In this essay we are studying 2:11-4:22. That is a large amount of material, but you will see in a moment why we need to take it as a unit. I suggest you begin by reading the entire unit. Then come back and focus on the key characters with me.
As you have seen, the major characters are: Eli’s sons, Eli, the people, and Samuel. Let’s discuss them in that order. The primary thing revealed about Eli’s sons is that they were “scoundrels, or “worthless men” (v. 12). And we note that they were scoundrels in a variety of ways. First, they were hypocrites. “They had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people” (vv. 12-13). Second, they were thieves. The people were aware that the priests had a right to certain portions of the sacrifices by law (Lev. 7:28-36; Deut. 18:3). But the sons of Eli were not satisfied with that. They intimidated the worshipers, and took what they wanted, by force if necessary. That is all spelled out in verses 13-16. And third, they were sexually immoral. We see that in verse 22, where we are told, “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.”
In chapter four, verse 11, we see that these hypocritical, thieving, immoral men died when the ark of God was captured. Was it just a chance event? No. A prophet had come to Eli earlier and predicted their judgment and death. The prophecy begins in 2:27. But picking it up at verse 30 we read, “Therefore,” said the prophet, “the Lord the God of Israel declares, ‘I promised that your family and the family of your ancestor 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 treated with contempt.’ Then picking up the thread again at verse 34, it reads, ‘The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.’” And of course that is exactly what happened the day the ark was captured.
What are the lessons to be learned from the example of Eli’s sons? Well, the overall lesson is that crime doesn’t pay. First, religious crime doesn’t pay. It may not always seem to be true in this life. Certainly not all hypocrites receive judgment in this life. But we must never forget that God makes the final judgment.
Second, for the same reason stealing doesn’t pay. In the case of Eli’s sons, their thievery was tied in with their hypocrisy. But even if it hadn’t been, God still has the final word and makes the final judgment.
Third, sexual crimes do not pay. Our culture is filled with sexual sins and crimes. Eli’s sons took advantage of their position as priests to take advantage of their female servants. We occasionally see a similar thing happening in our country today; but the people in our culture are so acclimated to sexual sin, they don’t seem to care whether or not there is any judgment in this life. But once again, God has the final word and the final judgment.
As we have just seen, Eli’s sons are important to this passage. And they are revealed to have been scoundrels. Now then, we turn to Eli himself. There is both good and bad revealed about Eli. As we look at the good things in Eli’s life, first, he was in touch with the Lord. The Lord answered Eli’s prayers in relation to Hannah. His prayer back in chapter one (1:17) that her prayer for a child would be answered was answered when she became pregnant. Then his prayer in 2:20 that she would be blessed with additional children was answered (v. 21). Eli was in touch with the Lord.
Second, Eli had a heart for the Lord. In chapter three when the Lord was calling Samuel, Eli was sensitive to the fact that it was the Lord who was calling to Samuel; and he taught Samuel to listen and obey. And when Samuel told Eli what the Lord had said, even though it was a terrible, awesome message from Eli’s perspective, Eli believed that it was a genuine word from the Lord. “It is the Lord,” said Eli, “let him do what seems good to him” (v. 18). So Eli was in touch with the Lord and had a heart for the Lord.
Third, Eli was kind to Hannah and Samuel. So we see several positive things in Eli the priest.
Turning to the negative aspects of Eli’s example, first, he was a poor father. He refused to discipline his sons. Let me remind you of the words of 2:22b-23: “[Eli] heard all that his sons were doping to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He said to them, ‘Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people.’” And Eli talked on; but that is all he did. That is, he just talked; he complained; but he did nothing to discipline them. He was a poor father.
Second, Eli failed as high priest. The high priest was responsible for the sanctuary and what went on there. If his subordinates were cheating worshipers (whether they were his sons or not); if they were sexually molesting the servants; if they obviously did not love God, Eli was responsible, because he was in charge. He was the high priest. But he failed in that responsibility.
And look at the consequences. We already have seen a couple of them. The people who came to worship were cheated. The women servants were molested. But there are others as well. The Ark of the Covenant was captured; Eli’s sons were killed as had been prophesied (4:11); Eli himself died (4:18); and Eli’s daughter in law died giving premature birth when she received the news (4:19-20). And she had a profound insight into the spiritual reality at the time. She named the child “Ichabod,” which literally means, “alas for the glory,” meaning the glory of Israel. As she said in verse 21, “the glory has departed from Israel.”
We learn from Eli as a father that when our children go astray, we have a responsibility to discipline them. Hoping that the problems will simply go away does not work. In Eli’s case, since he was the High Priest, and his sons were serving as priests under him, he had the responsibility to discipline them as adults. But he completely failed, and the consequences were grave.
All right, I want to mention the example of the people in this passage. In 4:4 and following, after defeat in a battle in which Israel lost 4000 men, the people brought the Ark of the Covenant from the tabernacle at Shiloh to the battlefield (v. 4). The army of Israel got all excited about it (v. 5); and the Philistines were a little threatened by it (vv. 6-8). But the Philistines screwed up their courage and defeated Israel again, and they captured the ark (vv. 10-11).
What do we learn from the people of Israel here? We must not put our confidence in things, even important symbolic things.
Finally there is the example of Samuel. First, Samuel was faithful in a negative environment. He did not become part of the pervasive corruption at the tabernacle. Indeed, 2:26 tells us, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”
Second, Samuel was obedient. He was obedient to Eli (ch. 3). And he was obedient to the Lord. And the result was, “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (3:19-21).
Thus third, in contrast to Eli, Samuel succeeded famously in fulfilling his divine call from God. Therefore Samuel is the great positive example in the passage. He becomes a model for us in our walk with God.