We are now ready to take a closer look at the questions raised by skeptics, considering them in the light of the perspectives we’ve just described.
THE BETHLEHEM PREDICTION OF MICAH 5
In his gospel, Matthew wrote:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of My people Israel’ ” (Mt. 2:1-6).
Skeptics have suggested that Matthew contrived the events of Bethlehem to make it look like a fulfillment of Micah’s prediction that Messiah would come out of Bethlehem. Those who use this argument implicitly acknowledge what other skeptics deny; namely, that the expectation of a Bethlehem birth existed among the Jews of Matthew’s time.
The Prediction: Messiah would come “out of ” Bethlehem. All agree that Micah 5:1-4 predicts that Jerusalem would be invaded by enemy forces (v.1), that Israel would be temporarily abandoned by God (v.3), and that someday Messiah would restore Israel, establishing a kingdom of universal peace and justice (vv.3-4). Micah declared that this Deliverer would come “out of” Bethlehem.
Christians ask, “Isn’t this an obvious, undeniable prediction that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? “No,” say the skeptics. “Micah was only predicting that Messiah would be a descendant of David, the Bethlehemite. He could have this ancestral link to Bethlehem without actually being born there.”
Have followers of Jesus made too much of Micah’s prophecy? Could a son of David lay claim to the Kingdom if it turns out that He was actually born in Hebron, or Bethel, or Tel Aviv?
The Moral- Spiritual Lesson: Lowly Bethlehem would be favored over proud Jerusalem. While Micah 5:2 does not make it absolutely clear that the coming Deliverer would be born in Bethlehem, preceding verses set the stage for that interpretation. With descriptive irony the prophet referred to Jerusalem as a “city of troops” as he called on her to marshal her forces. Yet, in his next breath he predicted that the Babylonians would “strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod,” a prophecy of the extreme humiliation to which Zedekiah, Israel’s last king of the Davidic dynasty, would be subjected by enemy soldiers. Second Kings 25:1-7 says that his captors executed his sons before his eyes, blinded him, and took him to Babylon.
From Micah’s point of view, the descendants of David who were born in proud, self-reliant Jerusalem had sinned by relying on military power and strategy rather than on Jehovah. Therefore, according to Micah, the Deliverer would come from lowly Bethlehem, not from proud Jerusalem. While this is not a precise statement that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, it can be inferred from the context. As the son of David, Messiah would have an ancestral link to both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This relationship to both cities suggests that Micah must have had something else in view.
A Historical Confirmation: The New Testament record is confirmed by history. It remains for the record of the New Testament to put the last pieces into the puzzle. For those who accept the Gospels as true, Micah’s prophecy doesn’t have to stand all by itself. It can be interpreted in the light of the shepherds’ report about an angelic announcement, the sign of a star in the sky, the visit from the Magi, and the slaughter of the Bethlehem babies. Those first-century people who came to believe in Jesus as their Savior from sin and conqueror of death had no difficulty viewing Micah 5:1-4 as a prediction of His Bethlehem birth. It became for them one of many Old Testament prophecies amazingly fulfilled by Jesus.
But again the skeptics ask, “How do we know that Matthew didn’t just make up the Bethlehem connection to make it look like Jesus fulfilled Micah’s prediction?” Several factors weigh against this fabrication theory. First, it is now widely recognized that all of the Gospel writers wrote within the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries. So any controversial claims could be checked out.
“But,” someone asks, “who would remember such an insignificant event?” A better question might be, “If the account of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth were true, who could forget?” The Gospel writers went on to tell how Herod the King heard about the birth of Messiah and ordered the death of all the male babies of Bethlehem. What contemporary Bethlehem family would not have heard about Herod’s terrible massacre of innocents and the circumstances that prompted it? (Mt. 2:16-18). On the other hand, if no one of the first century had heard about the massacre, the “Bethlehem connection” could easily have been exposed as a baseless rumor.