[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on August 6, 2022. The audio of the message can be found here:]
One of the characteristic tendencies of the crises of our day and age is the way that people are so hostile to authority. While there is a general mania for authority, to seek it to rule over others, there is a widespread and nearly universal tendency in the world around us to tear down and reject any authority over us that goes against our interests and positions. In practical terms, this leads there to be a tendency for people to seek to rule over the unwilling but be unwilling to have the other rule over them. As is often the case, the Bible speaks eloquently about this sort of problem, and provides insight into the sort of anarchical spirit that we find all around in the pages of biblical history. Today I would like to spend the time allotted in my split sermon to untangle a single statement that appears multiple times in the book of Judges and that, not coincidentally, concludes the book as a judgment against the rebelliousness of Israel in the very last verse of that book. Let us therefore begin by turning to the last verse of Judges, in Judges 21:25. Judges 21:25 reads: “ In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Now, was it true that there was no king in Israel during the time of the Judges? It is true that there was no human being on earth who was the king over Israel during this period. God ruled Israel indirectly, through the high priests of the family of Aaron and the Levites who assisted them and also through a variety of men and women whom God raised up to deliver Israel from their periodic oppression that resulted from their sins against God. But while there was no king over Israel, with the possible exception of the abortive attempt of Ahimelech the son of Gideon to rule over Israel from Shechem, there was still an obvious King who ruled over Israel at this time, against whom the Israelites were nearly constantly in rebellion against, as had been the case throughout their national history.
This king, of course, was God Himself. The godly authors of the psalms always recognized the authority of God as King, and repeatedly wrote about God as their king. Let us turn to examine such verses in order and then discuss them as a group to see what was different about the way that the psalmists recognized God as their king and the way that Israel rejected God as their king. Psalm 45:6-7 speaks, for example, of God’s love of righteousness. Psalm 45:6-7 reads: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.” This messianic psalm of the songs of the Sons of Korah speaks about God’s love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness, and it was their love of wickedness that led Israel to reject the authority of God and to seek their own human kings who would be like them, instead of the righteous leadership that God provided which included national chastisement for their evils that they chafed under.
Not long after this, the Sons of Korah commented about the kingship of God in Psalm 47. This psalm is short and repeatedly affirms the kingship of God, so let us read the psalm in its entirety. Psalm 47:1-9 reads: “Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth. He will subdue the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet. He will choose our inheritance for us, the excellence of Jacob whom He loves. Selah God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with understanding. God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne. The princes of the people have gathered together, the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; He is greatly exalted.” Here we see in vivid language that God is our King, the King over all the earth, reigning over all of the nations, sitting on His Holy throne and above all other authorities that exist. Israel failed to recognize that reality or to act on it. They acted like the heathen nations around them instead of behaving as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Later on, in Psalm 74:12-13, the psalmist Asaph reflects upon the power of God as King to rule over the chaotic forces of evil and rebellion in the earth and on the sea. Psalm 74:12-13 reads: “For God is my King from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters.” God’s authority over His creation and His hostility to the serpent, the devil, and the devil’s servants has been from the beginning, and again, Israel’s failure to recognize God as their king led them to fail to recognize whose side they were on, a problem that can easily afflict us all as well.
The last psalm I would like to look at with regards to the kingship of God today is Psalm 95. Psalm 95 is another relatively short psalm of only 11 verses, so let us read it in its entirety. The Psalm begins in the context of God’s authority as king and creator but then moves in a direct that was particularly and painfully relevant for the people of Israel and for us today. Psalm 95 reads: “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand. Today, if you will hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ””
This psalm gives a particular warning to the results of failing to recognize God as king. It was the failure of the people of Israel in the wilderness to recognize and honor and obey God that led them to wander for 40 years and to have their carcasses strewed about the wilderness and fail to enter the rest of entering the promised land. And it was the failure of later generations of Israelites to honor and obey God that led them to fail to enjoy the rest of the promised land and to have periodic cycles of oppression that resulted from such disobedience when a generation arose that did not know the last judge who had delivered them from the previous cycle of oppression and domination by tyrannical heathen peoples. Israel’s failure to obey God led them to fail to receive the full enjoyment of the blessings they could have received as the children of Abraham and led them into repeated crises. The same is lamentably true for our generation today. And because we too have rejected God as King in our society, God too is grieved with our generation because we go astray in our hearts and do not know His ways. The resulting national judgment is lamentable and predictable.
We have spent the first part of this message examining the fact that there was a King over Israel, and there is a King over us, who was not recognized by the larger society, and the implications and consequences of that failure to recognize God as king. Let us now turn to the second half of the statement that was made by the anonymous writer of Judges, namely that Israel did what was right in their own eyes. There are six times in the Bible where it is mentioned that people did what was right in their own eyes and in all these cases the verdict is an ominous one. Let us therefore discuss what it means to do what is right in our own eyes in the Bible.
The first time that the phrase doing what was right in his own eyes appears is in the book of Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 12:8. Let us look at Deuteronomy 12:7-9 and see what it says about this. Deuteronomy 12:7-9 reads: “And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes— for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the Lord your God is giving you.” The expectation of God was that when Israel entered the rest of the promised land that they would stop behaving corruptly and doing what was right in their own eyes and would turn to do what was right in God’s eyes. Unfortunately, that never happened.
The next two times the phrase doing what was right in his own eyes occurs are the two times in the book of Judges when the phrase occurs that we have been looking at so far. In both Judges 17:6, at the beginning of the epilogue of Judges, and in Judges 21:25, at the very end of the book, the author of Judges comments that: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It was the rejection of God’s authority in their lives that led the Israelites to do what was right in their own eyes. And, it should be noted, what was right in their own eyes was wrong in the eyes of God. Israel’s following what was right in their own eyes led predictably to misery and judgment.
The fourth verse where the phrase is used is an interesting one, as it occurs in the book of Job, in Job 32:1, right at the beginning of the section of Job where Elihu rebukes both Job and his friends. Indeed, this phrase is a particularly ominous one given what we have seen so far in the book of Judges. Job 32:1-3 reads: “So these three men ceased answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then the wrath of Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, was aroused against Job; his wrath was aroused because he justified himself rather than God. Also against his three friends his wrath was aroused, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” It is, of course, not our interest to discuss the book of Job in great detail here, however it is worth noting that in a context where being righteous in our own eyes and justifying ourselves rather than God is something to avoid, the fact that Job justified himself rather than God in his debate with his friends is something that ought to concern us. It is all too easy for us to justify ourselves, and when we are in arguments and debates, it tends to be our instinct to do so, and this worrisome development can often prevent us from being able to be just to what lessons we can learn from what others are communicating to us.
Finally, the last two times in the Bible where the phrase “right in his own eyes” occurs are in the book of Proverbs. And, as might be supposed from what we have said about the phrase so far, this phrase is viewed negatively by Solomon in Proverbs. First, let us look at what is said in Proverbs 12:15. Proverbs 12:15 tells us: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise.” None of us should want to be considered by the Bible as a fool, and yet a fool is right in his own eyes. Yet to be wise requires us to heed counsel, and that means to regard what other people have to say and not only what we think. It is not that we should take what others say uncritically, but rather that to heed counsel and be the sort of person who can be advised by others is a mark of wisdom.
Similarly, we find this phrase used again in Proverbs 21:2. Proverbs 21:2 tells us: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts.” Here we have come full circle. It was the rejection of God’s authority that led Israel to do that which was right in their own eyes, but here Proverbs reminds us that even though every way of a man is right in his own eyes, the Eternal weighs the hearts. Ultimately, we will not be justified and vindicated because we have done what was right in our eyes. It is not by following our heart, or listening to our conscience, by which we will be made right, but rather by following God, and it is the Eternal who will weigh our hearts and judge whether indeed what we have said and done is right according to His eyes. What we judge according to what is right in our own eyes ultimately has no meaning or importance when we are dealing with eternal judgment.
What lessons can we learn from the ending of the book of Judges? There are a great many similarities that we can see between our own age and the time of the Judges if we look at them in great detail, most notably the anarchical hostility to godly authority and the rampant violence and moral corruption that we find present in Israelite society, and in the resulting divine judgment that came upon that wicked and ungodly society that viewed politics and not its ungodliness as the reason for its weakness. Let us be wiser than ancient Israel was and not view the increase of government power as the solution for moral rebellion in our society, though. The proper solution to doing what is right in our own eyes is to repent from our hostility to God’s authority and to commit ourselves to doing that which is right in God’s eyes.
As we have seen, the problem of ancient Israel was not that they had no king. They did have a king in God Himself, but they did not see their king nor did they respect or regard His authority. Let us live by faith and not by sight so that we may be wiser than the corrupt children of Israel of old. Wisdom requires that we move beyond that which we can see and recognize the authority of God and of His hand in the national calamities that we face for our rebelliousness against his ways. So long as we live in a world that is surrounded by people who walk by sight, it will require a great deal of vigilance for us to rise above the level of our contemporary society around us. Let us, with the help of the Bible, set a proper example to those around us of what it means to live by faith and to walk in righteousness, so that we may honor and obey God as our King and may do what is right in His eyes in a world that seems committed to walking in the ways of the wicked Israelites of long ago, having learned nothing from biblical history whatsoever.