When Leaders Fail

Lesson Focus:  This lesson will encourage you to serve God faithfully in spite of what others are doing around you.

A Sacred Trust Violated: 1 Samuel 2:22-25.

[22]  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.  [ESV]

[18-25a]  The contrast could not be more marked between the grasping materialism of Hophni and Phinehas and the simple innocence of Samuel’s family story, with the generous service of the mother sewing a little coat and the child happily serving in the temple. We are told that Eli’s ministry of blessing and prayer went on alongside his sons’ gross misuse of their position. At the same time as they were abusing the system, Samuel was ministering before the Lord [18] – presumably under Eli’s tutoring and in a way appropriate to his age. When we find corruption within a church or denomination it is tempting to assume that the whole system is corrupt and God has withdrawn Himself. But Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord [21] as well as under the shadow of oppressive immorality. Goodness can survive in the presence of evil and it is the responsibility of the believer to seek it out and nurture it. God strongly condemns Eli’s sons but continues to use Eli himself in showing His grace to Hannah and her family. However, it is clear that Eli knew about his sons’ behavior. They not only showed contempt for the sacrificial system, but were involved in cultic prostitution. Sadly, that kind of sexual abuse by religious leaders – who portray sexual activity with them as service of God – is by no means unknown today. It is as abhorrent and as alien to God’s real purposes now as it was then. Eli himself did not participate in their activities. He was much disturbed by what they were doing and even rebuked them for it, although they simply ignored this. Eli spoke to his sons but took no direct action. Perhaps he no longer had any control over them because he was so old. However, the text seems to imply that this was just another example of Eli’s well-meaning but rather ineffective character. He had the right to remove his sons from priestly service but made no attempt to do so. There are many examples in Scripture, not least in the story of David, where parental failure to guide and discipline at an early stage caused major problems later on. Family loyalty and love are good, but it does no good to anyone to use them as an excuse for not taking action against family members who step over the line. Eli may have given up on his sons, but he clearly had much more success with his role with Samuel. The sons offended God and the people, but Samuel grew in favor with both. Clearly the main factor here is Samuel’s own nature, but Eli must surely take some of the credit for Samuel’s training in serving the Lord.

[25b]  We do well to meditate on the meaning of the last half of verse 25: they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death. It is easy to read it too hastily, as if it said that Hophni and Phinehas did not listen to Eli and, consequently, Yahweh had decided to put them to death. But the text does not say that; it says Eli’s sons did not listen to him for (because) Yahweh had decided to put them to death. Hophni’s and Phinehas’ resistance was not the rationale for Yahweh’s judgment but the result of His judgment. A perfectly just judgment. We cannot divorce verse 25 from the previous account of Hophni’s and Phinehas’ impudence and immorality. In that light verse 25 says that for their persisting rebellion Yahweh decided to put them to death and that, therefore, they had not listened to Eli’s plea. So the text teaches that someone can remain so firm in his rebellion that God will confirm him in it, so much so that he will remain utterly deaf to and unmoved by any warnings of judgment or pleas for repentance. Hophni and Phinehas experienced the fate of men who deliberately sin against the light, who love their lusts so well that nothing will induce them to fight against them; they were so hardened that repentance became impossible, and it was necessary for them to undergo the full retribution of their wickedness. Think about Backslider in Pilgrim’s Progress when he told Christian: “I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent.” See also Romans 1:18-32 where Paul writes three times that God gave them up describing those who have continually suppressed God’s truth so that God abandons them to the lifestyle they passionately wanted to live.

The Lord Does What He Thinks is Good:  1 Samuel 3:11-18.

[11]  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. [12]  On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. [13]  And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. [14]  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." [15]  Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. [16]  But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." And he said, "Here I am."

[17]  And Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." [18]  So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, "It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him."  [ESV]

[11-14]  While Samuel was fulfilling the Torah obligations to tend the lamp of God [cf. Lev. 24:3], the Lord called the youth and delivered a message of judgment to him. In a form paralleling Abraham, Jacob, and Moses’ obedient responses to divine calls [Gen. 22:1,11; 31:11; Exodus 3:4], Samuel responded, Here I am [4]. Because he did not initially know the Lord, however, Samuel at first went to Eli for further instructions. Eli twice turned Samuel away [5-6], perhaps because Eli essentially was blind to the possibility of the Lord’s revealing Himself in a personal manner. Eventually, however, the elderly priest came to understand that the Lord was calling the youth and advised him to respond submissively. On the climactic fourth approach to Samuel, the Lord called the boy’s name twice and also stood [10]. The repetition of the personal name is reminiscent of the divine call to Abraham at Mount Moriah [Gen. 22:1,11] and the one to Moses at the burning bush [Exodus 3:4]. The similarity suggests that this moment was as important in Samuel’s life and for all Israel as the parallel moments were in the lives of the earlier heroes of the faith. Samuel obediently identified himself as the Lord’s servant and urged the Lord to speak. The Lord’s terrifying revelation was in fact a confirmatory repetition of the judgment against the house of Eli given by the unnamed prophet [2:30-36]. Though prophetic messages could be conditional – warnings of possible consequences resulting from continued disobedience – in the case of the words spoken against the house of Eli they were certain. Every promised outcome – from beginning to end – would become reality. And Eli, as the family patriarch, would bear the brunt of the blame because he knew about his sons’ contemptible sins but did not restrain them. Eli’s conscious failure to enforce divine law in his own family amounted to a high-handed or deliberate sin; as such it could never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering. Furthermore, the magnitude and form of God’s judgment would be so shocking that it would cause the two ears of everyone who hears it to tingle – that is, to give rise to great fear and dismay.

[15-18]  The message was not an easy one for Samuel to hear or to report. He almost certainly had not heard the previous denunciation of the Eli [2:27-36] and to be given this fierce condemnation of gentle old Eli must have been hard. It is not surprising that he stayed in bed as long as he could and went immediately to his regular duties, avoiding Eli for as long as possible. There is a comforting normality about opening the doors of the house of the Lord. Perhaps it helped Samuel come to terms with what he had heard. Eli cannot be put off any longer. He insists on hearing what God had to say, however unpalatable the message might turn out to be. In fact, there is nothing here that he did not already know. Eli accepts without question the reality and the justice of the coming judgment. Such acceptance at this stage is positive but it is also consistent with Eli’s character. He has been portrayed as rather drifting through life without making too much effort to change things. He had known about his sons’ behavior but he failed to restrain them. An accepting attitude towards situations that arise in life can be good, but sometimes it is essential to be rather more proactive. Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours. It is not enough just to avoid wrong actions, we must follow through and actually make the effort to do what is right.

Samuel’s call highlights the burden, pressure, conflict, and pain of the word of God. No sooner is Samuel called to the prophetic task than he finds how difficult and heart-rending it can be. He is caught in the dilemma only a true prophet knows. The true prophet must speak Yahweh’s word; yet the true prophet recoils from speaking judgment. He will speak judgment because truth is at stake; he cringes to speak it because compassion moves him. There is always this tension in the word of God, and any authentic messenger of that word knows and lives in it. If a preacher, for example, never places you under the criticism and conviction of God’s word, never tells you your sin but only smothers you with comfort, you must wonder if he is a phony. If his preaching contains only the judgment note and seldom offers comfort and encouragement, one must ask if he actually cares for God’s people. If one has a high regard both for the truth of God (even if it is judgment) and for the troubles of the church, he will retain the proper tension in the biblical word; he will both afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

God Still Speaks His Word:  1 Samuel 3:19-21.

[19]  And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.

[20]  And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. [21]  And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to   Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.  [ESV]

The Lord was at work in Samuel’s life – from the moment of his conception [1:19-20], through his early development [2:21,26], into his entrance into the prophetic ministry [3:4,6,8,10], and now in the maturation of that ministry. The Lord did not let Samuel’s prophetic pronouncements fall to the ground; the young man’s words, like those of any authentic prophet, were authoritative and trustworthy because they were the Lord’s words. Most Israelite leaders during the period of the Judges exercised authority in only small areas of the country, but not Samuel. Though his role as a judge was almost certainly limited to the central region of Israel, his prophetic ministry was not so restricted. Because of his service at Israel’s central sanctuary during the earlier years of his ministry, pilgrims visiting Shiloh spread his reputation as a prophet throughout all Israel. Like Moses the prophet before him, Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. For the first time since Moses, Israel had a national prophet.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why did God hold Eli responsible for the sinful behavior of his two sons? What does verse 25 mean when it says that it was the will of the Lord to put them to death? What does this verse teach us concerning the importance of repentance and the danger of remaining in our sin?

2.         Samuel’s call highlights the burden, pressure, conflict, and pain of the word of God. What does this statement mean? How do you see this being true in the life of Samuel? In the lives of other prophets? Do you sense this conflict yourself when you are called to provide guidance and comfort to a friend who is dealing with a sin in their life? Do you struggle with trying to be encouraging to the friend while at the same time sensing the necessity of speaking the clear instruction of God’s word to that particular sin and situation? Think about 1 John 5:2, where John writes that we only know we are loving fellow believers when we first love God and obey His commandments.

3.         This lesson shows us the importance of the word of God in the life of Israel. When that word is ignored and disobeyed as in the case of Eli and his two sons, then God’s judgment results. But, as in the case of Samuel, when that word is heard and obeyed then God’s blessing comes. In some ways verse 3:21 is the key verse in 1 Samuel. Now Israel has a prophet of the Lord whom God chose to reveal Himself to by His word. Think about how the importance of God’s word is true for the Church today. What happens to the Church when that word is ignored? What happens when that word is heard? What does this tell you about the importance of the true preaching, teaching and study of God’s word by His people?


1, 2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

1 Samuel, Dale Ralph Davis, Christian Focus.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Intervarsity Press.

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