The Book of Judges
Careful students of Scripture,
Every time I hear the book of Judges taught, the punchline and marquee concept is this: everyone did what was right in his own eyes. The phrase appears in Judges 17:6 and 21:25.
The preacher then timewarps into a polemic about America's godless solipsism, coupled with similar fusses about American Christianity. Dutiful churchgoers shout approving amens, feeling relieved to not be doing what is right is their own eyes.
Problems with this Understanding
There are problems, however, with this line of understanding regarding the aforementioned phrase. I will give three, then segue into a larger word of wisdom.
First and most obvious is that any and every human being, in any and every society, has been doing what is right in his own eyes since the Fall. This is Paul's simple point in Romans 1-3, the universality of solipsism and sin. Only a zealously committed worshiper of God, who dies to the sinful self daily, is rescued from this ubiquitous condition.
Second, Israel apostasized to idolatry before and after Judges (1Sam 8:8), and will continue in that hardened apostate condition (Ro 11:25) until a remnant repent and run to God just before the Second Coming (Hos 3:4,5, 5:14-6:3, Isa 64:1-3, Mt 23:39) and right after the Second Coming (Zec 12:10-14, Ro 11:26,27).
Third, Israel had a righteous response in Judges 19-21, and, they were intermittently faithful to God throughout this period. Israel, therefore, was not any more solipsistic or idolatrous during Judges than at any other time in their overall history. Their long-story is the same from Sinai to the Second Coming: solipsism and idolatry mixed with periods of intermittent faithfulness to God.
Considering these three facts, therefore, it is unlikely the standout phrase in Judges ("everyone did what was right in his own eyes") is a moral rebuke about Israel's godless narcissism. The immediate context and the rest of Scripture tell us there is much, much more to this well-known phrase.
The Qualifier: "There Was No King"
The phrase "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" is introduced by a qualifying phrase, "In those days there was no king in Israel." In fact, the "no king in Israel" phrase appears four times (Jdg 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25) and the "they did whatever they wanted" phrase appears only two times (17:6, 21:25).
This is trying to tell us the Israelites did what was right in their own eyes as opposed to a king telling them what to do, as happened in Egypt and the nations around them. The statement is sociopolitical, not moral or theological, describing the personal liberties Israel possessed without a king (all of which were dictators at the time). If you read the phrase morally or theologically, you are importing and transplanting foreign information into the passage, which says nothing about God or what was right in His eyes. The passage only states the Israelites did as they pleased because there was no king-dictator, as they had in Egypt and as the nations around them had.
Theological Unity & Continuity
This particular phrase is a cautionary lesson: interpret Scripture as one unified storyline. Under Pharaoh's monarchy in Egypt the Israelites had no personal liberties. Under Israel's monarchy the Israelites also lost personal liberties. God warned them about this specifically (1Sam 8:11-17), even saying "you yourselves will become his slaves" (v17 NIV). Sandwiched in-between these two experiences with tyranny (Egypt's monarchy and Israel's monarchy), was a time when "there was no king in Israel", and therefore, everyone was free to do what was right in his own eyes--for good or for bad, for godliness or for evil.
A unified storyline emerges. Isaiah prophesied of a day when each person could have the highest form of personal liberty imaginable: an individualized relationship with God via the Holy Spirit (Isa 54:13; also Jer 31:33,34, Heb 8:10,11, 1Jn 2:20,27). Ironically but intentionally, Isaiah says in the very next verse, "...tyranny will be far from you..." (Isa 54:14 NIV)--a sociopolitical statement indeed. Isaiah's word is partially fulfilled now (v13), the sociopolitical part (v14) will be fulfilled in the Millennium. Micah reiterated and developed the sociopolitical part, telling us that in the Millennium we will sit under our "own vine" and "own fig tree" and "no one will make them afraid" (Mic 4:4).
See the theological unity and continuity? Judges, Isaiah, and Micah are all iterating individual dignity, liberty, and not being under sociopolitical tyranny that oppresses and suppresses these. The Israelites, during the book of Judges, experienced this dictatorless autonomy in-between Pharaoh and the Hebrew monarchy. That is what the standout phrase means.
The Timeless Message
Individual dignity, liberty, and autonomy is not an American ideal, it is a Biblical ideal. God knows your name, even your sleeping habits and communication patterns (Ps 139:1-4). Precious souls around the globe are perishing under tyrant-supreme leaders who do not let them do "what is right in their own eyes". Even Christian leaders in some circles demoralize and undermine individual dignity, overtly or passive-aggressively. Born-again community, learn from the book of Judges. You have no king but our great King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Do whatever is right in your eyes, but know God will judge how you use that personal sovereignty. Ecclesiastes 11:9 (NIV) says this precisely: ...Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Use your individual autonomy the way Israel did in Judges chapters 19-21, not chapters 1-18.