Justice, Mercy, and Humility - How We're Supposed to Live

What God expects has to do equally with how we relate to him and to each other. 

Life is full of expectations, from ourselves, of ourselves, from others, and on others. We all have them, and from time to time we find ourselves bearing their weight. Some are fair, some unfair. Others feel as though ultimate success follows behind them. 

Perhaps you rise to the challenge no matter how big or small the expectation is, enjoying the task each one presents. Or perhaps expectation feels like it is lurking around every corner, waiting to pounce on you, tear you open, and reveal how far short you have fallen (can you guess how I relate to expectation?). One thing is universally agreed on about expectation: regardless of size, significance, or how we respond, expectations are best when they are clear and well communicated. No surprises. We know when we have succeeded and when we have failed. 

Our relationships are subject to expectations, whether we recognize their impact or not. Micah in one of his more recognized passages reminds the people of God of the expectations God has of them. We do well to hear his voice too:

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. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

These are the requirements, the expectations, of God for his people. With the dual elements of living for God and living with others, this is Micah’s predictive version of Jesus’s New Testament summary of the entirety of the law and prophets. What God expects has to do equally with how we relate to him and to each other. 

However, unlike Jesus, Micah wasn’t responding to a direct theological question. Not only is there so much packed into this single verse—ideas of what is justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God—but there is the glaring fact that this is in chapter six (of seven) of Micah’s message to Judah. Loaded with meaning on its own, its weight will slide off us if we only hear these inspiring words.

Micah was no different than any of the prophets. He took God’s word to a people far from Him—though they may not have known it. They, perhaps like us, enjoyed the trappings of a religion devoted to God. But again, perhaps like us and certainly like Isaiah’s hearers, their hearts were far from him. 

The northern tribes of Israel had been taken into captivity long before Micah delivers his message of both warning and hope to the people of Judah. His message begins with the general language of wrongs, i.e. “transgression” and “sin” in chapter 1 and moves to more specific descriptions of greed and injustice in chapters 2 and beyond. But interspersed with these accusations and condemnations are visions of a hopeful future when struggle and conflict melt into peace (4:3) and the scattered are regathered (4:6–8).

As the message moves into chapter 6, the accusations and condemnations (along with words of hope) evolve into formal charges, and the text dissolves into a courtroom scene.

In an exchange where Micah’s voice delivers the words of God as the plaintiff, the people as the defendants, and his own as the intermediary, we culminate with the utterance of God’s expectations for his people. 

In reply to the unstated complaint that God has not acted on behalf of and for the good of the people, God asks how he has done this. This question must be read with a sense of irony because what follows is anything but burdensome. Did I burden you when I brought you out of slavery?  (Imagine bringing them from an existence of burden to then be accused of burdening them!) Was it too much for you when I gave you leaders to help you along the way? Was it over the top when I caused Balaam to pronounce blessings on you, despite the fact that he was hired by Balak to do just the opposite? Or perhaps it was all the things I did for you as you journeyed to Gilgal, experiencing my provision and watching your enemies fall before you?

God catalogs a selection, just a sampling, of his miraculous rescues and provisions for the people. The implication is that Judah has no grounds to complain against God. Certainly, God is not whining, but it would be a mistake to read God’s question and reply as coming from a disconnected stoic. God is pictured here as being moved to sadness, frustration, and anger by the actions and attitudes of his people. 

But there’s a glaring fact about these events: all of these actions were drawn from the cold waters of the deep well of Israel’s past. These saving acts and incredible miracles were generations ago—miracles witnessed by those who now rest comfortably in Abraham’s bosom. These acts occurred long before the people to whom Micah was preaching were born. They were God’s acts for their ancestors, taking place lifetimes earlier, and all related to bringing them out of Egypt and establishing them in their own land. They relate directly to the Exodus, the formative event of the Jewish nation. Yet these are the events God resurrects to prove his care, provision, and faithfulness for them.

Before we can examine the directives of justice, mercy, and humility, this concept of pointing to history to inform the present asks us to pause and reflect, to ponder what this might mean for present-day people of God. God points to the defining act of deliverance as overwhelming evidence of his loyalty and protection. God grasps history, stretches it through time, and intends it to inform and shape our current perceptions

For the Jewish people of Micah’s day, it was the Exodus, the events of the wilderness, and entry into the Promised Land. For Jesus-followers, our exodus is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. Jesus is the defining moment of God’s care and provision for us. It is the moment, the event to which God points and says, see how I have loved you. 

In the courtroom of Micah 6, the plaintiffs respond to God’s evidence of loving concern and provision. In an increasingly grandiose list, they want to know what it is that the Lord desires. What will win his favor and turn his eyes upon their plight? What will appease the Lord? They were no strangers to the demands of the temple system—what sacrifice would be enough to bring the Lord’s blessing to the people? What could avert the judgment foretold? 

What shall we bring to the Lord?

It is, fundamentally, the wrong question. 

Micah booms his interruption into what has become a near blasphemous inquiry into beseeching for the Lord’s favor, his memorable answer both mocking and chastising.

God has no desire for or need of sacrifice. He does not want you to bring anything to him. You ask what he wants? He has shown you what is good. What does he expect? Pursue justice, show mercy, walk humbly with him!

God wants us and our lives. He wants you to live in a certain way in relation to him and to others. What does your God expect? He expects that our lives will be lived looking out and looking up. 

Generalities are easy enough; broad principles comfortably blanket our minds and spirits. But what do these things look like? It is one thing to accept that idea that we need to live justly and love mercy. How do we actually do that?

Just under the surface lies a tension in these ideas, especially in their modern Western conceptions. Justice and the justice system provide the punishment, the recompense, for someone who has committed a crime. Mercy, on the other hand, is not giving the punishment deserved for a person’s actions. These two are seeming antonyms of each other. This is the problem with reading Micah and thinking that he is speaking directly to us. Justice is a good translation; it captures the meaning of God’s desire. The problem is that it is far too easy to import our practice of justice into our interpretation and application. And the court system is not what God is referring to. There is a clue to our understanding in the text. 

From Micah, and for the Jewish concept, justice is not simply a principle to be carried out in response to certain actions. Justice starts far before the court system is involved.  Some translations render this phrase as “live justly.” “Live” is the key to both understanding and living by this first principle. Justice describes right relationships between people. Justice is honest business practices, fair policies, and justice in social dynamics. This is living in mutual respect of one another, particularly within the covenant community of God’s people. 

The guidelines for living with this view of each other were outlined for the people in the book of Exodus (see chapters 20–23). Remember Micah’s words: “He has shown you . . . what is good”). “Such instructions included protection for foreigners, the poor, slaves, orphans, and widows, who could easily be wronged or taken advantage of by others,” says Gary Smith in the NIV Application Commentary. In this way, justice for Micah and the people of Judah would precede and possibly nullify the need for justice in the judicial sense.

Love mercy. As followers of Jesus, we understand that it is only by the grace and mercy of God that we are saved. We naturally love mercy, especially when we are the objects of that mercy. But as with justice, there is more to mercy than what is immediately apparent or what is connected to our current conception. 

Mercy is a translation of the Hebrew word hesed. That recognizable word most often used to describe God in his covenant loyalty to the people of Israel. It is his commitment to them, to be their God and to act in accordance to the terms of the covenant.

Here though, God is urging his people to love hesed themselves—not his hesed toward them, but to live hesed toward each other. While this may sometimes require them to show mercy to a person in distress (see the story of the good Samaritan), the nature of hesed as covenant loyalty will lead to keeping the requirements of the covenant—caring for the poor, tithing, worshiping, good treatment of slaves and foreigners—toward God and toward each other.

Finally, and perhaps most significant, is to walk humbly with God. Walking, in the Jewish conception, was a way of describing the way one lives. God’s people were to live humbly with him not simply in meekness and mild manners, but in a way that is attentive to God’s will. They were to actively pursue what he desires instead of simply chasing our own wants and ways. “In some sense this requirement is the broadest of the three,” says Smith, “for if one does this, one will certainly treat others justly and faithfully maintain all the covenant responsibilities.”

This is the final call to live outside oneself. What God expects and what God requires is that we think not of ourselves, but of how we relate to and interact with him and others. This is the language of responsibility and rights. But not of pursuing either of those for ourselves. it is the language of responsibility to the rights of others. 

Justice and mercy is the language of God’s requirement is that we recognize and embrace our responsibilities, not pursue our rights. Our rights are met by others recognizing their responsibilities. 

God calls his people to live in light of what he has done on their behalf. To work and act in such a way that honors and respects those around us. That is what God expects of his people. 

God has given us Jesus. He has shown us what is good and spoken to us the requirements of the new covenant: love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.