We are saved to worship. Indeed, in His well-known evangelism of the woman at the well, does not our Lord tell her, “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23)? God’s plan from all eternity has been an earthly kingdom of sanctified worshipers, submitted to His rule and rightly relating to, representing, and ruling for Him. While this mission was not derailed by the Fall and while it will be ultimately (and gloriously) successful, this does not mean there are no obstacles, failures, or attempts to short-circuit. The fallen human heart, through irrevocably designed to worship, refuses to worship the true God, or else attempts to worship Him in an unauthorized way. If worship is designed as allegiance to or yieldedness to an ultimate authority, then virtually every sin, area of bondage, foolish decision, and expression of carnality can be traced to false worship.
But worship is never more important than at its pinnacle: the worship of God formally as His gathered people. It is true that all of life is worship, so we are to honor the Lord and be separated from the world and unto Him in all things. But formal worship is when surrendered worshipers publicly gather to hear from God, be taught by Him, offer their praises and prayer, and be sent into a world that needs the gospel backed by holy lives. Indeed, this principle is so important that in this dispensation the local church is not the church unless it gathers together (1 Cor 11:17-21). Of all times, this is when our worship ought to be the most scrupulous, pure, and God-honoring.
In the book of Judges, seasons of intense carnality on the part of Israel provide instruction for us today in understanding our own hearts as well as the holy standard to which the Lord calls us by His grace. Chapters 17 and 18 underscore our tendency to worship God in an unauthorized (and therefore wicked) way and the destruction that will inevitably follow.
A. A Strange Relationship (17:1-4)
Judges takes place after the conquest of the Land under Joshua but prior to the monarchial period beginning under Saul. After the death of Joshua, God’s people looked to a series of divinely-empowered and guided individuals called judges for leadership and influence; this period lasted approximately 350 years (c. 1398 BC—c. 1043 BC). Judges records a cycle of disobedience, apostasy, and deliverance by the Lord.
It is of note that Micah, our main character for this section, lives in the hill country of Ephraim. This was the tribe born to Joseph, and which rose to great prominence and visibility. However, they were a key reason the Canaanites were allowed to flourish in the Land (Ex. 23:23-25; Josh. 16:10; Judges 1:29); this pagan influence, particularly through intermarriage, is a key factor in the Israelites’ cyclical rebellion.
We open with Micah talking with his mother about a large sum of money that was taken from her (1,100 pieces of silver would have been more than a lifetime’s wages for the average worker). Micah’s mother was understandably so incensed about the loss that she openly cursed, in Micah’s hearing, whoever stole the money. After this incident, Micah reveals to his mother that he took the money for an unstated reason. Here is the strangeness: First, she blesses him (nothing like having one standard for your family and another for everyone else!); then, she tells him she dedicates the money to create a collection of graven images to use in worship (vv. 2-3). Upon having the money returned to her, she does just that (v. 4). Perhaps she blesses him because her intent to pursue idolatry is not lost to her; indeed, it is enabled by the culprit being so close at hand. Second, she now has someone who can be complicit in her idolatry, as the idols resided in Micah’s home.
The point of this initially bizarre section is most fascinating. First, the missing money is but a foil to open up the real topic of the section: the inclination of the human heart to idolatry. But what is most interesting is how the familial relationship influences our choices. Obviously, Micah was not the godliest of men; he stole from his own mother and willingly collaborated with her in her idolatry. But this type of behavior and heart-inclination does not happen overnight. Obviously he had had a strong influence on him and had shaped his understanding of life, God, righteousness, and all the rest to the point that he would willingly collaborate with her in a heinous enterprise.
This is not to say that parents are all at fault. Or that children raised in righteous homes will follow the steps of their parents’ godliness. But it is to underscore how deeply influential the family unit is, by design, in shaping the contours of our hearts’ affections, inclinations, choices, values, and understanding of God, self, and His world. Cannot most problems in life, church, and world be traced to some deficiency in the home? Are not family relationships of such great importance that a married man is not qualified for eldership if his home life is not exemplary? God intends much for the family as the cornerstone unit of both church and society. Micah’s mother—and Micah himself—serves as a powerful waning to parents to aggressively cultivate godliness in their own hearts, that they can be a right example to the children God has entrusted to them. The wrong example can bring generations of carnality, sorrow, destruction, and death.
B. Strange Worship (17:5-13)
Micah takes the idols to his home and adds them to the household idols he already had (which proves his inclination to idolatry did not just crop up out of nowhere). He also makes an ephod (a garment worn by the high priest) and even commissions his own son to be the priest of this makeshift shrine. The point of all of this is clear: Micah believes he can worship Yahweh his own way, regardless of God’s meticulously clear instructions on where and how He was to be approached. To deal so brazenly with the holy God is nothing short of flabbergasting. In an excellent essay on restricting ourselves to the worship of God explicitly commanded in the Scriptures, Kevin Bauder writes, “If God has not asked us to present a particular thing as part of our worship, then we have no reason to think that it will please Him. If we are not offering it to please Him, however, then we are by definition offering it to please men …offering what God does not command is the essence of idolatry.”
Indeed, the wickedness is only compounded by a priest whose disobedience and flippancy matches Micah’s own. Deliberately departing from one of the cities allotted to Levitical priests to lodge wherever he might find a place, he comes across Micah—who, wonder of wonders, wants an actual Levite to complete his “Idolatrous Will-Worship” starter kit. Micah gives the man a salary and lodging in exchange for being the family priest and leading syncretistic worship. As with his own son, Micah rebelliously consecrates this priest, and assumes the Lord will prosper his efforts because of the priest’s presence.
There is much going on in this section. It is shocking to see the depths to which Micah goes in worshiping God in his “own way.” He sullies a priest of God in his pursuit of false worship—and the priest is willingly sullied! Worst of all, Micah presumes upon God’s blessing simply because the priest in his home is a Levite—it matters not that the priest is collaborating with Micah to worship Yahweh in an ungodly way!
C. The Fallout (18:1-6, 14-20, 30-31)
In His kindness, God includes in His record the consequences of wicked choices as a warning to us. Here, God uses the wicked tribe of Dan to judge His rebellious Israelite. Dan, of course, was prophesied to be a great stumblingblock to the nation, and he was. The tribe was given no physical inheritance in the Land, so we see it roaming from city to city, scoping out weak spots to claim whole cities for itself.
Representatives of the tribe make their way to the hill country of Ephraim, of course, and run into Micah’s renegade Levite. He tells them his story and adds that Micah made him his priest (notice he doesn’t even say he is a Levite). They are thrilled to have run into a priest and ask him for divine guidance on their mission to weaken fellow Israelite cities. Without even consulting the mouth of Yahweh (as the foolish Israelites did in Joshua’s day; Joshua 9:14), the priest assures them that He will bless their efforts and prosper them.
Upon their return to Micah’s home after consulting with other members of the tribe—along with 600 men of war—they capture Micah’s idols. When the priest asks them what they’re doing, they tell him to come with them, for which is better: to be a priest to a household, or to an entire tribe? Drawn by the implied promise of prominence and likely greater financial remuneration and security, the priest abandons Micah and his family. This is telling: The man was not even committed to his idolatrous worship of Yahweh. He simply wanted what gave him the most power, prominence, money, and influence. He would tell people what they wanted to hear if it kept him safe and esteemed his own image. This is the picture of a hireling, who cares only for his own influence, power, and visibility, not for the protection (much less the spiritual well being) of those he serves. Nor does he care for the honor and right worship of God!
Micah is left with nothing. His idols now grace the worship center of Dan, which has commissioned its own bastard priests and will see generations of false worship—all the way to the captivity of the Land hundreds of years later (vv. 30-31)! This is a fitting dual picture of false worship’s consequences: It always leaves us with less than what we started with, and has the potential to wrongly, corruptingly influence literally generations of people with false ideas of God, His holiness, His glory, His purposes, and our rightly-ordered response to Him.
God is jealous for pure worship. He does not want the worship of our own foolish, unsanctified thinking and perception. He wishes to be worshiped in the pure, sacred, divinely-revealed way He has instructed us in the Scripture. We must not mingle His worship with worldliness, carnality, triviality, or the fallen elements of our culture. To rightly image our blindingly holy God, we must worship Him as only His eternal, divine mind could understand and express. May we purify our worship of everything that dishonors Him, and learn to worship Him as He has proscribed, for our blessing, His glory, and the eternal benefit of all who could be influenced by our example.