From “The Character of Eli,” Sermons on Bible Subjects (1848)
Eli might with ease have assumed the priestly tone. When Samuel came with his strange story, that he had heard a voice calling to him in the dark, Eli might have fixed upon him a clear, cold, unsympathizing eye, and said, “This is excitement — mere enthusiasm. I am the appointed channel of God’s communications; I am the priest. Hear the Church. Unordained, unanointed with priestly oil, a boy, a child, it is presumption for you to pretend to communications from Jehovah! A layman has no right to hear voices; it is fanaticism.”
Eli might have done this; he would have only done what ordained men have done a thousand times when they have frowned irregular enthusiasm into dissent. And then Samuel would have become a mystic, or a self-relying enthusiast. For he could not have been made to think that the voice was a delusion. That voice no priest’s frown could prevent his hearing. On the other hand, Eli might have given his own authoritative interpretation to Samuel, of that word of God which he had heard. But suppose that interpretation had been wrong?
Eli did neither of these things. He sent Samuel to God. He taught him to inquire for himself. He did not tell him to reject as fanaticism the belief that an inner Voice was speaking to him, a boy; nor did he try to force his own interpretation on that voice, His great care was to put Samuel in direct communication with God; to make him listen to God; nay, and that independently of him, Eli. Not to rule him; not to direct his feelings and belief; not to keep him in the leading strings of spiritual childhood, but to teach him to walk alone.
There are two sorts of men who exercise influence. The first are those who perpetuate their own opinions, bequeath their own names, form a sect, gather a party round them who speak their words, believe their belief. Such men were the ancient rabbis. And of such men, in and out of the Church, we have abundance now. It is the influence most aimed at and most loved. The second class is composed of those who stir up faith, conscience, thought, to do their own work. They are not anxious that those they teach should think as they do, but that they should think. Nor that they should take this or that rule of right and wrong, but that they should be conscientious. Nor that they should adopt their own views of God, but that faith in God should be roused in earnest. Such men propagate not many views; but they propagate Life itself in inquiring minds and earnest hearts.
Now this is God’s real best work. Men do not think so. They like to be guided. They ask, what am I to think? and what am I to believe? and what am I to feel? Make it easy for me. Save me the trouble of reflecting and the anguish of inquiring. It is very easy to do this for them; but from what minds, and from what books, do we really gain most of that which we can really call our own? From those that are suggestive, from those that can kindle life within us, and set us thinking, and call conscience into action — not from those that exhaust a subject and seem to leave it threadbare, but from those that make us feel there is a vast deal more in that subject yet, and send us, as Eli sent Samuel, into the dark infinite to listen for ourselves.
And this is the ministry and its work — not to drill hearts, and minds, and consciences, into right forms of thought and mental postures, but to guide to the Living God who speaks. It is a thankless work; for as I have said, men love to have all their religion done out for them. They want something definite, and sharp, and clear — words — not the life of God in the soul; and, indeed, it is far more flattering to our vanity to have men take our views, represent us, be led by us. Rule is dear to all. To rule men’s spirits is the dearest rule of all; but it is the work of every true priest of God to lead men to think and feel for themselves — to open their ears that God may speak.
Eli did this part of his work in a true spirit. He guided Samuel, trained his character. But “God’s spirit!” Eli says, “I cannot give that. God’s voice! I am not God’s voice. I am only God’s witness, erring, listening for myself. I am here, God’s witness, to say — God speaks. I may err — let God be true. Let me be a liar if you will. My mission is done when your ear is opened for God to whisper into.”
Very true, Eli was superseded. Very true, his work was done. A new set of views, not his, respecting Israel’s policy and national life, were to be propagated by his successor; but it was Eli that had guided that successor to God who gave the views; and Eli had not lived in vain. My brethren, if any man or any body of men stand between us and the living God, saying, “Only through us — the Church — can you approach God ; only through my consecrated touch can you receive grace; only through my ordained teaching can you hear God’s voice; and the voice which speaks in your soul in the still moments of existence is no revelation from God, but a delusion and a fanaticism ” — that man is a false priest. To bring the soul face to face with God, and supersede ourselves, that is the work of the Christian ministry.
Frederick W. Robertson (1816-1853) was an English Anglican priest, one of the most famous preachers of his age. After serving parishes in Winchester and Cheltenham, he served for the final six years of his short life at Holy Trinity Church, Brighton, where he attracted great crowds with sermons famed for their deep insight into the spiritual life. Many were published after his death, including Sermons on Bible Subjects, first published in 1855.