The first thing we learn about Eli’s sons, as they are introduced in 1 Samuel 2, is that they are worthless men who did not know the Lord. This presents quite a problem, because these two men are leading the religious life of Israel. Would you go to a church where the pastor and elders are known to be worthless men, who don’t even have a relationship with Christ themselves? How many growing Christians would you expect to find in a church led by such men?
This description of Eli’s sons is an indication that Israel has hit an all-time low spiritually. Eli himself seems to be a man who is frustrated by his sons, but not committed enough to Israel’s spiritual well-being or to that of his sons, to enact discipline and remove them from their positions as priests.
Anytime spiritual leaders succumb to idolatry and spiritual rebellion, the damages are massive. This is proven not only in Israel’s history, but throughout all of church history, in many cases where spiritual leaders chose selfishness and self-promotion over worship and sacrificial love. Sadly, there are plenty of examples of this still today.
The 19th century evangelical Anglican bishop, J.C. Ryle, summarized the problem well: “Open sin and avowed unbelief no doubt slay their thousands. But profession without practice slays its tens of thousands.”
This is the sad story of 1 Samuel chapter 2. But throughout this sad story, we have reminders that God is at work. Three times we are told that, in the midst of this spiritual decay, the boy Samuel was ministering before the Lord and growing in stature and favor (very similar to the descriptions of Jesus in His boyhood). Through Samuel, God has planted seeds of hope that will continue to grow in this spiritually rocky soil, and one day reshape Israel.
These seeds of hope ultimately point to the transforming work of Jesus, which comes 1000 years after these events. This should both convict and comfort us. Jesus loves us too much not to confront the inconsistencies between our faith and practice. But He also promises to deliver us from our own sins and the many injustices created by sin in the world. This is the good news that renews our hope and fuels our perseverance!