There Was No Righteous King
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 17-18
Last Sunday we completed the main body of Judges. Judges 3:7–16:31 tells the story of 12 judges and zeros in on Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. These stories have a mostly international perspective. They focus on how other nations oppressed Israel and how God delivered them. But they also focus on the personal failures of the judges and on their inability to make Israel the international power God promised they would become.
And now Judges closes with two additional stories, which move from international events to life within the nation. They demonstrates that Israel doesn’t just need a righteous king to fight Israel’s foreign enemies; Israel needs a righteous king to fight the enemy within—the depravity of the human heart.
And so these final 2 stories give us a picture of where the human heart goes in the absence of godly leadership and submission to God’s Law. Society doesn’t get better; it descends into perversion, violence, and self-destruction. Therefore, this section should warn us about where our society is headed as it wanders further from the moral framework of Scripture. But even more importantly, the brokenness of sinners, as illustrated in this section should drive us to our need of Christ who is the only true solution to our sin and the judgment we deserve.
Today, we will cover the first of these stories, which spans Judges 17–18. It illustrates how Israel’s faith and morality had become terribly corrupt. As a result, even though my speech teacher wouldn’t approve, my outline consists of 8 sins that illustrate Israel’s corruption. At the end we’ll pull them together into a couple of positive applications. The first sin is…
I. Theft (17:1–2)
The story begins by introducing us to an Ephraimite named Micah. We know that his family at least professed faith in Israel’s God, because Micah means, “Who is like Yahweh.” The implication is “no one.” Therefore, a Jewish reader would quickly assume this is a story about a godly Israelite family.
But Micah quickly disappoints when he confesses that he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. That’s a lot of money. I said last week that 10 pieces of silver was a typical yearly salary, so we are talking about 110 years of wages. And he stole it from his mother! What a low life!
And he doesn’t fess up because it’s the right thing to do. No, he returns the money, because his mother pronounced a curse on whoever stole it. So we learn right away that he is not a godly man. He violates the 8th commandment not to steal, and in so doing violates the 5th command to “honor your father and mother.” But he’s just getting started, because in vv. 3–6, he violates the 1st and 2nd The second major sin is…
II. Idolatry (17:3–6)
When you read v. 3 at first you want to applaud the woman’s generosity. When Micah her money, and she pledges to dedicate all 1,100 pieces of silver to Yahweh. That’s impressive. But our applause quickly turns to disbelief when she commissions Micah to use the money to make “a carved image and a molded image.” What??
It’s not entirely clear what she is describing, but most likely she wanted Micah to make a carved image of either wood or stone and overlay it with silver. It was probably an image of a bull or calf, because the ancients commonly made images of bulls with the idea that the gods would stand or sit on the bull’s back.
As such, she probably intended to worship of Yahweh with the image. But it was still a problem, because the 2nd commandment says “You shall not…” (Ex 20:4–6). And one of the most famous stories in Israel’s history was Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf. Either she was ignorant of these basic aspects of Israel’s faith, or she didn’t care.
It’s alarming either way, because if she loved God and wanted to honor him, she would have looked in his Word to see what he desires. She would have seen that God had clear expectations for how he was to be worshipped. God was very clear that he’s not pleased when we just put a sanctified spin on the world’s ungodly practices.
And so the woman tells Micah to make an idol, though v. 4 says he only used 200 of the 1,100 shekels to make it. The text never says what she does with the other 900. Micah complies, and pays a silversmith to make the idol.
Then he set it up in his own little worship center alongside an ephod and other household idols. Not only that, Micah sets up one of his own sons to act as his priest.
It’s important that we not dismiss this as a misguided but sincere attempt to honor God. First, Micah was trying to merge the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites with Yahweh worship, and God was very clear in the Law that this was not okay. In fact, God gave a number of laws simply to keep his worship distinct from pagan worship.
And second Micah broke several very specific Israel was not to use any images in their worship, but Micah had idols and an ephod, which was a priestly garment, probably to be used for divination. As well, only the sons of Aaron could serve as priests, but Micah set up his Ephraimite son as priest.
And God had also said that Israel’s worship must be centralized at the tabernacle. But Micah had set up his own place of worship that he could control. All of this was rebellion against God.
It’s good for us to remember that God still cares about how we worship him. He’s not pleased with any ole thing we bring. Our worship must honor what God demands, and it must be distinct from the evils of worldliness. If we love him, we will be more concerned about pleasing him with our worship than about pleasing ourselves or catering to the desires of unbelievers.
But Israel was just about Israel, so 6 states the theme verse for the first time in the book. Doesn’t v. 6b sound exactly like our culture? Our culture says there is no ultimate moral authority. It celebrates, “doing what is right in your own eyes.” Of course, what’s right in my eyes quickly becomes what must be your right in your eyes. No one is truly a moral relativist.
But one of the most basic assumptions of the biblical worldview is that God is our creator and our authority. And his law, as articulated in the Scriptures, stands over every individual and nation. We don’t get to choose our morality; we are responsible to submit to God’s standard knowing that someday God will judge us by this standard. Therefore, it is never my place to stand in judgment over God’s Word; rather, I must submit to its judgment.
But Micah and most of Israel refused to do this. As a result, vv. 7–13 describe a 3rd major sin.
III. Illegitimate Priesthood (vv. 7–13)
Verse 7 introduces us to a young Levite from Bethlehem. God had set apart the Levites for sacred service, and he had commanded the other tribes to provide for them. But with all the other ungodliness in Israel, I’m sure the Levites were being neglected.
Apparently this young man can’t provide for himself in Bethlehem, so he goes out looking for a place to stay. He happens to stumbles across Micah. When Micah hears that this young man is a Levite, he’s excited. He thought having a Levitical priest would make his shrine much more credible.
But the Law didn’t say that just any Levite could be a priest. You had to be a descendant of Aaron, but Micah isn’t worried about those kinds of details, so he offers the young man a job. And the young man accepts the job. He doesn’t mind fudging some Laws (or actually quite a few), if he’s getting paid.
Micah is excited. Notice what he says in 13. This is a fascinating statement on a couple of levels. First, he is violating many laws, yet he believes his counterfeit worship will secure the blessing of God. It’s incredible.
Second he betrays a view of God that is similar to many “Christians” today. Micah, like so many today, views God as a means to fulfill my desires, so he’s not in the business of honoring God but of trying to manipulate things out of God. He doesn’t want God; he just wants his blessing.
That’s exactly how the prosperity preachers we are learning about on Sunday nights view God. And sadly, it’s also how many professing evangelicals view God. In light of Micah’s attitude, and the movie we’ve been watching, I’ve been reminded that one of the fundamental distinctions of true biblical Christianity is that in most religions the focus is on manipulating the god to serve my desires; whereas in biblical Christianity I exist to serve God’s desires, and my joy comes in pursuing his will, not mine.
Yes, you “matter to God,” but God matters to God a whole lot more. When we come to God primarily to get rather than to bow in worship, we aren’t seeing him in his true glory. We must submit our hearts to God’s authority for God’s glory, and we must find our joy not in trying to mold God into our desires but in molding our desires to his. Returning to the story, 18:1–2 detail a 4th
IV. Disregard for the Conquest (18:1–2)
Notice that 1 repeats the first part of the theme, “In those days there was no king in Israel.” There was a dearth of strong leadership, and the failure of the Danites exemplifies this. You can see on the map that God gave them an inheritance in central Canaan. However, Judges 1:34–35 said they were unable to claim it after Joshua’s death.
This failure was never just about human strength or weakness. Had Dan trusted God, obeyed God, and fought in his strength, God promised that no one would stand against them. But they disobeyed God, and he removed his hand. As a result, the Danites are compressed into a tiny area in the eastern part of their inheritance, in the region where Samson grew up.
You would think that considering what God had promised that they would repent and by faith take what was theirs, but instead, they decide to send scouts to look for an easier In other words, God’s way was too hard, and it required too much dependence; therefore, they disregard his promise and send 5 spies to look for something easy and convenient that they can achieve in their own strength. We’ll come back to that, but for now, the 5 spies head out, and this brings us to a 5th sin.
V. Disregard for God’s Revelation (18:3–6)
The 5 spies head north, and they happen to spend the night at Micah’s house. While they are there, they meet the young Levite, and they ask why a Levite is living with Micah.
He tells them that he is serving as Micah’s personal priest. If the 5 spies were godly men, they would have condemned the arrangement, but they don’t care. In fact, they want to take advantage. They ask the Levite to “inquire of God…(to see) whether the journey on which we go will be prosperous.”
Again, they shouldn’t have needed to ask, because God had already told them what land they were to conquer. As well, if they really needed to hear from God, he had given the true priests the Urim and Thummim, by which he communicated with Israel. But the pagans often saw an ephod and the teraphim (household idols) Micah owned as a means of divination.
This was good enough considering their apathy toward God’s Law. The Levite gives a vague answer, which was not really from the Lord. But he tells them to expect peace or blessing on their journey, because he claims that God will go before them. It’s just another example of how apathetic Israel had become toward God and his law. They wanted his blessing, but they didn’t want to honor or obey his will. This brings us to a 6th major sin, though there are several other significant sins in this section.
VI. Theft (18:7–26)
The five spies continue north until they come to Laish. On this map, Laish is called Dan, because that’s what Dan will rename it as. It’s north of Asher and Naphtali outside the territory God had given to Israel, which means that Dan would be much more susceptible to foreign influence and military attack than in the region God had given them.
However, the region is well watered by the headwaters of the Jordan River. And militarily, it was easy pickings. Laish leaned on the Phoencian cities of Tyre and Sidon, but the mountains between them, meant that for all practical purposes they were all alone. The five spies think this is perfect, and the rush home to tell the Danites they have found a home.
It’s interesting that in 10 they claim, “God has given it into our hands,” even though God had actually told them something different. I’ve heard that before. A Christian boldly declares, “God has opened a door,” because something is easy—maybe it’s a financial decision, work decision, or even a decision like divorce. They say that even though their decision doesn’t square with biblical wisdom or values.
We need to remember that when it comes to God’s will, easiest is generally not the same as best. In fact, God often wants us to do hard things, because of how they build our faith and endurance. It’s far more important that we do what is right than what is easy.
Well, 600 families respond to the spies report, pack their things, and head north. On their way, they stop at Micah’s house, and it seems pretty clear that they do so for the purpose of stealing his shrine. Verse 16 says that the 600 armed soldiers stood at the gate to Micah’s property, and the 5 spies go in and take carved idol, the ephod, and the household idols. They are operating by the philosophy, “Might makes right,” even though God’s law says otherwise.
And the Levite isn’t any better. The Danites offer him a deal (v. 19), “Is it better…” They say, “If you come with us, your family can be the religious head of a whole tribe for generations to come.” And despite all that Micah had done for the Levite (v. 20), he gladly accepts Dan’s offer and abandons Micah.
When Micah realizes what has happened, he gathers a posse and gives chase. He complains (v. 24) that the Danites have stolen all that is precious to him, and he appeal to them to do what is right. It’s ironic isn’t it? Micah really likes doing what is right in his own eyes, until someone else lives by the same philosophy. Now he wants justic
But he’s not going to get it. The Danites don’t try to justify their actions; they just threaten him (v. 25) by saying, “We’ve got some real fireballs standing here, and if you don’t back down, they just might lose it.” Micah has no choice but to turn around and go home.
Again, Micah’s story is so ironic. He stole from his mom, and he disregarded God’s law. He thought he would enjoy God’s blessing and protection. Instead, someone stole from him, and God embarrassed him rather than blessing him.
Pragmatism had seemed to be working for Micah, until it didn’t. The lesson for us is to obey God even when it’s hard. There may be temporary benefits to anarchy, but it never turns out well in the end. Then vv. 27–29 detail a seventh major sin.
VII. Unjust War (vv. 27–29)
The 600 Danite soldiers march north until they come to Laish. The narrator takes pains to describe the community in sympathetic They are “quiet and secure.” They have “no deliverer.” And this was not part of the Promised Land. God hadn’t told Israel to eradicate these people.
But the Danites aren’t interested in what is right; they only care about what’s right in their eyes. They ruthlessly kill the people and burn the city. Then they rebuild it, and name it Dan. Now they have a land.
But the fact that they were successful doesn’t mean God approved. The narrator gives plenty of hints that the whole enterprise was unjust and wicked. Anarchy had resulted in genocide. Then vv. 30–31 add a final sin.
VIII. Idolatry (vv. 30–31)
These verses wrap up the story by lamenting how foundational idolatry was to the new Danite community. They set up their idolatrous shrine, and it remained until Jeroboam I came along after Solomon’s death and built an even greater idolatrous shrine in Dan. This idolatry plagued Dan until the Assyrians destroyed them.
And to drive home just corrupt Israel had become, the narrator now reveals the identity of the Levite who has figured so heavily into the story. We learn that he is “Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh. Pretty much everyone is agreed that the better reading is to replace Manasseh with Moses, because Gershom was Moses’ son, and Moses was a Levite.
If you are a faithful Israelite this is crushing. Moses was the most honored figure of godliness in Israel, and Israel’s rebellion is so deep that it has infiltrated Moses’ family. His descendants become the priests for this pagan, rebellious religion. And they will will continue in this role until Dan is destroyed in 734 B.C. Ouch!
That’s how the story ends. There’s no happy ending. It’s another terrible tragedy. And yet I’d like to close with 3 applications, that I trust will drive us to a positive conclusion. First…
God’s law is good. Our culture has totally bought the lie that God’s law is too restrictive and that you can enjoy life so much more if you do what is right in your eyes. But a story like this reminds us of where anarchy ends. It ends in disaster. And seeing that tragedy should drive us to love God’s Word. God’s law comes from the all-wise creator who knows us and knows our world far better than we can imagine. Love this book, trust this book, live in this book, and obey this book. Second…
Our sin makes obedience impossible. Think again to the theme verse in 17:6. It’s not just condemning anarchy; it’s also saying that Israel needed a righteous king to enforce God’s Law. This story is clear that Israel wasn’t going to do it on their own. In and of themselves their sinful hearts led them further and further from God. They needed a leader to hold them to it.
And God eventually gave Israel David, Hezekiah, and Josiah. They were righteous kings who destroyed idols and pagan prophets. And yet they were not enough, because as soon they died, Israel went right back to where they were before. None of them could change the hearts of the Israelites.
Why is that? It’s because sin dwells deeply in each of us. And we need something far greater than a moral code and a moral reformation. We can never make ourselves righteous before God. We can’t even come close to being righteous. True obedience is impossible. Therefore, we need more than a righteous king like David. The third application is…
Jesus is the righteous king who internalizes God’s Law. For sinners to be right with God and please him, we need new life. We need someone to change our hearts and put God’s law inside us. And that’s what Jesus does when a sinner is born again. He changes our nature to the core of our being.
If you have never been saved, I hope you will not see in this story simply a problem that you can fix on your own. No, see that your heart is just as wicked, and it won’t fix itself. But Jesus provided a solution in his obedient life and in his death and resurrection, so come to him today for salvation. He will cleanse your heart and make you right with God.
And if you are saved, give thanks for the sustaining power of Christ that enables you to not foolishly chase what is right in your eyes but to instead chase what is truly good, what is right in the eyes of God.