MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 1, 2002 FROM JUDGES 17-18
This week we conclude our treatment of Judges 17-18. The past three weeks we have examined this sad but captivating story, which revolves around three major characters. The first character we encountered is this Jew from Ephraim named Micah. This man is introduced to us a man who returned money he had stolen from his mother only after his mother had put a curse on the thief. In response, the mother dedicates a portion of the returned money to the creation of pagan, household idols in honor of Yahweh. Micah also manages to collect for his household a number of other pagan artifacts and even consecrates his son to be his own personal priest. All this pagan activity is in his deceived mind paying tribute to Yahweh. The second major character is a Levite from Judah named Jonathan who was a close descendant of Moses. This priest, when we meet him is wandering the countryside like some vagabond when he happens upon Micah. At Micah’s request, he agrees to replace Micah’s son as his personal priest because as a Levite he had more training and credentials to officiate over this pagan priesthood Micah has established. Micah offers this Levite an attractive salary and benefit package and the deal is struck. The text also tells us that Jonathan the Levite becomes like one of Micah’s sons.
The third character in the story is actually one of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Dan. Dan was located under Ephraim but was cramped for space because the men of Dan had failed to destroy the Amorites who had been living there. They did not have enough faith to trust God and fight successfully to claim the inheritance God had allotted to them during the time of Joshua. In keeping with their faithlessness, they decided it would be easier for them to conquer some other place and move some of their burgeoning population to that place rather than to attempt to drive off those Amorites from their own land. The lives of Micah, Jonathan and the tribe of Dan intersect when, on their way to spy out this northern city that later became known as “Dan,” the tribal spies stop in to stay with Micah and noticed his “impressive” collection of idols and other pagan paraphernalia. Later on, they return with 600 warriors and steal not only all of Micah’s idols, but also his priest. The men of Dan persuade Micah’s priest that it would be a good career move for him if he were to leave Micah where he was just a “household priest” and go with them to be their tribal priest. This unexpected prospect of career advancement thrilled the young Levite and he went with them to this new northern city they had conquered.
This city of Dan later on became one of two major pagan cult worship centers in Israel under the reign of the evil king Jeroboam and the roots of that pagan center are right here in Judges 17-18. This story, like the one after it in Judges is obviously riddled with sin that characterized not only the characters in this story but the entire paganized nation of Israel during the Judges. These two chapters expose how corrupt the religion of Yahweh was during this time. The author tells us in 17:6 that what was behind all this self-deceived, godless behavior from both the people and the priesthood was, “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” The people were religious—still named God, prayed to God and at least outwardly sought God’s guidance. The problem was that their religious practice was ultimately motivated by what they selfishly considered was in their own best interest. Their religion, rather than encouraging them to know and serve Yahweh in the joy of the Lord, had degenerated into this kind of man-centered, Ophrah Winfrey spirituality that is today more and more influencing evangelicalism. Micah exemplifies this when, after contracting this Levite to be his very own household priest he says in 17:13, “Now I know God will prosper me (be good to me) since this Levite has become my priest.” Its clear that, when you got right down to it, Micah’s expectation of God was that He existed to prosper him. Micah’s part was to pull the right chain or push the right button so this divine slot machine would pay out to him. As we said, this is a temptation for all of us.
His religion was ultimately all about him. We have called this self-centered approach to God—“the religion of the flesh” and we have noted three marks of fleshly religion seen in this story. The first mark of fleshly religion we mentioned was: blindness to internal inconsistencies. It is amazing to us that Micah and his mother would think that Yahweh would in any way be honored through the establishment of a pagan priesthood in his honor, but they were utterly blind to this basic spiritual truth. A second mark of fleshly religion we noted was: sincere but false expressions of faith. These scouts from Dan who were looking for their inheritance in all the wrong places were apparently sincere when they at one point asked this young Levite to seek the Lord on whether God would bless their thoroughly unbiblical and faithless mission. Fleshly religion is often expressed in sincere and even sacrificial expressions of faith but its dead at the heart because when you peel back all the layers of religious language and all the tears, the root concern is, “what will satisfy my fleshly, carnal, temporal appetites.” We said perhaps the most sobering truth in all this is that these foolish, misguided Danites actually succeed in destroying this northern city and claiming it as their own as part of “God’s inheritance” for them. Just because something succeeds on a human level doesn’t mean it’s from God. The only true measure of success in the practice of our religion is, is it true to the word of God?
A third mark of the religion of the flesh in this story is, the profaning of sacred things by reducing them to the merely material. This young Levite had received a sacred calling and commission from God as a priest of Yahweh. He profaned that calling by using it as a way to make a living and a name for himself. When these Danites offer him a larger audience for his “ministry” he is very glad about it and the reason is because of his profane attitude toward the priesthood. His performance of his priestly duties was done for his own selfish, godless desires. He betrays Micah, who had basically adopted him as his son, because the Danites had offered him a better package. Jonathan’s life teaches us that fleshly religion never brings satisfaction, which we have not made one of our major points but it certainly could be. When the priest is presented with an opportunity to serve more people and have more influence, he snaps at it because he wasn’t content being a priest to just Micah. The material realm, which was what motivated him, can never satisfy. Augustine said, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” What this life offers in the temporal and material realm whether it’s money, honor, status, possessions is chaff that will all be burned up and was never intended by God to bring joy and satisfaction to eternal beings created in his image. Think about it. Human beings are ultimately spiritual and eternal beings. Doesn’t it only make sense that we are simply not designed to be satisfied by material and temporal things? There is emptiness there and Jonathan illustrates that.
These are marks of the religion of the flesh and we too must be on guard against the wicked tendency to make our religion about us rather than God. We too can be amazingly blind to the internal inconsistencies between what we say we believe and what we actually do. We too can be very sincere in the expression of our faith, but actually be using God to further our own selfish ends. And in our wildly materialistic culture it is all too easy for us to be guilty of profaning the sacred by reducing it to the merely material.
This morning we want to conclude our treatment of these two chapters by citing one final mark of the religion of the flesh. To do that, we will return where we started, with this Jew named Micah. Our point derives from two texts. The first one we have already mentioned is 17:13 where Micah, after hiring Jonathan as his new priest says, “Now I know God will prosper me (be good to me) since this Levite has become my priest.” For what appears to be at least several months, Micah does quite well according to his terms. He has his own live-in priest who has become like a son to him and has a fairly striking collection of pagan religious accoutrements. It is so impressive that when the men of Dan see it, they subsequently relieve him not only of his priest but his pagan shrine and all the rest that went along with that. The theft evidently occurs while Micah is away and Jonathan actually assists these men from Dan in the heist. They all proceed to “high tail” it out of there but some time soon after that Micah discovers his loss, takes some of his neighbors and sets out in hot pursuit of this army of Dan.
We pick up the story from there beginning in 18:22 where it says of these Danites and the priest, “When 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.
The final mark of fleshly religion, which is so powerfully seen in Micah is: fleshly religion always terminates in great loss. Do you notice the tremendous irony the story brings out about Micah? His goal in life was to prosper. He reasoned that would happen now that he had discovered a way (by hiring a Levite as his priest) to compel God to bless his life. Of all the characters, Micah is the most explicit about what he wants out of life and what he wants out of God—to be prospered—he wanted his life to go well. That’s what the original language communicates. He goes about with some intentionality pursuing this good life. Yet Micah, who is clearly portrayed as strongly pursuing prosperity as his ultimate goal, ends up being such a tragic figure, you can’t help but feel sorry for this thoroughly paganized man. What Micah spends all of chapter 17 accumulating--what he believes will ensure that things will go well with him, are all taken away in a moment and he is left not only with nothing materially but he utters this truly pathetic, gut wrenching cry, “You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have left?” “What else do I have left?” Oh, what a heart-breaking statement that is and the reason it is so heartbreaking is because Micah had NOTHING left. Everything he found ultimate meaning in, everything he had worked for to give him prosperity vaporized and he was left with nothing. What he had been placing his hope in was temporal even though it was in the context of religion. When this fleshly religion collapsed (as temporal things always do) he was left a broken, empty, pathetic man.
We need to feel the pain and futility the Holy Spirit so carefully places here. That’s what we are supposed to feel here and one reason we should feel this so strongly is because we are daily surrounded by lost people—perhaps very religious people who are just like Micah. People who, apart from God’s grace will one day, perhaps in this life and certainly in the next ask the same question Micah asked, “What else do I have left?” When they look up from that hospital bed or their nursing home bed and their breathing is labored and they’re about to lose their vain struggle against death, if they have their senses they will be looking in only one direction—backward at their earthly life. And the reason is because that is where everything they valued is. They may speak reassuringly of the life to come, but its phony because there is nothing there for them—nothing but vain hopes in a God they don’t know. If we think Micah is a pathetic figure, the sense of emptiness he feels is not worth comparing to the futility of the sinner on his deathbed. And God has sent his church into this world filled with these people who are, or will one day be asking, "What else do I have left?” And into that emptiness and futility we have the privilege of pointing them to Christ who is “the way, the truth and the life” and who died to free them from the penalty of their sin and the futility of their pathetic, sin-darkened lives.
What a violent contrast there is between this pitiful Micah and Job. Job had enormous wealth and he loses much more than a small time operator like Micah. He also lost his seven sons and three daughters. In one fell swoop his kids are all dead. He lost everything but his wife and as it turned out her survival was no great blessing to him. Her enlightened counsel to him after Satan had attacked his body was, “Curse God and die.” What a treasure she was! But Job, after Satan’s first attack where he lost everything but his health responds to that by saying, “Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked I depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” Do you hear the profound difference between Job and Micah?
When Micah lost what he had worked to accumulate, he lost everything because that was all he had--he had placed his hope in what he had gotten for himself in his self-centered religion. When it is taken away from him, we see that his fleshly religion is stripped of all it’s pretense and exposed for what it had been all along—temporal and self-centered. So he is left with nothing and pathetically asks, “What else do I have left?” Job, on the other hand, even though he lost far more than Micah, his hope was in God. So, when it was all taken away, he hadn’t lost his source of hope and joy. The central Element of his life was God and the fact that he had lost all his children and every cent he had didn’t affect one iota what was at the center of his life. The point is not only to contrast Job and Micah’s response to their respective losses. The point is--it was only when all the things they had accumulated were ripped away from them that we can most clearly see what was truly at the center of their lives. The same is often true for us. We often don’t think we are placing undue hope in something or someone until they are threatened or even torn away from us. We may have a dogmatic profession that Christ is our all in all, but that profession is often contradicted when we the other things—the things we THINK are of secondary importance are threatened or taken away from us. Before God allowed Satan to attack Job, Job would have told you that God was the center pole around which his life revolved. But now we don’t have to speculate on the sincerity of that claim because when he did indeed lose everything his response was, “may the name of the LORD be praised.” Likewise, Micah made quite a show of his spirituality. He had spent good money (some of it no doubt his own) and significant time and energy creating a lasting spiritual legacy. But because his religion was false and self-centered, when these religious trappings were taken from him, he was left with nothing.
How do we respond when something we value is taken away or threatened? In the midst of our trial do we, like Job maintain a rock-solid faith in God and his faithfulness? To put it another way, when something or someone we value greatly is lost or threatened is God enough for us during those times? God was enough for Job—until his so-called friends came and tore at his open wounds. Is God enough for us? Or do we fret and worry or get angry or frustrated or feel empty when we are faced with loss? We can tell an awful lot about where we are with Christ by what makes us a happy and what makes us feel sad. Micah was ecstatic when he hired this priest who he thought would guarantee prosperity and the priest was overjoyed when he was offered a big promotion. Are those the kind of things that bring happiness to us—do we find our greatest and deepest joys in those temporal happenings. On the other hand, what makes us sad and feeling empty is an irritatingly accurate indicator of our spiritual temperature. If we, like Micah are crushed over what are only temporal losses and setbacks, then we are clearly placing way too much emphasis on something that, the moment our heart stops will be meaningless to us.
Jesus put it this way in John 12:25, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Another way to state that is this—life, true life, eternal life is seen in you if you are willing for Christ’s sake to part with anything that is native to this life—your possessions, your money, your reputation, even your very life. But if you are not willing, for Christ’s sake to part with that which is native to this life—your possessions, your money, your reputation, your life, then you do not have this eternal quality of life found in Christ. If that describes you, then you are a counterfeit practicing a religion of the flesh that, when you boil it all down is motivated by your desire to fulfill your temporal, fleshly appetites and not to live for the glory of Christ in the joy of the Lord. May God give us the grace to the live out a true and undefiled religion of the Spirit for the glory of God.
Jesus not only preached this message of losing your life, he lived it. Or more accurately, he died it and that is part of what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.
Page last modified on 12/8/2002
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