A Mess From Top to Bottom (Judges 17-18)
We're getting toward the end of the book of Judges. I figure it's as good a time as any to ask the question: what is the point of this book? The author wasn't just recording history. These authors were expert writers who were communicating something through the stories. That's why it's important to spend some time thinking about what the author was trying to get across in writing the book of Judges.
The most common view of why Judges was written comes from a statement that is repeated four times in the last five chapters of the book: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Some people say that the author was arguing that the problem with Israel is that they needed a king. In other words, it's building a case for a king like David. But I'm not so sure about this view. The writer doesn't paint a very positive view of leaders as the solution to the problems of Israel.
I believe there is another purpose, one that is just as relevant to us today as it was when it is written. Like an expert storyteller, the writer includes two stories at the end of the book of Judges that bring the problem right to our doorstep. I'd like to look at the first of these two stories with you today, and explain how the problem he's addressing is still a problem that we are facing today.
The Problem with Micah
We read in Judges 17:1-2:
Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, "The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it."
Then his mother said, "The LORD bless you, my son!"
By itself, this story seems rather insignificant. I'm sure that many parents have discovered that money has disappeared from their purse or wallet, and they find out that somebody's fingers in the family have become a bit sticky.
Here a mother discovers that eleven hundred shekels is missing, and she curses the one who took it. To give you an idea of what eleven hundred shekels is worth, it's the amount that each of the Philistine governors gave Delilah for betraying Samson. Later we read of a priest who gets a salary of 10 shekels a year, so this money is worth over a hundred years salary. So we're talking about a huge amount of money here. This isn't $20 going missing from your wallet. This is your whole life's savings going missing.
When you hear of a son stealing this amount of money from his own mother, you have to ask, "What is wrong with the boy?" There's obviously a huge moral defect in this son. You just don't go around stealing your mother's life savings. That's just not what being a good son is all about. It's also interesting that Micah doesn't return the money out of remorse. He was motivated by superstition – he heard his mother utter a curse and didn't want the curse to come true.
I read this and think that something really stinks about this whole situation. But then we read and realize that the problem is a whole lot bigger than it first appears.
The Problem with the Family
We don't just have a problem with a son here. It turns out that we have a problem with a whole family. How do you respond when your son returns what he's stolen from you? She responds by saying, "The LORD bless you, my son!" – which isn't exactly how I would react.
But then you realize that she has issues too. Verses 3-4 say:
When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, "I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make an image overlaid with silver. I will give it back to you."
So after he returned the silver to his mother, she took two hundred shekels [b] of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who used them to make the idol. And it was put in Micah's house.
She sounds godly. She wants to dedicate this money to the LORD. But she doesn't present her gift to the priests at Shiloh, where she should have gone. Instead, she gives only 200 shekels out of the 1,100. And what does she do with it? She makes an idol with it. First, we're talking about only about five pounds of silver, which wouldn't have made that impressive an idol. But an idol? Whether it's impressive or not, what is she doing making an idol?
It gets worse. Red verses 5 and 6: "Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some household gods and installed one of his sons as his priest. In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."
So we have more than a problem with a boy, we have a problem with a whole family here.
Does anybody here know of families that have problems, even serious ones? Sure, we all do. At this point you can just say that we have a family with some serious issues. Except – and watch this – we're being sucked in. There's a problem with a boy. Fine. But the problem isn't just with the boy, it's with the whole family. Fine. But then, the author expands the scope. It turns out that there's an even bigger problem.
The Problem with Spiritual Leaders
The problem isn't just with a son or a family. You start to get a glimpse of the bigger problem as the story zooms out another level. In verse 7 we're introduced to a young Levite who passes through looking for a place to stay. Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel. This tribe was given responsibility for the spiritual leadership of Israel.
Micah meets him, and realizes that this is a golden opportunity. Micah has appointed his own son as priest, but here is his chance to hire a real professional. Micah says to him, "Live with me and be my father and priest, and I'll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food" (Judges 17:10). The young priest agrees, and we read the results in verses 12 and 13: "Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13 And Micah said, "Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest."
What we don't read right away is who this young priest is. Maybe the author is keeping the man anonymous so that we generalize. This nameless priest could be any priest. He represents the entire tribe. But we read in the next chapter, in Judges 18:30, that this priest indeed has a name: Jonathan. Not only is his name Jonathan, but we also read that he is the grandson of Moses.
What's wrong with hiring a priest? If you are a Levite, you are not supposed to make your services available to the highest bidder. Not only does this priest hire himself out, but he does so at someone's private, idolatrous shrine. He's become a chaplain to a family's idolatrous worship. Micah thinks that God will bless him because he's hired this priest. Daniel Block writes:
In the words of Malachi, the heirs of "the covenant of Levi" have corrupted their high calling. Instead of serving as an agent of life and peace, revering Yahweh and standing in awe of his name, offering truthful and righteous instruction…turning Micah back from iniquity…this Levite has himself apostatized…The religious establishment in Israel has been thoroughly infected with the Canaanite disease.
And don't forget. This isn't just any priest. This is the grandson of Moses. Things have gone downhill fast.
So you have a problem with a son, but the problem isn't just with a son. The problem is with a whole family. But the problem isn't just with a whole family. It turns out that the problem is also with the religious leadership. We're talking about the corruption of the pastoral ministry. But – and you know this is coming – the problem is even bigger than that.
The Problem with a Whole Tribe
We start out thinking that the problem is with a son. Then we realize it's an entire family, then the entire religious establishment. But then we come across some Danites in chapter 18. We read:
In those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. So the Danites sent five of their leading men from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all the Danites. They told them, "Go, explore the land." (Judges 18:1-2)
The problem that the Danites faced is not that they weren't given an allotment of land. Instead, they had failed to take possession of the land that God had given them. Instead of seeking God's help to conquer their allotted territory, they instead went looking for land elsewhere.
So in verse 3, they stop in Micah's house and recognize the priest's voice – most likely his southern accent. They discover that Micah has a personal priest. A little later, they return with a bit of an army to try to take some land. On the way, the spies realize that Micah's house contains everything they need to set up a religious shrine, so they go to steal it. When the priest sees this, he protests, until they make him an offer. "Be quiet! Don't say a word. Come with us, and be our father and priest. Isn't it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man's household?" (Judges 18:19) Look at how the priest responded: "The priest was very pleased. He took the ephod, the household gods and the idol and went along with the people" (Judges 18:20).
This still happens today, by the way. Daniel Block writes:
The question the Danites posed to him is asked every day by pastoral search committees: "Which is better, to be the pastor of a small family or to be the pastor of a megachurch?" The contemporary problem of ambition and opportunism in the ministry has at least a three-thousand-year history.
The priest goes with them, and in verse 27 we learn that they attack and burn the city of Laish, "a peaceful and unsuspecting people." And the story ends in verses 28-30:
The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. They named it Dan after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel—though the city used to be called Laish. There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. They continued to use the idol Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.
The problem, it turns out, is not with a son or a family or a priest or even the whole religious establishment. The problem is with an entire tribe of the nation. The entire tribe has been corrupted. In fact, the good guys – Israel – have become the bad guys, and the bad guys – the Canaanites – have become the good guys, "a peaceful and unsuspecting people." Israel hasn't just sunk to the level of the Canaanites. They're now even worse.
You've got sons stealing from mothers, mothers building idols, priests for hire to the highest bidder, idolatrous worship, the slaughter of peaceful people. It's a mess. The corruption is at every level. There isn't a single admirable character in these chapters. "No one displays any devotion to Yahweh;" writes Block, "no one demonstrates any concern for national well-being; no one behaves with any integrity." The integrity of the entire nation is at stake.
Understanding the Real Problem
So with this story in mind, and everything that we've covered so far, what is the point of the book of Judges? I think this is the perfect story to get to the root of the purpose and the relevance of Judges. I want to get at it in two ways: by asking what is our problem? And what is the solution?
What is our problem? Judges is clear that we have a problem, and it's a serious one. It's not a problem of a person or a family or a particular pastor or a particular group. It's every person, every family, every pastor, and every group. And it's not just a problem of people who lived long ago and far away. It's our problem too.
One commentator writes:
We must not be so naive to imagine this to be a problem confined to ancient Israel or to primitive tribal communities. The essence of idolatry is to want to bring God within our pockets, so as to control him. Foolishly, we imagine that we can deal with the source of life on the same level as ourselves, so we can bribe him, or drive a bargain, or compel him to give us what we want out of life. Above all, and at all costs, what natural human beings want is a god that will not make demands on our lives. (D. Jackman)
I think we need to be clear that this is our problem too. The problem is idolatry. It has affected each of us. John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. Idolatry happens any time we make good things ultimate things, when we value anything more than we do God. Ironically, idol worshipers often think they are worshiping God, and do not realize that, like Micah and the whole tribe of Dan, they have made a religion in which God revolves around them. Idolatry is the default mode of the heart, and it has affected all of us.
Judges is written to tell us that we have a problem. The problem is not what we think it is. It's much deeper. You may remember what English author G.K. Chesterton wrote in answer to the question, "What's wrong with the world?" He wrote, "I am." I don't know of any book that brings this home more than the book of Judges. We can't look at others as the problem. The problem is us. But it's not just us. What's true of us as individuals is true of our families, our religious leadership, and in fact our entire groups.
We're often guilty of the very thing that we found in today's story. We do not act as if we exist to serve and adore God; instead, we use God as a means to an end. Instead of serving God, we want God to serve us, our dreams, and our requests. We still believe in God, but our lives don't revolve around him. We expect God to adapt to us.
Judges is important because we have a tendency to underestimate our problem. Judges, and in fact the whole BIble, won't let us away with this. What is the problem with your life, and what is the problem with our church? We could answer that we need to lose ten pounds or make more money or get a little more organized. At the church level you could say that we need better leadership or better structures. But Judges points us to a much deeper problem, and the solutions have to go beyond trying harder or getting a new leader. The problem with the world is us. The problem is that we need new hearts.
So what is the solution? A lot of people think that the purpose of Judges is to argue for kingship. Judges 18:1 says, "In those days Israel had no king." A lot of people take their cues from this and think that Judges was written to point out the need for a king to change people's hearts; in other words to build a defense for David's kingship.
But if you know anything about David and the other kings of Israel, you know that they sometimes provided help, but often they were no better than the judges. This book doesn't give a rosy view of leadership as the answer to every problem. In fact, the problem is with leaders. We are all the problem. The problem is much deeper than a new king or a new pastor or a new leader can fix. The problems are far too deep. A new leader can help, but there's a much deeper problem.
I believe that Judges was written to God's people to demonstrate the depth of the problem, and to call us to the only solution, which is a return to the God we have abandoned. In other words, it is a book that shows us our condition and that calls us to repentance.
We, as North American Christians, have largely forgotten the covenant Lord, and have taken his gracious work on our behalf for granted. Like the people of Israel, we have been squeezed into the mold of the world around us. We are preoccupied with materialism; we worship on our own terms; our values are similar to the world around us. We have reluctant to hear God's call into service. We are prone to pray, "My kingdom come" rather than "They kingdom come." We fight the Lord's battle with our own resources. We do not live God's priorities. Judges shows us that this is our problem, and it also shows us where it all leads. It's not a pretty picture.
The problem is that we need help, and that help has to come from outside of ourselves, because all of us have been affected. We have all fallen in the pit, as it were, and therefore nobody is able to lift us out. We need someone to help us who is not part of the problem.
There is a leader who eventually does come, who has not fallen into the pit, and he alone is able to solve the problem with this world. He is the Judge that Israel, a King who is better than David. His name is Jesus. Judges invites us to return to God in repentance, and the rest of the Bible comes in to tell us that God has provided a Judge, the Judge that these people never had, the Judge that we desperately need to deliver us not only from our enemy, but from ourselves.
I'm going to invite you to come to that Judge this morning. His name is Jesus. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
Our salvation is 'from outside ourselves' (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ…What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures.
It's found in Christ. Let's turn to him in repentance today.