How can we account for the absence of harmony in our world? When sin separated us from God, our relationship with our fellow man was also broken. But there is hope! As Alistair Begg explains, God calls His people to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before Him. Attempted without the Gospel or in place of the Gospel, such a call leads to despair—but in Jesus, God has provided its perfect fulfillment on our behalf.
We’re going to read from the Old Testament, in the book of Micah and chapter 6. And if you are able to turn to it in your Bible, wherever you are, let me encourage you to do that. Micah chapter 6 and reading from verse 1:
Hear what the Lord says:
Arise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth,
for the Lord has an indictment against his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
“O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, 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?
Father, as we turn now to the Bible, we ask for your help both in speaking and in hearing, in understanding and in believing, obeying, living in the light of its truth. No mere man could ever accomplish any or all of this, but we look to the work of the Holy Spirit, whose amazing coming we celebrated last Sunday. Come now, Holy Spirit, we pray, and do for us what each of us needs. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, if we have a text for this morning—and I suppose we do—it would be the eighth verse of the passage that we read: “He has told you, O man, 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?” I should say that I’m going to take quite a while to get there. I hope I won’t frustrate you along the journey.
But let me begin in this way, by asking a question: Do orchestras really need conductors? Franz Welser-Möst would surely answer yes to that question—but after all, he is the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony. And I would imagine, although I haven’t checked, that along with him, all the members of that orchestra would agree. If the conductor were to be deposed by them in some kind of coup and the members decided that what they were going to do was simply go with their feelings—play whatever they felt at any particular time and whatever volume they chose and so on—well, of course, clearly the end product would be chaotic and would be unappealing. All of the harmony that was potentially there in submitting to the orchestra score and in bowing under the baton and the beady eye of the conductor would, of course, have been forfeited.
Now, let me ask a second question: How are we to account for the absence of harmony in our world? And one way of answering that—and it is the Bible way of answering that—is to acknowledge that we have deposed the conductor; that the Bible tells us we have been created by God and for God, and yet we have been separated from God, and we have been scattered in the imagination of our hearts. And so, that is why you find people saying—and you may say this yourself—“Well, who needs a score? We can make the plays up as we go along. We can just play whatever tune we like, and whatever it is to me is what is important, and what it means to somebody else will just have to find its place.” And furthermore, people might say the idea of a conductor—the idea of one who oversees us and so on—is just so far away from all that we now hold to and affirm.
Now, in this you may not agree, and you may find that the metaphor is far too clichéd for you. But there are few people that I meet at the moment who would be prepared to deny the fact that our world is out of kilter. It is, as our friend Melanie Phillips suggests, a “world turned upside down.” It is a world that is not only fractured, but it is fearful. It’s a fearful place inhabited by people who are themselves increasingly filled with fear.
And that fear has a basis. There is a foundation for the fearfulness. And we’re dealing, actually, at the moment, it would seem, with a three-headed monster.
We’re dealing with it pandemically. Our lives have been completely changed as a result of this virus which has swept the world. And every morning that we awake, there are new statistics, there are conflicting solutions, varied attempts to restrain the virus, the constant and obvious search for a vaccine, and in the middle of all of that, the novel and somewhat dreadful experience of being continually isolated from one another, and not least of all in the experience of illness and in the sadness of death. Who would ever have planned for a virtual funeral?
Not only pandemically but also economically. It’s not for me to give any kind of instruction in this regard. I, like you, just simply read what I find day to day. But it would seem obvious that we have been confronted now by levels of unemployment, by mountains of debt, that we are told will take more than time to relieve or to repay.
And then, racially. Pandemically, economically, and racially. Our nation now has been fractured, and its brokenness has been highlighted in the demonstrations that have come in the aftermath of the unspeakably brutal and cruel death of George Floyd. And again, fear grips the nation. Which is the worst of the viruses, we would find ourselves saying: that which threatens us pandemically or economically or racially? What is the antidote to racial prejudice?
It’s almost impossible to come to Micah 6:8 without, certainly in these days, saying something along these lines.
Two observations. One: I have chosen to use the more old-fashioned term racial prejudice, or racial discrimination. And the reason for that is because language is now so abused. For example, a term like fascist, which has a real meaning and a real origin, is used at all kinds of times and in different ways and with different people—or Nazi in the same way, and also now the word racist. The word racist has now been so abused that it has virtually lost its meaning. So I say, the issue we deal with is racial prejudice. It’s just one observation.
The second observation is this: that with the events of the last few days, objective morality has now made a reappearance. What do I mean by that? Well, matters now are immediately identified as being either right or wrong. So right and wrong is now back on the agenda—which is quite surprising, because Western culture, certainly over the last fifty years, has increasingly come to regard ethics as a matter of personal taste. After all, with no conductor, we can play any tune we want, with the only caveat being “as long as it doesn’t bother anybody else.” But even that doesn’t play much of a part. As I drove here this morning, one of the signs read, “Racism is wrong”—which, of course, it is, however you want to define it. We know what we’re talking about today. But the thought that occurred to me was, “Isn’t it interesting that it doesn’t say something like ‘Racism is a bad idea’ or ‘My personal view is that it is this’?” No. It simply says, “It is wrong.” Because every honest person knows that it is wrong, and from a biblical perspective clearly so. Because when we turn to the Bible, we realize that the Bible says there is only one God, and there is only one reality, which is that man has been made—men and women made—in the image of divinity, in the image of God. And as a result of that, there is only one morality, and that that morality emerges from God himself. Therefore, God is a God who says, “I’ll tell you what’s right, and I’ll tell you what is wrong.”
Now, people react to that today, but they’ve reacted to it in every day. Listen to how Paul gave an address along these lines when he was asked to speak to a group of people in Athens. And this is how he began; I’ve shortened it in order that the impact may help us. This is Paul speaking to the gathered group: he says to them,
God who made the world and everything in it … made from one man every nation of mankind to live on … the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. … But now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day [when] he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Now, in light of that, it is impossible to say nothing matters. What Paul is affirming is what the Bible declares: that we do not live in a random universe; we are not here by chance; we are not sustaining ourselves by our own endeavors. We were intricately put together in our mother’s womb, and all the days of our lives have been written in his book before one of them came to be. To say nothing matters is ridiculous. It all matters. It matters far more than we know, because it matters to the Creator, it matters to the Lawgiver. And for this reason, black lives matter. It is impossible to be otherwise.
In fact—and this we will not delve into this morning—these issues of such brutality and murder matter far more than our culture is prepared to accept. The sanctity of human life—the sanctity of human life—is bound up in the fact that man was made in the image of God, that he is not a random collection of molecules held in suspension. He is not the product of time plus matter plus chance. He was put together purposefully. His genetic code was written by the Creator himself. And that is why the Bible says that if you take a man’s life, you forfeit your own life. And the recognition of the sanctity of life is revealed not only in the way we care for those in the fragile elements of life but in the way that we are prepared to acknowledge that capital punishment for such murder is not only legitimate, it is divinely ordained.
You think we care about life? We don’t care about life enough. God cares. God made us. God loves those who have been so tragically bereaved. And our great need, as we have been reminding ourselves through these days of COVID chaos—our great need in all of these discussions is to have a solid dose of theological realism. All of us have emotional attachments. All of us have backgrounds that are unique to ourselves and so on. But the real question is: Are we going to gain an understanding of things by looking to the Scriptures themselves? My opinion is as valid as the next person’s opinion, perhaps, if it’s true, if it’s good, but by and large, we all are in need of being taught by the one who knows the answers to all the questions.
And that is essentially the role of the prophet. And the Minor Prophets—Micah is one of the Minor Prophets. That doesn’t mean that, you know, you have, like, grade-A prophets and then grade-B prophets and that he’s basically a B. It just has to do with the amount of the material. He just has seven chapters; Isaiah has a ton of chapters. So he would be Major in terms of length, and Micah and the others—in fact, there were twelve of them all together in a scroll for a long while.
What is Micah the prophet saying? What is he providing for the people? Well, he’s not talking about his own ideas. Look at how the chapter begins: “Hear what the Lord says.” This is the role of the prophet. This is the role of the preacher of the Bible—not for me or for anybody else to stand up and give you our views, but to stand up and say, “Listen! Listen, now. Listen to God.” And that’s why we constantly say, “You are sensible people. Examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so.”
Now, you will notice… And we can only go at a high altitude over this material. There was a lovely plane flying over our home yesterday evening, and I thought, “That’s how I’m going to have to go over Micah chapter 6, at about that elevation.” Notice that he is speaking to his people; it is God here who is speaking, and he is speaking to his people. And he has reason to contend with them, to indict them. And the reason for that is because, if you work your way back through the text, you will see that they have been “devis[ing] wickedness”; they have been “work[ing] evil on their beds”; they can’t wait to get up in the morning to “perform it,” and “it is in the power of their hand” to do. That’s the beginning of chapter 2.
Further on in chapter 2, in verse 8, “Lately,” says God,
my people have risen up as an enemy;
you strip the rich robe from those who pass by trustingly
with no thought of war.
The women of my people you drive out
from their delightful houses;
from their young children you take away
my splendor forever.
Arise and go,
for this is no place to rest,
because of uncleanness that destroys
with a grievous destruction.
And so it goes on. And so, he is addressing them, and he is addressing them with reason for contention.
Also, you will notice that in addressing them, his tone is one of entreaty. Twice in verses 3–5 you have the opening phrase “O my people.” “O my people.” That sense of tenderness: “O…” It’s a bit like, “Oh, come on.” “O my people.”
Now, what he then does is he reminds them of his righteous acts. You will see that down in verse 5: “the righteous acts of the Lord.” Now, he’s just giving them essentially a little reminder of history: the redemption that he has brought about in verse 4, in bringing them safely out of Egypt; the leadership that he then gave to them so that they might make progress, in Moses and Aaron and Miriam; the way in which, in the events of Balak and Balaam, God in his great providence turned curses to blessing. And in the encounter from Shittim to Gilgal, he’s simply reminding them of the events that were there when they crossed the Jordan. You remember, if you recall that story, how it was in full spate—not a good time to try and cross the river. And yet, when the priests put their feet in the water, the waters were held back, and the people walked through on dry ground as another reminder to them that the God of the exodus was the God who was looking after them.
These, he says, are “the righteous acts of the Lord.” And notice: “that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” It doesn’t mean that you might be able to rehearse them, that you could write them down like if you had an exam at school, a history exam—“When was the Battle of Hastings? When was the end of the second World War?”—that you might be able to do that: “When did they cross the Jordan?”; you know, “Where was that in the book of Numbers?” or whatever. No. No, the knowledge that he’s speaking about here is a life-transforming knowledge: “that you [might] know the righteous acts of the Lord”—that when you think about what God has done for you, it might be transformative. In other words, that the knowledge of God’s righteous acts stir them up—stir them up and also steer them in where they should be going. Knowledge of the truth of God is the basis, then, for making sure that our emotions and our feelings are both given full effect and at the same time held in check.
Incidentally and in passing, this caused me to pause for a moment and go back to the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” Because I have always—until I got here in 1983, I always sang, “You have taught me to know it is well with my soul.” And yet, now, for the last thirty-seven years, I have been singing, “You have taught me to say,” and I’ve never liked it. And so I said to myself yesterday, “I gotta find out what the original was.” And of course—and I can hardly suppress the smile—the original was “You have taught me to know.” Because if you think about it, it is one thing to say it. And you can say it without knowing it.
And so he says, “I want you to know the righteous acts of God. I don’t want you just to be able to say, ‘This is what happened, and this is what happened,’ and so on. No, that you may know. That’s the real question: Do you know God?” His people had completely lost sight of all that God had done for them. That’s why he says to them, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” It had all become tedious. It had become tiresome. They’re saying, “Oh, it’s the same old material.” It was routine. It became irrelevant. It was dangerous.
And so we call… And there’s actually a court scene here, really. We might set it in that way. “Plead your case”; that’s in verse 1. And now, in verse 6, let us call the counsel, then, for the defense. What is the response of the would-be worshipper? Well, you have here it in verses 6 and 7. And we can read these verses, where you have this progression of expressions of devotion: “burnt offerings, with calves a year old.” Whoa! A year old! That would cost more than just giving one up in its infancy. Uh-huh? Well, what about “thousands of rams,” “ten thousands of rivers of oil.” What if I was like Abraham and offered up my son in an expression of my desire to have my sin dealt with?
Now, the way we need to understand this, of course, is in light of what Scripture tells us. We have an illustration of it when we studied in 1 Samuel many moons ago, if you will remember. And Samuel the prophet confronts Saul, you will recall, and he says to him, “Has the Lord … great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices”—does he have as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices—“as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” And, of course, that’s the point. He’s not saying that the sacrifices were irrelevant or the expressions of devotion are irrelevant, but what God is looking for is obedience.
You have it in a parallel passage in Amos, which, when I read it in Peterson’s paraphrase, struck me forcibly. And this is a similar context where the prophet Amos is taking on the same issue. The people are saying, “Well, we could come before God, and this is what we’ll be able to say. We’ve done a wonderful job on sacrifices. We’ve been very self-giving. We have been prepared even to go to the extremities of it.” And God says,
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you [want to] know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
“Well,” we say, “that’s fine. Because we haven’t been doing anything with calves or sacrifices or anything at all.” But what is our plea? You see, Israel was thinking, “God wants to see evidence of my commitment. And so I will show him evidence of my commitment in these things,” with an ever, if you like, intensifying sense of duty and engagement of activity.
So what would be parallel? I don’t know. People always say, “And, now, what programs do you have at your church? How many Bible conferences do you have? Marriage seminars? College events? Prison ministry? Prayer times? Soccer leagues?” And on and on it goes, ever-ascending expressions of the fact, “God, you know we’re really into this. We’re very committed.” Ralph Davis says, “But why do we think we have to be so frantic? Why do we have this hypertensive view of the Christian life? Why do we think God wants us to organize more Christian things to do?” That’s what their answer was. God says through his prophet, “What are you guys up to?” They say, “Oh no, we’ve got it covered.”
Finally, the prophet responds, and in verse 8. Now, this eighth verse is, of course, quoted frequently. I’m sure you will have turned to it in the past few days, and understandably so. Interestingly, Newton, the hymnwriter and the pastor, commenting on this, said, “There is hardly any one passage in [Scripture] more generally misunderstood.”
Now, you’ve read it, and I have read it. And you may find yourselves saying, “Well, it seems pretty straightforward to me.” There’s essentially only three points.
Number one, “to do justly”—that is, to act in such a way that is the reversal of all that was taking place; that it means doing justly in accord with the will and purpose of God as he has both manifested it and as he has revealed it to us in Scripture. So, for example, in Deuteronomy, Moses says God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” So, within the framework of God’s revelation of himself, we want to take seriously these things—perhaps far more seriously than we have been giving credence to, to this point. But taking that seriously is not the same, I suggest to you, as this commentator’s explanation of “what doing justice according to the Bible really means”: “It is,” he writes, “creating a situation and a society where everything is right, a society where every last person in it, including the most vulnerable and the weakest, can flourish and thrive.” It’s not my purpose to interact with that for now, but it is to set it out before you so that you, like me, can be thinking along these lines.
“To do justly,” “to love mercy.” A heart attitude. If doing justly is the action, then loving mercy, or loving kindness, is the attitude of the heart. Warm-hearted compassion—these actions taking place not as a performance of some demanded duty but as a glad and spontaneous action. It’s not gonna be possible for us to really believe that “Father, your love is a faithful love” and then for us to be faithless in our expressions of love.
And then, thirdly, to “walk humbly.” To “walk humbly.” In other words, to walk in submission to God’s will. In New Testament terms, it’s Romans 12:: to offer your body as a living sacrifice that is an acceptable form of worship to him. Humility means that I don’t take myself too seriously, that I don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of my own importance, that I don’t assume that I have everything buttoned down and know how it should be—which is, of course, one’s tendency.
“Well,” you say, “that’s fairly comprehensive, and it’s fairly clear. Why did Newton say, ‘There’s hardly a passage in Scripture more generally misunderstood’?” Well, he’s not here to answer the question, but I think at least this would be true of what he meant.
Number one, because of how this verse is attempted without the gospel. How it is attempted without the gospel. And then it becomes just a display of natural virtue. Then it becomes the sort of normal, nice religion of virtuous life. A person says, “How can I come before the Lord?”—verse 6. An answer: “I’m going to come before the Lord; the way I do it is by doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly.” It’s just another version of “A good God, if he exists, will reward nice people if they do their best,” and part of the way of doing your best involves justice, it involves mercy, and it involves being humble about it. I think Newton must have had that in mind: how easy it is for us to attempt this without the gospel.
Also, how easy it is for pastors to proclaim it in place of the gospel. In place of the gospel. You see, this is a very easy slide. Men and women by nature are keen to contribute to their standing before God—to contribute to it on account of their own endeavors. And so, if the message that comes across is “Why don’t you go out and have a really good week and do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?” they say, “I’d be able to take a stab at that.” But you see the inherent danger. Am I wrong in suggesting to my friend that he ought at least to be wary of explaining Micah 6:8 as “creating a situation and a society where everything is right”?
That is called the new heaven and the new earth. We’ve got to read the Prophets in light of the apostles. We’ve gotta interpret the Old Testament in light of the New. You’ve gotta ask yourself of that kind of explanation how it fits within the Epistles of the New Testament and the emphasis of the apostles, who themselves had a prophetic ministry.
But our time is gone, so let me just tell you the third reason that I think it is one of the misunderstood passages: because of how it is attempted without the gospel, because of how it may be proclaimed in place of the gospel, and because it needs to be understood that it is only possible by the gospel. By the gospel. Micah is not here charting a path as a means to acceptance with God. And I, for one, am really thankful. And if you are a believer today, you ought to be as well. If God were—on the day that he has fixed, which we read of in Acts 17—if God were on that day to judge me by this text, I would have no basis for appeal. Because if I even do my own assessment, I’m not even getting an F on justice and kindness and humility. And I’m talking about just myself on my bed! I’m not even talking about the people who know me. I don’t want their assessment. I can’t imagine how bad it is.
So what is the answer? Well, you see, the answer is not in our righteous acts but in “the righteous acts of the Lord”—verse 5. “He has [shown] you, O man, what is good.” Jesus is good! If your Bible is open, you just go back a page and you’d find yourself in the Christmas narrative: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, [though you] are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be [the] ruler in Israel,” you read it all the way down. And verse 5: “And he shall be their peace.” “He shall be their peace.” “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Or as we have it in Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation [to] all people.”
When Newton preached on this passage, he entitled his sermon on this verse “No Access to God but by the Gospel of Christ.” “No Access to God but by the Gospel of Christ.” And I’m pretty sure that is what he meant when he said this is so misunderstood: so taught or received in such a way as to say, “You know, this is the missing link. This is the key.” But what the passage is saying is, “Would you come before God? Then come in the name of Jesus. You’ll find acceptance.” Because, remember, before Jesus left, he said, “Whoever comes to me, I won’t cast out.” And if we don’t come by way of that entrance, there is no other way. And if we’re worried about what kind of response we will receive, go to the end of the chapter; go to the closing verses of the chapter, where the prophet says, “Who’s a pardoning God like you? Who pardons sins like you? Who forgives iniquities? Who cleanses us? Who fits us for your presence? You do.”
What you essentially have in verse 8 are the credentials of our justification—not the things that contribute to our justification but the evidences of our justification. And I find myself saying, “You know, I think my credentials could do with a bit of a polish.” He said here, “O my people… O my people… O Alistair… O Parkside… O American Christianity…”
Well, loved ones, we can’t fix the world. But with God’s help, we can make a pledge to one another to declare our willingness to live the gospel in expressions of justice and kindness and humility. And as strange as it will sound to an onlooking world, God has provided in the local church the genetic blueprint of a broken world remade.
Does an orchestra need a conductor? Surely. Do we need a Savior? Surely. To him we look.
Gracious God, we have not served you as we ought. Alas, the duties we’ve left undone! So much of ourselves and our selfishness have taken hold of the way in which we adjudicate on things and seek to chart our course. So we pray that you will help us not to get on the wrong side of Newton’s most misunderstood text. God grant that we may not attempt it without the gospel, that we may not proclaim it instead of the gospel, but that we may live it by the gospel. For in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
 See Melanie Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power (New York: Encounter, 2010).
 Acts 17:24–31 (ESV).
 See Psalm 139:13.
 See Psalm 139:16.
 John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (1957; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 115–16.
 See Acts 17:11.
 Micah 2:1 (ESV).
 See Joshua 3:14–17.
 Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1873).
 1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV).
 Amos 5:21–24 (MSG).
 Dale Ralph Davis, Micah (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2010), 130.
 John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton (London, 1808), 2:543.
 Micah 6:8 (KJV).
 Deuteronomy 10:18 (ESV).
 Stephen Um, “Stephen Um on Teaching Micah,” interview by Nancy Guthrie, The Gospel Coalition, Sept. 12, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/help-me-teach-the-bible/stephen-um-teaching-micah.
 Micah 6:8 (KJV).
 Robert Critchley, “Father Your Love” (2002).
 Micah 5:2 (ESV).
 Micah 5:5 (ESV).
 Romans 5:1 (KJV)
 Titus 2:11 (ESV).
 John 6:37 (paraphrased).
 Micah 7:18 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.