Samuel’s Mind-Blowing Experience

The destruction of Shiloh (1 Samuel 2-4)

Samuel’s Mind-Blowing Experience

What happens when your religious norms are shattered? Does God ever shake up our systems to show us what really matters? Samuel was serving the LORD in Shiloh. He had been devoted to the LORD’s service by his mother who visited him on a yearly basis. As a member of the priestly family of Levi, he grew up as an assistant to the high priest Eli. The rituals of the Jewish system became ingrained in his mind. The writings of Moses, with respect to the sacrificial system, the rule of his life. Deuteronomy and its instructions for life in the land of Canaan provided guidance for the day. The daily, weekly, yearly calendars were marked off with sacrifices and festivals as the LORD had commanded. 

The tabernacle machinery seemed to be ticking along like a well-oiled machine. Eli had been high priest for a long time. Apart from periodic run-ins with the Philistines, life seemed to have settled in fairly predictably. God didn’t seem to be minding, at present anyway, that the people had parallel lines of worship. The Tabernacle system was well stocked with animals for sacrifice. Therefore, a little dalliance with the Canaanite gods, Baal and Ashtoreth, in view of overall fertility in land and home, was tolerated, if not accepted as an important sideline – just in case. The priests were being looked after as well. God had prescribed for their care in the law of Moses, but of late they had come to find that there were better cuts of meat and better ways to cook it if they just slightly bent the rules in the sacrificial order. Sure, some of the more “religious” people complained, but God didn’t seem to mind, and they were responsible to Him, not them. Life was good. Hophni and Phinehas had recently incorporated some of the aspects of Canaanite worship into Shiloh as well. All in the interest of finding common ground, of course . . . 

But there were a few wrinkles appearing on the page. At home, Phinehas’ wife was speaking louder against her husband’s activities with the other women. Old Eli was checking in on the boys more often than ever before, trying to rein them in a little bit here and there. Questioning their motives. And then there was this old man who had visited Eli and pronounced judgement on the family. Hadn’t said a word about their “Canaanite enhancements”, but had droned on and on about them getting fat on the “choicest parts of every offering” (1 Samuel 2:29 ESV). As if God eats it anyway! The guy had finally left after pronouncing some judgement about the end of their priesthood and the setting up of a “faithful priest” (v.35). Shockingly, he had even said that both Hophni and Phinehas would die in the same day as a dramatic sign of God’s judgement (v.34). Could this actually happen? Would God do this, or were these the words of a lunatic?

 Meanwhile, Samuel had had an irregular experience one night. He had received a call from the LORD. He had thought Eli had called him for help, but after this had happened multiple times, Eli seemed to have remembered something that had happened long ago in his own life. He remembered this was a call from God. Hophni and Phinehas seemed to have rejected this call – they had continued to serve without knowing the LORD. No wonder their willingness to dishonour God, and seemingly with impunity. Again, in this call from God, Samuel was told of God’s anger with the priesthood. Samuel communicated the message to Eli and he continued to foster a relationship with the LORD in spite of the corruption that was festering in Shiloh.

The warnings were ignored. The Philistines returned. The Israelites were defeated. The diagnosis was made – we need God. Hophni and Phinehas loaded up the ark of the covenant and trotted off to battle. A bigger loss. More dead. Ark taken. Hophni and Phinehas killed. Eli died. Word of the LORD came to pass! What next? Surely a restart under Samuel? Wasn’t that enough? No it wasn’t. Shiloh was forsaken (Psalm 78:58-61). Razed to the ground. Rejected. God would do similarly again. In Jeremiah’s day, the word of the LORD was to surrender to the Babylonians. To meekly accept the judgement of God and go off into exile.  But the people resisted. They couldn’t believe that this could be the message of God. Surely they hadn’t sinned this terribly! Besides, the temple of the LORD is here in Jerusalem. This is the place of His name! God will never forsake it!. God’s reply in Jeremiah 7 is to revisit Shiloh. Look at what I did there (v.12). This temple you trust in is a den of robbers (v.11). I will allow it to be razed to the ground.

So Samuel found himself at the end of a day with no place of worship, no system of worship, and no people of worship. He had the religious rug pulled out from under his feet. Ever find yourself in that situation? I’ve heard the platitudes too – “Never leave an assembly (local church)”. “It’s God’s assembly – He will take care of it”. Right enough, it is God’s – have you considered that His judgement can be scorched earth? What is Samuel to do? What am I to do? I’m sure it took Samuel some time to get his bearings, but then we see him take up a circuit (1 Samuel 7:16). He started to visit the people where they were. Ministering to them in their home towns. Offering sacrifices where they lived . . . isn’t this counter Deuteronomy 12? No offerings save in the place where the LORD places His name!? What else was he to do? It seems there is some latitude in irregular times. Samuel’s quiet influence leads to national repentance. The Baals and Ashtoreths are rejected (1 Samuel 7:4). An acknowledgement of sin is made. They are delivered from the Philistines in the way that Samuel’s mother had prophesied (compare 1 Samuel 2:10 with 7:10). The LORD returned amongst them.

What can we learn here? Often, subtle idolatry and corruption is allowed to flourish in our gatherings. Leadership gets sloppy. God gets ignored. We may be self-congratulatory over the fact that we don’t overlook sexual sins – very careful to excommunicate those – but God was less concerned about those than the others. We place our faith in the systems, the rituals, the meeting schedules and the traditions we have formalized, and we have forgotten about God. We find it impossible to imagine that if He were to walk amongst our lampstands (Revelation 2,3) that He would find anything to rebuke, much less judge. Do we need to wake up? Has the call of God been silenced? Are His warnings going unheeded? Perhaps we find ourselves in the aftermath of one of these situations where God cleans house. He did it repeatedly in the Old Testament. We have a tendency of thinking that we have it together and it is impossible to do church any other way. But God isn’t “a tame lion” (to borrow from C. S. Lewis). Finding yourself in an irregular church situation is okay – Samuel found himself there. He had to go off script. His box had been blown up. He was left with Moses’ writings and faith in God. That’s all we need. God’s Word and God’s Presence are all we need. This sets us up like nothing else for a life of faith. Samuel didn’t end up in Hebrews 11 by pretending status quo was okay. He got there by faith. By taking steps into the unknown trusting in the known God who was leading him. God help us to follow Him wherever He leads. God keep us from dictating to Him how we think things should be. God bless us to serve him holily and wholly.