O Little Child of Bethlehem
Not only did Micah rightly predict that Israel's Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but he also wrote that "He shall be great to the ends of the earth."
I don’t recall what it was that prompted me to begin reading the book of Micah, but when I first discovered verse 2 of chapter 5 almost forty years ago, it essentially rocked my world. I was raised in a Jewish home and never really understood the concept of “The Messiah,” since most streams of contemporary Judaism don’t focus much on that part of their tradition. So I assumed that, though Jesus was originally Jewish, he came up with new ideas and founded a completely different religion of his own. But in Micah 5:2 I read the following: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”
This passage helped me to realize for the first time that there was quite a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus wasn’t attempting to start a new religion, he was simply claiming to be the divine Messiah promised throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Of course, it was also more than a mere claim. Not only was Jesus born in Bethlehem, but he also ended up fulfilling the specific promise that Micah went on to flesh out in verse 4: “He shall be great, to the ends of the earth.” This part of his prophecy is something that many other Old Testament prophets promised as well (see, for example, Gen, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14, Ps 2:8, 22:27, 67:7, 72:8, 82:8, 86:9, Is 2:2, 9:6-7, 11:10, 42:4-6, 49:6, 52:10-15, 60:3, Jer 16:19, Dan 2:35, 44, Zec 9:10). But how could a person begin to imagine that he could fulfill a prophecy of this kind on his own, particularly before the advent of mass communication?
The Christians of the first century only saw the very first hints that this was being fulfilled by Jesus as many Gentiles began to worship him in the middle part of the first century, but now some two thousand years later, the fact that this promise pointed to Jesus is more clear than ever. Jesus is arguably the most famous person who ever lived across all times and places, and Christianity is the number one religion around the world. So, if Micah 5:2-4 wasn’t fulfilled by Jesus, do we have any other possible candidates? Who else from Bethlehem has reached such staggering heights of fame?
Whereas Micah gave us the location of the Messiah’s birth, Daniel predicted the general time frame.1 In chapter 2 of his prophecy, he described four successive empires, which most Bible commentators (ancient as well as modern), have recognized as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.2 According to verses 34-35 of Daniel 2, when “a stone cut by no human hand”3 strikes a great statue representative of four great kingdoms4, it then grows to become a great mountain that fills the entire earth. The fourth and final “kingdom of iron,” mentioned by Daniel refers to the Roman Empire,5 and in verse 44, Daniel says, “in the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.” Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome each came to an end just as Daniel outlined, but the kingdom of Christ that God set up in the days of the first Roman emperors continues to expand throughout the world.6
We find another temporal indicator in Daniel chapter 9. In verse 24 of that passage, when Messiah comes,7 he will “put an end to sin and atone for iniquity.”8 Mysteriously, however, he will be “cut off” (9:26)9 in the process, and after this “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” Josephus believed this was a reference to the “Roman government,” saying that Daniel made clear that “our country should be made desolate by them” (Ant. 10:276). He of course was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in 70 AD, under Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian (i.e., the “prince” of the Roman Empire). In short, according to Daniel, the Messiah was prophesied to come sometime before the destruction of the city and the sanctuary.
Last year I preached a Christmas sermon that interacted with some of these passages (which you can listen to here if you’re interested), and one thing that struck me about those texts was the fact that prophets like Micah and Daniel accurately described, not only specific things fulfilled by Jesus, but also things related to us. If, like me, you live in the US, you’re nearly halfway around the world from Israel. In other words, from the perspective of someone like Micah, we basically live at the “ends of the earth.” And yet, here we are, some 2,700 years later focusing on the amazing precision of his words. How did he know that so many people around the world like us would end up worshiping Israel’s divine Messiah?10 In my mind, this is one of the most powerful arguments for the truth of Christianity.
In his book The Proof of the Gospel, Eusebius of Caesarea said something to this effect:
If so many things were proclaimed by the Hebrew divines, and if their fulfillment is so clear to us all today, who would not marvel at their inspiration? Who will not agree that their…beliefs must be sure and true? …Men who were enabled not by human but by divine inspiration to see from a myriad of ages back what was to happen long years after, make sure they claim our confidence…because of the extraordinary foreknowledge shown in the prophetic writers, and of the actual events that occurred in agreement with their prophecies. It should convince them of the inspired and certain nature of the truth we hold [and] should silence the tongues of false accusers by a more logical method of proof, which slanderers contend that we never offer, who in their daily arguments with us keep pounding away with all their might with the implication…[that we] think it enough to retain those who come to us by faith alone, and as they say that we only teach our followers like irrational animals to shut their eyes and staunchly obey what we say without examining it at all, and call them therefore “the faithful” because of their faith as distinct from reason...11
As you celebrate Christmas this year, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the words of Micah’s amazing prophecy. Some 700 years in advance, he revealed that Israel’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and additionally that “his name would be great to the ends of the earth.” That part of the promise would certainly take time to be accomplished and couldn’t happen overnight. But if his name is greatly revered in your household, then Micah was not only talking about Jesus, but he was also thinking of you and your family as well.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of a national radio broadcast called the White Horse Inn, which he also hosted from 2019-2021. Shane has written numerous articles for various sites and publications, including TableTalk, Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, Heidelblog, and others. Shane received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California, and he lives with his family in the greater St. Louis area.
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The ancient Jewish historian Josephus called Daniel “one of the greatest of the prophets” because he “not only prophesied of future events…but he also determined the time of their accomplishment” (Ant. 10.266-267).
In Ant. 10.208-10, Josephus interpreted Daniel chapter 2 as referring to the successive empires that followed after the fall of Babylon, which elsewhere he clearly identified as Persia, Greece, and finally, Rome (cf. Ant. 20:260). After speaking of the final “kingdom of iron” that will “have dominion over all the earth,” he then tells his readers that though Daniel spoke so clearly about “thing past” as well as “things present,” he is unable to disclose the meaning of the stone cut by no human hand that then grows to become a great mountain, since in his mind it referred to something that was still yet “future” (Ant. 10:210). Similarly, in his interpretation of Dan 9:24-27, he says that the prophet “wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them” (cf. 4Ezr. 12:10ff for another first-century Jewish work that links the Roman Empire to the fulfillment of the prophecy of “the fourth kingdom” outlined in Daniel 2, as well as in Daniel 7.)
The fact that the stone is cut “by no human hand” indicates that it should be thought of as something more than human (i.e., divine), which ties in nicely with Micah 5:2 since the child born in Bethlehem actually has mysterious “origins from of old, from everlasting.” It’s also interesting to compare the stone of Daniel 2 with Jesus’ words in Mt 21:42 and following, as he identifies himself with the precious cornerstone of Psalm 118:22 that was rejected by the builders. “The one who falls on this stone,” Jesus says in Mt 21:44, “will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
This is Daniel’s own interpretation of the statue, as can be seen by reading Dan. 2:36 and following.
See the quotes from Josephus and another first-century Jewish source in footnote 2 above.
What Daniel expressed with the imagery of the stone becoming a great mountain that filled the entire world, Isaiah described using horticultural metaphors. In Is 11:1 he writes, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” “In that day,” he says in verse 10, “the root of Jesse…shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire…” Later, in chapter 27, he says that “in days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” (Is 27:6). All these prophecies fit amazingly well with Jesus’s view of the international scope of his own ministry (cf. Mt 16:18, 10:18, 12:18, 24:14, 28:18-20, Mk 13:10, Lk 24:47, Jn 4:19-25, Acts 1:8, 9:15).
This is how the passage was interpreted by the author of Dead Sea Scroll 11Q13, “He will proclaim to them the jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins...he shall atone for all the sons of light...the messenger is the anointed of the Spirit, of whom Daniel spoke [saying] an anointed one shall be cut off” (Dan 9:26). The Greek word for “anointed one” is “Christos,” which is why this name is applied to Jesus throughout the New Testament.
Compare this to the language of Is 53:5-6, “But he was pierced for our transgressions…All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” According to Zec 12:10, Yahweh himself would be the one who is “pierced,” and this piercing would end up cleansing his people “from sin and uncleanness” (Zec 13:1).
This is identical to language we find in Is 53:8 “He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” In fact, the next verse makes clear that this is a reference to the suffering servant’s death, “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death…” A few verses later however, this same servant “sees light” (v. 11) and divides spoils in a victory celebration (v. 12). Several Dead Sea Scroll texts discuss Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant and end up equating him with the Messiah, and Aramaic translations of Isaiah from the period also indicate that many Jews interpreted this passage (Is 52 -53) in a messianic way.
According to one estimate, there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians worldwide, which is roughly 32% of the global population.
Eusebius, The Proof of the Gospel Vol. 1 & 2 (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 2001), p. 4-7.