09 Lessons from 1 Samuel - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Slippery slopes - 1 Samuel


Reading: 1Sam.2:11-26

They did not personally know the LORD.

The Book of Samuel opens with a detailed description of the events surrounding the birth of a baby boy. This boy was destined to become an important figure in the life of the nation of Israel. He was born in the time of the judges and was actually the last of the judges. These were the men who led Israel before there were any kings and the period was one that was marked by a certain moral free-for-all. Indeed the Book of Judges concludes with those simple words:

Judg.21:25 "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

Samuel’s importance was in fact even greater than that. Samuel also operated as a priest and would be called by the LORD to exercise the ministry of a prophet. It would also fall to Samuel to anoint the men who would become the first two kings to reign over Israel.

We are also quickly introduced in these opening chapters to some of the men who were influential leaders of the people at the time. The failures of these men – Eli and his sons – serve to highlight the condition of the nation at that time and the need for something to be done about it.

This evening I want us to think about Eli and his sons. We will consider where they went wrong and the consequences of their wrong-doing. Our aim will be to try to learn from them so that we won’t make the same mistakes they did.

Eli’s Family: Hophni and Phineas
Eli was a priest (1Sam.1:9; 2:11) and he ministered in Shiloh with his two sons Hophni and Phineas who were also priests (1Sam.1:3). Now Shiloh was an important place at that time, it was the centre of the religious life of the Israelites. You see, in the days of Joshua the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, had been set up in Shiloh and that ensured that this place would be a rallying point for the nation of Israel. In the Book of Judges we find that the importance of Shiloh continued for we read:

Judg.18:31 "the house of God was at Shiloh."

Eli, Hophni and Phineas had great privileges: each of them is referred to in Scripture not simply as priests but more specifically as priests of the LORD (1Sam.14:3 and 1Sam.1:3). They had too the privilege of serving the LORD in the most important place that any priest could serve in.

And yet all of them failed in their calling though as we shall see Eli’s failures as a father were not the same as the failures of his sons. Sin has many guises and just because we do not fall into one particular sin is no guarantee of immunity from all sin. We need to be on our guard and informed by God’s Word.
For a chapter and a half we have no inkling that all is not well with Eli and his family but that quickly changes when we get half way through ch.2:

v.12 "Now the sons of Eli were worthless men."

And then there follows a description of just what they did that brought about this harsh description. Two areas of sinful rebellion are highlighted in the verses that follow:

  • Their behaviour concerning the sacrifices that were brought to them

Basically Hophni and Phineas wanted to do things their way. They were richly provided for as priests but apparently were frustrated with boiled meat and wanted raw meat that they could subsequently roast for themselves.

Moses had received and passed on elaborate instructions about how the meat and especially the fat of sacrifices should be dealt with. It might seem a trivial matter to us now that we no longer have to offer any such sacrifices but it was no such thing. To reject the directions that God had given was to disrespect both the offering itself and more importantly to disrespect the LORD whose offering it was. This was no small matter it was sin and v.17 tells us that in God’s sight it was "very great".

Hophni and Phineas simply fell for the desire to "not be content" with what they had. They had much – a good position in which they were well provided for but, no, it wasn’t enough for them. And so they decided that they were entitled to do whatever they wanted to satisfy their appetite. Living in a world where we already have so much you’d think that we would be satisfied but we are not immune from the desire to ever want something new, something more something different. We still regularly hear of this kind of abuse in religious circles too. The spiritual leader who jets around in private plane luxury on the back of the sacrificial giving of desperately needy parishioners is just one example.

But the sins of Hophni and Phineas were not limited to the table. How easily one sin leads to another! You overthrow God’s law and seem to get away with it in one domain of life and suddenly it becomes a whole lot easier to cast off restraint in other areas too.

  • Their behaviour concerning some of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting

I wonder if you’re surprised that such sins could be committed so easily by men in such a setting. We shouldn’t be. As soon as the LORD’s way of doing things is set aside all manner of things can come flooding in. In addition they could have even used the argument "everyone does it" that lies behind so much of our own self-excusing. The Canaanite religions were concerned about fertility and readily brought sexual practises into their religious life – were Hophni and Phineas simply catching up with where the society of their day already was? Were they simply attempting to bring their religion more into line with their contemporary culture?  

A common feature too in both of these behavioural failures was the fact that they involved others in their sin. Sin rarely happens in such a vacuum that only the the one sinner is affected.

And of course the power of both these temptations was very real. It was for them and it is for us too. So how are we to respond? How are we to react? How can we learn from what Scripture tells us about these men and their failings?

The Scripture does in fact give us an explanation as to why it was that Hophni and Phineas acted as they did and it is there in v.12 "They did not know the LORD."

But what are we to make of that? After all they were serving as his priests and so they knew about him, his laws and instructions etc. What does the Scripture mean when it says that they did not know the LORD?

The following should be considered as being involved:

  • Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, they had no relationship with him. The word "know" in the Bible frequently implies more than a mere head knowledge, a mere "knowing about" something or someone. When Adam knew his wife Eve the result was Cain! A intimate personal knowledge is involved and it is impossible to have such a knowledge of God without it having at least some impact upon the way a person lives their life.

  • Secondly, to say that they did not know the LORD means that they did not have any respect for him, they did not recognise him as being important in their lives

  • Thirdly, it implies that they had absolutely no intention of submitting their lives to him

  • Fourthly, it meant that Hophni and Phineas simply had no time for God in their lives

How tragic this was! They had been brought up by a father who was himself a priest of the LORD and they had entered into this same ministry with all its attendant blessings and privileges. They lived their lives in an atmosphere that was conducive to coming to faith. Faith comes by hearing the word of God and they were in the very heart and centre of Israel’s religious life where sacrifice’s were brought and offered to the LORD in line with the instructions handed down through Moses!

They did not gain any advantage from all of this however. Instead they became over-familiar with the very things that should have caused them the most amazement – that sinners can be reconciled to a Holy God. Reminded regularly of the detrimental effects of sin they learnt no lessons but gradually slipped deeper and deeper into sin themselves.

They had so many advantages from their background and their circumstances but failed to do anything with any of it – small wonder they are described as being worthless men.

It is one thing to recognise the truth as it applies to others – and it is easy enough to acquiesce with Scripture’s verdict on Hophni and Phineas – but what about ourselves? Are we doing any better than they did?

Several of us were brought up in believing homes. Several of us have known about the LORD for most of our lives. Several of us have had so many privileges spiritually speaking. But what have we done with it all? Can it be said of us that we "know the LORD"? Is there any evidence in our lives that that might be true? Are we living in a close personal relationship with him? Do we value that relationship finding the time to develop it? Do we really esteem our LORD? Do we honour him openly and publicly? Are we ready and keen to submit to him?

And yet, someone looking on from the outside might have come to the conclusion that Hophni and Phineas were not all bad – after all they were committed to the ark of God and went with it into battle. (You can read the story in 1Sam.ch.4). But even there it would seem that they were more concerned for the ark itself than they were were for the honour of the God whose dwelling place it was. How sad to be so close and yet so far! How sad to be involved with secondary matters and to miss out on the one thing essential.

May none of us be found to have done the same in our lives.

Yes, it is easy to point the finger and condemn Hophni and Phineas – after all their sin was open and flagrant and everyone knew about it: the various reports that came back about them proved that. But it is not only open and flagrant sins that can set us on that slippery slope. You may be tempted to say you’re not a bit like them because your sins are not so publicly known but remember God knows and it is his view that counts!

The Sins of Eli
Eli was better than his sons but was nevertheless weak and ineffective. Whereas the failures of Eli’s sons are in-your-face failings those of Eli are more along the lines of sins of omission. It was what he hadn’t done or delayed to so long in doing that was his problem. And yet Eli was a man who prayed and had his prayers answered – if only he had been more passionate about God’s honour.

The LORD God is passionate about his own honour and glory and we should be too but Eli wanted a quiet life perhaps all the more so as he grew older and our text emphasizes he was now very old (1Sam.2:22)

I don’t know how long he had let matters pass but he’d been hearing reports of his sons and their misbehaviour for a long time before he decided to say something. Up until then it would appear that he had done nothing: he hadn’t said anything and he’d not challenged them and certainly hadn’t rebuked them; he comes across as the senior man in Shiloh but he never seems to have tried to exercise any sort of church discipline, to use our New Testament perspective, to reform the corrupted worship of God that was taking place.

Some of us, you know, just want to be liked. We just want to be nice. We just want to be accepted. We want to be loved, especially as we get older. We want to leave a good legacy and we don’t want to get involved in controversy and we don’t want to be unkind to anybody and so we won’t say the hard word because we are afraid people will think badly of us.

I wonder whether that was Eli’s weakness.

Had he intervened earlier maybe the sin in his family would have been arrested we don’t know but we do know that his outburst, when it came, came simply too late and the LORD had given up on Eli’s sons.

Whatever you do make sure that you don’t give up your passion for the honour and glory of God. He is passionate about his own honour and we should be too.

A Salutary Contrast
It was in just such a sinful environment that the young Samuel grew up. He saw men sinning against the light, abusing positions of influence, showing family favouritism and he saw men preferring their own interests and the interests of the kids to the glory and honour of God, the quiet, unobtrusive sin of acquiescence.

He would go on to see this leading having catastrophic consequences too: privileges would be forfeited, honour and esteem would be lost, in fact everything would be lost – health, wealth and life itself. Those who pursued the goals valued by this world would find that they had nothing to give in exchange for their souls.

And yet growing up in such an environment did not condemn the young Samuel to follow in their footsteps. Being surrounded by sin on every side did not contaminate Samuel instead we read again and again of just how unlike Eli’s sons this young Samuel was. Just listen to these verses:

1Sam.2:11 "And the boy ministered to the LORD in the presence of Eli the priest."
1Sam.2:18 "Samuel was ministering before the LORD,"
1Sam.2:21 "And the young man Samuel grew in the presence of the LORD."
1Sam2:26 "Now the young man Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the LORD and also with man."
1Sam.3:1 "Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli."

In a sinful environment Samuel’s experience shows us that it is possible to live an upright life that honours God. Why am I drawing your attention to this? Because you can’t use the failure of others to somehow provide an excuse for your own failure and I can’t either.

As I read those words I was struck by how familiar they sounded. They were so similar to words used to describe another young man growing up in an evil and crooked generation. I wonder do you remember them too?

Lk.2:40 "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him."

Or again,

Lk.2:52 "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man."

Not to mention,

Lk.3:22 "and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

Samuel was born into a context that was far from promising but faithfully served the LORD though surrounded by sinners. Samuel was to prove a great leader of his people but he was not the Messiah and never pretended that he was.

Jesus came into a similar world  full of sin sick people and he did come as the Messiah to save his people from their sins. He shed his blood so that the sins of the abuse of position and privilege could be forgiven. His blood could wash religious sinners clean. His death would be effective for grossly immoral sinners and for those respectable sinners whose major problem lay not in what they did but didn’t do. His blood could secure the pardon of those missed the mark and got their sights so wrong that they ended up serving the wrong thing. Truly his blood could make the foulest clean. It has been made effective for thousands upon thousands – has it been made effective for you?

The account of Eli and his sons shows us that religion is no protection from sin; that privilege is no protection against sin and may well furnish greater opportunity to sin. The account of Eli and his family tells us that sin is serious because it offends God as it dishonours him.

But Samuel’s example tells us we’re not helplessly dominated by our circumstances and doomed to act just like those around us. God is full of grace.

And finally Samuel’s life early experience leads us on to consider our great Saviour Jesus Christ who never sinned, who was always concerned to uphold his Father’s honour and who didn’t hesitate to lay down his life in accordance with his Father’s will that sinners like us might be saved.

Praise his Wonderful Name!


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