The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And there was a man of mount Ephraim, whose name was Micah.Judges 17 (Annotated)
["A wholly disconnected narrative here follows, without any mark of time by which to indicate whether the events preceded or followed those narrated in the preceding chapter. The only point of contact with the preceding history of Samson is that we are still concerned with the tribe of Dan.—The Speaker's Commentary.]
1. And there was [before the days of Samson] a man of mount Ephraim, whose name was Micah [a contraction of Micayehû = who is like Jehovah].
2. And he said unto his mother, The eleven hundred shekels of silver [£136] that were taken from thee, about which thou cursedst [thou didst adjure; see Matthew 26:63], and spakest of also in mine ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it. [See Proverbs 28:24.] And his mother said, Blessed be thou of the Lord, my son.
3. And when he had restored the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, his mother said, I had wholly dedicated [consecrating, I consecrated] the silver unto the Lord from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image: now therefore I will restore it unto thee.
4. Yet [And] he restored the money unto his mother; and his mother took two hundred shekels of silver, and gave them to the founder [see Isaiah's opinion of founders, Isaiah 46:6-10], who made thereof a graven image and a molten image: and they were in the house of Micah.
5. And the man Micah had an house of gods, and made an ephod, and teraphim, and consecrated [installed] one of his sons, who became his priest.
6. In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes. [See this forbidden in Deuteronomy 12:8.]
7. And there was a young man out of Beth-lehem-judah of the family [tribe] of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there. [See Genesis 49:7.]
8. And the man departed out of the city from Beth-lehem-judah to sojourn where he could find a place: and he came to mount Ephraim to the house of Micah [probably having heard of Micah's chapel], as he journeyed.
9. And Micah said unto him, Whence comest thou? And he said unto him, I am a Levite of Beth-lehem-judah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.
10. And Micah said unto him, Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest, and I will give thee ten shekels [the shekel weighed about half an ounce] of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals. So the Levite went in.
11. And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man was unto him as one of his sons.
12. And Micah consecrated the Levite [which none might lawfully do but the high-priest]; and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah.
13. Then said Micah, Now know I that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest [see next chapter for the answer].
A Series of Surprises
The book of Judges properly closes with the sixteenth chapter. What follows after the sixteenth chapter has been described as an appendix—two appendices, indeed, dealing with the case of two Levites. From the seventeenth chapter onward the matter was probably written long before other portions of the book, in the days of Joshua and the greater judges. Certainly, this part of the book was written when there was no king in Israel, and when every man was left to do that which was right in his own eyes. The history of the two Levites is full of romantic interest. The first history is to be read aloud and preached about quite freely; the second is to be read in secret—hardly read at all, and yet fully comprehended, because of the following chapter in which vengeance, just and tremendous, is dealt out to men who inflicted upon Israel a scandal that was never forgotten. Let us publicly and openly read the case of the first Levite, and then read in shame and secrecy what follows; then come into the light once more, and close the book of Judges amid a blaze of glory.
Is not this a fair picture of life? What undulation! What incessant variety! what visions of beauty! what disclosures of shame! how bright is the fair, great heaven; and yet how near the deep and awful hell! Micah dwelt in mount Ephraim, and stole silver from his mother: Micah afterwards became a maker of gods. What rapid transitions in character! what wonder if the rapidity of the transitions sometimes excites suspicion as to the reality of the conversion? But is not history condensed? The verses read in flowing sequence, as if no time had elapsed between one line and another: hence the shock with which we come upon the fact that the man who was but yesterday a concealed criminal is today a manufacturer of gods and churches. Is there not a punctuation in life which is inserted by the hand of God? Are not the observers to blame for a good deal of what is called unnatural and too swift transition in character? Who knows what may happen in one hour when God is the minister and a repentant soul is the subject? Sometimes life is wrought out very swiftly, so far as public observation can detect; yet it is being lived very slowly in the consciousness of the man: he is so fired with pain because of conscious sin that he would have himself transported in unnamable swiftness of time into a new consciousness and a blessed individuality. At the same time, a sober lesson does reveal itself at this very point. Whilst conversion may scarcely be too sudden, the manufacture of gods and churches ought not to take place with indecent haste, if at all. It is difficult to believe that a man can spring at one bound from being a concealed felon into being a patron of the universe—a builder of gates that open heaven, a creator of altars and priests. There should be some time spent in solitude, in secrecy, in earnest wrestling prayer: the whole night should be thus spent, and the morning light will shine upon a new personality, bearing a new and larger name. At the same time, recognising the sobriety and gravity of the lesson, let no man be discouraged should he really feel what by its purity must be a divine impulse to move instantly and to act like a man who, having wasted many days, seeks to redeem the time, and to make one day as long as two, by diligent industry, by the passion of consecrated love.
This chapter is full of surprises. What can be more surprising than that a layman should consecrate a priest? This is what Micah did. Micah began where he could. Everything was to be done at once. So Micah consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest Men do things in high passion which would be unnatural and almost irrational if done in cold blood. We must always calculate the influence of spiritual temperature upon human action. Some things we must have heard, and not read; the whole meaning was in the way of saying them. The Bible only tells us that certain persons "cried unto the Lord,"—verily a poor report, utterly inadequate, yet all that was possible: for who can write down a "cry"? who can paint, even in letters, an agony? So some allowance must be made for the new spiritual passion of Micah. A man can do great things when he is really on fire. No man knows himself, as to the full volume and bulk of his being, until he is possessed—no longer a little measurable self, but part of an infinite immeasurable totality. We speak of men being "mighty in prayer." They cannot account for it. Yet they know that sometimes they have hold of God, and that omnipotence graciously yields to the gracious violence. Indeed, man must at certain historical periods make priests. Whether we are in such a historical period now, is not the immediate question, but following the unfolding of history along the biblical line we see how now and again man must be almost almighty. Despair finds new energies. Religious despair, religious helplessness, finds God, or makes an image supposed to be like him. Do not let us mock at idolatry of a really heathen kind too flippantly; there may be an aspect of idolatry that touches our sense of the ludicrous, but there is also an aspect of it which touches our tears. To be an idolater in a Christian land is not only an anachronism, it is a blasphemy: but follow the whole history of idolatry and study its pathetic side, and see if it be not true that in man's attempts to make gods, and altars, and priests, there is something infinitely touching. To that mystery in our being a divine revelation may one day be made. It may be at that very point God will begin the miracle of self-revelation—of incarnation. Man must have a priest. There are necessities which cannot be denied—urgencies of soul which must be appeased, soothed, if not gratified. Are not all men looking round—some hopelessly and indistinctly—for helpers, spiritual assistants, for brother-men larger than they and altogether mightier in the nobler life, to lift them up, to eke out their poor expressions, to find prayers which their poor lips may utter as if their own? Is there not something in the heart that cries—"Master, Lord, teach us how to pray"? The fault does not lie in the impulse, but in its perversion; nay, rather, there is an unmistakable touch and signature of divinity in the impulse. Blessed are they who have received the ministry of sanctification and have responded to the divine provision made for great human passions, and great spiritual necessities. Yet no man can make a priest. Priests are the miracles of manhood—men who have the gift of prayer, men who by looking on human sorrow are moved heavenward to intercede on man's behalf A strange gift, signalised by fire, is that of being able to pray in every tongue, so that every man may hear in the tongue in which he was born an interpretation of his soul's poverty and need. Such intercessors are not made by man: these are the gifts of God to every age. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." Yet this is confining the idea of priesthood to intercession. If it be so confined, what possible objection can be lodged against it? To make a priest anything more than one who is mighty in prayer, mighty in sympathy, keen in moral insight, patient more than woman, is not the work of man.
A surprising thing it is that a converted thief should elaborate a religious system: "And the man Micah had an house of gods and made an ephod"—a gorgeous priestly robe—"and teraphim"—little Syrian images. This is a condensed statement. Who can go into the detail of these two lines? "An house of gods "—a consecrated place—a gods' house: what patience in the elaboration of the deities; what painstaking in the fabrication of the ephod; what detailed and critical, if not artistic, care, in the shaping of the teraphim; we are apt to overlook the detail of all worship. Look upon the poorest little church, on the bleakest hillside, and what does it look like but a handful of 6tones rudely put together,—a sight that might be remarked upon at the moment, and passed by and forgotten? yet who can tell the history of these few stones? who knows with what hands they were carried and shaped and put in place? who knows how the labourers toiled when the day's work was done that they might put up the simple structure, to have a home in which to worship God? Who knows at what sacrifice the Bible was bought by these poor peasant worshippers, how small sums were laid by from week to week, and how as the little pile neared maturity the thrifty one almost had the Bible by the anticipation of love, how the Bible was preserved, loved, almost worshipped? Do not let us pass by all these things carelessly as if they meant nothing; they are full of tears, full of pathos, full of that finest quality of manhood which is the real wealth of any nation.
Yet Micah was ill at ease. Who can make one of his own sons into his superior? The son was but a makeshift after all. How superstition tyrannises over men! To have a son for a priest as Micah had was like a kind of illicit marriage. A sense of un-naturalness marred the service. The son was quite right in many respects, worthy of confidence and honour and love; but in his official capacity he was still a son. Who does not like his minister to come down out of the clouds? Who likes to see a minister grow up before his very eyes—to know the child at home, to follow the boy at school, to see him pass through various processes, and at length appear as a recognised minister of Christian truth? Who does not feel slightly uneasy if he knows the minister's mother and brothers and sisters? Who does not say, "Are they not all with us? Is not this the carpenter's son"? To some people, if a man is once a carpenter's son, he never can be anything else by all the miracles of Heaven. Why? Because they themselves could never be anything else: they measure themselves in measuring him. Who does not like a species of ghostliness to be round about a minister? Who likes to think that his minister eats and drinks and sleeps? In very deed, some quite hide that aspect of the ministry and graciously pay no attention to it. Micah was but a man. It would be a beautiful thing if ministers could come down from the clouds and go back to the clouds, and we could have nothing to do with them but enjoy a momentary revelation. This has many applications. The man who felt somewhat uneasy or dissatisfied as to his son being priest, represents a great many men. Who could be so grand a minister as the brother sitting at our side, who, suddenly inflamed by the divine presence, rises and speaks to human need in human speech? If we were not so little, so superstitious, so denuded of the higher and sublimer reason, we should find in man—known man—our truest representative. It is because we have misunderstood humanity that we have undervalued the true ministry.
But fortune seemed to be upon Micah's side. We are now in times of wandering and adventure and bold enterprise, and in those times a young man was travelling out of Beth-lehem-judah of the family of Judah, and he happened to be a real Levite; and when he came to mount Ephraim, to the house of Micah, Micah elicited his story, and instantly said to him, "Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest." The Levites in those days were driven about. It was mourned in one of the prophetic books that the portion of the Levites was withheld from them. They were under Heaven's frown:—"I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel." So this young man was wandering, more or less in a spirit of enterprise and curiosity; and he came, as we now say, by chance to the house of Micah. There was something interesting about him. He certainly was not a money-seeker; the terms were these:—"And I will give thee ten shekels of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals" (Judges 17:10)—twenty-five shillings a year was not much for a priest, even including one suit of clothes and victuals. A man who had spent hundreds of shekels upon his gods thought he was liberal in spending five-and-twenty shillings a year on his priests! There are persons who think more of the church as a building than of the minister as a servant of the soul. Who was this Levite? Was he a man of any name? Not much in himself, but he was the grandson of Moses. To what adversities may we come in life, and to what "base uses"! The grandson of Moses, the caretaker of Syrian images, and the priest of an idolater! Who can say to what we may be driven? Once let the centre go; once depart from the vital point; take one step in a wrong direction, and who can calculate the issue? Be steadfast; hold on to the ascertained—to that which is proved to be beneficent, pure, noble; or you may come into a servility which not only disennobles you but throws unjustly a slur on the most famous memory. No man liveth unto himself. We have to take care of the past, if we would really take care of the future. Now Micah was comparatively happy. Micah consecrated the Levite. The Levite was not a priest, but he seemed to have an odour of sanctity about him, and, for the rest, Micah, having once got his hand into priest-making, made no account of it. The young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah; then Micah was at rest.
The greatest surprise of all remains. Here is an idolater appealing to the true God! "Then said Micah, Now know I that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest" (Judges 17:13). Here is a false worshipper unconsciously throwing off his own idols! He keeps the idols as men keep cabinets of curiosities. He has a house, a little museum, a small miniature pantheon; but in his finer moods he appeals to the true and living God. So literal are we, we like to have something to lay the hand upon. Men like a substantial and visible religion. Yet Micah felt that God would do him good, seeing he had a Levite for his priest. The son did not quite fill up the space, but now with a real living Levite on the premises, the Lord—the eternal God, the Father of every living thing—will do this man of mount Ephraim good. How we degrade God,—that is to say, how we misconceive him and misrepresent him to ourselves! The Lord will do us good if our heart is right towards him. The Lord will make up for the absence of all priests, ministers churches, books, and ordinances, if we are unable to avail ourselves of such help: God will allow us to eat the shewbread, if there be no other food with which to appease our hunger. The true Church is where the right heart is. God himself is a Spirit. There is no image of him that can be made by human hands. There is one Priest—Jesus Christ, the true Melchizedek. He alone can sacrifice and has sacrificed and is sacrificed for us. There is one altar—the cross—the cross of Jesus Christ: God forbid that we should even know any other altar than the cross of our redeeming, atoning, glorious Saviour. For what are we looking? We cannot appease our deepest needs, silence our most poignant cries, by any manufactures possible to our ingenuity and skill: the Son of God is the Saviour of the world; he is able to save unto the utmost all that come unto God by him, seeing that he ever liveth to make intercession for us. If any man should now say that he himself is needful to our communion with Heaven, he is more than wrong in opinion, the case is infinitely more serious than that which can be measured by mere mistakenness of judgment: he usurps the place of Christ, he dethrones the Son of God, he at least divides the prerogative of the one Advocate. This, then, is our Christian position: Man needs a priest—that Priest is Jesus Christ; man needs communion with Heaven—that communion is spiritual; man needs an answer to the agony of his own accusation—that answer is in the cross of Christ. These are great mysteries, but the soul may become reverently familiar with them, after great suffering, prolonged prayer, and simple trust in the living God.
Almighty God, thou hast recorded thy name in thy house, and there thou wilt meet them that seek thee. The heart seeketh God in all its pain and need; the spirit crieth out for the living God, as a land that is thirsty cries out for the great rain. We bless thee for this hunger and for this thirst; a blessing follows this desire, for this desire is none other than the gift of God. Now we know the meaning of the blessing pronounced upon those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Hereby know we that we are not of the earth earthy, but that we have in us the fire of God, the spark of deity, the mysterious power which makes us thy children. We cannot be satisfied with what we see, or hear, or touch; beyond all this we have needs they cannot satisfy. Our satisfaction is in the living God; our rest is in heaven; we are at peace only when we are reconciled unto God by our Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God, and now we rejoice as those who have entered into harmony with the spirit of heaven, and to whom is reserved an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. Our joy is pure; our peace is unspeakable; our heaven has begun below. We bless thee for all that is meant by the name Jesus Christ; in it is all eternity, and in it is all time; it is the music of creation; it is the Gospel addressed to human hearts; it is a refuge in time of need. When we need refuge, Jesus Christ is more to us than at any other time; when we feel our own littleness, then we see Christ's majesty. We come to the throne by the way of the cross. We bring with us no virtue of our own, but crying necessity, burning pain, consciousness of a great void; and yet we bring with us also a great hope; we feel that we shall not be disappointed whilst we linger at the cross, and pray where Jesus died. Our heart is full of thankfulness because of thy great mercy and care. Every day witnesses to thy tender lovingkindness. Thou dost live for thy creation; thou dost live in it, and through it all thou dost send currents of life, utterances of music, gospels of grace. So would we live that we may enter into thy purpose, and embody it, and realise it to those who look on. This being our desire, it shall surely be answered; for thou canst not deny thine own inspirations: these longings are part of the yearning of thine own solicitude. Thou wilt reply to us graciously, even when thou dost contradict and repel us in the mere letter. Why should we importune thee in the letter, when thou hast taught us to pray in the spirit and to fall into happy harmony with all thy will, first crucifying ourselves with Christ, and then having known the fellowship of his sufferings, knowing also the power of his resurrection? We will cast ourselves into thine hands, not daring to utter one petition lest we should offend thy purpose, but comprehending all our prayer in the one complete desire that thy will may be done on earth as it is done in heaven. We bless thee for all the hints of a better life, which we obtain from the existence through which we are now passing: we are walking in the night-time; we have nothing but the stars to read; but they are thy lights; thou hast set them in appointed places; thou hast taught them to glitter according to thy will, and to speak to the observant eye in significant light: and are not the breezes, too, full of hints of a better land? are they not tinctured with a fragrance not of earth? do they not come to us bringing health and revival and sweetness—all hints of a greater state? And the earth is for man: it is full of symbol and suggestion and strange writing, to be made out by the scholars of Christ. We will walk on—now up the steep places, wishing they were not so high; now down into the valleys, wishing they were not so long: but thou wilt not allow these selfish wishes to mar the perfectness of our resignation when we say with the spirit, Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. All our ways are in thine hands. Keep us wherever we are; keep us near the altar, near the cross, and thus near thine own heaven. We commend one another always to thy gracious keeping: we can only be kept as we are held in the hollow of thine hand: outside that hand there is no security; within it is the security of almightiness. Help us in all good purposes; give us steadfastness therein—that sacred determination, that faithful constancy, which comes of conviction akin to inspiration. Be with all who are on the sea—that great, wide, troubled sea. Be with all our friends who are far away—in the colonies, in other lands, speaking other languages, seeking to establish friendly relations with other peoples, struggling for bread, promoting the interests of civilisation, living a hard life that they may make the lives of others easier. Forget not our sick-chambers—the churches in our homes, the abodes of pain, chambers set apart for whispering, and thought, and patience, and prayer. Be with all persons in difficulty, extremity, intolerable anxiety, and grant unto such answers to their pain from heaven; then shall they sing in the night-time and glory exceedingly even in tribulation, knowing the dominion of God in human life, and answering with glad belief the gospel that thou doest all things well. Let thy word flame like a sun, or descend like the dew, or breathe into our hearts like the still small voice. Let it come as thou wilt, under what symbol thou dost ordain, only let it come—a word of emancipation, a word of benediction, a word of comfort, gracious as the speech of Christ, and sacred as his blood. Amen.