A Case of Sovereignty and Responsibility (1 Samuel 2:23-25)

1 Samuel 2:23-25 (ESV)


23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. 24 No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. 25 If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.


            Often, we find in the word of God passages that force us to think in ways that we have not thought before. A close reading of the above may be one of those passages. Depending on how you have always interpreted the balance of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, the above words, read closely, may be a challenge.


            The context of the passage is simple. The sons of Eli are not godly men. They are supposed to b serving as priests as part of their family line. But, at every turn, these young men are abusing their authority and abusing the people under their care. They refuse to hear the rebuke of their Father, and they will eventually end up dead because of what they have done.


            What is striking is the end of verse 25, “But they would not listen to the voice of their father.” This indicates for us the issue of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. The verse begins with the statement that these two young men would not listen to the voice of their father. Clearly they are responsible for their own sinful actions. Clearly they have been given an opportunity to repent of sin, and they have not done so.


            Yet, there is something telling in that verse which shows us that the sovereignty of God is ultimate in this passage. It is the word “for.” The young men did not listen to the rebuke they heard, But they would not listen to the voice of their father, “for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” Why would they not listen? They would not listen, according to the writer of 1 Samuel, because it was God’s will that these men be judged for their sin. It was God’s will to put these men to death for what they had done.


            How do we handle the balance? Do the young men have a grievance against God because the Bible indicates that it was God’s will to put them to death? Of course not. These two men had chosen, freely chosen, to sin against God. They lived out their natural tendencies. When they were rebuked, they did not listen. There is nothing in the text that says that God moved them toward sin. We do find out that, behind their refusal to listen is the will of God. Yet, at the same time, they still did not choose to listen to a rebuke against their sin either before or after their father’s rebuke.


            So, what do we see here? We see here what we see in all biblical cases where the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man come together. Men do what they want to do. Yet, at the end of the day, it is the sovereign will of God that is ultimate. God is God. We dare not think that our will ever thwarts his. He is the Lord. His will is going to be done. His sovereign will cannot be disrupted. (There is a “will” of God which may not be done, often called God’s will of command as opposed to his will of decree. This is not the topic at hand.)


            What then should we do with all this? Do we change how we think about our freedom? That really depends. You must determine from Scripture which you believe to be ultimate: God’s will or man’s will. If you learn from Scripture that God’s will is ultimate, then you give him the glory that he deserves for all that is done. You will also rest in his sovereignty, knowing that the Lord is not defeated. At the same time, you will not excuse your or another’s sinful choices, as you will know that man is responsible for his actions.


            So, who is free in this passage? Is God free or is man free? The answer is that both are free. At the same time, we would be unbiblical not to recognize that God is more free. His freedom is ultimate. His will of decree, his sovereign will, will be done. This is to his glory, magnifying him as the Lord over all things.