"The Danger of Disregarding God"
One of the nice features of a democracy is that political leaders are more or less accountable to the electorate. While they deserve honour and have considerable power 'at the top of the heap', they must eventually answer for how they use that power and whether they will go on deserving honour.
After a Christmas break, Parliament resumed in Ottawa with the Conservatives presenting their budget. Mr Ignatieff, the Liberal leader, has decided it has enough merit that his party won't bring down the minority government with a vote of non-confidence - for now. Yet he's demanding periodic reports of the special spending measures designed to help economic recovery - reports in March, June, and December. The Liberals intend to hold Prime Minister Harper and his administration accountable. To maintain their honourable positions, they're going to have to keep earning it.
South of the border, new President Obama has garnered both praise and criticism for executive orders he signed shortly after taking office. On the positive side, he's promised to close Guantanamo Bay within a year and not use torture to interrogate suspected terrorists. However he's also reinstated funding to organizations that advocate abortion as part of family planning. The Catholic church has already expressed its disappointment with this; definitely not a 'pro-life' move. The world is watching Mr Obama closely to see what measures he takes that will 'make-or-break' him as President of one of the world's most powerful countries.
Anyone in leadership becomes subject to scrutiny. As parents we're especially aware of this when our children become teenagers and may feel some freedom to question our decisions or ways - perhaps riding with us in the car after they've started driver education. Even peers in school check up on us to see if we deserve honour - do we cheat on exams? Can they trust us not to gossip what they've shared with us confidentially?
In 1Samuel, at a very formative time in Israel's history, we see just how crucial the role of leaders is. What 'makes or breaks' a country's leader can 'make-or-break' that country as well. In the case of Eli's sons, we see disaster befalling the young nation when they choose to disregard God and fit in with sinful ways.
The events in 1Samuel represent a dramatic shift for Israel from a loose, shaky tribal confederacy around 1100 BC to the beginning of its Golden Age about 1000BC. Throughout this key century a singular figure stands tall in the transformaton to a solid united monarchy: that figure is the prophet Samuel. In coming weeks, we'll look at his own personal history and the very significant developments he triggered which laid the groundwork for a stable nation which rose to be a world power - developments in religion, in justice, and in politics.
But first a bit of background to highlight where they'd come from as a nation and just how low they'd sunk before Samuel's leadership. It was about 2000BC when Abraham and the other patriarchs lived as nomads in Palestine, having migrated from Ur to the north. About 1500BC Jacob's sons went down to Egypt during a prolonged famine. Around 1280BC they left in the Exodus under Moses, and crossed the Jordan River under Joshua about 1240BC, having received God's instructions for nationhood at Mount Sinai in the meantime. But it was one thing to have the blueprints for how society should be set up and run; quite another to actually put everything a nation needs in place. Joshua led a quick 'lightning-war' conquering some of the major Canaanite cities, but the pagans were far from driven out of the land. As the Hebrews began to settle in the hills and learn agriculture, they also were influenced by the religious practices and culture of the native remnant.
From 1220-1050 BC Israel had no central leadership; tribal heroes arose to fend off threats by invaders, whether Midianites from the desert on their camels, Ammonites from the east, or Philistines who had settled Viking-like along the coastal plain on the west. These local tribal heroes are called "Judges" - a bit of a misnomer since they were largely military not political leaders. They were short-term deliverers rather than widely-recognized promoters of the law and dispensers of justice. One approach used was to cut a corpse up into 12 pieces and send a piece to each tribe as a threat of what might be done to those who didn't respond (Judges 9:29; 1Sam 11:7)
Between 'judges' over these two centuries, the situation worsened. Judges 2:19 records, "But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways." The structure, unity, and social discipline forged under Moses and the Pillar of Cloud in the desert were steadily eroded. One reference book says these were times of "brutality and beastliness": "These stories [in the Book of Judges] describe life during this turbulent near-pagan period, and give a frank and unvarnished description of the brutality and paganism with which Israel was contaminated because of her close association with her pagan Canaanite neighbours." (Pictorial Bible Dictionary)
There was a distinct lack of central authority; this moral vacuum fostered relativism, each individual deciding what was right and wrong. The Baal gods were worshipped alongside Yahweh as if there were no contradiction. Magic and immorality were rampant. The Biblical writer sums it up in the closing verse of the Book of Judges: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit," or in NRSV, "all the people did what was right in their own eyes." (Jud 21:25)
It was a religious, moral, and cultural low point. But, wait - would not that phrase describe much of our society today, where relativism reigns? "Everyone did what was right in their own eyes." "Do as you please." "Don't try to shove your values down my throat." "The government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."
When slogans like that prevail, 'beastliness' is not far behind.
Still, some spiritual vestiges remained: the priesthood, the three annual religious festivals, and the Ark of the Covenant in the Tent of Meeting, which currently was set up at Shiloh. But even here things were sliding rapidly downhill. Eli the priest had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas; 1Sam 2:12 describes them as "wicked / scoundrels" - "they had no regard for the Lord." This shows up in three areas.
First, they treated the things of God with contempt. Regarding the offering - the Law designated the breast and right thigh as the priest's portion (Lev 7:30ff). However it had become the custom at Shiloh for the priest's servant to jab a fork into the pot and take whatever came up(13f). But even that wasn't good enough for Hophni and Phinehas. Vv15-16 in 1Sam 2 show they demanded raw meat, with the fat attached; and if the worshipper protested that the fat should be burned up first, the servant threatened to take it by force. This was a deliberate slam against God. Always it was emphasized both the blood and the fat of the sacrifice belonged to God. Leviticus 7 states, "Anyone who eats the fat of an animal from which an offering by fire may be made to the LORD must be cut off from his people." (Lev 3:16; 7:23,25-27) So 1Sam 2:17 notes, "This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD's sight, for they were treating the LORD's offering with contempt." (1Sa 2:17 NIVUS) They were spurning it, despising it. When a prophet shows up one day to rebuke Eli for his sons' behaviour, God asks, "Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling?" (2:29)
They also make the mistake of trying to use the sacred Ark of the Covenant like a magical good-luck charm, sort of a 'lucky rabbit's foot'. In chapter 4 when the Israelites try to fight the better-organized and iron-equipped Philistines, their first battle results in defeat and heavy casualties. Someone gets the bright idea to bring the Ark of the Covenant down from Shiloh, about 30 km away. Hophni and Phinehas should have protested and stopped this, but instead they went along with it - as if to get part of the action and honour (4:4). But they had never paused to ask God if they should.
In Baal religious ritual, participants re-enacted the mythical events involving Baal and Ashtart in hoopes of magically manipulating the local fertility gods to bless their crops. Eli's sons and the Hebrew military leaders were taking such a 'magical' approach, as if having it there on the battlefield would manipulate God to ensure victory.
Why do we come to church, or perform any of our religious duties? Is it because we have this hidden hope that by our actions we can somehow persuade or manipulate God, winning His favour?
Bad idea. Although the Philistines were afraid, they fought hard and won, causing 'very great' slaughter - including Eli's sons, and capturing the precious Ark.
So Hophni and Phinehas treated with contempt the things of God - both the offering and the Ark of the Covenant. 2:12 says they had 'no regard for the Lord' - literally, did not 'know' the Lord. Not head-knowledge, but to acknowledge someone, recognize them for who they are; as when entering a courtroom you bow to the judge and guys make sure to take off their hats. 'Knowing' someone superior results in respectful action - or ought to. It's a way of showing honour that's due.
Eli's sons' wrong attitude to God resulted in errors toward self and others. A second big mistake was their lack of self-control, with regard to food and sex. They had developed a taste for raw meat with the fat on it they could roast; consequently, they became overweight. In 2:29 God asks Eli, "Why do you honour your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?'" (1Sa 2:29) Note they've been 'fattening' themselves, and God perceives it as a matter of honour. Also in 4:18 Scripture notes that when Eli heard the news of his sons' death, he fell backward off his seat, "his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy." Can't imagine the sons' gluttony helped them much to excape on the battlefield, either. Their lack of self-control contributed to their undoing.
They gave in to fleshly desires in other areas, too. 2:22 says Eli heard how his sons "slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting". There may have been sacred prostitutes at the Baal-temples, but not in the worship of Yahweh. This was blatant adultery (we meet Phinehas' wife giving birth in 4:19).
Of course, word of these wicked habits spread amongst the people and led, third, to their loss of reputation. When Eli reprimands them in 2:23 he says, "Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD's people." So the reputation of God's priests was tarnished by their actions.
Their lack of regard for God caused them to show contempt for the offering and the Ark; it also led to their lack of self-control, in food and sex. Not fearing God may also have been a factor in their disobedience and resistance to parental rebuke. Eli attempts to rebuke them, though he probably should just have removed them from office. But they "did not listen to their father's rebuke" (2:25). They didn't honour God, and so didn't honour their parent either.
We see several consequences of the sins of Hophni and Phinehas that bring grief to themselves, their family, and their country. First there's the loss of reputation, as we've already seen.
Also they suffered loss of life; they were killed in the battle with the Philistines. This had been predicted by the prophet who warned their father back in 2:34: "And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you-- they will both die on the same day."
Along with this came the loss of a national religious treasure: the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. This was shocking; for over two centuries the Ark had constantly accompanied the Israelites, all the way from Mount Sinai, containing the Ten Commandments - cornerstone of their covenant with God - and Aaron's miraculous staff that budded. Now, gone - lost to the hands of ignorant pagans. It seems to be the mention of this, rather than the news of his sons' death, that causes Eli to lose his balance and fall over. Unthinkable that the Ark should be captured; but the two wicked sons had carried it right along with them.
Disregard for God also resulted in disruption of family relationships, and death. Imagine how Phinehas' pregnant wife felt about the reports spreading of her husband's immorality. News of Phinehas' death threw her into early labour, which proved fatal for her. Also the boys were indirectly a factor contributing to their father's death - a very dark day for the family all-around.
Their sin resulted in a judgment not only on the current generation, but future generations as well. The prophet warned, "The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father's house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, in your family line there will never be an old man. Every one of you that I do not cut off from my altar will be spared only to blind your eyes with tears and to grieve your heart, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life." (1Sa 2:31-33) What a generational curse! We see this coming true later when Saul orders the slaughter of the priests at Nob, and even the survivor Abiathar is deposed from his office by Solomon (1Sam 22:18; 1Kings 2:27).
And there's the loss of glory for Israel: the son's sins result in national disgrace. Phinehas' own wife sums this up when with her dying breath she names her newborn child Ichabod, literally "no-glory": 4:21 relates, "She named the boy Ichabod, saying, 'The glory has departed from Israel'-- because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband." (1Sa 4:21)
This really was a low point for God's people. Idolatry was increasing. They had not succeeded in occupying the land fully. They were economically behind - the Philistines controlled all iron processing, and Israelites had to go to them even to get their tools sharpened. Their army was defeated and lacked effective weapons. The centrepiece of their worship, the Ark of the Covenant, was lost to unclean enemy hands. The Philistines advanced to Shiloh and destroyed the place of worship there. How much worse could it get? And their leaders - the priests at the heart of it all, who should have known better - had only contributed to all these losses.
How had they sunk to this glory-less state? This whole series of incidents revolves around the key issue of honour and glory. Eli's sons were wicked because they had no regard for the Lord; they treated God's things with contempt; they scorned the sacrifices (12, 17, 29). When God asks Eli in 29, "Why do you honour your sons more than Me...?", the word 'honour' (kabad) is closely related to 'glory': it means to honour, glorify, make 'heavy' or important; to treat as a priority. Same word in 30 when God says, "Those who honour Me I will honour, but those who despise me will be disdained." Then in 4:21 Ichabod "no glory" or "glory has departed" is i(not)-kabod (same root as kabad) - no glory, no honour. Because Eli's sons dishonoured God, treating Him with contempt, their family and the whole nation had the honour or glory drained away from it.
"Those who honour Me I will honour..." Are we truly honouring God by our everyday decisions? Or are we cutting corners like Hophni and Phinehas - in our eating, our lifestyle, our worship, our offering? Where does God really rank in our priorities? Do we come to church half-heartedly, out of a sense of duty rather than desire and expectancy? Is what we eat and drink healthy and life-promoting, or self-destructive? Are our relationships suffering because we're 'cheating' morally - perhaps just in our imagination? Handling our material goods, do we 'look with greedy eye' at things (29 NRSV)?
Is this just an Old Testament principle, somehow superceded in the New? Check out what Jesus says in John 12:26, describing the disciple who hates his life in this world and so keeps it for eternity: "Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, my servant also will be.My Father will honour the one who serves Me." If we are sold out to Him - putting Him first, following Him, serving Him - He will honour us. Awesome!
The movie Chariots of Fire tells about Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell competing in the 1924 Olympics. Eric felt he could not in good conscience run his designated event, the 100 metres, when he discovered the heats were to be run on Sunday, the Lord's Day. The officials and a teammate's grace allowed him to take part in the 400 metre race instead, which was held another day. Other runners didn't consider him a threat because of the longer distance, figuring they'd run him into the ground. But American runner Jackson Scholtz (who wasn't competing that distance) wasn't so sure. As Eric prepared himself at the starting line, Scholtz trotted up and handed him a slip of paper, then walked quickly away. Liddell unfolded the note and read: "In the Old Book, it says 'He that honours me, I will honour.' Good luck! Jackson Scholtz."
Eric won the race a full 5 metres ahead of the closest competitor - a new world record, 47.6 seconds. God honoured His servant who put Him first.
AW Tozer is a Christian author widely respected for his insight into the deeper things of God. He wrote about a lack of 'fear of the Lord' in modern believers - perhaps akin to scorning the things of God, having 'no regard for the Lord', not really knowing God in His awesomeness. Tozer said: "...the self-assurance of modern Christians, the basic levity present in so many of our religious gatherings, the shocking disrespect shown for the Person of God, are evidence enough of deep blindness of heart. Many call themselves by the name of Christ, talk much about God, and pray to Him sometimes, but evidently do not know who He is. 'The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,' but this healing fear is today hardly found among Christian men." (Prov 14:27)
Not that 'fearing' God is to be a negative or scary thing, like some kind of horror movie. What God wants is 'honour' not horror! Tozer also wrote how satisfying this can be: "The fear of God is...astonished reverence. I believe that the reverential fear of God mixed with love and fascination and astonishment and admiration and devotion is the most enjoyable state and the most satisfying emotion the human soul can know." Let's pray.