Thursday, January 19, 2012

Samuel, Eli, and His Sons

Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision (1 Samuel 3:1).

1 Samuel chapter three is an important passage of Scripture. In it God demonstrates how he cares for his people despite our weaknesses, how he delivers his word to them, and how he uses both faithful and wicked servants to achieve his purposes. While many choose to focus on Samuel and his dramatic calling by the Lord, I want to focus more on Eli and Eli’s sons in this session. First, however, we should briefly examine Samuel’s background and lay the foundation for chapter three.

Samuel's mother was Hannah and his father was Elkanah. Hannah, like Abraham’s wife Sarah, is barren and childless. Hannah prays to God for a child. Eli who is sitting at the foot of the doorpost in the sanctuary at Shiloh, sees her apparently mumbling and thinks Hannah is drunk, but is soon assured of her motivation and sobriety. Eli was the name of a priest of Shiloh, and one of the last Israelite Judges before the rule of kings in ancient Israel. He blesses her after she promises the child to God. Subsequently Hannah becomes pregnant; her child is Samuel. After he is weaned, she leaves him in Eli's care.

We pick up the story with a young Samuel serving the Lord at the temple where his mother left him, in the care of Eli and his sons. Eli was, at least by this time, worldly and corrupt. His sons were, at the very best, wicked, as evidenced by their contempt for the Lord’s sacrifices[1]. The text here tells us that Samuel was fulfilling priestly duties. However, he was clothed in the linen apron, or ephod, of the Levites[2]. Levites, and possibly other young men who had been consecrated to the Lord, served as servants alongside the priests in the temple. This ephod was less lavish in material and color than the vestments of the priests[3]. This distinction, along with the author’s use of the term “ministering,” would seem to suggest that Samuel took no part in the corruption of Eli’s sons. The term “ministering” is used when describing Samuel’s service in the temple; the term is never used of the priests at Shiloh. This would seem to indicate that Samuel was performing legitimate priestly service in the temple, while the corrupt priests at Shiloh were serving only their own selfish desires (Engelbrecht 2009). The Lord would soon address this situation, as he had promised Eli earlier.

And 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him (1 Samuel 3:7).

The text says that Samuel, “...did not yet know the Lord.” How could he be serving the Lord in His temple and not know him? Well, the text also makes a similar statement regarding the wicked sons of Eli[4]. They were priests in the Lord’s temple and they also did not know him. What makes Samuel different from them? They both performed the same service to the Lord, yet Eli’s sons were wicked and the portrayal of Samuel is neutral, if not leaning toward the positive.

I think the difference is that Samuel had not been taught anything regarding God’s Word (and, after reading about the character of the priests of Shiloh, one could see the reason for that) where Eli’s sons had been, and they consciously rejected what they had been taught. When they were rebuked for their behavior, they ignored the rebuke. These men were different from someone who had not been instructed. They knew what God commanded of them, and they rejected God’s command. They, to paraphrase St. Paul, conformed themselves to this world rather than presenting themselves as living sacrifices. They where therefore not transformed by the renewal of their minds. They could not discern what the will of God was[5].

You see, God tells us over and over again in his word that he does not grant us salvation on the basis of how we act, what we do, or our station in life. His gift of salvation is just that – a gift. The salvation of man is based only on the promise of God. God would rescue fallen man, not because of any merit or worthiness in us, but by his own grace. These men served only themselves and continued to do so after their father’s rebuke; they disrespected God, his temple, his sacrifices and, consequently, his promise of salvation. Eli and his sons were rejecting Christ, the same as one who turns up his nose at the preaching of the Gospel today. Eli and his sons were priests in the Lord’s temple, but their outward acts of piety were not enough to blot out their sin. Their “good” work of serving the Lord as priests could not obscure their inner wickedness from before God’s all-seeing eyes.

God resolved before the foundation of the world that those whom he would save, he would save by his grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.[6] Faith is a gift of God[7], kindled in the hearts of men by the working of the Holy Spirit[8], through his means, which is God’s word.[9]

This includes all people of all times – New Testament believers in Christ who heard the Gospel and believed, and also Old Testament saints, such as Abraham – and Samuel – as well. The Old Testament faithful, who believed that God would send a redeemer, had faith in God’s promise just as New Testament believers, but from a different perspective.[10] Old Testament saints trusted God’s promise to send a Messiah, whose name they did not know, after hearing God’s word. They were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise. New Testament saints had/have faith in God’s promised Messiah, whose name they know to be Jesus of Nazareth. They are looking back toward that same fulfillment.[11]

An important lesson that we learn for Eli and his sons is that God will punish our sinfulness if we do not submit to his call to repentance. God announced this to Eli[12] and, later to Samuel:

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. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them. 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” (1 Samuel 3:11-14).

When a woman once told her pastor that she would not give her children religious instruction until they had attained the years of discretion, the pastor replied, “Madam, if you do not teach them, the devil will,” (Burgess 1988). God calls us to restrain those under our authority from evil; His judgment of Eli is our example. And, while the judgment against Eli is also a threat to us when we fail to restrain those under our authority who do evil, we must also hear the assurance God gives us that human weakness will not thwart God’s will to bring the Good News of salvation to His creation (Engelbrecht 2009).

God wants all people to be saved.[13] Many people, however, reject the word and thereby resist they Holy Spirit who attempts to work in them.[14] God will harden those who persist in their resistance of the Holy Spirit’s work through the word.

Just as an ungrateful birthday boy may turn up his nose at a gift he does not appreciate or understand, man is able to reject God's gift of a Savior. The natural state of mankind since the fall is to turn away from God.[15] The Pharisees, who loved their position in life and praise from men more than God, rejected the gift. They hardened their hearts to God's Holy Spirit, as St. Stephen tells them. They, along with all those who do the same, will receive their wages for their labor. [16] The Holy Spirit, however, continues to work in men as long as the word is present with them.

This is how God worked in Pharaoh through Moses.[17] “God did harden Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, Pharaoh always sinned again and again and became more hardened the more he was warned. That was a punishment of his earlier sin and horrible tyranny that in many and various ways he acted inhumanly toward the children of Israel against his heart’s accusations. God caused his Word to be preached and His will to be proclaimed to Pharaoh. Nevertheless, Pharaoh willfully stood up immediately against all rebukes and warnings. Therefore, God withdrew His hand from him, Pharaoh’s heart became hardened and stubborn, and God executed His judgment on him”[18] (McCain, et al. 2005).

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19-21).

And so God established Samuel as his prophet. God made known his will to his people by the revelation of his word to Samuel, who was thus the first exponent of the permanent prophetic order (Kretzmann 1921). Samuel, just like all of the prophets to come, would prefigure the ultimate prophet, Jesus Christ. Samuel was raised up to bring God’s word to His people after a season of spiritual drought, just as God had done in the past and would do again in the future. Through Samuel God rescued his people from the bondage of Eli and his wicked sons. Through Christ, God’s people are rescued from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil.

End Notes

[1] 1 Samuel 2:12, 17
[2] 1 Samuel 2:18
[3] Exodus 28:6-14
[4] Ibid. 1
[5] Romans 12:1-2
[6] Matthew 13:34-35; Ephesians 1: 4-6
[7] Ephesians 2: 8-9
[8] 1 Corinthians 6:11; 12:3
[9] Romans 1:16; 10:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:14
[10] 1 Peter 1: 10-12
[11] Hebrews 11
[12] 1 Samuel 2:27-36
[13] Ezekiel 33:11; Matthew 11:28 Luke 24:47; John 1:29; 3:16; 6:40; 6:51; Romans 10:12; 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9 1 John 2:2;
[14] Matthew 22: 1-10; 23:37; Luke 14: 16-24; Acts 7:51
[15] Psalm 51:5; Romans 3: 9-18
[16] Romans 6:23
[17] Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 7: 13-14; 7:22; 8:15; 8:19; 8:32; 9:7; 9:12; 9: 34-35; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:4; 14:8; 14:17
[18] FC SD XI 85


Burgess, David F. Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1988.

Engelbrecht, Edward A, ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible. Vol. I. IV vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.