The Corruption of Worship (Judges 17-18)
Jack Arnold writes:
There can be no appreciation for the Reformation until one sees the great spiritual need of the western world in the 16th century. No Christian, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Independent can gloss over the period of history from 590 to 1517. This period is a “black spot” to all who name the name of Christ, but it is Christian history.
The Medieval Church had repeated the failure of Israel during the time of the Judges. Their worship had grown increasingly corrupt to the point that orthodox doctrine was almost entirely absent. If it weren’t for the book of Ruth, we might think the entire nation had lost it’s way. If it weren’t for the Protestant Reformation we might think true Christianity was unrecoverable.
Despite the multitude of examples of corrupt worship throughout history, we continue to see innovations in worship today, methods that make a mockery of biblical worship.
- The church used to offer grace to the highest bidder and people clamored to purchase it. Today’s church promises to entertain whoever shows up, and the interest is in steady decline.
- Whereas the Pope was infallible, today’s pastor is unaccountable.
- The Roman Catholic Church manufactured reverence with sacerdotalism (assigning supernatural gifts to the priesthood) and the doctrine of sinless perfectionism that assigned clergy with a superior holiness. However, modern worship services oftentimes lack reverence altogether. Who needs to manufacture reverence when no one is looking for it?
The corruption of worship is an ongoing problem. And it’s illustrated in this passage as a sort of tragicomedy, the likes of which Shakespeare couldn’t have made up.
The conclusion, like the introduction, contains episodes that display the political and religious decline of Israel. However, they come in reverse order. Chapters 17-18 detail Israel’s religious decline. Chapters 19-21 detail Israel’s political decline (which is the result of their religious failure).
God’s absence near the end of Samson’s life was fairly short, but in these chapters, there isn’t a single reference to divine activity. We only have imposters speaking about/for God. Of course, God is not ignoring the idolatry of his people, but folding it in upon itself.
Left to our own imaginations and devices, we make a mockery of biblical worship and a shipwreck of our faith.
Read Judges 17-18
I. Idolatry in the Household of Micah (17:1-13)
1. Micah’s House of Spiritual Oddities Begins (1-5)
Micah confesses to stealing 1,100pcs of silver from his mother (1-2). Instead of receiving discipline, his mother blesses him. Even worse, she dedicates 200pcs (~5lbs.) of the returned silver to craft an idol for her son (3-4) in direct violation of the 2nd Commandment (Exod. 20:4-6). Micah promptly establishes a cult, ordaining his son as priest (5).
When it comes to the worship of God, we cannot look outside his revealed will without corrupting the very act itself! Biblical liturgy is not the cause of dead worship. The problem stems from corrupt practice and depraved hearts.
2. Closing refrain 4x (6, cf. 18:1; 19:1; 21:25)
This repeated refrain reveals the author’s perspective, despite the neutral way in which the narrative unfolds. It’s centered in the passage to indicate its priority. It stands in direct contrast with Deut. 12:8. In fact, the contrast with Deut. 12:1-13:1 is consistent throughout Judges 17-18.
3. Micah’s House of Spiritual Odditites Matures (7-13)
Priest For Hire: Micah hires a young wandering Levite for a nice salary, complete with a clothing allowance (7-11)! There were provisions in the law to care for a sojourning Levite (Deut. 18:6-9), but Micah’s offer was clearly out of accord with the law.
Micah is willing to submit to a “boy” as his “father”, but ends up treating him like a son. He ordains the Levite, and sincerely believes Yahweh will prosper him for hiring a Levite as priest (12-13).
Corrupt worship that is offered in sincerity is still corrupt. Syncretism is getting worship partially right, which is completely wrong! Some churches are more corrupt than others, but all corruption is sinful. That’s why I think Presbyterian polity is so important. No church is an island. Some hearts are more depraved than others, but every part of us experiences the effects of the fall. Which is why accountability for leadership is so important.
Like Micah, we all want the Lord’s favor upon our homes and churches. But we don’t get to establish the rules. The Lord prospers those who honor his prescribed will in worship (Psalm 112:1-3).
Idolatry in a single household quickly escalates to…
II. Idolatry in the Tribe of Dan (18:1-31)
1. Micah’s Levite Assures Danite Spies (1-10)
After another occurrence of the closing refrain, we meet the wandering Danites (Judges 1:34). They send 5 spies to explore an area for them to settle. They stay the night at Micah’s House (1-2) where they recognized the Levite’s voice. After perfunctory pleasantries, they ask him to inquire God about the success of their journey. He gives them Yahweh’s blessing (3-6). The spies find Laish enticing for its suburban isolation and security. They return with a good report about the land of Laish and advise an attack (7-10).
Their false sense of security stemmed from the blessing of a false priest which only serves to multiply their corruption in the next section.
2. Micah’s Levite Becomes Dan’s Levite (11-26)
Having received an encouraging report about the land of Laish, Danite’s 600 man army sets out to visit Micah’s house. The army stood guard at the gate with the priest while the 5 spies stole the idols. They encourage Micah’s Levite to become a priest for their tribe, instead of just one family. It was an offer he gladly accepted (11-20).
They set out for Laish, but Micah’s neighbors gathered together and caught up to Dan’s army. Dan question’s Micah, who accuses them of stealing his idols and priest. Dan threatens to kill Micah and his family. Clearly outnumbered, Micah and his men retreat (21-26).
True worship-in Spirit and truth-can never be stolen, and it’s always worth dying to preserve. We should give God all the glory for preserving the strength and faith of the Reformers who began their mission vastly outnumbered, and often faced the penalty of death for their rebellion.
3. Dan Attacks Laish and Establishes Idolatry There (27-31)
The Danites attack the unsuspecting people of Laish, setting the city on fire (27). Incapable of taking the land allotted to them, they strive to take advantage of weaker unsuspecting foes.
The Danites are the opposite of heroic. They steal Micah’s idols and priest, then attack a defenseless city. But they are successful. Material success does not equal divine approval. It’s such a difficult lesson for the church to learn.
Being so isolated, Laish had no one to rescue them. So the Danites resided in the city renaming it Dan (28-29). They setup the cult and made Jonathan and his sons priests. So much for their loyalty to Micah’s Levite. However, they did retain use of Micah’s idol (30-31).
Whether we are envious of others’ success, or confused about our own lack of success, we should beware when worldly success is our primary motivation. When it is, we can almost guarantee to find the corruption of worship.
If you were ever in doubt about the Regulative Principle of Worship, this passage should raise its importance. Religious and moral failure cannot be overcome by self-prescribed worship. The solution is a return to God’s prescription of Spirit-enabled worship.
WCF 21.1 “…the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”
Instead of doing everything that’s right in our own eyes, we must do everything God commands, careful not to add or take away from his instructions (Deut. 12:32). True worship is offered to God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian in makeup and practice (WCF 21.2).
Although Micah and Dan understood their need for a mediator, they manipulated God’s prescription to suit their own desires. The compounding nature of the sin of Micah and the tribe of Dan portrays the corruption of worship, revealing the need for a king who can subdue our hearts.
There ought to be an unassuming humility in our worship. I love how it’s stated in the hymn “O Worship the King”:
“O measureless Might! Ineffable Love! While angels delight to hymn you above, the humbler creation, though feeble their lays, with true adoration shall lisp to your praise.”
When you feel your feeble nature most keenly, you must guard your heart most cautiously. God has given us the means of offering him true adoration through lisping praise. You bring nothing with you, but he offers to give you everything you need (Isa. 55:1-3)!