O Little Town of Bethlehem

“Bethlehem” by Vasily Polenov

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But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for Me
    One who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore He shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of His brothers shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great
    to the ends of the earth.
And He shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5a).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“A special memory from a pilgrimage to Palestine by one of the great American preachers of the nineteenth century led to the writing of this beloved Christmas carol. In 1865, Episcopal clergyman Philips Brooks (1835-93) took an extended leave from his congregation in Philadelphia to travel to the Holy Land. On December 24, a Sunday that year, Brooks traveled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The journey made a great impression on the thirty-year-old, as he later reflected:

Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds… As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks,” or leading them home to the fold.[i]

“His observance of Christmas Eve was completed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the service ‘began about ten o’clock and lasted until three.’[ii]

“Three years after his Bethlehem visit, Brooks wrote the carol about the “little town” he had previously visited and included it in a Christmas program for the children of his Sunday School at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. The organist at Holy Trinity, Lewis Redner (1831-1908), set the words to a new tune just in time for the hymn to be sung for a rehearsal on Sunday, December 27.

“The text of this carol combines a verbal picture of the night of Jesus’ birth with reflections on the importance of the holy birth itself and its singular association with the town of Bethlehem” (Micah 5:2).[iii]

O little town of Bethlehem,
    How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
    The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee tonight.[iv]

Today we will take a closer look at this passage from Micah that celebrates this little town, a relatively insignificant village in a relatively insignificant nation.

Micah provides the historical context for this passage in the opening verse of chapter 5: “Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek” (v. 1). The prophet calls upon his people to prepare for an attack and a siege, the impending siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. The enemy would “strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek,” that is, humiliate him in his office. King Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians. In the near future, other kings of Judah were humiliated by the enemy. Manasseh, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah were all hauled off to Babylon in shackles. The shameful and painful exile followed as they were all led a thousand miles away from home.

Conditions did not improve much after the return from Babylon. Over the centuries, the people of Judah had to submit to the power of Persia, then to Alexander and the Greeks, and finally to Rome. The scepter of ruling power had departed from Judah. All that was left of a once great nation was a stump of Jesse, the royal family of King David (Isaiah 11:1).

That had all been prophesied, but the prophecy was not all gloom and doom. Through Micah, the Lord announced that in such a time of deep humiliation and degradation, the Messiah would come! His birthplace would be Bethlehem of the clan of Ephrathah, to distinguish it from the other Bethlehem in Zebulun, up near Nazareth (Joshua 19:15).

Bethlehem had a notable history. Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob, was born near the town. His mother, Rachel, who had died giving him birth was buried there. Ruth gleaned the fields of Boaz at Bethlehem. Here David was born, tended his father’s sheep, and was chosen by God and anointed to be the next king of Israel. Yet Bethlehem had remained a small town, too small to be numbered among the more than one hundred cities belonging to the clans of Judah (Joshua 15:20-62).

In God’s eyes, however, Bethlehem was anything but small. In this little village, One would be born who would “come for Me,” that is, who would come to carry out the Father’s saving will.

Micah does not use the term “king” for the one promised in verse 2, instead, He uses another word, “Ruler.” Micah differentiates this promised figure from all the kings who have come before Him, or at least from the kings of Micah’s day. He would rule “over” Israel as her spiritual King, not just “in” Israel as her earthly king. His purpose was to establish in place of the fallen former kingdom of David (Micah 4:8) the new Kingdom of David’s descendant, the Messiah. Therefore, He would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Unlike David, however, this promised King would have no beginning, because His “origins are from of old,” in the timelessness of eternity.

Micah summarizes what he had been saying: “Israel will be given up to foreign rule. Not until then will the Savior be born.” Some Bible scholars refer to “she who is in labor” to the Israelites in exile (Micah 4:9-10) and there is a certain merit to such an interpretation. But a better reference is to Christ’s virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14). The “return” of “the rest of His brothers” refers again to the return of the spiritual remnant to join the New Testament Church.

As Micah mentioned already in 2:12, the Messiah will rule over the Church as a shepherd tends his flock. His “strength” will be that of the Lord because He is almighty God (Isaiah 9:6). His “majesty” will be found in the name of the Lord because He is the eternal Son of God.

We know that in the end it will be Jesus Christ who titles Himself “Good Shepherd” and who thus fulfills these old prophecies. As the Good Shepherd, He knows His sheep by name, gives His life for them, and tenderly cares for them all, young and old (John 10). Therefore, “they will live securely” with Him since there is none greater than He in all the earth. With His almighty power the Messiah will defend His Church and provide for it in every way.

The phrase, “He shall be great to the ends of the earth,” is fulfilled when Jesus is raised onto the cross (cf. John 12:32). This is when Christ is glorified. This is when His greatness is on display, though hidden in the shame and curse of the cross. Now it is true that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Him] (Matthew 28:18b). Therefore His people dwell securely; nothing can separate them from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39), and nobody can snatch them out of His hand, for He and the Father are one (John 10:29).

Our text closes with “and He will be their peace.” Only three short words in the Hebrew, but what a grand and glorious message they proclaim! Millions of words cannot exhaust their full meaning. Nor can the lifetime of a child experience their full joy. He will be our Peace, our Shalom, the One through Whom we have a relationship of complete unity, perfect harmony, and peace with our heavenly Father. The Savior’s atoning death made peace between God and us guilty sinners (Ephesians 2:14). His daily intercession with the Father gives us peace of conscience (Romans 8:33-34). His shepherd’s love and guardian care allow us to live in peace in this vale of tears (Psalm 23; Romans 8:35-39). His death and resurrection will provide peace in the hour of our death (John 11:25-26). No wonder the angels outside Bethlehem announced His birth with their heavenly chorus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).

Jesus Christ is peace! He is the Resurrection and the Life! He is your peace, your resurrection, and your life! His precious blood was shed for you; His innocent suffering and death was for you and in your place. It reminds us of our immortality. We will not die but live forever with our Savior. And minds and hearts that have grown weary with anxiety are strengthened with the peace that only Jesus can give.

Divine peace. It comes from knowing that Jesus has done everything for our salvation. It comes from knowing that our heavenly Father not only forgives our sins, but He forgets them as well. It comes from knowing that our suffering and dying is but a momentary affliction that isn’t worth comparing to the glory of eternal life that awaits all who trust in Jesus Christ.

As we approach the Festival of our Savior’s birth, may we do so with hearts and minds filled with peace. May our prayer be that of the closing verse of our hymn.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
    Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
    The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Immanuel![v] Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Phillip Brooks, letter to his father, December 30, 1865, in Phillips Brooks, Letters of Travel (New York, 1893), 69.

[ii] Phillip Brooks, letter to his father, December 30, 1865, in Phillips Brooks, Letters of Travel (New York, 1893), 69.

[iii] Lutheran Service Book: Companions to the Hymns, Volume 1. Edited by Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, Jon D. Vieker. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, p. 84-86.

[iv] Lutheran Service Book. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, #361.

[v] Lutheran Service Book. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, #361.

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