The refrain: “in those days, everyone did what was right in their own eyes” echoes through the book of Judges. But it also echoes through our culture today. It is a sure sign of our world’s wickedness that it has taken a biblical phrase that expresses a complete surrender to sin, and turned it on its head, as if it were somehow virtuous to try and be a good person by living according to your own standards.
An often-overlooked element of our culture’s sprint toward Sodom is the world view that people are capable judges of morality. In fact, if you were to ask your average American why they think they will go to heaven (assuming for the sake of argument that it exists), you would hear “because I am a good person.”
The follow up question has to immediately be, “why?” to which you will undoubtedly get the response: “because I try to do what is right,” or some variation therein. Maybe “because I always try to be a good person,” or “I help people,” or, “I live and let live.” But if you are really lucky, you may actually even hear them say, “Because I always do what is right in my own eyes.”
This phrase is, of course, drawn from the Bible. Its remarkable and more than a little bit ironic how today’s culture is quite familiar with this biblical statement. In fact, people borrow it liberally, failing to see that in the Bible, a culture is at its lowest when it views people as their source of morality.
The mirage of moral intuition
In the days of the Judges, sin reigned and people rebelled. People began by ignoring God’s truth, then by rebelling against his truth, and finally by trying to kill those spoke his truth. Initially they were fine simply paying lip service to God (weeping when confronted with sin, and other outward signs of piety), then they insisted on actively rebelling against God, and ultimately by trying to kill Gideon for tearing down idols. But that was not the end of their slide.
After the attempted ambush on Gideon, Israel kept her slide—she attacked the Judges God gave, she perverted the worship God commanded, and finally she turned inward and began slaughtering themselves.
At the beginning of the book, women could travel freely and do business in Israel. By the end of the book, the only woman foolish enough to travel was ripped to 12 pieces and scattered to the four corners of the country. In Judges 1, people defended the weakest tribe. By the end of the book, being liberated from God’s morality, they slaughtered that same tribe.
Why do I belabor this? Because only when Israel was at its cannibalistic, sexually immoral, idol-worshiping worst, was the author ready to tell us the problem: “in those days, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
Today that phrase is borrowed as if it were progressive. Like Israel, our culture too has slaughtered its weakest, enslaved its strongest, and exploited the most vulnerable. And in a sure sign of our collective depravity, we live in a culture that actually thinks “doing what is right in your own eyes” is a virtue.
The truth is, doing what is right in your own eyes is not virtuous—its treacherous. Rejecting God’s authority may be a sign of freedom from government coercion of religion, but it is also a sign of slavery to sin. Rick Holland used to use a phrase that is applicable here: he called it the “mirage of moral intuition.” We live in a world of hallucinating masses, persuaded that when you tilt your head just so, and squint just such, that you can make out clearly the difference between wrong and right.
Perhaps it is due to all the squinting that people fail to see the utter chaos and violence unleashed when you live in a world filled with those doing what is right in their own eyes. Recognizing that every man is a law unto himself is the same as saying there is no law; and that is the fruit of hating the lawgiver.