Today we will be looking at 1 Samuel 2:12-36, although we'll focus on verses 12-26. About a year ago now, the Arab Spring was just starting, and we've seen the impact of it in a whole range of different places. Even a year afterwards, the rumblings continue. Protestors are not just calling for reform. They're after revolution. They didn't simply want a change in leaders, to get rid of a particular individual, but a change in the whole political system. Only time will tell how successful they've been.
Three thousand years ago, in 1 Samuel, a period of similar political turmoil led to a complete change of the system of government. At this point, we are moving from the time of the judges into the time of monarchy. But from the start of this book, which charts this movement from judges to monarchy, the writer wants us to be in no doubt that the fundamental problem is not political; it's spiritual. It's sin. It's the rejection of the rule of God. In those days "everyone did as he saw fit," what was right in his own eyes. That's the fundamental problem.
You can have a complete change of political system, and this problem can remain. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that if we could somehow spread democracy around the world, everything would be sorted out. I believe with Winston Churchill that democracy is the least bad form of government. I'm a democrat in that sense. But it was a democratic government that elected Adolph Hitler.
The fundamental problem of society is spiritual. And what we need is not a change of political system but a reestablishment of God's rule. And, praise God, he's determined to do so. If he wasn't, the Bible would have ended at Genesis 3. In Genesis 3 human beings reject the rule of God. But the Bible continues to proclaim the grace of God. He's determined to reestablish his rule, not just to crush rebellion and destroy it but to put things right.
Hannah's tears in the beginning of 1 Samuel indicate that things are bad. They reflect the situation in the nation of Israel, and those tears are replaced by joy. As she reflects on her experience, she's thinking to herself, That's just like God. What he's done for me he's going to do on a massive scale. He's going to reverse fortunes all around, and he's going to do it through his king. In 2:10 he's going to bring the adversaries of the Lord down. He's going to bring judgment, but he'll give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed, his Christ. It's through his king that this great reversal will come about. God will put things right. God's rule will be reestablished.
One of the key verses in the entire book is verse 2:10 is. If we just read this narrative we expect things to move pretty rapidly. We know God has reversed things for Hannah. He said he's going to reverse things for the nation and, by implication, for the whole world. And he's going to do it through an expected king.
But the king isn't even mentioned again until chapter 8. First, godless rulers must be rejected, and God's rule must be established through his Word. It's not only about a change in political system. It's about God's rule. Here in chapter two we find that judgment is announced on Eli and his sons. We find God is graciously at work preparing his prophet that his Word may come, and it's through his Word that he reigns and rules.
I want to look at Eli's sons, Eli, and Samuel. We'll learn lessons along the way, and we'll draw it all together with some final applications at the end.
Eli's sons: religious but wicked
Look at verses 12-17. First Samuel begins with the misery of Hannah's tears. Then, it continues with the joy of the birth of Samuel, and the prophecy of a great future through the king. Things are looking good at 2:10. And by 2:11 we're getting a sense that things are moving forward. At this stage, we don't quite know how, because there's a boy who's ministering to the Lord. But then reality bites in. "Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord" (1 Sam. 2:12, ESV).
If you just read 2:10, you would think that "the adversaries of the Lord" must refer to the wicked Philistines. Surely God's going to bring it all crashing down. He's going to judge his enemies. But we find in chapter two, the enemies of God are very close to home in Israel at the shrine in the tabernacle: the priests of the Lord. They're the ones who must come down.
The priests were from the tribe of Levi. They'd been set apart for the service of God and his people. Their job was to offer the sacrifices and teach the law. But here we find priests who have no respect for the sacrifice of God.
This is a very solemn occasion. They are in Shiloh, where the ark is, where the tabernacle is. And an Israelite needs to know that although God is there symbolically, he's a holy God. You can't just waltz into his presence. A sacrifice must be offered. The Israelite would acknowledge sin, and then the death would occur, the substitution killed instead. And there'd be an expression of devotion to God as some of the animal would be burned completely. The rest would be cooked to facilitate a family meal as a symbol of the fellowship that was now possible because of forgiveness with God. Then the priests would get a small portion as an allowance, a wage for what they were doing. It was a very solemn occasion speaking of great spiritual realities—atonement and fellowship and wholehearted consecration.
But Eli's sons, who are at the heart of this drama because they're facilitating the sacrifice, show no concern for the spiritual significance of what's going on. They see an opportunity for personal gain. They're not content with their rightful share. God provided for them. Some of the animal was to be cooked for them. But they want more.
And so in verse 13 we read that they would send a servant who would use a three-pronged fork to fish for the food and help himself while the meat was still boiling. And then he would take this back to the priests and their families. They had no concern for the spiritual significance of the sacrifices of God. And more than that, they had no respect for the Word of God.
A man is about to burn the Lord's portion, but this servant demands God's portion for Eli's sons. Verse 15 says, "Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw." The word of the Lord was quite clear: this was not allowed. And the irony is that in verse 16 that a layman quotes the regulations of the Lord to the priest's servant, who should have known those regulations. The layman says, no, "Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish" (1 Sam. 2:16). But the priests are not interested in the word of the Lord. They have no respect for God's sacrifice or for God's word or for God's people. They see the people of God not as people to be served but as people to be used.
We see in verse 22 how Eli, their father, knew what they were doing—how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. This would have been common in the pagan fertility cults of the time. There were shrine prostitutes in those cults, and perhaps it was normal for pagan priests to sleep with these prostitutes as an encouragement for fertility in the land. It might have been common for the pagans, but this was Israel, God's own people. And these were priests set apart for the service of God. And this sin was taking place at the tabernacle, the focal point of God's presence on earth.
Their responsibility as Israel's priests and political leaders was to submit to God and serve the people. But what were they actually doing? They were contemptuous of God and abusive of the people. We don't have to think very hard to recall political leaders today who are looking for what they can get out of their positions. They're amassing fortunes for themselves and their families at the expense of the people. But these are religious leaders, too. Again, it's not hard to push it forward to today: religious leaders, even nominally Christian religious leaders, with no respect for the sacrifice of God.
I can think of those who speak contemptuously of evangelicalism with its focus on the penal substitutionary death of Christ as just "cross-tianity." I can think of a time when we were planting in a particular part of town, and a number of ministers were very angry with us. At first they complained because they felt we were doing things wrong procedurally. I explained what we were doing and that we'd talked to lots of people. We'd done all the right things procedurally. And one of the ministers honestly said, "Let's recognize that our problem is not procedural. Our problem is that we hate your theology." And what he was talking about was the penal substitutionary death of Christ. Just like Eli's sons, he was contemptuous of the Word of God.
People like that put it this way: if you found a Medieval map of Oxford it would be fascinating to see what Oxford was like in Medieval times. But you wouldn't use it to find your way around the city now because it's very different. Well, the Bible is an old roadmap. It gives us a record of what God was saying in a very different world. It's not useful now, though, because our world is different. Read it for historical interest, but it's irrelevant today. They have no respect for the Word of God.
There are many examples, aren't there? I can think of tragic examples where there's been little respect, if any, for the people of God. Religious leaders with large bank accounts boost their ego by feeding a sexual appetite.
But the moment we point the finger at these contemporary examples, the finger starts pointing back at us. I'm not immune from this. This attitude lies very deep within. And I need to remember where it flowed from in 2:12: "They did not know the Lord." They had no regard for him. I have to be careful, or I'll become like Eli's sons: religious but wicked.
Eli: good but weak
In verses 22-25 we find Eli reintroduced into the story. And we might think, Eli's sons are so wicked. Things are very bleak if they're in charge. But what about Eli? Surely he's still around, and he's in charge. It's not that bad, is it?
Eli was introduced in chapter one. He's the chief priest. He doesn't have a very impressive beginning: he assumes that Hannah with her desperate prayer is drunk. This is massively insensitive to a woman who's grieving and desperate because of her barrenness. But to some extent he redeems himself. He recognizes he got it wrong. He blesses her. He prays for her.
So we think, Well, there's some spirituality, some genuine concern for God here. Surely there's hope if he's around. It's true that he's very old, but at least he tries to stop his sons. So in verses 23 and 24, he goes to them and says, "Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear." He tells them off.
But he doesn't get very far because they have no respect for God, and, sadly, they have no respect for their dad, either. This leads to the very solemn words at the end of verse 25: "They would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death."
We are responsible for our actions. God judges those who turn from him. He judges those who deserve judgment. It's not arbitrary. But it is possible to harden one's heart to the point of no return. They've gone beyond the line at this point, and God is saying judgment's coming. Day after day they were reminded of the seriousness of sin. It takes a sacrifice. And every day they were reminded of the amazing grace of God to sinners as he allowed substitutes to die instead. Yet every day they hardened their hearts, just looking for what they could gain.
They serve as a warning as we preach about the seriousness of sin, about the amazing grace of God, about the love of God in Christ who died on the cross for us. We lead the Lord's Supper, and we're reminding people of the seriousness of sin and the amazing grace of God who welcomes us because he's the host. When we are standing at the table in Christ's name we have to be very careful we don't harden our hearts and use it as a kind of religious performance. We should take it in ourselves and apply these solemn truths. If we keep rejecting, the heart gets harder and harder and harder. And for these guys it was too late.
In verse 27, the man of God comes to Eli and speaks. In the name of God, he says, "Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?" (1 Sam. 2:29).
Suddenly, we see that this guy who's kind of good but weak is actually not very good at all. Yes, he does tell his kids off, but he's actually enjoying the food the servants bullied out of the Israelites as well. He is getting fat on their corruption. He honored the sons more than he honored God. So, he did tell them off, but he could and should have done much more. He pleaded with them, but they ignored him. And then he did nothing when he should have removed them from office completely. They were his sons, but they continued behaving in this horrific way. It's not enough to plead with them to stop, if they will not repent. He should have ended it.
So judgment comes. At the end of verse 30, God says, "Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed." We see through the trajectory of this book that those who are the enemies of God, those who oppose God and his word and his king in time, although they might appear to be in control, are on the way down. God will judge them. And others who might look insignificant, if they honor the Lord and his word and his king, are on the way up. Justice will come.
So in verse 34, God says the two sons will die on the same day. It happens in chapter four. And in verse 35 God says, "I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever."
Judgment's coming. It's going to be the end of Eli and his priestly line. This is a solemn reminder that like Eli it's possible to believe the right things, to be personally faithful, but to also be compromised. He accepted the stolen food. He didn't do all the things they were doing. As far as we can tell, he didn't sleep with the women. Yet he was compromised. He turned a blind eye to the corruption of others. And we can do the same in family life, church life, and the world. All that's necessary for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing. That's what's going on here: Eli was good but weak.
Samuel: unnoticed but crucial
But, praise God, there's another character—Samuel, unnoticed but crucial. And we've seen how the account of Samuel is interwoven with the account of Eli's sons. It's a deliberate contrast. In verse 11, chapter two, the Bible says, "And the boy was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest." God has plans for Israel. We know that from Hannah's prayer. An anointed one is going to come. God's enemies will come down. God's Son will be exalted. Then the focus shifts to this young lad, the boy who was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest. God's plans are focused on this lad. Eli's sons are marked by their lack of respect for the Lord and his judgment against them. But Samuel, we're told again and again, is ministering before the Lord.
In verses 18-21 we come to the central section of this chapter, and it's all about Samuel. Once again we read in verse 18, "Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy clothed with a linen ephod," a priestly garment. In verse 19 we're told that "his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him every year." She'd come on the annual visit for the yearly sacrifice with a bigger robe each year. You can sense the love that must have gone into creating that garment year by year. She spent the whole year knitting it. And a slightly bigger garment year by year tells us that each year Samuel is growing. He's getting bigger. And he's always ministering before the Lord. And in verse 21 it appears again: "And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord."
He was hardly noticed by Eli's sons. They're too busy trying to get the food and the women. He's just a kid. He very likely did the menial tasks. We read in the next chapter that he opened the doors of the house of the Lord, getting things ready for the business of the day. But it's not only his mother who notices him. She's got eyes for him. She knits away. Verse 26 says, "Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man." God's eyes are on him. What a contrast he is with Eli's sons.
In this very surprising setting in the midst of the great darkness hovering over Shiloh, with the corruption of Eli's sons, with the compromise of Eli, in this unpromising setting, God's at work raising up a prophet, raising up a faithful priest through whom it's going to be possible for sinful Israel to relate to God again. We read in the beginning of chapter three, when we come back to Samuel once more, that the light has not been snuffed out. The Word of God was rare, but the light has not been snuffed out. It's about to shine once more.
As Christians read 2:26, of course, we're bound to think of Luke 2:52 when "Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man." It's a deliberate echo. There in Nazareth, in an obscure place, in a carpenter's shop, a young man is growing unnoticed but absolutely crucial. God's at work bringing his light into the darkness of the world.
Let us draw to a close with three quick lessons as we go along. First, never forget that God will not be mocked. Eli's sons, as far as we can tell, were complacent. So there is no indication they ever even tried to repent. They just kept doing it. And their dad pleaded with them, but they kept doing it. It never occurred to them that God would judge them. They were getting away with it. They were enjoying the food. They were enjoying the women. They'd done it once and a second time. Where was God? He didn't seem to notice. So they did it a third time and a fourth time and a fifth time and a sixth time. It never occurred to them that judgment would come. But it did.
We think, This isn't me. I hope it isn't. But we mustn't be complacent or naïve. We are very, very sinful. This is one of the hard things about being pastors because our people actually don't think that. They don't believe the Bible. Sometimes a friend of mine says to people, especially those who just seem as if they're perfect, "You look to me as if you're perfect, but my Bible tells me you're a very wretched sinner." And my Bible tells me that about every one of you, and it's true of me, too. You don't have to be a psychologist or a mind reader. You just need to know the Bible. We are very, very sinful.
And we have a terrible enemy who would love to drag us down. Many of today's liberals were yesterday's evangelicals. Many of today's disastrous ministry fallouts were yesterday's faithful pastors. It happened bit by bit. Perhaps there was a line. They thought they would never cross that line, and then the line is crossed and then gets pushed out. Every time we preach, every time we minister the Lord's Supper, every time we read the Word, there's a reminder—here's an opportunity to repent. Or are we going to harden our hearts?
That repentance might mean seeking help. It's one of the very hard things for pastors. We get isolated from people. People don't want to hear that we're sinful. Who do we speak to about our issues? I might actually want to repent, but how do I do it?
Occasionally people say to me, "Vaughan, you can ask me any question you like." That's not very helpful to me because I don't know what question I should ask. It's much more helpful to tell a trusted friend—or two or three—that this is the area that the devil's going to tempt me. What is my Achilles' heel? If I was the devil, where would I direct my attack? That's the area you've got to ask me about.
It's been hugely helpful for me to have just a small group of friends who know the questions to ask. It's uncomfortable, but it's important and vital, because I know my own sin. I've often started going down and I needed people to help me stop.
Otherwise our pride stops us from repenting. We have to be very careful. God will not be mocked. For some that's a very important word because you're sensing you've actually been going down a line. You've been pushing the line back. You're in danger of getting out of control. And you need to speak to someone and seek help. Never forget that God will not be mocked.
Second, watch out for benevolent compromise. Sadly some have gone the way of Eli's sons, but there are others who are essentially faithful in belief, essentially faithful in life, but like Eli they have areas of compromise. They avoid confrontation in the family, so their kids grow up unchallenged. These parents are terrified of their kids when they hit teenage years. As a single man, I can speak with great authority about this because no one can point the finger at me. But we have to be careful.
Are we willing to lead and guide our families? Some pastors abdicate leadership in the home. They are so busy leading in the church that they want to get back home and just act like a slob. They can't say things that people don't want to hear in the home.
Do you constantly avoid confrontation in the church, never disciplining sin? Perhaps it's because that man who's not behaving well is a key elder. Or because the treasurer just dropped a hint that he keeps the whole church running; without his income the church would collapse. Or because the lady who's been teaching the kids for years is related to most of the people in the church, and they would all be upset.
One doesn't go blundering into these situations. But are you prepared to take them on, or do you just turn a blind eye? Beware of benevolent compromise.
Third, don't forget about Samuel. God is bringing light into the darkness. Don't lose hope even in the bleakest circumstance. Even in the midst of corruption and compromise at Shiloh, God is always faithful to his covenant promises. He acts in grace. Eli's sons rejected the word of the Lord, but God still spoke. Praise him for that.
Some of us are perhaps ministering in a context where the vast majority of people have no interest in the Word of the Lord. That's the case now in Oxford, where the vast majority despise the Word of the Lord. But God still graciously speaks. He brings his light into the darkness. This is an encouragement to me. He raises Samuel up—a prophet speaking in the land again.
In the midst of great darkness the light shone. "The Word became flesh" (John 1:14). Jesus is the perfect prophet. He brings words of challenge but also of amazing grace. God fulfilled his promise. He says he's going to get rid of Eli's priestly line, but he's going to raise up a faithful priest. In history you can look at 1 Kings 2 and Zadok, but ultimately it's the Lord Jesus. He never sinned. No corruption. No compromise. He's the perfect priest. He always loved God's people and always obeyed God's word.
And he offered the perfect sacrifice of himself—an obedient life offered up to God. Because of his perfect obedience, he's able to stand in and be the perfect substitute for us.
That is great news. Not just for the world; it's great news for me. It's great news for you. Because the corruption and the compromise aren't just out there. It's right in here. Christ's Word brings light not just through us but in us. Light shines in the darkness of our hearts. That's a huge encouragement because God is gracious. And if we're trusting in him, let's receive for ourselves the message we give to others. We're forgiven in Christ.
You think, That's great news; I know I've been forgiven. But how do I know I'm going to be able to keep going into the future? Samuel was ministering in the presence of the Lord. And where was the Lord Jesus? He died on the cross. He rose again, ascended into heaven, and he's ministering in the presence of the Lord. He's interceding for us. He can strengthen us to keep us going. In this tough job of pastoring, what a huge privilege we have testifying to the light that shines in the midst of darkness.
Vaughan Roberts is the rector of St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, United Kingdom, president of the Proclamation Trust, and author of several books including God's Big Picture.