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1 Samuel begins with the namesake of the book, Samuel. He was born to Hannah, a woman who had up until that point been barren. Hannah’s husband actually had two wives and only Hannah was barren, which would inevitably lead to some friction between the two women. Hannah’s husband loved her a great deal, giving her a double portion when he presented sacrifices (1 Samuel 1:5). In a way very similar to Sarah and Hagar, as well as Rachel and Leah, we read “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:6). Thus we see continued the common evil where sinful people hurt others by attacking them where they have disabilities or are otherwise weak, even when they have absolutely no control over it.

Because of this abuse that happened every year, Hannah “wept and would not eat.” Her husband did not understand the circumstances and thought that she was sad solely because she was barren. Consequently, he asked her, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (verse 8) which in addition to missing the point with Hannah probably only served to make her feel worse. We know that Hannah’s husband did not do this out of spite, since it was clear he favored Hannah more than his other wife; nevertheless, responding to people in ignorance can sometimes do more harm than good.

Hannah’s distress was so great, she prayed and wept bitterly near the temple. Eli, the priest, was sitting at the doorpost and could see her lips moving, but heard nothing since she was mouthing the prayer instead of vocalizing it. As a result, Eli made his own snap judgment that also did not take into account everything, and believed that she was drunk (verse 13), so he rebuked her. But Hannah countered that she was not drunk, but rather highly anxious and vexed (verse 16). Duly chastened, Eli told her to “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.”

As you might expect, Hannah’s petition involved the fact that she was barren. She had decided that if the LORD were to give her a son, then “I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life” and, like with Samson before, “no razor shall touch his head” (verse 11). And just as we have seen in other passages involving barren women, we read: “And the LORD remembered her” (verse 19). (As we mentioned before, this does not mean that God had literally forgotten her, but rather that He had chosen that moment to grant her request, and so from a human perspective it feels as if God has finally remembered Hannah.)

Hannah conceived and bore a son whom she named Samuel. When he was weaned, Hannah fulfilled her vow by saying: “As long as he lives, he is lent to the LORD” (verse 28) and Samuel went to the temple, where he worshipped the LORD.

In contrast, we read in 1 Samuel 2:12 about Eli’s sons: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD.” This was problematic because Eli’s sons were also priests. They would take extra meat from the sacrifices, and demanded the meat while it was still raw. The Law, in contrast, gave the priests what was left over after the fat offering had been consumed (i.e., whatever was left after the fat was burned), so by taking the meat raw they were actually stealing meat that had been intended for sacrifice. In addition to this sin, we read in verse 22 that Eli’s sons also “lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting.”

Because of their wickedness, Eli rebuked them: “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” (2 Samuel 23-25).

This question that Eli asked is quite striking, and is one that we should consider for ourselves. As we have discussed when we looked at Psalm 51, there is a sense in which all sin is a sin against God. Yet there is also a difference between sins that affect other people directly, and those that are solely against God. By stealing from the sacrifices that were being offered, Eli’s sons were not harming any other people; yet they were directly sinning against God.

It’s also noteworthy to see that God is seen as a mediator here. We can remember Abraham interceding for Lot and the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah (who turned out not to exist), and we can remember Moses interceding on behalf of Israel many times when God was ready to smite the nation for her sins. Yet here we see that these great prophets were merely doing what God Himself does for us constantly. While Israel did not yet have all the information about how it was possible for God to mediate, the concept was still there. An important question we should ask is: who is God mediating with? Eli’s question seems to infer that God would mediate between two people when one person sins against another person, but if one sins against God there is no mediator that can step between the two parties. Indeed, it is for this reason that the distinction in the Trinity between the Father and Son will be so important later on—but we will have to address that when we get to the New Testament.

So what was the response of Eli’s sons? “But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death” (verse 25). This is another one of those passages that doesn’t fit in with modern Christian concepts, but we cannot gloss over or pretend it says something other than it does. The passage clearly states that Eli’s sons did not listen, and if the verse said nothing else we would probably assume that the reason they did not listen was because their hearts had grown so hard due to their constant evil that they were now incapable of hearing God. But the verse does continue, and it gives us the specific reason that they would not hear.

They did not hear because “it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.”

This verse is hard, but we cannot pretend it says something other than what it says. God decided to put the evil sons to death, and as a result He made it so they would not listen to Eli.

Does this mean that if God had not decided to put them to death already that they would have listened to the voice of Eli? That seems likely, because if they would not have listened to Eli either way then it doesn’t seem necessary for God to have been involved in the reason why they did not listen to Eli. In other words, it seems to me that Eli rebuking his sons would have been effectual and would have stopped their bad behavior, but God had already decided to put them to death and therefore made it so they would not hear Eli.

Is that just? Well, we can answer trivially by saying obviously it is just or God would not have done it. But such an answer is hardly satisfying. To examine this deeper, we have to bear in mind that God does not have to offer forgiveness at any time, let alone in all times, so there is nothing wrong with God deciding to mete out punishment for the sins Eli’s sons had committed. As God told Moses in Exodus 33:19, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” As such, God’s mercy and graciousness is not owed to anyone. It is given when God wishes to give it, and if He decided not to extend that mercy, we have to realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with God for doing so. To echo the original question: is that just? Yes, that is exactly what justice is. In point of fact, when we want mercy, we do not want justice.

In any case, because God had decided to put Eli’s sons to death, He ensured they did not listen to Eli. But God also warned Eli about this course of action, because Eli was not blameless here either. “There came a man of God to Eli” (verse 27). Who this man was is not explained, but presumably it was some kind of prophet. The man told Eli that God had chosen Levi as his tribe to offer sacrifices before Him, and then asks: “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?” (2 Samuel 2:29). It seems that Eli may have been engaging in the same behavior that his sons were (later on, he will be described as being very large because of how much he ate), but at bare minimum it is clear that Eli had taken no other steps to curb his son’s sinful behavior. As such God held Eli responsible for their evil too. As a result, God declared:
Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. Then in distress you will look with envious eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed on Israel, and there shall not be an old man in your house forever. The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men. And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day (2 Samuel 2:31-34).
Again, this can seem somewhat harsh to us, but we have to remember how much concern that God has toward the sanctity of His Name. The sons of Eli were profaning it throughout all Israel, and Eli was doing nothing to stop them. He knew full well the extent of their wickedness, but he had looked the other way and only gave faint warnings.

Still, despite all of this, God promised hope for Israel as a whole: “And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever” (verse 35). The echoes between this and the promised Messiah are clear, especially if you remember “Messiah” means “anointed one.” So God promises not just a faithful priest to replace Eli’s family, but also the ultimate priest in the Messiah who would deliver His people fully.

The next chapter begins with the preparation for the first promised priest. Verse 1 tells us: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” The second sentence leads us to conclude that at the time this book was penned, visions were probably relatively frequent. And given that this book would have been written right after David’s death and most likely during the reign of Solomon, it seems plausible that it was during a time when God was pouring out His Spirit more frequently. God approaches His people in various ways, and sometimes He is more visible than at other times.

We next learn that Eli’s eyesight had begun to fade and that he was lying in his own place while Samuel was lying in the temple of the LORD. Then the LORD called out to Samuel, and the boy ran to Eli, saying, “Here I am, for you called me” (1 Samuel 3:5). But Eli said he had not called and had Samuel lay down again.

The sequence repeated and again Samuel rushed in to Eli, who told him again that he had not called for Samuel. The text then informs us: “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (verse 7). So when the LORD called Samuel the third time and he presented himself again to Eli, it was Eli who realized that it was the LORD calling Samuel. So he said: “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears’” (verse 9).

Sure enough, the LORD called again and this time Samuel responded the way Eli had told him to. And the LORD told Samuel: “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle” (verse 11).

Note very well that God says this is something that He is about to do. It’s not something that just happens. It’s Him acting and doing. And as we have already seen multiple times before (for example, when God told Abram what He was about to do with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), God knows what the future is because the future is what God plans to do. He acts in time, and it is so.

And what is it that God has decided to do? “On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 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” (verse 12-13).

Samuel, as might be expected, was fearful to relay this to Eli in the morning, but Eli prompted him until Samuel finally revealed what the LORD had said. Eli then responded: “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him” (verse 18).

It is difficult to tell what Eli’s thinking was here. Was he being fatalistic? It is possible. He could have also just been realistic. He had heard from the man of God the very thing that Samuel had said too, so it was not new information to him. Either way, I find it interesting that he did not try to bargain with God or seek forgiveness.

Eli clearly understood a great deal about the LORD. He knew the commandments and knew his sons were breaking them. Yet he did not act against that evil, and as such God included him in the judgment. Eli seems to be fine with that, because he knows that it’s just. But he still does not correct his behavior. He does not let what he knows of God to penetrate his heart. Sadly, I see parallels between Eli and many in the church today, at least in America, and we should take this to heart that simply knowing who God is does not mean that you will avoid judgment for not doing what you know you ought to do.

In any case, the LORD was with Samuel as he grew and “let none of his words fall to the ground” (verse 19). As a result, all of Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet. And, because none of his words would fall to the ground, when we get to chapter four we see how God’s judgment on Eli and his sons was poured out.

Similar to the days of the judges, Israel was fighting the Philistines. When chapter four begins, they had just lost a battle, resulting in the Philistines killing about four thousand men. The men of Israel asked, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (verse 3). Incidentally, the second question seems to answer their first, in my mind. Why does the LORD fight against Israel? Because they are trusting in the ark of the covenant as a talisman, instead of seeking the LORD Himself.

But I do find it interesting that the people of Israel knew that even though it had been the Philistines they were fighting, it was God who had defeated them. This is something that I believe most Christians today would shy away from saying, but Israel knew full well that God was sovereign and in charge over who would win battles.

Since they trusted in their talisman, when the ark was brought into camp the people “gave a mighty shout” and the Philistines were afraid, saying, “A god has come into the camp.” They were greatly dismayed because they knew how the Egyptians had been defeated by Israel’s God, but they encouraged each other saying, “Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight” (verse 9).

As a result of the Philistine’s rally, Israel was defeated and another 30,000 fell. The ark of the covenant was captured, and Hophni and Phinehas were both killed on the same day, as God had decreed. When a Benjaminite messenger ran to Eli and informed him that his two sons had been killed, Eli fell over from where he was sitting and broke his neck (verse 18). To further add to the despair, the wife of Phinehas was pregnant, and when she heard the news she gave birth. As she lay dying from complications in the delivery, she named her son Ichabod, because “the glory has departed from Israel.”

Now, before we continue, I must again point out that all of these events are things that God told Samuel, “I am about to do.” These are not just random things that happen during wartime. It wasn’t something that God foresaw happening and so He used it for His ends. No, this is what God Himself did. He was sovereign over every aspect of it.

At the same time, none of the actors involved show any knowledge that they are doing something that God has laid out for them to do. Rather, they each act organically as if from their own choices. To beat the same dead horse anew, this does not make sense unless some form of compatibilism is true. The Philistines were terrified of the ark, and fought against Israel because they did not want to be made slaves; they did not fight because God told them to do so. Yet they killed the very men that God said He was going to kill. The judgment God decreed was poured out upon Eli and his family by means of the Philistines, who had no idea they were doing so.

This aspect of compatibilism is confirmed in 1 Samuel 5 because we see both the reaction of the Philistines and what God did to them. Having conquered Israel, the Philistines obviously believed they had conquered the god who had destroyed Egypt, so they took the ark and put it in their temple to Dagon, their own god, in the town of Ashdod. And we read: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD” (verse 3). The people had to lift Dagon back up (which brings out the irony of why anyone would worship a statue that cannot even right itself). But lo and behold: “When they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him” (verse 4).

By doing this, God is mocking the impotency of Dagon, and by extension the false worship of the Philistines. But more was in store. “The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory” (verse 6). Just a few paragraphs ago, God had told Samuel that the deaths of Eli’s sons was something that He was going to bring about, yet now He is literally punishing Ashdod because of what they did. Why is God punishing them for doing that which God intended them to do?

I think that the only way this can be explained is by re-applying the truth we learned from Joseph yet again. God meant it for good, but the Philistines meant it for evil. So, despite the fact that the Philistines had conquered Israel and killed Eli's sons, as God had decreed, they did not do so because they loved God. They did not do so out of worship of Him. They had no good motives in mind, but rather evil motives. And as such, God punished them after He had used them to punish Israel.

In case you’re wondering, this will not be the last time that God does this in Scripture.

Because of the tumors, the city of Ashdod sent the ark of the covenant to the town of Gath. “But after they had brought it around, the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them” (verse 9). So they sent the ark to the town of Ekron, and the same thing happened. Finally, the Philistines decided to send the ark back to Israel.

Now, again I must point out that God is the one who is inflicting the people with these tumors. If your theology is such that you do not believe God would do so, then you must come face to face with the fact that your theology does not fit the theology taught by the Bible. God has no problem killing people and striking them with plagues, and this is the same God whom Christians worship today. We must realize this and accept it. We cannot pretend God is other than Who He is. And not only is God the way He is described here in the Scriptures, but He gave us these very Scriptures so that we would know that this is Who He is. Clearly, then, God wanted us to know this about Himself.

Returning to the events in 1 Samuel, chapter six shows us how the Philistines returned the ark to Israel. It was done in such a manner as to prove that God was the one who was behind everything. First, the Philistines included a guilt offering of “Five golden tumors and five golden mice” (1 Samuel 6:4) because they were what was ravaging the people. They did so with the hope: “Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?” (verse 5-6).

From this, it is clear that the surrounding area knew what had happened at Egypt, but equally clear is the fact that they knew that God only inflicted Egypt while Egypt refused to let His people go. After the Israelites left Egypt, God did not continue to inflict plagues upon Egypt. So even though God acted harshly against His enemies, He acted with restraint too. The Philistines reasoned that perhaps if they returned the ark, God would stop inflicting them with plagues too.

Finally, what the Philistines did was to take two milk cows (which back then meant they had calves) and they yoked them to a cart, despite the fact the cows had never been yoked before. Then, they drove the calves away from the cart. Given these two facts, the cows ought to have tried to escape the cart and go after their calves, due to the maternal instinct of the cows coupled with their unfamiliarity with being yoked. If the cows did behave that way, the Philistines reasoned: “then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence” (verse 9).

Of course, the cows went straight to Beth-shemesh, a town in Israel. The Israelites took the ark, used the wood of the cart to offer the cows that had brought it as a sacrifice to the LORD, and when the Philistines saw it they returned to the town of Ekron.

But despite all that, we read: “And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD” (verse 19). The ark had had strict rules governing how it was to be used, and even though God had miraculously brought it back to Israel, He was not going to revoke those rules.

After this, Samuel became the judge of Israel (1 Samuel 7:3ff). While he was preparing an offering to the LORD, the Philistines tried to attack Israel, “But the LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel” (verse 10).

Samuel ruled Israel until he was an old man. Chapter eight tells us, “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel” (verse 1). However: “His sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (verse 3). It seems that the difference between Samuel and Eli was that Samuel’s sons “did not walk in his ways”, indicating that Samuel remained faithful.

The people knew that Samuel was old and his sons were wicked, however, so they said to Samuel: “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (verse 5). This displeased Samuel, but God told him: “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (verse 7). However, God was clear that Israel’s choice would have consequences and He commanded Samuel to warn Israel what those would be. So Samuel said:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day (1 Samuel 8:11-18).
Despite this warning, the people demanded a king. “And the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Obey their voice and make them a king’” (verse 22).

This brings up another aspect of God’s character. God had pointed out that the people were rejecting Him as their ruler, yet God still acquiesced to their request. He issued them a warning about what would come, but then allowed them to make that choice anyway. So it would seem that God sometimes permits people to settle for less than He would offer them.

So what can we gather from that? Sometimes God permits us to do evil and to settle for less than He’d give us, and sometimes He insists on His way being the only way. He is sovereign, so He can do as He pleases. It’s up to Him when and how He will respond to us.

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