(1 Sam. 2:12-26.)
THE expression, "And Elkanah went to Ramah to his house," following immediately on the conclusion of Hannah's song, would indicate that it was uttered in the presence of the priest Eli and others at Shiloh. This pious couple having returned to their home, we then read,
"And the child did minister unto the Lord before Eli the priest. Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial ; they knew not the Lord;"
and the rest of the chapter is a continuation of the beautiful conduct of Samuel set side by side with the wilful wickedness of the sons of Eli. It is like a mosaic set in white and black, with the black largely predominating - a black of deepest dye, with here and there a tiny patch of pure white. It is largely the human history, alas, and the history of Israel in particular. The evil of men in the mass is everywhere seen, while only here and there shines some noted exceptions; but the exceptions, as here in the child Samuel, shine only the brighter in contrast. And it is only the distinguishing grace of God that makes any to differ, for, by nature, "there is no difference." So the record given here is not that we should glorify Samuel, but his God, and the grace that provided and set apart for Himself this chosen vessel of His testimony, and His instrument for the accomplishment of His designs towards His people.
So we have in the passage before us the record of the dark doings of Hophni and Phinehas, with here and there a word as to the lovely behaviour of the Child of Hannah.
Let us examine the account in detail.
"The Child did minister unto the Lord before Eli."
Note the expression: it is not said that he ministered unto Eli before the Lord, but the reverse - he ministered unto the Lord in the presence of Eli. Though himself but a child, he ministered to the Lord - a little Levite indeed, serving Jehovah as best his infant years permitted, caring for the things about "the tent of testimony," the holy vessels and utensils, all of which were intended to express God's glory under various figures. (See Ps. 29: 9, marg.) Little Samuel was not there merely in the capacity of servitor to Eli, but in training for his life-work; and while in training, he was serving diligently; his young mind developing, and his intelligence in holy things enlarging, under the Spirit's influence, for he was, according to his mother's vow, a Nazarite from his birth, and for life. No razor came upon his head, no wine or strong drink touched his lips, nor was he even to eat any fruit of the vine. The symbols of natural joys and dignity were denied him, that his heart might be the more occupied with Him to whom he had been dedicated.
He must learn that "with Him is the fountain of life," and the wellspring of joys that neither cloy in life nor end with death. Happy child! and happy all who have found in Christ the fount of all their satisfaction and the sweet solace of their every sorrow.
"But the sons of Eli," we read, "were sons of Belial." What a reflection on the name of him who at that time was both high priest and supreme judge in Israel! His sons, the "sons of Belial!" Could anything be worse-children of "worthlessness and corruption!" Truly we see here emphasized the truth of the adage, "The corruption of the best is the worst of corruption." Though priests of the Lord, they descended to depths of evil. Instead of magnifying their office, they degraded it, till "men abhorred the offering of the Lord."
"The priest's custom with the people was that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hands; and he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself. So they did in Shiloh, unto all the Israelites that came thither. Also before they burnt the fat, the priest's servant came, and said to the man that sacrificed, Give flesh to roast for the priest; for he will not have sodden flesh of thee, but raw. And if any man said unto him, Let them not fail to burn the fat presently, and then take as much as thy soul desireth; then he would answer him, Nay; but thou shalt give it me now; and if not, I will take it by force. Wherefore the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord: for men abhorred the Offering of the Lord."
Their sin was of a three-fold character: sacrilege, greed, and uncleanness; for How great was their sin! For with their profanation of the sacrifices of the people, they added shameless gluttony, though God had made ample provision for their maintenance: "For the wave breast and the heave shoulder have I taken of the Children of Israel from off the sacrifices of their peace offerings, and have given them unto Aaron the priest and unto his sons by a statute forever from among the children of Israel" (Lev. 7: 34). But no, this was not enough; they must have more; and if not given willingly by the poor, brow-beaten people of God, they would take it by force. They lived luxuriously among a people of primitive habits; they kept servants, and "made themselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of God's people.' They became "as fed horses," and the Crime of unbridled lust laid at their door, in ver. 22, is but the natural consequence of such sensuous living. Stopping at nothing to gratify their carnal appetites, they robbed both God and His people in their shameless greed. And the people, to their honor be it said, though they submitted to being themselves deprived of that which was theirs of the sacrifices by right, objected when the priest's servant took the fat, which, according to Lev. 3: 3-5, 16, was to be wholly burnt upon the altar, "an offering made by fire, a sweet savor unto the Lord." "Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?" (Isa. 7: 13) might have been asked of the house of Aaron here, as it was asked of the house of David centuries later.
It is a dark, humiliating picture. "They knew not the Lord" is written of these profane men, who occupied the office of priests, but whose hearts were far from God. It was said of Samuel, later, that he "did not yet know the Lord" (chap. 3: 9), But that was a very different thing. He was in the way of knowing Him" whom to know is life eternal; "but these sons of Eli had hardened themselves past remedy, and there remained for them but the just judgment of God. Alas for them, and for all like them today who make a gain of godliness and profane their office to fill their bellies and indulge their lusts.
Following the account of the shameful practices of Eli's sons, we have recorded, in refreshing relief, the lovely conduct of the child of Hannah:
"But Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod."
It shows by contrast the difference between the rejected priests and the child chosen to be the prophet of the Lord. That "but" Comes in at this juncture as a star shining out of the night of Shiloh's low estate, and the degradation of its priesthood.
Young as he was, the linen ephod marked this child for service about the holy things of God. Had the sons of Eli ordinary discernment, they might have read in this garment the displacement of themselves by the more worthy successor in training before them. The "little coat," too, brought him year by year by his devout mother was not the ordinary garment worn by children of his age and station, but rather a robe, a garment also worn by the high priest with the ephod. All this bore its own testimony to the gracious purpose of God, to all who had eyes to see and hearts to understand. Yes, better days were coming for the nation, though the time was not yet, and further chastening were to be experienced before a time of recovery and revival came, some twenty years later.
"And Eli blessed Elkanah and his wife, and said, The Lord give thee seed of this woman for the loan which is lent to the Lord. And they went unto their own home. And the Lord visited Hannah, so that she conceived, and bare three sons and two daughters. And the child Samuel grew before the Lord."
Here we see the grateful Eli pronouncing blessing on the parents of his young assistant. His heart was no doubt touched with the constancy and devotion of the child to the interests of Jehovah, and as a token of his appreciation he would give his parents an old man's blessing - a favour never to be despised. The benediction was medially through the lips of Eli, but behind it was the Lord Himself. Hannah lost nothing by offering her firstborn on the altar of service to Jehovah; He repaid her in kind fivefold. It was after Abraham offered Isaac his son, his only son, "upon the altar on the heights of Moriah that God promised him children as the stars of heaven and as the sand upon the seashore for multitude (Gen. 22: I6-18). He will be no man's debtor, for He who commands His saints to "owe no man anything," will certainly Himself give the example.
"And the child Samuel grew before the Lord." The devoted Hannah might have feared the acquaintance and the corrupting influence of Hophni and Phinehas about the tabernacle at Shiloh, but God preserved Samuel to be an holy vessel, "sanctified and meet for the Master's use." He is able to keep His own, and guard the interests of His cause, whether His instruments live banished and alone, as John in Patmos, or among the evil influences of the court of Nero. (See Phil. 4. 22.). Circumstances are nothing to God, and it is not our surroundings that should give colour to our testimony or affect our condition of soul. His sustaining grace and power are able to keep us in holy triumph over evil.
Our chapter on Samuel's childhood ends with Eli's mild chiding of his ungodly sons.
"Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and he said unto them, Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord's people to transgress. If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall entreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the Lord would slay them."
The outraged people had probably brought their Complaints to Eli, and the too indulgent father mildly reproves them for their scandalous conduct, calling it simply "evil dealings," and referring to the scandal of their disgraceful doings as "no good report." Oh, how easy and natural it is to be lenient with ourselves and our own children - who are, after all, but our second selves - while all too ready to censure others severely, as Eli, who rudely rebuked poor, praying Hannah, and softly admonished his profligate sons! True, he warns them of the danger of incurring the just displeasure of an insulted God, but in such an indirect and forceless way as to carry with it no conviction, and consequently no reformation "They hearkened not to their father."
But "the child Samuel grew on, and was in favour both with the Lord, and also with men." How delightful it is to observe the development of this lovely flower of the Lord's planting! May we, too, grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
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