1 Samuel 2:12 – 36
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
As we continue our new sermon series on the book of 1 Samuel,
we address an ongoing problem in much of human leadership – power abuse.
From today’s narrative,
we will be specifically focusing on the abuse of power by spiritual leaders.
It’s not a topic we often talk about in the Church
but by the end of this message,
I hope and pray we’ll understand why it is so vital,
now more than ever, that we need to start discussing it and calling it out.
There is – or at least used to be
– a tendency to idealize spiritual leaders,
– as a youth director, Bible teacher, a ministry coordinator,
a pastor, a priest, an elder, a deacon, or a bishop, etc.
that because someone holds a position of authority in a religious community,
he or she ought to exhibit upright and admirable character.
But sadly, all too often in the history of the Church,
the reality has not reflected the ideal.
Over the past few years, and certainly in the last three decades,
we have witnessed an erosion of trust in spiritual leadership
– especially among the younger generation.
We’ve all heard our share of stories and examples of
unethical and self-indulgent practices,
unscrupulous and toxic behaviors,
and straight-up harassment and mistreatment
by those with spiritual power towards those to whom
they are supposed to be ministering to and caring for.
As we’ll learn from our passage today, this is sadly, not a new problem.
Turning our attention towards a priest named Eli and his sons,
Hophni and Phinehas, we will witness
not only a terrible abuse of spiritual leadership
but also, the consequences of the blatant misuse of such divinely given power.
And if this all sounds too depressing, fear not, for in the midst of all this brokenness which we don’t like to face, we will see and hear – yet again
– God’s promise and work of amazing grace.
Let’s listen to the word of the Lord from 1 Samuel, chapter 2, verses 12 – 26.
The story of 1 Samuel shifts from a woman named Hannah
– a woman whose personal struggle with infertility
reflected the barrenness of Israel during this time in history.
Last time, we witnessed the miraculous birth of Hannah’s son, Samuel,
– a child who will not only be the answer to Hannah’s prayer
but eventually, the means by which the Lord will make His people fruitful again.
But that is still to come. For now, as Hannah, Elkanah, her husband,
and their family return home, we given more of a glimpse of
just how bad, how troubling things are among the people of Israel.
The focus turns to a man named Eli
– someone we met earlier – the high priest of the Lord, who,
when Hannah was pouring out her soul to God,
at first didn’t recognize her deep piety and instead accused her of being drunk.
This same Eli is actually more than just a priest.
Eli is also the next-to-last-judge of Israel.
A little background here.
After coming into the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua, the people of Israel rather than unifying as a nation
remained 12 independent territories.
They only came together in times of war
– when facing the threat of a common enemy.
This went on for 400 years as recorded
in another book of the Bible called Judges.
The book of Judges gets its name from the leaders
God would raise up during this period to save His people
from the hands of their enemies.
These individuals were not judges, in our legal sense of the word,
rather, they were military leaders.
As story of the Bible continues from the book of Judges to 1 Samuel,
Israel remains a tribal society and the tabernacle of the Lord at Shiloh,
has become the center of Israel’s religious and political life,
Eli, the high priest, is now the next judge of Israel.
Eli, who followed Samson as judge,
confronts the same external threat that Samson did,
from a group known as the Philistines.
We’ll hear more about them in a few weeks.
The point of all this, for now, is to underscore that Eli,
as both the high priest and judge over Israel,
was a very powerful and influential leader.
However, the focus of this story is less about Eli
than it is his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
They served under their father as priests of the Lord.
But we quickly find out Eli’s two sons are
far from being good spiritual leaders for God’s people.
Abusing their authority,
Hophni and Phinehas are taking advantage of others,
and exploiting everyone for their own personal gain,
they are described as, “scoundrels…who had no regard for the Lord.”
We soon learn exactly why Hophni and Phinehas have such a bad reputation.
Two specific abuses of power are mentioned.
First, instead of offering up the animal sacrifices as carefully laid in the Torah
– in the books of Law like Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
Hophni and Phinehas were taking more than their designated portion
of the meat and thereby, robbing the rest of the community.
In fact, they didn’t even try to hide what they were doing.
So brazen were Eli’s sons that they sent their servant to pounce on
the meat while it was “still being boiled” – meaning while it was still raw.
Hophni and Phinehas didn’t even bother to wait for the fat to burn off.
And if you know your Old Testament sacrificial law (that’s a joke!),
you know this was a direct insult to the Lord. Why?
To keep it simple,
the core principle of the sacrificial system was to offer the best to God.
When it came to the meat offerings,
the best included the fat – the offering of sweet aroma
from the fat of the meat was explicitly reserved for the Lord alone.
But Hophni and Phinehas were so greedy, so gluttonous,
they didn’t just steal from the people; they stole what belonged to God too.
And both of them did so by force.
Anyone among the people who dared
to complain was threatened with violence.
Tragically, Eli’s sons abuse of power did not stop there.
Later we are told Hophni and Phinehas also were taking advantage of and violating the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
As we are told, Eli’s sons slept with these women
who sought to minister to the Lord, the inference is
this sexual relationship was not consensual.
Manipulating their authority, Hophni and Phinehas took the women
near at hand with the same force as they grabbed the meat from the offerings.
And just like pilfering of the sacrifices, their sexual abuse of these women
was open and blatant – widely known within the community.
Hophni and Phinehas, two priests who were responsible for
leading the people in worshipping the Lord were
twisting that worship to serve their own personal benefit
– at the cost of the dignity and well-being of others.
Not surprisingly, the conduct of Eli’s sons negatively affected
the health of the community
– particularly tainting the people’s view of worshipping the Lord.
However, there is a ray of light in the midst of all this ever-present darkness.
as we hear “But Samuel was ministering before the Lord…”
The glimmer of promise in the present,
the reason for hope in the future,
is Samuel – young Samuel,
whom we are reminded is just a boy during this time.
Remember, after she had weaned him,
Hannah dedicated her son, Samuel,
to the Lord’s service at the tabernacle in Shiloh.
And since that moment,
in the midst of all this wanton abuse of power,
despite the contempt being displayed before God,
Samuel continues to be dedicated to serving the Lord
and the Lord’s people.
Samuel, the pastoral intern, works in the tabernacle
among the people all decked out in linen ephod
– a vestment usually associated with a priestly ministry
– an ornate garment that incorporated gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns,
fine linen—and two onyx stones set in gold latticework,
stones that together bore the names of twelve tribes of Israel.
Hannah makes a brief cameo in our story
– the talk of her continuing presence functions like
one of those montages in the movies used to illustrate the passage of time
– in this case marking how
Samuel as a child “grew up in the presence of the Lord.”
Even though Hannah was blessed to have more children after her miraculous firstborn son, she continued to remember and express her love to Samuel.
Each year, when Samuel’s family came up to Shiloh for the harvest festival,
Hannah brought a new robe that she had made for her son.
The robe Hannah makes for Samuel each year is
probably something suitable for his role in the ministry of the tabernacle
—a liturgical robe to wear with his linen ephod.
As a growing boy, Samuel probably needed an annual wardrobe update,
because by the end of each year, his robe would no longer fit properly.
But it is not just Samuel’s physical growth that is highlighted here.
His spiritual growth and maturity are emphasized as well.
A great compliment is given to Samuel as it is said that
he “continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people.”
It’s the kind of praise later served for another young child
who was declared to be the Messiah of Israel – one Jesus of Nazareth.
While Samuel will be no Messiah, what is being underscored here is
how the Lord is working despite the failure and mistreatment
by the religious leadership – that in Samuel, God is raising up
His means of the people’s eventual redemption and restoration.
But for now, as the years passed,
Samuel grew up to love the Lord and serve His people
while the sins of Hophni and Phinehas continued unabated.
At some point along the way, word of what his sons were doing got back to Eli.
Now, let’s be frank here.
If Hophni and Phinehas were flagrantly abusing
their spiritual authority and their power and
if report of their appalling conduct was
widely circulated among the people,
then Eli was very much aware of what was going on.
All indications appear to be that Eli didn’t want to know
– that he turned a blind eye to what both of his sons were doing.
Seemingly, the only reason Eli finally rebukes Hophni and Phinehas
when he was very old is because things have gotten so bad
that Eli has no other choice.
Eli confronts his sons with their wrongdoings.
He laments about how barefaced
their transgressions are before all the people.
Eli informs them that he hasn’t heard anything good about their leadership.
He asks rhetorically why they would do such a thing.
Eli warns Hophni and Phinehas of the gravity of
not just their offenses but their posture towards the Lord.
And, if we’re paying close attention, let me clarify what Eli means when he delineates between sinning against one another versus sins against the Lord.
Eli is not suggesting that when we sin against each other
that we are not at the same time offending God.
What Eli is underscoring is there is a difference
between disobeying in the midst of an honest relationship
of seeking and wrestling with the Lord
and the kind of rebellion where one knowingly and self-consciously,
openly and brazenly, seeks to do wrong in order to defy God
– not out of a matter of conscience or soul-searching
but out of purposeful and unreserved spite.
This distinction is so important because
it clarifies what we are told in light of
how Hophni and Phineas respond to their father’s reproof.
Tragically but perhaps not surprisingly,
Eli’s sons refuse to listen to their father.
A response to which this phrase is added,
“for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.”
A causal reading here suggests Hophni and Phinehas
did not listen to Eli because the Lord decided to put them to death.
In other words, Eli’s sons resist their father’s reproach
because the Lord already had judged them as beyond saving.
But God’s final judgment upon Eli and his house
has yet to come in this story. We’re not there yet.
No, what is being emphasized here is
their unequivocal rejection of the Lord,
Hophni and Phinehas refused
their only means of hope and salvation.
And apart from turning and yielding before the grace of God,
Eli’s sons are both left to all that remains
– suffering the consequence of their sins
according to the moral order created
and maintained by God – which is death.
Eli confronted his sons, but apparently, it was too little too late.
Eventually, having look down enough on this sorry scene,
God sends a “man of God” – a prophet – to speak on His behalf to Eli.
After reminding of both the privilege
and the responsibility of the calling of the priesthood,
the Lord accuses Eli and his sons of scorning
“my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling.”
The Hebrew word translated here as “scorn”
is a word that actually, literally means “to kick.”
Both times it is used in the Old Testament
the context of the word suggests defiance or contempt.
The metaphor being invoked here is one of cattle that,
after being well fed and provided for by their owner,
kick back against their master’s direction and spurn the yoke put upon them.
Similarly, God charges Eli and his sons of
kicking back against the Lord’s leading and spurning His authority.
God then narrows His rebuke away from
focusing on Hophni and Phinehas to addressing just Eli.
Eli is accused of honoring his sons above the Lord.
Now it may seem unfair to us for Eli
to be held complicit in the behavior of his sons.
After all, he did confront them, didn’t he? He warned them.
But let us remember, Eli waited a long time to step in
and deal with his son’s abuse of power.
Furthermore, when Eli finally did confront Hophni and Phinehas,
Eli was all bark and no bite.
Eli protested against what they were doing.
He verbally admonished his sons.
But he continued to let them serve in their positions of spiritual authority.
Remember Eli was both the high priest and judge over Israel
– inarguably the most powerful person in the community.
And yet even though Eli was the one person in a position
to not only stand up to but also remove his sons from serving as priests,
he allowed their abuse of power to continue.
Today, we refer to this kind of complicity as enabling.
Eli lacked the righteous indignation which Jesus manifested
when in His day, he cleansed the Temple.
The silence of Eli’s inaction is held to be just as much a failure
of spiritual leadership and an abuse of power as what his sons have done.
If we read between the lines here,
there are subtle hints are given as to why Eli choose to do nothing.
Because Eli personally profited from their sins
– specifically, in the stealing of the best parts
of the meat during the sacrifices.
As indicated by a clever play on words
– Eli, like his sons, literally fattened themselves
on the offerings of the Lord’s people.
For abusing their office, for taking advantage of the people entrusted
to their care, for dishonoring the worship of the Lord by serving themselves instead of honoring God through serving others, Eli and his family will lose not only their roles as spiritual leaders in Israel, they will lose their lives.
Another as of yet unnamed family in the line of Aaron
will be given the office of the priesthood.
All of the descendants of Eli will either face an untimely death
or a life marked by the miserable envy of the prosperity of others.
The judgment of God put upon the house of Eli mirrors the prophetic words of Hannah’s earlier song in this chapter – of the Lord’s enactment of justice by reversing the fortunes of the arrogant and the greedy with those who are suffering and going hungry.
Eli himself won’t live to see all of this happen,
but he will live long enough to witness the sign
that will confirm this word of divine judgment
– the moment when his own two sons,
Hophni and Phinehas both will die on the same day.
This is an awful story on so many levels
– hard to listen to and not simply change the channel.
But it’s again it’s a story we need to hear because it is all too familiar.
However, before I go there, let me take a moment
to clarify what this passage is not.
Many have used this tragic tale as a parenting lesson
– and I believe this is a mistake
– a costly mistake liable to do more harm than good.
The logic of such an application is that if Eli had done a better job raising his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, all this never would have happened.
While we may choose to infer this,
nothing in this story tells us anything about how Eli raised his boys.
For all we know he did a fine job bringing them up.
At a bare minimum in this story, we have Samuel,
in a manner, Eli’s adopted son, and despite being raised
before the example of some wicked men,
did not himself follow their example.
All that is clear is when they were adults
– serving in their jobs as priests
– they choose to flaunt and abuse
their authority and privilege as spiritual leaders.
Contrary to well-meaning Christians who like to quote Proverbs 22:6,
the Bible makes no absolute promises in terms of the raising of our children.
God’s word speaks of probabilities and not promises.
Of course, there is no question that it is ideal
and would be better for children to be raised not only by parents
but also, around family members and other adults who
teach and model solid, consistent, and faithful living like Jesus.
But, as many godly parents who seek with honesty and integrity
to raise their children in the Lord well know, this is no guarantee of one’s children as they become adults leading positive, upright lives that glorify Christ.
While wise and godly parenting matters and has a significant influence on
the adults children grow up to become,
children as they become adults are responsible for their own decisions.
Some sons and daughters, for reasons that can’t always be narrowed down
to bad parenting, decide to go prodigal
– to walk away from the faith in which they were raised.
And when this happens,
we can’t and we shouldn’t try to control their relationship with the Lord.
Instead, we need to keep being a witness to Christ
less by what we say and more by how we are relying of the grace of God
in order to follow and look like Jesus in living forgivingly, justly, and lovingly through our own lives.
And a quick word for those families who don’t or didn’t have it all together
– who may be plagued by regret or poor decisions
never forget the grace of God is greater than our shortcomings and failures.
If anything, through the example of Samuel,
this story demonstrates how the Lord can work and move
in the midst of the dysfunction and even the very worst evils within our families.
No matter what family legacy we come from,
whatever the trauma or triumph of our past,
God in Christ can still redeem it and lead us back home to Him.
But this is not a story about parenting.
This is a story about the failure and accountability of spiritual leadership. …
The severity of divine judgement laid upon Eli, Hophni, Phinehas, and their house reflects the seriousness and the wider impact of spiritual abuse.
There is failure in leadership and there is failure in spiritual leadership.
Those who profess to speak and act for God
– bear a calling and a responsibility that if abused
not only deeply harms individuals (as if that itself weren’t enough)
but also, corrupts and damages the perception others have of
the character, of the goodness of the Lord.
Any abuse of spiritual power, position, or privilege creates a betrayal of trust
not only between the individual and the one who represents God; it shatters the individual’s confidence in the community of faith as a whole – and oftentimes, ultimately in Christ as well.
What this story and others in the scriptures make clear is
religion without faith and integrity isn’t just hypocritical; it is dangerous.
And the Lord will not let such abuse
in spiritual leadership remain ultimately unaccounted for.
In case we’re nodding our heads but hearing this as just a word for pastors
or elders or those in the community of faith who are perceived
as spiritual leaders because of a job or a position title,
let’s remember something crucial – if we are following Jesus,
as disciples of Christ we are all called to be spiritual leaders.
While Jesus is the Head of the Church, we together are the Body of Christ.
Make no mistake.
You and I are broken, deeply flawed – like Eli, Hophni and Phinehas
– in ourselves and by ourselves and left to ourselves
and given the right circumstances
– we are liable to become as corrupt as they became.
But the good news, the Gospel, is we have been rescued and redeemed by the faithful priest who the Lord in this story promises to Eli that he will raise up in his place – a priest “who shall do according to what is in My heart and mind.”
The ultimate and final fulfillment of that priest is God coming down to us in Jesus Christ – as our perfect High Priest – forgiving and covering the cost of our sin while at the same time extending to us more than just mercy but the grace of resurrection of coming back from death – enabling us to live and to become our best, eternal selves together in community with Him.
But the whole point of the Great Commission after the Resurrection
and the gift, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is
that as Christians, we aren’t just called to believe in Jesus
but to lead others to Christ.
In following Jesus, directed by His Spirit,
we are to witness and to serve others for Him
– as His representatives, as His ambassadors.
The parameters of our spiritual leadership in Christ
are profoundly wide and deep.
All our words and actions before others are intended to reflect
what Jesus would say and what Jesus would do
if He were ministering to that person
– because through His Spirit at work in and through us, Christ is present.
Do we recognize our call to spiritual leadership?
And are we all answering that call honestly and faithfully?
We’ve seen far too much abuse of power in the Church.
The coercion, manipulation, and violation of men and women.
Of children. Of minorities and other cultures – all in the name of Jesus.
The suppression of the truth, the withholding of knowledge,
the denial of responsibility, the blaming of the victim,
the justification of complicity – all in the name of Jesus.
We have watched as some have claimed the symbols of Christianity
– the Bible, even the Cross itself
– as some have twisted the theology of our faith
in order to give license to vehemently cursing and denouncing people
of a different political party, religious faith, and ethnicity,
as well as to endorse insurrection and violence – all in the name of Jesus.
My brothers and sisters, do we recognize our call to spiritual leadership?
Are we all answering that call honestly and faithfully?
Or are we collectively remaining silent and passive
– looking the other way, choosing not to act – just like Eli.
Let us not miss one of the more significant revelations of this story.
Where we tend to equate a failure or abuse in spiritual leadership
to whether or not we are on the frontlines participating in what is wrong, through Eli’s example, we both the dangers
and the accountability passively allowing evil in the name of God to happen.
As the old saying goes,
“If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.”
Beloved, by divine calling, by the grace of God,
we are to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,
for we are witnesses of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Spiritual leadership in the Christian faith
isn’t reserved for those who have a specific role or job title in the Church.
Spiritual leadership is the calling of all who profess to belong to Jesus.
Through the knowledge of God’s Word, the example of the Son,
and submission to the Holy Spirit,
we have all been called to lead by humbly participating in the work of Christ
– valuing and empowering, rescuing and redeeming, loving,
encouraging and guiding others without discrimination and personal ambition.
For spiritual leadership like Jesus means servant leadership
– demonstrating God’s love for all through self-sacrifice like Christ.
That kind of spiritual leadership looks like kneeling down
and washing another’s feet rather screaming in another person’s face.
That kind of spiritual leadership means making more room at the table for others rather than building walls between us.
That kind of spiritual leadership means being willing to be sensitive and accommodating to the vulnerable and the exposed rather than to defiantly do what is right in our own eyes.
Spiritual leadership like Jesus means acknowledging what power we have,
giving our power away, using our power to confront the status quo of injustice, using our power for the wellbeing of others.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot afford to be silent anymore.
We need to speak up for the true character of God
– not as others try to make the Lord to be in their image
but as God has revealed Himself to be in Christ.
We need to stand up and represent who Jesus really is, what Jesus is truly about. Amen.