When I make any longish car journey, I put Hamilton on and sing all the parts. I think I nail it; my children disagree. The quality of my performance aside, one of my favourite songs is where George Washington, stepping down from the presidency, seeks Hamilton’s aid in writing an address. During the song, Washington sings:
Like the scripture says:
“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no-one shall make them afraid”.
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made.
I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made.
Washington is quoting Micah 4:4, and what he is envisaging is a moment of complete rest from the labours of his life. The words elicit in me an almost visceral yearning to enjoy that same moment of rest. But what I and Washington are yearning for falls short of what Micah is saying.
In Micah’s time, grape vines and fig trees were planted together, the grape vine climbing up the fig tree. For this reason, the “sitting under” equates to shade and protection from the elements. Also, grapes are harvested in the warmer months, while figs can be had in the warm and cold seasons. What we see in this combination is provision all year, enough to feed one’s family as well as provide hospitality (cf. Zech 3:10).
Not surprisingly then, implicit in this phrase is a sense of stability. While this produce could grow in the wild, a properly cultivated vine and fig tree meant life in one place; it was a long-term investment, the security of settled ownership.1
Micah is a rollercoaster of judgement and redemption. God’s judgement will fall on Israel and Judah. There will be loss and exile and ruin—but there will be a new remnant, led by God’s shepherd to rebuild Jerusalem (Mic 2:12-13, 4:1-5:9, 7:8-20).
The immediate context of chapter 4 is the re-establishment of God’s temple with all people streaming to it and God’s law going out from it (vv. 1-2). God himself will judge and settle disputes; weapons of war, no longer needed, will be re-shaped into farming implements (v. 3). It is a time of peace and prosperity: “No-one shall make them afraid” (v.4).
As pointed out by Philip Jenson, the term is the causative and active hiphil form of the Hebrew verb ḥrd, so while it is translated as “afraid”, it is better translated as “terrify” or “panic”. Jenson says the verb suggests “a bodily physical reaction”, and given that nobody shall cause them to panic: “There is no need to remain alert and ready to flee”.2 I think many of us can relate to this heightened sense of preparedness to meet any looming threats. Life is full of risks and problems that keep us awake at night, longing for rest.
Micah is not the only place that the vine and fig picture is found. In 1 Kings 4:25, we are told “Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon”. There is a glimpse of fulfillment. Perhaps the work is done?
No. After the dedication of the temple, God warns Solomon that if he or the people turn away from God, he “will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight” (1 Kgs 9:6-7). The peace and prosperity we see in 4:25 is not permanent.
Micah prophesied in the time of Hezekiah (Jer 26:18) and it was during this king’s reign that Sennacherib of Assyria threatened Jerusalem. Sennacherib offered Hezekiah’s forces a choice:
Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: “Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern… that you may live, and not die.” (2 Kings 18 31-32)
We are faced with a choice: the real peace and rest that Micah communicates from God, or the tantalizing peace and rest held out to us by the world that seems easily and readily attainable. Discernment, wisdom and steadfastness are needed.
1 Kings 4 shows that we only catch glimpses of true rest and peace in this world. But Micah’s eschatological vision is permanent. In 2 Kings, we see that we need to be patient when making decisions about which peace we will bet on. We want everything now, but we need to learn to use our yearning to live in anticipation.
The key is living in the present. Paul says in Philippians 1:23-24:
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
Paul yearns for the promise, but knows he has a purpose for God here.
Just like Paul, we can feel pressed on every side. And, knowing we have to live in the real world, we can be tempted to force peace to occur through taking matters into our own hands. We can hoard our money, control our relationships, or plan to a level of detail that removes God from the picture. We can try and ease the longing by filling it with stuff—shopping, drinking, eating, anything—that will temporarily ease the discomfort of yearning.
But we need to use the yearning, not try and defeat it.
We need to get comfortable with the discomfort of longing.
We can enjoy a certain level of peace now that we have our shepherd in Jesus. He is the object of our current longing. And in our discomfort (and the anger, frustration and disappointment that comes from discomfort) we have the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3-5). We must look to him and guard our hearts against trying to make a peace for ourselves or falling for the ‘quick fix’ when a false prophet says “choose life!”.
Micah’s words are so helpful and so beautiful. Heaven can be too big for many of us to wrap our minds around, so when someone, or something, gives us the impression that peace is available to us now, it can be easy to be swayed. But I find Micah’s picture of sitting under our vine and fig tree visually accessible and emotionally immediate.
When we imagine Jesus preparing a place for us (John 14:3), that visceral yearning for the right rest should be not a loss or a gap that needs to be filled. It is a promise, a spur for us as we live now.
1. John H Walton (ed), The Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Zondervan, 2009, p. 134.↩
2. Philip Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: A Theological Commentary, Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, 2008, p. 147.↩