A Tale of Two Priests (1 Sam 2:11-3:21)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached September 11th, 2022*

Should the sins of Christians, and Christian leaders in particular, serve as a good reason to reject belief in Christianity’s teachings? If Jesus said we should “know them by their fruit,” what are we to think of much of the rotten fruit we have seen done in the name of God over history? And do these sins invalidate the Christian worldview or lead us to need to alter it? 21 years ago today, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people, all in the name of God. While not Christians, of course, the 9/11 attackers tore a hole in the American psyche that led a number of critics to level charges against religion in general, Christianity included: This is what religious fundamentalism gets you.

The cataclysmic events of September 11th caused the newspaper, The Boston Globe, to set aside its explosive investigative exposé it had been working on for months. In the early months of 2002, the newspaper published a story about a massive sexual abuse coverup within the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. The Boston Globe’s reporting led to the arrest of five priests in the Boston area in 2002, and, over the years, 249 criminal cases were presented against the Church, while thousands of victims have come forward. Just a few years ago, the Texas newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, published a report that Southern Baptist Churches led a similar process of failing to report sexual abusers to authorities and allowing them to remain in positions of influence, citing hundreds of incidents. 

What are we to think of such things? A number of individuals within the church have responded by walking away and many outside have pointed to these incidents as a vindication of their decision to stay away from religion. While we might point out that hypocrites are everywhere and we shouldn’t judge a worldview based off those who pervert it, let’s not do that. Let’s be honest that there is something particularly sinister and wicked when someone claims to be motivated by faith, but lives a life of selfishness and brutality. Perhaps you have yourself experienced firsthand someone who has claimed to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, but have seen them lie, cheat, steal, or take advantage of others, maybe even yourself.

But let’s stop for a moment and consider this: If the God of Christianity does exist, then what does He think about people using Him as an excuse to pursue their own ends? What would God think of people take positions of leadership in His name, only to then rake His name through the mud? What would God think and how would God respond? This is what we find in our text today. We have been studying the book of 1 Samuel as a church and today we come to a lengthy passage where we see a group of priests who have used their positions as priests to exploit others, we see how God responds, and we see the kind of leader that God delights in. Since our passage is so long today, we will only read a short excerpt now, and then look at the rest throughout the sermon. Open up to 1 Sam 2:30 and 35.

Therefore 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…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. – 1 Sam 2:30, 35

The passage of Scripture we are going to look at today spans from 1 Samuel 2:11 all the way through the end of chapter 3. In this section we will look at a (1) contrast of priests, (2) a condemnation of a priest, and (3) a call of a priest.

A Contrast of Priests (1 Sam 2:11-26)

This opening section we see the comparison and contrast between the house of Eli and Samuel as the focus of the narrative oscillates back and forth between Samuel and Eli and his sons. But before we begin this story of priests, it may do us well to consider: what is a priest? The latin word for priest (pontifex) also means “bridge.” A priest is a bridge between God and His people. A priest is meant to represent the people as he goes into the presence of God, and then when he comes out, he is to represent God to the people. He is a mediator of sorts. After the coming of Jesus, all Christians are transformed into priests—we are no longer dependent on finding an individual who can represent us before God because Jesus is now our new high priest who represents us, and we can deal directly with Him. But in our story, under the Old Covenant, Israel was dependent on these intermediaries to commune with God, which makes this story so tragic.

12 Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD. 13 The 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, 14 and 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. 

–       1 Sam 2:12-14

The sons of Eli, the priests at the tabernacle don’t even know the LORD! They are “worthless men,” (lit. “sons of Belial”). Which is a sobering reminder: position does not guarantee character. Just because someone stands up in front of God’s people in a position of leadership, even if they appear to be very gifted at what they do, it does not in any way guarantee that they know Jesus. Skill can be mimicked, godliness cannot.

The background we need to have to understand this section is Leviticus 7:28-36 where God allots to the priests a portion of the sacrifice for their own livelihood. The rest of Israel could raise livestock and farm and tend their gardens, but the priests were responsible for working in the tabernacle. So God deemed it fitting that those ministering in this role as a profession should have their livelihood come from a selection of the offerings brought forward. But Leviticus specifies that the worshipper was to hand a specific cut of meat to the priest, and the sons of Eli have gone far beyond that. Here, they are fishing out the best cuts of meat out of the cauldron with a fork. 

Moreover, 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.” 16 And 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.” 17 Thus 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.

–       1 Sam 2:15-17

These men would stop a worshipper as he was about to offer a sacrifice and demand portions before it was even offered. And here the worshipper recites God’s Word back to the priests, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish.” The individuals who are supposed to be shepherded and taught God’s Word by the priest is having to remind the priest of God’s very words! But in a nearly satanic inverse of what a priest is to be and do, the priest then threatens physical violence if the worshipper will not comply with their wicked demands. 

“Thus,” we are told, “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.” The sons of Eli don’t care about the act of worship. Sacrifices in the Old Testament were a way of taking some of the best you had and presenting it to Yahweh, a picture of the love and devotion of the worshipper. So you burn the fat first because the fat on the meat is the best part. But here, the sons of Eli think they deserve the best part, not God. Hophni and Phinehas don’t see anything sacred here, they just see an opportunity to indulge themselves. 

22 Now 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. 23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24 No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. 25 If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.

–       1 Sam 2:22-25

Eli here finally rebukes his sons, but it is too little, too late. The text specifies that Eli was “very old” and he “kept hearing” all that his sons were doing. I think this leads us to assume that Eli has been dragging his feet. Eli could have removed his sons from their position, but he didn’t. And it was not as if this was an isolated incident or something that was so infrequent that not many people knew—all of Israel is talking about their deeds. And here the picture of the wickedness of the sons of Eli is filled out more with their sexual immorality. They are preying upon the young women who have come to serve outside the tabernacle. The tabernacle is the place where God’s presence is localized in the Old Testament, it is where you go to be in God’s presence, to meet with Him, to worship. But it has turned into a sordid den of crime. Worshippers are not safe, young women are not safe. And Israel has to begin to think: the holy place in Israel is really a place of evil, it is not safe. And what do you think God thinks of that?

Eli tries to warn his sons, but they refuse to listen to their father, “for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” The verse does not say, “It was the will of the Lord to put them to death because they would not listen to the voice of their father,” but the exact opposite. Here we see the judgment of God in the hardening of these men’s hearts. Much like Pharoah in Exodus, or the unrighteous in Romans 1, when rebellious sinners persist in their rebellion, stamp their feet and shout that they want nothing to do with God, God will grant them what they wish. They are vessels of destruction who are hardened further to become a showcase of God’s judgment and wrath. He will hand them over to the momentum and direction of their sin; He will sever any restraining graces He has placed on them and let them plunge themselves into destruction.

One thinks of God’s condemnation of the leaders of Israel in Ezekiel 34 whom are compared to shepherds: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ez 34:2-4). And God powerfully replies, “Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them,” (Ez 34:10). 

Every person in spiritual leadership who feasts upon those under their leadership will find God to be a terrible and dreadful adversary, and every person who is under that oppressive and abusive leadership will find God to be a ferocious and just ally. God will not stand by indifferent and confused while wickedness drinks up His people. He will thunder from on high and snap the arms of the unrighteous like dry twigs and vindicate His suffering people. No pastor or dictator, no husband or principal, no mother or judge who uses their position of leadership or takes God’s name in vain will get away with anything.

Let this serve as a sobering reminder to you, Christian. This is where your sin wants to take you. Inch by inch, it craves to move you towards destruction. Stay alert, be vigilant, lest you follow the path of worthless sons of Eli, the unfaithful priests.

But Samuel? There are three contrasts with the sons of Eli in this section, and in each one the young Samuel is described as constantly being in the presence of Yahweh. Verses 11 and 18 says he ministers to the Lord, and verse 26 says he is growing in stature and favor with the Lord. This is the theology of reversals that Hannah’s song told us about last week: the modest, humble house of Hannah is being exalted, while the lofty and arrogant house of Eli is being brought down. This is a tale of two very different priests.

The Condemnation of a Priest

27 And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him…Why then do you scorn 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?’ 

–       1 Sam 2:27a, 29

An unnamed prophet approaches Eli and lays out the many honors and blessings God has shown upon the family of Eli. Eli is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the first priest of Israel. Yet despite this noble lineage and calling, Eli has scorned the sacrifices and offerings of God. But notice how God sees the dilemma: you honor your sons above me. Eli was in a position to stop his sons’ violence and blasphemy. He was their father, and he was the judge over Israel. But he didn’t. When people are in places of authority and see injustice take place under them and do nothing about it, God is not pleased. God did not see his inaction here as a morally neutral matter, nor was He satisfied with Eli’s kind-of rebuke of his sons. God saw into Eli’s heart and He knew the root of the matter: you care more about what your sons think of you than what I think. They are your real gods, not me. 

How do you know who you really worship? What you are willing to sacrifice for. You may say you love God, but if a difficult choice comes up and you are left between choosing between pleasing God or, say, keeping the approval of your children, your boss, your spouse, your boyfriend, then that thing is what you really honor, what really controls you, what you really worship. I am reminded of a story of a parent whose child had made a choice about her life that contradicted what God said and that child wanted the parent to support and endorse this choice, give approval to it and go along with it. But the mother lovingly responded: “You are asking me to either offend you or offend God, and I have to choose to offend you in that choice.” The mother desired to honor God over her daughter. 

I wonder what you honor, friend? What matters most to you? What do you sacrifice most for? What are you willing to bend on your convictions for? What, if you lost it, would make life feel unbearable? For Eli, that was his sons. Jesus teaches us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” (Matt 10:37). 

30 Therefore 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. 

–       1 Sam 2:30

The prophet here warns Samuel, but also instructs us. Those who honor God will be honored by God, and those who despise Him shall be lightly esteemed. Notice how binary it is. You either honor the Lord, or despise Him. You cannot have two masters, you will either love one or hate the other. But notice also the blessing promised: those who honor the Lord, will be honored by the Lord. It is fitting and normal for a subject to honor their king, but what a strange and wonderous thing it would be for the king to come off his throne, down to the peasants, and lift them up to a seat of honor and dignity at his side? This is our great King Jesus who not only receives honor but gives it to lowly, weak, sinners like us. But Eli has cast this aside. And so the prophet goes on to recount how God is going to make his house desolate and barren, and his two sons are going to be killed on the same day, and then explains:

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. 

–       1 Sam 2:35

This is what God’s people need: a faithful priest who does what is in God’s heart and mind. A leader who isn’t looking to get into a position of authority to take advantage of others, like the sons of Eli. A leader who honors the Lord more than others who is willing to confront others even if it costs him, unlike Eli. A faithful priest is what we need. Enter: Samuel.

The Call of a Priest

1 Samuel 3 is a dramatic telling of the call of Samuel into the office of a prophet of the Lord. He has been serving as a priest thus far, but now his role is going to expand to one who not only serves as a bridge between God and His people, but also to that of the mouthpiece of God—one who speaks God’s word to His people. Samuel is described as a “boy,” in verse 1. Jewish tradition holds that he was 12 years old at this time, but we can’t be certain. All we know is that he is very young.

It is late at night and Samuel and Eli have laid down inside the tabernacle, near the ark of God. Samuel can hear the flicker of the lamp burning, the flap of tent in the wind, when suddenly he hears: Samuel. Samuel shoots up and goes over to Eli, “Here I am, what do you need?” But Eli tells him to go back to bed, he didn’t call him. Twice more this happens, and slowly it dawns on Eli that God is attempting to speak to Samuel:

9 Therefore 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.

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

–       1 Sam 3:9-10

1 Samuel 3:1 explained that at that time, “the word of the Lord was rare…there was no frequent vision.” In Samuel’s day, they didn’t have the Bible as we do, and they were dependent on God’s ecstatic disclosures of Himself through prophets. Surely, Eli and Samuel would have been trembling with excitement at what this would mean:

11 Then 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. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 And 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. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And 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.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.”

–       1 Sam 3:11-18

Can you put yourself in Samuel’s shoes? You are a young, young child and have been in the office of a prophet for about five minutes. Your first task? Go to your adoptive father and mentor and tell him that God has rejected him and is going to pour out judgment upon him and his sons. Good luck! You can understand why Samuel trembles. The contrast between Samuel and Eli is stark. Eli is an old man, seasoned, in an established position of authority, yet he is reluctant to confront his very own sons who are under his authority with the truth. Samuel is a child who is instructed to speak a word of condemnation and judgment to his superior, to the one whose authority he is under. And he obeys. 

The sons of Eli are a picture of wanton rebellion and indulgence; Eli is a picture of cowardice and covert idolatry; Samuel is a picture of right obedience. The phrase: speak Lord, for your servant hears, becomes a paradigm of Samuel’s ministry—he listens to God and obeys. In fact, the Hebrew word for “hears” is the same word as “obeys.”

Our job as Christians involves being willing to listen to God and speak truth to those who don’t know God and those who do. In Christ, we all now are priests who serve as God’s representatives here on the earth. This means we are responsible to, like Samuel, listen and obey God. It also has important implications for within our church. One of the things we promise to do for one another as members is to ‘speak the truth in love’ to one another. We cannot sit back like Eli while watch our brothers and sisters around us plunge themselves into sin and rake God’s name through the mud. We cannot tell ourselves, “Who am I to involve myself in someone else’s life? Who am I to tell someone else what the Bible says?” We dare not sit by and fail to care for one another when we need it. We dare not choose to honor others over God. Let’s follow Samuel’s model of courage here.

But here is the stunning thing: Samuel eventually fails. Later, in 1 Samuel 8:1-3, we are told that, just like Eli, Samuel’s sons are given over to injustice and perversion (1 Sam 8:1-3). We are not sure what Samuel did to confront his sons or stop them–perhaps he did more than Eli did (which is likely). But the author of Samuel is wanting you to obviously see that Samuel is nevertheless following in the footsteps of Eli. He doesn’t listen and obey perfectly, he fails.

And you will to. Try as you might, you will find yourselves indulging in sin, honoring other things and people over God, acting cowardly, failing. We need something more than the model of Samuel. We need a Savior who doesn’t fail.

And thus we come to the one who Samuel shadows. In Luke 2:52, Luke lifts a phrase directly out of 1 Samuel 2:26 when we are told that Jesus, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” Luke is wanting you to see that Jesus is like Samuel, but only better. So let’s consider how Jesus compares with the figures of our story:

Like the sons of Eli, Jesus has position and power, but because Jesus is perfectly holy that means He will never exploit you or hurt you. In fact, He stands with you against those who exploit. When a woman caught in the act of adultery is cast before him, Jesus doesn’t think: what a great opportunity for me to take advantage of someone. No, He bends down and clothes her with grace and dignity.

Like Eli, Jesus has authority, but He also courage. He confronts those in power who are corrupt and courageously stands against wickedness. Despite it costing him his reputation, Jesus ferociously denounces the wicked practices of the priests, the Pharisees, those in authority. He honors His Father more than anything else, so He always tells the truth.

Like Samuel, Jesus hears and obeys His father, but more fully. He never buckles into temptation or caves into sin. He upholds the Law perfectly, never caving.

And what does a life of that kind of moral perfection earn? If someone honors God, what does God give them in return? Honor. But what did Jesus find at the end of His life? A bloody, dishonorable cross. Why? Because Jesus had lived His life with the intention of it not being only for Himself. Rather, He took the righteous life He had earned and then went to the cross where He died for the sins of His people, paid their debt, and then opened the path so that those who look on Him in faith and receive Him could also receive the honor of the Father that Jesus had earned. Jesus died for your sins, Jesus lived for your righteousness, so, weak and wounded weary one, wherefore toil you so? Cease your doing, all was done, long, long ago. Jesus has atoned for your sins and fulfilled the Law, rest in Him, trust Him, look to Him.

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