“But Thou Bethlehem Ephrathah. . .” – in Prophecy and Fulfillment

The month of December is Advent month. Advent means the coming of Jesus Christ whose birth is celebrated toward the end of December. Usually Advent month is remembered by considering the prophecies of the coming of Christ in the Old Testament.

And when we think of the prophecies that speak of Christ, we usually think of Isaiah. For Isaiah was certainly one of the greatest among the prophets who spoke of the coming. the nature, and the work of the Messiah. But it is not Isaiah who spoke of the place of the birth of the Messiah. It was the minor prophet Micah.

It is also a rather surprising thing that among the Jewish leaders in the time of Christ, the prophecies of Isaiah that spoke of the Messiah were rejected as far as their fulfillment by Jesus was concerned, but not the prophecy of Micah. For example, when Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in His sermon at Nazareth, the people rushed Him out of town because He said that the prophecy referred to Himself. Even the disciples were reluctant to admit that the references to the suffering of the Messiah referred to Jesus and His suffering.

But strangely enough, Micah 5:2 is quoted twice with reference to the Messiah and even with reference to Jesus Christ. It is quoted, not by the disciples in defence of Christ, but by the Sanhedrin in reference to Jesus. This is indeed strange and amazing when we remember the bitter enmity that the Sanhedrin held for Jesus.

When we think of all these things, the passage of Micah 5:2 takes on added significance for this season of the year. We ought to spend a few minutes looking at this interesting prophecy of the coming of Christ.

An Insignificant Place – The word “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread.” And the name “Ephrathah” which is added in Micah 5:2 means “fertility.” These are striking names when you take note of the history of Bethlehem.

We recall that Elimelech and Naomi came from Bethlehem. The Book of Ruth describes these two persons, the parents of two boys, who left Bethlehem because it did not live up to its name as a House of Bread. There was a famine in the land, and the town called House of Bread failed to supply that bread. So this family of Elimelech and Naomi took their two sons and went to Moab where there was a supply of bread for them.

This is not perhaps very noteworthy in itself, except for the result of the story of this family. For while they were in Moab, the two sons of Naomi married women, one of whom was named Ruth, who eventually became the great-grandmother of David. Now the picture begins to fall into shape. Because the town that was called House of Bread failed to live up to its name, God provided the line of David, and thus also the line of Jesus, with a woman whose name was Ruth. And certainly we are reminded of the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ, who called Himself the Bread of Life, came in order to supply the insufficiency of the town that once prided itself in fulfilling the need of bread for all its inhabitants.

Jesus still does that. When we are all-sufficient, then He steps into our lives in sometimes tragic ways, from our paint of view, in order to show how very insufficient and dependent we are. But He does that in order to be the great Provider, the One who brings His all-sufficiency for our lack of sufficiency.

This name of Bethlehem also is a name that suggests humility. Micah reminds us that Bethlehem was the least among the thousands of Judah. This designation can be understood when we remember that Israel was divided into its thousands when she came into the promised land.

In the interests of government, the people were divided into groups of one thousand fighting men each. Thus these groups were generally comprised of about one thousand families each, with a leader or prince from among that group over each section of one thousand. If word had to be gotten to the entire nation, Joshua or Moses would call together the leader of each group of thousand. Now the town of Bethlehem was too small to comprise one such group of thousand. It had to unite with a neighboring town or village in order to make up one thousand families of fighting men. And therefore Micah speaks of Bethlehem as too small to be counted among the thousands of Judah.

But it was precisely this kind of humility that God needed in order to send His Son into the world. The incarnation of the Son of God was a humble thing, and the town of Bethlehem was well suited for the birthplace of the Messiah. For the humility of the Son of God who emptied Himself even in His birth is what must be seen during the Advent season.

Our Lord‘s humility is not became He was born in Bethlehem, or because He was born in a stable. The humility was the reason He had to be born there. The humility was before His birth, and therefore the nature of His birth had to conform to the humility with which He was to enter the human race. We make a big mistake therefore when we say that the humility of Christ is to be in all these resulting circumstances of His birth. These showed that humility, to be sure. But the humility of Christ was something that is to be seen in His relationship to God the Father, a relationship that is seen in terms of the law of God. That is why He had to be born in a humble village, in a stable. and in the poverty conditions which were present.

Jesus was born. as Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4, under the law. The relationship that Jesus had to the law of God was that He was under the curse of the law. The wrath of God rested upon Him even from His birth. And therefore all these circumstances had to conform to that fact.

An Indifferent Response – We must see Micah 5:2 in its fulfillment in the New Testament. And here we come upon some very amazing things. There are two references in the New Testament to Micah 5:2, and both refer to the birth of the Messiah.

The first is found in Matthew 2 in the account of the visit of the Wise-men to Jesus. The story is familiar to us, but the strangeness of it deals with the matter of Micah 5:2. The Wisemen came to Jerusalem asking where the King of the Jews had been born. They had seen His star, and had come to worship Him. Well, Herod got wind of this, and became quite disturbed. He had no baby boy that was born to be the king of the Jews, so who on earth could these men be talking about? In his uneasiness, Herod did the right thing. Perhaps it was the only right thing he ever did in his life. He called for the Sanhedrin, those men who knew and studied the Word of God. It is to the credit of Herod that he had sense enough to go to the Scriptures.

But what took place next is not to the credit of the Sanhedrin. They knew of course, what the Wise-men were talking about. They did not have to search the Scriptures with respect to the place where the King of the Jews was to be born. They immediately quoted Micah 5:2 which said that the insignificant village of Bethlehem was to be the birthplace of the ruler of Israel. So the Wise-men, finding the answer to their question, went on to Bethlehem where the star guided them to the place where baby Jesus was.

But what about the Sanhedrin? What did they do after that? Now when you think about the nature of this group of people, you really see the irony of this entire episode.

These people, the scribes, Pharisees, the rulers of the religious life of Israel, spent their time studying the Scriptures, waiting for the coming of the Messiah. The entire lives of these churchmen were spent in one great direction, namely looking for the coming of the Christ. Whatever they may have thought He would do or be, they at least were all looking for His coming. This was the great event for which everyone was looking.

Now suddenly the day of the birth of the Messiah has come. The religious leaders themselves admitted it. It was not some crazy person who was going around telling people that the Christ was born. No, the careful members of the Sanhedrin had come out with their considered judgment that the Wise-men were looking for and had been notified by means of the star, that the long-sought-for Messiah had been born. They themselves gave as their contribution the fact that Micah 5:2 so long ago had foretold that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. There was no doubt about it. But these very religious persons who had given this information did not themselves go to Bethlehem. The great event for which they had devoted their lives had happened, and they were not concerned.

This is the greatest mockery and irony of history. The greatest event in the world has happened as far as these very people were concerned, and they were not concerned. Why not?

Why were they not concerned enough to go to Bethlehem? Because they were too busy preparing for the coming of the Messiah. Yes, they were too busy preparing for His coming, that when He did come, they were too busy to go and meet Him and worship Him. This is truly the greatest show of blindness that the world has ever seen.

Of course, the situation of the Sanhedrin comes tragically home to all of us. Would anyone believe that all the busy activity that is being carried on by people today is in view of the birth of Christ? Could you convince some foreign visitor who knew nothing of Christmas that all of this preparation is in terms of His birth? Could you convince him that you yourself are preparing for that birth?

I think that we all are so immersed in the business of Christmas that when Christ actually comes, we are too busy to meet Him. If we criticize the Sanhedrin for this irony and show of travesty, maybe we better look at ourselves. The Wise-men must have been thoroughly mystified when they heard the announcement made so nonchalantly that the Messiah was born, and that this star no doubt announced the birth, but that there was no excitement among those who had made that announcement. They must have been amazed at this lack of emotion.

A False Use of Scripture – The second place in the New Testament where this passage of Micah is quoted is Joh n 7:42. It is also, like the first one, quoted by the Sanhedrin.

Because of the general popularity of Jesus, there was talk to the effect that perhaps He was indeed the Messiah that was to come. As a result of this discus· sian, there was a dissension even among the members of the Sanhedrin. Those who felt that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah used Micah’s prophecy to prove their point. They said that Micah had proph· esied that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, and everybody knew that Jesus of Nazareth was from Galilee. Now the striking thing about this use of Micah’s prophecy is that it is used with just the opposite intent that the leaders of the people had used it first.

In Matthew 2 they had quoted Micah 5:2 in order to prove that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; that the child who was born there was the Messiah. Now they used the same passage to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah. For they confidently assert that Jesus was born in Nazareth, and Micah said that He had to be born in Bethlehem in order to qualify for the name Messiah.

The hypocrisy of this use of Scripture is that the Sanhedrin is using Scripture to defend their unbelief. Jesus was proclaiming that He was the Christ who had been prophesied throughout the Old Testament. He did this by means of word and deed. The scribes and Pharisees would not believe this, of course, and they rationalized their unbelief by appealing to Scripture. They tried to and justification for their unbelief by proving from the Old Testament that Jesus could not be Christ.

What is wrong with this use of Scripture? It removes Scripture from the great fulfillment of Scripture, namely Jesus Christ Himself. In a sense therefore the Sanhedrin is doing exactly the same thing that they did at the time of the birth of Christ. There they were so busy preparing for the birth and coming of the Messiah, that when He did come, they were too busy to meet Him. Now they are so busy studying Scripture, that they completely miss the very meaning of Scripture itself. The key to unlock the Bible was missing from them. That key is the Lord Jesus Christ. But by rejecting Him, they threw away the key. Therefore their reading and studying of the Scripture was bound to be false. It was bound to lead them to all kinds of false understanding and false conclusion. It was not possible for them to ever come to know the t.ruth so long as they rejected Him who is the Truth. For that reason, their dealing with Micah 5:2 was not at all unique or strange when you understand their view of Scripture and their view of Christ. It could not be otherwise.

This leads to inquire into our own view and understanding of Scripture. We too are in danger of seeing the Bible apart from Jesus Christ as the One in whom Scripture finds its meaning. We can become so preoccupied with the Bible that we miss its meaning. We study the Bible but we miss what it tells us about Jesus.

This is what Jesus was talking about in John 5:39, 40, “Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.” The Jews to whom Jesus said this were students of the Bible, searching the Scriptures in order to find eternal life. But they totally ignored the central teaching and meaning of Scripture, namely Jesus Christ Himself. And therefore, not coming to Him, they would not find eternal life even though they were searching for it.

We are in danger of that too, in our reading of the Scripture. We do that, for example, if we look at the Old Testament as merely the history of the Israelites. Or if even we look at the Old Testament as a history of God’s wonderful dealings with Israel. Although both of these are true, they are not the whole truth. For unless we see the Old Testament as speaking of Jesus Christ, we fail to see the real meaning of the Old Testament. The Sanhedrin in John 7:42 were correct of course. The Messiah was indeed prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. Furthemore, they were correct that Jesus was from Nazareth. Externally, therefore, what they said in regard to Jesus was born in Nazareth. So He could not be the Messiah.

But you see their great mistake was that by refusing to believe that Jesus was the Word of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament, they read Micah 5:2 quite apart from Him. They completely isolated Micah 5:2 from the Christ, and thus could not possibly come up with the correct answer as to its interpretation regarding Jesus. That was their error. And it was so tragic because the solution, the key to the understanding not only of Micah 5:2 but to all the Old Testament was right before them in the Person of Jesus Christ. If they had only listened to what He taught them, they would have known. But they were hardened in their unbelief and thus rejected Him, using Scripture to their own ends to justify their unbelief.

Jesus once said to the Pharisees in Matthew 15:6, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” We might say that the Sanhedrin made the Word of God of none effect by their looking at it apart from Christ. Whatever therefore they would say about Scripture would of necessity be wrong when they ruled out Jesus Christ from the Scriptures.

So today the same warning must be given to all who are serious students of the Word of Cod. If we do not read Jesus in the entire Bible, we will find that our understanding of Scriptnre is bound to be wrong. If we start wrong, we cannot possibly end right.

Advent gives us an opportunity again to prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the Advent season usually calls for a consideration of the Old Testament passages that speak of His birth, we have thought about this particular one from Micah. In order to correctly prepare for His coming, we must correctly read the Old Testament too. And that requires of us to see it in the light of Jesus Christ.

But having done that, we must be willing to obey what the Bible says too. The two great and tragic sins of the Sanhedrin can be seen in their use of Micah 5:2 in the New Testament accounts. In the first place, they correctly read it but refused to obey it in their own relation to Jesus Christ. And in the second place, they refused to read it correctly, and therefore attempted to justify their failure to obey it. In both cases, the Word of God played an important role. We must be on our guard lest we do the same thing.

So, as we think about the coming of Christ, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will keep us from the kind of usage of Scripture that was so typical of the Jewish leaders. May we rather read the Word of God with joy and then have the grace to obey it.

Henry B. Vanden Heuvel is pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa.