mighty.

The book of Jonah also ends with a question, but the whole book is like a question mark. It begins,

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Niniveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”[3]

But Jonah set out and went West as far as his feet would take him, until he stood on the beach, with his toes touching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea; but it wasn’t far enough. He found a ship going to Tarshish, a port far beyond the horizon, at the end of the world, as far away as he could from the presence of the Lord. Jonah ran away and got on a boat to go where God was not, only to find out that there was no such place. The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea: Jonah was thrown overboard in the storm, and a large fish swallowed him up. And after three days and three nights, the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land – it was the same beach where his adventure at sea had begun. There he was, fish slobber all over him, when the word of the Lord came to him a second time.

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, Jonah went. Not a word about how he felt, what was going through his mind. All we’re left with, all he’s left with is the stark inescapability of God’s presence and call. Jonah went a day’s walk into the city and cried out,

“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

That’s just eight words in English, five in Hebrew. No sign of passion, neither rage nor fear. No explanation; no accusation; no call to repentance; just this brief pronouncement. And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Wait a minute! What just happened here? Somebody pinch me, this is unreal! Did I take the wrong exit? This can’t be Nineveh, symbol of wickedness and arrogant oppression!?

No, you wait, Jonah, because it didn’t end there. No, when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes with his people. And then came the royal decree proclaiming a fast in the city, no food or water, only prayers and repentance, and cattle and goats covered with sackcloth, and you may think that’s a little over the top, and it probably was, but everyone in the city, from king to cattle, repented!

“Who knows?” the king wondered. “God may turn and relent and turn back from his wrath, so that we do not perish.”

God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment he had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

And Jonah? Jonah who had just witnessed the most fantastic response any prophet on the face of the earth could dream of, Jonah was grieved. He didn’t like what he saw, didn’t like it at all, and he prayed,

“O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and ready to relent from punishing these people. Take my life, for I would rather die than live.”[4]

Jonah was very unhappy because his pronouncement of certain destruction had become, in the ears and hearts of his audience, a call to repent from their evil ways; and the king’s careful weighing of possibilities, “Who knows? God may turn” had become reality.

This very curious story ends with a question, and thus it remains open, awaiting our response.

God said, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[5]

We are quick to identify a city that has become a symbol of evil, violence, and oppression with its people. It doesn’t take much to imagine severe punishment and say with Nahum, “All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” The book of Jonah keeps the door open for a different consideration than the inescapability of punishment. The city is inhabited by human beings, and human beings, as much as they have been shaped by sinful structures, human beings can turn and change. Nineveh, the city of bloodshed, must not remain a paradigm for how the powerful God deals with violent systems in order to bring about true human community. In the curious book of Jonah, Nineveh was spared and allowed to thrive and flourish, because acts of repentance on earth were met by mercy from heaven.

I mentioned earlier that in Scripture, Jonah and Nahum are neighbors, but not next-door neighbors; the wise ones who compiled the books may have thought that the two might clash, and so they inserted Micah between them. And Micah decries injustice and corruption in the cities, he decries oppression and censorship with the passion of Nahum, but he also declares hope, hope gleaned, perhaps from the pages of Jonah.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[6]

Injustice, arrogance, and covetousness turn every human city into Nineveh, but acts of repentance on earth, who knows, may yet be met by mercy from heaven.

We heard a very short reading from Mark this morning.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

John was arrested because his proclamation was not pleasing to Herod’s ears. But Jesus continued to proclaim the nearness of God’s reign, and he called people to repent. He called people to turn around and start living now with the changes God would bring about to make all things right. None of us want to pretend we know what all these changes might be, but we must start living into the ones we do know, because the time is fulfilled, which is to say there is no better time to wait for. The world continues to be in the grip of sinful powers beyond our control that can make us feel small and helpless: Nineveh is a harsh oppressor, Babylon is a heart-breaking exile, Rome is a violent empire – but rather than wait for their violent demise on a day of divine vengeance, Jesus invites us to live subversively now within these systems as citizens of a better city. That is why we seek to do justice that is steeped in kindness, and we seek to love kindness with passion and humility, and we walk in the company of Jesus lest we forget the power of mercy.

Many surprising things happened that day in Nineveh when Jonah declared that the city would be overturned, and the people of the city decided to turn instead. Ordinary men and women turned away from their evil ways, and – perhaps most surprising of all – the king and the nobles were paying attention, and the people’s repentance, their small acts of turning away from arrogance, injustice, and covetousness, their small acts became the royal decree, the law of the land.

“All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you,” Nahum declared, imagining the world’s applause after Nineveh’s fall. But we dare to imagine the world’s applause after Nineveh’s repentance. We have heard the good news of divine mercy, and we clap our hands.

[1] Nahum 3:1-5a (JPS)

[2] Nahum 3:19 (JPS)

[3] See Jonah 1:1-2

[4] Jonah 4:2-3

[5] Jonah 4:11

[6] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)