In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. Judges 21:25
This is a fascinating verse in the book of Judges. It parallels our own social realities and dysfunctions in the modern age. In this blog post, I want to take a deeper look at this idea of “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes” to examine how this piece of scripture explains many of our current troubling issues and also how they can be resolved.
A Social Condition
To begin, we should recognize this is not simply a spare verse in the book of Judges. This verse is describing the “spirit of the age” during which the book of Judges was written. As if to doubly confirm that fact, the acknowledgment that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” is repeated more than once in the book of Judges. This was a social reality for the Israelite nation. It was the zeitgeist or cultural climate of Israel before the monarchy began.
Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes signifies a highly individualistic, and self-centered social reality. It was not simply that the people were self-interested. Their basis for morality, right and wrong, was centered upon their own will and desires. This was in spite of the incredible fact that they were the only people who God had ever given His law to.
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The books that precede Judges in the Old Testament go into great depth and detail regarding the prescriptions and rules for life that God put upon the people. More than the Ten Commandments, there were guidelines for eating, for resolving disputes, for sanitation, for worshipping, for everything.
And in the midst of all this revelation of the rule and government of God that was being delivered to the people, He specifically warned them about this trend and temptation to slip into an individualistic framework and philosophy of life.
You shall not do as we are doing here today, everyone doing what is right in his own eyes… Deuteronomy 12:8
This warning from the mouth of Moses was approximately 100 years before the time of the Judges.
Life has rules. God has rules. A healthy, prosperous, good and blessed life, lives within those rules. Another way of saying this – life was designed by God to be governed. And when life detaches from the government of God, problems begin to develop.
This is precisely what was occurring as everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The individual need, preference, desire, hope, and purpose became the governing standard and value of the day. As a result, throughout these generations of life covered in Judges, the people rolled from one crisis to another. External enemies and dangers constantly oppressed them. Internal dysfunction constantly surged.
Among the stories covered in the book of Judges we see a man sacrifice his own daughter (Judges 11), we see brutal rape (Judges 19), starvation (Judges 6:6), idolatry and a fraudulent religious system (Judges17), defunctionalized manhood (Judges 4), and even civil war (Judges 20). All of this was occurring even as the people lived under constant threat from surrounding nations like the Philistines and the Midianites.
The state of perplexity, fear, and dysfunction within Israel throughout this time was so pervading that it even affected the economy and agricultural system the people relied upon. Everything, at all times, was in a state of flux and disorientation.
Occasionally a strong man or woman would arise to lead the Israelites out of the social and political chaos. These were the Judges for whom the book is named after. But once the Judge died, the people returned to their dysfunctional standard of living and everyone doing what was right in their own eyes.
The prophet Samuel was the last of these Judges and he was the one who inaugurated the monarchy in Israel. He did this with some degree of hesitation. It was the will of the people and he thought it was the wrong course for Israel, but God told the old prophet to move forward and give them what they were asking for.
So, Samuel anointed Saul and then David as kings of Israel. The monarchy brought its own set of problems to Israel, but this new form of government did succeed in doing away with the standard of living where everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes.
The lesson is clear. When the standard for right and wrong, good and bad, true and false, righteous and evil, love and hate are built upon everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, massive and widespread dysfunction results. This is not the way mankind was designed by God to live. The solution is the establishment of higher levels of order and government in our world. Our individual will cannot be the lone governing standard for life. This Biblical reality stands in stark contrast to our age of democracy, individual freedom and rights, and self-centered consumerism. But we were designed to live under the order and government of God.
This social condition from the life of ancient Israel can be easily overlaid upon our own modern culture and society. We call it democracy, individualistic, the right to personal happiness, but it comes back to the same thing. Everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes.
We can see this from our social issues to our political and economic debates. Gay marriage, transgender rights, abortion, socialism versus capitalism, Brexit, welfare…on and on it goes. We call it a political worldview or philosophy but at its root, our views and operations toward all of these issues are generally manifested upon self-will – everyone believing and doing what is right in their own eyes. That is why dysfunction is the result.
Life was not meant to operate this way! That is why it is not working.
Like the ancient Israelites, we are witnessing social collapse. The rise in suicide and self-induced drug overdoses coincides with a rise in rates of depression, anxiety, and general misery in even the most prosperous societies of our world. Politics make us angry. Economics makes us victims. We feel forgotten and we are fighting back in anger but our families are falling apart, our churches are losing their ability to heal, our schools are dangerous places to send our children. We fear. We fight. We are disintegrating as individuals and collective societies.
The cure is not a monarchy! Do not misunderstand the lessons of the book of Judges. The cure to this individual and social collapse is moving from the law of personal preference and desires to the law of the Kingdom of God.
The Role of Government in the Kingdom of God
When the Israelites asked for a king, God knew this would not end well. He gave them what they asked for and outlined some prescriptions for what the king should do. The king was to rule in justice and not for self-gain. Most importantly, he was to give himself to knowing and understanding the law of God.
When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
Be careful to not politicize this too much. This is not about an overlap of church and state. That is not the point. The role of government in the kingdom of God, as designed by God, was to know and implement the standards of God into the daily life of the people. This was the primary focus of God throughout the Old Testament. He wanted to get the law into the lives of the people so they could walk worthy of Him and in safety.
This is the opposite of “everyone doing what was right in their own eyes.” Rather than self-will running the show, the will and standards of God are running the show. This is what was to guard the national culture and the local home from the chaos encountered in Judges.
It did not stop here, however. Ultimately God was seeking to build a people, a nation, who could live with His law written on their hearts.
I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already. Hebrews 8:10,11
The end goal of God was to bring His people to a place where they could live in safety and security, in blessing and peace, in stability and security. They would do this by each man living in adherence to the standards of the will of God written on their hearts. They would not need a king to tell them the will of God. They would know it through their personal relationship and knowledge of Him.
The reason so much chaos, confusion, and tragedy exists in our modern society is because we have dissipated into a people guided by self-will and everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. The cure for this is not erecting monuments to the Ten Commandments on the local courthouse lawn. It is reprioritizing the standards of God for right and wrong in our hearts, in our lives, and in our homes.
This means our personal rights and privileges become subordinated to a higher standard and law, that is, the conviction and guidance of the Word of God and His Holy Spirit. This standard of living should cover everything from our home life, our work life, our social media responses, our private hopes, and ambitions. The measure to which we live under the law of God’s standards governing our life is proportional to the measure by which we live in the benefits of His security and stability.
The next time we are provoked, disheartened, enticed, or enlightened, we would do well to recall the standards of God. The people living under the standards of the Kingdom of God do not have place priority upon their own rights or interests. Their priority is upon finding and doing the will of God. Such a people were not designed to live as everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.