A girl I knew in college asked me to proofread a paper she wrote for class. The narrative told of a formative childhood moment. At a local market, she stuffed one of her mittens with loose birdseed out of a barrel. She wanted to give her parakeet a gift. Mom and dad caught her and explained the word "stealing". They brought her back to the market so she could return the birdseed and confess her crime. She described the event as if this naive theft were the worst sin she committed as a child. Knowing her, it may have been. Me, I would have written about cigarettes, porn, or doing whip-its at Bible camp. She took three ounces of birdseed from a barrel.
We may as well admit that we place sin in categories from tolerable to most heinous. The majority of people reading this, I assume, haven't burned down day-care centers or assassinated world leaders. But I'll bet you speed once in a while.
Micah addresses this issue of subtle sin in the first chapter. The book opens as a word of the Lord concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. According to David Stern, the Samaritans were "a mixed ethnic group descended from Jews deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. and other peoples ruled by the Assyrians. (They) followed a religion combining pagan and Jewish elements." After Solomon's reign, his kingdom split in two, Judah in the south and the northern kingdom of Israel. From this moment in 1 Kings 12, we read about the leaders of each kingdom. Of all the rulers in Israel, the region that became Samaria, not one of the kings lived in a way pleasing to God. They set up alters in high places that served the God of Abraham in word, but also allowed elements of idol worship. When I visited the city of Dan in 2000, my guide told me of how the kings and priests eventually worshiped a golden calf.
Micah 1:7 says of Samaria, "All her carved images will be smashed to pieces, all she earned consumed by fire. and I will reduce her idols to rubble. She amassed them from a whore's wages, and as a whore's wages they will be spent again." The people of Judah probably applauded this word concerning their hostile, idol-worshiping kinsmen. But remember that the prophecy also concerns Jerusalem, in Judah. Micah gives them equally hash treatment in 1:8-16. I mean, just check out the heavy imagery of verses 8 and 9 as he turns the focus from Samaria to Jerusalem. "This is why I howl and wail, why I go barefoot and stripped, why I howl like the jackals and mourn like the ostriches. For her wound cannot be healed, and now it is coming to Judah as well; it reaches even to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem itself." In verse 13, Micah expressly traces the line of sin from Lakhish in Assyria to Samaria to Jerusalem.
I remember reading Kings in my early twenties and noticing their track record with God. Israel consistently angered God, never serving Him. One king at least had this said in his favor, "He wasn't as bad as the other kings of Israel". But of all the kings of Judah, nine alone served God. Of those nine, only two removed the high places and banned idol worship, Hezekiah and his great-grandson Josiah. Ahaz, one of the kings ruling during Micah's ministry and Hezekiah's father, was especially evil. Unlike his God-fearing father, Jotham, he sacrificed one of his sons to Molech and made sacrifices on the high places. Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, was especially wicked. He rebuilt all of the high places and everything his father had destroyed. He also sacrificed his son to Molech like Grandpa Ahaz and got involved in a cult worshiping "the army of heaven". 2 Kings 23 details all that Josiah destroyed in his pursuit of holiness. It's a lot. Some of it very weird stuff. But like the last two God-fearing kings, his sons totally blew it. They ruled until Babylon seized Jerusalem and put the people into exile.
The overwhelming majority of men who led God's people led them away from God. Seven of the "good" kings, while not engaging in evil practices themselves, still tolerated idolatry in their kingdom. The other two good kings may have worshiped God but failed to raise their sons in righteousness. They didn't get high at Bible camp but they let their kids steal birdseed. This realization broke my heart.
And so Micah denounced them as well. In 3:11-12, he tells them, just because you claim to serve God doesn't mean your sin will go unnoticed. "(Jerusalem's) leaders sell verdicts for bribes, her priests teach for a price, her prophets divine for money - yet they claim to rely upon the Lord! 'Isn't the Lord with us?' they say. 'No evil can come upon us.' Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed under like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house like a forested height."
And yet Micah also gives hope for redemption. In chapter 4, God promises to restore the temple of Jerusalem where the people would again worship Him, rescued after their exile to Babylon. Yes, there is a messianic prophecy in chapter 5, where Micah tells of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. But as I read this book recently, I noticed another messianic prophecy. This one far more subtle. In 7:9, the prophet says, "I will endure the Lord's rage, because I sinned against Him; until He pleads my cause and judges in my favor. Then He will bring me out to the light, and I will see His justice." Here, I saw a thread of the Trinity. God the father as one who demands justice for sin, and God the son as the one who pleads our cause and redeems us from darkness. As Paul said in Romans 3, Jesus justified us to satisfy His own demand for justice.
The book closes in 7:18-20 with a breath-taking prayer of praise. "Who is a God like you, pardoning the sin and overlooking the crimes of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in grace. He will again have compassion on us, He will subdue our iniquities. You will throw all their sins into the depths of the sea. You will show truth to Jacob and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors since days of long ago."
We can easily beat ourselves up when we're convicted of sins both large and ignored. The truth is we all deserve to die for rebelling against God, the source of life. And yet He knew we couldn't be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Through Jesus, the one who throws our sin into the depths of the sea, we come to know that He alone makes us holy. In Him alone do we have hope for righteousness.