Judges 17
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

1. Its genesis. It belongs to the main design of the book to show how the various disruptive tendencies of a religious and social nature increased unchecked when "there was no king in Israel." The book begins with a note of unity - "the children of Israel asked Jehovah." Repeated idolatrous defections are chronicled, and mention made of the setting up of an ephod in Ophrah: the city of Gideon, and its evil consequences. In one respect the schisms from the national religion were even more dangerous than complete departure from it. The unity of Israel was thus destroyed in its chief sanction and sign, the universal sacrifice and confession at Shiloh. Another of these schismatic points of departure is here related. The description is full of realistic force, and is governed by the dogmatic purpose of exposing the immoral motives of it, and thus discrediting it in the eyes of every true Israelite. It is exposed as the private and selfish appropriation of a national blessing. As the political unity of Israel depended upon maintaining a central religious authority and a uniform ritual and priesthood, the setting up of a house of gods was in itself, irrespectively of its motives, a crime of the first magnitude. The New Testament idea of Church and ministry is different. There the unity of the Spirit is the prevailing aim. But whenever separation originates in similar motives to those here depicted, the sin of schism equally exists.

I. THE CHARACTER OF ITS AUTHORS. Avaricious mother, dishonest son. Both superstitious. Not honesty, but fear of a curse, actuates Micah to restore the "eleven hundred shekels." The getting back of the money is the chief concern of the mother, and so she straightway blesses whom she had cursed (cf. James 3:10). Only 200 shekels are actually appropriated to the end proposed.

II. ITS MOTIVES. Apparently the warding off of the curse is the first concern with both. But an equally powerful motive was the securing of the gain resulting from fees and gifts. In this way they would become rich. Where the aim is selfish and impure, the character of the worship becomes of secondary consequence, and the latent tendency towards idolatry begins to show itself. It is the motive that is of chief concern in questions of religion. Everything else will be dominated by this: "Is it for self, or is the glory of God my chief aim?" Founders of churches and religious institutions, and candidates for the ministry, should examine themselves ere they are committed to the work upon which they have set their hearts.

III. THE COMPLEXION OF THE WORSHIP. It is a "house of gods," containing a "graven image and a molten image," an ephod, and teraphim, which is the outcome of their religious or superstitious zeal. In its nature eclectic, in the crudest sense of the word, this system of religious worship is on the face of it a sacred means to a vulgar, secular end. The house became a place of irregular worship, of soothsaying and divination.

IV. THE INSTRUMENT OF THEIR DESIGNS. A son is the first expedient in the direction of a priesthood; but this is not considered sufficiently authoritative. Accident throws in the way a young Levite of Bethlehem-judah, who appears to have taken to a wandering life through discontent, curiosity, idleness, or restlessness. A shiftless, unscrupulous, easily impressible character, in a needy condition, and with the Levitical status, just the fitting occupant of such an office. The undue influence of Micah is thus secured permanently. Promising that he should be a "father and a priest," and receive clothing, board, and "ten shekels" wages, to the needy adventurer "making his way" he thus becomes patron; and the promised standing of the priest relatively to Micah is soon reversed - he "was unto him as one of his sons." The consecration too is from Micah. The good and the evil of patronage, private and otherwise, in religion; the dependence of the ministry - "like people like priest;" the question of "consecration" and "orders."

V. THE SUPERSTITIOUS PRESUMPTION OF FALSE RELIGION. There is the more care as to the external ritual, the priestly "succession," etc. in proportion to the earthliness of the underlying motive.

1. Where he heart is wrong undue reliance is placed upon externals in religion. The priest's advantage of descent was vitiated by his becoming a mercenary and a schismatic. Rites and ceremonies are multiplied in default of the "Presence" at Shiloh and its simple service. The error is in placing the virtue in the external observances instead of the reality of worship, purity of life and motive, and the presence of the Spirit of God. Romanism has been defined as "a system of position and imposition, or of posture and imposture."

2. Jehovah is supposed to countenance a religion which is essentially opposed to him. God cannot take rank or be associated with other gods. His glory must be the chief object of the worshipper, the priest, and the patron. Selfish aims, disobedience to his clearly-revealed will concerning his service and Church, can never receive his blessing. Yet observe the self-deception of Micah. He does not see all this, or the evils soon to come upon him. On the other hand, "the pure in heart shall see God. His presence is independent of the external completeness, etc. of ritual. True priesthood is a Divine unction, and not a human monopoly. - M.

The story of Micah and his mother illustrates the strange blending of avarice and superstition which may be observed in those people who have lowered themselves to a worldly habit of life without entirely losing the influence of religion.

I. WHEN RELIGION SINKS INTO SUPERSTITION, ITS UNWORLDLY SPIRIT IS QUENCHED AND AVARICE IS UNRESTRAINED. The religion of Israel is now most degraded, and one result of its degradation is seen in a corresponding lowering of morality. Great devotion to a superstitious religious system is not incompatible with a very low tone of moral life.

1. This is seen in the avarice of Micah's mother,

(1) Tempting to deception, if not complete dishonesty, on the part of the son,

(2) giving rise to unseemly temper and blind cursing on her own side, and

(3) to a mean and unworthy attempt at restoring family peace by a compromise between selfish greed and religious devotion - 200 shekels only are devoted to the image, and, though Micah had intended all to go to this object, the remaining 900 shekels are retained by the mother.

2. The same degradation of morality is seen in the unworthy conduct of the young man. He shows no confidence in his mother. He thinks he can honour God with the proceeds of deception. It is only under a dark religion of superstition that we can suppose the end to justify the means - a sacrificial object to excuse domestic fraud.

II. WHEN, UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF A WORLDLY SPIRIT, AVARICE IS UNRESTRAINED, RELIGION TENDS TO SINK INTO SUPERSTITION. Covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). The habit of setting the affections on earthly things blinds the soul to the perception of pure spiritual truth. This is seen in the story of Micah and his mother.

1. Micah displays a dread of his mother's curse, but no consciousness of guilt. His confession and restitution are not the result of repentance, but of superstitious fear.

2. His mother shows no grief at the revelation of his conduct, but only delight at seeing the money, and a desire to remove the effect of her curse by pronouncing a blessing on her son.

3. Subsequently the young man dreads to touch the money which is affected with his mother's curse, though she offers it to him, and she feels bound to use it, or part of it, in the service of God.

4. Religious feelings do not seem to affect the moral conduct of either person, but only to incline them to image-making. Thus worldly greed drags down religion till this becomes merely a worldly habit of gross idolatry and magic spells. We may see in the present day religions of mere ritual and superstitious practices attracting the most worldly people, and not restraining, but rather shaping themselves into the mould of their low and earthly affections. - A.

The writer of the Book of Judges more than once attributes the social disorders of Israel to the want of a king. This idea has its bearings on national interests and on private conduct.


1. A centre of authority is essential to the peace arid prosperity of a nation. As the first duty of a government is to maintain order, so the need of authority and organisation for the maintenance of order makes the establishment of a government essential to a nation. This is necessary,

(1) to punish violence and crime,

(2) to restrain the unjust encroachment of one man upon the rights of another,

(3) to arbitrate between the conflicting claims of individual men and of great classes of the community,

(4) to promote national objects which are too large for private enterprise, and

(5) to cement the unity of the nation and organise this for defence against foreign invasion.

2. When a nation is not prepared for self-government it is best for it to be ruled by one strong hand. Apart from political requisites, certain moral conditions must be fulfilled before a people can practise self-government. There must be unity of sympathy and self-control. Neither of these conditions was fulfilled by the tribes of Israel in the days of the Judges. Mutual jealousy and antagonism prevailed among them, and violent measures were too common for the minority to submit peaceably to the will of the majority. The spiritual vision of the Divine King which had maintained the unity of the nation in the days of Moses was fading away, and now that sublime and unearthly government was nearly lost, there was no hope for the people but in the establishment of a human monarchy. It is foolish to maintain in words an ideal which is too high for practice. Better confess our degeneracy and shape our conduct according to the means within reach.

II. THE NEED OF A KING IN CONNECTION WITH PRIVATE CONDUCT. The soul needs a king. We are born to obey. We need some authority above us to keep us right.

1. It is not safe for every man to do what is right in his own eyes, because

(1) we are swayed by passion and selfish greed, and

(2) in our best moments we are liable to prejudice, and are too short-sighted to see what is best. The anarchy of universal self-seeking without restraint would bring the world to ruin. For the good of all it is necessary that each should not be at liberty simply to please himself.

2. It is not right for every man to do that which is right in his own eyes. We are members one of another, and are morally bound to respect the rights, and needs, and wishes of our neighbours. We are children of the great King, and under a supreme obligation to respect his law. The Church is not a republic; it is a kingdom. The Christian is not free to follow his fancy; he is required to submit to and to obey the mind and will of Christ. Christian liberty is not found in the license of self-will, but in the willingness of obedience and the love which delights to fulfil the will of God and to do to others as we would that they should do to us. - A.

I. FAITH IN THE PRIEST IMPLIES A DESIRE FOR GOD'S BLESSING. The priest is trusted for his influence with God. He is sought after because God's blessing is desired. So far the faith in the priest indicates good qualities. It is a sign of religious ideas, though these are vague and perverted. There is something pathetic in Micah's utterance. Now at last he may expect blessing. His mother's graven image did not secure this; his temple and its elaborate worship left him dissatisfied; but he can have no rest till he is assured that God is blessing him. He is wealthy, but wealth will not satisfy him without the blessing of God. So he presses on to find this one source of true peace. How many men are ready to mock at Micah's superstition who have no gleam of his true faith I It is better to be seeking the blessing of God, though in mistaken ways, than, while discerning the folly of these ways by the light of a cold rationalism, to be dead to any yearnings for the supreme good.

II. FAITH IN THE PRIEST IMPLIES A CONSCIOUS NEED OF AN INTERCESSOR. All priestly religions spring out of a true instinct of conscience. They are not simply the fabrications of a tyrannical priestcraft. Religion requires a priest. It is right to feel, like Micah, unworthy and unable to obtain God's blessings for ourselves, and, like him, to look for an intercessor. Christianity is based on these ideas; it is the religion of a mediator, a priest. Christ satisfies this desire to seek God's blessing through the help of another, through the work of a priest (Hebrews 6:20).


(1) in choosing a merely human priest, and

(2) in placing a wrong kind of trust in him, and not simply in believing in the idea of priesthood.

1. This priestly superstition expects blessings irrespective of the character of the print. Micah has had a priest before - his own son. He has no reason to believe that the Levite is a better man. He only knows that he belongs to the sacred tribe of temple officials. This is characteristic of the superstition of priestliness. It supposes that the office sanctifies the man, not the man the office. It looks for good from the priest simply through his official functions. Christ is a priest not by reason of birth or anointing (he was not of the tribe of Levi), but by reason of nature, and character, and work.

2. This priestly superstition expects blessings apart from the religious character of the recipient. Micah believes that the mere presence of the Levite in his house will benefit him. He does not think of the Levite influencing his character for good. So there are people who imagine the priest can do them good apart from their own character and conduct. But Christ, the true Priest, only brings to us the blessings secured by his sacrifice and intercession when we submit to him so as to receive a new birth to a holy life. - A.

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