Men Behaving Badly #1:  Samuel: The man born to be tough
1 Samuel 1:1-1:28; 3:1-21

Whether making viewers chuckle or chunder, Men Behaving Badly undeniably, and unapologetically, became the British sitcom of the 1990s... The antidote to all that 1980s talk of the New Man, MBB made the New Lad into a cause celebre, crystallising 'traditional' male behaviour that had never really gone away but had certainly been out of vogue for a while. To be what the media categorised as a New Man, you had to care and share with your partner, and children if you had them, be responsible and recognise your place in the home and the community. To be a New Lad meant… being self-centred, rude, crude and boorish, getting drunk on beer, swearing, bragging and staying single… Not surprisingly, plenty of men loved MBB, identifying with the two male lead characters, while a good many women tended to like it because it proved what they had always known: that men can be sad berks, interested only in (two things) alcohol and sex.

Martin Clunes who played Gary… got it about right when he described MBB as 'the comedy of the locker-room, that rowdy male behaviour that we try to suppress in public'. Neil Morrissey, who plays Tony, came on the scene in series two, replacing Harry Enfield, and the lodger helping Gary pay the bills but has yet to pay a penny in rent. He also summed it up by stating, 'Like most blokes we resolve all our problems by having a lager in front of the TV and not talking about anything'. Most of the episodes indeed ended in this non-reflective, inconsequential way, with the two guys sprawled on the couch, licking their wounds by guzzling from a can of lager, having advanced not a whit from the Neanderthal.[1]
Men Behaving Badly won numerous awards for best comedy programme, and even has its own website .

Part of its success probably arises from being
filmed before a live audience at Teddington Studios in West London. The other reason for its success was undoubtedly because the men didn’t have to act too hard - to behave badly. It comes naturally doesn’t it? I suspect half of you would say ‘yes’ and half of you would say ‘no’, depending on your gender… The fact is men have been behaving badly since Adam got kicked out of the garden. It’s probably why John Goldingay chose it for the title of his recent book of OT Bible characters,[2] which the inspiration for this seven week sermon series. We are going to limit ourselves to five characters found in 1st Samuel. They are:

Samuel: The man born to be tough.

Eli: The man for whom it was too late.
Saul: The man who was afraid of God’s anointing and the man who rejected God’s word.

David: The man who would be king and the man who became an outlaw.
Jonathan: The man who loved too much.

Why consider these particular men behaving badly? 2 Timothy 3:15-17 reminds us:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).


And the scripture Paul has in mind was the Law, the historical writings and the Prophets. The OT books are intended to teach us how God reveals himself to people, teaching them, training them, equipping them, chastising them, forgiving them, patiently leading them to faith in Jesus Christ. Tonight we want to begin with the story of Samuel: The man born to be tough.

As Goldingay points out, “There are no moral skeletons in his cupboard, at least none to which the books named after him offer the key. In Samuel’s story the men behaving badly are the people he has to work with, the people who are a disappointment: his natural father, his adopted father, his adopted brothers, his sons, his people as a whole, and the two kings he appointed. When he challenges people to find fault with his life in his old age (1 Sam. 12:2-5), no one can do so.”[3] Samuel comes across as a tough, austere individual whom God uses mightily. What were the significant factors in his training to be tough?
It seems to have had a lot to do with Samuel’s family - or should I say ‘families’. They were what Goldingay calls ‘dysfunctional’.

1. An Averagely Dysfunctional Family

Although Samuel was an answer to prayer, Samuel was born into something of a dysfunctional family.

1.1 Elkanah - Samuel’s Father

Being born into a family where his father Elkanah had two wives is not that dissimilar to today when mothers and fathers often marry more than once so that children grow up to call more than one person mother or father and may have several full and half siblings. Samuel was born to be tough. Elkanah - Samuel’s primary role model - seems to have been an average not-very-sensitive guy.

“He hardly succeeded in keeping from Peninnah that she was mainly valued as a womb.” Each year at the time of sacrifice, he gave Hannah twice as much meat as Peninnah “because he loved her” (1 Samuel 1:5).

If the narrator of the story knows that Elkanah loved Hannah more than Penninnah, presumably Peninnah knew also. Hence the rivalry and jealousy between them. “And the way he handled Hannah, with her feelings about her closed womb, hardly suggests he had paid attention to the counselling classes at the high place. ‘Why are you so downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?’ So make her feel guilty as well as depressed, Elkanah. Later, there is a moment when Hannah suggests/insists that she should not go to the festival but wait until the time she will take Samuel and leave him there. ‘Do what seems best to you.’ (1 Samuel 2:23) says Elkanah, shaking his head at the incomprehensible ways of a woman’s mind.” What about,

1.2 Hannah - Samuel’s Mother

“First, she was a woman who knew how to pray. Apparently it took some years to decide to pray about her closed womb, but she got there in the end. It is never too late to realise that you can pray about a thing. And Hannah was the sort of woman who went in with all guns blazing. I have the impression that Elkanah was a bit of a wimp, but there may be room for only one tough cookie in a marriage. Once Hannah committed herself to something, you could expect to see sparks fly. Woe betide any misguided pastor (like Eli) who got in her way. She also knew that tears are one of a woman’s most powerful weapons, and that they work with God as well as anyone. Furthermore, she knew that God cannot resist a promise. So Samuel was born as an answer to prayer.”

Being separated from his mother at an early age must have had a profound effect on both - Samuel was born to be tough.

“You could breastfeed a child for two or three years in the Middle East, and maybe another reason for Hannah’s delaying that visit to the cathedral is to make the very most of the years she could have the child as her own. There was no giving up this baby at birth to make the adoption process as painless as possible. But she had no intention of reneging on her promise, and eventually she and Elkanah make their joint pilgrimage.” In 1 Samuel 1:25, Hannah describes Samuel as just a child. Being separated from his mother at such an early age must have had a profound effect on both - Samuel was born to be tough. But if being separated from ones parents at the age of 3 or 4 is tough, into what kind of family is Hannah and Elkanah entrusting Samuel to be adopted?

2. A Really Dysfunctional Family

From what we learn in 1 Samuel 2, his new family is considerably more dysfunctional than his natural home. His new “father is the old priest Eli, whose references as a father would be unlikely to satisfy the social workers considering this adoption case.” His parental influence is hardly first hand, dependent as it was on what he learnt about his sons from other people, "Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the Lord's people.” (1 Samuel 2:23-24). And, “If his opinions regarding the arrival of this woman who wants to dump her baby on his doorstep go unrecorded, his pastoral sensitivity on the occasion of their first meeting leaves something to be desired. “How long will you keep on getting drunk…” (1 Samuel 1:14).

“Samuel’s adoptive brothers are Hophni and Phinehas, whose mentoring regarding work at the cathedral seems unlikely to provide him with good role models. His adoptive mothers are presumably the women” with whom Eli’s sons are sleeping. Yet, “Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 2:19).

Shiloh was no more than 20 miles from where Elkanah and Hannah lived but it might have been the other side of the world. “I find it difficult to imagine that Hannah resisted the temptation to walk there for the day from time to time, unless she was also the kind of tough cookie who thinks it is best to cut off ties sharply when a relationship cannot develop in a natural way… So perhaps the annual family visit was the one occasion when mother and son met, and each year she would take clothes she had made for him. How much love and gratitude and grief and commitment and joy and sadness was sewn into those clothes?” If Samuel’s family - natural and adoptive were somewhat dysfunctional, the rest of his society was unlikely to provide an alternative more constructive influence.

2.1 It was a time when there was a lack of revelation

”In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” (1 Samuel 3:1)
Why was this? Could it be because God could find few that were faithful? Adam Clarke writes,

 “The most grievous of all famines, a famine of the words of Jehovah; a time in which no prophet should appear, no spiritual counsellor, no faithful reprover, none any longer who would point out the way of salvation, or would assure them of the mercy of God on their repentance and return to him. This is the severest of God’s judgments on this side the worm that never dieth, and the fire that is never quenched.” (Adam Clarke). It was a time when there was a lack of revelation.

2.2 It was a time when there was a lack of restraint

“Eli's sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord… how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting… his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them...” (1 Samuel 2:12, 2:22, 3:13).


A time when there was a lack of revelation and a lack of restraint.

2.3 It was also a time when there was a lack of respect

When people came to bring sacrifices to atone for their sin, the servant would insist impatiently,  "…hand it over now; if you don't, I'll take it by force. This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord's sight, for they were treating the Lord's offering with contempt.” (1 Samuel 2:16-17)

Because of the sin of Eli’s sons the children of Israel began to despise the offerings of the Lord. There was a lack of respect for the house of God, the ministers of God, and the sacrifices. In 1 Samuel 2:24, Eli says to his sons that they caused the Lord’s people to stumble. When things are not done right at the house of God, and by the ministers, people will lose respect for it.

So the time in which Samuel was born was a time when there was a lack of revelation, there was a lack of restraint and a lack of respect - a dysfunctional time when people, including even religious leaders, behaved badly. Not that dissimilar to today. And yet when we turn to Samuel himself - what do we discover?

3. Samuel - A Normal Functional Individual

Samuel stood out from a very early age. Somewhere between 3-4 years of age, at the end of I Samuel 1 he is taken on this awesome visit to the Cathedral - a visit more for his parents than Samuel because for him it’s a one way ticket. As Goldingay points out, “There he passed over from one father to another - or rather from an earthly mother to a heavenly Father. In the last sentence of the chapter he is the subject of the verb for the first time in his story.” “And he worshipped the Lord there.” (1 Samuel 1:28).

“The little boy’s response to being in the presence of Yahweh is more evidence that Yahweh is doing something spectacular to put Israel’s life right and to put its destiny in order.”

The we are given this poigniant scene: “Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the Lord under Eli the priest.” (1 Samuel 2:11). So his parents go home and leave Samuel “under Eli” but “before the Lord”. Three more brief cameos in chapter 2 give us an insight into Samuel’s early development.

1. The boy ministered before the Lord
(2:11, 18)

He takes up the ongoing role of serving Yahweh - the role of the priests and Levites - from the age of three or four - “wearing a linen ephod” -  in priest’s garment, faithfully fulfilling the role of Eli’s decadent sons.

2. The boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord

He grew up with Yahweh in the way an ordinary child grows up with parents or siblings.

3. Samuel continued to grow… in favour with God and people (2:26).
He looked good to Yahweh, like the creation that God examined and liked the look of. He looked good to other people also - his mentor, the cathedral staff, and the worshippers, and no doubt his parents also. He was becoming an impressive young man with clear potential for giving Shiloh Cathedral a new start. The scene is set. Samuel was becoming a non-averagely functional individual. Growing up in the presence of the Lord, ministering to him on behalf of the people, he grows in favour with God and the people.  In our reading from chapter 3 we see this has all been preparation for his call as a prophet not a priest.

“Eli is old and cannot see very well. It is literally true, but metaphorically so, too. Though the fact that Yahweh has not been speaking a great deal may mean that Eli cannot be blamed too much for being slow to recognise when Yahweh issues a summons to someone.” And “Samuel deserves some sympathy [also] when, hearing someone calling his name, he jumps up and runs to Eli on the assumption that he was the one calling. Eli’s poor sight means he needs Samuel’s help if he is to find his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And Eli deserves some sympathy for assuming that the boy had been dreaming. The second time, the young man walks rather than runs… When he again sends Samuel back to bed, Eli adds [affectionately] ‘my son’... Yahweh had one more try. And it is actually [on this third occasion] Eli who perceives that is going on. So he is not so blind…

“So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' "So Samuel went and lay down in his place.” (1 Samuel 3:9). “Is Samuel now unable to get back to sleep? And does Eli lie awake, too? I know what I would have been thinking, whether I was Eli or Samuel. I would be sure that the voice of God would never come again, that I had blown it, lost my chance. I would be sure that I would spend my life henceforth saying, ‘If only I had realised the first time, or even the second time.’ … Except that… Yahweh is never in a hurry and is always giving people second and third chances (that is why history has gone on so long).”

“The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3:10)


Notice this time Yahweh comes in person [perhaps as the pre-incarnation Jesus] and speaks. “This time there would be no danger of confusing Yahweh’s voice with Eli’s.” Goldingay asks the question, “So why did Yahweh not appear like this before, and make everything easier for everyone? Another of Yahweh’s characteristics is admittedly a disinclination to do things the easy way. One effect is to give more subatnace to the story. The story of the call to leadership may need some substance if it is to remain convincing over the years - to the leader and the led. So the stories of Moses and Gideon and Jeremiah emphasize their attempts to evade God’s call, while Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s stories emphasize the transcendent awesomeness of God’s appearing to them. But another effect of Yahweh’s declining to make what was going on more inescapable to Samuel from the beginning is that Eli is about to be the subject of the words Yahweh speaks too. There is no hiding Yahweh’s call from Eli.”

As we shall see when we think about the application, its easy to treat the call of people such as Samuel or Isaiah or Jeremiah as patterns for God’s calling of us, for God’s call to some form of Christian ministry.” Goldingay rightly observes, “If so, they are frightening patterns.” How often have you heard talks in which you were urged to model yourself on Samuel and repeat the phrase “speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Or Isaiah’s “Here am I, send me.” Or Jeremiah’s “Do not be afraid of them: I am with you to deliver you.” The difference is, “Samuel and Isaiah and Jeremiah had to continue listening to the end of the paragraph.

And it tends to transpire that there is another reason why there is so much substance to the stories of how these people came to be sucked into Yahweh’s service. That service was negative, destructive, judgemental and threatening. Theirs was not a call to an encouraging pastoral ministry or a life-giving evangelistic one… So “if you have to walk into that ministry, for your sake and for your people’s there had better be some grounds for being sure that it is God who is driving you into it…” What was the message God has for the still young Samuel? “Yahweh tells Samuel that things are to happen to Eli and his family that will scare the pants off everyone who hears of them… Eli is, after all, the senior priest at Israel’s central place of worship…”

 “And the Lord said to Samuel: "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family for ever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, 'The guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.' " (1 Samuel 3:11-14)


Picture the scene. God has been standing before Samuel who is still lying down. What is going through his mind? The ambiguous way in which God had spoken to Samuel meant that Eli knew, and Samuel knew that Eli knew. “Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, "Samuel, my son." Samuel answered, "Here I am." (1 Samuel 3:15-16).


This time it’s Eli who is calling. Samuel was clearly afraid and did not want to have to tell him what God had said. He gets no joy being the bearer of terrible news, least of all to his adoptive father, his mentor. But there is no escape from the Lord’s will. Ironically the revelation does not actually reveal anything. In the preceding chapter a visiting prophet has already brought this message to Eli so here there is no surprise, merely confirmation. “So perhaps it is given as much for Samuel’s sake as for Eli’s...” for as the story closes we see that Samuel is being prepared for a prophetic ministry to his people as a whole.

“The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.” (1 Samuel 3:19-21)


“Yahweh’s presence means Yahweh’s power… when Yahweh spoke via Samuel, things happened… Yahweh’s appearing and speaking to Samuel was but the beginning of such divine communication, and of Samuel passing on Yahweh’s words to Israel. Samuel is to be at the centre of a chain of events that brings a … revolution to Israel, replacing judges by kings and prophets, an Eli priesthood by a Zadok priesthood, and a cathedral in Shiloh by one in Jerusalem.” Samuel is indeed - a man born to be tough.

So what can we say by way of application? Three brief observations as we close:

God is Sovereign - with Samuel

God was with Samuel - irrespective of the circumstances, irrespective of how dysfunctional his family might be, irrespective of how depraved his society was. God is sovereign and Samuel accepted his calling.  And God is sovereign in your life also. You are not determined by your past. However dysfunctional your upbringing you can choose whether it still controls you. God is sovereign. He was with Samuel and he is with you.

God is Strategic - in Samuel

God was working in Samuel - Irrespective of age. God knew what he was doing. These first three chapters of Samuel concern God’s dealing with a young boy. Never underestimate the spiritual capacity of children to discern and respond to God’s leading and to want to serve him. What ever your age, God has a plan for your life. It is never too early or never too late to respond to God’s call. “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” God is sovereign. God is strategic

God is speaking - through Samuel 

Irrespective of the consequences. What has God been saying to you tonight? What does he want you to do this week in the light of this passage? When God gives a message we had better deliver it. In our generation in which men (and women) behave badly, what kind of person is God calling you to be? Like Samuel we were born again to be tough, to dwell with God, to listen to God and to speak for God - for if we don’t who will?


Lets pray.



[1] Edited from a review by Mark Lewisohn.

[2]  John Goldingay,Men Behaving Badly, (Paternoster, 2000). Quotations are taken from chapter 1. pp.1-24.

[3]  MBB, p.8