Those two men were the sons of Eli (1 Samuel 1:3), who was the next-to-last judge of Israel. Each time the Bible mentions these brothers, it is always “Hophni and Phinehas,” the two of them noted together, and always in that word order.
When Phinehas and Hophni were newborn babies, they might have been “the cutest things ever.” When they were still toddlers, they may have been charming and exhibited incredible intelligence. Those things are possible, but uncertain. What is certain is this: when those two brothers became adults, they were a spiritual disaster. Why do we draw such a conclusion? The biblical evidence is overwhelming.
In reference to Phinehas and Hophni, the Bible says, “Now the sons of Eli were corrupt . . .” (1 Samuel 2:12). Instead of “corrupt,” the KJV reading is “sons of Belial.” The Hebrew word is “Belial,” defined as “worthlessness, and hence reckless, lawlessness. The expression son or man of Belial must be understood as meaning simply a worthless, lawless fellow” [Smith’s Bible Dictionary online at www.bible-history.com/smiths].
Here is another description of Eli’s sons: “. . . they did not know the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:12). From their earliest days of their lives, they would have been indoctrinated with the teaching of the Law of Moses. They knew there is a Creator. They knew Jehovah is the only God. But, they did not know Him in the sense of having a heart that was devoted to Him. What is the teaching of the new covenant about “knowing” God? “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3). Hophni and Phinehas definitely did not do that.
As “the priests of the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:3), Phinehas and Hophni were expected to be holy. What makes us think so? It is written, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron . . . They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God . . . therefore they shall be holy’” (Leviticus 21:1,6). Jehovah’s expectation/demand was for His priests to be men of purity and dedicated to His Cause. Eli’s two sons were anything but holy. A reminder: God calls on His people today, meaning all Christians, to be “a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). Just because God gives a command is no guarantee that humans will submit to it. The Lord’s message to Hophni and Phinehas was, “Be holy.” They refused. Are you and I doing any better than those two fellows did?
The Lord said this about the sons of Eli: “. . . his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:13). Phinehas and Hophni were not born that way, and Eli did not make them that way – they did it to themselves. No person is born separated from the God of heaven. Separation from Him occurs when people go astray by their own sins (Isaiah 59:1,2). Hophni and Phinehas, and no one else, were responsible for their vile hearts and actions.
The wickedness of Phinehas and Hophni did not go unnoticed by other Israelites. The Bible says this: “Therefore the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for men abhorred the offering of the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:17). Because of the two priests’ inappropriate action in how they took a share of the sacrifices offered, at least some people despised the idea of “going to worship.” The Israelites’ duty to worship the Lord was unchanged by the misconduct of their priests, but when considering the emotions involved from a human standpoint, it is easy to see why a person who is “turned off” by someone’s hypocrisy would be reluctant to go worship with him. Corrupt leadership has a horrible leavening effect.
Here is an alarming fact which shows how depraved Hophni and Phinehas were: “. . . they lay with the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22). Seriously?! We learn from secular history that in some ancient settings, when people went to worship at an idolatrous temple, temple harlots would be available for men’s fleshly desires. The fornication in which Eli’s sons engaged with worshippers at the tabernacle had the same ungodly appearance. How sad it must have made Eli to admit these truths to his rebellious sons: “Why do you such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people . . . it is not a good report that I hear. You make the LORD’s people transgress” (1 Samuel 2:24). God’s priests should have been helping His people grow closer to God; the behavior of Hophni and Phinehas had just the opposite effect.
In the case of Phinehas and Hophni, they were the right people (priests), in the right place (tabernacle), doing the right things (leading worship). But, they were a spiritual mess. This is a reminder for all of us: in the Lord’s eyes, going through the motions makes our service unacceptable. In addition, we need to see that having a particular genetic makeup/biological ancestry is no guarantee that one will be a faithful servant of Jehovah. Phinehas and Hophni had a good family background. They, however, chose not to be loyal to their Maker. Are we listening?
Is it possible for people to change their thinking about doing evil and cease their wicked works? It is called “repentance,” and yes, it is possible.
— Roger D. Campbell