The background to the choice of Samuel is a very dark one. The current priesthood was going to be judged by God because of their sins. First, Hophni and Phinehas had adapted the instructions that God had laid down in his word regarding portions that should be given to the priests; they had done so for their own benefit. For example, the fat of a sacrifice was to be devoted entirely to God (Lev. 7:22-25). Second, they were not merely guilty of immorality, but of imitation of the religious practices of the surrounding nations. It was the custom of these pagan religions to include fertility rites as part of their worship and Hophni and Phinehas seemed to have introduced these practices into Israel’s worship.
Verse 25 is one of the most solemn verses in the Bible; because of their prolonged and deliberate sins these leaders of Israel were abandoned by God and therefore could not respond to their father’s plea. Hophni and Phinehas ‘experienced the fate of men who deliberately sin against the light, who love their lusts so well that nothing will induce them to fight against them; they were so hardened that repentance became impossible, and it was necessary for them to undergo the full retribution of their wickedness’ (W. G. Blaikie). There are two wrong responses to this aspect of biblical teaching: to be critical and to be curious. The critic alleges God is deficient in mercy and the curious asks when a person can enter this condition. The proper response is to tremble before a God who judges sinners.
But there was also the sad reality of being ineffective for God. Eli the priest seems to have been a good man, but a good man who was weak in areas where he should have been strong. He is one of the sad characters of the Bible. In the chapter we see positive aspects in that he recognised the Lord was speaking to Samuel and he displayed humility in accepting the Lord’s judgment on his family. It is likely that the Lord used Eli to instruct young Samuel, which was a gracious allowing by the Lord in letting the old priest serve him in this way. And it is a sign of grace in Eli that he was willing to teach his replacement, especially since it was his own failures that brought about the situation. Furthermore Eli wanted to know what the Lord had told Samuel, which indicates he had a desire to know the truth.
Nevertheless he did not rebuke publicly the sins of his sons but merely gave them a private admonition – their sins required a public rebuke, which shows that Eli put his family before wholehearted service of God. Eli was a leader whom the Lord would not speak through, rather he was a leader whom the Lord had to speak to about failure.