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The Sons of Eli
ELI was high-priest of the Jews when the ark of the Lord was in Shiloh. His two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. Their office was holy, but their character was corrupt. They touched sacred things with unworthy hands. "The sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord." Their administration of the priestly office was characterised by the most rapacious selfishness. Hence we read "the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord." Their evil dealings were the subject of public remark and censure. Eli himself heard of these evil dealings on every hand.
"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" ( 1Sa 2:23-24 ).
The incident shows but too plainly the vital difference between the spiritual and the official. Hophni and Phinehas were officially amongst the highest men of their day. They bore a holy name, they pronounced holy words, they were clothed in emblematic robes. Yet Hophni and Phinehas were men of Belial. The outside was beautiful; the inside was full of corruption and death. "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me."
Is there not a lesson here to teachers of Christian truth? It is possible for a man to have a pulpit, and to have no God; to have a Bible, and no Holy Ghost; to be employing his lips in uttering the eloquence of truth, when his heart has gone astray from all that is true and beautiful and good; at the very moment his lips are fired by the words that ought to have converted himself, his heart is not in his work, it is wandering far off yonder, buying and selling and getting gain, sucking in poison where it ought to have extracted honey, making the word of God of none effect, and causing the people to blaspheme and alienate themselves from the Most High!
Is there not a lesson here to professors of Christ? We bear the holy name, and men have a right to expect the holy deed. We are to know a discipline that is more than decent, more than socially irreproachable. We need instruction upon the great question of spiritual discipline. When a man who professes to know Christ is found drunk in the streets, we expel him from the Church, and call that discipline; when a man is convicted of some heinous crime, we cut him off from the fellowship of the Church, and call that the discipline of Christian fellowship. It is nothing of the kind; that is mere decency. There is not a club in the world that cares one iota for its own respectability that would not do the same thing. Ours is to be Christian discipline. When Christian discipline comes into play amongst the priests and the professors of Christ, when the covetous man shall be blown away by a whirlwind of righteous indignation; and the man who spoke but one unkind word shall be seen to be a murderer, and shall be driven from the circle of God's people who then can stand? Where are Christians, if such be the rule? If an unholy thought be lust, if the turn of an eye may be practical blasphemy, if the momentary entertainment of an evil thought, the flash of an evil passion, if that be held before God to be crime incipient, crime in the germ, crime in reality who then can stand?
The accusation does not come from an enemy. We are not entitled to say, "It is a foe who speaks, therefore we heed not his calumnious words." God himself brings charges against his nominal Church. "They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate;" "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." Unto the wicked God saith, "What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?" So the indictment comes with irresistible force, and we who best know ourselves are dumb before God.
Yet even here is a mystery, a strange and wondrous thing. Hophni and Phinehas, officially great and spiritually corrupt; minister after minister falling, defiling his garments, and debasing his name; professor after professor pronouncing the right word with the lips, but never realising it in the life. Such is the history of the Church. In the face of all this, God still employs men to reveal the truth to other men, to enforce his claims upon their attention. Instead of in a moment of righteous anger sweeping the Church floor, so that not a footstep of man might remain upon it, and then calling the world around him, and speaking personally face to face, he still employs men to teach men, to "allure to brighter worlds and lead the way." We have this treasure in earthen vessels. We are called upon to bear testimony concerning truth, though we are weak, blundering, incomplete, and very foolish, though we hardly ever say one sentence as we ought to say it, though we preach a noble doctrine and then throw it down by an ignoble life. Yet God hath not withdrawn that comfort from us. He still says, "Son, go work today in my vineyard." He still says to Peter with the scars all upon him, unhealed, and never to be taken away, memorials of a great apostasy "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep." He still says to the men who forsook him and fled, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." It is not an indication of our weakness when we are called to that daily continual trust, without which neither high-priest nor doorkeeper is safe, the fervent eternal prayer, "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe."
The incident shows the deadly result of corruptness in influential quarters. All quarters, indeed, are influential; yet some are known to be more influential than others, therefore we adopt this form of expression. The priests were sons of Belial. What was the consequence? The people abhorred the offering of the Lord. The minister is a bad man. What is the consequence? His character is felt through all the congregation. Men laugh at his speech, jeer at his arguments, and return his persuasions to his own hollow heart. We are commonly advised to consider what is said, rather than look at the person who says it. We should ask, What is the doctrine? not, Who is the preacher? This advice is partly sound, and partly fallacious, fallacious because superficial and incomplete.
We should remember three things in connection with this advice. First: The natural tendency of men to religious laxity and indifference. This makes us glad of any excuse to move further in that direction. Men are not naturally looking out for spurs and encouragements in the way of righteousness, self-crucifixion, and self-discipline. Their nature rather seems to say, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die." We eagerly snatch at anything that will afford us a momentary though we know it to be unsound justification of laxness, indifference, and even contempt of religious duty and service.
We should remember secondly: The effect of insincerity upon doctrine. Sincerity is itself an argument. Men who hear us, look for sincerity in us; otherwise, they have a right to say, "This man cannot teach the true doctrine, if in teaching it day by day he is continually hypocritical, insincere, unaffected by his own speech." Take some very high theory about the business, and we may be contradicted. But remember what Christian doctrine is; then you will see that the moment it enters into the hearer's mind that the speaker is insincere, that consideration has of necessity a powerful and legitimate influence upon the doctrine. Is it possible to speak the truth with a liar's heart? We know that we are to hear what men say who are in Moses' seat, yet not to do as they do. We know that, speaking ideally and abstractly, we ought continually to distinguish between truth and the speaker of truth, when his character is corrupt and inconsistent with his speech. At the same time there is a sense, profound and terrible, in which a man may be answering his own doctrine, overturning his own argument, and writing folly upon his own philosophy. If his lips pronounce the truth, if his heart contradict it, and his life blaspheme it, what wonder if men who have a natural tendency towards religious indifference should believe the life and deny the teaching!
Then we should remember thirdly: The peculiarity of moral teaching in requiring personal illustration. Men cannot understand merely theoretic morals; they must have them personified; they must have them taught by incarnation; and be illustrated in daily life. The artist may teach you to. paint a beautiful picture; yet he may have no regard for moral truth. His non-regard for moral truth may not interfere, so far as you can see, with his ability and earnestness as a mere artist. You may go to learn a trade, and your chief in business may be able to teach you so completely as to give you a position in the commercial world, useful, influential, and profitable; yet that man may tell lies every hour of his life, may break all the commandments of God, and in doing so he may not affect his ability to teach your trade, or artifice, or profession. It is not so in the Church of God. A man's character is his eloquence; a man's spiritual reality is the argument that wins in the long run; the soul afire with God's love; the life that brings out in their beautiful and impressive relief God's exhortations, these are the things that are most logical, most poetical, most pathetic, most persuasive.
The lesson is to Churches. What are we in our corporate capacity? Are we holy? If not we are helping to debase and ruin the world; we have taken God's leverage to help to undo God's work! The lesson also applies to heads of houses. If the father be the only bad character in the family, how then? It is hard work for the sons to be fighting always against the supreme influence of the house. How if the father of the family be continually sending out of him vicious, blighting influences, corrupting young life and chilling young hope? It applies to principals in business; it applies to leaders of all kinds. In proportion to the volume of our being and the elevation of our position is our power to extend hurtful influences upon the circles that are round about us. The terribleness of a moral leader falling! The awfulness of a standard-bearer dropping down! Well may men cry, "Howl, fir tree; for the cedar is fallen." Is there no solemn call to preachers, teachers, heads of families, principals in business, leaders of circles, great or small? When one man falls he may jeopardise a whole community. There are men who can fall, and their falling seems to produce but very little vicious influence upon society. There are other men so eminent in position, so established in reputation, whose falling would seem to bring down the pillars of civilisation, would seem to bring down the very fabric of God's Church! Herein is another mystery. When priests fall, and ministers play the coward and the liar, and heads of houses eat of the forbidden tree, and influential men go astray, yet even then God interposes for the truth; he saves in society the redeeming element, hands it on from the unworthy to the successor who may be more worthy. Thus he preserves the light of the world and the salt of the earth. So God never wants a generation to bless him; the Redeemer has always near him some who hold his name dearest of all!
On the other hand, we cannot admit the plea that bad leaders are excuse enough for bad followers, when that plea is urged in relation to Christian teaching and life. Nor can we allow that exceptional inconsistency should vitiate the whole Church. There are some persons who are only too glad to avail themselves of this plea. The bad man will say, "Why should I care about religious truth or religious observance, when ministers themselves are false to their own doctrine? Why should I call upon myself to be consistent and true?" First, such a theory is inadmissible everywhere else. Why, then, should we allow it to affect the Church? There is not a circle in the world where such a theory would be thought tenable for a moment. Why then should we apply it in the highest spiritual relations? We go into an orchard and point to one piece of blemished fruit, and say, "Because there is a blemish upon that piece of fruit the whole orchard is decayed and corrupt." Who would believe it? There can be found a light coin in every currency in civilisation. Suppose we took up a standard coin under weight and said, "Because this is not of the standard weight, your whole currency is defective, and, as a nation of financiers, you are not worthy of trust." Who would believe it? We find a man who turns commerce into a species of gambling, and because so found gambling, we say, "The commerce of Britain is founded upon an illegitimate basis, and is not worthy of a moment's consideration." Would you think that sound reasoning, or a fair and noble method of dealing with such questions? Yet this is exactly how many persons deal with the Church of God. They say, "Look at Hophni and Phinehas; look at the minister who fell; look at the Church officer who was expelled from Church fellowship because of his dishonourableness and untruthfulness." Because of these exceptional cases they argue that the doctrine is wrong, that every Christian exhortation is a word that ought to be unheeded.
Secondly, such a theory is instantly destroyed by the fact that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. We do not say, "Look at Christians." We say, "Look at Christ." It is to Christ that we appeal continually; and in that appeal is our strength as Christian advocates or expounders of Christian truth. When a man says, "Look at the minister," we say, "Look at the Master!" When a man says, "What do you call this? "we say, "We call it a copy: yonder is the original look at that!" When we are told that Christian professors are very unstable and inconsistent, we say, "True; but they are not bad because of their Christianity, but because of their want of it." Find in Jesus Christ one instance of selfishness; find in him one moment's wandering from the right way; point out in his speech one unhallowed word or one ungenerous dishonourable expression. His life is before you! Be just and true and manly and right! Find in Christ's life one thing upon which you can lay your finger and say, "This is unholy," then you may pray God's lightnings to strike his Church and consume that which bears his name. When will men look at Christ, and not at Christians; at the sun, and not at the little taper? When will they look at the Redeemer, and not at the half-educated, incomplete, struggling, and oft-blundering Church?
Then, thirdly, such a theory is never urged but by men who are in search of excuses for their own corruptness. Who will undertake to repeat that on 'Change, and in the warehouse? That is a sermon in a sentence. Such a theory is never urged but by men who are in search of excuses for their own corruptness. A man says, "When that one who professed so much Christianity failed in business, I was on the point of giving up churches and chapels altogether." Doubtless that would be virtuous on his part O fool, and slow of heart to believe the truth of God! When a man who is all skin and bone, who never felt volcanic fire in his heart, never was led away by any dominating tyrannic passion, hears of another kind of man straying from the right way, he instantly almost makes up his mind what he is pleased to call his mind to leave the Church. O fool, and slow of heart! Didst thou profess the name of the servant or the name of the Master? Didst thou enter the Church because of the high and illustrious example of the members of the Christian community, or because, convicted of sin, thou didst crawl to the cross and feel the healing effect of that falling blood? Where is reasoning where is common-sense when men say they have given up their Christian profession because some Christian professors are fickle, untrue, and inconsistent? We never yet knew a man who made much ado about Christian people's inconsistency who was not more or less subtly, it might be, with more or less of self-concealment of purpose in the matter seeking excuses for his own deficiencies, or seeking from his criticism of other people's vice to make his own virtue the more conspicuous.
It were nothing to kill a man, stab him right through his heart and let him die. But when he is struggling towards light, towards God, and has to fight with all these demoniacal passions and influences round about, over which he seems to have little or no control, when he just stumbles on the road and they point at him and say, "Ha, ha! that is your Christianity, is it?" that is thrice dying, that is intolerable pain! We know we are inconsistent, we know we are selfish, we cannot boast of ourselves. Yet it hath pleased God to be more merciful to us than men are. It is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. When he smites it is that he may recover; when he puts his sword through a man it is that he may slay, not the man, but the disease that is in him; when he is sharpest with us there are tears in his eyes; when he punishes us most terribly, when he takes away the one ewe lamb, and barks the fig tree, and sends a blight on the wheat-field, and turns our purposes upside down, it is that he may save the man. When men criticise us and are harsh with us, by reason of their incompleteness, their criticism often degenerates into malice. When they point a finger at us, it does not always indicate a fault, but oftentimes a triumph over an inconsistency.
We are not to be followers of Hophni and Phinehas. The priest is not God; the minister is not Jesus Christ; the professor is not the Redeemer of the world. We must, therefore, insist upon the honest investigation of great principles on the one hand, and specially insist upon the calm, severe scrutiny and study of our Saviour's own personal life and ministry. We have a written revelation. To that revelation our appeal must be made; to the law and to the testimony must be our challenge. As for those whose satire is so keen, and whose wit is so fluent when it is employed in criticism upon Christian character, wherein they do it and are able to point out something in us that is wrong, let us receive the lesson with all meekness; they may be right, and we may learn something from an enemy. It is lawful, according to an ancient maxim, to learn even from a foe. Wherein their criticism is the result of malice, or brief acquaintance with our character seeing only edges and glints of us and not the whole nature let us remember that our sufferings are not to be compared with the sufferings of Jesus Christ. When he was reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not; he gave his back to the smiters and his cheek to them that plucked off the hair. "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." "If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf." "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him." What have we suffered? Who can show one blemish for Christ? We may think a great deal of our little sufferings when we view them in themselves; but when we write them out and put them in parallel columns with the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be glad to draw them back again and put them away, and look upon ourselves as spoiled children. We may try them again in another parallel column with the sufferings of the apostle Paul, and the same feeling will return, and we shall desire to change the subject.
Blessed are they that are reviled for the sake of their goodness. Not many have attained that high nobility. We say the age of persecution is now gone. Alas, all ages seem to have gone; there is nothing left but insipidity. The age of miracles gone: the age of persecution gone: the age of speaking with unknown tongues gone: the age of the devil gone! It seems that we ought to be going too. Presently we shall be dying of weariness, we shall be overcome by this intolerable insipidity. The age of persecution has gone, has it? Why? Perhaps because the age of godliness has gone!
Almighty God, it is a fearful thing to fall into thy hands! Thy throne is established in righteousness and judgment. The liar and the evil person shall not live in thy sight; thou art angry with the wicked every day; thou givest no peace unto them; thou withholdest all enduring blessings from those whose hearts go astray from righteousness. Thou dost drive the priest from priesthood, the minister from his pulpit, the head of the house from his family circle. Thou drivest out the evil-minded man, thou scourgest those who know not thy purity and thy love, thou vindicatest the righteousness of thy name by terrible judgments in the earth. We come to thee as the God of mercy as well as of judgment. We are now on praying ground; we may now plead mightily with thee for the exercise of thy pardoning mercy, lest we too be condemned and carried in the whirlwind of thy just anger; God be merciful unto us, sinners! save us in the hour of temptation; deliver us when the enemy would carry us away captive at his will; and when the great enemy of souls would come in as a flood, do thou lift up thy Spirit as a standard against him. If thou dost hold us up we shall be safe; if thou dost loose thine hand from ours, behold, we cannot stand! Have us in thy holy keeping; establish our hearts in the precepts and statutes of all thy will, and grant that, having served our day and generation with all simplicity, trust, meekness, and strength, we may be called to enter into the rest eternal as thine own being! Amen.
"There is none holy as the Lord for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God." 1 Samuel 2:2 .
How our theology is affected by our circumstances! It is needful to note this in the case of Hannah, lest we give her credit for too much religion. Her prayer had been answered, her heart was full of joy, her mouth was enlarged over her enemies, and she saw in her little child a whole posterity of noble men. Under such circumstances, she magnified the Lord, saying there was none so holy as he, and indeed there was none other beside him; and as for the rock of the enemy, it was not to be compared unto her God. Sometimes we are religious only because we are happy; sometimes we are pious only because we have received what we asked for. There is no particular gratitude or religion in recognising bounty which has been heaped upon us contrary to expectation. The great test of religion is to magnify God when he denies our prayers; when we ask for much and receive nothing, it is then hard to say (but in proportion to its hardness is its goodness) that there is none holy as the Lord, and none beside him in heaven or in earth. This need not check the natural and proper expression of thankfulness when great mercies have been received; that is always not only desirable, but just and reasonable; at the same time let it be firmly fixed in our minds as a lesson that ought to affect our whole thinking, that God is supremely good when he denies, that he is as much Father when He says No as when he says Yes. We must not mistake mere exultancy of animal spirits for religious enthusiasm. There is a great temptation to do this. But all such exultancy has a necessary reaction, and then, having mistaken the exultancy, we also mistake the depression, and think that God has forgotten to be gracious. He lives the true and noble life who casts himself lovingly into God's hands, and says, Whatever God does is right: be it day, or be it night; be it summer, or be it winter, when it is of his sending, it must be welcomed as his gift.
"Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial." 1 Samuel 2:12 .
This is one of the unaccountable circumstances in life. We should have said there is a law of cause and effect, and that because Eli was a good man his sons would partake of his spiritual quality. Eli was a priest, and if a weak man he was undoubtedly a good man; and yet his sons served the devil, not knowing the very Lord in whose name they ministered, but going through all their duties as part of a mechanical routine. It does not say they were imperfect men, subject to divers temptations, eccentric, occasionally doing wrong; but they were corrupted in their very souls; they had changed their fatherhood, so they who were sons of God, and sons of God's priest, were adopted into the family of Belial, and bore the image and superscription of their new father. This reminds us of many contradictions in character. A son of civilisation may be a child of barbarism. A man who has received a high education may prostitute his talents to all manner of evil. A child brought up in the sanctuary may sing the hymns of the Church for the amusement of its enemies. They who have been brought up in the school of refinement may betake themselves to the veriest vulgarity, in criticism, in prejudice, in haughtiness. We hold nothing as it were permanently; we are always upon our good behaviour; we have to watch every moment, and pray that our hands and feet and head and lips, yea, our whole manhood in every faculty and power, may be kept under the restraining and sanctifying influences of God. A double damnation is theirs who had high advantages to begin with. How deep the hell into which they plunge who fall out of a good man's house fall from within the very shadow of the sacred altar! When Jesus Christ denounced those who heard him and who rejected him, he denounced those most severely who had had the greatest privileges conferred upon them. If we are to be judged by our privileges, how appalling is the position of men who nave been brought up in Christian countries, and yet have rejected every opportunity of becoming religiously wise and good!
"... men abhorred the offering of the Lord." 1 Samuel 2:17 .
This is the natural consequence of the character of those who ministered that offering. The sons of Eli, being themselves sons of Belial, brought the whole work into contempt. Hophni and Phinehas were more than mere individuals; they were priests in the sanctuary, and, acting in their priestly capacity, they brought the whole work of the sanctuary into disdain. It is easy to say to men that they should take heed of the work, and not of the workers, but to most men it is impossible to make the distinction. If the work has had so poor an effect upon the workers, what effect can it have upon those who merely look on? In this respect the worker has a high responsibility; though his thoughts, his argument, or his eloquence may not be understood, his character can be perused by all who are frankminded, and who earnestly desire to know the results of communion with God. God himself takes notice of those who bring his work into derision: "I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.... And this shall be a sign unto thee, that shall come upon thy two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas; in one day they shall die both of them." God has not issued his commandment and defined his work, and left both to take care of themselves: he watches from on high how the commandment is received, how the work is done, how priests and ministers and agents of all kinds conduct themselves, and he comes with blessing or judgment, according to their specific action. God is not dependent upon one priest, or one family of priests; though all who now bear his name may abandon his altar, yet that altar shall be well served: "I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in mine heart and in my mind; and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before mine anointed for ever." Thus the Lord conducts a retributive providence. The Lord never allows himself to be insulted with impunity. They who have repulsed his approach, or dishonoured his robes, or cast disrepute upon his altar, shall be thrown out of their houses, and they who once had great opportunities shall come and crouch to the faithful priest for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, and shall say, "Put me I pray thee, into one of the priest's offices, that I may eat a piece of bread." Men shall one day come to know what privileges they have enjoyed, and what opportunities they have lost. Let us be faithful now, and watchful ever, for we know not how near we may be to the exhaustion of our function, if so be we have not administered it with faithfulness.
The House of Eli Overthrown
1Sa 2:33 ; 1Sa 3:18
WE have seen that Hophni and Phinehas were corrupt men, and that as a consequence the people abhorred the offering of the Lord. We have discoursed upon the doctrine that bad priests make bad people. We now come to the divine visitation of priestly unfaithfulness. Once and again we are permitted to see with startling vividness the Hand which rules, and in which is the rod of power. Now and again God puts aside all ministries and mediations, and shows us all the glory of his personal presence and all the wonderfulness of his irresistible power. We are glad when he retires, for no man can see God and live. Better to have the ministry of the most inexorable, faithful prophet, who never spares the word of judgment or the stroke of the rod, then stand in the unclouded and blinding blaze of the divine glory. Men prefer sunshine to lightning. They are both, indeed, rays of the divine glory; yet we feel safer under the ordinary daylight than under bolts of electric fire. Let us be thankful, then, that God comes to us through Eli, through human priests, and through man's ministry, being tempered, as it must be, by human limitations, rather than by bringing us face to face with himself, and pronouncing the word to us without minister or medium. At the same time we are made stronger, we are made tremblingly glad by occasional glimpses of his personality. Yet we are thankful that he puts a veil over his face, and communes with us by voices with which we are familiar. Hophni and Phinehas were evil-minded men; Eli was afflicted with weakness which dipped down sharply towards wickedness; and therefore God came out of his hiding-place to vindicate righteousness, to sweep the floor of his Church, and to use his great winnowing-fan.
Eli might have excited pity but for the misdirection of his amiability. There is nothing wrong in amiability, in paternal kindness, in fatherly forbearance and gentleness, within the limits of the household. Contrariwise, there is much that is beautiful and impressive and educational about such paternal administration. But no man may be amiable towards wickedness. The whole doctrine is found in that one sentence. Be amiable, kind, forbearing towards infirmity, natural defect, towards things that are of little or no consequence when compared with the verities of the eternal God. But when a man winks at an evil deed, he deserves the condemnation and wrath of God. When a man is tolerant of evil he himself becomes wicked. This is a doctrine which sometimes has severe application, and exposes a man to terrible reprisals; because people who look at comparative virtue, and not at holiness itself, always have the tu quoque ready for any faithful prophet, for any light-speaking and rod-using minister of God. Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord! If we can keep our garments unspotted from the world we shall have proportionate power over men; though even then there will not be wanting censorious critics who will be quick with their malicious repartee, pointing at a speck as though it were a blot which even God himself could never wash out of our life. Eli was an easy-going indulgent old man; he was more than that. Tell us that at his own fireside his children could trifle with him, mock him, and could turn him into a family joke. Well, it was a very naughty thing for them to do. But Eli was a priest, Eli was the high-priest of the Lord; and when a man's character sinks below his office, he involves himself in complications of evil which ultimately ruin his life. The office requiring strength and character, which is distinguished by nothing but the most senile weakness, when they get together you have a contradiction which involves terrible moral consequences.
In dwelling upon the overthrow of the house of Eli, we will look at the subject under two divisions, personality and doctrine. There were two persons employed in connection with this communication of terrible intelligence to the old high-priest. The first is merely described as "a man of God." So far as the page before us goes we have to deal with an anonymous communicant. Here is no great historic name; here is no illustrious reputation to sustain the man's words. He steps out of obscurity, as it were, and is known by the imperishable name, "a man of God." That is the one name that will do for all worlds, through all ages. You need not have "a man of God" described, ticketed, and detailed. When a man of God confronts you, he brings with him atmosphere and light and moral credentials which instantly show that he has been with Jesus and learned of him. There may be teachers who can analyse the character of a man of God. We prefer not to attempt any such analysis. Better let the character stand there, hear all he says, listen to his overpowering speech, and we shall soon know whether he hath learned his accent in the court of heaven. He was a terrible speaker! Did ever mortal speech exceed in massiveness, in thunderous force, in terrific all-cleaving might, the speech which this anonymous messenger delivered to Eli:
"Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father's house, that there shall not be an old man in thine house. And thou shalt see an enemy in my habitation, in all the wealth which God shall give Israel: and there shall not be an old man in thine house for ever. And the man of thine, whom I shall not cut off from mine altar, shall be to consume thine eyes, and to grieve thine heart: and all the increase of thine house shall die in the flower of their age" ( 1Sa 2:30-33 ).
The next messenger that came was a little child. This is how God educates us, by putting tutors on both sides, behind and before. You hear a man who tells you what to you may be evil tidings, sharp, startling messages to your judgment and to your conscience, and you say, "The man is a fanatic." You walk away, and before you have got a mile further a little child gets up and smiles at you the same message, says it in smiles, in tender looks, in trembling childlike tones, and you begin to think there is something in it. You go further, and the atmosphere seems to be charged with divine reproaches and divine messages. So you go on, until the oldest, best, and stateliest men tremble under subtle, impalpable, all-encompassing, irresistible influences. There are some testimonies which are so terrible that they cannot be believed on the spot. Some men have such a way of speaking piercing, crushing that when they are heard the auditor says, "This cannot be so; it is an exaggeration." So God hath appointed elsewhere child-priests, little prophets, young ministers, unexpected interpreters of his heart and will. When the thunder and the gentle breeze unite in speaking the same message men begin to open their ears to it to cause their hearts to listen to the strange, the bitter, yet the most needful word. Very beautiful is this part of the story detailed, the part, namely, which relates to Samuel, the little child about the holy place who did not know the Lord. Samuel had no acquaintance with God. That is a most important point to observe. Read the exact words of the narrative:
"Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, neither was the word of the Lord yet revealed unto him" ( 1Sa 3:7 ).
This incident brings before us some of the most solemn moments of life. Life is not one long holiday. Life is not to be spent upon one continuous level. There are some single moments in our life which make us old. There are some visions, which are but the flash of an eye, yet they make us old men. Look at Samuel, for the first time hearing of God. Is it not a solemn moment when we get our first notion of the infinite? Can you recall your mental sensations or spiritual condition when you first began to feel that yonder distant, dim horizon was but a trembling, almost transparent curtain, and that just behind it, so to speak, lied God's eternity? After such a moment as that, a man can never, if he has made right use of it, fall back into the littleness and contemptibleness of the life that thinks the world a nutshell, that calls time all duration. Some have had these solemn moments in life; when they have heard a Voice they did not know, and from that moment have never ceased to hear it; it has been the sub-tone of all that has reached the ear, it has been in the hum of all nature, it has been softer than softest zephyr of the spring. A man is never great until he knows all about this solemnity. The child who hears a voice, naturally thinks it is a human voice. Can any voice be so human as God's? Thou canst not thunder with a voice like his; thou canst not speak in so fatherly or motherly a tone either. Herein is the incarnation mystery, God always showing his power to talk humanly, and to shoot out the lightning of his word from human lips. God has always during the history of the world been incarnating himself.
Samuel is taught that there is a voice other than Eli's. The old man has still force enough left in him to speak this wondrously beautiful word to the bewildered child, groping about in the darkness, "When thou hearest the voice again say, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth." That is what we are called upon to do; to be listeners, receivers, mediums of God. Do we ever see beyond our own limited circle? Do we know that there is a world larger than our England: that over that little thimbleful of water, which we call the sea, there are other countries? It is a difficult thing for some Englishmen to believe that there is any other land; very difficult for an islander to believe in a continent. Yet really we know that there are other places besides England. Are there no other spheres than the world which we call "the great globe itself"? There may be. Why then should we be compressing ourselves, minifying ourselves, and getting into the most microscopic compass? Why not pray for larger life, larger intellectual dominion, higher, sublimer moral sympathies? Why not, having infinitude around us, set ourselves as if we meant to take in as Guest and King the whole God? We shall never know what life is until we have passed this solemn moment which occurred in the history of Samuel, at the point to which we have now come. The non-religious man is not alive. How many are prepared to testify that they never knew what greatness was, what immeasurableness was, and what majesty was, until through Christ's life they had one peep into the incomprehensible eternity and infinity of God!
Now we can believe the man of God, who speaks the keen, cleaving word, or we can believe the gentle little Samuel, who comes and puts into monosyllables the thunders of the divine will. They are both the same; only some men cannot endure the man of God he crushes them, he is a tyrant an imperial, dominating man, in the way of whose arm there is death! Let such be thankful that they can hear the same message not in a less noble music or more tender strain, so far as the man's intent is concerned from children, from other ministers and interpreters of God.
With regard to the doctrine brought out in connection with these events, it is plain in the first place, that God requires holiness in all who serve him. Why were Hophni and Phinehas dismissed with divine reproaches? Because they were wanting in original thought? We now dismiss our ministers because they are not very original, We do not learn that Hophni and Phinehas were dismissed from the priest's office because they were wanting in vitality and freshness of brain power. Why were they dismissed? Because they were behind the age? The age! Oh, what a ghost that age is to some people. We do not read that Hophni and Phinehas were dismissed because they were behind the age, but because they were corrupt men. Corruptness cannot be atoned for by genius. Gifts are no substitute for grace. Better be the poorest, slowest, dullest thinker; better be a man of stammering tongue, than be the most brilliant and gifted man who does not know what it is to be under the power of divine grace. Holiness, then, is the fundamental requirement in all persons who would interpret God and serve him in any department of the great ministry of his kingdom. Holiness is genius. Holiness hath keen, piercing eyes that see every filament of divine truth and holy communication to men. When the ministry is holy, when the Church is holy, when every man, high-priest and doorkeeper, is holy, then the world will begin to feel that there is something in it that is not of its own nature.
It is evident, also, in the second place, that all the covenants of God are founded upon a moral basis. "I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever." There is the bond, there is the covenant of God repeated by a servant. How, then, can Eli be overthrown? How can Hophni and Phinehas be dismissed from their office? "But now the Lord saith, Be it far from me." Is then the Lord fickle? Is he man that he should change, or is he the son of man that he should repent? "Be it far from me." Why? "For them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." Where is God's unchangeableness in the shape of trees and plants, in the order of the stars and the worlds, in any outside appointments, arrangements, and adaptations? Where do we find the unchangeableness of God? Only along the line of righteousness. When he speaks, he speaks upon a moral basis; all that he says is conditioned upon moral purposes. Hath he promised thee, O man, and art thou living upon that promise? Know thou, that the promise is always secondary; the character is primary righteousness first. If the first archangel whom God summoned into his own solitude were to sin against him, he would dethrone him and banish him into outer darkness! Let us look at details, at outside arrangements, and see if this is fickleness on the part of Providence, or changeableness of disposition on the part of God. Go to the first line the great line on which all true things are built, all lasting empires and monarchies are founded and you will find that along the line of righteousness God never moves to the right hand or to the left, on from eternity to eternity, never a break or a deflection in the line of infinite righteousness!
In the third place, it is evident that some of the communications of God are at first very startling and terrible. Think of little Samuel making his acquaintance with the Lord through a speech like this! Understand that at the beginning Samuel did not know the Lord; that he received from Eli instruction as to his position; that having assumed that position, the introductory words of the divine communication are these:
"And the Lord said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle" ( 1Sa 3:11 ).
We have spoken of holiness, a word we can but dimly understand upon the earth. One day we shall recollect the sun as a poor pale beam that we could just see with, by using our eyes very sharply and putting our hands before us lest we should fall over something. One day we shall think of our professed sanctification as a poor morality. But as to holiness, the question is asked by many anxious hearts, How is this holiness to be had? In one way. "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." There is "a fountain opened to the house of David for sin and for uncleanness." "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thought, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will abundantly pardon." That is the only answer. Some ministers of Christ have been saying that for twenty-five years, for forty years, and they can find no better thing to say. It is the same in every ministry, to whatsoever part of the great universe of truth we may go. If any man asks how to get up there, we have to point to the old way, the Cross of Christ; to Christ, who tasted death for every man; to the atonement made by the Lamb of God! We want no other way. We never feel the need of any other way. When we have tried any other path, we have only had to be brought into some deeper sorrow and more bitter agony to call out after the living God to help us back again to the old way of the cross. He who walks that road finds his way to heaven!
Almighty God, we have trangressed gainst thy covenant, and thy commandments have often been of none effect in our lives. We have forgotten God. We have lived in ourselves; we have been our own law; we have been our own gods. Truly, thou hast been angry with us. Thou hast scourged us until our life has become a daily pain. Thou hast impoverished us until we have seen the emptiness and vanity of our own resources. Now take us to thine heart again. Come through the dark cloud of thy judgment, and in answer to our penitence speak comfortably to our souls. We seek thee only through the covenant which thou didst make with thy dear Son. We stand behind him. Our hearts are safe in the infinite security of his righteousness and compassion. Give us joy in thy presence, yea, fill us with the peace of God! Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 2". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12