I Samuel 2:11-36
Why is it that no one names their sons Hophni or Phinehas but lots of people name their sons Samuel or Eli? They are all biblical names and many parents want to give their children a biblical name. There are also not a lot of children named Ananias or Sapphira. But there are lots of Peters and Pauls.
The Bible does not tell us a lot about Hophni or Phinehas but it is not difficult to imagine their circumstance. There is no mention of their mother, only that their father was Eli, the high priest in Shiloh. Perhaps Eli’s wife died in childbirth when his sons were born or later during a subsequent delivery. Perhaps Hophni and Phinehas were raised by the temple women, just as Samuel was raised. Maybe they were neglected and ignored as Eli focused on his job as priest and paid little attention to them. In some way they were not raised to be godly men.
How old were they at the time of this story when Samuel was brought by his parents to Eli?
The text says Eli was very old when Samuel came to stay with him. He was 98 years old when he died and it is twenty years after he died that the text continues with the ministry of Samuel. A good guess is that Samuel was ten years old when Eli died and thirty years old when he was recognized as God’s prophet/judge of Israel.
It is significant that when Hannah prays for a son, Eli is sitting. At the age of 98 he is described as heavy and it is doubtful that he gained this weight in just the ten or so years between Samuel’s arrival and his death. By the time Samuel came to him, Eli was doing a lot of sitting and not much walking. His eyesight is described as weak and by the time of his death he is blind.
From all this I would guess that Eli was in his late 80s when Samuel came. If he had sons when he was thirty or forty, this would make his sons forty or fifty at the time of this story.
The reason I tried to work out the ages of the people involved in this story is that it makes a big difference. I had imagined, when I have read this text before, that Hophni and Phinehas were in their twenties or thirties, but they were a couple decades older than this and that puts what they were doing in a different light. There are a lot of men who make a mess of their lives when they are in their twenties and their hormones are raging and it takes time to untangle the mess they have made. But when men are in their forties or fifties and are doing what Hophni and Phinehas were doing, it is more than hormones. This is the will bent against God. This was willful, pre-meditated sin.
To imagine how it must have been for them you need to understand where they were.
The ark of the covenant rested in Shiloh. The ark of the covenant contained the stone tablets of Moses, the staff of Aaron and a container of the manna God provided in the wilderness.
The movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, centers around the search for the ark of the covenant and the Nazis are the bad guys in the film who want to find the ark to use it as a weapon. This is a great image for this text since the Nazi intention to use the ark of the covenant as a weapon is exactly what Hophni and Phinehas intended to do. But we will come to that.
It is not a myth that there was great power associated with the ark of the covenant. This becomes clear in the next few chapters of I Samuel.
The ark of the covenant was where God lived on earth. This was God’s home on earth – as they believed. Wherever the ark of the covenant was, the people came to make their sacrifices to God. There were three annual festivals when people would travel to come to where the ark of the covenant was and so in this time, people came to Shiloh. It was not just the people who lived in Shiloh or the area surrounding Shiloh who came to make their sacrifices. It was the responsibility of all of Israel to come to make their sacrifices at Shiloh.
Long journeys were made to come to Shiloh and because it was difficult to bring a bull or sheep from that distance, the animal to be sacrificed would be sold locally and then when the family arrived in Shiloh they would buy a bull or sheep at the market that operated outside of the sanctuary.
Eli was high priest at the center of a big business. I don’t think that is how Eli viewed it, but it is certainly how his sons viewed it. Everyone came to Shiloh and a shrewd businessman could figure out how to make a good living out of this.
Imagine how it must have been for them. Their father was the high priest which made them sons of the most important person in the community. When they were young, they watched their father as he performed his priestly duties. When they came of age, they became priests themselves. At some point their father was made high priest and their status was elevated with his.
How long they played the game to please their father it is not clear, but at some point, Eli became unable to play the active role he had taken when he was younger and they took over, acting in his name. They pushed the limits of Eli’s tolerance here and then there. He had probably never been able to control them, perhaps he had never really tried. But bit by bit they took over until Eli was sitting by the doorway and they were running the show and they ran the show exactly as it pleased them.
As they accumulated power, they made the system work to their advantage. They did not go to Eli to ask him what he would do in a certain situation. They did not seek his advice and they did not want his advice. They knew what he would tell them to do and they did not want to hear his old fashioned piety.
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. 23 So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. 24 No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. 25 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?”
You can imagine Hophni and Phinehas listening to their father and then walking away laughing at his warning. They were in charge. They were making things work for them. They were living a good life. Who needed to listen to such nonsense?
There is no question that Eli is a weak character in this story. He is a good man but afraid to use his position as high priest to take action against his sons. Eli was high priest but his sons were in control.
They were living the high life. They had servants who demanded the best cuts of meat when animals were brought to be sacrificed. They had their pick of women who worked in the temple with whom they could have sex. They were in the prime of life, they had power and they used it to their advantage.
This brings us to the Philistines. In 1650 BC the Greek island of Santorini imploded in a huge volcanic eruption that sent a 240 meter high tsunami that devastated the island of Crete and other Mediterranean islands. This eruption and resulting tsunami destroyed the Minoan civilization. Survivors of this civilization spread out throughout the Mediterranean Sea and about 250 years later, the Philistines took over the coastal area that is today the Gaza strip and became a thorn in Israel’s flesh. They brought with them superior technology and were able to forge iron, giving them an edge against Israel.
The Philistines were expanding west and Israel went out to meet them in battle. Israel fought and lost the first round of the battle, losing four thousand men. So they called for their secret weapon and Hophni and Phinehas came with the ark of the covenant. You can imagine the scene. They rode out with the ark of the covenant in a grand procession. They rode out with the ark as the men who would rescue Israel in this difficult situation. When they arrived the soldiers cheered so enthusiastically that the Philistines were afraid. Hophni and Phinehas were the heros of the moment. They had brought this secret weapon which they had used so effectively in Shiloh to make themselves wealthy and powerful. Now they would use it to bring Israel victory.
Joshua had not gone into battle without consulting God and being led by his answer. Throughout I&II Samuel and I&II Kings, there is a repeated pattern of consulting God or God’s prophets to see if it was wise to go into battle. But Hophni and Phinehas were so arrogant they did not bother with this. They had control of the box and they would use it to win the battle.
But as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Chronicles of Narnia about the lion figure of Christ named Aslan, He’s not a tame lion. God cannot be contained in a box, no matter how elaborate it is. God cannot be controlled by anyone, no matter how high their office. God will not be used to serve our purposes and our egos.
There are consequences for sin. When Eli tried to speak to them and begged them to repent, they laughed off his words as old fashioned piety, irrelevant to what they were doing. They had no fear of God. They were in the habit of using God to manipulate people into giving them what they wanted. They were in the habit of using God to make themselves wealthy and powerful. But they did not realize there are consequences for sin.
For twenty years or so Hophni and Phinehas made their system work for them. Year after year passed and there was no rebuke for their actions. If there was a god in the ark of the covenant, it was a god that did not interfere with what they were doing. But there are consequences for sin.
Godly people who observed the sacrilege of Hophni and Phinehas may have prayed to the Lord and asked why it is that such wicked men prosper? This is an age old question that Jeremiah asked of God.
You are always righteous, O LORD,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
2 You have planted them, and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
but far from their hearts.
When Jeremiah went on to say
Moreover, the people are saying,
“He will not see what happens to us.”
he spoke for Hophni and Phinehas and all those who use God for their own selfish purposes. Men and women do evil and in a grand delusion think God is unaware of what they are doing.
But there are consequences for sin. It may be that you can escape the consequences for years but there are still consequences for sin. There are wicked people who live long lives and die of old age, but there will still be consequences for sin.
God does not want us to be unaware of the consequences that will come to us if we do not repent.
A man of God came to Eli. God was not restricted to the high priest to speak his word. Someone else to whom God gave his word came to Eli and spoke to him about the consequences of sin. (I Samuel 2:27f)
Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the LORD says:
Eli was reminded that his ancestor had been chosen by God to serve Israel as priests and then the man of God accused him:
Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?
It was the sons of Eli who were stealing the sacrifice from God but note that Eli is held responsible for their actions. I will come back to this.
Then the man of God listed out the consequence of their sin.
“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. 31 The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line 32 and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, in your family line there will never be an old man. 33 Every one of you that I do not cut off from my altar will be spared only to blind your eyes with tears and to grieve your heart, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.
34 ”‘And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day. 35 I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his house, and he will minister before my anointed one always. 36 Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a crust of bread and plead, “Appoint me to some priestly office so I can have food to eat.”’”
Within a few short years this prophecy came true. Hophni and Phinehas were killed in the battle against the Philistines. Eli died that day when word came to him that the ark of the covenant had been captured. The wife of Phinehas died giving birth to Ichabod and when Solomon was king, Abiathar, the last relative of Eli who was serving as a priest, was removed from his office – fulfilling this prophecy of judgement.
There is a Semitic proverb recorded four times in the Old Testament.
I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
There are some who interpret this as a generational curse that must be broken. But it is more simply a description of the fact that one person’s sin affects others around them. In the modern Western world, families live spread apart, but in the Semitic world, the generations shared one house. When one person sinned, it affected all in the household, the children, their parents, their grandparents and even their great-grandparents, four generations.
In contrast, faithfulness is viewed as much more powerful than sin, even to a thousand generations.
Sin does not affect just the one who sins. The sin that led to this punishment did not just affect Hophni and Phinehas. Eli was held responsible as their father and as the high priest who was not properly executing his office. Phinehas’ wife died and his son grew up an orphan.
Think of all those who were affected by the sin of Hophni and Phinehas. In addition to the immediate family, there were the women Hophni and Phinehas used for sexual pleasure. What life did they have? Who would marry them? What future did they have as they aged?
There were those who came to make their sacrifices and then were so offended by the blatant disobedience of the servants of Hophni and Phinehas that they distanced themselves from God. If God did not judge these men for their abuse of the sacrificial system, was he really God?
There were thirty thousand soldiers killed in battle against the Philistines because of the pride and arrogance of Hophni and Phinehas who thought they controlled the power of God and could use it whenever and however they wanted.
Think of the people who could have been influenced to draw closer to God if Hophni and Phinehas had been humble, obedient servants of God. How many opportunities to do good for God were lost because of the sin of Hophni and Phinehas?
Our sin has far wider consequences than we can imagine.
What I particularly want you to understand this morning is that when we sin, because God loves us and knows the consequences for sin, he gives us warning of what will happen if we do not repent and turn away from our sin. Eli went to his sons and warned them they were in danger of judgement for their blatant disregard for the law God had given. The man of God came to Eli and warned him of what would happen. Hophni, Phinehas and Eli did not go to their deaths unwarned of the consequences of their sin.
The Bible has been given to us to warn us of the dangers of our sin. When the Bible is taught and preached properly, those who listen are warned of the consequences of sin. The warning is not given to prevent people from having a good time. The warning is given to offer people the opportunity to turn from wicked behavior before it is too late. The warning is given because there is a judgement that is coming and it is an act of compassion to give warning of this.
There are consequences for active sin, like the sin of Hophni and Phinehas and there are consequences for passive sin, like the sin of Eli who did not use his authority against his sons.
So let me give you warning. If you are pimping or prostituting and stealing and dealing with drugs to make a living, you are in danger. It may seem to be working. You may be able to wear nice clothes and gold and platinum jewelry, but there are consequences to be paid for sin and sooner or later you will suffer the consequences.
If you are caught up in sexual sin and unable to stop, today is the time to be master of your life and turn away from wicked behavior. I recently discovered that a friend who is married and has several children has been having affairs with other women for the past ten years. His dark secret came out and now his wife is trying to forgive him and put the family back together. There is so much pain and so much damage that has been done. He is already suffering the consequences of his sin and his marriage may not survive this cruel blow. But there is another judgement coming unless he repents and turns away from this destructive pattern in his life.
If you are addicted to pornography or sexual encounters, remember that the women or men you are involved with are God’s creation just as much as your sisters and brothers are God’s creation. Sooner or later you will suffer the consequences of your sin. So repent, ask some close brothers or sisters to help you resist this behavior that will one day be judged.
If you are addicted to online gambling, there is a price that will be paid for your actions.
There is a price to be paid for active sin but there is also a price to be paid for passive sin. There are some who sin in the way of Eli by not acting when they should act. What does God want you to do? Who does God want you to help? When does God want you to speak out and share with someone else the good news of Jesus? When does God want you to take a stand against the sinful behavior of people around you?
We will be judged not only for what we did that was wrong but also for what we did not do that was right.
Whether your sin is large or small, you will be judged. You will suffer the consequences of your sin.
There are consequences for our sin and we well deserve the punishment for our sin, but there is good news for us. There is always good news for us. Jesus died for men like Hophni and Phinehas. It does not matter what you have done or what you are doing. It is not too late for you to repent and escape the judgement that you deserve. If Hophni and Phinehas had heard the warning of their father Eli and repented, we would read a different story in I Samuel.
Never forget that the thief on the cross next to Jesus was taken with Jesus to paradise. It is never too late to repent.
When we come to communion this morning, we need to come with hearts that are clinging to Jesus and asking for mercy. If you are engaged in behavior that you know is not pleasing to God and yet you come forward because it is a church ritual and you think it might help you, don’t come forward.
Hophni and Phinehas made a mockery of their priestly duties and paid the price. If you come forward to share in the communion meal but do not repent for your sin, you also make a mockery of what Christ has done for you on the cross.
I don’t know the sin in your life, but God does know. Whatever the sin is in your life, you have been warned this morning that there are consequences for your sin. You will pay the price for your sinful behavior sooner or later, but you will pay. I have warned you. The Holy Spirit has spoken to your heart this morning. You have been warned and you have been told how to escape the punishment you deserve for your sins. Repent.
Let me finish with the warning of Charles Spurgeon
Sinner, this is your present position.
No hot drops have as yet fallen, but a shower of fire is coming….
As yet the water-floods are dammed up by mercy….
O that the hand of mercy may now lead you to Christ!
He is freely set before you in the gospel….
You know your need of him;
believe in him,
cast yourself upon him.