In those days Israel had no king

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Tonight in our studies in Judges we come towards the end of the book and chapters 17-18.

But what are we to make of these last chapters of Judges? Chapters 17-18 go from idolatry, to clergy compromising with idolatry, to mass murder and next week it will be even worse. As I mentioned last time we studied Judges, according to Paul we should be looking for teaching, warning and encouragement in the Old Testament. But as James says in James 1.19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

We should be quick to listen to what is being said in books like Judges. But then we should be "slow" to speak and react. We must first think and reflect before reacting as some do immediately and negatively. For we must find out what these Old Testament books are trying to teach and how they are to be understood in the context of the whole Bible.

So with that in mind and by way of introduction will you now turn in your Bibles to Judges 17-18. And my headings tonight are taken from chapter 17 verse 6 which says:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.

So my first heading is, IN THOSE DAYS; the second, EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT; and the third, ISRAEL HAD NO KING.

First, IN THOSE DAYS

These final five chapters of Judges appear to be an appendix to the book. This appendix does not tell us about any individual judges – the charismatic leaders, we've been studying who led Israel over a period of 350 years from just after the conquest of the promised land in 1400 BC to just before Samuel in 1050 BC.

These judges appeared at key points when Israel was being attacked by her enemies. But this cycle of twelve judges did not lead the people into greater faithfulness to God. Rather it was the reverse. There was a downward spiral. For when a judge died the people again rejected the true and living God and his law, and went their own way and followed other gods. And so they experienced once again God's judgments at the hands of their enemies until another judge was raised up.

But this appendix is not about the judges. It is about ordinary men and women and their daily life "in those days" in the fourteenth to eleventh centuries before Christ. To use words of Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, that daily life was "nasty, brutish and short". But Hobbes was writing at the end of the English Civil Wars in the seventeenth century AD. Does that mean there are parallels in history from which to learn? Certainly the Old Testament teaches that you need to learn lessons from the history of God's people. And it teaches you how to analyse history

Right analysis is essential for coming to right solutions to any problem. You don't only need to know the facts to understand what is going on. You need first to analyze those facts correctly.

Last week my car tyre looked very flat and in need of attention. The kind gentleman from the garage who noted the flat tyre asked if I would like him to pump it up. I said, "Yes, please." But then I saw a nail embedded in the tyre. Sadly the car needed more than the inflation of the tyre. It needed a new tyre to solve the problem. The analysis of the flat tyre that ignored the nail would never have produced the right solution. It is the same with history. You need to analyse it correctly.

Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take [wrote Herbert Butterfield, a professor of Modern History at Cambridge]; and it is clear that every one of us, as standing alone in the universe, has to take it for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things, and about the way we will appropriate life. And it is inseparable from our decision about the role we are going to play ourselves in that very drama of history.

What you have in the Old Testament, and in a book like Judges especially (and read in the light of the New Testament) is supreme guidance on to how to interpret history.

The Old Testament is a panorama against which not only the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus must be understood. It is also a panorama against which every living human individual and every nation has to understand itself and live. The Old Testament gives you a total philosophy of history.

The book of Judges, for its part, contributes to that philosophy of history by answering the question of the judge Gideon in chapter 6.13: "if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?" Gideon was referring to all the suffering at the hands of the Midianite invaders.

And the answer Judges and the Old Testament gives is that beneath all sorts of other factors lies a fundamental principle for all time. Understanding this principle as far as life and world history is concerned is like understanding the reality of that nail as far as my flat tyre was concerned. It is essential. And the principle is this.

It says, God is one and he is the only living, loving and holy God. And he wants the best for men and women. So for their good he has established covenantal relationships and the terms include the Bible's Ten Commandments. And if you seek to abide by those terms and keep those commandments, on average things will be well. But if you ignore them, there will not only be spiritual but social decline, degeneracy and disaster.

So if you abandon God and his way and follow other gods or idols; and there is a systematic breaking of the Ten Commandments do not be surprised if, on average, and later if not sooner, life does, indeed, become "nasty, brutish and short". And the book of Judges illustrates, from history, how true that is.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this principle as Job in the Old Testament discovered. That is why there is a problem when the good suffer and the bad prosper. But that is a problem because the principle is generally true. And, importantly, the New Testament helps you avoid simplistic interpretations of this principle. Well, that is what you learn from "those days" of the Judges – a profound philosophy of history, which later books of the Bible also illustrate and which is still true in "these days".

Secondy, EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT

So far in Judges the suffering and God's judgments have been caused by the external enemies of God's people. Now in these last chapters we see internal problems.

First, there is evidence of plain disobeying the Ten Commandments. Secondly, there is evidence of self-serving clergy compromising with pagan idolatry. And, thirdly, with individuals and the church being corrupt, there is evidence of corporate sin that leads to mass murder. Look at verses 1-2:

1Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim 2said 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!"

Here is, one, a breaking of the fifth commandment to honour your father and your mother; two, theft and so the breaking of the eighth commandment against stealing; and in the following verses, three, idolatry and so a breaking of the second commandment. So look at verses 3-5:

3When 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 a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you." 4So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah's house. 5Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some idols and installed one of his sons as his priest

No wonder verse 6 says:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.

So at an individual level people are flouting God's law.

Secondly, you have here a clergyman going along with all of this idolatry and giving it, so to speak, the church's blessing. Look at verses 7-13:

7A young Levite [that is, an official clergyman] from Bethlehem in Judah, who had been living within the clan of Judah, 8left that town in search of some other place to stay. On his way he came to Micah's house in the hill country of Ephraim. 9Micah asked him, "Where are you from?" "I'm a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah," he said, "and I'm looking for a place to stay." 10Then Micah said 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." 11So the Levite agreed to live with him, and the young man was to him like one of his sons. 12Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13And Micah said, "Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest."

You have here a kind of ancient multi-faithism where people claimed to be worshiping the true God, Jehovah/Yahweh, but having local-type idols as well. But this time-serving Levite raises no objection. He seems to be in his job for the money before being in it for God and the people.

When that happens you have trouble. Sadly that can happen today.

Who tonight is doing something wrong in your job and you know it, but it is giving you a living? This Levite is a warning. For lay people's sin and clergy sin inevitably lead, thirdly, to corporate sin. When individuals and the church's representatives are defying God, sooner or later it will affect the wider society. That is what we see in chapter 18 where we read about the Danites.

Time doesn't allow us to look at this in detail. But we are told that the Danites had failed to take their allotted territory in the promised land. So, instead of seeking to do what they should have done – work at getting that territory - they try an easier option. They send out five spies who soon find themselves in Micah's house. After our time-serving Levite priest assures them of the success of their mission, they happily assume all they are doing is right. But why should an idolatrous priest be right?

However, they discover right up north a place called Laish with some very nice people in the border land. It was an ancient equivalent of Berwick on Tweed. They were (18 verse 7) ...

living in safety … unsuspecting and secure. And since their land lacked nothing, they were prosperous.

To cut a long story short, the spies return home, and tell their compatriots to move out and attack these people. So 600 Danites did.

On their way north these Danites called at Micah's house. They then robbed Micah (18 verse 18) of "the carved image, the ephod, the other household gods and the cast idol". And they asked the Levite to become a bishop of their whole tribe and clan. So he no longer need be just a local priest of a little parish.

Not surprisingly, the time-serving Levite connived at their desire for idolatry and accepted these new terms and conditions of service. Be warned! Today similarly you have people appointed to senior positions in churches as bishops and senior clergy who act and teach in defiance of God's clearly revealed will. Currently some are proposing and voting for gay weddings in churches. This is a modern version of "everyone doing as they see fit". In chapter 18 this is all part of a continuing downward spiral. But now look at 18.27-28:

27Then they … went on to Laish, against a peaceful and unsuspecting people. They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city. 28There was no one to rescue them because they lived a long way from Sidon and had no relationship with anyone else.

This is mass murder that should never have happened. The Old Testament is clear. Even if it was right to have gone north, the Danites should have offered terms of peace to a city like Laish (see at your leisure, Dt 20.10 and 15). The Danites should not have burned the city down after killing with the sword everyone in it. But these Danites probably imagined they had the Lord's approval because of what their new bishop had earlier told them.

So do you see the sequence, brilliantly narrated by the historian? A little idolatry of an ordinary woman and her ordinary son together with the connivance of a time-serving ordinary Levite was a cancer that led to mass murder. Be warned!

A key witness in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Holocaust, was a survivor of Auschwitz. When this witness entered the courtroom and faced Eichmann for the first time, he began to tremble. He was weeping uncontrollably and collapsed. When interviewed later on TV, he was asked "Why?" Was he reliving horrific memories? The man said, "No! I collapsed because I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am exactly like him, capable of this." The hard bitten presenter didn't know how to respond. All he did was turn to the camera and say' "That poses a question. Was Eichmann a monster, a mad man, or something even more terrifying? Was he normal?" The book of Judges suggests he was normal. Given the circumstances and with majority support, nice ordinary people can be involved in terrible things.

Last week there was a reconstruction of the Milgram conformity experiment for a French TV documentary. It showed 80 percent of the ordinary people involved willing to deliver potentially lethal electric shocks to innocent people. Psychologists said this blind obedience was the same as in the Nazi death camps. When you forsake the living God for other gods terrible things can happen and they can happen today. Be warned.

Now look on to verse 28:

28…The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. They named it Dan [and verse 30] … 30There the Danites set up for themselves the idols … [and verse 31] 31They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

There was now an idolatrous tradition established in Dan. And this had global, for those days, consequences. For later, after David and Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided. And the northern king, Jeroboam, established one of his two seats of Baalistic idolatry in this new city of Dan. And it became a by-word for all that was evil about the northern kingdom. You read about that in 1 Kings 12.29-30.

And this new Baalistic religion with its child sacrifice and gross sexual decadence led, eventually, to God's judgment through the destruction in 722 BC of the northern kingdom by the ruthless Assyrians. So, again, be warned.

But what is the solution and where is the encouragement in all of this? That brings us …

Thirdly, and finally to the fact that at this time ISRAEL we are told HAD NO KING

The writer, or final editor, of the book of Judges undoubtedly knew something of Israelite kingship from first hand. He knew, therefore, that kingship was not an adequate solution. But he knew that some government is better than no government where "everyone does as he sees fit."

However, he would have known what the rest of the Old Testament makes clear. It makes clear that even the best of the Israelite kings could not deal with the problem of idolatry – the forsaking of the living and true God for other gods. And the worst of the kings positively promoted idolatry.

But we now know, this side of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, the divine and real solution. It came with the promise of a king of an altogether different sort (see John 18.33-40). For Jesus came announcing a new kingdom which showed him to be the king of kings, but also the saviour from sin and the giver of new life through the Holy Spirit.

The solution, however, is not just to know that. It is to submit to his kingly rule and seek his forgiveness and power and not to continue living "as you see fit". Who needs to submit to Jesus Christ like that tonight?

So, the book of Judges teaches the wisdom of submitting to kingly rule. It warns of the consequences of not submitting. And in the light of Jesus Christ it encourages us by pointing forward to a perfect kingdom where he is the perfect king.

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