“Bethlehem Ephrathah.” Micah 5:2 is quoted in Matthew 2:6. In Hebrew, “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread,” and the name was literally true because Bethlehem had good weather for growing grain, which was then ground into bread (cp. Ruth 2:2ff). However, the name “Bethlehem” is also typological, because Bethlehem was the birthplace of the Messiah and thus the place where Jesus Christ, “the Bread of Life,” came into the world (John 6:35, 48).
“Ephrathah.” “Ephrathah” means “fruitful,” but exactly what it refers to is debated. It could be another name for Bethlehem (and was likely used that way), or the area around Bethlehem, or a small village very close to Bethlehem, or perhaps the name of a clan that lived in that general area.
“being small among the clans of Judah.” Bethlehem was a small town, but just how small no one really knows. Since Bethlehem was only a couple of hours walk from Jerusalem, its population would have fluctuated with the calendar because more people would go there during the Jewish feasts. The small size of Bethlehem would not have been unusual for an Israelite town on the edge of the Judean Wilderness where water was limited. But the small size of Bethlehem was not a problem with God, who announced through the prophet Micah that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
“out of you will come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The Jews of Jesus’ day correctly understood Micah’s prophecy to be saying that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and come from the line of Judah. Although there is a town called Bethlehem in northern Israel, the fact that Micah specified “Bethlehem Ephrathah,” combined with the many prophecies that the Messiah would be of the line of David who was from Bethlehem in Judah, made it clear that Micah’s prophecy was that the Messiah would be born in the Bethlehem in the tribal area of Judah. So when King Herod asked the religious leaders where the Messiah was going to be born, they said “in Bethlehem of Judea” and quoted from Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:5-6).
That this ruler was to come forth from Bethlehem “for me,” i.e., for Yahweh, shows that the ruler would support and promote Yahweh and His laws and ways, which Jesus Christ, did. In fact, both the Old Testament and New Testament show that this ruler became God’s vice-ruler, His second-in-command over God’s creation. The fact that this ruler is “for Yahweh” shows that Jesus is not Yahweh or God. Also, only two verses later, in Micah 5:4, the Bible says that this promised shepherd-ruler will shepherd his flock “in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God.” Like Moses and David, the coming shepherd-ruler is not God, but has a God, and is empowered by God.
“whose comings forth are from of old, from ancient times.” The phrase “whose comings forth are from old, from ancient times” ties this coming ruler to the ancient promises of the Messiah, including the prophecies that he would come from the tribe of Judah and specifically from the line of David. The phrase “whose comings forth” can refer to his origin or his activities, as noted in the NET text note: “The term may refer to the ruler's origins (cf. NAB, NIV, NRSV, NLT) or to his activities.” Actually, the phrase likely refers to both his origin being from the tribe of Judah and also to things that the Messiah was foretold to do, such as reign as king in Jerusalem. Jacob foretold that the Messiah was to come out of Judah some 900 years before Micah prophesied (Gen. 49:10). Then Nathan the prophet foretold that the Messiah would come from the line of David over 300 years before Micah prophesied (2 Sam. 7:16; cp. Isa. 9:7; Jer. 33:15), and both those times would be considered to be “of old, from ancient times” by the time Micah prophesied.
Some English translations of Micah 5:2 use phrasing like “whose origins are from of old, from everlasting,” and some Christian teachers then use that to teach that Jesus is God and that he has existed forever. But that is not what Micah is saying. For one thing, Micah was a prophet to the Jews, and there is no record that Jews ever thought that Micah’s prophecy meant the Messiah had existed from eternity and was going to be “God incarnate.” In fact, we saw above that this ruler would rule “in the strength of Yahweh” and in “the name of Yahweh his God.” As we will see, the Hebrew should not be translated “from everlasting,” but beyond that, if the Hebrew text is understood to read “origins” (cp. CJB; CSB; NAB; NET; NIV; NLT) then it is understood that this ruler had an “origin,” which of course God did not. God is unoriginated; He never had an origin, He has always been. But God’s designated ruler, the Messiah, did have an origin—he had an origin in the mind and plan of God that goes back to Genesis 3:15, and he had a physical origin when God impregnated Mary.
The Hebrew vocabulary used in Micah 5:2 is not saying that Jesus physically existed forever. Bill Schlegel writes about the Hebrew word sometimes translated “origins,” and says, “The word translated as “origins” or “goings forth” (motsa’ot, מוצאות) [Strong’s #04163] occurs only here in the Bible in the feminine form (and only in plural), with one additional possible textual variant in 2 Kings 10:27. The masculine form (motsa מוצא) has various meanings including “a place or act of going forth, a word, an exit, an issue, a source, a spring of water, east” (e.g., Deut. 8:3, Hos. 6:3, Isa. 58:11, Ezek. 43:11). The meanings are all related to the root word yatsa יצא, “to go or come out.” From the same root is “descendant” צאצא (e.g. Job 5:25, Isa. 44:3) and later Hebrew “ancestry” ממוצא. In association with miqedem, mimei olam “from before, from days of long ago” which relate to Israel's historical past...the feminine plural form in Micah 5:1 (5:2 in the English versions) most likely relates to physical ancestry, especially David’s and/or Abraham’s.”
As Schlegel has suggested, the word motsa’ot, translated “goings forth” or “origins” can simply relate to the prophecies of the physical ancestry of Jesus Christ and does not force the meaning of the Messiah having a literal existence before his birth, in fact, the context and scope of Scripture show that cannot be the case.
Moreover, the word “everlasting” is actually two Hebrew words yōm ōlam (#03117 יוֹם, #05769 עוֹלָם), meaning “days of antiquity.” It is this description of the Messiah’s “going forth” that is often claimed to suggest his eternal pre-existence before being born on earth. Looking at other occurrences of the phrase yōm ōlam reveals that it simply refers to the past, and each occurrence is dependent upon the context in order to figure out what about the past is being referred to. In some of its occurrences, it is used in reference to times and events before Israel’s exile (Amos 9:11; Mic. 7:14; Mal. 3:4), a couple other places it is used in reference to the times and events surrounding Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Isa. 51:9; 63:9, 11), and also it is used to refer generically to days in the past (Deut. 32:7). Furthermore, ōlam is used as an adjective in conjunction with other nouns to refer to such things as the “ancient foundations” or “ancient ruins” of Israel before being conquered (Isa. 58:12; 61:4), prophets from “ancient times” (Jer. 28:8), Babylon as an “ancient nation” (Jer. 5:15), and “ancient ways” or “ancient paths” (Job 22:15; Jer. 6:16; 18:15).
In Micah 5:2, the use of mōtsa’ah along with yōm ōlam conveys the idea that “the ancestry of the expected ruler traces back to David’s time as well as David’s city” (Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [Chicago: Moody, 1980], 394). Furthermore, S. W. Brewer also sees this as a reference to the Messiah belonging to one of the oldest families, that is, the Davidic family (Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Obadiah, Joel [ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985], 104), and so does Ralph L. Smith, describing how Micah has in mind the idea of a “new David” by making use of colloquial language where the days of David were spoken of as “the ancient days” like in Amos 9:11 (Micah – Malachi [WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984], 44). In addition, there are strong linguistic parallels between the Lord’s calling of David to shepherd Israel and the language used in Micah’s Messianic prophecy of the new Davidic king who would also shepherd God’s people (cf. 2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7-14).
Throughout Micah 4-5, one of the major themes is the rescue and restoration of the people of Israel and the rise of a conquering king who would bring together and provide security and peace for God’s people. Micah 5:2 declares that the Lord will establish a descendant of Judah to rule His people. And then, after the rest of the king’s kindred have returned, it says that “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God” (Mic. 5:4 NRSV).
The context suggests that this ruler of Israel will come from Bethlehem Ephrathah and will rule with the strength of Yahweh his God and his greatness will extend to the ends of the earth (v. 4). A distinction is made in the context between this Messianic ruler and the Lord God. The Lord God would enable this ruler to govern over His people, and therefore, the ruler would rule in the name of Yahweh, but the ruler would not be Yahweh. And by the strengthening of Yahweh, it would be the Lord’s righteous ruler who would bring wholeness (“peace”) and safety to God’s people and ultimately establishing a kingdom where His people will live like “a lion among the animals of the forest, like a young lion among the flocks of sheep” (v. 8).
Therefore, this prophecy is proclaiming the divine appointment for where and from what family the Messiah would come. The promise for the coming Messianic ruler was made long ago (“from ancient times”) and would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant with the Messiah’s ancestor David. In order to better convey the meaning of the text, many modern English versions offer more accurate translations that attempt to communicate the meaning of the idiomatic expression (see CEB, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, NRSV).
[For more information on the Millennial Kingdom that Jesus will set up when he rules the earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more information on Jesus being the fully human Son of God and not being “God the Son,” see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son.” For more on “the Holy Spirit” being one of the designations for God the Father and “the holy spirit” being the gift of God’s nature, see Appendix 11, “What is the Holy Spirit?”].