Of all of Israel’s great spiritual leaders, none rises any higher than Samuel. He was a prophet. He was a priest. He was the last of Israel’s Judges, the series of men who led the nation before its time of kings. He personally anointed the first two of those kings — Saul and David. Two books from the Old Testament bear his name (even though they were originally one book). But was Samuel perfect? Nope. In particular, there was one lesson that he failed to learn even though God enrolled him in the perfect class to learn it.
Samuel began his life as one of the Bible’s classic examples of God opening a barren wife’s womb and allowing her husband to father a child through her. The wife’s name was Hannah. The husband’s name was Elkanah. The promise Hannah made to God was that if He would open her womb and give her a child, that child would be dedicated to the Lord his entire life (1 Samuel 1:8-11). She made that promise while praying at Israel’s Tabernacle, the holy structure where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (1 Samuel 1:7). At that time, the Tabernacle was located in Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:9). The Tabernacle was where Israel’s priests served and offered up Israel’s sacrifices to God.
Once Elkanah’s family returned home from Shiloh, it wasn’t too long before Hannah became pregnant with Samuel (1 Samuel 1:20). She kept him until he was weaned (typically a two-to-three year period), and then she and Elkanah took him to the Tabernacle and formally gave him to the priests there to be raised by them (1 Samuel 1:21-28; 2:1-11). Hannah and Elkanah would only visit him at the Tabernacle each year when they brought the sacrifices that were commanded by the law of Moses (1 Samuel 2:18-21).
Israel’s High Priest during those days was Eli. Eli, however, was very old (1 Samuel 2:22), and so he delegated the primary responsibilities of the priesthood to his two sons: Hophni and Phinehas. And why was that a problem? It was a problem because Hophni and Phinehas weren’t even saved believers (1 Samuel 2:12)! This explains why they made a mockery of the holy priesthood by offering up sacrifices in ways that violated the law of Moses but benefited themselves (1 Samuel 1:13-16; Leviticus 7:28-34; Deuteronomy 18:3). The manner in which they performed Israel’s sacrifices was so repugnant to God that He actually abhorred the sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:17).
Furthermore, Hophni and Phinehas were womanizers who had sexual relations with the women who served as menial helpers to the priests at the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22; Exodus 38:8). Such shockingly scandalous behavior was even more than their look-the-other-way father could ignore, and so when he heard the report he made an attempt to rebuke them (1 Samuel 2:22-25). But, as could have been predicted, they ignored old Eli and continued on with their sinful ways.
Finally there came a time when the young Samuel was ready to fulfill his destiny as being God’s true man there at the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:26). What followed was a sequence of events:
- First, God sent a “man of God,” who curiously goes unnamed in the storyline, to speak a word of prophetic rebuke to Eli telling him that God was going to take the priesthood from Eli, raise up a new High Priest, and kill Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 2:27-36).
- Second, God audibly spoke to Samuel during a nightly encounter that served as not only Samuel’s actual salvation experience (1 Samuel 3:7) but also his official call into the ministry (1 Samuel 3:1-21).
- Third, God allowed the Philistines to win a decisive battle over Israel, a battle during which the Philistines killed 30,000 of Israel’s soldiers, as well as Hophni and Phinehas, and captured the Ark of the Covenant as a trophy of war (1 Samuel 4:1-11).
- Fourth, when the 98-year-old Eli heard the news about the death of his two sons and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, he fell off his seat backward and died instantly from a broken neck (1 Samuel 4:18).
Okay, now let’s fast forward to a time when Samuel himself has grown old. Even though he has never served as Israel’s High Priest, he has been the nation’s recognized spiritual leader for decades. No one is as respected in the land as he is. And yet there is a problem.
In addition to his spiritual leadership, the elderly Samuel is also still Israel’s Judge in the practical matters that arise between people in daily affairs. This role requires him to annually leave his home in Ramah and travel a designated circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging cases and settling disputes at each site (1 Samuel 7:15-17). But Samuel is too old now to be doing all that, and so he installs his two sons, Joel and Abijah, as Judges to help him with the job (1 Samuel 8:1-2). Herein lies the problem. Joel and Abijah, you see, are wicked men who seek dishonest gain, take bribes, pervert justice, and do not walk in Samuel’s ways (1 Samuel 8:3).
How bad is the situation? It’s bad enough that the elders of Israel gather themselves together, make the trip to visit Samuel at his home in Ramah, and tell him that they will not accept Joel and Abijah as Judges. As the elders see it, it’s time for Israel to have its first king, a ruler who will act as Judge over the people (1 Samuel 8:1-5).
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of Israel’s era of Judges and the beginning of its era of kings. And what was the root cause of that history-shaking transition? It was the fact that Samuel hadn’t learned from the parenting mistakes that he’d watched Eli make so many years earlier. Just as Eli had proven himself incapable of raising sons who were worthy to succeed him in his role, Samuel had proven himself just as incapable. How sad!
The takeaway from all this for us isn’t hard to discern. We mustn’t let ourselves make the same mistakes we’ve watched previous generations make. We can’t walk those same roads. We can’t fulfill that famous saying that tells us, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Even if we make mistakes in raising the next generation — and we will make some mistakes — those mistakes should at least be new ones, not the same ones we watched the generation that came before us make. To repeat those mistakes is, in all seriousness, inexcusable. And that, unfortunately, is a lesson that Samuel didn’t learn.