Judges 17-21 forms an appendix revealing the extent to which idolatry (17.1-13) and immorality (chs 19-21) had pervaded the fabric of the nation. Though placed at the end of Judges, both stories predate most of the others in the book. For example, the Levites story must occur early since the Danite migration is mentioned as far back as Joshua 19.47, with its explanation in Judges 1.34. The naming of Mahaneh-Dan (Judg 18.12) obviously preceded Samson because it was so called in his days (13.25, JND).
Although Micah had a good name ("who is like Jehovah") he encouraged Israel to sin. Since even men of good reputation can change, propagate error, and seek a following (Acts 20.30), all teaching must be vigorously measured against the plumb line of Holy Scripture. As sound doctrine in the New Testament is associated with godliness, and error with sin, so the Old Testament associates idolatry with the grossest of sins. Micahs idols were connected with covetousness (17.2), theft (17.2; 18.14-21), and dishonour to parents (17.2), breaking the tenth, eighth and fifth commandments respectively. For all these things his mother failed to discipline him (17.3). The New Testament reveals the propensity for error to spread rapidly (1 Cor 5.6). Micahs idolatry began with only one man and his family, embraced a tribe (18.30,31), and finally defiled the major portion of Israel.
Since Micahs images were closely linked with Jehovah (17.3), it is likely that, as with Aarons calf (Ex 32.4), the intention was a visible representation of the invisible God (Col 1.15), a plain violation of Gods instructions (Ex 20.4; Deut 4.15-19). Even pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ to aid Sunday School lessons, however well meaning, infringe the same commandment.
Micahs sin snowballed. Initially, he established a personal sanctuary in opposition to the tabernacle at Shiloh, so encouraging a decentralisation of Israelite worship (Deut 12.4-14; 16.1-7). He then initiated a false priesthood, using first his own son (17.5) and then the wandering Levite (17.7ff). Though all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests - only Aarons sons (Num 3.10). Micahs idols included a graven image (pesel), a molten image (masseka), an ephod, and teraphim, reminding us of the varied manifestations of idolatry to which the heart can succumb. Both graven and molten images imply effort: his mother gave silver "to the founder, who made thereof " (17.4), and Micah spoke of the idols "which I made" (18.24). Men may make puny gods for themselves (Is 44.9-20), but their service is truly wearying in contrast to the sweetness of serving Christ (Mt 11.28-30). Idolatry not only drains our energies but also costs dearly in lost spiritual riches (Judg 17.4). Teraphim were small human statues, easily hidden (Gen 31.19,34); it is so easy for us to treasure idols and yet conceal them from public view! The ephod was part of the high priests garments (Ex 28.6-14) and used for guidance (1 Sam 23.9,10). False religion imitates the true and claims to give divine direction (Judg 18.5), and yet its emptiness is aptly described by Micahs words following the theft of his idols: " what have I more?" (18.24). By contrast, what a believer has in Christ Jesus is inexhaustible and irremovable.
The Danites sent spies to reconnoitre the land because success necessitates preparation (18.2). If such an endeavour demanded careful planning surely spiritual exercises require the same, for to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. As the previous national census numbered the Danites at 64,400 (Num 26.43), the six hundred men (18.11), five spies (18.17), and their families (18.21) represented a minority of the tribe. Joshua allotted sufficient land for Dan (Josh 19.40-48) but they failed to appropriate it on account of Canaanite aggression (Judg 1.34). Ultimately they moved north because of dissatisfaction with Gods provision and inadequate faith to possess it. Since they sought guidance from a false priest (18.5), stole Micahs idols (18.14-21), threatened him with violence in return for previous hospitality, and finally established a centre of idolatry in opposition to the true worship of Jehovah at Shiloh (18.30-31), their move was wrong. As God gave Israel an inheritance which they had to conquer through battles, so God has blessed Christians with heavenly blessings (Eph 1.3), but to enjoy them fully believers must contend with spiritual foes (Eph 6.10-20).
Laish the city yields valuable church truths. The people there "dwelt carelessly, after the manner of the Zidonians, quiet and secure" (18.7). In contrast, an assembly must ever be on its guard for attacks from without, and sin, division or error from within. Just as "in those days there was no king in Israel" (17.6; 18.1), so there was in Laish "no magistrate in the land, that might put them to shame in any thing" (18.7). Godly order (1 Cor 14.40) and discipline (1 Cor 5.1-13) are necessary in a local church where every man cannot do "that which was right in his own eyes" (17.6). "They were far from the Zidonians, and had no business with any man" (18.7), thus leaving them vulnerable to attack and without a "deliverer" (18.28). Believers today do not stand alone, but require spiritual strengthening from Christian fellowship just as Jonathan strengthened Davids "hand in God" (1 Sam 23.16). The "large land" in which there was "no want of anything that is in the earth" (18.10) shows that an assembly should have room for all of Gods Word and be able to meet all the spiritual needs of the saints.
The Levite priest is finally named at the end of the narrative (18.30). Although the Levites inexperience is emphasised throughout, for he was "a young man" (17.7,11; 18.3,15), Micah still gave him a place of undue respect; see "father" (17.10). Young Christians must be encouraged, but they should never be thrust into the limelight with responsibilities beyond their spiritual capabilities. To do so may result in their utter ruin (1 Tim 3.6). Jonathan the Levite never settled but was always looking out for something better. As he came from Bethlehem-Judah, not a Levitical city (see Josh 21), he had already moved from his God-given place. He briefly stayed with Micah and then moved on with the Danites in response to a better offer. Christians should throw themselves wholeheartedly into their local church and avoid the tendency to "church-hop," for there can be nothing better than a New Testament local assembly. "The great preachers, the lasting preachers who left their mark on history, taught their people the word of God", and "stayed in one place for a long time"1 , because to build anything for God demands years of sustained commitment.
Another possible explanation for the Levites mobility was not so much individual, as national failure. The tithing system to maintain Levites had broken down so that they were forced to travel in search of support. Nevertheless, his willingness to become a priest to a local idol temple indicated a severe lack of spiritual discernment or interest in Gods law. Following the pattern for true priests (Ex 28.41) Micah consecrated him (17.12), or filled his hands, reminding us that priestly functions included offering up to God. Since all believers are holy priests with the responsibility of offering up spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Pet 2.5), it is important to ask ourselves, "When we remember the Lord Jesus Christ, are our hands full or empty?".
Micahs offer to the young man bore an uncanny resemblance to the system of one-man ministry in Christendom in the following respects:
The priesthood, having been established, continued to subsequent generations (18.30), for wrong once started is difficult to stop. The Danites asked three pertinent questions we should ask ourselves (18.3): "Who brought thee hither? and what makest thou in this place? and what hast thou here?" Are we where God wants us? Are we doing His will? Do we hold on too tightly to earthly possessions? Though Jonathans service was wrong, let us ensure that all we do for God conforms to the teaching of Scripture. Concluded.
1 MacArthur J. Rediscovering Expository Preaching, p347.