The Silence of God

Things were lax at the temple those days.  Eli’s two brazen sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were running things their way.  Old man Eli was past his prime.  He was tired, half blind, and comfortably established in life–so he did little to restrain his sons.  No sense in causing a family rift.  Boys will be boys.  You know how young people are.

When worshippers brought their sacrifices to the temple and meat was put in the sacrificial pot for boiling Hophni and Phinehas would come along with a large three pronged fork, thrust it into the tender boiled meat, and whatever came up on the fork they would keep.  After a while they could stab and tear the best cut off any roast

When boiled meat wasn’t their fancy they would come to worshippers and demand fresh meat not yet placed in the pot, “Give us a thick steak, perfectly marbled and untrimmed.”  If the worshipper objected, saying that the fat belong to the Lord as the Law required, the young priests would threaten violence.

Perhaps the endless buffet of meat they consumed allowed them to pack on the muscle which impressed the young woman who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  But it’s more likely that Hophni and Phinehas just assumed their position of power allowed them the company of such woman who had little choice but capitulate to their bosses advances.  The woman serving at the tent’s entrance became the play things of Hophni and Phinehas.  The young priest’s licentious living was a great affront to the Lord.

In Eli’s defense he did try to warn them.  He sat his recalcitrant sons down and gave them a talkin’ to hoping they’d catch the fear of God, “If one person sins against another,” said Eli, “someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against LORD, who can make intercession?”  Hophni and Phinehas would not listen.  Eli made no other attempts.  It’s just youthful appetites thought the old priest.  They will settle into greater acts of piety–let age tenderize them a bit, as tender as the meat they consume daily.  Their bellies are full, and the voice of God grows faint when bellies are full.

Which reminds us of the ominous beginning of 1 Samuel 3: “The word of the Lord was rare…and visions were not widespread.”  If 1 Samuel 3 was a movie, the opening verse would see the background music turn dark and foreboding.  The silence of God–not quite as scary as the Silence of the Lambs, but still not a Disney movie.  Why was God silent, and where had the visions gone?

Not everyone was silent. We’ve heard other’s talk recently–Hannah for instance.  Hannah prayed to God in the presence of Eli.  Hannah was praying because she bore a son named Samuel.  Before the birth of her son, Hannah had thought herself barren and was disgraced by her husband’s other wife who seemed to get pregnant every time she sneezed.  Hannah desperately wanted a child, so she promised God that if God opened her womb she would give her first born to God’s service and have her child take the vow of the Nazirite–a vow that forbade gluttonous and licentious living, the kind of living that Hophni and Phinehas had perfected.  God made good on God’s end of the bargain–Hannah conceived.  In turn Hannah followed through with her promise.  She weaned young Samuel and brought him to Eli to serve the Lord in the temple all the days of his life.

When she handed Samuel over to Eli, Hannah started praying.  It was one of those ‘spirit-of-the-moment’ kind of prayers.  Caught up in the glory of God’s goodness Hannah exulted the righteous justice of God.  The LORD is the “God of knowledge who weighs all actions.”  Hannah prayed warning those who were full that soon they would “hire themselves out for bread.”  She contrasted the needy who God will “raise from the ash heap” with the wicked who will be “cut off in darkness.”  According to Hannah’s prayer all of this will happen when the Lord “judges the ends of the earth.”.  Hannah prayed with sincerity and fervor in the strength of her faith and convictions.   Eli heard the whole thing, then turned away and went about his priestly business.  The prayer was just the words of a silly woman–the warnings meant nothing.

There was also a mysterious man who, like Hannah, was anything but silent.  He came to Eli with more troubling talk: “Why do you honor your sons more than God by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of the people?”  Eli didn’t offer a response.  “The Lord declares,” said the mysterious man, “Those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt…no one in your family will live to old age…only one of you [will be] spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the members of your household shall die by the sword.  The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be a sign to you–both of them shall die on the same day.”  The mysterious man said all of those many words and others just like them, and when he was finished Eli took no action.  Boys will be boys, thought Eli.  Besides it’s just a crazy man, a babbler, a voice in the wind.

Two verses later the text reads, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

What follows next is the calling of Samuel to be prophet and priest of the LORD.  Three times in those days of ‘silence’ God calls Samuel in the middle of the night with a divine whisper.  Three times Samuel mistakes the calling of God for the calling of Eli and runs to the old priest’s side.  Three times the voice in the night does not correct the boy.  After old man Eli is woken the third time a chill runs up his spine.  Perhaps he recalls when as a young priest he himself heard voices in the middle of the night.  Whatever the case he instructs Samuel in the old ways.  This is what you do when God’s word comes to you, say “Speak Lord, for your servant it listening.”

Listening, that’s a novel idea.  It’s hard with all the liturgies we write, and the prayers that we mouth, and the songs that we bellow, and the sermons that we pronounce, to listen.  Besides, you know what they say, the word of the Lord is rare these days, and visions are not widespread.  If we didn’t say something, who would?  It is ironic though isn’t it–Eli telling Samuel to ‘listen’?  But not to Hannah.  And not to mysterious men.  God have mercy.

Sometimes I wonder what makes God silent.  Is it God?  Is it us?  Is it full bellies?  Maybe when God can’t get it through to us with words God employs a different tactic.  Barbara Brown Taylor has a wonderful quote in a little book she wrote entitled When God is Silent.  It reads, “In a world of too many words, silence affects people who are no longer affected by sound. Plenty of us who are defended against sound have no defense against silence.”

Whatever the case, Samuel does as Eli instructs and when Samuel listens God breaks his silence.  God tells Samuel that Eli and his house will be punished forever.  Worse yet, because Eli did not restrain his sons Hophni and Phinehas, and because they sinned against the Lord, there is no intercession that can be made on their behalf.  Samuel did not sleep the rest of the night, and he was afraid to tell Eli.  Eli didn’t sleep much either.  The silence of God in his own life kept him wide awake.

The next morning the old priest cornered Samuel, “What was it that he told you?  Do not hide it from me.  May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 

Samuel told Eli everything and hid nothing from him.  A subdued Eli offered a defeated response, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

The rest of the story, as you might imagine, is not a happy one.  The Philistines, a warring people from the south coast of Canaan, came on campaign against Israel.  They formed a formidable military line and the Israelites went out to meet them.  In the first salvo of fighting the Israelites were soundly defeated.  Four thousand Israelite men perished in the battle.  The remaining forces retreated and regrouped.  To rally the troops it was decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battle field.  That would assure the soldiers of the immanent presence of God as they bravely fought their enemy.

Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the Ark to the front lines.  Perhaps they thought they could hunker down safely behind the troops, wait out the battle, and return to Shiloh as war heroes.  When they strode into the camp with the holiest relic of all of Israel their chests swelled and their ephods flapped in the wind.  The encouraged Israelites gave a mighty shout so loud the earth resounded.  The Philistines heard the commotion, and they talked themselves up, “Take courage and be men…be men and fight.”

With the Ark before them the Israelites came out once again to meet the dreaded Philistines.  It was disastrous.   Israel was routed so badly the retreating men did not regroup, but instead ran away each to their own homes.  The slaughter was tragic–thirty thousand foot soldiers lost their life.  The Ark of the Covenant, topped with the mercy seat, the very throne of God on earth, was captured and the prideful and licentious Hophni and Phinehas were put to death by the sword.

A lone man from the tribe of Benjamin ran from the scene of slaughter and returned that same day to the tent of meeting with his clothes torn and dirt on his head.  Eli was sitting by the roadside with his heart trembling for the safety of the Ark of the Covenant.  There is no mention of his concern for Hophni and Phinehas.  “How did it go my son?” Eli asked the messenger.  “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”

When blind ninety-eight year old Eli heard that the Ark had been captured he fell off his seat backward.  Again, nothing is mentioned of his reaction to the passing of his sons.  But for Eli the loss of the Ark was enough.  His fall broke his neck.  The text is careful to explain why the fall was so severe giving us the detail that Eli was a very fat man.  Apparently he’d eaten a lot as priest for the people–a lot of fatty dinners with huge portions of meat.   It’s hard to hear the word of the Lord with a full belly.

This was a dark time for Israel.  Shortly after the death of Eli one of Phinehas’s wives gave birth to a child.  The woman died in delivery.  They named the child Ichabod–meaning, the glory has departed from Israel.

I believe that every baptized member of the Lord’s church, and even a few dry folk we wouldn’t expect, receive a call from God.  Many of us are called to places where the word of the Lord is rare, visions are not wide spread, where bellies are full and corruption is a given, and the very presence of the Lord has departed.  It will be hard to answer that call.  Perhaps it will come once, then twice, even three times.  It will seek us out, because we have been dedicated to God.  When we finally answer from the old ways, and say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” we will shudder at the message we receive–judgment, even upon ourselves, our temples, our clergy, our battles.  Those will be dark days.   No longer will we speak of the birth of the Immanuel.  Christmas will be over.  Instead we will speak of the birth of Ichabod, and the long cold nights of gray January.  This is what it means to be human living in a broken world.

But who said that your call should be especially easy?  That is not the promise we have received.  Our promise is far greater.  Our promise is the same promise received by Hannah.  We are promised relief from our barren state, and a future of great hope, even in the times when God is a deafeningly silent.  We are promised whispers in the night, and freedom from oppression.  We are promised the kingdom of God where nobody oppresses vulnerable people groups, or greedily stabs at meat in a pot, or steals from the Lord, but everyone has enough, and abundance is shared, and the presence of the Lord never departs.  May it be enough for you, and enough for me too, to put on our prophetic mantle, and act as priests to the world to restore justice to the house of the Lord.

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