When All Our Priests Fail (I Samuel 2:12-26)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: Genesis 2:12–2:26
Crying for a King
I. Priest-Induced Pain
In 2002 this country was awash in reports of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Roman Catholic clergy. You probably remember some of those reports.
A statement issued by the Vatican in September of last year, concluded "We know now that in the last 50 years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases." Approximately 80% of the priests involved in sexual abuse of minors were located in the United States.
Of course this problem is not limited to the Catholic Church. One website I looked at had a listing of 838 Protestant ministers who had sexually abused children in the past several decades.
And if we broadened the definition of abuse to include things like sexual misconduct with those receiving pastoral counseling, or financial abuse in terms of fraud, misuse of funds, etc…sadly, that list would grow much, much longer.
And there are many other forms of abuse that might be suffered at the hands of a spiritual leader: verbal abuse, psychological manipulation, and last, but certainly not least, doctrinal deception.
There is something especially painful about the betrayal of a priest or pastor, of any kind of spiritual leader because there is a unique mixture at work in such situations, a mixture of trust and spiritual authority, and on top of it all, one’s relationship with God is perceived to be part of the equation. What might someone think of God when the person who supposedly represents Him is corrupt and callous?
That’s the precise situation we encounter in I Samuel 2, verses 12 through 26. Turn with me there as we resume our study of I Samuel that we began back in November.
II. The Passage: "They Did Not Know the Lord" (2:12-26)
Let me remind all of us about what has already taken place in the opening chapters of I Samuel. We know from the final chapter of the book of Judges that God’s people had fallen into a miserable condition of spiritual anarchy. Judges 21:25 sums it up this way:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
But the story thus far has revealed that not everyone went down that same road.
We saw in chapter one that a childless woman named Hannah looked to God; and she prayed for a son, and God answered her.
In response to God’s gift, Hannah gave the boy back to God by leaving him with Eli, the high priest and judge of Israel who was ministering at the Tent of Meeting in Shiloh. This tent was the place, the sanctuary where God promised the people of Israel that He would meet with them; that place where He would forgive their sins as they worshipped Him through those sacrifices and offerings brought in accordance with the law God gave to and through Moses.
So the little boy Samuel, the answer to Hannah’s prayer was now growing up at Shiloh. The verse just before our passage, verse 11 says: the boy [Samuel] ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest. Samuel was a sort of apprentice priest. But look at what we read in chapter 2, verse 12 about what else was taking place at God’s sanctuary in Shiloh:
A. The Priestly Sin (2:12-17)
Look with me at verses 12 through 17:
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. 15 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.
To understand what’s happening here we need to remember that the Law of Moses did make provision for the priest from the sacrifices of the people. But Deuteronomy 18 and Leviticus 7 both make it clear which parts were for the priests, and these were usually take right after the priest killed the animal and was preparing it for sacrifice.
What’s described here is a very different situation. This seems to be after the sacrifice was made, when the worshipper was preparing the leftovers for a customary meal, which was to be a time of rejoicing according to Deuteronomy 12:7.
But Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli that were introduced in chapter 1, verse 3, these two priests made the meal of time of resentment not rejoicing. After already taking their portion of the sacrifice, they would send their stooge around to spear even more meat right out of the pots of the worshippers. Even worse, verses 15 and 16 tell us that, oftentimes, they would they would take the meat before it got into the pot, before the fat could be burned as an offering to Yahweh, the God of Israel, just as the Law described.
No verse 17 leaves no doubt about the real problem here, about the real nature of their offense.
Their chief sin was not greed or intimidation or even theft. Listen again to verse 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.
And their crime flows right out of their condition as was mentioned in verse 12: they did not know the Lord [they did not know Yahweh]. They were , verse 12, “worthless men”.
That is an absolutely shocking statement about men who are the priests of God. They are the ones appointed to be God’s servants and men’s advocates. But it gets even worse.
B. The Priestly Condemnation (2:22-25)
Drop down with me to verses 22 through 25:
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 the 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.
Exodus 38 mentions certain women who ministered or assisted at the entrance of God’s sanctuary. Nothing is known about about what they did. But what Hophni and Phinehas did, what they were doing with these women, was well known. It appears the sons of Eli were being ruled by more than just an appetite for roasted meat.
So what will be done with these wicked, worthless men? The opening words of verses 22 are meant to convey an explanation for Eli’s ignorance for some of what was going on: “Eli was very old.” But we’re told that Eli “kept hearing” about what his boys were doing. This was not one or two isolated accusations. And notice verse 23. Eli hears about all of their “evil dealings”, probably about the sacrifice stealing and the sex.
So what does he do? He does what he should do: he confronts them. And his point in verse 25 is well made. Hophni and Phinehas are not simply two hooligans sitting by a road somewhere stealing meat from passers-by. They are not two impetuous young men who are sleeping around in some far off village. If they were, then God’s law and God’s sacrificial system would allow their sin to be dealt with.
But they are priests and all of their sins are violence against God’s house, God’s offerings, and God’s servants. By sinning against God’s appointed means of atonement, they were destroying the only chance they had of finding forgiveness. And that is the context of the sobering statement at the end of verse 25:
But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.
God was not going to put them to death because they did not listen to their father. They did not listen to their father because God was going to put them death. Their hearts had been hardened by God. God had already judged these two wicked men by handing them over fully to the wickedness they craved. There was no hope for Eli’s sons. Paul’s words in Philippians 3 describe Hophni and Phinehas very well:
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19)
Hannah’s words at the beginning of this chapter are confirmed here: (2:3) Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
C. The Priestly Hope (2:18-21)
So what hope is there for God’s people when even their priests are “doing what is right in their own eyes”? What hope is there for God’s people when the high priest, who is also the judge of Israel, will do nothing about wickedness and corruption, except plead as hurt father, when he should punish as God’s judge.
Well, God’s solution is right there at Shiloh, but it’s not on anyone else’s radar. Look at the verses we skipped over, verses 18 through 21. In contrast to the meat-stealing sons of Eli…
Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy clothed with a linen ephod. 19 And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord give you children by this woman for the petition she asked of the Lord.” So then they would return to their home. 21 Indeed the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the young man Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord.
Now, verses 19 through 21 are the last time we’ll see Hannah and Elkanah. We see here that even though Hannah left her only child at Shiloh, her affections had not faded. She wanted her love for him to tangibly surround him every day. So every year she would make a new robe for him and take it to God’s sanctuary.
And as is always the case when God’s people give sacrificially to God, Hannah and Elkanah are blessed with even more. God blesses them with five more children.
But look at the bookends here in verses 18 and 21: Samuel was ministering before the Lord… And the young man Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord. [Heb: he grew “with” Yahweh).
In the midst of all this sin and ignorance and inaction at Shiloh, only Samuel is described with the language that should be used to describe God’s priest. The author of I Samuel, whoever he was, wants his readers to know that no matter how bad things get, with God, there is always hope. God is always working to accomplish His purposes for His glory and our good, even when we can’t see how He’s working things out.
III. Perspective: God’s Priest and God’s Faithfulness
But I think when it comes to a bigger perspective about these verses, I think the very last verse of our passage, verse 26, opens up an important door for us. Look at verse 26…
Now the young man Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man. (2:26)
In the context here, we have in verse 26 simply another statement of how God was blessing Samuel; how God was preparing Him for leadership in Israel. But when we pull back at look at the entire Bible, verse 26 should sound strangely familiar.
Listen to a verse from another chapter 2, this one from the New Testament:
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52)
There can be no doubt that Luke, in his Gospel, is using the language of I Samuel 2. And because he used that same language to describe Jesus, I believe God is confirming an important connection between Jesus and Samuel.
Just as God raised up Samuel to be the priest God’s people needed then, so now, God has raised up Jesus to be the priest all of us need. Samuel was only one of many shadows of what was to come later on in Jesus. Listen to how the book of Hebrews puts it:
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” [that is, just like Samuel, Jesus came from outside the priestly system…verse 7…] In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect [or complete], he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
You see, the point is this: the sons of Eli, even Eli himself to some extent, remind us that apart from the priesthood of Jesus, every other priesthood is always moving toward corruption. But Jesus is radically different, as Hebrews 7 makes clear: For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:26)
Has a leader ever let you down? Disappointed you? Hurt you? How did that affect you? Here’s God’s comfort this morning. When all our priests fail, when our spiritual leaders crash and burn morally, when even religious authorities confirm that they are not beyond the power of sin and temptation, when human beings and human devices and human philosophies and human effort end up crushed under the weight of corruption and judgment, God’s priest is always standing.
Is Jesus your high priest this morning? No matter what a pastor or priest said or did to you, no matter how this or that leader is messing up, are you looking at God’s man…at the God-man? Are you resting in the priestly work He did once and for all when he died on the cross? The only offering we can bring in light of what Jesus did is the sacrifice of faith.
IV. Practice: Priests Who Sacrifice
Let me leave you this morning with a thought about how this perspective should affect our practice. Listen to the words of Peter in I Peter 2:4, 5: As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Did you hear that? If you are a follower of Jesus Christ then like Eli and Hophni and Phinehas and Samuel, you also belong to God’s priesthood. But in what sense are we priests. Well in at least one way that is clear from I Peter 2. We are priests in terms of worship. But we don’t offer up bulls and goats. We offer up sacrifices of praise, and good works (according to Hebrews 13), and ultimately, our own bodies, according to Romans 12:1.
Through our merciful High Priest, through Jesus, we can have access to God, access to worship Him in spirit and truth. What an incredible privilege! But what is the condition of your priesthood? What defines it?
But we need to consider what we’ve seen this morning in terms of the warning we’ve been given here. Even God’s priests can veer into “doing what is right in our own eyes”. Even God’s priests can use their position as a means of selfish gain.
Let me ask you this, do you believe it’s possible for Christians to develop a form of Christianity that is more about the wants of men than it is about the worship of God? Do you? Do you believe that it’s possible for you to fall into that same trap? How are you susceptible?
For some, faith is the promise of financial blessing. For other, it is a formula for self-affirmation or a less expensive means of therapy. // For some church is a place of information acquisition. For others, it is a place to network, a place to further one’s own agenda. // For some doctrine is simply a means of intellectual satisfaction. For others, it is weighty club that smashes the foolishness of inferior people. // For some, prayer is a time to let God know what he should do. For others, it is a discipline that helps us feel like we’re following the rules, a means of promoting our self-righteousness.
In whatever ways we are tempted to turn our priesthood into a means of personal promotion or profit, God’s reminder to us this morning is that we only stand in grace because Jesus was both priest and sacrifice; because, unlike the sons of Eli, the priesthood of God’s son was marked by self-giving, not self-grasping. We need to be priests who “sacrifice”, in every sense of the word!
Let’s worship God together this week as His priesthood by following the lead of our High Priest, by giving of ourselves to our family and friends, to the stranger in need, and to God himself; giving ourselves to God by trusting Him, obeying Him, and praising Him. Amen?