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1 Samuel 3:1-4:1a

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In the first two chapters we have seen the account of Samuel and of Eli’s sons in alternation. First we hear about the one and the about the other. Clearly the two are being compared and contrasted: Samuel’s holiness and dedication to God and Hophni and Phinehas’ corruption and betrayal of God. Now the two accounts come together and Samuel receives a message from God about the house of Eli.

v.1       It seems likely that the rarity of the Lord’s revelation was due, at least in part, to the corruption of the priesthood under Eli’s sons. “The word of the Lord” is a technical term for the revelation given to prophets. We are used to the phrase “the word of the Lord came to X…” In a day when God communicated himself to his people by these means, it amounted to God’s silence. We read in Psalm 74:9 (where the psalmist is complaining that God seems to have deserted his people): “We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left; and none of us knows how long this will be.” In Lamentations 2:9 we read, similarly, in a time of Israel’s judgment and woe, “the law is no more, and her prophets no longer find visions from the Lord.” And in Amos 8:11: “’The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘when I will send a famine through the Land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.’” In our age, with the finished Bible in our hands, a similar situation would prevail if the Word of God were not being faithfully preached and God’s people were not hearing the truth proclaimed faithfully, and, of course, that has happened in many times and places.

v.2       Eli’s failing sight, the narrator no doubt expects us to see, is a metaphor of his lack of spiritual insight. If that seems overly subtle to you, wait until v. 13 and you will see the proof of it.

v.3       The outer part of the sanctuary was illuminated by a night lamp, unless this is a reference to the seven-branched candlestick, which seems less likely. But again, there may be a double meaning. The Lord’s lamp not having gone out may refer also to the fact that God’s light had not entirely departed from Israel, indeed Samuel would be the one to make that light burn brightly again [Alter, Com., 16]. It seems strange to us that Eli and Samuel should have slept in the sanctuary, but they did, in any case. In Exodus 33:11, however, some have found evidence that the young Joshua did the same, when he was Moses’ assistant.

This is the first mention of the ark of the covenant in 1 Samuel and it establishes the credentials of the ark. It is by it that God speaks to Samuel. All of this, of course, prepares for the disaster that is to come in chapter 4.

v.6       The “my son” “reveals the fondness of the blind and doomed Eli for his young assistant. His own biological sons have of course utterly betrayed his trust.” [Alter, Com., 17]

v.7       It is Samuel’s inexperience that creates the confusion. He has never received a “word of the Lord” before. The same kind of confusion can occur when a man or woman comes for the first time under the conviction of sin or the spell of God’s Word. Why is he feeling as he is? Where is this coming from? How can he ease the pain in his heart? He doesn’t know because he doesn’t yet know where it is coming from.

The “did not yet know” is ironic in contrast with the “did not know” used in 2:12 of Eli’s sons. They could have known the Lord and didn’t. Samuel was to know the Lord’s voice but had not yet heard it. Very different kinds of ignorance! Many do not yet know the Lord who, like Samuel, someday will. But Hophni and Phinehas’ ignorance of God was inexcusable and invincible.

v.10     That the Lord “stood” there indicates that it was a vision as well as an audition, Samuel saw as well as heard, which is made explicit in v. 15 where we read he was reluctant to tell the “vision.” That makes sense as v. 1 began by saying that visions were rare in those days.

v.13     As your NIV margin indicates the Hebrew text does not read as the NIV has it. It literally reads, “they have been scorning for themselves…” But there is a good bit of evidence to suggest that turn of phrase was a euphemism, a scribal technique to avoid having to write something so sacrilegious as “they were scorning or cursing God.” [Alter, 18]

“restrain” is another form of the same verb, “to grow weak” used of Eli’s eyes in v. 2. Eli’s failing eyesight is a metaphor of his spiritual weakness!

v.14     What the Lord says to Samuel is really simply a tersely worded summary of the message that “the man of God” had already delivered to Eli (2:27-36). As such, it is a confirmation of it (like Joseph and Pharaoh being given two versions of the same dream, Genesis 41:32). Note the “I spoke…” in v. 12 and the “I told…” in v. 13. As with all of God’s ways, however doom-laden this oath against the house of Eli, the Lord did, by this means, open the way to the house of Zadok. These were high-handed sins and no provision is made for them – that is, sins against the Holy Spirit, sins of apostasy.

v.15     Samuel, tender of heart as he is, tries to go on with business as usual, hoping he won’t have to tell Eli what the Lord told him. But Eli, probably suspecting the worst, forces him to tell.

v.16     For the second time Eli calls Samuel “my son.” This probably indicates that he understands that Samuel is replacing Hophni and Phinehas. He will be Eli’s true, spiritual son.

v.17     This is a somewhat conventional expression, appropriate to a highly emotional culture. We mustn’t make too much of such expressions. (As, for example, Jeremiah’s expression of his woe in the form of a “curse” against the man who brought his father the news of Jeremiah’s birth years before, 20:13-18.) But, that Eli says it suggests that he knew the news was going to be bad and that he understood Samuel’s reluctance to disclose it.

v.19     The test of a true prophet (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

v.20     “Dan…Beersheba” = the traditional geographical limits of Israel. We say of the USA, “from sea to shining sea.”

“prophet of the Lord” There is the conclusion. That is what we have been moving to, the establishment of Samuel as the Lord’s prophet in Israel. And now, with a godly prophet established, the Lord began to speak in Israel again.

Characteristic of all true prophets, their credentials were divinely established and recognized in the church.

v.21     We know what this is by now: an inclusio. No revelations in v. 1, no “words of the Lord” and now, in v. 21, such revelations are coming regularly again. There is, of course, the over-arching theme of the chapter. “How the word of the Lord returned to Israel.”

4:1a     We finish with Samuel’s career now at its zenith before the narrator goes on to show us Israel at its nadir.

Now, as we said, this chapter, in the larger context, relates the establishment of Samuel as God’s prophet and a return of the divine presence in Israel that had been lost as a consequence of the betrayal of Hophni and Phinehas. The chapter illustrates many principles.

  1. The strategic role of the ministry. We might have thought that Hophni and Phinehas’s sins were simply their own and would have no effect on the life of the people, but it was not so and it is never so. When the ministry betrays the Word of God the people always eventually follow suit. It is a fixed law in the kingdom of God. Ask the OT prophets why Israel committed apostasy and the only answer you will ever get is that the prophets and the priests led the people astray. It is why every Christian who loves the Lord, the church, his own soul, and the soul of his children ought to care and care deeply about the state of the Christian ministry, the ministry of the Word of God. As it goes the people of God go.
  2. God’s departure from his people on account of their sins, what the old writers used to call “divine desertion.” It is marked by the silence of heaven. God does not speak and the powerful working of his Word is not seen or is rarely seen. The end of such a day, then as now, is marked by a powerful reappearance of God’s Word. [E.g. the Cambuslang revival – part of the Great Awakening – in Scotland in 1741-42. William McCulloch was a very ordinary preacher (his own son admits he wasn’t eloquent; it took him nine years to land his first charge after he was ordained; soon thereafter he gained the nickname ‘the ale minister’). But when the Spirit of God fell upon those poorly crafted and poorly presented sermons, the earth shook! A revival is always a case of the coming of the Word of the Lord!] We are far too deistic in our view of ordinary Christian and Church affairs. We imagine that God is always there ready to apply the rules he has laid down and we can have just as much blessing as we are willing to work for. Not so! “Seek the Lord while he is near; call upon Him while He may be found!” We are dealing with a person who comes and goes as all the Bible testifies and as church history confirms a thousand times over.

But I want, tonight, to face the hard truth that lies here before us in chapter 3. We have a terrible curse pronounced on the head of a righteous man. Eli was a righteous man, let there be no doubt about that. In some ways, he was a man very much to be admired by the godly. Not to put too fine a point on it, Eli’s spirit of faith and submission to God, his bowing before a holy God, takes my breath away!

Think of what Eli had been told. The priesthood was to be wrested from his family and given to another and all because of Eli’s own sins and the sins of his sons for which he bore a direct responsibility. What is more, as part of that judgment God was bringing down upon Eli’s house, and as a sign of the eventual ruin of his family, his own two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were to die during Eli’s own lifetime and on the same day! (2:34)

And what was Eli’s response to this terrible news? “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.” Eli was no Hezekiah! Remember when a similar kind of judgment was pronounced on Hezekiah’s family, as punishment for Hezekiah’s vain and foolish behavior before the Babylonian envoys, Hezekiah’s only thought was “Whew! At least that judgment isn’t going to fall directly and immediately on me! He cared only for himself. No so Eli. The narrative reveals him to be a tender-hearted man; a man who grieved – however ineffectually – over the sinful behavior of his sons; a man who appreciated the sacrifice Hannah made and had come to love the boy Samuel as his own son. Eli knew that the Lord had spoken to Samuel, knew that the Lord’s word would be true, just, and right, and submitted his heart to that word even though it was such crushing news for him personally.

Samuel Rutherford wrote, in one of his many letters to Marion M’Naught (Letter XII, p. 55):

“…I beseech you in the [mercy] of Jesus, welcome every rod of God, for I find not in the whole book of God a greater note of a true child of God, than to fall down and kiss the feet of an angry God.”

In my experience, not many Christians do this very well. I have often seen the Lord punish and punish severely, but I have not so often seen his children kiss the rod, acknowledge its justice and their deserving of it and meekly accept God’s terms. I have not so often seen God’s children give glory to God when he was angry with them, as God sometimes is and must be angry with his children.

I know the very idea that God will be angry with the children whom he has saved by the death and the righteousness of his own son, Jesus Christ, is un-American. American evangelicals have nourished themselves for too long on a sentimental portrait of God that bears little resemblance to the God revealed to us in Holy Scripture, OT and NT alike.

“O Lord our God…you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.” [Psalm 99:8] There are far too many Christians who imagine that forgiveness and punishment are mutually exclusive realities, but they are not.

Think, for example, of Samson, of whom we heard last Lord’s Day evening. His faith and repentance at the end of his life did not get him his eyes back, or his life either; just as the repentance of an alcoholic will not reverse the sclerosis in his liver. Or think of Manasseh, Israel’s wicked king who repented so magnificently at the very end of his life. He was forgiven, wonderfully forgiven. But his sins against God and Judah still had to be punished and were. Again and again the prophets report that Judah had to go into exile because of the sins of Manasseh, his furious repentance and his forgiveness notwithstanding. So it would be for David. Forgiven he was. God says so. But his crimes against God and man would nevertheless bring down his family and cause untold havoc in the nation. And so with parents, even devout parents like Eli, who, nevertheless, did not fulfill their parental responsibilities and, as a consequence, lost their children to unbelief and worldliness. And so with countless other Christians, real Christians, and Christian ministers, whose work of one kind or another was burnt up because they had built with wood, hay, and stubble.

I know some young pastors who have sought to be faithful to the Word of the Lord and have preached the doctrine taught plainly enough here and many other places in the Bible, viz. that parents bear some accountability for the spiritual outcome of their children’s lives. And they have suffered for preaching that doctrine, either because parents in their churches have already lost their children to unbelief – and are offended at the suggestion that they are somehow responsible for that – or because they do not want to face that accountability for their young children. Oh, many of them would admit that Eli failed. They simply want to be sure that if their own children end up preferring the world to the Lord Christ no one can say that they are somehow at fault.

Now, let me add this aside. This whole issue is a very difficult and complex one. Clearly the Bible teaches that the individual rebellious Christian young man or woman is primarily responsible. He or she cannot blame his or her parents. All he must do is repent himself! There may be others as well – ministers, teachers, Christian friends – who bear responsibility for the fact that a child who grew up in a Christian home has rebelled against that faith and lives now in and for the world. But, surely the parents must bear some of the responsibility as well, and in many cases a great deal of the responsibility. The Bible couldn’t be more explicit. We saw that connection between the spiritual quality of Christian parenting and the consequence in the lives of Christian children taught again and again in the narrative of Genesis. The Lord alone can weigh all factors and say how much of Hophni and Phinehas’ rebellion was Eli’s fault. That Eli was in some significant way accountable for his sons’ spiritual state is the explicit teaching of this passage

But, what that means is that Eli was a poor parent even though, in other respects, he was a godly man, even a great man of God. His submission to God’s judgment was an act of great faith that few Christians seem able to imitate, though hosts of believers have been far better parents. Eli was heartbroken over his sons unbelief precisely because he himself was a believing man! He cared about the glory of God and he cared deeply about the salvation of his sons. We are going to have further illustration of the depth of his feeling in the next chapter.

No pastor worth his salt doesn’t struggle with preaching subjects like this. There are in the congregation godly folk who are broken-hearted themselves over the unbelief and rebellion of their children. Who wants to rub their noses in their misery or make it worse by reminding them of their own responsibility for it, whatever the measure of their responsibility may be. We have this sorrow in this church and, believe me, brothers and sisters, we will have it again as the years pass. And we have plenty of like sorrows: people who are paying the price the Lord has required for foolishness and disobedience in their past. I love the Bible’s historical narrative as much for this as for anything: that it forces us to reckon with life in all of its terrible seriousness, something we Americans have a special need for. In these narratives we find life’s dark side as well as its light. The Bible is so honest, so helpfully, though painfully honest about our life. It tells us of Eli’s failure and the catastrophe that came from it. It is important for us to face that.

But, hear me. Surely you don’t want me to remain silent when the Bible is so plain-spoken…do you? You want the full weight of the solemn warning that the Lord has for us in this text. If you love the Lord and love others, you don’t want them to make the same mistakes that you have made. You are more concerned about their welfare than your pain. There is real Christlikeness in that! Just as there was a real Christlikeness in Eli’s “Not my will, O Lord, but thine be done!”

And, what is more: you want for yourself the challenge to higher, better, nobler things that we are given here in the example of Eli. Surely you do if there is Christian blood in your veins. We may have to suffer punishment for things we did or failed to do, but that does not mean, surely, that we should not continue to aspire to holy things. No, you aspire all the more. One sinful failure does not a Christian life make. For everyone of us who is a Christian in truth, life is a mixture of good and evil, sin and holiness, faith and unbelief. If we are all frail and sinful, and fall in many ways, as we all do, at least should we not aspire to be as Eli? When God’s judgment falls upon our heads as it must in one way or another, rather than attack God’s messenger, rather than defend ourselves, do we not want rather to be like Eli? If we have failed the Lord and others in some way, rather than aggravate our wrong, should we not show our repentance as Eli did and our faith, by saying, “He is the Lord, let him do what is good in his eyes.”

That is what Eli did. “Tell me, dear Samuel, all that the Lord said to you about me. Hold nothing back, however painful you know it will be for me to hear it. It isn’t your word, after all, it is the Lord’s own word! I want to know God’s Word so that I may bow to it. I have not bowed to it in some ways as I should have and now I know the misery of that; but at least let me bow to it now; let me finish my life a man who reveres the Lord and his Word.” Now that is a believing man.

We learn in this solemn chapter to walk very carefully and circumspectly before the Lord, my brothers and sisters. We learn not to imagine that God’s grace and forgiveness completely insulates us from the consequences of our sins. God cares very deeply how we live. He punishes every son that he receives and his punishments can be heavy indeed. But, along the way, we also learn that there is a godly life to be lived even by those upon whose back the rod of God has fallen. We teach our children to receive their punishments meekly and to acknowledge that they deserve them. God expects the same of us.