Samuel and Eli: Two people, two different directions. 1 Samuel 2:11-3:1

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 2:11-3:1

We are moving forward in the book of 1 Samuel, after the stories about Hannah, Samuel’s mother. The next two stories are about Samuel as a child. And today we look at the first of these, which is a contrast case between Eli and his family, and Samuel and his family and how they are going in different, even opposite directions. Eli and his house will fade from the scene due to God’s judgment, while Samuel’s family is blessed, and he himself is getting ready to do great things for God. We will look at the verses that treat Eli first and then Samuel.

The wrong direction: Eli and his sons

We begin with the sins of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, starting in chapter 2:12.

12Now the sons of Eli were worthless men.

Worthless can also be translated as scoundrels. It literally means “sons of wickedness.”

They did not know the Lord. 

Wow! What a way to begin the story. Worthless and don’t know the Lord. You certainly get the impression that things are going downhill from here and that is correct.

13The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 14and he would thrust it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. All that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there.

Priests lived off of the offerings given to the Lord. And what portions of meat the priests got was legislated in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 7:28-36; Deuteronomy 18:3). The custom here at the Shiloh tabernacle is different than what the Law of Moses prescribes, but the real problem shows up in the next verses.

15Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw.” 16And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force.”

Eli’s sons didn’t want boiled meat. And they took their portion before the Lord got his. And if there was resistance they threatened violence to those who came to sacrifice. They even took the fat, which was strictly reserved for the Lord (Leviticus 7:22-25)

This would be something like church officials today stealing the offering of the people for their own use and then threatening violence if church goers to give more.

17Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord, for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt.

And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s more.

22Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 23And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. 25If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” 

So their own father, the high priest and judge of Israel, testifies against them and warns them. (For women at the tabernacle see Exodus 38:8)

But v. 25 goes on to say, 

But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death. 

In other words, it was too late for them. God’s mind was made up. They had moved past the point of grace due to their previous sins.

Now we turn to Eli’s sins. 

27And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh? 28Did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel.’ 

Eli’s house, among all the Levites, was chosen to be the chief priests in Israel.

29Why then do you scorn (or, look with greed on) 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?’

Here is where we see that Eli is not without sin. All the “yous” here are plural. He warned his sons, but allowed the abuses to go on. As high priest he could have removed them from service (1 Samuel 3:13). He even seems to have benefited from their taking whatever meat they wanted. The prophet says, you all have “fattened yourselves,” and later we learn in chapter 4:13 that Eli was overweight. Perhaps there is a connection.

30Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out 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 shall be lightly esteemed. 31Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house.’  

A promise that God made forever is revoked because they despised the Lord. This is really serious!

32Then in distress you will look with envious eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed on Israel, and there shall not be an old man in your house forever.’ 

Notice how the judgment fits the crime. They were greedy with God’s offerings and now they will be cut off from the support of the offerings of Israel, even as Israel is about to enter into a time of real prosperity. 

33The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men.’

This part of the prophecy was fulfilled when King Saul killed 85 of Eli’s descendants in the city of Nob (1 Samuel 22:6-23). Only Abiathar was spared. And although he served David for a time, during Solomon’s reign he was exiled and this prophecy is referenced when this happened in 1 Kings 2:26-27.

34And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day.’

This is narrated in chapter 4:11.

35’And 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. 36And everyone who is left in your house shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread and shall say, ‘Please put me in one of the priests’ places, that I may eat a morsel of bread.’” 

This was fulfilled with the choice of the house of Zadok, another of David’s priests, to be the chief priests over Israel (1 Kings 2:35). Eli’s descendants will beg from them for an opportunity to receive of the Lord’s offerings for support.

Well, this is certainly the wrong direction – sin and fearful judgment. Now we move to –

The right direction: Samuel and his family

And first we look at his parents Elkanah and Hannah. 

18Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy clothed with a linen ephod. 19And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.

Both the ephod and the robe here were priestly attire. It is very sweet that his mom brought him a new robe each year. This gives us a picture of a loving and caring family, despite their distance. 

20Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord give you children by this woman for the petition she asked of the Lord.” So then they would return to their home. 21Indeed the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. 

So Hannah was blessed with six children, including Samuel.

And then we come to Samuel himself. In the midst of all the sin and judgment on Eli and his sons narrated here there are five statements about Samuel, skillfully woven in, that show he is going in a different direction. The first and last are the same and begin and end this story:

2:11bAnd the boy was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest. 

3:3Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. 

He was under apprenticeship to Eli. And so even as a child he is carrying out various duties in the tabernacle.

Then we have:

v. 18 – Samuel was ministering before the Lord

v. 21 – And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord

v. 26 – Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man 

This presents a picture of one who is getting ready, even with all the corruption around him; getting ready to serve the Lord in great ways.

Let me highlight –

Three themes

– that stand out to me and that we can take with us today.

1. God judges sin. And this is true no matter what position you hold – being important priests or even the high priest and judge over all Israel. And this is true no matter what promise you have from God, as Eli’s house had a promise “forever” from God. In the end this truth stands clear – “those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt” (v. 30). And we see the terrible results on Eli’s sons, Eli himself and his household.

And if we take the path of sin and walk in this direction, we too will find sorrow and judgment. No matter what position we have or what promise we may think we have from God. God judges sin. 

But just a surely, 2. God blesses faithfulness. We see this with Elkanah and Hannah and how God gave them 5 more children after giving up Samuel to serve the Lord. And we will see this for sure in Samuel’s life as he grows up.

And if we take the path of faithfulness to God and walk in this direction, we will be blessed as well. We will go through hard times too, but we will be blessed.

3. We must honor God above our family. Eli’s key sin is stated in v. 29 – you “honor your sons above me.” Faithfulness to God must come before our loyalty to our family. But he had it the other way around. So, when he had to make a choice, because his sons were sinning terribly – he chose to overlook their sin or even benefit from it, instead of being faithful to God. Notice he didn’t commit the sins his sons did, but since he could as high priest and judge stop them, but didn’t,  he became responsible for them also.

And we might one day have to make a choice like this as well. When we do what God calls us to do, or do what we know to be right, our family might reject us. But we must be faithful to God anyway. We must always choose God when faithfulness is at stake even in difficult family situations.

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