Sunday, August 31, 2008

Justice, Mercy and Humility: The Life of Loyal Love

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 8C
Micah 6:8
Bob Rakestraw

This is the last of three postings on Micah 6:8—one of the most impressive and helpful verses in all of the Bible on the topic of how we are to live as the people of God. Last time we looked at God’s desire for us to act justly. Here we will consider the Lord’s will for us “to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Mercy is the second key component of the threefold way to a good and happy life. It is not simply mercy that God desires, however, but loving mercy. All three legs of the stool of God’s will—acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with him—are all virtues that involve action. The good life, which is also the happy life, is the active life as well. Since God is active (some theologians refer to him as actus purus—“pure act”), he desires his children to be active as well. We are created for meaningful activity. Just because many people go to excess in their activities—leaving little or no time for contemplation with God and substantial relationships with others—does not justify a life that lacks consistent service and benevolence.

The Meaning of Mercy

The Hebrew word for “mercy” in Micah 6:8 (hesed) is a word rich with meaning, and has been the object of much study by biblical scholars. It is used about 250 times in the Old Testament, and in the NIV Bible version about half of these occurrences have the translation “love.” Other translations are “kindness,” “unfailing love,” “great love,” and “mercy.” The word has a strong sense of loyalty and faithfulness in it, and has been understood by many scholars as “loyal love.” One version translates Micah 6:8 as “to love loyalty” (NEB), while another has “to show constant love” (GNB). Hesed is a covenant word, and speaks of the proper covenant behavior and solidarity one partner in the covenant expresses toward the other. It can refer to God’s relations to us, our relations to God, or our relations with one another.

Because of the depth of the word hesed, to translate it simply as “love” does not seem strong enough to me. Perhaps this is because the word “love” has become so diluted in today’s world, and means little more than warm feelings, liking something or someone, or even casual sex (“make love”). I am impressed with the strong covenant sense of loyalty and consistency in the word. God has made a covenant with his people, and therefore he remains true to us whatever circumstances may come. And he desires this covenant love from us and between us as the people of God.

Loving the Way of Mercy

It is significant that God urges us “to love mercy.” A merciful, kind, and loyal way of life is not something that we should merely tolerate or endure, but we are to love it! The form of the word translated “love” in this expression “to love mercy” is an intense noun used dozens of times to speak of human-to-human love, sometimes sexual love. It is used in the Song of Solomon: “love is as strong as death, … many waters cannot quench love” (8:6-7). God’s people are to have a deep, strong love of mercy. In fact, we are to be like God in this respect: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). I was delighted when I discovered recently in the next chapter after our text of the month, these words addressed to God, “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (7:18). The people of God are to love and delight in mercy, because this is the nature of our God!

Because of my poor health, I am the recipient of numerous acts of mercy. I deserve none of these, nor do I expect them. I often feel embarrassed by them. I have neighbors filled to overflowing with hesed, who graciously mow our lawn, shovel our snow, and do numerous fix-up jobs around our house, sometimes spending many hours a day out of pure compassion. When I think of them I think of the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt. 5:7).

The Works of Mercy

Over the centuries of church history, seven traditional “corporal works of mercy” have been recognized: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. All but the last of these are mentioned by Jesus in his teaching on the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:35-46). Here we find Jesus’ gripping words: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me,” and “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

There are also seven traditional “spiritual works of mercy:” converting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead. While the scriptures (the 66 commonly accepted books of the Protestant Bible) nowhere exhort us to pray for the dead, the other spiritual works of mercy are all biblically-based. [Prayer for the dead is mentioned in the apocrypha, in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45.]

When we think of neighbor-love, mercy is, along with justice, one of the two major qualities God desires of his people. I love studying both virtues and it stirs me when I see both qualities together in the scriptures, woven together in a powerful collage. Even the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are blended together, as are exhortations to avoid sins of omission in the areas mentioned. Notice the godly harmony in the following words. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In you hearts do not think evil of each other.’” (Zechariah 7:9-10; see also Romans 12:9-21). I am totally overwhelmed by the comprehensiveness, graciousness and depth in this scripture!

Choosing to Walk Humbly with God

Finally, in Micah 6:8, we find one more thing that is “good” and that God “requires of us,” namely “to walk humbly with your God.” I have thought for many years that this expression corresponds with the command in the Great Commandment to “love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.” In other words, acting justly and loving mercy correspond to the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and walking humbly with God corresponds with loving God. Both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of true Christian love are summarized well in Micah 6:8.

Some Bible scholars suggest other translations for “to walk humbly with your God,” such as “walk prudently (TNIV note), or “walk circumspectly (NASB margin), but the best brief rendering seems to be “walk humbly.” Literally, the Hebrew says, “to cause yourself to walk closely and modestly with God.” The Hebrew word is used only here and in Proverbs 11:2: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Micah 6:8 shows deliberate action on our part. We are to actively pursue a humble walk with God, as we see in James 4:10 (“Humble yourselves before the Lord”) and Luke 14:11 (“Those who humble themselves will be exalted”). One of the best ways to humble ourselves is to learn from the life of Jesus (Matthew 11:29), and another is to spend time reverently in the Word of God. This latter guideline is suggested in Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one to whom I will look [or, “the one I esteem,” NIV], to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (NRSV).

To be humble is to see one’s shortcomings and defects, and to be very much aware of our need for divine grace and mercy. It is to see oneself accurately, not with pride or a superior attitude toward others. A humble person is modest and unpretentious, and, even though he or she may have considerable assets intellectually, financially, physically, socially, or in other ways, he is not boastful or self-centered. This one, God says, is the kind of person he esteems. Furthermore, Micah speaks of our humble life with God as walking, and not only that, but walking with God. It has always been helpful for me to think of the Christian life as a daily walk with the Lord himself.

I want to close this posting with one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible, speaking powerfully of our walk with God, and his walk with us. May this be a grace-filled benediction to you always!

"For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’" (Isaiah 57:15, NIV).


Anonymous said...

Wow, Bob. I've just read your three recent entries. They are powerful, and I am grateful for their depth (there is much to meditate on in your words, and the verses). Thanks for being obedient to God's voice. Your words will bear much fruit, I believe.

God's mercy and peace to you today.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Hi Jane,

Thanks for your encouragement. And for recognizing the difficult task of knowing how and how deep to develop each blog posting.

When I think back on the three entries on Micah 6:8, I wish I had worked more with "to walk humbly with your God." But it was getting so long that I didn't want to discourage readers from reading to the end.

I wish God's best always to you and yours,

Anonymous said...

Once again, I have been blessed beyond measure by your words and insight. My heart burns, and I find so much to ponder. Blessings on you! Amy