Drifting: Then and Now (Judges 17 and 18)

The story we are studying this week about Jonathan (the Levite personal priest of Micah as related the past two days from Judges 17 and 18) is one that happened about 3350 to 3400 years ago. And I could imagine a modern person asking how in the world something from three millennia ago can have any bearing or wisdom for life today. It was such a different time, and to an extent that is true.

But the nature of man does not change over the millennia. Materialism is the same as it was. One people group dislodging another to take their land is the story of human history. People looking out for themselves rather than others is timeless.

Since the nature of man does not change, we can observe even Old Testament narratives from antiquity and gain from them some timeless principles that are true in any generation. I would make five such observations for your consideration from these two chapters.

Drift from God begins with ignorance of His Word and biblical truth.

We see this in every component of the story, and it is not just with Jonathan, but with all of the characters (who are all Jewish people and part of Israel). The mother is into idols. He son Micah also already had idols. Jonathan agrees to be a priest away from Israel’s center of worship, and he incorporates idolatry in a syncretistic way. The Danites are filled with superstition and readiness to set up a show of religion, devoid of truth. Every one of these people should have known better from their background and affiliation as God’s covenant people. They possessed the truth, but they did not let the truth possess them.

Going through life without knowing the Scripture is like having an owner’s manual on what life is about and how to live it successfully, but paying no attention to it. This would be like never looking at the owner’s manual of your car or taking care to do responsible things like oil changes and maintenance.

But people live life in this careless fashion and then they wonder why they have multiplied problems. Ridiculously, they then blame God like a totally irresponsible car owner would blame Ford or General Motors for manufacturers’ error.

Drift from God is accelerated by the allure of worldly gain.

Jonathan was from the tribe of Levi and was a grandson of Moses; so he had a calling upon his life to serve the nation in religious leadership. This did not include running around the country looking for a place to live as a sort of religious free agent.

The seduction of this world is, of course, that accumulating the securities and joys it offers will bring us satisfaction and security. We never really ever get completely away from this incipient tendency, not in any generation.

Drift from God is sedated and suppressed by merely outward religious symbols and rituals.

The mother of Micah has superstitions about curses and blessings. Micah is sure God will bless him because he sets up his own personal shrine, etc.  The Danites believe the idols will help them, even though these objects did nothing to protect their first owner from this tribal group!

Just because something is religious and is seen does not mean it is accurate or true or real. Within circles of theological liberalism, there is little belief in the Bible, Jesus as divine, objective truth, the need for salvation, and dozens of other truths of Scripture. They just sorta believe in some big, grand ideas about love and kindness. But it looks and sound good!

And whether liberal or evangelical, there are common views that going through the motions of religious duty and putting in the time is a sufficient effort to get “credit.”  It is similar to doing time for something like filling a “community service hours” sort of obligation. It’s a good thing, but more than anything, you just want to get them done and over with.

Drift from God may also be sedated and suppressed by apparent signs of success.

Micah could ask who else in Ephraim had their own personal priest?  And with the Danites, it was a long way to worship where God said to go, so setting up their own system made sense and looked good too.

There is no shortage in our time of folks being satisfied by having the apparent symbols of success. People who have a lot of material gain may think that this is the symbol of God’s blessing and pleasure with them.

And in the religious world we are really into the symbols of success, most often measured in America 2016 by numbers of people, physical structures, and offerings totals. The bigger the better, the bigger being obviously the blessing of God.

Rather, we should look for long-term patterns of faithfulness and consistency in Scripture and the growth of the lives of people connected to a local church family, noting the presence of people oriented to truth, and folks who are walking and growing together through the good and bad of life.

Drift from God may have the long-term result of generational consequences.

The story in Judges ends with the information that for generations there was an alternate worship of idols that took place that rivaled the true worship of God at Shiloh. Generations of Jonathan’s family facilitated this fraudulent activity.

Religious indifference and a lack of valuation for the things of God (due to drift) will surely be seen and felt by rising generations. If faith is nothing more than the thing you do when there’s nothing else better to do at that time, or that you do as an obligation to get it out of the way … this will be noted, and it is highly likely that the next generation will value it even less.

Yes, drift is drift. Whether it is from the descendants of Adam and Eve, the period of the Judges in Israel, or the Tri-State area in 2016, drifting from God looks pretty much the same. And you don’t want to look like this.

Nothing Easier Than Drifting (Judges 17)

This week our devotionals will come from the story of a biblical character named Jonathan. I will confess that right away when I saw how Chris laid out this sermon series and included the name Jonathan (without the Scripture reference to the book of Judges), I at first thought of the more common person of that name – the son of King Saul, David’s BFF. And running that narrative through my mind was thinking where he had been any sort of illustration of drifting from God. This more well-known Jonathan is very highly regarded in the Scriptural record. And I honestly forgot about this other character of the same name.

Our study this week needs a lot of set-up and background conversation, beginning with the name itself. Throughout this extended two-chapter story, our main character is talked about with titles like “young Levite” or “priest.”  It does not come out until the very end of the account that his name was Jonathan and that he was a grandson of Moses.

So this story occurs very early in the period of the Judges in Israel. Whenever we turn to the book of Judges, it is good to recall the history of this period in Israel’s life as a nation. It was after the time that they had conquered the land under Joshua, but before the time that kings were established as leaders under Saul/David/Solomon. The nation had been blessed by God in the conquest of the Promised Land, given the Law with God’s covenant promises of blessing for obedience, but curses for disobedience. They went through periods of disobedience/judgment/revival, etc. under leaders called Judges. The summary phrase of these several centuries was “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Chapters 1-16 give the history of this time. Chapters 17ff could best be thought of as an appendix. The story we are looking at today is therefore presented as a sort of “Illustration A” of the craziness that went on during this period.

And there is another main character whose name is Micah. Again, this is a common Jewish name and is not the person who wrote the prophetic little book of that title. This fellow lived in Ephraim, describing an area somewhat to the north of Jerusalem, a region settled by the largest of Israel’s 12 tribes. Our story also later involves a group called the “Danites,” who would be another of the 12 tribes – a much smaller group who at the time of this account were not yet permanently settled into an inheritance in the Promised Land.

So here is the first part of our story for this week that introduces the two characters Micah and Jonathan (spoken of here as a Levite from Bethlehem) …

17:1 – Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim 2 said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels [about 28 pounds] of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”

Then his mother said, “The Lord bless you, my son!”

3 When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the Lord for my son to make an image overlaid with silver. I will give it back to you.”

4 So after he returned the silver to his mother, she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who used them to make the idol. And it was put in Micah’s house.

5 Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some household gods and installed one of his sons as his priest. 6 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.

7 A young Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, who had been living within the clan of Judah, 8 left that town in search of some other place to stay. On his way he came to Micah’s house in the hill country of Ephraim.

9 Micah asked him, “Where are you from?”

“I’m a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah,” he said, “and I’m looking for a place to stay.”

10 Then Micah said to him, “Live with me and be my father and priest, and I’ll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food.” 11 So the Levite agreed to live with him, and the young man became like one of his sons to him. 12 Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13 And Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.”

This story is filled to the brim, even at the very beginning, by people who exemplify “drift” from God and truth.

Micah is a good bad boy (a grown son with a family of his own). He was bad because he stole his mom’s silver, but was good because he confessed. Apart from the issues of theft, we see tremendous superstitions about curses, everyone afraid of divine retribution from the God of Israel or some other god or gods. Yes, they had these thoughts all combined in their heads and life practices, with the mom making an idol that would find its place with other idols and pagan objects in the home of Micah.

Yes, this sounds a little whacky, doesn’t it?  It did as well to the person writing the book of Judges years later and looking back on this history, as you see him various times adding a statement like that in verse 6 – In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.

God did not stutter when he talked about them not having “any graven images” that they worshipped. But having such objects to trust in was such a big part of the surrounding culture of the rest of the world, and Israelites who were “drifting” from God would appropriate them into their faith system. That seems rather crazy to us, but we do the same thing – the idols are just different sorts of things.

And then we see this young Levite straying away from Judah where his responsibilities of service would be as part of the spiritual worship of the nation. Recall that the Levites (the tribe of Moses and Aaron the priest) were set aside as dedicated to God. It was not within the job description for a Levite to go wandering around the countryside as a free agent priest looking for a place to serve. So he too was drifting from God, as well as from home.

The two characters meet, and Micah sees a great opportunity and offers Jonathan a deal he can’t refuse – to be a personal priest for hire. Beyond the issue of this being outside God’s plan for Israel’s worship, we see that Jonathan is apparently not at all troubled by syncretizing (mixing) the idolatrous elements of Micah’s shrine with Jewish worship. And Micah is internally much comforted at the thought that he now has all the bases covered, and surely God will be good to him and bless him.

Wow. Just wow!  This represents a lot of drift. But drifting is easy to do. Nothing is easier, and that is why we need to be alert.

I told the illustrative story yesterday of being on the beach with my boys when they were little and playing in the surf. There is a phenomenon that happens in the Jersey surf – as I remember getting yelled at by my parents for the same thing when I was a child. Coming in with the waves, then going back into the water and coming in again … over time, one tends to imperceptibly be moved in a direction parallel to the shoreline. If you are not aware of this and watching, after a time you will find yourself hundreds of yards away from where you began. It you are a child, you are now disconnected from your family and their location on the beach.

I would warn the boys about this “drift” before they went into the water. But sure enough, in the busyness of playing, they would forget. Standing on the shoreline I would watch them “drift” down the beach, keeping an eye on them. After a while, one of them would suddenly realize they might be displaced and I would see them looking for home base, not realizing at all how very far away they had gone. Other times I would have to go rescue them from their own drift.

That is such a good illustration of how we can be spiritually. Without the regular discipline of looking to Christ on the solid shoreline of truth, the waves of life will cause us to drift away. It is incredibly easy to do; it just happens unless we prevent it from happening.

And again, drift can especially occur especially when we are away from normal life rhythms and disciplines … like in the summer months. Watch out for “drift.”  It is an enemy of the soul.