“A Ruler from Bethlehem” (Micah 5:2-5a)
So which is it? “Too little” or “by no means least”? We’re talking about Bethlehem here. On the one hand, the prophet Micah says that Bethlehem is “too little to be among the clans of Judah.” But then on the other hand, in Matthew 2, we hear the chief priests and the elders saying that Bethlehem is “by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” So what gives here? This sounds like two opposite views about Bethlehem: on the one hand, “little,” and on the other hand, “by no means little.” Well, there is an answer to this riddle about the little town of Bethlehem, and the answer is–the connecting piece of the puzzle that makes both descriptions true, both “little” and “by no means little”–the answer is found in the one who is to come, namely, “A Ruler from Bethlehem.”
You see, both are true. On the one hand, Bethlehem was a little town, a sleepy little suburb–more of an exurb, really–a small town located some miles south of Jerusalem. Perhaps you could make the comparison to Bonne Terre and St. Louis. Bonne Terre is kinda close to St. Louis, but not right next door, and it’s a lot smaller. That’s roughly what you could say about Bethlehem in relation to Jerusalem.
So Bethlehem was a little town, too little to be considered important on its own. However, because of the one who would come from Bethlehem, the mighty ruler who was prophesied to come from there, Bethlehem does rank as a very important city in the plan of God, in spite of its small size. That’s the connection.
But why Bethlehem? Why would God choose to have this ruler–the Christ, the Messiah–come from Bethlehem? Well, it goes back a ways. It goes back to a preceding ruler who was the first to come from Bethlehem. And that was King David. David was born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a very unimpressive little town when compared to other cities, and David was a rather unimpressive young man when compared to his brothers–he was the youngest of the bunch, and he was off tending the sheep. Even so, the Lord singled him out, David, to be anointed as Israel’s king.
You know, the Lord has this habit of choosing unimpressive places and unimpressive people to do his work. That’s how he rolls. He can use little towns and small congregations to get his gospel work done. He uses unimpressive means–ordinary water, a little bread and a little wine–yet when connected to God’s powerful word, the Lord uses these means to unite people with Christ and to forgive their sins and to give them everlasting life. The Lord does this type of humble but mighty saving activity throughout the Bible, and he still does to this day. And so it should come as no surprise that the mighty Messiah would come from humble little Bethlehem, just as Micah prophesies in our text.
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” Now the coming of the Messiah was prophesied from of old, from ancient days, even from the perspective of Micah. Because the Lord had given a promise to King David, several centuries before Micah, that the Christ, the Messiah, would come from his line: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. . . . I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” This was the Lord’s promise of the Messiah to come, who would be descended from David, as it says in the psalm: “I have sworn to David my servant: I will establish your kingdom forever; and build your throne for all generations.”
So Micah is picking up on this promise of a Davidic Messiah, “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” But really, his origins go back further than that, further back than David. For ultimately, this is the Son of God we’re talking about, the one who was with God in the beginning. For Christ Jesus is the eternal Son of God, coming in time, in history, in the flesh, descended from David according to the flesh, born of the virgin Mary–true God and true man, one Lord Jesus Christ.
Micah prophesied at a time when things were going bad for the people of God. From the time of Micah to the time of Christ was around 700 years. During that time, a lot of bad things happened. First the northern kingdom, Israel, fell to the Assyrians. Then the southern kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians. For all those years, the Israelites were scattered or taken captive or under foreign domination. And for the longest time there was no active king descended from David ruling on the throne.
So what happened to God’s promise? Would it be fulfilled? Yes, Micah is saying! “Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” For a long time it might look like God has given up on his promises and given up on his people. But not so. Eventually, a woman will give birth to a son, in little Bethlehem, and this child born there will indeed be the great Messiah promised from of old. God never forgets his promises; he fulfills them.
And what would this ruler from Bethlehem do? Micah tells us: “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”
This is the saving that the ruler from Bethlehem will do! Much greater than David could do. David reigned and did great things for a little while, over a relatively small kingdom. But his reign was marked and marred by disobedience and decline. Not so with the reign of David’s greater Son. His is an eternal kingdom, not just over Israel, but over all nations.
The ruler from Bethlehem will “shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,” and we know that Jesus has fulfilled this promise. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, “and I lay down my life for the sheep. I lay it down, and I take it up again.” Friends, Jesus is our shepherd-king. He lay down his life for us, dying on the cross for our sins, so that we would be rescued from death and damnation. And then Jesus took up his life again in his resurrection, showing what is in store for us, all of us who trust in him. Now we can go through the valley of the shadow of death without fearing any evil, for we know that our good shepherd is going with us and will lead us through, safe and sound.
“And they shall dwell secure,” Micah says, and that us. We are the Lord’s flock, his church. Our salvation is secure in Christ, the shepherd-king from Bethlehem. And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” Peace, peace. Everyone would like some peace, especially in this age of terror. In Christ, we have it. It is a peace that the world cannot take away. In this world we will have tribulation, but in Christ we have peace. For he himself is our peace, having made peace in his body on the cross. Now there is peace between God and man, peace between heaven and earth. Christ has reconciled us back to God, restoring the relationship that we had broken by our sin. Now we are at peace with God, through Jesus Christ.
And this peace is yours, my friends! God is not angry with you. God loves you, he is at peace with you, and Jesus is the proof. This alters how we live, then, doesn’t it? We can walk forward confident, knowing that our sins are forgiven and our salvation is secure, because of Jesus. This frees us up. We are free to risk. We are free to be bold. We are free to love. We know where we are headed. We know what our future is, that it is good and glorious and a free gift from God, an eternal future with God. This is liberating, and it is joyful!
Dear friends, during this Advent season, we have heard God speaking to us by his prophets. By the prophet Jeremiah, God has spoken to us of a righteous Branch. From the cut-down, seemingly dead stump of David’s line, there would arise a Branch, a righteous Branch, who would bear much fruit and be our righteousness. By the prophet Malachi, God has spoken to us of the messenger of the covenant, a messenger who would purify his people and judge the nations, but a messenger also of the new covenant in the forgiveness of sins. And now today, God has spoken to us by his prophet Micah, telling us of a ruler from Bethlehem, a great king from a little town, who will shepherd his flock, who will make us dwell secure, and who will be our peace.
God has spoken by his prophets, and what he is speaking to us in each case is the same. It is the good news of our coming king, Christ Jesus. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.”