When Morality Declines
by Jacob Hudgins
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”(Judges 21:25).
Judges 19-21 tells one of the ugliest stories in the Bible. A Levite and his concubine are returning home and pass through Gibeah (a city of Benjamin) as night comes. No one is willing to take them into his home except one old man who is also a visitor there. Their evening is interrupted by a mob of men wanting to (ahem) “know” the Levite.
The host offers his daughter and the Levite’s concubine to fulfill their request (just what are we reading here?). Eventually the concubine is thrown to the wolves, who abuse her all night until she dies.
The story somehow degenerates from here—progressing to war with Benjamin over this outrage, followed by the leftover men of Benjamin kidnapping the daughters of Shiloh to be their wives. All of this, it seems, is told to reinforce for us the essential fact about this time in Israel’s history: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”(Judg 21:25).
When morality declines, there are victims. Often moral degeneracy is promoted as throwing off the shackles and freeing ourselves from the constraints of others’ scruples. Why shouldn’t I be free? How does someone else tell me how to live? Yet, as this story clearly shows, no man is an island. When I choose sin, I do not sin in a vacuum. I may choose to call it a “life choice” instead of sin—I may repudiate you for “judging” me—I may feel completely justified in living whatever way I choose—but I cannot free you from the consequences of my choices. When I choose pornography, I contribute to the victimization of young girls, perpetuate the stereotypes of body image that plague our society, and grow further unable to see women as anything but objects (see the villains of our story). When I lie, others are entrapped by my “version of the truth,” my relationships are strained, and others are weaker for being unable to trust me.
When morality declines, it is only a matter of time before I do whatever I want. By this I mean “whatever” in the broadest sense. Most people who reject the Bible as a moral code retain a basic humanism in which everything is OK provided it doesn’t hurt anyone else. But this qualifier is paper-thin. These men felt that homosexual rape was acceptable because they wanted to do it. (It must be remembered that they were well-schooled in the ethics of Jehovah God). In their lust they were willing to have relations with anyone, regardless of consequences or consent. In our time where “love” justifies any relationship or action, can we not see it is a matter of time before “love” fades to simple desire? And when this is the standard, I don’t even need you to agree—if I want it, it becomes right. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” means only that these people reached the end of the road our society is currently traveling down. It is only a matter of time before we reach the same destination.
While these thoughts are most certainly unsettling, they are a little too vague to be convicting. The challenge of this passage lies in the fact that these changes occur on a person by person basis. When I choose to abandon the character God calls me to, I contribute to the decline of morality in my time. I struggle daily with treating my wife and children with the patience and love they deserve from me. I wrestle with maintaining a commitment to telling the truth in whatever situation I’m in. And as I live in a time where I have the freedom and money to have almost anything my heart desires, I daily battle with what I should tell myself “no” about—the discipline of self-discipline. The issue is not whether those struggles are struggles for me, but if I allow my failures to become so normal that I start to justify them. When I make excuses for my sin, or start to view it as not that bad, or give up the fight altogether, I contribute to the moral decline of my time. It is one thing to wring my hands at shifting morals; it is quite another to wring my hands at what I see in the mirror.
Along the way it might help us to see that God’s morals are not really about holding anyone down (this is Satan’s accusation, Gen 3:5) but about protecting others from our evil and keeping us from the horrific consequences that accompany our worst desires.
May God keep us from a time when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”!