I would label the last verse of Judges as one of the most generally misinterpreted verses in all the Bible. It is often linked with the national being sinful because people could just do what they want. The problem is the verse does not say that. Look at it again.
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
The is actually no reference at all to the morality of the nation in the verse. In order to interpret it as a statement of sinful morality, you have to assume sinful morality. The counter to this people will tell me that I just need to look at Judges itself, that the whole book is one of sinfulness of Israel and how that sinfulness got them into trouble. I would say they had a valid point if that were true. The fact is the book of Judges also records when the nation of Israel got it right too. It shows also the times that Israel prospered under God’s rule when they obeyed him. There are large chunks of time that Israel lives in this peace also with everyone doing what was right in their own eyes as well. The people who want to see the book as a book of Israel’s failures are not looking at the overwhelming successes including standing against a tyrannical king after three years of his rule. Judges has Ups as well as Downs and to interpret this last verse as an anti-sinfulness statement is to ignore those ups.
The statement is not a moral one but a political one. Conservative scholarship has always said the most likely author of Judges was Samuel the prophet himself. If this is so, and I believe it is, the statement is one last stab at those who wanted a king like everyone else. I am not sure if Samuel was doing a chronicle of the judges of Israel and then the whole question of kingship came up and he added this line to kind of make his case against monarchy or he wrote the book of judges as a response to the question of monarchy, but either way the verse is a statement about the political structure of the time. There was no king, every man had absolutely freedom in what he wanted to do. Every man had liberty to choose they way he wanted to live.
It is no secret that Samuel opposed the monarchy. He fought tooth and nail against choosing a king. His argument was that having a king interfered with personal freedom. A king would take things from the hard work of the people to establish his government. A king would bring a draft, confiscation of personal property, taxes and a diminishing of personal liberties. (1st Samuel 8:10-18). If it had been up to Samuel, King Saul would never have been anointed. It actually takes God’s intervention where he tells Samuel that they have not rejected Samuel but the kingship of God.
This brings up a point about God and his desire for human freedom. Note that under the judges, people based on God’s law had a right to their property and it couldn’t be taken by someone else as that was theft. They could do as they pleased as long as they did not violate God’s laws which in large part were there to protect the rights of people against other people. There was no draft, no taxes other than the voluntary ones to the tabernacle and the support of the priesthood and poor. There was a right to property under God’s rule. By choosing to have an earthly king, Israel gave all that up, AGAINST THE WISHES OF GOD.
So then the one thing that we can see is that God himself seems to value our freedom more than we do. God to this point has fought for his people to establish them as a nation but has not become the absolute theocracy that some might think he would want to achieve. After doing all that he sets up a government of voluntary compliance with only his blessing when they complied with his law and his curse when they disobeyed. The book of judges basically shows then that the form of government is God as king but he is a king that seems to respect the freedom of his people almost to a fault, and he considers that better than monarchy. What mattered was their choice to be righteous or unrighteous, the form of government did not matter in this as the monarchists claimed. That being the case, the best form of government was the freedom they had under God without a king according to the prophets Samuel and the book of Judges and this statement is designed to point that out.
Next: Samuel – His Origin and Call