The other shoe drops. Judgment on Eli and his house. 1 Samuel 4:11-22

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:11-22

We are continuing on with several stories about the ark of God in 1 Samuel that prepare us for the emergence of Samuel as the prophetic leader of Israel.

As you will remember from earlier in 1 Samuel, God has foretold judgment on the high priest Eli and his two sons – Hophni and Phinehas. They treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt, taking the best portions for themselves. And also his two sons treated the women workers at the tabernacle as prostitutes. 1 Samuel 2:12 says of these two, “They were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.”

And so an unnamed prophet came and told Eli that his house would no longer be the high priestly line – 2:27-33. And that the sign that this will surely happen is that his two sons would die on the same day – 2:34. And then the Lord told Samuel as a boy, “11Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” – 3:11-14

The title of the sermon is “The other shoe drops.” You know the phrase “waiting for the other shoe to drop” right? It means waiting for something bad to happen. Something bad has happened and something else bad will happen. If these pronouncements of judgment are the first shoe that drops, then waiting for the fulfillment of these words of judgment is the other shoe. And it drops decisively in our text today.

Our story picks up with the fallout of the battle between Israel and the Philistines that we looked at last week, where Israel was severely defeated, even though they brought the ark of the covenant to help them.

Judgment on Eli and his house

4:11And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

Not only did the use of the ark not bring victory, it was captured by the Philistines. It was under enemy control.

And just as the Lord had said, Hophni and Phinehas died on the same day as a sign to all that Eli and his house were being set aside as the high priestly line in Israel.

12A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head.

So this man ran for some twenty miles from Aphek/Ebenezer to Shiloh, quite a feat. And he comes with torn clothes and dirt on his head as an indicator of mourning for the many who have died.

13When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God.

Eli was devoted to God in his own way. We see this in his teaching Samuel about the Lord and here in his concern for the ark. Despite his sin, he still had this.

And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out.

As the Lord said to Samuel, God would “do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.” (3:11). And they must have all been stunned to hear the report. They are crying out not just in general, but because many of their own fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were now dead. And their lives may well be in danger, as we will see.

14When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see.

So Eli can hear – he hears the city cry out, but he can’t see, which is why he didn’t see the messenger or how he was dressed. He is still wondering what’s going on. So the messenger comes and tells him the report in person.

16And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”

The man tells Eli in ascending order of importance about Israel’s defeat, the death of his two sons and then that the Philistines now have the ark of God.

Eli doesn’t seem that concerned about his sons, for the story continues . . .

18As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.

His sons are dead and now he dies after hearing the fate of the ark. In a way his own sin is a part of this, for he fell off his chair and broke his neck not only because he was old, but also because he was heavy –perhaps related to his eating the best portions of the Lord’s offerings.

This is the only place that mentions Eli as a judge; he ruled for 40 years. The Hebrew word for “seat” here (and also in v. 13) also means “throne.” So Eli is symbolically dethroned and his reign comes to an end.

19Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention.

The bad news induced her labor. She was so overcome by what happened that she didn’t even care that she had given birth to a son.

21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

Before she dies, in the naming of her son she gives insight into the situation that is going on in Israel. Ichabod is taken by her to mean “the glory has departed.” This a reference to God, who is the glory of Israel (1 Samuel 15:29). 1) God was not with the Israelite soldiers, even though they brought the ark; 2) the leaders of Israel are now dead – Eli and his sons, including her own husband; 3) but above all else, repeated twice here (5x in whole story) the ark of God is now gone. God has truly abandoned them. What was apparent, even when the ark was present, is made perfectly clear with the capture of the ark. God had already left them because of their sin and unfaithfulness.

In the phrase “the glory has departed,” the word “departed” can also be translated, “has gone into exile.” God has gone into exile in a foreign land. God is absent. Why? Israel’s sin drove God away.

If the pattern later was Israel left the land and went into exile, here God leaves the land in exile. And they become slaves in their own land (1 Samuel 4:9; Psalm 78:62-64). (But also see Ezekiel 10:18 where the glory leaves and the people go into exile.)

Psalm 78:59-61 says of this event, God “utterly rejected Israel. He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt with people, and delivered his power to captivity.”

And then we have something that is not recorded in this passage, but almost certainly happened at this time –

The destruction of the tabernacle at Shiloh

In Jeremiah 7:12, several centuries later, the Lord says, “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.” In other words, God is saying to the people of Jerusalem, “you think I won’t judge you because you have the temple in your midst? I’ve don it before! Just as I destroyed the tabernacle in Shiloh, so I will destroy the temple in Jerusalem. (Also 26:6, 9)

And this fits with what we find in 1 Samuel. Shiloh is never again mentioned as a worship center in Israel; the ark is not taken back there when it is recovered from the Philistines later; and Samuel goes back to his home in Ramah as his center of operations. (Bergen. Even Eli’s descendants are later found in the city of Nob.) 

Given this, along with the capture of the ark, this was surely the lowest point for Israel since their time of slavery in Egypt.

What do we learn from all this?

1. Our sin drives God away from our lives, just as we see in this story. In Isaiah 59:2 the Lord says, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” Our sin creates a barrier or a wall between us and God. And so we have to deal with our sin through confession, repentance and receiving forgiveness from God, so that we can have a relationship with God. This is what Israel failed to do, but this is what the story teaches us. Don’t be like them! Act and make decisive changes so that you can be reconciled with God and experience renewed relationship and help.

2. God keeps his word. Now we like it when God keeps his word to bless us and help us. But God just a surely keeps his word when it comes to judgment and the many warnings that he gives us about walking in sin and unfaithfulness.

In Eli’s case God spoke it through two prophets – and as Scripture says, let everything be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). And it surely came to pass. And just as surely God will keep his word of judgment if we walk in sin. We may think we are fine because nothing bad has happened yet, so it seems like God doesn’t care or that God won’t act, but the other shoe will drop – whether it is today, tomorrow or on the final day. We will reap what we sow. There are consequences for our unfaithfulness to God. Our sin will find us out. And so this should encourage us all the more to deal with our sin and come back into a right relationship with God.

Samuel and the word of the Lord. 1 Samuel 3:1b-4:1a

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 3:1b-4:1a

Last week we saw how Samuel and Eli were going in two different directions:

  • Samuel the child, was growing in favor with God and people, getting ready to do great things for God.
  • While Eli the old man, and his house, were told they would lose their place as the chief priestly family in Israel, along with other judgments.

This contrast continues in our story today. The judgment on Eli and his house is confirmed and reinforced, and we see Samuel begin his ministry which offers new hope to Israel.

The setting

As we begin our story, Samuel is anywhere between 8 and 12 years old. (He was 3 or 4 when Hannah left him with Eli. And in the story before this we learn that his mother had five other children. So if she had one a year he might be 8 or 9. But there may have been more space between children, so he could be older. Josephus, the first century Jewish writer thought he was 12 – Antiquities 5.10.5.) And Eli is in his nineties (he dies later at age 98 – 1 Samuel 4:15).

1And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.

 Now we just heard a prophet condemn Eli and his house, but we are told here that such words, as well as visions, didn’t happen very often at this time in Israel’s history. This was, no doubt, a sign of the distance between the people and God due to their unfaithfulness. (Amos 8:11-12; 1 Samuel 14:37; 28:6)

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

We learn several things here. Samuel was sleeping in the tabernacle/temple, although probably not in the holy of holies with the ark, but near to it. (The point is not that Samuel is in the holy of holies but that the ark is in the temple in general. The mention of the ark, prepares us for the following ark stories starting in 1 Samuel 4.). Eli seems to be out of the tabernacle, but nearby.

And it was in the early morning hours, before the lamp of the tabernacle went out at sunrise. Perhaps Samuel was in the tabernacle all night to tend to the Lamp, to make sure it didn’t go out before sunrise, as the Law of Moses instructs, since Eli couldn’t see anymore (Exodus 27:21; Leviticus 24:1-4)

The Lord calls out to Samuel

4Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

 We see here Samuel’s eagerness to serve Eli, his adopted father. He goes to him ready to help him with whatever need he might have. But God doesn’t get through to Samuel.

6And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

So the same thing happens again. Then we have an explanatory word –

7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

When it says Samuel didn’t “know the Lord” it doesn’t mean that Samuel had no relationship or understanding of God, for as we saw last week he served the Lord and grew in favor with the Lord (2:26). The phrase very specifically explains the situation here – he didn’t yet know what God’s voice sounded like. This is in contrast to later in his life when he heard and recognized God’s voice all the time. (The two phrases “did not yet know the Lord” and “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” are synonymous.) (The word for “know” is the same as in 2:12 that describes Eli’s sons, but for them it has the sense of “did not have regard for the Lord.”)

In v. 8 we start to make some progress –

8And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Eli figures out what’s going on and tells Samuel what to do.

10And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”

Finally, on the fourth try a connection is made. It’s interesting that it says, “the Lord came and stood.” This was not just Samuel hearing something, but also him seeing something – it was a vision experience (v. 15). And then we have –

The Lord’s message

 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.

“Tingling ears” means that people will be astonished by what they hear; more specifically in Scripture it means astonished by a coming disaster. (2 Kings 21:12; Jeremiah 19:3)

12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Once again Eli’s responsibility and sin is pointed out. He did not restrain his sons and their activities as priests. Now, this doesn’t apply to all parents and their kids, where after a certain age children make their own choices. Eli’s situation is different. He was the chief priest and he could have removed his wicked sons from their roles.

But since he didn’t, God did it – for all their house throughout all time. If before, God promised to them that they would be priests forever (2:30), here he says that their punishment will be forever; and their sin will not be atoned for forever. And the Lord seals this with an oath.

(What God told Samuel here is pretty much the same as what the unnamed prophet told Eli. But this second message serves to confirm the first word and it makes it irrevocable [Birch]).

Now, put yourself in Samuel’s shoes. He is anywhere from 8-12 years old, and God has just told him that his adoptive family will be severely judged. What would you do?

15Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.

 I would be hesitant and afraid too.

16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”

Eli knows it’s bad. He knew the sins of his sons and that he did not stop them. And he has already heard the word of judgment from the unnamed prophet in chapter 2.

18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

Samuel comes through. Despite his fear he tells Eli everything.

And he said, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”

I don’t know whether Eli’s response is a good one coming from submission to God or whether it is mere resignation that he knows there is no way to avoid his judgment at this point. Either way he accepts it.

Our final verses focus on –

Samuel’s ministry as a prophet

– going into his adult life.

19And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. 21And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 4:1And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

Just as Deuteronomy 18 predicts, God has raised up a prophet like Moses. Samuel is like Moses in that he held three offices at once. He was a Levite with priestly privileges, he was a political leader (a judge, as we will see) and he was a prophet. And he is also like Moses, or any true prophet in that all his words came true (Deuteronomy 18:22). None fell to the ground.

And this means that there is a new hope in Israel. God is once again speaking to them through Samuel. From Beersheba to Dan means from the southern-most point of Israel to the northern-most point. God is speaking to all Israel once again, through Samuel.

This leads me to my first reflection on what we should learn from this story. Even in the most difficult times, when peoples’ ears are tingling it is so bad –

1. God gives hope to his people. Things are really bad. The house of Eli, the chief priestly family in Israel will fade away due to their sin. But there is new hope for Israel in Samuel, the prophet.

And even when things seem bad for us as his people today, God is still working and so we can have hope as well, that God will accomplish his purposes through us.

 2. God works in the lives of children. Already, last week we saw Samuel growing in the presence of God. But here there is more.

  • God speaks to a child/young person and gives him a specific message to deliver to an adult.
  • God called him as a child/young person to serve him as a prophet and this continued on throughout his life.

We need to be attuned to what God is doing in the lives of the children and young people around us so that we can help, just as Eli helped here, to connect them to God.

A question. 3. Is God trying to talk to you? I’m not suggesting that it is something as dramatic as with Samuel here, or an audible voice and a vision. But God does seek to speak to us and his Holy Spirit lives within each one of us as believers in Jesus. Well, Eli and Samuel teach us how to listen.

  • In v. 10 Samuel said, “speak,” Lord. This is an invitation for God to speak to us. Do we ever invite God to speak, or take time to listen for what he might say? Or are we always talking at God with our needs and concerns. Invite God to speak to you.
  • In v. 10 he also says, “for your servant hears.” This indicates that you are not just willing to hear it, you are his servant and so you are willing to do what God says. It is an obedient listening that opens the door to God’s voice in our lives.

Another question. 4. Is God calling you? As we know, God calls various ones to special roles of service among the people of God. And this can happen as here, when you are a child/young person or as with Moses when you are 80 years old. For myself I was 14 years old when God called me.

What about this morning – is there anyone here who is sensing that God is calling you?

And then finally today, 5. We should be brave and do God’s will. Bravery doesn’t mean you don’t have fear. It means that you act despite your fear. And the child Samuel here is an example of bravery to us. Yes, he was afraid, but he spoke out the message anyway; all of it.

  • Even though it was a negative word of judgment.
  • Even though it was to his adoptive family.

If you want to do God’s will it’s not just about encouraging people and making them feel better. It also involves dealing with sin and brokenness in people’s lives and sometimes this is not well received.

But just as Samuel obeyed anyway, so should we when God tells us to act.