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The Lamp Had Not Yet Gone Out

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

So begins our OT story about the call of the prophet Samuel. The setting of this story is more than just practical information— it foreshadows the entire story. For indeed, there had been many dark years for Israel And the chapter that we hear about today is darker still. And yet, the saying goes that ‘the darkest part of the night comes just before dawn.’ And so it was with our story. For just when things looked their worst, God had a plan.

Eli was the high priest in those days, ministering at the shrine at Shiloh where the ark of God was kept. He had two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who ministered along with him. But he also had kind of a surrogate son, the boy Samuel, Who had been dedicated to the work of the LORD by his mother, Hannah, and was an apprentice to Eli. Now it was customary that priests would eat the meat of the sacrifice after the worship was complete. But Hophni and Phineas were the worst kind of priests; When people came to sacrifice to God, they would help themselves to the meat of the sacrifice while the worshippers were still praying. And not only that, but they took the parts of the sacrifice that were reserved for God only, And if a worshipper tried to dissuade them, They would take the meat by force. This was a terrible sin in two ways. They abused their priestly power by threatening people to get what they wanted; And they sinned against God by taking what was rightfully God’s alone.

The law of Moses was pretty specific about abuses of this kind. Anyone who takes the meat of the sacrifice reserved for God was to pay the harshest penalty: They were to be shunned and cast out of the community. But Eli, their father and the high priest overseeing their work, Did not take this strong step. Instead when their behavior came to light, he spoke to them about their behavior but he did not enforce any consequences.

Here’s the question I want to know: Why didn’t Eli do anything to stop them? As a priest of the LORD, he knew the law, and as the high priest, the buck stopped with him. And on top of that, these two were his sons. Shouldn’t he have been able to influence them? But maybe that’s exactly where things got complicated for Eli. Indeed, it wasn’t just any priest who was acting out, it was his own kin, his sons. Perhaps he thought that speaking with them would be enough, That tough action wasn’t yet required. And yet looking at the circumstances, that would have been a great error in judgement— Their infractions were grievous, their abuse of God and other people severe. It was a vain hope that speaking with them at this late in the game would make any difference.

But isn’t that how it so often works? That those we love are sometimes the hardest to speak a word of truth to? Conflict is difficult to live with. So we kid ourselves thinking the problem will go away if we ignore it. Or we devise strategies of appeasement and placation When what we really need to do is draw a line in the sand and say, No More! Love is blind, and in these cases, not in a good way. There is no coincidence that old Eli’s sight had grown dim, Indeed, he was blind, and he made some great errors in judgement with his sons.

But there’s another possibility for why Eli didn’t take a firm stand with his sons and lower the boom. Perhaps it wasn’t a naïve kind of love that stopped him. Perhaps it was laziness, an unwillingness to do the hard work of his job as high priest. For when he confronts his sons with the report that he’s been hearing about their behavior He says, “If a person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the LORD; But if a person sins against the LORD, who can make intercession?” Its almost as if Eli were washing his hands of the situation, as if he were saying: “I can’t intercede for you—you’re on your own.” In the end, that would just be shifting the blame.

Eli is a compelling figure to me, because I recognize these some of these patterns in my own life. I too can either to recoil from having to deal with conflict, Or else tell someone off and without sticking with them to see the necessary changes through. But Eli is also compelling to me because of the questions that must have been in his own heart: Did I do enough to stop them? Where did I go wrong with them? How could all of this have been different? They are questions that are familiar. For like Eli, there are times in each of our lives when we look back and wonder about our involvement in difficult situations. Whether its children that make poor choices Or a relationship that ended Or a situation that turned out badly We too wonder what responsibility we bear and if we did all we could.

Eli did not have to wonder forever. Eli was held accountable for the actions of his sons and subordinates. From our lesson this morning we hear that God’s judgement was that Eli knew about his son’s sin, and didn’t take the necessary steps to stop it. The consequences were to be swift and harsh: Eli’s people would never again be priests, And his sons would die on the same day.

Is there any good news for Eli? Is there any good news for us, who like Eli, walk around with questions in our hearts about our own role in the wrongs around us? Is there any good news for us, who live in a world where things aren’t black and white, And where we make errors in judgment which can have devastating consequences?

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

The lamp of God had not yet gone out. The lamp was being tended by Samuel, apprentice and adopted son of Eli. Where Eli had failed in attending to God’s voice in his biological sons’ lives, He heard God’s voice speaking to Samuel. The Word of the Lord was rare in those days, Yet Eli recognizes the word of the Lord, and teaches Samuel how to respond. Without Eli, Samuel would not have been raised up as a prophet. Without Samuel, there would have been no King Saul or King David, or King Jesus, heir of David.

You see, as flawed as Eli was, as blind as he was, He was still receptive to God’s will. He listened for God’s voice, and though it took him three times, he recognized it. And for this reason, God could still use him. And so while Eli bore the consequences of his negligence; he also bore the honor being part of God’s plan.

Like all of us, Eli was both a sinner and a saint, An imperfect servant of God who God loved and commissioned for God’s work in the world. We who live with the questions We who live with the consequences We can learn from Eli. Because the good news for Eli was that God was not done with him after Hophni and Phineas. God is not done with us after the fiascos of our lives. If we are like Eli and we listen, If we like Eli are open to God’s will for us, even when it is difficult, Then God can and does still use us.

There are Samuels out there, waiting for someone to instruct them, help them, listen with them. No matter our past, God wants our future. All we need to do is to be receptive to God’s call. Through Eli, God had a plan to relight the lamp of God in the temple. Through us, God has a plan to relight the lamp of God in the world, So that darkness will be dispelled, and the light of Christ will shine. Amen.


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