Judges: Micah and the Launch of a Religious Startup

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on July 19, 2020

Judges 17:1-18:31

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Let’s turn in our Bibles to Judges chapter 18 and we will pick up where we left off the story that we began earlier when we read through Judges 17 – the story of Micah and his household gods, his idol, and the story of the days when there was no king in the land of Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Chapter 18 tells the story of the Danites and how they took what Micah had started in his home and they made it into an object of worship for their entire tribe. That’s where we’ll be looking in just a moment. We’ve come to the point in the book of Judges where we have finished the history of the individuals called the judges and at this point in the history of Israel. And tonight and next week we will finish our study of this book.

Chapters 17 and 18 are really giving us a look at – What were the conditions like in the religious life of the people of Israel? And then in chapters 19 to 21 we’ll find out more about the moral conditions among the people of Israel. The picture that the writer presents here at the end of the book of Judges is one of a time of idolatry and a time of immorality. And so from chapters 17 and 18 tonight we’ll consider two points. The first is, “A tragedy of faith” and then secondly, “A trace of God’s grace.” “A tragedy of faith” and “A trace of God’s grace.”

Before we read and study, let’s ask God to help us and bless the reading and study of His Word. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for the ugly parts of Your Word that show us, with brutal honesty, what the reality was like among Your people. And through that, would You then show us the reality of life among ourselves, in our own hearts, and turn us from our sins; turn us from the mess which we so often pursue and show us our King. Show us Christ Jesus, our Lord and our Savior, the One in whom we are secure, we are safe, we are free, we are loved and forgiven, for all eternity. Father, we pray that You would give us Your Holy Spirit now, that Your Spirit would illumine our eyes, our minds, our hearts, to understand Your Word, to apply it to our lives, and to live lives which glorify You. Speak Lord, for Your servants listen. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Judges chapter 18. We’ll read the entire chapter tonight:

“In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the people of Dan was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in, for until then no inheritance among the tribes of Israel had fallen to them. So the people of Dan sent five able men from the whole number of their tribe, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it. And they said to them, ‘Go and explore the land.’ And they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, and lodged there. When they were by the house of Micah, they recognized the voice of the young Levite. And they turned aside and said to him, ‘Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? What is your business here?’ And he said to them, ‘This is how Micah dealt with me: he has hired me, and I have become his priest.’ And they said to him, ‘Inquire of God, please, that we may know whether the journey on which we are setting out will succeed.’ And the priest said to them, ‘Go in peace. The journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord.’

Then the five men departed and came to Laish and saw the people who were there, how they lived in security, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing that is in the earth and possessing wealth, and how they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with anyone. And when they came to their brothers at Zorah and Eshtaol, their brothers said to them, ‘What do you report?’ They said, ‘Arise, and let us go up against them, for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good. And will you do nothing? Do not be slow to go, to enter in and possess the land. As soon as you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people. The land is spacious, for God has given it into your hands, a place where there is no lack of anything that is in the earth.’

So 600 men of the tribe of Dan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. On this account that place is called Mahaneh-dan to this day; behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim. And they passed on from there to the hill country of Ephraim, and came to the house of Micah.

Then the five men who had gone to scout out the country of Laish said to their brothers, ‘Do you know that in these houses there are an ephod, household gods, a carved image, and a metal image? Now therefore consider what you will do.’ And they turned aside there and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and asked him about his welfare. Now the 600 men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate. And the five men who had gone to scout out the land went up and entered and took the carved image, the ephod, the household gods, and the metal image, while the priest stood by the entrance of the gate with the 600 men armed with weapons of war. And when these went into Micah’s house and took the carved image, the ephod, the household gods, and the metal image, the priest said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ And they said to him, ‘Keep quiet; put your hand on your mouth and come with us and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one man, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?’ And the priest’s heart was glad. He took the ephod and the household gods and the carved image and went along with the people.

So they turned and departed, putting the little ones and the livestock and the goods in front of them. When they had gone a distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house were called out, and they overtook the people of Dan. And they shouted to the people of Dan, who turned around and said to Micah, ‘What is the matter with you, that you come with such a company?’ And he said, ‘You take my gods that I made and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then do you ask me, ‘What is the matter with you?’’ And the people of Dan said to him, ‘Do not let your voice be heard among us, lest angry fellows fall upon you, and you lose your life with the lives of your household.’ Then the people of Dan went their way. And when Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.

But the people of Dan took what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, and they came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and struck them with the edge of the sword and burned the city with fire. And there was no deliverer because it was far from Sidon, and they had no dealings with anyone. It was in the valley that belongs to Beth-rehob. Then they rebuilt the city and lived in it. And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was Laish at the first. And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

A Tragedy of Faith

If this was the story about the beginnings of a new business venture, it would have all of the marks of a great success because we have what started off as a “mom and pop outfit,” minus the “pop” in this case! And with a couple hundred pieces of silver that was turned into a carved image and a metal image, it became a private entity in the house of Micah with his son running the operation. Now eventually, Micah grew up some, he brought in a legitimate and qualified CEO, someone with credentials to run things there, and really that was probably the turning point, or maybe that was when they got their lucky break because it was then that this small group got the opportunity to go public. Their product was something that was just what the tribe of Dan was looking for and it became available for widespread distribution at that point. And sure, Micah was forced out in the process, but “that’s just business,” we could say, and sometimes things happen like that. There’s collateral damage on the path to success.

And what chapters 17 and 18 record is something that started in someone’s home, but in the end it captured the entire market of a whole tribe of Israel. It has all the marks of a business success, but that’s not what it is. Is it? It’s a tragedy. This is a disaster. And this disaster is placed here at the end of this book for a reason. The commentator, Ralph Davis, says that, “The writer has placed this episode and the episode that follows it as a sort of double conclusion to the book of Judges to show us just what life was like in this time.” And not to sound too scholarly or academic in quoting Ralph Davis, but Ralph Davis says that what we have here at the end of Judges is “two piles of crud.” Chapter 17 and 18 are, they tell us about the religious mess that existed in Israel in those days.

Idolatry is Personal  

And really, this story is an indictment against idolatry, against idolatry of all kinds. And the case against idolatry in these chapters – chapters 17 and 18 – is based on at least five things. And the first is this – that idolatry is personal; it’s an offense against God. And I don’t know if you noticed it as we read through chapters 17 and 18, but the phrase that is repeated over and over and over again in this passage is the phrase, “a carved image” or “a metal image” or something similar to that. At least eight times we come across the phrase, “a carved image.” Now what should that trigger in our minds. That should make us think about Exodus chapter 20 and the Ten Commandments where God said to His people, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.”

See, first and foremost, idolatry is an offense against God. It is a sin against a personal God. This is the God who was their God, the God who had redeemed them from bondage; He had set them free from Egypt. He is the God who is God alone and He will not share His glory with any other. And the events in this chapter, these two chapters actually, are a blatant disregard against God Himself and against His Word. And we could say that about all forms of idolatry. Idolatry of any sort is a blatant disregard of God and His Word.

Idolatry is Syncretistic

But we also see, secondly, that idolatry is quite often syncretistic. In other words, idolatry in this chapter is mixed in this strange sort of way with aspects of true religion. If you go back to chapter 17 verse 2, Micah’s mother says to him, “Blessed be my son by the Lord.” And verse 13 of chapter 17, Micah says, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me because I have a Levite as priest.” You see, it’s the name of the Lord is on their lips; the name of Yahweh is coming from their mouths. And Micah, he wants a Levite to be his priest because those are the types of priests that were prescribed in God’s Law. God is acknowledged in several ways in these chapters. And then there’s mention at the very end, in chapter 18 verse 31 it says, it mentions the house of God that was at Shiloh during this time.

So you see what’s going on, is this is not just as simple as Israel embracing some new religion or switching religions all together. No, what’s going on here is this is a complicated mixture of what God had revealed to them in His Word along with new elements or elements that had been borrowed from the cultures around them. It’s this syncretistic mixture that’s going on in the idolatry of this chapter.

Idolatry is Foolish

And we can also see, thirdly, that there’s a folly to idolatry. Idolatry is foolish. These verses are full of little tongue in cheek jabs at the absurdity of idol worship. In the first place, the carved image itself, it began as pieces of silver that Micah stole from his mother. It’s stolen goods; it’s dirty money. What started as dirty money, in the end, becomes an object of devotion for an entire tribe of the people of Israel. And then, throughout the narrative there’s just this – it just drips with sarcasm in the choice of words that are used for the idols. It’s little verbs like “made” and “took” and “set up.” Look at 18:24. Micah asked the men of Dan, he says, “You take my gods that I made and the priests and go away, and what have I left?” And then verse 27, “But the people of Dan took what Micah had made and the priests that belonged to him and they came to Laish.” And verse 31, “So they set up Micah’s carved image that he had made.” You see what’s happening there? All of the word choices are mocking the fact that these idols are man-made creations and they can be picked up and carried and moved around from place to place at the whim of the one who owns them. It’s all very crude and it’s ridiculous. There’s not a shred of dignity, there’s not a hint of power or of anything worthy of worship in any of this idolatry. It’s the essence of stupidity, really. Idolatry is foolish; it’s silly. And yet, it’s not at all harmless.

Idolatry is Viral

We also see that the idolatry, fourth, is cancerous. We could say that idolatry is viral, and we know very well how viruses spread, and that’s what’s going on in this chapter as well. These chapters are showing us the toxic influence of how idolatry spreads among the people and across the land. The geography of these chapters is important. And we see that Micah came from the hill country of Ephraim; the Levite came from Bethlehem in Judah. Ephraim and Judah were in the center of Israel. They were in the heart of the nation. But by the time we come to chapter 18, the idol is set up in the farthest north regions of the nation of Israel, in the land of Israel, in the city of Dan.

What’s that saying to us? It’s saying to us that idolatry is everywhere, that idolatry is in all parts of the land. And then isn’t it shocking, as we read in chapter 18, that Jonathan, from the family of Moses, is serving as the priest in the Danite cult. Moses, who had received the Law! Moses, who had instituted the tabernacle worship as the Lord had commanded him! Moses, who was the chief prophet and the shepherd of his people at the establishment of their nation! Moses’ own offspring is guilty of apostasy here. How can that be? How could idolatry spread so far and so fast and so deep? It’s because it’s dangerous. It’s deadly.

Idolatry has Consequences  

And what we see also in this chapter is that it will not go unpunished. There’s one more note about the tragedy of idolatry, and that is that idolatry has consequences. Chapter 18, if you look at verse 30, it ends on an ominous note with that little phrase, “until the day of the captivity of the land.” Now obviously that is a reference to a point in the distant future for Israel. That’s far from the events of this chapter, but what we understand here is that the idolatry that is described here and the idolatry that we’ve seen throughout the book of Judges up until this point, well, it’s here to stay, we could say. Its presence is stubborn among the people of Israel. And what that verse is referring to is the result, the captivity is the result of God’s people continuing to turn away from God and resisting God’s warnings that He sent to them by the prophets, and refusing to repent until finally, finally God delivered them into captivity to Assyria and then into captivity to Babylon. You see, idolatry like this all but brought them and brought all of God’s blessings to them to an end. This story, this story is a picture of the devastating effects of idolatry and it is a bleak outlook for these people that we read about here.

This past winter we had a tree removed, a big oak tree removed from our backyard. And then at some point this spring, hundreds of tiny little oak tree sprouts popped up all over our backyard, hundreds of them. It was like we lost a tree and gained a forest! Apparently, and I don’t know very much about trees, but apparently little sprouts can come up from the roots that are left in the ground from the tree. And so the problem is taken out, but actually it still remains. The roots are still there.

You see, in the book of Judges something similar is happening. Over and over God removes the oppression, God removes the enemy, God takes out the problem that exists and that is being imposed upon the Israelites, but the root of sin is still there. The root of idolatry is still there in the land. And the problems that we find here at the end of this book are problems that come not from without, but they are problems that come from within. And the Cannanization of Israel, or the pagan influence in Israel is widespread.

A Trace of God’s Grace

And so we’re left with the question, “Is there any hope for these people?” This problem is deep and things look grim. But, but there is a trace of God’s grace even in these two chapters. The refrain. There’s a refrain that we find in chapter 17 on into the end of the book, chapter 21, and it’s a variation of something of what we read in chapter 17 verse 6 – that passage that says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That phrase captures the conditions that were in the land of Israel at that time. Really it’s the theme of the whole book of Judges – chaos and the need for a deliverer, the need for a godly king. “In those days there was no king in Israel.” But there’s actually a glimmer of hope in those words because as bad as it was, this was not the end for Israel. God would not reject His people, but He would raise up for them a king. He would raise up for them the godly leader that they needed. He would raise up a ruler that would serve over His people. And in fact, God was already preparing that king, even during the time of the judges, even during the time of chaos that we read about here in chapter 17 and 18. In a quiet and unexpected way, God was preparing a king for Israel even when everything seemed like it was complete chaos.

And if we were to flip over a few pages in our Bible to the next book, after the book of Judges you come to the book of Ruth, and the first verse of Ruth says, “In the days when the judges ruled.” In other words, “In the days when there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s when the events in the book of Ruth took place. And Ruth tells us about a story of famine and death and bitterness. And Ruth tells us about the story of a childless widow from the land of Moab. She was an outsider. She was from a nation that had oppressed the people of Israel even in the book of Judges. And yet, this outsider, this Moabite woman is enfolded into the people of God, she takes Israel’s God to be her God, and then in a reversal of circumstances this widow marries again, this time to Baoz, and she becomes a mother to Obed. And the book of Ruth ends with a genealogy. And it says that “Salmon fathered Boaz, and Boaz fathered Obed; Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”

You see, in the time of the judges when there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in his own eyes, God was raising up for the people a king. He was raising up for them their greatest king in the time of the Old Testament, King David, the one who received the promise of an eternal kingdom; the one who is the ancestor the King of kings and the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ Himself – the dead, buried, risen, ascended and reigning forever King. Jesus is the King that we all need, and God is raising up that King, even in the time of Judges. Even in these dark days, He’s working out His plan of salvation and He is preparing for them, for us, a King to rule in mercy and justice and righteousness, a King to establish peace and blessing forever. That’s what God is up to at the time of Micah and the Danites and this gross idolatry here in Judges.

We all have our idols, not the kind with a shrine and a carved image like we find in these chapters, but we may have shrines of different sorts in our homes. We may have a shrine to food and drink in our kitchen and wine racks. We may have shrines to entertainment in our living room and on our media devices. We may have shrines to sports and hobbies with our trophies and hunting gear; shrines to knowledge and learning on our bookshelves. And maybe shrines to looks and appearance in our closets and in our bathrooms, or shrines to luxury and status in our garages and our driveways. I’m not saying that those things are all idols, but if we’re going to find some, those would be good places to look. Our lifestyles, our general standard of living, so often embraces what the world has to offer to us and rarely is it examined or checked. But it needs to be. It needs to be looked at.

And there are other things that are idols in our lives as well – people and things and experiences. They’re the kinds of things that claim our affections and they define our identities. They give us this option like the idols in these chapters – the option to make and to take up and to set up and to do whatever is right in our own eyes. That’s what idolatry is. It is by definition making anything, other than Jesus, king in our lives. And this passage is a warning to us. It’s a warning to us about the danger of idolatry and it’s saying, it’s saying that Israel needs a King. It’s saying we need a King. And if we were to look at all of the kings in the land of Israel, the nation of Israel, that come after these books, they were supposed to represent God’s kingship, Yahweh as King. And all of those kings, at their best, were but a shadow and a dim reflection of the true King, of the kind of King Jesus would be. Because in Judges, even in Judges 17 and 18, Jesus is the King that Israel needs. Jesus is the King that we need – the King who establishes God’s people, the King who makes all things right.

And isn’t it good news to know that God’s not done with His people yet. God’s not done with us yet. And we find in His Word that His mercy triumphs over judgement, that even in our stubborn rebellion and idolatry God has a message of grace and He has a work of salvation in Christ Jesus for us. In Him there is forgiveness that He may be feared and worshiped and loved and adored rightly. I wonder if this week we could do something – we could maybe identify what is the biggest idol in our lives. “What’s the biggest idol in your life?” If you’re really bold and brave, tell it to someone you trust. Tell them what’s your biggest idol. Name it for what it is. Call it out. Take it to God in repentance. And then let’s give Jesus His rightful place as King in our lives, because you see, there is a King. Let’s do what is right in His eyes and not what is right in our own eyes.

Let’s pray.

 Father, we thank You that we have a King that reigns, that will return and one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. We pray, Father, that You would help us to see the danger of the idols in our lives, that they would not sneak in and be unnoticed and natural to us, but that You would show them to us in their ugliness, in their danger, in their deadliness, and that You would show us, You would show us what true glory is and what real beauty is and what majesty and dominion looks like. Help us to be awed with reverence and joy at who You are and who our Savior, Jesus, is, and that we would be committed to serve You. By Your Holy Spirit would You enable us to love You more, to trust You more, and to walk with You in joy. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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