The Old Testament prophet Micah had a message for God’s people that still resonates today. In Micah’s time, about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, Israel had strayed far from God, much like America now.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good,” the prophet wrote. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NIV)
Former President Theodore Roosevelt quoted the verse in an inscription inside New Testaments given to Americans headed to Europe to fight in World War I. He called it the “Micah Mandate” and said it foreshadowed “the whole teaching of the New Testament.”
Micah 6:8 is one of the most famous verses in the Old Testament, yet readers frequently miss its implications. Micah had criticized the leaders of Samaria and Jerusalem and predicted the coming of Christ, a leader who would embody justice, mercy, and humility.
Jesus came not to wage battle—either against the Romans or in some first-century version of the culture wars today—but to serve.
“Jesus made it plain that if the Christian community wants to have the authority to speak truth into the lives of the people around us, to give moral vision to our culture, and to ultimately shape civil justice, we must not grasp at the reins of power and prominence,” pastor and author George Grant wrote in The Micah Mandate. “Rather, we must serve. We must live lives marked by mercy.”
To love mercy
Grant called mercy “the personal touch of the Gospel.”
While treating everyone with kindness and compassion, Christians should pay special attention to the plight of the “quartet of the vulnerable.” Philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff coined the term to describe the poor, the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan frequently mentioned in the Old Testament.
“If you aren’t intensely concerned for the quartet of the vulnerable . . . it’s a sign your heart is not right with God,” the late pastor and theologian Tim Keller said.
Christians should think of themselves as missionaries serving those in need, not soldiers fighting the culture wars.
“We are going to have to realize that America is a mission field, not a battlefield,” Westminster Seminary California professor Michael S. Horton wrote.
Since the early days of Christianity, followers of Jesus have fed the hungry, treated the sick, and adopted the orphan, and their faith has spread around the globe.
“Mercy ministry has always been the primary work of Christians in the world—serving as the conduit for evangelism, pastoral care, and cultural influence,” Grant wrote.
Merciful service has a power that mere words can’t match.
“Unbelievers can argue theology,” Grant wrote. “They can dispute philosophy. They can subvert history. And they can undermine character. But they are helpless in the face of extraordinary feats of selfless compassion.”
To walk humbly
The Hebrew word Micah used for humble is tsana, which is often used in the Bible to describe the proper attitude toward God.
Christian author and academic Skip Moen explained that “walking” likely was used in Micah 6:8 (and elsewhere in Scripture) as a metaphor for “following in the ways of the Lord.”
“Walking humbly probably means walking without attracting attention, without seeking glory and without concern for yourself,” he wrote.
Followers of Jesus have no reason to be prideful or self-righteous. The Bible makes that clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10 NIV)
Christians should adopt the attitude of Jesus “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6–8 NIV)
To act justly
The meanings of mercy and humility seem relatively clear, but justice has become a word that means different things to different people.
The term social justice, coined by a Catholic priest, has been co-opted to justify practices like abortion and same-sex marriage. So some Christian thinkers prefer the term biblical justice.
“Biblical justice requires that every person be treated according to the same standards and with the same respect, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or of any other social category,” Keller wrote.
It also requires Christians to take a stand.
“Biblical justice is proactive,” Natasha Crain wrote in Faithfully Different. “It requires us to speak up, defend, take up the cause, and rescue. Not just act justly, but also try to correct injustice. We’re called to do something about the injustices we see around us, not just avoid causing injustice.”
Thaddeus J. Williams of Biola University warned against the dangers of tribal thinking in Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth.
“It dupes us into seeing oppression where it isn’t and keeps us from seeing oppression where it is,” he wrote.
What God requires
God requires mercy, justice, and humility of us, but he also requires something more: a balanced approach.
“All too often we fall into the trap of focusing on one virtue to the exclusion of all the others,” Grant wrote. “The sad result is that our virtues practically become vices.
“Thus, when we emphasize justice without mercy, we develop hard heads and even harder hearts. When we emphasize mercy without justice, we develop soft heads and even softer hearts. When we emphasize either one without humility, we develop a kind of spiritual megalomania—thinking that our project, or our focus, or our methodology is the best and only way.”
As Micah pointed out, God has shown us what is good.
For the Christian, it is the best and only way.