by Peter Ditzel
Judges 17:6 and 21:25 concern the era in Israel’s history known as the time or period of the judges. These verses have significance for us today: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Preachers almost always quote these verses as indicating how terribly bad things were at the time of the judges and use them as examples of how we must work to avoid being that way today. The assumption is that the Bible is here being critical of the idea of people doing what is right in their own eyes. There’s a problem with this interpretation. The Bible not only doesn’t back it up; it directly contradicts it. In this article, I’m going to show you where the Bible disagrees with what many commentators say about these verses, in what way the time of the judges is a shadow of the assembly Jesus’ founded, and how the time of the judges can be a significant lesson for Christians and even illustrate a valuable political principle for everyone.
What Was Bad, and What Wasn’t
It certainly sounds bad. Israel had no king, and everyone did that which was right in his own eyes. Surely this shows that Israel was leaderless, and that this must have led to lawlessness and sin. Everyone should not have been doing what was right in his own eyes. They should have been following a king. These are the ideas people commonly believe about the time of the judges. Where does the Bible support them? Nowhere. The verses we’ve quoted state two facts: 1. Israel had no king. 2. Everyone did that which was right in his own eyes. The verses do not pass a moral judgment on these facts. Preachers who use these facts as the basis of morality sermons are reading something into Scripture that isn’t there.
That doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t say something critical about the situation in Israel at that time. It’s found in 1 Samuel 8:1-7:
It happened, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abijah: they were judges in Beersheba. His sons didn’t walk in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah; and they said to him, Behold, you are old, and your sons don’t walk in your ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. Samuel prayed to the LORD. The LORD said to Samuel, Listen to the voice of the people in all that they tell you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not be king over them.
The elders could have simply asked that Samuel remove his sons and replace them with other judges. There are no Scriptures indicating this would have been wrong. Instead, they asked Samuel to make them a king like all the nations. They requested a king, and they got their example from the nations around them. As God indicated in 1 Samuel 8:8, there had always been problems in Israel, but God did not fault the system of government that was in place during the period of the judges as being the cause. Instead, God plainly stated that the people wanting to end that system and replace it with an earthly king was a rejection of Him as king. This is what was bad.
God told Samuel to warn the people how their king would put them into military service, make them work for him, and force them to tithe (1 Samuel 8:9-18). How did they respond? “But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No; but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles'” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). Their demand was childish: Everyone else has a king, and we want one, too.
No More Wicked Than Any Other Time
But doesn’t the Bible picture the time of the judges as very wicked? Yes. Does this mean that the time of the judges was any worse than the time of the kings? No. Did the children of Israel forsake God during the time of the judges? Yes, but they also forsook Him before and after the judges.
Were the kings any great improvement over the time of judges? No, not at all. Read about the kings in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Many of the kings were evil and wicked people, oppressed their subjects, forsook God, and turned to idols. They eventually split the kingdom, and in the end, their apostasy was a leading cause of the ruination and captivity of both the northern and southern kingdoms. In fact, having the kings was worse than the judges. At least the judges had limited power and were often only localized in their influence. They sometimes traveled from place-to-place judging (1 Samuel 7:15-16), but, as can be seen in the life of each of the judges, God raised them up to take care of a need.
Israel had at that time what we would today call small government, even decentralized, part-time, unsalaried government. It was a government that generally let the people do what was right in their own eyes, each man personally responsible to God.
A Shadow of Christian Liberty
The Bible tells us that during the time of the judges, as we saw that, God ruled as king. Who did He rule? The people. They did what they believed was right under God. Did everyone try to do what was right? No, that’s made clear in the Book of Judges. Did even those who tried to do what was right always succeed? Of course not. But they had the freedom to try. The time of the judges was a shadow of the liberty in Christ that Christians are supposed to enjoy today.
Christians are not to follow someone standing in the place of God. God does not intend that we have a king (as a religious leader), a pope, or an authoritarian pastor telling us what to believe. When we set up one of these types of people, when we say things like, “Surely I must put myself under the authority of a pastor,” we are doing what God told Samuel the people were doing at the close of the period of the judges: We are rejecting God that He should not be king over us.
Am I saying that God wants us to do what is right in our own eyes? Yes. This doesn’t mean that I’m saying we must be loners and can’t assemble. I’m not saying there aren’t shepherds and elders to lead us to spiritual food and water and to watch out for deceitful wolves. And I’m not saying we have a right to disturb the assembly without consequences. I am, however, saying that God wants us to do what is right in our own eyes, under Him, because, that is just another way of saying that we are to believe and act according to our consciences. Freedom of conscience, freedom to worship as we see fit, is a value we should hold dear because Jesus gave it to us.
When Jesus Christ built His ekklēsia, His called out assembly, He did not put it under the authority of the state. He did not put it under the authority of a pope. He did not put it under the authority of an earthly priesthood. This was a radical departure, an earth-shaking change from the history that preceded it, with the exception of the time of the judges when there was relative freedom.
Living in the twenty-first century in a post-crucifixion civilization, most of us don’t appreciate how the freedoms we have, freedoms that started with the Cross, contrast with the totalitarian church-states that preceded Jesus’ death and have only been slowly dying since that time. You will find yourself deeply missing those freedoms if you try to evangelize the people in one of the countries that still doesn’t have religious liberty.
Yet, so many Christians voluntarily give up their liberty when they step inside a church building. Jesus put the assembly under His authority. He set up apostles who exercised the authority He delegated to them for the purpose of insuring the purity of the doctrine He was revealing to the ekklēsia. No one has had such authority since the last apostle died. No one!
The authority that was once in the apostles has since passed to the written Scriptures. This is why Paul, when he knew he would likely be arrested and eventually executed and that the time of the apostles was drawing to a close, said, “Now, brothers, I entrust you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build up, and to give you the inheritance amongst all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Today, we read the Scriptures and act on them according to our consciences. It’s a new world from the way the world used to be. But the time of the judges was a type of it.
Application for Christians
How does this apply today? Jesus gave all believers direct, personal access to God. He said that he who is the greatest is really to be the servant (Matthew 23:11). As was typified by the time of the judges, Jesus set up no large, rigid structure of government for His assembly. He established no man as king or pope over it. He did not give elders the authority to lord it over the assemblies. Why? Because, just as in the time of the judges when God was directly everyone’s king, now Christ is to be every Christian’s King, Shepherd (Pastor, John 10:16; 1 Peter 5:4), and Priest.
We do not go through any mortal to have access to God. The servants in the ekklēsia merely watch over it as shepherds, see that it is spiritually fed, and negotiate when there are interpersonal problems. Believers must oppose the temptation to delegate unbiblical authority to pastors. They must avoid being like the elders who spoke to Samuel; they must resist envying the churches around them who have hip, power player, CEO-type pastors. They must not weaken to the desire to have a pastor who makes the decisions, is the face of the congregation to the community, and does all of the evangelizing—the equivalents of “judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). Jesus warned His followers not to look for an example in the princes of the nations who lord it over their subjects (Matthew 20:25-28), and when the churches around us are behaving like the nations, we must not look to them either.
Most churches have the idea of a pastor all wrong. A pastor is not the man who runs the assembly. Pastoring is merely one of the functions of an elder, and an assembly may have several elders. Elders don’t lord it over anyone when they pastor. They serve as shepherds, leading the flock to the good pasture of God’s Word, bringing them to the water of the Holy Spirit, and protecting them from cunning wolves.
When believers set up a pastor to run the church, give the orders, be the primary or even sole speaker, act as the only counselor, and so set the tone and flavor of the entire congregation that, as it is so often phrased, it is his church, they are imitating the Israelite elders of old and setting a man up to stand in the place of Christ as king, shepherd, and priest.
Some Christians are aware enough to eventually regret coming under a man’s authority. They find that they are expected to pledge their loyalty to a church that is led by that man, check their brains in at the door, believe what they are told no matter how unbiblical, tithe and tithe again, submit to demands for higher salaries, support building programs, and suppress their gifts while watching the pastor’s cronies be put into key positions.
They may very well find themselves in a predicament similar to 1 Samuel 8:18: “You will cry out in that day because of your king whom you will have chosen for yourselves; and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” Why? Because they rejected Christ from being the one and only Head of the assembly. Certainly, this does not mean God’s abandonment of believers. But, as I and others have found out the hard way, it can mean that, pray as we might, there is really only one answer: You got yourself into this pickle, and you must get yourself out of it by leaving that church. And don’t make the same mistake again by putting yourself under the authority of another man in another church (as I naively did several years ago). The vast majority of churches are structured to be little dictatorships. It is better to have no organized fellowship than to put yourself under the authority of a man and thereby reject Christ’s direct authority over you.
An Indirect Political Lesson
Israel was a type of the Christian assembly, not earthly governments. Thus, the time of the judges is not a type of any nation today. We must not use it to excuse disobedience to earthly rulers. As Romans 13:1 says, earthly rulers “are ordained by God.” We are to give them the honor due to those whom God has put in that position to serve a carnal purpose in this life. (By the way, this does not mean we should expect rulers to be fine, upstanding people. God may set the worst scoundrels in office to serve His purposes in history and/or to give the people of the nation what they deserve.)
Even though Israel was not a type of earthly governments, we can still find a general, political science lesson in Judges. During the time of the judges, Israel had no earthly king. In fact, it had no earthly central government. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. When the people asked for a king, which is a form of strong central government, God warned them that they would regret it because they would find the king, or the central government, oppressive.
Everyone doing what was right in his own eyes can sound like chaos. Yet, chaos is not what Israel had. Israel consisted of tribes, and the tribes were working as a loose confederation. Only when they were threatened by an enemy did a judge rise up and gather an army to fend off the threat.
Under this system, there was no monarch or president, and there was no professional parliament or congress sitting around with nothing better to do than make more and more laws to overregulate people’s lives. There was no bureaucracy to create red tape that trips people up and no need to pay them to do the people this great favor. There was no standing army that needed to be housed, fed, armed, and paid at the people’s expense, and which was a temptation for a central government to use to expand its territory or force its will on other nations or on its own people when they expressed dissent. The people were far freer than if they were under a strong central government, and if someone disagreed with a local statute, he could move to another location.
All of this freedom is lost under a strong, central government that continually makes new, burdensome laws, creates expensive bureaucracies, keeps an expensive military that sends the youth of the nation to force its foreign policy on other nations, and continually works at making laws and standards uniform throughout the nation so that moving does not offer choice.
When God warned the people against having a king, He was as much as saying that loose, decentralized government is better. When we look to the government to solve our problems and lobby it to create new laws, we are strengthening the government. But a strong government is a dangerous ally. It can very easily turn against you. Christians should know better than to put their confidence in earthly government (Psalm 118:9), but, unfortunately, they are often at the front of the queue of those wanting bigger, stronger government. The period of the judges teaches us that the smaller, weaker, and more decentralized the government is, the less likely it is to harass us, tax us, and start foreign wars, and the more likely it is to let us have freedom, including the freedom to publish the Gospel.
The time of the judges teaches us as God’s assembly that we are to do what is right in our own eyes, with the understanding that we are to have God alone as our king and look to the Bible to inform our consciences. We are not to set anyone up in our assemblies to lord it over us, and we are not to put ourselves under the authority of one of these demigods. We should not want anyone over us but Christ. And, on an earthly level, we should not work for stronger and more centralized government.
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