There’s an interesting comparison drawn between Samuel and Eli in 1 Samuel 3. It’s a comparison not only between childhood and extreme age but between one who is fresh, uncluttered, and straightforward and one who is jaded and cynical. A bit weather-worn.
One is the weather-worn professional and the other a novice, and you would expect the former to be supporting the latter, like a wall supporting an ivy, but here the comparison shifts. It is the strong young ivy holding together the mouldering old wall which is on the point of collapse. Look at the subtle phrasing of 1 Samuel 3:1:
“The boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon…” ( I Samuel 3:1)
He was assisting Eli, but really serving the Lord. So what was Eli doing?
Both were called “judges” but the older was on his way out and the younger about to begin. Eli inherited his position but Samuel is about to be called to his.
And in an irony of circumstance, the retiree is to be sentenced by the new appointment.
Eli’s character makes for a sad study, but there are some positive things to say.
First, there seems to have been a complete absence of envy. In the familiar story, the boy sleeps and hears a voice calling, and goes to his mentor, assuming the voice comes from him. Eli realises what’s happening and encourages him to listen for God’s voice.
He encourages Samuel forward, even to his own detriment. God is speaking, but not to him, the top man. The inspiration comes to Samuel, and Eli is superseded and eventually disgraced. The message comes to the pupil and the teacher is put to one side. But Eli not only lets it happen but helps it to happen! He shows him how to hear God! “Go and lie down: and it shall be, if He calls you, say, Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening.”
It’s hard to be superseded! We’re not so generous! We have a sneaky streak of competitiveness and can be jealous of other people’s success. Of course, our role is to bring people to Jesus, not bring them to us! And yet….
Elii could have claimed top place. He might have assumed a patronising tone. Or taken charge, claiming to be God’s man for the situation, and the only one fully capable of dealing with “words” and visions.
But Eli did neither. He sent Samuel to God. He taught him to enquire for himself. He didn’t try to rule him; nor to direct his feelings and belief; but to teach him to walk alone. Some people gather followers. Others stir up faith, conscience, thought, to do their own work.
And this is the real work of the pastor. Often, people like to be guided. But we need to learn to listen to God for ourselves. And encourage others to, too. So, so far, Eli had not lived in vain.
But there’s a but.
Eli received God’s word. But.
Another thing about Eli: he wanted to know the whole truth. What is the thing that the Lord has said to you? Don’t hide it from me.” Tell me the worst.
And Eli hears the bad news and submits to it. “It is the Lord.”
But there is another side to Eli’s character. He was a wavering, feeble, powerless man, with good intentions, but an utter want of will. How did he get like this?
Perhaps he’d been in that temple too long? Perhaps he was out of touch, and spiritually unaware. He misunderstood that Hannah was in an agony of prayer and thought her drunk! He couldn’t control his adult children. And yet he maintained a powerful position over the whole country whilst being incompetent to deal with movement of the Spirit.
His feelings were good, but his acts were wrong…
His virtues were negative. He was forgiving to his sons, because he didn’t feel the nastiness of their sin. He was free from jealousy, but only because he had no strong desire. He was submissive to the will of God, but only because because he was submissive to everything and too lazy to rise up and challenge the circumstances.
Trevor Yaxley used to say: If you wake up and you’re not in the middle of a fight, start one! Don’t settle for mediocrity or a “Que sera,sera” kind of fatalism. “Violent men take the kingdom by force.” Rise up and take the land.
Before we praise someone for their good character, we must be quite sure that it’s not just the fruit of negative virtues! It’s no credit to a man without love that he is not jealous, for he hasn’t strength enough for passion. Eli was despised by his own sons. He was not respected by the nation. One only of all he lived with, kept close to him till the last -Samuel.
The final comparison is this: One learned to listen, and one was superseded because he had stopped responding. Now God will find a voice for Himself, but the point is, which one of the two are you most like? God has a destiny for you, but you have to learn to listen for it and respond to it.