“Bethlehem Ephrathah.” 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 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 hours walk from Jerusalem its population would have fluctuated with the calendar, more people coming 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.
“whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient times.” This verse is a prophecy about the coming Messiah, who would be a ruler in Israel, coming forth from the tribe of Judah, and would be born in the city of Bethlehem. Thus, the prophecy is about God’s predetermined lineage and location for the coming of His Messiah.
The response of the Jewish chief priests and scribes in quoting Micah 5:2 to King Herod (Matt. 2:5-6) indicates that the Jews at the time of Jesus understood that God’s Messiah would come from the line of Judah and be born in the town of Bethlehem. But, there is no record that Jews of Jesus’ day concluded from Micah’s prophecy that it meant the Messiah had existed from eternity and was going to be “God incarnate.”
Some English translations of Micah 5:2 use phrasing like “whose origins are from of old, from everlasting,” and they imply that Jesus has existed forever. However, Micah 5:2 is not saying that Jesus physically existed forever. The word “origins” is translated from the Hebrew word mōtsa’ah (#04163 מוֹצָאָה), which literally means a “going out or going forth,” and thus entails the idea of an “origin” but that would not force the meaning of a literal existence unless the context demanded it, which it does not. That the Messiah was in the mind of God is not debated, and in that sense Jesus had an ancient origin, just as did the Church, which was known from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).
Moreover, the word “everlasting” is actually two Hebrew words yōm ōlam (#03117 יוֹם, #05796 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 in some way 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 “ancients 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 Workbook 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 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?”].