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IDOLATRY IN ITS INCIPIENT STAGE—BY IMAGE-WORSHIP
I. Idolatry begins with those who are not upright in moral conduct. Judges 17:1-4.
Micah himself is first heard of as stealing a large sum of money, and his mother is first mentioned as uttering curses on the head of the offender, whoever he might be. Subsequently, when the money is given up, and the offender is discovered to be her own son, the mother entirely loses sight of the immoral character of the act, and though no sorrow is expressed by him for the evil of his conduct, she at once proceeds to pour blessings on his head, simply because the money was restored. Further, she professes to have devoted the whole of the money to the service of God’s house, yet when coming to the decision as to how much shall be given for that purpose, she gives really less than one-fifth of the whole to that service. No wonder, if those, who had already made a god of their money, should hold very cheaply by the name of the true God.
II. God has established in the heart of every criminal the means of detecting his own crime. Judges 17:2.
How long Micah may have kept his theft a secret is not said, but memory and conscience, as two detectives working together, made every place too hot for him, until he made a full confession (Psalms 32:3-5). The work of detection was done most effectively, for no man can flee from himself, and it was done directly, without any slow process of going round about (Joshua 7:16-21). Fears were aroused in his superstitious mind, lest a mother’s curse should fall upon him, and disquieting thoughts like wandering ghosts rose up before him in his fancies by day and his dreams by night, to scare him into a full disclosure of the evil act.
III. The powerlessness of human cursing. Judges 17:2.
The mother cursed the thief. Was there anything in that to rouse Micah’s fears? Had he any good reason to fear that the curse would really come? That a certain power both of blessing and cursing was vested in the father, in the patriarchal age, is undoubted (Noah, Isaac, Jacob, etc.). The father was then the priest and prophet in the family. But when he either bestowed a blessing, or pronounced a curse, it seemed always to be when he was Divinely commissioned to do so (Genesis 9:25-26). Isaac having blessed Jacob could not alter it, nor confer the blessing on Esau also. There were limits to the power of blessing; and so with cursing. The blessing, or the curse, would not come at the mere caprice of him who pronounced it, but only as it came from the Divine Spirit, resting on the person authorised to give it. Some of the female sex were prophetesses, but only as such could they either bless or curse (Judges 5:0)
IV. Conscience compels a tribute to religion, even from the avaricious heart Judges 17:3.
What the leading motive may have been for erecting a sanctuary in their dwelling, we are not informed, but one thing is clear in this case, that though Micah and his mother were both avaricious, they felt that the claims of religion were strong, and must have large external respect paid to them. Where any tenderness of conscience is left, there is a secret instinctive conviction, that man must have a God, whom he is bound to serve, and to whom he owes the deepest homage. So the mother spoke at first of devoting the whole 1,100 shekels (about £140), to the purpose of establishing a system of image-worship in their household. Even the hard-fisted Laban had his gods (Genesis 31:19; Genesis 31:30; Micah 6:7.)
V. The deceitfulness of the heart in thinking it can bribe conscience.
So much is parted with, that the heart may keep all the rest and enjoy it in quietude. An opiate is given to conscience in the religious offerings made, to lull it asleep or to blunt its sting. Every wicked man feels that he must, at any cost, still that stern voice and buy off its threatenings. But it is vain to think of closing up the black and yawning gulf of fears, which conscious guilt opens in the soul, by casting into it silver and gold, prayers and penances, deeds of charity, and formal observances of religious worship (Micah 6:7). Nothing can purge conscience but the blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:14).
VI. The error of departure from the rule laid down by God for His own worship.
Micah departed from this rule broadly in making a graven image, which is expressly forbidden in the most solemn language uttered on Sinai (Exodus 20:4), and which had the first of the heavy curses pronounced upon it at Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:15). He erred also in following only the thoughts of his own heart, without asking counsel at the mouth of the Lord; whereas it is the very foundation of true religion to acknowledge Him in everything, and reverently observe what He appoints. For a man to try to carve out a religion for himself, different from what God has appointed, is itself an act of irreligion. Again, he appointed first his son, and afterwards a Levite, to be his priest, whereas none but the sons of Aaron could lawfully execute the duties of that office. The place too was unlawful—his own dwelling, for all acceptable public worship was required to be carried on before the ark at Shiloh. All this was highly presumptuous and irreverent. It was for a man to tell God, that he would take the matter of His worship into his own hands, and decide for himself, when, where, and how he would discharge his religious obligations.
Besides all this, it was an express refusal to accept the mode of worship already appointed by God, as exhibited at Shiloh, at no great distance from where Micah lived. When God has already spoken, it is for every right-hearted worshipper to obey. To bring in another mode, or to bring in a modification of His mode, would indeed be most irreverent.
VII. It is dangerous to frame a religion merely according to one’s own wishes.
This is first of all to insult the Divine Majesty, as if the creature might presume to dictate to the Creator what duties He should require it to fulfil. This of itself must be a heinous offence. It is also most distrustful, as if the Creator were not infinitely kind, wise, faithful and true, and worthy of the most absolute confidence. But it implies more; it amounts to a casting off the authority of the Creator entirely, at the moment when it professes to acknowledge Him as the Object of worship. Besides, a religion so framed will be a hideous misrepresentation of all that God is, and an exhibition of what the vile and wicked heart of man would wish him to be. This is strikingly exemplified in all the religions of the heathen world, without a single exception.
VIII. Those who have no religion in the heart take the more pains to show it in the externals.
This is one of the many phases of the deceitful workings of the human heart. By making a bustle about external forms and ceremonies, a man persuades himself, either that he has something of reality about him after all, or that God will, at any rate, accept the very ardour of his manner as counting for so much. But all the while the heart will not give up itself. This is specially exemplified among those who attach excessive importance to forms, ceremonies, gestures, intonations of voice, and the like; also among those who rest on the regularity of observances, the mere number of services gone through, and the amount of penance self-inflicted. Micah gave himself a great deal of trouble with the externals, but we do not find any evidence to prove that he had any real love to God, and delight in communion with Him in the heart. Pretence of religion is seen in such cases as Hosea 7:14; Malachi 3:14; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:7; Matthew 6:16; 1 Kings 18:26, &c. Opposite examples: Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. The beloved disciple listening with breathless attention to the gracious words that came from the Saviour’s lips. The publican smiting his breast, &c. The long-afflicted invalid saying—“If I but touch Him I shall be whole.” “Lord lift on me the light of Thy countenance.” In these cases we see the heart at work in giving itself to God.
IX. Some people are proud of having the name of being religious. Judges 17:5.
Micah wished not only to be as good as his neighbours, but he wished to have a name for religion, and so he turns his dwelling into a sanctuary. “The man Micah has a house of God.” This is how he was spoken of in the world. He seemed to wish to have his house full of religion. The meaning, however, is not a house with many gods in it. The word Elohim seems to denote God simply. But his house contained a regular establishment of the worship of God. There was the image, as a representation of the object of worship; the ephod, or sacred dress, without which no acceptable service could be done before God; the teraphim, to be consulted as oracles; and the priest, or recognised official for conducting religious services. Was not Micah a good Pharisee? Ought not his name to go out as one zealous towards God, and abounding in religious services?
Many still regard a religious name as giving respectability, and hence they do much to gain it. They also regard it as a source of influence and so covet it.
X. The great sin of using a high religious profession as a means of getting gain.
This appears to have been the chief aim of Micah in building up his idolatrous establishment. He thought to make his house a resort for religious worshippers, or a shrine where offerings would be presented, and fees would be charged for inquiry at the oracle. It is not likely, that so avaracious a man would put out so much money on the sacred materials, without expecting to receive as much again with profit superadded. And this explains the agonising wail which he raised, when his establishment was broken up by the unceremonious Danites, “Ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more?” It is a fearful provocation to a holy God, when His great name and hallowed worship are prostrated to serve the ends of covetousness.
What shall we say of gifts presented at shrines, of the sale of indulgences, of the sale too of church livings, of the presenting of unholy men to church benefices, merely for the sake of a living, and such-like practices? Or what can we think of those who take the name of Christian professor, and connect themselves with a certain church in order thereby to increase their incomes, or advance their position in society, with many varieties of the same principle? It all savours much of the Micah spirit, and must end in some fit manifestation of the Divine frown.
XI. Idolatry is a most God-dishonouring sin.
(1.) It is an inconceivable degradation to the Divine nature, to suppose it to be represented by dumb wood, or stone, graven by art and man’s device, the work of the hands of the worshippers themselves!
(2.) Though it begins with the professed intention of worshipping the true God through the image, yet the constant presence of the image in the act of worship, and its continual association with the giving of Divine honours, insensibly leads after a time to the worship of the image itself. Thus another object becomes honoured and not God, and the substitute is merely a piece of wood, or a stone!
(3.) The spirituality of the Divine nature is lost sight of.
(4.) God Himself is lost sight of, and creations of man’s wicked nature take His place, leading to all manner of sinful deeds.
XII. The heart’s power of self-deception in matters of religion.
He supposed that now God would do him good, seeing he had a Levite to be his priest. What miserable logic does an unrenewed man show, when trying to make out a favourable case for himself as regards his personal religion. He was not right even in the one point, which he thought to be so good that it would serve for all the rest. It was not the right thing for a Levite to discharge priestly duties. Such honour belonged to Aaron and his sons alone. And then Micah was wrong everywhere else. It was not right to have the sanctuary of God in his own private dwelling. It was not right to have an image representing God. It was not right for any one to wear the ephod except at Shiloh in association with the ark. It was not right for him to presume to carve out his religion for himself. In truth, he was wrong all over, and yet he thought he was wonderfully near the mark.
What a small vestige of evidence will suffice, for an ungodly man to think himself “almost a Christian.” A short formal prayer offered up once a day; a chapter of the Book of God read once a week; one attendance at Divine Service on the Lord’s Day; a small coin given for religions purposes; those, together with a fair reputation for good morality, are held to be a sufficient proof that his name ought to go on the Christian list, though all the time he is a stranger to the power of religion, and has had no experience of having had his heart warmed with the constraining influence of the love of Christ.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Judges 17". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
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