3. Samuel and the Sons of Belial (1 Samuel 2:11-36)
When I was a seminary student, a couple lived nearby who attended another church. On one occasion, their church held a special week of meetings with a nationally known preacher, and they were delighted to volunteer to pick him up at the airport. The couple took along their three children. Coming home from the airport, they inquired about the speaker’s topic for the week, and he responded that he had not yet decided. At the first meeting when the speaker announced that “the Lord had led him to speak on child-rearing,” they knew instantly he had reached his decision largely on the basis of the conduct of their children on the way home from the airport. The bad behavior of their children, and their failure to bring them under control, had become the basis for the speaker’s decision about his topic. They also knew that if this man was speaking to anyone, it was to them.
The reader will quickly see that a dominant theme in our passage is the parent-child relationship. I hope it is plain that it is a subject which comes directly from the text. If I am to systematically expound 1 and 2 Samuel, I cannot avoid this text or the subject of child-rearing. Please do not think that I feel relatively safe teaching this subject, since the youngest of our children has graduated from college and is moving out of our home to teach in another state. It may appear that our parenting job is done, and it could even appear that our children have come out quite well. Two things must be said in that regard. First, as most parents discover at this point in their lives, our job is not really over, ever. Our role as parents changes and diminishes, but we still have certain responsibilities as parents, just as our children still have some responsibilities to us as our children (such as in our old age, which is a long way off yet!). We cannot take credit for all the good things that have happened in our children’s lives, just as some of you should not take all the blame for things that have gone wrong in your children’s lives. To the degree that our children walk with God, it is by the grace of God and to the glory of God. We dare not take credit for the work of God. Finally, we are very soon entering into the exciting new world of grand-parenting, which will surely bring new challenges.
You can see then that I am as “threatened” and “intimidated” by our text as you are. I find no pleasure in preaching it, as though it offers a free pass for me to give you a piece of my mind on the job you are doing as parents. I realize that the standard for parenting set forth in our text is one all of us are obliged to keep, and that all of us will fail to keep that standard to one degree or another. The death of Eli and his two sons (shortly to be described in 1 Samuel 4) is a clear word of warning about the high price parents pay for failing to heed God’s instructions to them regarding the rearing of their children. We must take this text most seriously and strive to understand what God says to us here about the awesome task of raising our children.
An Overview of 1 Samuel 2:11-4:22
We must read, interpret, and apply our text in the light of its context. Our text in chapter 2 sets the scene for the events in chapter 4 by contrasting the life of Samuel with the lives of Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Alternating between Samuel and the two “sons of Belial,” our text contrasts Samuel with Eli’s sons. I like the way Dale Ralph Davis illustrates the intertwining of Samuel and the sons of Belial:
Samuel serving, 2:11
Liturgical sins, 2:12-17
Samuel serving, 2:18-21
Moral sins, 2:22-25
Samuel growing, 2:26
Prophecy of judgment, 2:27-36
Samuel serving, 3:1a1
The writer describes in chapter 3 the rise of Samuel to the office of the priesthood and to the office of a prophet. By the end of chapter 3, the entire nation accepts and reveres Samuel as a true prophet of God. Chapter 4 describes the fulfillment of God’s prophetic warnings regarding Eli and his sons (both by the unnamed prophet in chapter 2 and by Samuel in chapter 3). Israel suffers defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Ark is captured and taken away, and Eli and his two sons die, along with his daughter-in-law. The warnings and prophecies of chapters 2 and 3 must be read in the light of their fulfillment in chapter 4.
Understanding the Priesthood
We must know more about the Levitical priests to fully grasp what is going on with the sons of Eli. It is Aaron and his sons who are first designated by God to serve as priests. Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, are put to death for failing to exercise their priesthood correctly. They offer “strange fire” and are put to death for it. They are then replaced by Aaron’s other sons, Eleazar and Ithamar (Leviticus 10:1-3; Numbers 3:4; 26:60-61).
The priests have various duties. They are to maintain and operate the tabernacle (Exodus 27:21; Leviticus 24:1-7; Numbers 18:1-7). Included in these duties is the maintaining of the altar. They are to keep the ashes removed and the fire burning (Leviticus 6:8-13). God promises to be with them in a special way at the doorway of the tent of meeting (Exodus 29:42-46). Because of their privileged position and close proximity to the Holy God, they are to be meticulous about not defiling themselves in any way that hinders their service. This includes avoiding strong drink (Leviticus 10:8-11), which may have been a contributing factor in the “strange fire” of Nadab and Abihu (10:1-3). They must not defile themselves by contact with the dead, by taking a harlot as a wife, or by having a daughter who is a harlot (Leviticus 21:1-9). A priest must not have any physical defect or conduct his priestly duties while ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 21:10—22:9). The Levitical priests are responsible for inspecting various medical maladies to determine if they are leprous, infectious or defiling (see Leviticus 13-16). Levitical priests are to blow the trumpets which signal the Israelites (Numbers 10:8). The priest’s duties are even more extensive than this, for they are to teach the people of Israel the Law of Moses, and they are to judge them (Deuteronomy 17:8-13; 33:8-11). The priests’ failure to do these things brings severe judgment upon them (Malachi 2:1-10). Their garments, which include a tunic and a robe, are also symbols of the sanctity of their office and duties (Exodus 28:40-43).
God does not give the priests an inheritance like the other tribes (Numbers 18:24). Instead, He provides for them in a special way. They are given a portion of the meat which they offer on behalf of the Israelites, and they are given the remainder of the tithes and offerings of the people which the people bring as an offering to God (Numbers 18:8-32). They are also given the bread that is set out in the sanctuary to eat (Leviticus 24:8-9). God specifies the portion of the sacrificial animal the priests are given: the breast and the right thigh, but this is only after the fat has been burned on the altar (Leviticus 7:31-34; see also 3:3-5, 14-17; 7:22-25).
Where’s the Beef?
12 Now the sons of Eli were worthless men; they did not know the LORD 13 and the custom of the priests with the people. When any man was offering a sacrifice, the priest's servant would come while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand. 14 Then he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. Thus they did in Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. 15 Also, before they burned the fat, the priest's servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give the priest meat for roasting, as he will not take boiled meat from you, only raw.” 16 And if the man said to him, “They must surely burn the fat first, and then take as much as you desire,” then he would say, “No, but you shall give it to me now; and if not, I will take it by force.” 17 Thus the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for the men despised the offering of the LORD.
We have already seen how God provides for the needs of the priests. When they offer a sacrifice, they must first offer up the fat as an offering to God. The one making the sacrifice receives a portion of the sacrificial meat to be eaten with his family (see 1:5). The priest is given the breast and the right thigh (see above). This is the way the Law of Moses spells it out, but it is not the way it is done by the priests. These men “did not know the Lord,” and neither did they know “the custom of the priests” (verses 12-13).2 These sons, who “did not know the Lord,” are called here the “sons of Belial” (literally), or “worthless men” (verse 12).3 It is very interesting to note that while Eli’s sons are called “sons of Belial,” Eli’s hasty assessment and rebuke of Hannah suggests to him that she is a “daughter of Belial” (see 1:16), a charge she denies.
What do these “worthless sons” of Eli actually do that is so wrong? The writer tells us. First, they refuse to take the portions assigned to them and insist on a “pot luck” approach to the selection of their meat. When the meat is boiling in the pot and someone comes to offer a sacrifice, the priest sends his servant with a three-pronged fork to take out whatever portion he stabs (2:13-14). This portion of meat is then taken to the priest as his portion of the sacrificial animal.
I must confess that I am a cynic. I do not believe the meat the servant obtained was really a matter of chance. When I was growing up, we used to have fried chicken – one fried chicken usually. I really liked the white meat, and I didn’t care for the drumsticks or thighs. My dad was always served first, and he used to say that he took “whatever Evalyn (my Mother) gives me” “Give him a back or a neck, Mother,” I would plead, but she never did. Somehow, my Dad always ended up with the biggest piece of white meat. The piece of chicken my Dad got was not a matter of chance at all, and we all knew it.
I do not think that what the priests were given to eat was a matter of chance either. The breast portion or a piece of thigh did not represent T-bone steaks for them because that was from the loin -- round steak, yes, rump roast, yes, but filet mignon, no -- unless, of course, the priest’s servant “just happened” to pull it out of the kettle. I doubt if these fellows made many mistakes about what piece of meat was taken for the priest. There would be no chuck steaks for these fellows and no neck bones either. In the way they selected the meat, the priests cast aside the law, satisfying their tastes by obtaining the most select cuts.
The priests seem to find boiled beef too bland, wanting barbecued (or broiled) beef instead. The priest’s servants approach those offering their sacrifices before the meat is cooked, even before the fat is offered to God, and demand a prime cut of select beef for the priests. Godly Israelites, like Elkanah and Hannah, know the fat must first be burned on the altar. When these folks urge the servant of the priest to wait at least until the fat is burned, the servant becomes more forceful. He demands the priest’s meat on the spot, threatening to take it by force if necessary.
One can only imagine the negative impact of all this on the worship of God at Shiloh. Godly Israelites making the annual trek to Shiloh to worship God at the tabernacle do not find devout priests who facilitate their worship, but devouring priests who frustrate worship. Either willfully or by ignorance (this will be evident in one’s translation of verses 12 and 13), the priests function in a way which completely disregards the sacred office of the Old Testament priest, and which may cause some Israelites to give up entirely their attempt to worship at the tabernacle. In these days, there is no king in Israel, and each man does what is right in his own eyes, including the priests who are supposed to teach and judge Israel according to God’s law.
God’s assessment of the priests’ conduct is given to us in verse 17: “Thus the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for the men despised the offering of the Lord.” Translators handle this verse in different ways. Some render the verse to indicate that, as a result of the corruption of the priests’ ministry, the people likewise begin to follow their leaders in disdaining the sacrifices:
17 Wherefore the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD: for men abhorred the offering of the LORD (King James Version).
Others translate it to indicate that the priests’ sin was very great, because they (the priests) abhor the offering of the Lord:
17 Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD; for they treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt (New Revised Standard Version).
I suspect both are true. The priests do not esteem the sacrifices and offerings which they offer on men’s behalf at Shiloh, and as a result, many people come to disdain them as well. This is indeed a very grave sin, for the priests who lead others into sin and for those who follow them as well. This indeed is a very sad day in Israel’s history. How well these later words of Malachi apply to the days of the Judges:
1 “And now, this commandment is for you, O priests. 2 “If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name,” says the LORD of hosts, “then I will send the curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already, because you are not taking it to heart. 3 “Behold, I am going to rebuke your offspring, and I will spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your feasts; and you will be taken away with it. 4 “Then you will know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant may continue with Levi,” says the LORD of hosts. 5 “My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as an object of reverence; so he revered Me, and stood in awe of My name. 6 “True instruction was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7 “For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. 8 “But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the LORD of hosts. 9 “So I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways, but are showing partiality in the instruction (Malachi 2:1-9).
Little Lord Fontleroy?
18 Now Samuel was ministering before the LORD, as a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 And his mother would make him a little robe and bring it to him from year to year when she would come up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife and say, “May the LORD give you children from this woman in place of the one she dedicated to the LORD.” And they went to their own home. 21 And the LORD visited Hannah; and she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew before the LORD.
There is a very cute older movie entitled “Little Lord Fontleroy,” in which an elderly European nobleman discovers that he has an heir living in the United States. He brings the boy to live with him to someday assume his place of power and position. Reluctantly, the old man also brings the boy’s mother, but he makes her live alone away from his mansion. This young lad, who used to run about in the streets with his ragged clothes, is now dressed as nobility – little Lord Fontleroy. The young lad wins not only the hearts of the people, for whom he has compassion and towards whom he shows generosity (like his mother), he wins the heart of his greedy, grouchy grandfather. Eventually, the young lad transforms his grandfather into a kind and benevolent man.
When I read these verses in our text, I cannot help but think of “Little Lord Fontleroy.” Our text seems to be so warm and sentimental. The mental picture our author draws of this young lad is touching. I can hear someone say, “Isn’t that sweet . . .?” It is sweet. Hannah has had to leave her one precious son behind at Shiloh, keeping her vow. Each year she comes to Shiloh to worship, but she also comes to see her beloved son. And each year she brings with her the little garments she has so caringly made over the previous months. She probably has to make a few alterations on his garments and attempt to estimate his size next year for her next months of sewing. Can’t you just see little Samuel all decked out in his new clothes? Isn’t it sweet?
Yes it is, but so is the fact that each year for the next several years mother Hannah is accompanied by another child, ending up with three little boys and two girls – six children in all, counting Samuel. Eli looks at the tearful parting of Elkanah and Hannah and pronounces a blessing on them, asking that God replace the child Hannah has dedicated to the Lord. God answers, graciously granting them five additional children. Eli also realizes that in place of his two worthless sons, God has given him a son to raise, a son who must have been a joy to this elderly priest’s heart.
More than mere sentimental feeling is communicated here, however. One might think that since Samuel lives so far from his parent’s home, Hannah and Elkanah have little influence on Samuel’s life. I believe they have much influence on Samuel. If I read 1 Samuel 2:19 in light of the teaching of the Law on the priest’s garments, then Hannah is not just sewing clothes for her little boy, she is sewing priestly garments for him. Can’t you just hear Hannah speaking to Samuel about the dignity and duties of the Levitical priests? Can’t you see her instructing him about the high calling of his task and what the priestly garments are intended to convey? I believe Hannah has a tremendous impact on her son by the things she sews, and no doubt by what she says. How can such an act as sewing have spiritual impact? One should ask Hannah, or better yet, ask Samuel.
Too Little and Too Late:
Eli’s Feeble Rebuke
22 Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting. 23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things, the evil things that I hear from all these people? 24 “No, my sons; for the report is not good which I hear the LORD'S people circulating. 25 “If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for the LORD desired to put them to death.
We learned in verses 12-17 of the sin of the priests in regard to the meat they offered as a sacrifice to God. Now, in verses 22-25, we are told of their immorality with the women who serve at the entrance of the tent. These seem to be the “women” referred to in Exodus:
8 Moreover, he made the laver of bronze with its base of bronze, from the mirrors of the serving women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting (Exodus 38:8).
Hophni and Phinehas are guilty of sexual immorality, and we know that Phinehas at least is a married man (see 1 Samuel 4:19). This is the sin of adultery and punishable by death. It is an even greater sin in the light of who commits it and where it is done. Consider the wickedness of Eli’s sons in the light of God’s promise to the Levitical priests:
42 “It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 “And I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. 44 “And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. 45 “And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. 46 “And they shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God (Exodus 29:42-46, emphasis mine).
The doorway of the tent of meeting is the place where God meets with the Levitical priests, the place where God reveals His glory. There Aaron and his sons are consecrated, set apart, for their priestly service. And now, not that many years later, this becomes a very different kind of meeting place, a place where Eli’s sons rendezvous with the women with whom they commit sexual immorality.
I refer to this passage as “Eli’s rebuke,” but we are never really told that he rebukes his sons. Eli certainly does nothing to restrain his sons or to hinder them in their sinful conduct. Eli’s words have no impact on his wayward sons. Even worse, Eli’s words are self-condemning. He seems to want to cause his sons to feel guilty, which obviously does not work. Eli’s words do, however, underscore Eli’s guilt. The author tells us that Eli “heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel.” It is not out of ignorance that Eli fails to act more decisively. He knows everything they are doing, and he also knows they are doing it high-handedly, to all Israel. Their sins are not momentary lapses in character or conduct; they are a habitual pattern of conduct, a lifestyle.
Isn’t it interesting that while Eli expresses his strong disapproval of their sexual immorality, there is no mention (at least in our text) of their sins regarding the sacrificial meats? The reason, as we shall later suggest, may well be indicated in verses 27-29. To top matters off, Eli’s words to his sons reveal that he understands the gravity of his sons’ sins. Their sins are not sins against man, but sins against God. These are presumptuous sins, sins for which there is no provision. These sons of Belial shake their fists in God’s face; they know it (if for no other reason, because Eli has just told them), and Eli knows it. Yet, in spite of all Eli knows, he does not follow through to the point of actually doing anything about it. I love Dale Ralph Davis’ comments on this portion of the text:
“Eli had rebuked his sons for their moral offenses (vv. 22-25); perhaps – though we can’t tell from verses 23-25 – he also reproved them for their liturgical offenses (vv. 13-17). In any case, he had taken no action to expel Hophni and Phinehas from the priestly office. Eli might protest, but his sons suffered no unemployment. There was no church discipline.”4
“Hence the man of God [the prophet of verses 27-36] rebukes the sin of sweet reasonableness, the willingness to tolerate sin, to allow God’s honor to take a back seat, to prefer ‘my boys’ to ‘my God.’ For Eli, blood was thicker than fidelity.”5
“How easy it is to practice a gutless compassion that never wants to offend anyone, that equates niceness with love and thereby ignores God’s law and essentially despises his holiness. We do not necessarily seek God’s honor when we spare human feelings.”6
Another Contrast With Samuel
26 Now the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favor both with the LORD and with men.
How desperately sinful the priesthood has become. Godly saints like Elkanah and Hannah must grit their teeth as they seek to worship God at Shiloh. Things seem to go from bad to worse. Eli is old and nearing death. His two sons are next in line. The righteous surely shudder at the thought. And yet, in this dark day for Israel, a little boy is growing up. Eli’s sons are doomed in God’s sight; He has purposed to put them to death (verse 25). They are not highly esteemed by the godly. Then there is Samuel. This young lad finds favor with both God and man -- if men only knew what the future of this lad held for them and their nation. In some of the darkest of days of Israel’s history, when everything seems to be falling apart, God raises up the one whom He purposes to use to serve Him faithfully and to serve men as well. Such a one is Samuel. Eli’s sons are on their way out; Samuel is on his way up.
This verse sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it? We know that Luke uses very similar words in reference to Jesus of Nazareth, as He is growing up:
52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52).
Why such similar words? Why does Luke choose to employ the same description as the author of 1 Samuel to speak of Samuel’s development as a child? The days in which our Lord was born were also very dark days in Israel’s history. The religious system had departed from the Word of God, just as in Samuel’s day. And yet, while things looked very bleak for Israel, a young Lad was growing up, virtually unknown and unnoticed by the nation. This Child was the Messiah. He would save His people from their sins. He would someday sit on the throne of His father, David. And He, like Samuel His prototype, would exercise priesthood in a way that would deliver the people of God from their sins.
The “House Call” of an Unidentified Man of God
27 Then a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, 'Did I not indeed reveal Myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt in bondage to Pharaoh's house? 28 'And did I not choose them from all the tribes of Israel to be My priests, to go up to My altar, to burn incense, to carry an ephod before Me; and did I not give to the house of your father all the fire offerings of the sons of Israel? 29 'Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?' 30 “Therefore the LORD God of Israel declares, 'I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever'; but now the LORD declares,' Far be it from Me-- for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed. 31 'Behold, the days are coming when I will break your strength and the strength of your father's house so that there will not be an old man in your house. 32 'And you will see the distress of My dwelling, in spite of all that I do good for Israel; and an old man will not be in your house forever. 33 'Yet I will not cut off every man of yours from My altar that your eyes may fail from weeping and your soul grieve, and all the increase of your house will die in the prime of life. 34 'And this will be the sign to you which shall come concerning your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas: on the same day both of them shall die. 35 'But I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul; and I will build him an enduring house, and he will walk before My anointed always. 36 'And it shall come about that everyone who is left in your house shall come and bow down to him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread, and say, “Please assign me to one of the priest's offices so that I may eat a piece of bread.”' “
With few exceptions, the expression “man of God” is employed to refer to a prophet.7 In the days when “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3:1), it was quite an occasion for a prophet to speak directly to men for God. In our text, an unnamed prophet comes out of nowhere to rebuke Eli for his failure – indeed, his refusal – to deal decisively with his sons. In verses 27-29, the prophet puts the priesthood into its proper historical and theological perspective. He looks back into the past, to the time when the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood was established at the exodus. He then, in verses 30-34, looks into the future, prophesying concerning the penalty God will bring upon Eli and his house. In verses 35 and 36, he then looks forward to the nearer and more distant future, to that time when God will build a new house of priests. Let us consider these three elements of the message of this unnamed prophet.
I have threatened to someday write a work entitled, “Biblical Thinking.” The Scriptures employ various lines of thinking; one is what I call “original thinking.” Original thinking is that reasoning which goes back to the origin of the matter and reasons forward. For example, when Jesus is tested by the Pharisees on the matter of divorce, they ask Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” (Matthew 19:3). Some thought that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all. Others were more selective. But all of those present on that day are shocked by how firm a stand our Lord takes. I wish to point out the way Jesus reasoned:
4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5 and said, 'FOR THIS CAUSE A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, AND SHALL CLEAVE TO HIS WIFE; AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH'? 6 “Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
The Pharisees reason out of the context of their own culture, their own day and time, their own values. Jesus challenges them to think through the matter of divorce on the basis of “original thinking.” In the beginning, when God created the world and mankind, He also created the institution of marriage. “How,” Jesus asks His opponents, “was marriage meant to work originally? What did God intend for marriage to be when He first created it?” God meant for a man and a woman to be joined together and never to be separated, except by death. “Can a man divorce His wife for any reason at all?” Jesus’ answer forces us to conclude, by original thinking, “God did not intend for a man to ever divorce his wife, for any reason at all.”
Through this unnamed prophet, God challenges Eli (and the reader) to do some original thinking. Eli’s problems, and those of his sons, are problems with the priesthood. The solution to these problem is a new priest (Samuel) and a new house (or dynasty) of priests. “So,” the prophet challenges his readers, “just how was it originally with respect to the priesthood?” The Levitical priesthood came into being while the Israelites were still in bondage in Egypt. It is there that God designates Aaron as a priest.
It is there that Aaron’s priestly “house”8 is established. The word “house” is repeated often here for good reason. God does not just appoint Aaron as a priest, but his sons and their sons, Aaron’s “house.” How can Eli be fully aware of the sins his sons commit as priests and not be concerned enough to deal adequately with his “house? The priesthood is not just an individual matter, but a “house” matter, and yet Eli’s “house” is crumbling, and he does almost nothing to stop it. In the Law of Moses, priesthood is a “house” matter, involving all members of one’s household (see Leviticus 21:1-9). God created a “house” for Aaron and his descendants, and Eli is a part of this house. He desperately needs to tend to his “house.”
Personal pronouns abound in verses 27-29, and most of them refer to God. Three times in verses 27 and 28 God says through His prophet, “Did I not . . . ?”. God reveals Himself to Aaron. God chooses Aaron and appoints his house to serve Him as priests. God gives the priests their “portion” of the sacrifices to sustain them in their ministry. Original thinking requires one to conclude that the priesthood is “of God” in that God created it, established it, and set down the rules and regulations governing it. Consequently, God speaks of “My sacrifice,” “My offering,” “My dwelling,” “My people,” and, by inference, “My honor,” the honor due Him by the priests because of all He has done regarding their priesthood.
This is where Eli goes wrong. Eli honors his sons more than he honors God (verse 29). He appears to be afraid to confront his sons and deal with them decisively, because they might dislike him or even despise him. Being the kind of sons they are, they might even kill him. Eli is more afraid of his sons than of his God. He wants his sons’ approval and affection more than he wants God’s approval and affection.. How can this be? Verse 29 suggests why Eli is so silent and passive regarding his sons’ sins. God says, “Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?” (verse 29).
I know I will be seen as politically incorrect, but I believe I am accurately interpreting what God says to Eli through the prophet. I do not mean this unkindly, but Eli is a very fat man (see 4:18). I am not implying anything negative about overweight people (among whom I must be included). But God seems to say to Eli, “Look at yourself, Eli. You’ve gotten fat as a priest! Think about how this happened. You, along with your sons, have made yourselves fat by the meat you have eaten, the meat you wrongly acquired as priests.”
Our text tells us that Eli heard of “all” that his sons were doing to all Israel. Eli therefore knows of the way his sons are getting their meat. He knows about his sons’ immorality. In our text, Eli rebukes his sons for their sexual immorality, but nothing is said about their meat acquisitions. Eli may be old and his senses dull, but I believe he knows the difference between grilled and boiled meat. I am convinced he knows the difference between a chuck roast and tenderloin. Eli may keep quiet about the sin of his sons in obtaining meat because he eats some of the meat himself. He personally benefits from the sins of his sons, and rather than being aggressive toward these sins, he is passive. God reminds Eli that all of the benefits and blessings of his priesthood come from Him -- not his sons. Therefore, Eli will do well to honor God above his sons rather than continue to honor his sons (the sons of Belial) above God by not disciplining them for their sin. Eli rebukes Hannah because he wrongly thinks she is drunk, but he cannot find it in himself to rebuke his own sons for the way they obtain their meat. Eli is reluctant to terminate the very system which sustains him, the system which makes him fat.
Eli’s sin is exposed and explained. The blessings of the priesthood come from God. God is the one whom Eli must honor. Eli’s sons must be rebuked. But because of the “perks” Eli enjoys for the sins of his sons -- and what he fears he will lose -- Eli refuses to deal with the sin of his sons as he should. God’s judgment therefore comes not only upon Eli, but upon his “house,” a judgment spelled out in verses 30-34:
30 “Therefore the LORD God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the LORD declares, ‘Far be it from Me-- for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed9’” (1 Samuel 2:30).
Is God about to break His promise? No, not at all. We must first remember that God’s promise is a covenant Eli and his sons break by virtue of their sins. In this sense, God keeps His covenant. It is important to see from this text that God does not take the priesthood entirely away from Eli’s house. God says that some of his “house” will die. Specifically, Hophni and Phinehas will die, on the same day (verse 34). But God does not cut off every one of Eli’s descendants:
33 “’Yet I will not cut off every man of yours from My altar that your eyes may fail from weeping and your soul grieve, and all the increase of your house will die in the prime of life’” (verse :33)
Have Eli and his sons “made themselves fat” with the sacrifices? Have they been eating only the prime cuts? That will change:
“‘And it shall come about that everyone who is left in your house shall come and bow down to him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread, and say, “Please assign me to one of the priest's offices so that I may eat a piece of bread.”’” (verse 36).
God will impoverish Eli’s “house,” but they will still serve as priests. God will take away their “strength” and make them “weak” (verse 31). It will not be a pretty sight, but all will see that God will not indefinitely allow His priesthood to be defiled.
Verses 30-34 describe the judgment God is about the bring upon Eli and his sons, Eli’s “house.” Verses 35 and 36 speak of the blessing God will bring about for Israel through the raising up of a “faithful priest” and an “enduring house” of priests (verse 35). If Eli’s “house” is to receive any blessings, it will be only by their submission to this “faithful priest” (verse 36).
This raises two questions: who is this “faithful priest,” and what is this “enduring house” of priests? The words of verse 35 sound similar to those in 2 Samuel 7, known by some as the “Davidic Covenant:”
10 “I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly, 11 even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD also declares to you that the LORD will make a house for you. 12 “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 “I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, 15 but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 “And your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” '“ 17 In accordance with all these words and all this vision, so Nathan spoke to David (2 Samuel 7:10-17, emphasis mine).
The “house” of Eli is something like the “house” of King Saul, except that while Eli’s house continues in decline, Saul’s house ends in regard to kingship. But while Eli’s descendants will still serve as priests, they will do so in subjection to a better priest. Who is this better priest? And why is God making a covenant that this one will have an “enduring house”?
The answer is two-fold. I believe there is a nearer fulfillment and a more distant, eternal fulfillment to this priesthood covenant which God makes in our text. First, God will provide His people with a better “house” of priests than Eli and sons, and this will take place in Israel’s not too distant future (from Eli’s perspective). The Levitical priesthood is given through the line of Aaron, a descendant of Levi (see Exodus 2:1ff.). When Aaron is made the high priest, his two sons, Nadab and Abihu serve under him. When they are killed because of the “strange fire” they offer, Aaron’s other two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, are appointed in the place of their brothers (Leviticus 10). The priestly line of Aaron then descends through these two surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. Originally, the high priest descends from Eleazar, but Eli, who serves as the high priest, is a descendant of Ithamar. The prophecy of this unnamed prophet seems to be initially fulfilled when Samuel becomes priest in Eli’s place; then later on, in the reign of David, Zadoc, a descendant of Eleazar, will be made high priest (1 Kings 1:7-8; 1 Chronicles 16:4-40). In the Millennial Kingdom, the “sons of Zadoc” will serve as priests (Ezekiel 44:15; 48:11).
Second, I believe the ultimate fulfillment to this prophecy is our Lord Jesus Christ, just as the ultimate fulfillment of our Lord’s covenant with David is the Lord Jesus Christ. Israel’s history shows that no merely human king of Israel is worthy of an eternal kingdom, of an endless reign. No one is worthy -- not David, nor Solomon, nor anyone except the “King of the Jews,” our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to “sit on the throne of His father, David.” He is the full and final fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. Just so, our Lord is the full and final fulfillment of the priestly covenant of our text. There was never a priest in Israel’s history worthy to serve as priest eternally -- certainly not Eli, and just as certainly -- not Samuel. While God is about to give Israel better priests than Eli and his sons, He is, in a future day, going to give His people a perfect priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the perfect and ultimate prophet, priest, and king.
As mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, our text has much to do with the matter of raising children. More precisely, our text addresses the way a parent deals with adult children who are in rebellion and disobedience to God. It seems safe to say that many of the problems Eli handled badly with his grown sons are the result of his failure to deal with them rightly as children. Yet, it is entirely possible that children raised in a very godly home can turn out the way Eli’s sons do. The point of our text is that Eli fails to deal with his sons properly as the high priest, and as a judge over the nation Israel. Eli should have dealt with his sons the same way he dealt with any men who were priests who were sexually immoral, who dishonored God, who profaned the priesthood, and who failed to respond to verbal correction. Eli fails to deal rightly with his sons is because they are his sons, and he allows this one fact to outweigh all others. Let us first review how Eli fails in dealing with his sons.
(1) Eli fails to instruct his sons in the Law of the Lord, especially in the ways of the priests.
(2) Eli seems “blind” to the sins going on under his very nose – sins he must be hearing about from many Israelites. Those sins which take place occur in the very places Eli should and most likely would have been in his priestly ministry. It is almost inconceivable that he could not have seen them. Yet I must say that I watch parents all the time whose children act inappropriately right in front of their parents, and they never seem to see them. I fear we are all tempted to turn a blind eye to those things which we simply do not want to address. Eli is virtually blind, but he certainly is not deaf. He cannot fail to know what was going on, unless of course, he really does not want to know.
(3) Eli waits far too long to respond in a corrective manner toward the sins of his sons. Even after all Israel tells Eli about the sins of his sons, he does not act quickly enough. A feeble word of disapproval and warning is too little and too late. One gets the distinct impression that the sins which became the normal practice of his sons are those which were evident at a much earlier point in time when they might have been “nipped in the bud.” Parenthood and procrastination do not mix.
(4) Eli does not do everything in his means to correct his sons -- or at least to resist their sinful conduct. It is one thing for Eli not to know what his sons are doing. It might at least be understandable if he is unaware of how serious his sons’ sins are. But from his own words, we know that Eli fully knows just how serious the sins of his sons are. Eli knows his sons’ actions are sinful, and that they are sins against God. Yet when his sons reject his verbal rebuke, he simply gives up without employing other means at his disposal. He should have, and he could have, stoned his sons. He could have removed his sons from the priesthood. But he does nothing to stop them after they reject his words of rebuke.
I see parents wringing their hands today, much like Eli, when their children refuse to obey. Their children are not 6’ 5”, weighing 250 pounds, and all muscle. Their children are often five years old, and the options the parents have are many. Yet, after one word of instruction, when the child blatantly refuses to obey, the parent shrugs his or her shoulders as if to say, “What else can I do?” Do I really need to tell you? Read Proverbs; you will think of something.
(5) Eli does not want to do what he has the power to do with respect to his sons -- because he does not want to pay the personal price for doing so. Let’s admit it. When you and I fail to discipline our children, it is not because we have no action we can take; it is not because we do not know what we should do. It is because we are not willing to pay the price for doing what is right -- for doing what is best for our child and for us. Eli may fear losing what little relationship he has with his sons. He may be afraid of losing respect for taking public action. He may well be afraid that he will have to go back to the kind of meat he doesn’t really prefer. Eli is afraid to discipline his sons because he desperately wants what they are giving him, and he does not want to lose it.
(6) Eli does not deal rightly with his children, even when he is warned and instructed by God directly through prophetic revelations, and even when he is fully aware of the consequences for failing to repent and obey God in relation to his sons. Eli can never claim ignorance. He knows what his sons are guilty of doing. He would twice be rebuked by a prophet of God (the unnamed prophet of chapter 2 and Samuel in chapter 3). Eli does not even do the right thing when God directly calls his disobedience to his attention.
(7) Eli honors his sons more highly than his God. This is the bottom line, as God sees it. Eli is more concerned about his relationship with his sons than his relationship with his God. Our Lord Jesus made the matter of relationships crystal clear:
34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 “For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; 36 and A MAN'S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD. 37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 “He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
Our text comes “close to home” in several regards. We may think that the conduct of Eli and his sons as priests has little to do with us as contemporary Christians. We must be reminded that we too are priests:
5 You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5).
We should also be reminded that while Eli and his sons (and Samuel) minister in the “temple of God” (1 Samuel 3:3), the “dwelling place of God” (1 Samuel 2:29), we are “the temple of God,” His “dwelling place,” and when we do harm to His “dwelling place,” God takes it most seriously:
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
No wonder the conduct of the Christians at Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 5 and 6), and especially their conduct in the church (see 1 Corinthians 11:17ff.), is taken so seriously by God.
We, like Eli, must bring our children up in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). We must not only verbally instruct and rebuke our children, we must correct them. This includes the use of the “rod” of Proverbs. It is no sanction for excess and abuse, and abuse by some is no excuse for avoiding spanking a disobedient child, when the rod is the most effective means of correction. All too many parents are controlled by their children, rather than keeping their children under control. And even when the time comes when our children are grown, we are still responsible to deal with their sins biblically.
For us as parents, the starting point is to give our children up. Our Lord says we must take up our cross, that we must die to self, that we must give up our lives to gain them. We must do the same with our children. I am beginning to see why the great test of Abraham’s faith was being willing to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22). I see why stubborn Jacob, who did not wish to lose his son, Joseph, and who refused to lose his son, Benjamin, had to give him them up in order to be “saved” from the famine (see Genesis 37-45). We must do the same. We must not find our life in our children, but in our God, and specifically in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Compared to our love for God, we must “hate” our children. And in so doing, we will be free to deal with them in a way which is for their best and our best, to the glory of God.
There are times when a child may have to discipline his or her parents. As a church, we have had the unhappy experience of exercising church discipline on a willful sinner (see Matthew 18:15-20). When the one who is under church discipline is a parent, this has implications and obligations for the children, especially the older children. It is not one bit easier for a child to correct a parent than for a parent to correct a child. But when we are aware of the sin -- and of the Scriptures which prescribe our response to the sin -- we are obliged to act. If we refuse, like Eli, then our failure to correct is itself sin.
This discipline of which we speak applies within the larger church “family.” When a “brother” sins (see Matthew 18:15), it is our obligation to rebuke him, with a view to his repentance. All too many Christians choose, like Eli, to turn a blind eye and hope the problem will go away. It will not go away; it will only get bigger. Our culpability only grows with the time we allow to pass without acting in obedience to God’s Word.
May God grant us the grace to learn from Eli and his sons, rather than to learn like them. Thank God that He who commands us to instruct and correct our children has set the example for us in the way He deals with us as His children. Let us thank God that He who requires us to raise up our children in a godly way is the One who gives us the grace to do so. To God be the glory!
2 The various translations of verses 12 and 13 indicate the differences among scholars as to how these verses are to be understood and rendered. The NASB translates the text to indicate that the priests neither knew God nor His divinely defined “customs” pertaining to the portion of meat the priests were to be given. Others render the text to indicate that the two sons of Eli did not know God, and that as a result, their custom was to procure their meat in the way the following verses describe. Either way, the general sense of the text is clear.
3 For examples of this expression, see Deuteronomy 13:13; Judges 19:22; 20:13; 1 Samuel 1:16; 10:27; 25:17, 25; 30:22; 2 Samuel 16:7; 20:1; 23:6; 1 Kings 21:10, 13; 2 Chronicles 13:7; 2 Corinthians 6:15.
7 “Man of God” is used in reference to Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1; Joshua 14:6, etc.); an angel of the Lord (Judges 13:3, 6, 9); Samuel (1 Samuel 9:6); Shemiah the prophet (1 Kings 12:22; 2 Chronicles 11:2; 12:5-7); an unnamed prophet (1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 20:28; 2 Chronicles 25:7, 9); Elisha (2 Kings 4:9, 16, 22, etc.); David (2 Chronicles 8:14; Nehemiah 12:24); Timothy (1 Timothy 6:11).
9 I am not altogether happy about the translation, “lightly esteemed,” here. The word “honor,” related to the word, “glory,” is one whose root meaning is “heavy.” God’s glory is “heavy;” to honor God is to consider Him “heavy,” so to speak. To dishonor God is to take Him lightly. But the same basic term rendered here “lightly esteemed” is translated “brought a curse on themselves” in 3:13. In Genesis 12:3, God tells Abraham, “And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse.” I believe that here, in our text, God says, “those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who despise Me, I will curse.”