Like the lost described in Romans 1, Hophni and Phinehas were given up by God to the lusts of their hearts. Even in the darkness of their sin, though, a light shone through a man bearing God’s word. He announced the judgment looming over Eli’s house for spurning God’s mercy and assured a prospect for the Lord’s people: a coming priest—ultimately, Christ—who would be perfectly faithful. Highlighting the consequences of a sinful and unbelieving heart, Alistair Begg beseeches us to heed the warning expressed in God’s rejection of these immoral priests.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel 2:27. When I set out on the journey this week of these verses, from verse 11 to the end of the chapter, it was fully my plan to try and do something unusual, and that is cover a great number of verses and push all the way to the end. And so I somewhat frustrated myself, and maybe others in the process, by only getting as far as verse 26. And so I want at least, this evening, to make an attempt at the closing section of the chapter. Depending on how we do, we may come back to it to fill in the gaps or to clarify where things perhaps have not come across just in the way that we might have expected or hoped.
First Samuel 2:27:
“And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh? Did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. 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?” Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: “I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,” but now the Lord declares: “Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. 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[hold] 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. 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. And everyone who is left in your house shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread and shall say, ‘Please put me in one of the priests’ places, that I may eat a morsel of bread.’”’”
Father, we ask for your help as we look at this passage of the Bible, that you will enable us, towards the end of this day, to think properly and to believe savingly, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, I want to begin essentially where we left off, and that was with this very chilling word that comes in verse 25 concerning the sons of Eli: that “they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” I’m not going to go back down the road we were on, but I want to begin by reminding us of how this is a recurring emphasis in the book of Hebrews. And so, for example, in 3:12, the writer says, “Take care, brothers,” or brothers and sisters,
lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Pilgrim’s Progress picks up on this, and if we have time, I may read a quote from that before we end, but we have the picture of the backslider caged and feeling that he may never, ever be able to escape from his predicament.
And what we considered this morning is in accord with what Paul writes concerning God’s just response to the rebellion of humanity against his revelation of himself. And he says on, I think, three separate occasions in Romans chapter 1, this word of warning that these folks claim to be wise and they became fools, and then it says that therefore, “God gave them up.” And three times, actually, I think, if we check, it says that “God gave them up.” And that picture, incidentally, in Romans chapter 1 of the willful stupidity, rebellion, and spitefulness that marked the characters Hophni and Phinehas—Romans chapter 1 provides, actually, a perfect description of the sons of Eli.
And what the Word of God is saying is that the wrath of God—the wrath of God—is not something that awaits us then, nor is it simply something that was brought forward into time and executed upon Jesus in the place of sinners on the cross, but the wrath of God is actually an ongoing reality. And indeed, if I understand Romans 1 correctly, then much of what we experience is actually an expression of the wrath of God. “God gave them up” to this. “God gave them up” to this. In other words, God’s wrath confirmed these individuals in the way that they wanted to live. That was the way Hophni and Phinehas wanted to live. And God said, “Fine. Live that way.” It’s very sobering, isn’t it?
Now, with that as the bridge, if you like, we then come to verse , and into this chaotic darkness comes the word of God on the lips of “a man of God.” The very anonymity of it is quite appealing, I think: “And there came a man of God.” For those of us who always want to find answers to questions that we shouldn’t be asking, this will be one of them. At your local Bible study, someone will take up time saying, “Well, who was the person, and where did he come from, and what had he done before he did this?” and so on. And we have no answer to any of those things at all.
I actually find it quite appealing, his anonymity. No credentials. It doesn’t say, “And he’d written a number of books, he’d spoken at a number of conferences, his background is so-and-so, and he studied here and there,” you know? No. Because what is important in all of that? The only thing that’s important in all of that is that there was a certain man who came to them and said, “This is what God says.” “This is what God says.” That is the work and the privilege of those who are entrusted with opening up the Scriptures.
And so, in this context, in a way that is very straightforward, this individual is sent into that darkness to declare, “This is what the Lord says.”
And I tried to come up with three headings, and I’ll give them to you. This was to try and keep me on track—that, first of all, in these opening two verses, we have the record, if you like, of God’s mercy, or God’s grace, being spurned. Being spurned.
And it comes out in two questions and then in a statement. You’ll see that they’re right there in the text: “Thus says the Lord.” This is what God is saying. Question: “Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh?” That’s a question. And the answer, of course, to that would be yes.
Well then, here comes the second question, in 28: “[And] did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest …?” And the answer to that would be, “Yes, of course you did.”
“And in choosing him to be my priest, did he not have the privilege to do these three things?” Number one, “to go up to my altar”—in other words, to be in the place of sacrifice, if you like, the place of God’s forgiveness, the place where God has chosen to meet with those who come to him in penitence at the very mercy seat of God. “Did I not give to him the privilege of doing this?” Yes.
And also “to burn incense.” Now, that may seem just, like, very little to us because of our present circumstances, but when you read in the book of Numbers, for example, you realize just how important and such a key part of things this was. For example, I’m quoting Numbers 4:16, and it reads, “And Eleazer the son of Aaron the priest shall have charge of the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the regular grain offering, and the anointing oil, with the oversight of the whole tabernacle and all that is in it, of the sanctuary and its vessels.” That’s quite a job description. It’s quite an assignment.
And the word of God to Eli is “Did I not establish my mercy and my grace with your forefathers in this way: to go up to the altar, to burn incense, and to wear this ephod before me?” We saw that, this morning, the little man—that is, Samuel—he was wearing an ephod. But the ephod that is referred to here is not the ephod akin to the one that Samuel had on. Samuel was wearing the one that would be routinely related to the priesthood. But the ephod to which this preacher of God refers is the ephod that would be worn by the high priest. And if you wondered about that, I’m going to explain to you that if you look in Exodus chapter 2, you can find all about it. Not in Exodus chapter 2! Do not look in Exodus chapter 2, for that is the birth of Moses. And I’m gonna spend the rest of the evening finding out which chapter in Exodus I’m actually referring to. I’m gonna leave that alone. Somewhere in Exodus there is the description of the ephod of the high priest, and it talks about the fact that there are two onyx stones, and those onyx stones are built into the epaulets of this ephod, and on those onyx stones are inscribed all the names of the clans of Israel: six on one stone and six on the other. In other words, the high priest in this context was representing the entirety of the people of Israel before God.
So, the word of God comes to Eli, and he says, “Now, was this not the case?” And of course, Eli has to acknowledge that it is. And then, not in a question but in a statement, he reminds Eli that he had given to Eli and to those who served with him all of the benefits of the food offerings: “I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel.” Now, we saw something of that this morning, and we see that it is part of the judgment against him as it comes back in a moment or two.
So, “Did I not establish my grace and my mercy in this way?” Eli would be forced to say, “Yes, of course you did.” And then he asks a further question, verse 29: “Why then,” in light of that, “do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and [you go ahead and] honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?”
Now, the question is straightforward, isn’t it? “In light of all of my goodness to you, why would you make light of these privileges? Why would you treat your sons better than you treat me? Why would you turn them loose to grow fat, showing contempt for that which I have set at the very center of my relationship with you as my people?”
Now, we don’t want to fast-forward too soon, but it’s not difficult for us to hear God’s word to our own hearts tonight: “Have I not redeemed you? Have I not given you the privilege to ascend my holy hill? Have I not entrusted you with manifold blessing after blessing? Why then…? Why then…?”
So, grace spurned, and then judgment announced. Judgment announced. Verse 30. There is a logical progression in this. “Was that true?” “Yes, it was true.” “Why have you done this?” “Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares…”
Now, what we have here is essentially what Peter writes about in 1 Peter 4, where, speaking of the predicament that is facing the scattered followers of Jesus in his day, he says, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” And that is exactly what is happening here in 1 Samuel 2. The house of Eli is about to discover that although God’s promise to the house of Aaron to be his priests for all time, although that promise is not about to be annulled in relationship to Aaron, what has been happening with Eli is about to be changed irrevocably. Because the house of Eli is in the process of being decimated.
In other words, what comes across very clearly is that there are consequences for sin—that when God lays out a plan and a pattern, he doesn’t lay it out to spoil us; he lays it out because he loves us. He places the warnings there to prevent us from foolishness and from harm, and he places the promises there in order to encourage us to embrace them and to live in the enjoyment of them. And in the dealings with his people, he has set it down in such a way that it would all be moving forward till finally the great Priest would arise. But in the meantime, this is where they are.
Now it’s a sorry picture, isn’t it? Verse 31. And the principle, incidentally, is there in the balance of verse 30, isn’t it? “Far be it from me,” he says, “for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” Those of you who remember the movie Chariots of Fire will remember that before one of the races, one of the American runners comes and puts a piece of paper in Liddell’s hand, and when he looks inside it, it is this quote: “Those that honor me I will honor.” It’s a wonderful little piece in the movie, but it never actually happened. But we thank Hollywood for thinking very well of the process.
But this is a straightforward statement, and on the strength of that, verse 31, here’s the judgment: “The days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house.” It actually is literally, in the Hebrew, “I’ll cut off your arm.” “I will cut off your arm.” In other words, “There is no possibility of you actually being able to do anything within the process of the worship and temple of the Lord, because you will not have the capacity to do it.”
In verse 32: “Then in distress you[’ll find that you] look with envious eye[s] on all the prosperity that [will] be bestowed on Israel.” And again, “There shall not be an old man in your house forever. The only one of you,” verse 33, “whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared[, but spared only] to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men.” It is a dreadful expression, isn’t it? The picture there is actually of Abiathar, a descendant of Eli. And when he is put in position, one of the early acts of Solomon is actually to banish this character and to remove him even from his position of influence.
And verse 34: “And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you.” In other words, “A lot of this stuff you’ll never live to see. It’s not in question; it’s definitely gonna happen. But you’re gonna live to see this: and both your boys will die on the same day.” If you just turn forward to 4:10: “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. … The ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died” on the same day. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man [will sow], that … he [will] also reap.”
Now, here we are tonight. We’re a long way away, aren’t we? This is, what, 2019 AD? And so we’re, what, three thousand years away from this incident? We have got no business being involved with any of these kinds of mechanisms. They’re all now a thing of the past. So then, is it just an interesting story from such a long time ago? Well, it is not only interesting, but it is informative. And it is a reminder, at least to me, that when I read this and I say to myself, “Well, hasn’t God been particularly gracious and good to me, to us?” then surely the warning is to see to it that I don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart like Hophni and Phinehas—to see to it that in exercising the privileges and responsibilities in the framework of the people of God, that I, or any of us, do not put ourselves in the position where the professional, external engagement in activity is unmatched by the reality of our hearts.
Because, you see, presumably Hophni and Phinehas made a pretty normal kind of start. But somewhere along the way—somewhere along the way—they began to drift. They began to say, “Well, as long as I do this on the outside, as long as we’re keeping that going, then all will be fine.” And the judgment of God is “No, it’s not all fine.” Because remember in Hannah’s prayer, God is the God who knows. Remember in Hannah’s prayer, he is the one who weighs in the balances. And what we discover here is that God has weighed Hophni and Phinehas in the balances, and they have been found wanting.
Now, I said I might quote from Pilgrim’s Progress. I think I have a moment to do so. And this is one of the sections in Pilgrim’s Progress that I find most demanding and challenging. And it’s where Hopeful and Christian are talking with one another, and it’s after Temporary has backslidden, and he’s really now nowhere to be found.
And so Hopeful says, “Now [I’ve shown] you the reasons [for] their going back, do you show me the manner thereof.” So he says, “Here are the reasons why they went back. How does this happen?” And this is the answer that Christian gives. “Well, let me tell you,” he says, “what happens.” When a person starts to drift into the Hophni and Phinehas routine, number one,
They draw off their thoughts, all that they may, from the remembrance of God, death, and judgment to come. Then they cast off by degrees private duties, as [personal] prayer, [the] curbing [of] lusts, watching, sorrow for sin, and the like. Then they shun the company of lively and warm Christians. After that, they grow cold to public duty, as hearing, reading, [fellowship], and the like. [Then] they … begin to pick holes, as we say, in the coats of some of the godly, and that devilishly, that they may have a seeming colour to throw religion (for the sake of some infirmities they have [found] in them) behind their backs. Then they began to adhere to, and associate themselves with carnal, loose, and wanton men. Then they give way to carnal and wanton discourses in secret; and glad are they, if they can see such things in any that are counted honest, that they may the more boldly do it through their example. After this, they begin to play with little sins openly. And then, being hardened, they show themselves as they are. Thus being … launched [again into] the gulf of misery, unless a miracle of grace prevent it, they everlastingly perish in their own deceivings.
Grace spurned, judgment announced, and a prospect assured. It’s good to finish on an encouraging and high note, isn’t it? But it’s there, isn’t it? In verse 35: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind”—in other words, “Not somebody like you, Eli, and not somebody like your two boys either.”
Now, when we come back to this at another time, we can go around through Israel’s history. We can consider where Zadok the priest—and, you know, if you remember Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet and all of that material. But eventually, as we know from saying it again and again to one another, this finds its fulfillment savingly and ultimately in Jesus—that the work of the faithful priest and the anointed king are compared and combined in Jesus.
But then it finishes again, doesn’t it? Verse 36: “And [any]one who is left in your house shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread and shall say” this. Do you remember verse 5 of Hannah’s prayer? “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.”
Hophni and Phinehas, and the guy with the three-pronged fork: “Hey, give me that stuff. What do you mean you won’t give it to me? If you won’t give it to me when I ask, then we’ll take it from you by force.”
“Yeah, but isn’t the fat supposed to be an aroma to God?”
“You don’t worry about God. We’re the priests! We know about God.”
“And everyone who is left in your house shall be out on the streets saying, ‘Could you buy me a sandwich? Could I have something to drink?’” He who was once full now finds himself empty.
God’s mercy is more. God’s judgment is real. And only in the cross of Christ do we find that his mercy and his judgment are executed in such perfect symmetry, so as to make it possible for us to say, “Lord, help me not to have an unbelieving heart. Instead, help me to look upon your cross and remind myself of the immensity of your mercy and your grace. Help me not to spurn it. Help me not to presume upon your kindness. Help us not, as a church, to rest on any supposed laurels of the past but to keep short accounts with sin and to exhort and encourage one another as we see the day of Christ’s return drawing near.”
Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you for the role that was given to this man whose name we don’t know, where he came from, but he knew what he was to do, and that was to say, “This is what God says.” And we thank you that at least that’s our expressed objective and hope as a church family. We want to hear what you have said. We want to read your Word. We want to believe your Word. We want to trust your Word. We know that it’s possible to become a Pharisee, even in that context, for the Pharisees were really into the details of the Word. And yet, in the midst of all of that, they had become proud and arrogant and disdainful of others, and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
So, Lord, we pray, save us from ourselves, from our own sinful agendas. And as we gather at your Table, may the reminder, so simply and yet so forcibly, of the extent of your love cause us to heed your warnings, to trust your promises, and to follow hard after you. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 See Romans 1:22.
 Romans 1:24, 26, 28 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 2:18.
 See Exodus 28:6–14.
 1 Peter 4:17 (ESV).
 See 1 Kings 2:27.
 Galatians 6:7 (KJV).
 See 1 Samuel 2:3.
 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
 See Hebrews 10:25.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.