We’re told every single day and everywhere we look that if we will be true to ourselves and do what lies in our hearts, we’ll be on the right track. As we arrive at the end of the book of Judges in our series, Going It Alone, we see a powerful example of the fact that this just isn’t the case. What is the case? Read on to find out.
Right in Our Eyes
Have you ever seen the movie Suicide Squad? It came out a few years ago. They’re working on a sequel/relaunch with a new director and some new key character swaps. D.C. Comics is trying to get all the mileage out of the fan-favorite character Harley Quinn they can, especially after her solo/ensemble film Birds of Prey flopped so badly a few months ago. As far as superhero movies go, Suicide Squad was pretty good. The major villain seemed to serve as more of a placeholder while the stories of the various “heroes” were told, but in that arena, they really hit a home run I thought. It made enough money to prompt the sequels I mentioned, but I can’t see how it will serve as much more than a minor rabbit trail in the larger cinematic universe that D.C. Comics is still trying to build in hopes of rivaling the juggernaut that Marvel has put together. So far, they’re staying pretty far behind in terms of both quality and box office returns.
In any event, the movie itself is about a team of superhuman villains put together by a ruthless government agent to be used for missions that they don’t expect anybody to survive—thus the name Suicide Squad. And as far as bad guys go, these are some of the worst of the worst—or at least the scariest of the worst. There’s a big guy who’s part crocodile, a guy who is really a fire demon in the body of a man, a contract killer with hundreds of kills to his name, a bank robber with multiple kills under his belt, and Batman’s arch-enemy, the Joker’s, girlfriend, who is even crazier than he is. If you think about it, even though she is really the star of the show, she seems like the least harmless of the bunch. These are all folks who never think twice about taking what they want from whomever they want and killing anybody who gets in their way. The whole point of the story, though, is that when put in a situation where the fate of the world—and their newfound teammates—is on the line, they embrace the selfless heroism that lies at the heart of all of us and do the right thing. There’s even a brief, but pivotal, scene near the end where the bank robber has a choice between stealing a watch and grabbing hold of the one thing that can kill the real villain and he opts for the latter. It’s a story with a strong theme of redemption to it…even if in the end the whole lot winds up back in prison where they belong and will stay until further notice.
If you think about it, this is one of the fundamental assumptions of nearly every story we see in our culture today. At our most basic level, people are good. We may be broken, but somewhere inside lies the kind of person we all know we should be and given the right set of (usually extreme) circumstances, this virtuous person will rise to the top and we will become the people who had previously only ever existed in the land of potentiality. The bottom line, though, is that with the exception of the really bad guys (who tend to die in the end so we don’t have to worry about them anymore), all of us has good lying in our core and it only needs to be accessed and coaxed to the top. When we’re given the chance to follow our hearts and do what we really want to do, great things will be the result. Doing this will bring redemption for any number of past wrongs. This is a storyline of great hopefulness. It’s encouraging. It’s inspiring. And it pretty much totally ignores reality.
The truth is that while people can and occasionally do achieve great things, heroic things, awe-inspiring things, that’s pretty much without exception a result of their getting all caught up in a vision of something larger than themselves. This was certainly the case in the movie. No, when we are left to our own devices and set free to pursue whatever our hearts desire, the results are usually somewhat more troubling than the greatness we see so often put on display in the stories our culture tells these days. For instance, in the movie, the team of heroic villains is walking down a deserted street in a commercial area of the city. Harley sees a purse in one of the windows and without a word, smashes the glass and takes it. When all the rest of the team look at her in total confusion, she quickly fires back, “We’re the bad guys,duh!” That’s what it looks like when we do what we want. And nowhere is this put more brilliantly on display than in the final story arc of the book of Judges.
This morning, we are in the sixth part of our series, Going It Alone. This week will take us to the end of the book of Judges, but not quite to the end of our journey. We’ll get to that next week. In any event, the big idea for this series has been that this wild little book offers us a very much compelling picture of what it looks like when we try and do life on our own. Simply put: When we try and go it alone in life, things never go well for us. A big part of the reason for this, as we saw in the first couple of weeks of the series, is that disobedience has consequences. And when we allow ourselves to form bad habits in life instead of habits of righteousness, we lock ourselves into a place where we can’t experience anything but those hard consequences.
Now, God isn’t content to leave us in our misery—He quickly grows impatient with our misery just as He did that of the people of Israel—and so He comes along and calls us to opportunities to set new habits in place and get back on track with following Him. He gives us seasons kind of like this one. Through the stories of Barak and Gideon, though, we saw that if we refuse these calls—and we never have to answer them—He’ll call someone else and all the blessings He had intended to give us will go to them instead. In the meantime, we’ll run the risk of laying in place a legacy of faithlessness that can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness to us. It’s a dangerous game to play, but when we are determined to go it alone, it’s the only game there is.
Finally, last week, we stepped back a bit and although we looked at the stories of yet a couple more judges, we saw that the heart of the problem for Israel lied with the people and not the leaders. The leaders were bad, to be sure, but if the people weren’t willing to follow God, the leaders weren’t going to do it either. If you’ll remember, I pushed us all just a bit with some tough observations about our current cultural situation and the “leaders” who are currently vying for the office of President. Until we make certain we are fully on track with where we are supposed to be, we can’t get too upset at our leaders for not doing the same. Neither, though, are we totally innocent of their failings as they are merely products of our culture.
Well, this morning things are going to get really dark. I told you that last week. I pointed out last week that by the time Samson finished leading the people they were a spiritual and moral mess. He was in almost every way a fitting reflection of where the people themselves were. When each of the previous judges died, the people were not in a great spot, but things could still always have gotten worse. By the time Samson died, though, they had run out of worse. There was nothing left for them to do but hit the bottom. And hit it they did. The people had been insistent on going it alone in spite of God’s best attempts to draw them back to doing life His way. So, He finally let them. He let them go all the way as far as they wanted. He put no roadblocks in their path. Nothing was off limits to them. And the results…well…that’s what I want to talk about with you this morning.
This final fall of Israel started out…weird. We read in Judges 17 about a man named Micah (not the Micah my little boy is named after) who stole some money from his mom and later gave it back. First, who steals from your mom? More importantly, though, is the mom’s reaction. We’re not told about any anger or resentment or loss of trust on her part. Instead, she takes some of the money, has a local silversmith make a literal idol out of it, gives it to her son, who then takes it and basically invents his own religion with one of his sons ordained as his “priest.” Crazy, right? But then it gets worse. A Levite man from Bethlehem (yes, that Bethlehem) is traveling around until he finds someone in need of his services. He and Micah hit it off and Micah hires him to be his own personal priest. From Judges 17:10: “Micah replied, ‘Stay with me and be my father and priest, and I will give you four ounces of silver a year, along with your clothing and provisions.’ So the Levite went in and agreed to stay with the man, and the young man because like one of his sons. Micah consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in Micah’s house. Then Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, because a Levite has become my priest.’”
Now, what exactly about any part of this situation made Micah think the Lord was going to bless him in it is beyond me, but his whole thought process reveals just how essentially pagan the people had become in their thinking. I mean, this guy broke at least half of the Ten Commandments in doing all this and then has the gall to say, “Yeah, I think God’s going to bless all this.” What a fool!
But then things get even weirder. In what appears to be a completely unrelated shift in focus, the author next tells us that the tribe of Dan still hadn’t claimed any land for their inheritance. We’re multiple generations past the point they should have had that settled, but I digress. The tribal leaders finally decide to do something about it. Why now? Who knows? They send some scouts around the land to see if they could find a suitable place for the group to settle. As they are traveling around, they come within range of Micah’s house and land, hear the Levite’s voice, recognize his accent as local to them, and go talk to him. Listen to this from Judges 18:3: “While they were near Micah’s home, they recognized the accent of the young Levite. So they went over to him and asked, ‘Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? What is keeping you here?’ He told them, ‘This is what Micah has done for me: He has hired me, and I became his priest.’ Then they said to him, ‘Please inquire of God for us to determine if we will have a successful journey.’ The priest told them, ‘Go in peace. The Lord is watching over the journey you are going on.’” The scouts leave, find a town they like, go get their army, come back to Micah’s place and take both the Levite and Micah’s idol by force to be their god and priest, go on to the town, massacre all the inhabitants, claim it as their own, and move in.
But if you think the wheels have fallen off the bus, just wait. The whole engine’s about to drop out of it. The windows are all going to blow out too just for good measure. Some numbers of years later, this young Levite has grown and presumably gotten married and even picked up a concubine for himself. Well, for some reason she leaves him and goes back to her father’s house. The Hebrew here isn’t totally clear and could be understood to say that she had been unfaithful to him or more simply that she wasn’t happy with him. Either way, she leaves. Eventually, the Levite decides he misses her and goes to her father’s house to get her back. The dad welcomes him graciously, but does everything he can to delay his taking his daughter away from him (which he would have had the legal authority to do). Finally, the Levite says, “That’s enough, we’re leaving now,” and heads back to his home.
The party leaves late enough, though, that they aren’t going to be able to make it all the way there before nightfall. As a result, they start looking for a place to stay kind of like a family traveling across the country might start searching exits for hotels to spend the night before going on the next day. In this culture, though, there weren’t hotels. The unwritten, but firm, rule of hospitality was that you would travel to the center of a town and someone would invite you to stay in their home. Well, the first town they pass when they start looking for a place to stay was actually Jerusalem. But it wasn’t an Israelite town yet. If you’ll remember back to the beginning of the book, it was a town the tribe of Benjamin had tried to capture, but couldn’t. It was held by the Jebusites still and known as Jebus. The Levite refuses to stay in this foreign town presumably because such ungodly people couldn’t be expected to obey the basic rules of common decency. Instead, they go a bit further and come to the town of Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin. They travel to the town center where they sit and wait. But in a moment rich with irony, nobody invites them to stay. The priest was skeptical of the character of non-Israelites, and yet here the Israelites reveal they don’t have any either.
Finally, an old farmer on his way home notices them sitting there. The exchange is revealing in Judges 19:17: “When he looked up and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, ‘Where are you going, and where do you come from?’ He answered him, ‘We’re traveling from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote hill country of Ephraim, where I am from. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and now I’m going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me into his home, although there’s straw and feed for the donkeys, and I have bread and wine for me, my concubine, and the servant with us. There is nothing we lack.’ ‘Welcome!’ said the old man. ‘I’ll take care of everything you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.’ So he brought him to his house and fed the donkeys. Then they washed their feet and ate and drank.” Now, this conversation may seem fairly inconsequential to you, but rest assured, in the eyes of someone living at that time, it would have been a powerful indictment of the moral state of the people of Gibeah. This man who would not have been a burden to anyone beyond creating some extra space for his party couldn’t find anyone willing to help them. How could a people have fallen so far as to lose even a basic sense of hospitality?
The answer to the question and the full truth is actually much worse. While the Levite and his servants were at the old man’s house, a mob from the town came together, headed straight for his house, pounded on the door and demanded of him in v. 22: “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may know him.” And no, they aren’t interested in learning his life story. This kind of thing actually happened before in the Scriptures. Do you know where? Genesis 19 in the narrative detailing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story was told then to offer evidence that God was right to totally obliterate the two cities because of the extent to which they had embraced an absolutely evil ethic. And here the people of Israel have sunk to that level. How could this be? How could anybody fall to such a depth of depravity?
Unlike in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, however, there weren’t any angels here to strike the mob with blindness, causing them to disperse. Instead, the Levite takes matters into his own hands which is notable in the sense that the host didn’t deal with this issue, the guest had to, which represents yet another breakdown in basic hospitality. I’m just going to read this to you because I don’t think I could make this any more graphic than the Scriptures do. I don’t need to. Verse 25: “But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and took her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night until morning. At daybreak they let her go. Early that morning, the woman made her way back, and as it was getting light, she collapsed at the doorway of the man’s house where her master was. When her master got up in the morning, opened the doors of the house, and went out to leave on his journey, there was the woman, his concubine, collapsed near the doorway of the house with her hands on the threshold. ‘Get up,’ he told her. ‘Let’s go.’ But there was no response. So the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. When he entered his house, he picked up a knife, took hold of his concubine, cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and then sent her throughout the territory of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, ‘Nothing like this has ever happened or has been seen since the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt until now. Think it over, discuss it, and speak up!’” In other words, “Folks, the bus has fallen apart all the way down to the nuts and bolts. We’ve hit the rock bottom of morality. We need to do something about this.”
And so they do. The other eleven tribes get together and decide to launch a civil war against the people of Benjamin for the gross transgression of the men of Gibeah. They offer them a chance to repent and turn the men over for punishing, but Benjamin refuses and takes up arms to defend itself. Twice the warriors of Benjamin prove more than able and deal devastating defeats to the army of the rest of the tribes. Finally, the majority changes tactics and not only defeats, but wipes out the entire tribe save 600 men who manage to escape to the hills. At this point the people are gripped by guilt over the near destruction of their brothers and sisters and decide to relent. But they have a problem: They have all sworn an oath to not give their daughters as wives to anyone from Benjamin. How is the tribe to replenish its numbers? The solution? They give them permission to kidnap six hundred young women from the town of Shiloh and when its leaders rightly object they are essentially told to keep their mouths shut since they didn’t participate in the civil war and should all be killed for this failure anyway. At long last, then, everybody goes home to let the dust settle.
Yet again we have to come back to this question: How did all this happen? How does a people go from saved by God to utter moral chaos in the span of just a few generations? The answer to this question is found in the very last verse of the book. It’s a dark, depressing ending to a dark, depressing chapter in the history of Israel. Listen to this in 21:25: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s not the first time that line appears in the story. Way back in chapter 17, just after we are told about Micah making his idol, we see the same thing in v. 6: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. You know how else you might put that: “Everyone was being true to himself.” Or how about this: “Everyone was following her own heart.” Or maybe this: “If it felt good, they did it.” While our culture might proclaim such ideas to be good, right, and true, the Scriptures tell a different tale. That kind of thinking is a recipe for disaster. Or perhaps to put that another way: Doing what’s right in our own eyes never ends well.
Israel has fallen off the face of a moral cliff here precisely because they rejected the ways of God and set about going it alone. They strove to be their own standard for right and wrong and unfortunately never chose right again. That’s the point here. That’s how they could have fallen to such a state. Doing what’s right in our own eyes never ends well.
Folks, I think I hardly need to say it, but the implications here for us and our culture are pretty clear. We live in a day and time in which the banner idea that lies behind pretty much everything we’re told is good, right, and true is: If it feels good, do it. Be who you really are. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the advice given to “follow your heart” or “look inside for your path” or some other mumbo jumbo like that. I’m frankly disturbed at how often I hear it in the shows my kids watch. It’s all over Disney+, for instance. Just be true to yourself and everything will work out okay in the end. I’ve mentioned John Krasinski’s YouTube show, Some Good News, a couple of times on here. For fans of the show, it was picked up by CBS and will be getting some more episodes…but Krasinski will not keep hosting. In any event, a few weeks ago he did a graduation-themed episode featuring Oprah and Steven Spielberg among others. Their advice to the grads was fully consistent with this trend. You’re good enough all by yourself. Okay, but what if your self is a jerk? I mean, if your inner self is a serial killer, then I don’t want you to be true to yourself. I want you to become somebody else. Pick almost anybody else! When we are committed to doing what’s right in our own eyes, unless our eyes are perfect—which they aren’t—we are cooking with a recipe for disaster. Doing what’s right in our own eyes never ends well.
Look, the common assumption that people are basically good is a farce. It’s a lie. It’s an oceanside view in Montana. You and I are broken on the inside. Apart from Christ we don’t desire the good, the true, and the beautiful. We desire the selfish, the false, and the ugly. The prophet Jeremiah wrote in 17:9: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” Or as Paul wrote in Romans 3:10: “As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” Or perhaps as Jesus Himself put it in Matthew 15:10:”It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person. . .Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a person.”
Have you ever had the experienced of saying or thinking something and then thinking to yourself, “Oh my goodness! Where did that come from? That wasn’t me!” Of course it was. You may not have realized that was there, but it only came out of you because it was there. People are like tubes of toothpaste. When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, what comes out of it? Toothpaste. (That wasn’t a trick question.) Why does the toothpaste come out of it? Because that’s what’s inside of it. You don’t squeeze a tube of toothpaste expecting to get maple syrup out of it unless you’re crazy. The only thing that’s going to come out of that tube is toothpaste because that’s the only thing in it. Well, the only things that come out of us are what are in us. And what lies inside of us apart from the active involvement of the Holy Spirit isn’t pretty. Doing what’s right in our own eyes never ends well.
What we need as individuals and as a whole culture is to give up entirely on the idea that we know what’s best for ourselves or even that the government does. Both of those are lies and lead to either anarchy or totalitarianism. Instead, we must submit ourselves to a higher standard—God’s—and commit to doing what’s right in His eyes. I don’t need to convince you that we are in a place as a nation that’s not so far from where Israel was. A few hours of watching the news should take care of that. What put them there was their commitment to doing what was right in their own eyes. That’s exactly the path we are on. The kick is that we can easily convince ourselves that we’re not because of the deceitfulness of our hearts that Jeremiah mentioned. The simple truth, though, is that following our hearts is a folly. It will lead us astray every single time. Doing what’s right in our own eyes never ends well. And so then let us here and now commit to doing something different. Let us commit to doing life God’s way. How do we do that? We start by studying stories just like this one so that this powerful truth stays right before our eyes. And then we go on to the rest of the Scriptures in regular, healthy bites, so that we can learn the way that leads to life. Not just learn it, in fact, but live it. We live it by putting it into practice. We stop following our own heart and start chasing after God’s. It’s a long race, to be sure, but it’s one that ends in victory.