Who wants to hear a sermon on the judgment of God this morning? Less than enthusiastic, are we? Not how you wanted to spend your Sunday morning? The judgement of God doesn’t exactly sound like an encouraging topic. It doesn’t exactly sound like good news.
Well, that’s what we’re in for as we continue in the book of 1 Samuel.
Last week we started a series called “Kingdom and Chaos” where we began exploring this ancient text. We saw the story begin with a woman named Hannah who has been longing and waiting and praying for a child. Year after year she’s waited and prayed. And eventually God grants her request. Picking up on what we read last week…
“Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (1 Samuel 1v16)
Eli—the high priest of Yahweh—had just accused her of being a drunk. She’s explaining… “No. Don’t take me for a wicked woman—a worthless woman—I’m just pouring out my heart to God.” Literally she says: don’t think of me as a “Bet Beliyyaal.” A daughter of worthlessness or worthless woman. And Eli recognizes that he’s misjudged the situation because…
Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. (1 Samuel 1v17-18)
That’s where we left off last week. And the story continues…
Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” (1 Samuel 1v19-20)
It’s that beautiful moment when you finally see the faithfulness of God: “She gave birth to a son.” And then as chapter 1 ends, we find Hannah nursing her son until he’s old enough to wean, and then Hannah and Elkanah (her husband) bring little toddler Samuel back to the Eli the high priest. (If you were here last week, you’ll remember that Hannah had promised the Lord that she would give her child to the Lord’s service.)
Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the Lord under Eli the priest. Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord. (1 Samuel 2v11-12)
It’s a brilliant narrative detail right here… verse 12 literally says : “The sons of Eli were sons of Beliyyaal.” It’s a tragic irony… the high priest of God accuses Hannah (a faithful woman) of being “Beliyyaal” but it’s actually his sons (priests serving under him) who are “Beliyyaal.”
“Beli” is a negating kind of word in Hebrew. “Yaal” is a value kind of word—meaning profit or benefit or worth. When you put “beli” and “yaal” together, you’re saying that something has “no benefit” or “no profit” or “no value.” The sons of Eli were sons of Beliyyaal.
When the biblical authors use this kind of expression—”daughter of courage” or “son of despair”—that’s actually an idiom (a way of talking) to say that somebody profoundly embodies something. She is courageous. He is despairing. Jesus called two of his disciples—James and John—“sons of Thunder.” Evidently they were boisterous and powerful and at least once they wanted to summon the power of God to destroy people they counted as enemies.
Hophni and Phineas—Eli’s sons—have become a different kind of children. Their lives have become defined by “beli-yaal”… no profit… no worth… no significance. They’re scoundrels, sure, but even worse… they’re bankrupt. They are absolutely empty of everything that matters.
We already read what they’re doing, but let’s look at it again. (Because if you’re anything like me, I have to read things a lot—especially in the Bible—before they start to “click.”)
Now it was the practice of the priests that, whenever any of the people offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”
If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.”
This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt. (1 Samuel 2v13-17)
Hophni and Phineas are called na’arim right here, which gets frequently translated as “youth” or “young men.” But don’t get the impression that these guys are teenagers or something just making stupid mistakes. These guys are old enough to know better. In later traditions of Israel, priests had to be at least 30 years old… and something similar is likely going on here too. These guys are old enough to know better. They’re old enough that their repeated choices and patterns and decisions are solidifying who they are.
These guys are in positions of power and authority and are systematically abusing everything they’ve been given. According to the Torah—specifically the book of Leviticus—priests get a portion of the food sacrificed to Yahweh. Eating some of the sacrifice isn’t the problem. Priests could eat the sacrifices, but never the fatty parts which the culture considered especially sacred. And only after the sacrifices were made. And only after their work of interceding between God and people was done.
But these jokers are the ancient equivalent of corrupt congressmen. They’ve got a little bit of authority and they’re using it to fatten themselves up. Normally (v13) after the sacrifice was over priests would just stick their a fork into a boiling pot—or caldron or kettle or pan—and take whatever meat happened to come up. But not Hophni and Phineas. They had figured out how to game the system. They’re walking around, looking at the animals being brought for sacrifice with an eye for BBQ.
And then—after the animal was killed—but before any sacrifice could be made—before any fat could be trimmed—they had their lackeys (v15) demanding cuts of meat from people. They’re exploiting the very people that they’re charged with caring for. Instead of bringing God’s purification and blessing to people, they’re threatening people with violence (end v16): “Hand over the meat… lest we make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
A few verses down we hear more about their behavior:
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. (1 Samuel 2v22)
So Hophni and Phineas are greedy and corrupt and violent, using their civil and religious authority for personal economic gain and to sexually exploit and abuse women. Doesn’t that sound like everything wrong with the world? We see this on the news all the time. It’s nothing new. These guys are fattening themselves up on whatever they can grab… but they’ve endless got to grab more… they’re still hollow. They’re fattening themselves up but they’re never getting full. They just need more and more and more. These guys are empty of everything that matters. Eli continues, begging them:
So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the Lord’s people is not good. If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender; but if anyone sins against the Lord, who will intercede for them?” (1 Samuel 2v23-25)
Eli is saying, “We—us—you my sons and me—are priests that help people sort out their differences. When one person wrongs another, we can step in and mediate with the mercy of God… Bob is sorry he oxen killed yours… he’s making restitution… the Lord would have you forgive him. But you, my sons, are sinning with a high hand. You’re wronging everyone—abusing the system—burning down the world—sinning against God himself. Your lives are spitting in the face of the Life-giver… who will intercede for you?”
His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death. (1 Samuel 2v25)
God’s judgment will bring the fall of the house of Eli. The rest of the chapter 2 expands on this a bit more in verses 27-36… an anonymous prophet tells Eli that his house is going to fall. That makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But the longer I thought about it, I’m not completely sure why it should. The house of Eli has become the house of Beliyyaal. Do any of us want that house to stand?
The hollow house? The meaningless house?
The wicked, abusive house? The house of scoundrels?
We want God to say “No” to corruption and abuse and exploitation. When we see this kind of stuff on the news. We want God to get rid of this kind of garbage. We quietly hunger for the judgment of God. We ache for someone to sort of the world when we watch the news. We all quietly hunger for the judgment of God who will right the world’s wrongs and solve human injustices and banish beliyyaal once and for all.
That’s what something like the #metoo movement is quietly longing for. Longing for something to be done about sexual abuse, exploitation, and stereotyping. That’s why we long for honesty to win the day in Washington D.C. Lies and corruption and self-obsessed agendas that exploit the needy for the sake of powerful… they make our blood boil. We wish someone would do something about it. It’s the judgment of God that we’re aching for.
And what God does with Hophni and Phineas is actually THE news we’ve been longing for. God is speaking “No” to corruption and evil. God’s “yes” to life necessitates God’s “no” to death. If you want a robustly biblical way to think about God’s judgment, there it is. We want God to bring about the deepest kind of healing, wholeness, prosperity, and peace—what the ancient Israelites called “shalom.” If we want “yes” to shalom then by definition it necessitates “no” being spoken to beliyyaal. If we want God to speak “yes” to life then God MUST speak “no” to death.
That’s what’s happening here with Hophni and Phineas. These are two guys whose lives have become so deeply saturated with corruption—their choices and decisions—year after year—have been marinating them in death. It’s to such a point that to get rid of the death you’ve got to get rid of them. It’s like carpet that’s so saturated with mold and mildew, that there’s no way to separate the two—to clean the carpet we’ve got to replace the carpet.
God’s judgment is the deepest kind of good news. God will not allow death and corruption to reign in ancient Israel. God’s kingdom will banish chaos from the world.
But there’s a reason, I think, that this good news makes uncomfortable. We know that we’re Hophni and Phineas. Oh, it might not be on a grand stage of national politics or criminal activity, but we know that we’re not innocent in the world. We make selfish decisions at the expense of others. We find loopholes in the system so that we can profit. We make decisions year after year that we know are unhealthy and less-than-fully-alive. God’s judgment makes us uncomfortable—all of us—me included—because we know somewhere within us how often we marinate in death.
And the question becomes: When God gets rid of death and corruption will God get rid of me? Will God’s “no” to death necessitate God’s “no” to me? I think we’re right to feel this tension. Every son of Adam and daughter of Eve shares the sickness of Eli’s sons. We selfishly seize everything we can to fatten up our lives—to make our lives more significant, more pleasurable, more powerful, more than others. And we still find ourselves hollow. We’re fattening ourselves up, but we’re never getting full. We just need more and more and more. More highs, more wins, more followers, more sexual excitement, more perfection at what we do, more recognition in our career. That’s the sickness we all share:
We’re consumed with consuming and find ourselves empty of everything that matters.
If we don’t see ourselves as Hophni and Phineas, I don’t think we’re being completely honest. We all have Hophni inside; we’re all Phineas at some level. But, here’s the thing—Hophni and Phineas aren’t the main characters of this story… their stories aren’t the primary story that Scripture invites us to identify with.
Who, then, is the main character?
Well, the primary story of Scripture—from cover to cover—is the story of God and his people. We can lose sight of this as we wade into the details of individual stories, but the two main characters of the Old Testament: God and the nation of Israel. Yahweh, the God of Israel. And his people set free from slavery, whom he calls “his child”—his “firstborn son.”
The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do… Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” (Exodus 4v21-23)
The primary story of the Old Testament is the story of God setting his child free (again and again) so that his child can worship him. That’s what’s happening here in 1 Samuel 2. This is a story about God healing his child—the nation of Israel. And this chapter serves as a hinge point. We see the sickness within God’s firstborn son—the corruption run amok in Israelite religious and civil leadership—and assuring us that it’s doomed:
“I’m getting rid of that in my child.”
And while God is doing this, God is actively doing something else:
…but Samuel was ministering before the Lord…
…meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.
And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people.
(1 Samuel 2v18, 21, 26)
God has birthed something new in the midst of the old. God is simultaneously raising up Samuel as he’s dealing with Eli’s sons. The salvation of his will involve both the growth of something new and the slaying of something old. I think in a story like this, we’re invited to step back—to zoom out—and to identify ourselves with God’s “firstborn son.”
If that seems like a stretch, consider this: the book of Samuel was not originally called a “history book.” It wasn’t originally considered to be primarily concerned with things that happened once upon a time “back then” with “those people.” The Jewish Scriptures are divided up into three sections: the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim. (The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.) Does anyone know where Samuel falls? That’s right. It’s in the prophets. This book is a spiritual narrative. Sure this book has historical roots, and tells us about things that DID happen, but even more deeply this book gives spiritual insight. It’s not “dead history” about the past. It’s “living history” that prophetically challenges the people of God in the present.
Throughout the centuries the Spirit has whispered through this story inviting us to consider ourselves. The primary story of the Old Testament is the story of God setting his child free—again and again—so that he can worship him. God is simultaneously judging sin within “his firstborn son” AND raising up faithfulness. God is dooming corruption AND growing integrity. God is birthing life in the midst of death.
If that’ sounds vaguely like something you’d hear at Easter, there’s a good reason why. God’s judgment always looks like the cross and resurrection. There is something being put to death, but it’s always for the sake of more life. In the case of the cross, we have the sin of the entire world being condemned and crucified so that true human life can be resurrected. This—the cross—is the place where the entire story of God and his people comes to its climax.
As the story of the Old Testament unfolds, God’s people never experience full healing. God’s “firstborn son”—set free from the chains of Egypt—continually finds himself enslaved to corruption and death. Every one of us shares the sickness of Eli’s sons. God himself seems to have recognized the dilemma: if you purge the world of every Hophni and Phineas then you’re left with an empty world.
And so, in the fullness of time, the God of Israel becomes an Israelite. God enters the story of his own sin-sick people. This is the mysterious good news to which we cling: God unites himself to his sinful people so his people can be separated from their sin. Christians believe that Jesus is where God condemns sin without condemning us (Rom 8:3). In the cross of Jesus God condemns the sin of the world, and in the resurrection of Jesus God brings new life to the world. In the cross, God slays us as sinners, and in the resurrection God raises us up as children. Jesus—God the Son eternal—becomes one of his own people to make his people true sons and daughters.
God comes as Jesus and infinitely fulfills Israel’s mantle of “firstborn son” so that the earliest Christians insisted:
“Identify yourself with Jesus. I know you’re a sinner—I know you’re broken and sick and Hophni and Phineas—but Jesus includes you in his cross and resurrection. So identify with Jesus; because he’s already identified with you. He’s birthing his life in you in the midst of your death” Jesus is who we’re always invited to identify with.
Jesus is how we understand everything—God, ourselves, even the judgment of God.
Eli’s hanging quesiton finds clarity in Jesus. Who will intercede for you if you sin against God? Well… God will. Always. You can spit in the face of the Life-giver—you can nail the Life-giver to a tree outside of Jerusalem—and he’s still going to intercede for you. (“Father forgive them!”) And—YES—it God’s will to “sons of beliyyaal” to death, but—even more—it’s God’s will to raise them up again as “sons of God.” God says “No” to sin and death, but it’s always so that God can say “Yes” to love and life.
And so what we’re trying to say this morning is this:
God’s judgment means that our Father is committed to the painful healing of his children. His “yes” to life in us is a painful yes; it means the death in us has got to die. There’s a unshakeable motive behind all of God’s judgment: Healing. Resurrection. New life. Children.
That’s what we see in this chapter:
God is healing his “firstborn son” Israel. God saying “No” to corruption, and saying “Yes” to faithfulness. God is growing something good and beautiful even as he (painfully) banishes death and darkness. This is what God does in 1 Samuel 2, this what God himself embodies in the cross and resurrection and this is what God wants in you… in me. It is God’s will put us to death. To put darkness in us to death. And he slays us for the sake of raising us from the dead—more alive than ever.
The Spirit uses a message like this to work on us in different ways.
Some of us are in seasons where we feel like we’re under the judgment of God in some way, shape, or form. Perhaps it’s circumstances, perhaps it’s a recurring thought, perhaps it feels like a cloud above you. I have no idea whether or not it really is…but what would it look like for you to recognize that whatever is happening, if it’s the judgment of God then it’s for your good?
Some of us recognize areas in our life are beliyyaal: without profit, without value, without substance. Those are areas of our life where we’re entertaining death. What would it look like for you to submit those areas to the judgment of God?
Would you open yourself to your Father who is absolutely committed to your healing? The healing is going to be painful at points, but God will make you fully alive. That’s the gospel according to God’s judgment.