Question: "What does it mean that in the days of the judges everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6)?"

Answer: Some Bible verses are incorporated like footnotes from the writer or narrator to help interpret or explain how certain events could occur. An example appears in Judges 17:6: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (NKJV). The same commentary recurs in the concluding verse of the book: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25, NLT).

Everyone did what was right in his own eyes equates to saying that a state of anarchy existed in Israel. The phrase originates in the Pentateuch. Israel’s wilderness wandering period was an unsettled time when some of the sacrifices and tithes were not being offered. Moses described this time as “everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8, ESV). The haphazard worship of those days would end in the Promised Land, which would allow for a more stable mode of community life (Deuteronomy 12:9–14).

The days of the judges were dark and troubling times for the nation of Israel. Moses had commanded the people to do what is right in God’s eyes (Exodus 15:26; Deuteronomy 6:18; 12:25, 28; 13:19; 21:9). But, after the death of Moses and then Joshua, the people quickly went astray. Judges 17 is the account of Micah and his family, provided as an example of the widespread corruption taking place among the people. Idolatry and moral confusion were rampant. Without a king over the people, everyone did what was right in his own eyes. There was no central governing authority to maintain discipline and order in Israel, and the result was lawlessness.

They did what was right in their own eyes is equivalent to today’s philosophy that “if it feels right, then do it” or “you be you.” Nowadays, we “do our own thing” and sing songs that boast, “I did it my way,” as though this is a good thing. But such moral subjectivism got Israel into trouble, leading the nation into the depths of depravity and moral decay. It will do the same for societies today.

God has an absolute right way spelled out for us in His Word. Proverbs 14:34 puts it like this: “Godliness makes a nation great, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (NLT). The same proverb warns, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

If everyone does whatever is right in his own eyes, spiritual confusion and compromise arise, and nations fall into disgrace. God calls His people to obedience and conformity to the standards of right living in His Word: “He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:7–11, NLT).

Thankfully, when we call on the name of Jesus, we are made right in God’s eyes through Jesus Christ’s work of redemption (1 Corinthians 6:9–11; Romans 8:3–4). God’s Spirit guides and empowers us to live righteous and holy lives so that we no longer do as we please but instead live to please Him (Romans 8:11–14; Galatians 5:19–24; Ephesians 4:22–24; Philippians 2:12–13; Hebrews 8:10).