This is the second post in a series on commonly misunderstood Bible passages. Previously I discussed Psalm 46.10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” You can read that here. It is important Christians strive to rightly handle God’s word (2 Tim. 2.15). Where God has spoken, it is important we listen carefully. It is also important we do not put words into God’s mouth. We do not have the authority to add to his word or to take away from it. This series is meant to help us to handle God’s word with the respect it deserves. My goal is to deepen our understanding of God and his word by examining it closely on its own terms. Today we will look closer at Micah 6.8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is a very popular passage, yet its popularity is at least partly due to our misunderstanding of it.
The Common Misunderstanding
The final phrase of Micah 6.8, do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly, is seen everywhere today. I have seen it on mugs, t-shirts, posters, web graphics, and even bumper stickers. This is not surprising as the topic of justice, especially social justice, is very popular. Micah 6.8 is something of a rallying cry for Christians who identify with the social justice movement. Justice is something Christians should think more about, but they do so biblically. Micah 6.8 is often associated with the modern social justice movement. It tied into ideas like wealth and privilege distribution as well as many socialistic public policies. Is this what Micah 6.8 is really about? No, not even close.
The misunderstanding stems from confusing terms of mercy and justice found in this passage. One prominent pastor described this passage as a command to live justly. That’s fair enough, but he then argued that the following commands to “love mercy” and to “walk humbly with God” is how justice is accomplished. Here is the problem, is loving mercy a part of justice? I do not believe so. It should be obvious that Christians are to love mercy. We are people saved by mercy. Mercy is not the problem. The problem comes from how mercy and justice relate to one another.
Here is the root of the problem with how this passage is understood—it confuses mercy and justice. If mercy is a necessary part of justice, then mercy is something we are owed. If we are owed mercy, then it is not mercy at all. In the most basic sense justice is receiving what we are owed. Conversely, mercy is receiving good when we are not owed it. This distinction is not only important to preserve the meaning of the two terms, but it is also important for our understanding of the gospel.
If mercy is something we are owed, then we lose the gospel. The good news of Christ is that God has shown mercy through Christ. If God owed us salvation then salvation is not by grace. The gospel is so great because God gave us the exact opposite of what we deserved. He forgave those who deserved justice. The wonder is magnified because God also satisfied his justice by sending his Son to die in our place. At the cross mercy and justice meet. If we confuse mercy and justice, then we lose the glory of the gospel.
What Micah 6.8 Actually Means
The problem of getting to the right interpretation of Micah 6.8 is furthered by poor English translations. The phrase, “love mercy” is actually only one word in the Hebrew (hesed). This term is often translated as God’s steadfast love. It is a word used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the unique love God has for his people. God’s love is faithful and it lasts forever. This is the word we find often translated as “love mercy.” But that is not what the word means. The HCSB translation gets this right, “Mankind, He has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The idea is that God’s people act justly when they love and practice faithfulness to their covenant with Him. The context of Micah helps to further demonstrate that this passage has faithfulness in view, not mercy. This book is organized in such a way that God presents his case against Israel. They have broken the covenant and this is what led to their judgment. Immediately before Micah 6.8 God contrasts his own faithfulness with the unfaithfulness of Israel (6.3-4). Then he calls them to return to the covenant, but this return cannot come by mere sacrifice (6.6-7). What is needed is faithfulness to the covenant. This is why the word hesed is used. This word draws their attention to the faithful love God has poured out on them through the covenants. This word stands a call for them to return to the covenant and mirror God’s faithfulness. This is what just living looks like.
There is more to the context which also shows us this is about faithfulness and not mercy. In answering what they must do, God reminds them he has already told them what to do! Look again at the first part of verse eight, “Mankind, he has told what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you”. So he has told them, but where did he tell this? God here is pointing back to the terms of his covenant. So God then quotes from Deuteronomy 10.12, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”. Micah 6.8 quotes Deuteronomy 10.12 which is about faithfulness, not mercy. Micah 6.8 is a call to love God by being faithful to the covenant he established with Israel.
So how do we live out justice? We do so by loving God, keeping his commands, and following his covenant with us. This is what Micah 6.8 is about. It is a call to obey the moral commands of God and honor his covenant.
When we understand Micah 6.8 correctly we do not end up confusing justice and mercy. While mercy is a wonderful reality, it is not a requirement of the gospel it is not an outworking of justice. Rather just living is found in faithful obedience to God.