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God’s Longings: An Examination of Micah 6:8

By Rev. Dr. Terry LePage

Terry LePageMicah 6:8:  you know it.  It is etched on the wall of Irvine UCC’s entryway, and has pride of place in many other religious settings. It serves as a one-verse summary of Christian and Jewish ethics: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  That’s the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), anyway.  Exploring the original Hebrew, however, I discovered a few nuances that got lost in translation.

The word ‘require’ is translated from the Hebrew darashDarash doesn’t mean ‘require,’ it means ‘seek.’  It is translated ‘seek’ (or ‘inquire’) by the NRSV in almost all of the other 164 times it occurs in the Hebrew Bible.

Words matter.  Biblical words paint a picture of the nature of God, and shape our relationship with God.

Is God about the rules, impersonal lawgiver and judge?  That kind of God ‘requires,’ or else.  Or is God about relationship: caring, nurturing, guiding and supporting us as we seek to live wisely and well?  That kind of God ‘seeks,’ seeks to get through our thick skulls what we need to know and do to live well, but doesn’t always succeed.  That kind of God earnestly desires for us to practice justice and enjoy being loving, and to follow God closely and humbly, longs for us to behave in ways that will help us thrive, as individuals, as a community, a nation, a world.

Blame the translators of the King James version for choosing the word ‘require,’ despite the earlier Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) translations faithfully rendering darash as ‘seek.’ Later English-language translators did not correct the distortion; King James still has pride of place among English translations.

How did this error first come to be?  Perhaps in that time of kings struggling to hold power, scholars could not allow the King of kings to be vulnerable, to be a ‘seeker’ rather than a ‘requirer.’

Yet this is exactly the situation of the God revealed to us in the witness of Jesus.  God does not force our ethical behavior.  God seeks it.  God longs for us to accept God’s invitation to participate in the Kingdom (or the “Kin-dom”) of God’s justice and mercy.  If we do the opposite of Micah 6:8– perpetuate injustice, and cruelty, or pridefully ignore God– we will be in trouble.  You could call that God’s punishment.  I call it the consequences of our own collective actions.

Word studies take us into the richness and depth of Micah 6:8.  God longs for us to do ‘justice,’ mishpatMishpat occurs hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible.  The details often refer to laws and rituals Christians do not follow, and given the rest of Micah 6, rituals are missing the point.  But certain principles recur as part of mishpat: honesty, and protection of the poor, the vulnerable, and the foreigner.  In the Hebrew Bible, we the people are responsible for the justice of a government that acts in our name.  Our failures sit starkly before us in the headlines of recent months.  In our affirmation that “God is still speaking,” we may even be challenged to do mishpat with our spending choices and our use of natural resources.

As to ‘love kindness,’ the NRSV translators have gone and tweaked another Hebrew word, but this time with better reason.  The luminous chesed (or hesed) has no adequate translation.  ‘Kindness’ does not do it justice, nor does ‘mercy,’ the word chosen by the Greek and Latin translators and King James.  Google translates it ‘grace,’ a tantalizing but anachronistic mapping.  The Bible uses chesed hundreds of times, usually to refer to God’s care for people.

Chesed also figures prominently in the Book of Ruth, and is perhaps best translated as ‘steadfast love.’  Persistent love.  Love that goes beyond reasonable expectation.  Love that forgives and forbears and risks disappointment.  The kind of love God shows us.  “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”  God’s chesed endures forever.  Psalm 136 repeats this phrase 26 times to make the point.

God seeks of us, then, not to commit random acts of kindness (though those are fun) but to ‘enjoy steadfast love,’ which is a lot more work.  People are easy to love when they’re lovable.  They’re harder to love when they’re not.  To love when that love may not be returned; to love, deserved or not; to love by forgiving and forbearing and risking disappointment.  To love God’s way.

In this age of disposable everything, steadfast love is a deep and countercultural challenge.  Chesed is an art and skill that many people have never experienced, either in the receiving or the giving. How sad.  We may not be very good at steadfast love, but we can practice.  Who knows, if persistently practice chesed, we might get better at it.  And even enjoy it!

Chesed, steadfast love, is essential for church too.  Nadia Bolz Weber, that iconic tattooed Lutheran pastor, gives a provocative little speech to persons considering membership in her church.  She says, “I’m glad you love it here, but… at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down.  Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around.  Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness.  And it’s too beautiful to miss.  Don’t miss it.” Chesed.  Steadfast love.  Don’t miss it.

About walking humbly with God: that translation is clear enough.  The image is touching.  This is the bit that makes us different from non-religious groups that seek to do good.  We claim that there is something, or someone, bigger than us that guides and supports us, empowering us to do justice and to enjoy loving persistently.  Humility reminds us that we are always the junior partners in these endeavors.  I personally don’t have a prayer of doing justice or loving well without God’s help.

Some churches give you a formula, rules, for “walking with God.”  In my experience, different approaches work for different people, even for different seasons in my own life.  Over the centuries, faithful people have used all kinds of spiritual practices.  If you don’t have a clue what walking with God might look like, ask someone who does.  It begins with showing up and being honest.  That alone will keep us humble.  I happen to think worship helps.  So do many other things; I really believe the people who say they find God on the golf course or at the beach.  However if we really are humble we can admit that we need a little guidance from real people.  Church folks know that.

Do justice, enjoy loving persistently, walk humbly with God.  I have probably overanalyzed this brilliantly simple verse.  Simple, but not easy.  Do justice, enjoy loving persistently, walk humbly with God.  It is a tall order.  But wait– it is not an order.  It is an earnest plea, from the One who loves us more persistently than we can ever comprehend, who longs for the very best for us, and who walks with us in every stumbling attempt we make to live in this Way.

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