The State of the People
In contrast with the book of Judges, and its supplement Ruth, the books of the Kings deal largely with the national centre and the nation as connected with that, and a responsible head. The previous books had given the history of individuals and of separate portions of the nation. While the victories of the judges benefited the people at large, there does not seem to be that cohesion, or that recognition of a divine centre, so clearly provided for in the book of Deuteronomy. It is significant that the first allusion to Shiloh, in the book of Judges, is the mention of an idolatrous rival in the tribe of Dan (Judges 18:31).
The book of Samuel begins with Shiloh, and shows us the state of things there, as Judges had shown the general condition of the people. We have in the earlier chapters the state of the priesthood, in Eli and his sons. We might have hoped that, spite of national unfaithfulness, the priests, whose nearness to God was their special privilege, would remain faithful to Him. Alas for man! Be he never so near outwardly, and entrusted with the most priceless privileges, there is nothing in him to bind his heart to God. All must come from God alone; His grace must keep us, or we will not be kept.
There is no such thing as succession in grace. The son of the most faithful father needs to be born again as well as the most degraded of mankind. This is written clearly on many a page of the word of God. "Ye must be born again."
Eli, the high-priest, was personally righteous and loyal in heart to God, but he was weak. This is bad enough in any position, but when one is entrusted with the priesthood of a nation, responsible to maintain them in relationship with God, it is a crime. Eli's sons were godless men without conscience, and yet in the priests' place, and one of them successor to the high-priesthood.
The carelessness of Eli is so dreadful that nothing but the tragic circumstances of his and his sons' death, can fittingly express God's judgment. We will look at that later. We turn now to something brighter.
God has always had a remnant among His people, even in darkest days, and it is most refreshing to see in Hannah a faith and a desire in lovely contrast with Eli's feebleness, and his sons' wickedness. She lays hold of God, and spite of nature's impotence, and the discouragement of a reproof from Eli, she holds fast. What a reproach to Eli! He has no energy to control his wicked house, and therefore has no discernment in administering reproof outside.
Faith may wait and weep, but it has its joys later on, and in Hannah's song of praise we get fresh encouragement to pray and wait. "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." This remains ever true, for the individual saint and for the Lord's people at any time, and more particularly is it applicable to the remnant in the latter days who will in affliction stay themselves upon the Lord.
This narrative of Hannah gives us a glimpse of what may not have been entirely uncommon among the people, while the mass was in a state of declension. There were always, even in the darkest days, the Lord's "hidden ones," the salt of the earth who preserved the mass from utter corruption for a time at least. It is a comfort to think of this, and to remember that there is at the present time also, a remnant whose heart is turned to the Lord.
But this remnant was not among the official class. The leaders were either too weak or corrupt to help the people. There could be no relief through the ordinary channels, and God must therefore come in by a new way. Samuel, the child of this faith of the remnant, is the first of the prophets.
The prophet was God's special means of communication with the people when the ordinary means had failed. This explains why the message was largely one of sadness. God will intervene; He loves His people too much not to deal with them, but that dealing must be according to His nature and their condition. The presence therefore of the prophet tells the true condition of the people.
Hannah herself is practically a prophetess — all subsequent prophecy is foreshadowed in her song. She exults in the Lord over the conquest of her enemies; she celebrates the holiness of God and His stable purposes of mercy for His people. She rebukes the pride and arrogance of the scoffer, and rejoices in the overthrow of the mighty. The rich have been brought low and the needy lifted up. The barren has become the joyful mother of children. The Lord humbles and exalts — He is sovereign. His adversaries will be overthrown, and His King and His Christ shall be exalted.
Faith looks on ever to the end. If for a time there seem to be partial recovery, still faith does not rest until God can rest. Thus the prophets in a certain sense were not reformers. They accepted and rejoiced in a true turning to God, but they were not deceived by appearances. All reform was but partial and temporary, to be succeeded by still greater darkness. All things wait the coming of the King. He is the desire of all nations, and all who are awakened to see the true condition of the world and of the professed people of God, know there is no hope but in the coming of the Lord.
So too in the history of the individual, whether for salvation or deliverance, there is no expectation from the natural man. The eye of faith is turned from all human excellence to the Christ of God. What peace of soul, what Hannah-like exultation of spirit there is, when He is the object! Christ alone the Saviour; Christ alone the One in whom is deliverance from the power of sin.
But this complete setting aside of the flesh in all its forms by Hannah, shows at once her own deliverance and the bondage of the mass of the nation by whom she was surrounded. The people's condition was the very opposite of hers, and their confidence and expectation was in man. In this negative way, then, we may learn the true state of the people, — a state of ease and self-sufficiency on the part of many, of more or less open enmity to God, and a weak, helpless sense of need on the part of those partially aroused to the true condition of things.
The state was similar, under altered circumstances, in the days just preceding our Lord's advent. Then too there was a feeble remnant which stayed itself upon God, and a self-satisfied, hypocritical class of rulers, who led the people as they wished. Then, too, faith waited for divine consolation, and was rewarded with a sight of the wondrous Babe of whose coming Hannah's song spoke. She could well have mingled her praises with those of Mary. But how few felt the need which had been satisfied in those few who had turned entirely from themselves to God and His remedy.
Returning for a little, we must look at the state of the people as exemplified in that of the priests, for as the Scripture shows, the one corresponds to the other. "The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so" (Jer. 5:31). Here we see the false prophets, claiming to reveal God's mind, and the priests bearing rule by this. But such a state would be impossible were the people not willing. The people, if only outwardly connected with God, are glad to have a carnal priesthood. So in the history of the professing church, with the awful iniquity of the priests, we must remember that it was but the reflection of the state of a carnal people; in name only the people of God. No doubt a godly priest would do much to check the abounding evil of the people, and a godless one would accelerate their decline. Hence, the solemn responsibility of those in such a place. But the point of importance to remember is that a people away from God make possible a wicked priesthood, as the latter intensifies the alienation of the people.
But what a picture of reckless blasphemy and grossest wickedness have we in these priests. One bears the honored name of a faithful predecessor and relative Phinehas, "the mouth of brass." The name is suggestive of what he was, an unyielding witness for God in a day of apostasy and corruption, who by his faithfulness wrought righteousness, stayed the plague and obtained "an everlasting priesthood," as type of the Priest who one day will put down all evil and maintain abiding relationship between God and His people (Num. 25:7-13). With this one, however, nothing remains but the name. Is it not suggestive also that Eli was not a descendent of Phinehas, but of Ithamar, the other son of Aaron? So that at this time, for some reason, the proper line of descent had not been observed, which in itself may indicate the disordered condition of everything. For Phinehas had been promised an abiding priesthood, "A mouth of brass" indeed had this younger Phinehas, but not on God's behalf, as a faithful witness for Him. Rather, he hardened himself against God, and would be one of those who would say, "Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?"
Hophni, too, while there is no historical connection with his name, seems to answer to it only in an evil way. "My hands," seems to be the meaning, which some have thought to suggest "fighter." But the root with which it is connected is used for describing the hands as capable of holding, rather than of striking. Very noticeably it is applied to the priest entering the holiest on the day of atonement, "with his hands full of sweet incense" (Lev. 16:12). It would thus be a good priestly name, and fitting companion for Phinehas. "Hands full" of incense and an unyielding testimony. Alas, the hands of Hophni were full, but not of the materials of praise. They were filled with ill-gotten gain and the fat of the Lord's offerings appropriated to his own use. The sin of these men was twofold, the one resulting from the other. In the judgment of the world they would not have seemed equally heinous. They were guilty of sacrilege and of gross immorality, the latter a fitting consequence of the former.
And is not this always the case? Where God is displaced, His service despised, is not the relation between man and man also corrupted? The unspeakable corruption described in the early part of Romans is the direct result of man's turning from God. So here. The priests will have their own part out of the sacrifice — not that in mercy provided for them in the law of God, but of the best, and of that which belonged to Him alone. When the worshipers, with some remains of a tender conscience, would plead that God have His part first, the rough answer and threatened violence was all the satisfaction they could get. Thus the Lord's offering was despised, and the sin of the priests was "very great before the Lord."
If there is one form of sin more abhorrent than another, and which will bring more fearful punishment, it is that which disports itself in the presence of holy things. This is why religious corruption is the worst. The conscience is seared, and God's holy name is dragged into the most unholy associations. Will He allow it? Ah, He will no more allow it in a formal, Christless church than He would in a formal Israel. Men despised holy things, because of their abuse by the priests. And is it not true, not only in Rome past and present, but in the professing church today, that the world despises divine things because those who should be "holy priests," do not give God the chief place in their professed service of Him? When people cease to fear before God, when they see in His ministers mere selfish disregard of God's will, we have apostasy. It is not extravagant to say that such is largely the condition in Christendom today. The Lord's offering is despised.
Eli hears of all his sons' wickedness and calls them to account. His words are strong and good. But of what avail are good and strong words when the strong arm of judgment should fall? The law provided the penalty for such sacrilege as this, in death. Why did not Eli show himself to be truly zealous for the Lord's honor? Ah, words, mere words no matter how strong are worse than guilty complicity. Worse, for the man who utters them knows the evil and goes on with it.
There is solemn instruction in this. It is not enough to see the wrong of a thing, or even to bear witness against it. Action is necessary. This is why so many — Lot like — fret and talk against evil and find no relief or help. Action must be taken, either by inflicting true discipline upon the evil-doer, or, if this be impossible, by separation from a state of things which makes it impossible. Otherwise men will be engulfed in the judgment of the very thing against which they so loudly declaim.
This may seem harsh, but it is in accord with the witness of the man of God who is sent to Eli. He associates Eli with his sons: "wherefore kick ye at My sacrifice and at My offering . . . . and honorest thy sons above Me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel My people!" Not one word of commendation for his own faithfulness, or personal piety. "Them that honor Me, I will honor." And so Eli and his house go down in a common dishonor, branded with the common shame of having despised the Lord. Would that the lesson of this could be fully learned. "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity."
It is refreshing and yet most sad to think of the child Samuel growing up in an atmosphere like this. Refreshing, for the Lord kept him inviolate amidst "the obscene tumult which raged all around;" but sad that one so tender should not only witness, but be obliged to witness against this awful state of things. "But Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod." "And the child Samuel grew on, and was in favor both with the Lord, and also with men." "And the child Samuel ministered unto the Lord before Eli" (1 Sam. 2:18, 26; 1 Sam. 3:1). The mention of the ephod, the priestly garment, would suggest that on a little child had fallen the only spotless robe in the priesthood. He represents, as we might say, for the time being, the house of Aaron, fallen into ruins in the hands of Eli and his sons. The child grew on and ministered to the Lord before Eli.
Be he but a child, no one who is truly before God will be long without a message from God. So Samuel gets his first revelation from the One till then but dimly known by him. Poor Eli! eyesight has well nigh gone, as well as faithfulness, and lying down to slumber he fittingly suggests the spiritual state he was in. How hopeless, to human appearances, was the state. How unlikely that God would intervene. And yet it is just then that He does speak, and to a little child. Thrice He must call before it dawns upon Eli that the Lord is speaking to the child. He had told him to "go and lie down again," even as many careless ones would seek to quiet those to whom God is speaking. But at last it dawns upon the old man that it is God who is there, and he dare not — weak as he may be with his sons — he would not silence that Voice, slow as he had been to obey it.
How touching and interesting is the scene which follows, familiar to every Christian child. What a moment in this child's life — God, the living God, deigns to call and to speak with him. What an honor; how lovely and yet how solemn. Well may the child say "Speak Lord for Thy servant heareth."
But what a message for a child's ears. Why should this awful story of sin and its judgment be the first words which the Lord should speak to the little one? Does it not emphasize for us the fact that the judgment of sin is as necessary for the young as the old? and that God's messenger in a world like this must hear all His word? How many plead that they are not suited for such testimony. They love to hear the sweet and precious things of the gospel, but when it comes to the solemn declarations as to the state of the Church and the path for faith, how many plead that they are not ready for such things. A child can hear and declare the message of God.
We can think of that little lad, lying open-eyed till the morning, with the great awe of God's nearness upon him; and naturally shrinking from the responsibility of declaring this message to Eli. He quietly opens the doors of the Lord's house — significant act — fearing to speak of what he had heard. But Eli calls him, and, faithful to himself, if not to his sons, hears and bows to the awful sentence of God pronounced by the lips of a child.
When once God lays hold of an instrument, working upon the heart as well as the mind, He will doubtless continue to make use of it. So Samuel not only received the first message, of judgment upon Eli's house, but was made the channel of God's resumed relationship with the people. "The Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh, by the word of the Lord." What an honor — to be used of God, after ruin had come into the very household of the priest. And is it not true that at this day, God passes by all pretentious officialism which has departed from Him, to reveal to babes the things hidden from the wise and prudent? The childlike, obedient spirit, which can say, "Speak Lord, for Thy servant heareth," will have a message.
Nor will the humble instrument fail of recognition, though the careless and thoughtless may mock. The Lord let none of his words fall to the ground; what he said came to pass, and his message commanded a respect which could not be withheld. The words spoken to Jeremiah are also appropriate to him: "Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. Behold I have put My words in thy mouth" (Jer. 1:7-9). No need to fear the face of man when one has seen the face of God. The weakest is as the mighty when he has the words of God on his lips. Let us remember this in these days, and faint not because of our feebleness. The Lord will let none of His words fall to the ground, though spoken by faltering lips.
We have seen now the state of the people. The mass, weak, prone to wander, and, without the strong hand of restraint, lapsing into carelessness and idolatry; the priestly family degenerated into senile feebleness and youthful profligacy; but, in the midst of all this, a feeble, prayerful remnant who still count upon God, and obtain His recognition. This remnant finds expression, in God's mercy, through the gift of prophecy, raised up by Him as a witness against the abounding apostasy, and the channel of His dealings with the people. Sad and dark days they were, but just the time for faith to shine out brightly and to do valiantly for the Lord.