A Study in Contrasts

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1 Samuel 2:11-26 (Eli’s Sons)

INTRODUCTION: Please take your Bibles and open with me to 1 Samuel 2:11-26. We are studying the life of Samuel. So far we have looked at Samuel’s birth and dedication, and today we finally begin to observe Samuel’s life at Shiloh under Eli the priest. This passage presents us with a study in contrasts as chapter two contrasts Samuel’s life growing up under Eli with Eli’s own sons. You will notice as we read through the passage, that the focus keeps shifting back and forth between Samuel and Eli’s sons. This is intentional and is a very effective teaching tool to show the differences between two different characters or subjects. (Read 1 Samuel 2:11-26)

One of the great themes of Scripture is that God blesses the righteous and judges the wicked. We see this from the opening chapters of Genesis, through the Old Testament narratives, through the Psalms and the Prophets, through the parables and teachings of Jesus, right up to the last judgment presented in the book of Revelation. And we find it right here in today’s passage in 1 Samuel. God blesses the righteous, and he judges the wicked.

This passage in 1 Samuel 2 alternates back and forth between Samuel and the sons of Eli. In some ways they are similar. They are both brought up at Shiloh. They are both under Eli’s supervision. They both serve at the tent of meeting. But that is where the similarities end. What we have here is a study in contrasts between the righteous and the wicked. God is in process of removing Eli and his sons from the priesthood and raising up a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in his heart and mind. And the boy Samuel is essential to this time of transition. So let’s look at the differences between Samuel and Eli’s sons in this passage.

I. Faithful vs. unfaithful service (11-17)

    A. Samuel (11)

First of all, we find a difference in their service. Verse 11 says, “Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the LORD under Eli the priest.” (1 Samuel 2:11) Elkanah was Samuel’s father. He and his wife Hannah had come to Shiloh to dedicate Samuel to the Lord’s service in fulfillment of Hannah’s vow. Now they return to their home in Ramah leaving Samuel in Eli’s care.

Notice that Samuel does not simply serve Eli. Samuel ministers before the Lord. The word translated “minister” in this verse is not the normal word for a servant serving a master. It is the word used for personal service to a person of high importance and was especially used of those serving the Lord in the tabernacle or temple. Samuel is only about three or four years old here, and he is already serving the Lord at Shiloh.

    B. Eli’s sons (12-17)

Contrast this with Eli’s sons in verse 12: “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD.” (1 Samuel 2:12) The phrase “wicked men” in this verse translates an interesting Hebrew phrase, “the sons of Belial.” The word Belial literally means “worthless,” and it is often used to describe wicked men. Hannah used the same word earlier when Eli accused her of being drunk in the temple. She said, “Do not take your servant for a daughter of Belial,” which the NIV translates similar to here: “Do not take your servant for a wicked woman.” (1 Samuel 1:16) There is an irony here, of course. Eli mistook Hannah for a wicked woman, when in fact it was his own sons who were wicked. Verse 12 is also a reflection on Eli’s sluggish spiritual state, because it literally says, “Eli’s sons were sons of Belial,” thus equating Eli himself with Belial. In later times the word Belial became a personal name for Satan, and we find it used that way in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:15).

Eli’s sons were not only wicked or worthless men; verse 12 also tells us that “they had no regard for the Lord.” The phrase here is literally, “They did not know the Lord,” that is they did not acknowledge him or recognize him in their lives. Now that would be bad enough for anybody, except Eli’s sons were serving as priests at the temple. Here they were supposed to be representing God to the people, and we are told that they did not know or acknowledge God. They were wicked men who had no regard for the Lord in their lives.

This becomes clear when we see how they treated the people who came to sacrifice. Look at verses 13-14:

Now it was the practice of the priests with the people that whenever anyone offered a sacrifice and while the meat was being boiled, the servant of the priest would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand. He would plunge it into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot, and the priest would take for himself whatever the fork brought up. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. (1 Samuel 2:13-14)

The servant of the priest here refers to Eli’s sons. Now you might wonder what they were doing wrong here. Well the Old Testament law concerning the priests’ portion from a sacrifice was clear. If it was a fellowship offering, the priest received the breast and the right thigh. (Leviticus 7:29-34) If it was a Nazirite or other offering, the priest also received the shoulder (Numbers 6:19-20; Deuteronomy 18:3). But instead of following God’s rules, Eli’s sons practiced what we might call the “potluck” method. That is, they walked up while the meat was still boiling, jabbed their three-pronged fork into the pot, and then walked away with whatever came up. We don’t find anything even resembling this potluck method anywhere else in Scripture. And this apparently was the regular practice at Shiloh.

But then things got even worse. Look at verses 15-16:

But even before the fat was burned, the servant of the priest would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” If the man said to him, “Let the fat be burned up first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would then answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” (1 Samuel 2:15-16)

This was a huge breach of faith in service. The fat of the offering belonged to the Lord and was supposed to be burned upon the altar. So not only were the young men taking some of the people’s portion from the sacrifices. They were also taking from God’s portion. Now Eli’s sons were priests and sons of priests. They knew better. Even the people knew that this was wrong. But when the people protested, Eli’s sons just threatened them with force.

Verse 17 tells us the real problem with their actions: “This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt.” (1 Samuel 2:17)

The Hebrew here is particularly revealing. Do you see that word “they” in the phrase, “they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt?” The Hebrew word there is a word for man that especially means “mortal man,” with an emphasis on man’s mortality and weakness. And so this final phrase in verse 17 comes out even stronger in the Hebrew: “Mortal men were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt.”

What arrogance and presumption in these sons of Belial, these wicked sons of Eli! They had no regard for the Lord, they had no regard for God’s people, and they had no regard for the offerings. But before we get too high and mighty criticizing Eli’s sons, perhaps we should stop and look at ourselves. Do we ever treat the Lord’s offering with contempt? What does that mean for us today? The Lord’s offering is that which is offered to God and thus rightfully belongs to him. How do we treat the Lord’s offering with contempt?

There are several ways we do this today. We do it when we abuse or misuse the offerings of others in the church. We do it in our own giving when we withhold from God his rightful share. We do it when we partake of the Lord’s Supper in a thoughtless or careless manner. We do it when someone offers up their very best to God in praise or worship, and we respond with a critical spirit.

But there is another way we treat the Lord’s offering with contempt that far outweighs the rest. We also treat the Lord’s offering with contempt when we reject Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all the sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament. He is the Lord’s own offering for sin. Hebrews 10 says, “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:28-29) To reject Jesus is truly to treat the Lord’s offering with contempt.

II. Purity vs. immorality (18-24)

    A. Samuel (18-21)

We have contrasted Samuel’s faithful service with the unfaithful service of Eli’s sons. Now the passage goes on to contrast Samuel’s purity with the immorality of Eli’s sons. And once again, we find Samuel ministering before the Lord, something that is never said about Eli’s sons by the way. Look at verses 18-21:

But Samuel was ministering before the LORD — a boy wearing a linen ephod. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the LORD give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the LORD.” Then they would go home. And the LORD was gracious to Hannah; she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD. (1 Samuel 2:18-21)

Samuel wears a linen ephod. An ephod was a short, sleeveless garment that a priest wore while performing his duties. Priests were also instructed to wear clothing made of linen. Linen is a symbol of righteousness and purity in the Scriptures. Angels who appear as messengers in Scripture wear linen. The book of Revelation tells us about the bride of the Lamb: “Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” (Revelation 19:8) And so here is little Samuel, ministering before the Lord, wearing a linen ephod.

I think we can sometimes forget how important purity is to the Lord. God is completely holy and pure, and he expects us to be pure also. The Old Testament emphasized ritual purity among God’s people, and so there were all sorts of laws relating to clean and unclean foods, cleanliness in the camp, cleansing after illness or contact with a dead body, and so on. These laws were all meant to teach the importance of spiritual purity. And so we come to the New Testament and the book of Ephesians says things like this: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” (Ephesians 5:3) In the book of Revelation we are told concerning the Holy City: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.” (Revelation 21:27) Purity is important to God. The little boy Samuel in his linen ephod is a beautiful picture of innocence and purity before the Lord.

We read that Samuel’s family visited him each year when they came for the annual sacrifice. His mother made him a little robe, a little bit bigger each year as her son continued to grow. Elkanah pronounced a priestly blessing on them, and God blessed them and provided them with additional children. You can never out-give God. God has more resources than you do, and he has a more generous heart. God has so ordained things that even giving to him becomes a joyful experience for the believer. So never be afraid to give to God. Hannah gave God her only son. God gave her three more sons and two daughters in return. You can never out-give God.

Meanwhile, verse 21 tells us that “the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD,” literally “with the Lord.” Wow, what better way to grow up than with God, to grow up in the presence of the Lord. Samuel’s family is a beautiful picture of a family that is righteous and serving God, seeking God first, enjoying God’s blessing and favor. The boy Samuel is a beautiful picture of innocence and purity, ministering before the Lord in his linen ephod.

    B. Eli’s sons (22-24)

And then we come to Eli’s family. In contrast to Samuel’s purity, Eli’s sons are guilty of sexual immorality. And not just any sexual immorality, but they were engaging in sexual immorality at the temple itself. They were committing sin in the very place where they were supposed to be confessing sin. Look at verses 22-24:

Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. (1 Samuel 2:22-24)

Eli rebuked his sons for their sin, but it was too little, too late. Eli’s sons demonstrate the progressive nature of sin. At first they just grabbed a little potluck from the worshipers who came to sacrifice. Then they took the Lord’s own portion of fat. Next they were sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Their bad reputation spread among the people of Israel. They brought dishonor upon themselves and Eli’s whole house.

Eli was very old when he finally confronted his sons. Parents, be sure to discipline your children when they’re young. Teach your children right from wrong. Tell them the importance of repentance for sin and confessing their sins to God. Most importantly of all, lead them to put their trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t put these things off. The little sins you let slide now will only grow into bigger sins. Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death.” If only Eli had disciplined his children when they were younger, things may have been different at Shiloh.

III. Judgment vs. favor (25-26)

    A. Eli’s sons (25)

And that brings us to our final contrast this morning, the contrast of God’s judgment with God’s favor. Eli is especially concerned for his sons because they have sinned directly against the Lord. Now in one sense, every sin we commit is a sin against God. But Eli distinguishes here between sinning against other people and sinning against the Lord. Look at verse 25 where Eli continues rebuking his sons for their sin:

“If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’s will to put them to death. (1 Samuel 2:25)

Eli’s point is simple. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him. But if you sin against God, who will intercede for you then? Who will be your mediator? Eli’s question is a good one for us to consider today, especially when we realize that every sin really is a sin against God. Who will be your mediator when you sin? The New Testament answers that question for us. 1 Timothy 2 says: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6) God sent his own Son, Jesus, to be the mediator for us, to die on the cross as a ransom for our sin, and to bring us back into relationship with God.

Eli was right to rebuke his sons for their behavior, a little late perhaps, but it was still the right thing to do. However, we are told they did not listen to their father’s rebuke, “for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.” Eli’s sons had reached a point of no return with God. Notice God did not choose to put them to death because they failed to listen to Eli’s rebuke. It was the other way around. They did not listen to Eli because it was God’s will to put them to death. It is not that they wanted to come to God, and God was preventing them. Rather, because they had no regard for the Lord, because they were defiant in their sin against God, God’s judgment upon them was to harden their hearts and confirm them in their sin.

Did you know that is possible to reach a point of no return with God? It’s a scary thought, and it should be. It means that you cannot just keep on sinning in defiance of God thinking, “You know someday I will get my life right with God.” You may never get that chance. If you ever have the desire to repent of your sins and put your faith in Christ, then don’t put it off. Do it now! How do you know if you will ever have that desire again? God is merciful and forgiving, but do not test him. Eli’s sons had reached a point of no return. They did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.

    B. Samuel (26)

Now contrast God’s judgment on Eli’s sons with God’s favor on Samuel’s life. Look at verse 26 which closes out our passage: “And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with men.” (1 Samuel 2:26) This is a picture of ideal growth in childhood. The gospel of Luke uses similar words to describe Jesus’ growth as a child later on in the New Testament. (Luke 2:40,52) As Eli’s sons grew up, they lost God’s favor and gained a bad reputation among the people. As Samuel grew up, he grew in favor with the Lord and with men.

CONCLUSION: God blesses the righteous and judges the wicked. We see it here in 1 Samuel, and we see it through all of Scripture. So how should you respond to this? Should you try your hardest to live a good and righteous life? Should you do your best to measure up to God’s standards? Should you feel confident when you are doing well and fearful when you sin?

The truth of the matter is we cannot be righteous in and of ourselves. The Bible says “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” (Romans 3:23) and so we are all subject to God’s judgment. But when we put our faith in Jesus, two things happen. First of all, God gives us Christ’s righteousness. Just as little Samuel was clothed in that linen ephod, we are clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness. This means that we are forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. When God looks at us, instead of seeing our sin, he sees the righteousness of his Son, Jesus, and so we are accepted in Christ.

But then God does something else, too. God not only gives us Christ’s righteousness, he also begins to form within us Christ’s righteousness by the Holy Spirit. He begins a new work in us that will be completed when we go to be with God in heaven. And so we have not only been given a position of righteousness. God is in process of actually making us righteous, and we will be fully righteous in heaven for all of eternity.

God blesses the righteous and judges the wicked. You can only be righteous through Jesus Christ. So, if you do not know Jesus this morning, let me encourage you to put your faith in him. Don’t treat God’s offering of his Son with contempt. Confess your sins to him and receive his righteousness by faith. Don’t put off your decision to trust Christ. God is merciful, but remember, there is a point of no return.

If you do know Christ this morning, remember that God blesses the righteous. So, are you growing in righteousness? Are you progressing in your faith? Are you asking the Holy Spirit to make necessary changes in your life?

Finally, if God blesses the righteous and judges the wicked, as believers we need to be sharing our faith. Apart from Christ we are all lost. We need to be sharing the gospel with others, that they too may receive God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ.

© Ray Fowler

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