MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 17, 2002 FROM JUDGES 17-18

 

            This week, we continue our look at this last section in the Old Testament book of Judges.  We noted last week that the final five chapters in this book differ significantly from the preceding section.  There, the author’s main focus was on the deliverers or judges God raised up to lead Israel during this chaotic time in their history.  The exploits of men like Othniel, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson are highlighted with no attempt to hide their many failings before God.  As we move into chapter 17 of Judges, the focus changes and at this point the author shifts his attention to the broader nation of Israel, not just her judges.  Chapters 17-18 turn the spotlight on the nation’s religious life—what their conception of Yahweh was and how that understanding influenced their practice of Judaism.  The final section beginning with chapter 19 highlights the broader picture of how the Jews lived out their lives morally.  Both of these stories are written in such a manner as to tell us that the events seen in them were typical of the day.  These stories represent a typical “slice of life” of the religious and moral life in Israel during this time before the anointing of king Saul.

            As we saw last week, the picture of national life portrayed by the author in this section could hardly be more repulsive.  The religious life of the larger community sadly mirrors the paganized spiritual life of the judges, especially the last judge portrayed, Samson.  The author pinpoints the heart of Israel’s sin in 17:6 and again in 18:1 where he says, “In those days, Israel had no king.”  As we showed last week, the author is not referring to a human king sitting on the throne in Jerusalem.  No, his point is to say that the people were not submitting to Yahweh as their king.  He explains this by saying in the second half of 17:6, “everyone did as he saw fit.”   The problem wasn’t that there was no king in Israel per se; it was that everyone had set themselves up as king in place of Yahweh.

            The story we looked at last week showed that although they were not submitting to Yahweh as their King, the Jews nonetheless were very religious people.  Isaiah would later say of these people in 29:13, “…"These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” The story we read last week in chapter 17 illustrates that fact.  Here is a man named Micah (whose very religious name means, “Who is like Yahweh?”) who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his mother.  When his mother utters a curse against whoever stole the money, Micah decides he better own up to his sin and confesses it to avoid the curse.  His mother, in an utterly perverse response, blesses her thieving son and is so grateful to God about his return of her stolen money she takes a part of the money and gives it to a silversmith so that he can make a carved image and a graven image.  Micah also adds a shrine; a priestly garment called an Ephod and some other idols—all for Yahweh. 

The fact that this religious tribute to Yahweh was wholly inconsistent with the law of God and was in fact an abomination to Him didn’t seem to be a stumbling block to Micah who rounded out his religious activities by consecrating his son to establish his very own priesthood.  Later on, (lucky for him) he recruits a wandering Levite who just happens to be looking for a place to hang out his priestly shingle.  The author tells us in verse 13, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.  Micah and the Levite settle on a mutually agreeable compensation package and the deal is struck.  As we leave chapter 17 Micah is sitting pretty with his mother’s blessing, a set of idols, a shrine and a priest to oversee his seemingly blossoming spiritual life. 

As much as we might read this and think, “I could never do that kind of thing” we are mistaken if we think that. And the reason is because Micah’s root sin is not all these foolish, self-contradictory things he chooses to do.  The root cause was the fact that Micah, like the rest of Israel was not submitting to Yahweh as his King and in the void created by the absence of any authentic, God-centered practice of faith, he creates for himself what we last week called a religion of the flesh.  When the Jews walked away from God in their hearts, they did not simply stop practicing their Judaism.  They simply found ways to practice a perverted form of Judaism that allowed them on the one hand, to maintain the parts of their faith that had a sentimental or emotional attachment for them.  However, in those areas of their religion that required them to deny their self-centered, fleshly appetites, they substituted a set of man made religious practices that would indulge their desire to remain independent from God.  That’s what was going on here there is a clear warning to us here.  That is, any time we have an area in our hearts or our church where we are not submitting to God, we too find ways to maintain those parts of our religion that have sentimental value to us.  But at the same time we can oh so subtly alter those parts of our religious practice that call us to obey God in ways that call us to die to ourselves.

            This story provides for us a case study of the religion of the flesh and it contains several of the indicators of when a person or church or nation (in Israel’s case) is guilty of practicing a religion that may in some ways look good, but is in fact full of self-deception and self-centeredness.  Last week, we saw that one mark of the religion of the flesh was blindness to internal inconsistencies.  Micah, his family and this Levite were blind to the fact that what they were doing was internally inconsistent with God and his law.  They thought their religion was just fine but they were blind.  We saw that we are not immune from this kind of blindness to internal inconsistencies ourselves and we mentioned several of those last week.  This week, we want to highlight another mark of fleshly religion as it is revealed here and ask the Holy Spirit to search our own hearts for any and all any hints of this counterfeit religion.

            Let’s read chapter 18, beginning with verse one.  In those days Israel had no king. And 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. 2So the Danites sent five warriors from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all their clans. They told them, "Go, explore the land."  The men entered the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah, where they spent the night. 3When they were near Micah's house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they turned in there and asked him, "Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? Why are you here?"  4He told them what Micah had done for him, and said, "He has hired me and I am his priest."   5Then they said to him, "Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful."   6The priest answered them, "Go in peace. Your journey has the Lord's approval."   7So the five men left and came to Laish, where they saw that the people were living in safety, like the Sidonians, unsuspecting and secure. And since their land lacked nothing, they were prosperous. Also, they lived a long way from the Sidonians and had no relationship with anyone else.  8When they returned to Zorah and Eshtaol, their brothers asked them, "How did you find things?"   9They answered, "Come on, let's attack them! We have seen that the land is very good. Aren't you going to do something? Don't hesitate to go there and take it over. 10When you get there, you will find an unsuspecting people and a spacious land that God has put into your hands, a land that lacks nothing whatever."  11Then six hundred men from the clan of the Danites, armed for battle, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol. 12On their way they set up camp near Kiriath Jearim in Judah. This is why the place west of Kiriath Jearim is called Mahaneh Dan to this day. 13From there they went on to the hill country of Ephraim and came to Micah's house.

14Then the five men who had spied out the land of Laish said to their brothers, "Do you know that one of these houses has an ephod, other household gods, a carved image and a cast idol? Now you know what to do." 15So they turned in there and went to the house of the young Levite at Micah's place and greeted him. 16The six hundred Danites, armed for battle, stood at the entrance to the gate. 17The five men who had spied out the land went inside and took the carved image, the ephod, the other household gods and the cast idol while the priest and the six hundred armed men stood at the entrance to the gate.  18When these men went into Micah's house and took the carved image, the ephod, the other household gods and the cast idol, the priest said to them, "What are you doing?"   19They answered him, "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?" 20Then the priest was glad. He took the ephod, the other household gods and the carved image and went along with the people. 21Putting their little children, their livestock and their possessions in front of them, they turned away and left.  22When they had gone some distance from Micah's house, the men who lived near Micah were called together and overtook the Danites. 23As they shouted after them, the Danites turned and said to Micah, "What's the matter with you that you called out your men to fight?"  24He replied, "You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, 'What's the matter with you?' "  25The Danites answered, "Don't argue with us, or some hot-tempered men will attack you, and you and your family will lose your lives." 26So the Danites went their way, and Micah, seeing that they were too strong for him, turned around and went back home.  27Then they took what Micah had made, and his priest, and 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. The city was in a valley near Beth Rehob.  The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. 29They named it Dan after their forefather Dan, who was born to Israel--though the city used to be called Laish. 30There the Danites set up for themselves the idols, 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. 31They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh. “

         As we move into chapter 18, another theme of the story is developed that is actually the main theme that chapter 17 has prepared us for.  If any of you have ever studied a map of Israel’s twelve tribes the maps are a bit puzzling because they have two Dans.  First there is this rather small, coastal tribe located in more or less the armpit of the tribe of Ephraim and bordered on the south by Judah in the west central part of Israel.  But in addition to that area there is also a city at the very northern tip of Israel about thirty miles East of Tyre and it is called Dan also.  This story in Judges 17 tells us how this northern city came about and how a tribe 100 miles to the south of this city could claim it as its own. 

Also, the Old Testament reveals that the northern King who more than any other person led Israel into rebellion against God and who set the precedent for wickedness and idolatry for the wicked kings to follow was Jeroboam.  Second Kings 10:29 tells us Jeroboam worshipped his wicked idols and made his pagan religious headquarters at Bethel and this northern city of Dan.  Here in Judges 18 we see how this pagan cult center was established right here during this time of the Judges.  The events of chapter 17 dovetail into those larger themes expressed here in chapter 18 and we also see other revealing marks of the religion of the flesh.  The mark of fleshly religion we want to shine the light on this morning is: fleshly religion is marked by sincere, but false expressions of faith directed toward achieving man-made, man-centered goals.

One of the striking elements of this story is the fact that these Danite scouts who go looking for additional living space for their growing tribe appear to express genuine faith in their endeavor.  We see this in a couple of places.  First, shortly after they begin their journey to their potential new northern city, they are quick to ask  this Levite in verse five, “Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful.” They meet a Levite and here they are getting what they believe is God’s word on this matter.  They appear to be genuinely interested in discovering the will of God here as they meet this priest.

A second expression of sincere faith is when they return to report back to the other Danites what they have seen up north.  In verse eight the tribe asks, “How did you find things?” They answered, "Come on, let's attack them! We have seen that the land is very good. Aren't you going to do something? Don't hesitate to go there and take it over. 10When you get there, you will find an unsuspecting people and a spacious land that God has put into your hands, a land that lacks nothing whatever." These people are trusting God—they say right here that God has put this land into their hands—they are trusting Him to deliver and it almost makes you wonder what would have happened if the nation of Israel under Moses would have shown this kind of faith when he led them to conquer the Promised Land back in Numbers 14.  These people are asking for God’s direction and are trusting that God will give them success as they march over100 miles from home to conquer what archaeologists have recently discovered to have been a very well fortified city.  Do you hear that faith—that appeal to God?

The author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wants us to hear that, to feel that.  But he also wants us to see what’s underneath these expressions of sincere, but false faith.  First, this land up north they were spying out was NOT part of their tribe’s inheritance.  God had not allotted this land to the tribe of Dan.  Joshua 19:40-46 records the inheritance of Dan, “The seventh lot came out for the tribe of Dan, clan by clan. 41The territory of their inheritance included:   Zorah, Eshtaol, Ir Shemesh, 42Shaalabbin, Aijalon, Ithlah, 43Elon, Timnah, Ekron, 44Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Baalath, 45Jehud, Bene Berak, Gath Rimmon, 46Me Jarkon and Rakkon, with the area facing Joppa.  If you were looking at a map of the 12 tribes you would see that this area was that area bordering Ephraim and Judah we mentioned earlier.  Verse 48 adds, “These towns and their villages were the inheritance of the tribe of Dan, clan by clan.” 

What I did not read to you was verse 47 which says, “(But the Danites had difficulty taking possession of their territory, so they went up and attacked Leshem, [otherwise known as Laish] took it, put it to the sword and occupied it. They settled in Leshem and named it Dan after their forefather.) Judges 1:34-36 records this in more detail, “The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain. 35And the Amorites were determined also to hold out in Mount Heres, Aijalon and Shaalbim, but when the power of the house of Joseph increased, they too were pressed into forced labor.

         That sheds a bit of a different light on things, doesn’t it?  The truth of the matter is, God had given to the tribe of Dan a fine inheritance consisting of about 17 towns and villages, but they did not trust God to work through them to drive the Ammorites out of much of that area.  So, as the tribe grew and they were unable to conquer the land God had given to them, they got cramped for space.  So, instead of going to God and confessing their faithlessness to him and asking him to reinvigorate them to go out and conquer the land God had already given to them, they do an end run around God’s revealed will.  They instead look beyond those stubborn, neighboring Amorites who were squatting on their actual inheritance and went looking for some other place that would require less effort and less faith from them.  This is the religion of the flesh on display here.

         The scouts go to the northern most part of Israel and here is Laish, which was probably under the umbrella of Tyre, a powerful Phoenician city, but was far enough away from it that it was isolated and vulnerable to attack.  The Danites see this very nice community located on one of the most fertile spots in all of Palestine and these people are ripe for the picking compared to those stubborn Amorites in their own back yard.  So, they go after it. Do you hear how that totally devalues all the sincere expressions of faith they showed?  What good is sincere faith if its looking toward the wrong object?

         Beyond that, let’s focus in on their interactions with this Levite.  First, notice they hadn’t intentionally gone looking for a priest for God’s direction.  They met this Levite on their way, incidental to what they had already decided they were going to do.  God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” There is no way these people were seeking after God’s will with all their heart because their meeting with him did not occur as a result of them being sincerely interested in what God’s will was.  In their “good fortune” they met him along the way. You can almost hear these self-deceived folks assuring themselves that, “God must surely be leading us and blessing us because after all, look how he “sent”us this Levite to confirm that our God was in on our mission.”   Do you see how self-deceived these people are?

         More basic than that is the fact that when the spies go back and get 600 warriors to go with them up to Dan, they make a return visit to Micah’s house and this time they are not just looking for a place to stay.  With 600 of them garrisoned around the gate, they go into Micah’s house and brazenly steal from him all this religious gear he had been collecting and his priest to boot—this one who had become like one of his sons according to 17:11.  These men who had seemingly shown such sincere faith in Yahweh had earlier spied out Micah’s impressive religious collection and made a note of it.  On their return trip when they brought their “muscle” with them, they relieve this pathetic Micah character of his idols and even his own personal priest.  They have this humorous exchange with Micah where they basically tell Micah and his supporters to shut up and go home—they had what they wanted, thank you, and this hapless man returns home without his gods or any of the other spiritual accoutrements he had managed to accumulate.

            Finally, notice what is perhaps the most stunning of these developments.  These Danites, who are convinced idolaters and thieves, who are on a mission that is totally man-made and self-centered, wildly succeed in their endeavor! Verse 27, “Then they took what Micah had made, and his priest, and 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. The city was in a valley near Beth Rehob.  The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. 29They named it Dan after their forefather Dan, who was born to Israel--though the city used to be called Laish. “  Folks, this worked!  Their man-made, man-centered goals were achieved—the maps prove it.

            These people got some of the choicest land in all of Palestine, they named it after their forefather Dan and were the only tribe in Israel to establish a satellite community and it was ALL WICKED!!  George McDonald said, “Anything done apart from God is destined to either fail miserably or succeed more miserably.”  Folks, this is one of the more sobering stories in the Bible as it speaks into the context of 21st century North American Evangelicalism which is far too often “succeeding” miserably.

            The fact is, the evangelical church is the envy of North American Christendom for its comparative success.  The mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics look with envy on the bodies, buildings and bucks evangelicalism is putting up compared to them.  Huge mega-churches are sprouting in every urban center, millions of evangelical books (mostly Christian fiction) are being sold.  Evangelicalism has for years been blazing the trail in the establishment of countless radio and television ministries.  When other so called Christian churches are closing their doors at an unprecedented rate, evangelicals are planting new churches by the hundreds.

            I’m not about to be presumptuous enough to say that God isn’t in some of that—you can’t paint that broadly.  God is doubtless in that which truly conforms to his word. What we can say is that in an era of the comparative success of evangelicalism in noses and nickels, there are some very disturbing, foundational weaknesses.  All research shows that the moral climate within evangelicalism is disturbingly like the world.  The church, which is founded on the word of God, is increasingly becoming biblically illiterate and the unchanging gospel message preached to unbelievers today in many cases doesn’t even faintly resemble the evangelistic message preached during the Great Awakening.  The message preached to sinners is more and more watered down to attract large numbers of people, who although needing Christ, don’t necessarily want to hear that they are sinners bound for hell and in desperate need of forgiveness from a holy God who hates sin.

            In that highly questionable spiritual climate evangelicalism is succeeding wildly on a comparative basis.  The religion of the flesh is alive and well in evangelicalism today. Isaiah 29:13 is still being lived out today in evangelicalism,  The Lord says:  "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”   The applications to this story go well beyond our evangelistic message to the role of the bible in church ministry methods and what we expect from the local church.  And the frightening truth is that if the money is coming in and the number of people is growing, you will have all sorts of people who will assume without knowing anything else about the ministry that God is obviously moving in your church or movement.  That assessment is far too often tragically made with an eye only on your turnstiles and your bank account but seldom with a critical eye on the content of your message or the biblical basis of your methods.

A.W. Tozer in an article titled “The voice of God Speaking” comments on how easy it is to assume something is from God when it is not and he says, “Most people, if they happen to be in any church anywhere, accept the status quo without knowing or caring to inquire how it came to be.  In other words, they do not ask, “Oh God, is this of You, is this divine, is this out of the Bible?”  Because it was done and is being done, and because a lot of people are doing it, they assume it is all right.  Then songs are written about it, and it gets into magazines.  Pretty soon people are called to it, and the first thing we know we have gotten into a religious situation that is not of God.  It is not according to Scripture, and God is not pleased with it at all.  Rather, he is angry.”

         This story in Judges 17-18 should be a huge wake up call for us to ask God to search out and reveal in us the religion of the flesh.  But this kind of self-deception is not seen only in the broader evangelical work.  What about us here at Mount of Olives?  We recently completed an effort to purchase Birchwood Elementary School.  I can’t speak for anyone else but the reason that option was so compelling to me was because it was a whole lot easier than building a new addition here.  It was 33,000 square feet on 15 acres for a cool million dollars.  I have seen enough dismal failures when churches build additions. Non mega-churches seemingly almost always either build a building that is too small soon after they move in if they build within their financial means.  Or, if they build a larger facility, they often end up paying on a mortgage for the next 20 years, an option I simply can’t see as biblical either.  To do the right thing—to build large enough AND with enough MONEY to pay it off on the short term is a very hard thing to do—in fact, its impossible without God.  So again, speaking for myself, I wanted to head north, away from this place and do something that was easier.

         Do you see the point?  Was Birchwood our Laish? I can’t say that is true for anyone else, but as I have allowed God to search my heart, I have to make a confession and tell you I believe this is what was happening in my heart.  And if that was what was happening on a broad scale, I thank God he did not allow us to succeed miserably by buying a place that was not his will for us.  Maybe, just maybe God wants us to trust him for a series of miracle in all of this that will bring honor to Him.  Do you suppose that could be true?  If God wants us to expand our tent pegs here (and I believe we are regularly turning people away because we are so tightly crammed in here) then it would seem that he wants us to conquer the stubborn financial obstacles and build a building that is big enough to grow into and do it WITHOUT long term debt.  That is a tall order, but no taller than when God told the Danites to secure their land from their stubborn Amorite neighbors. 

         Whether that construction of recent events is true or not, it illustrates the point.  That is, it is far easier than most of us would want to admit to do something that we believe comes from God and have sincere faith in something that in fact does not come from God at all.  It may be shrouded in all sorts of religious language and even prayer but when you search it out, it’s based in our own deceptive, fleshly desires to avoid the hard work of self-denial and trusting God.  We must be ruthless with our flesh and carefully seek after God wholeheartedly to discover his will for us as individuals and as a church so that we are not engaging in the religion of the flesh.  May God give us the grace to do that.

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