Eli: The Priest Who Neglected To Be a Father (Phil Johnson)

1 Samuel 1-4   |   Sunday, July 7, 2013   |   Code: 2013-07-07-PJ

     Turn with me to 1 Samuel 1, and this morning we're going to look at the miserable end of the life of Eli. Eli was the high priest of Israel at the end of the era of the Judges. This was that checkered period of Israel's history when "there was no king in Israel[ and] everyone did what was right in his own eyes." It was a time of backsliding and apostasy—and even some of the heros of that era were deeply flawed, including Samson and Jepthah (both of them judges). The same thing goes with Eli. He was a believer and a priest and a judge over Israel. But he was a man whose inconsistencies and failures ultimately marred his testimony, spoiled his legacy, and brought his own family to ruin. His life is a tragic cautionary tale.

     Back in the late '80s, early 90s—before I began teaching in Gracelife—I spent a few years teaching in the junior boys' department, and during those years we did repeated surveys of 1 Samuel.

     Of course, in the Junior division you are more or less confined by the curriculum they give you, and whoever wrote the curriculum we were using in those days covered the opening chapters of 1 Samuel without saying very much about Eli. The focus was on the boy Samuel, and how his mother prayed for him, and she dedicated him to God, and made a little priest costume for him, and all of that. Eli, the old priest who trained Samuel, was relegated to the background and the Sunday-school curriculum didn't have a lot to say about him. He was just mentioned as the priest who took Samuel in and trained him, and then when we studied the part where Samuel heard the voice of God in the night, we would get a little glimpse of him—enough to know that he wasn't the most godly High Priest who ever held that office. But the focus in the Junior division was on Samuel, and very little was said about Eli.

     I taught through that same curriculum two or three times during the years I was teaching in the Junior division. And the pattern was always the same. One week we'd be talking about Samuel as a boy, and the next week we jumped to the story of David as a boy. We more or less skipped right over the end of Eli's life. And that's understandable, because we were teaching 10-year-old boys, so they could relate to Samuel as a child and David as a boy. But I also got the distinct impression from whoever wrote the Sunday-school curriculum that I'd better not say a whole lot about Eli to the junior boys.

     And I always had this itch to divert from the curriculum and do a lesson on Eli, because I happen to think you can learn from a bad example as well as from a good one. That's what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10. He uses the Israelites in the wilderness as a negative example, and he expressly tells the Corinthians not to be like that—don't grumble, don't be idolaters, don't behave immorally, and don't put God to the test. The Israelites in Moses' generation all died in the wilderness because they did those things. And then Paul says (1 Corinthians 10:11), "Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction."

     "All Scripture is . . . profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness"—including the parts that feature bad examples. And Eli is exactly the kind of bad example that stands as a warning to me—and to many of you as well. His character flaws are precisely the besetting sins of our generation. So let's see what lessons we can learn from the unsavory aspects of this old priest's character.

     Let me note at the outset that Eli was not a reprobate. He wasn't an unbeliever; he didn't revel in wickedness; he was not an enemy of righteousness. He was a redeemed man. He was a priest of the most high God, and despite all the various character flaws we're going to observe in Eli, bear in mind that he was at heart a righteous man whom the Lord had redeemed. He fits in the same category as Lot and Samson: redeemed men behaving badly.

     Such people are living reminders that God's elect struggle with the habits and tendencies of the flesh. We are in Christ. We are new creatures. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new. But still sin clings to us like Lazarus' grave clothes. Our flesh is still fallen flesh. And the promise of perfect Christlikeness awaits its fulfillment when we see Him and are instantly transformed into his perfect likeness.

     Until then, while the absolute bondage of sin is broken, the lure of sin has not yet lost its barbs, and Christians who succumb to the enticements of the flesh can suffer appalling, scandalous spiritual and personal defeat, which can lead to the worst kinds of personal catastrophe in this life. These men, Lot, Samson, and Eli all suffered earthy ruin on their way to heavenly glory. They are examples to us in a negative sense. But in eternity they will be glorious trophies of divine grace.

     The stories of these men remind us that our justification rests on Christ's perfection; redemption in no sense depends on our own performance.

     I have exchanged a few e-mails recently with a man who is constantly racked by doubts about his salvation. Every time he sins—even some of the most petty kinds of sins—he beats himself up with doubts about whether he is really saved. It sometimes plunges him into depression for weeks at a time. He described all of this to me and wanted to know whether I believed he had good reason to doubt his salvation.

     I told him yes, I doubt his salvation, too. But what concerns me is not the sin in his life. It is his utter failure to believe the promises of God. He's obsessed with his own miserable performance, while he seems oblivious to the comforts of divine grace. He can't seem to lay hold of the truth that Christ's righteousness is a sufficient ground for his justification, and his own righteousness is and always will be as useless as manure and as defiled (and worthless) as a filthy pile of used bandages.

     My reply to him was that if he won't believe the promises of God and rest in Christ as Savior, he cannot be saved. Much less should he expect to find true peace and settled assurance by evaluating his own works. Anyone who thinks he can possibly be good enough to deserve God's grace knows nothing about the gospel.

     Romans 4:5 reminds us that God "justifies the ungodly." Second Peter 2:8 refers to Lot, the miserable, lifelong compromiser, as "that righteous man." Hebrews 11:32 lists Samson and Jepthah among the heroes of faith. Eli was worthless as a priest, and a failure as a father. He let the grossest kind of evil abide in his own household.

     But he himself seems to have been a believer. He was slow to hear, but he knew the voice of the Lord when he heard it, and he did not resist or try to defend himself when God pronounced judgment on his household. He simply said, "It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him." He was a miserable example and a poor leader, but during a time when everyone in Israel was doing what was right in his own eyes, he maintained the sacrificial system and kept the tabernacle open. He "judged Israel forty years." Scripture portrays him as a believer and a redeemed man—though he is clearly a negative example (like Lot and Samson and that generation of Israelites who perished in the wilderness); not someone we should emulate.

     Even Solomon, who was blessed with supernatural wisdom, made a wreck of his own life and legacy by indulging in sin. It should not surprise us that there are examples like that in the Bible. Everyone in heaven will be there solely by the grace of God. No one gets to heaven by being good. Trusting your own goodness will get you to hell.

     I don't bring that up to try to offer an encouragement to anyone who is revelling in sin—but it ought to be an encouragement to those who hate the sin in their lives yet find themselves like Paul in Romans 7 constantly fighting the same battles with sin over and over again.

     Also, I want to confess to you that looking at the lives of men like Lot, and Samson, and Eli is very convicting to me personally. One thing that kept echoing in my mind as I studied the life of Eli is that I suffer from many of the same character flaws that utterly debilitated him. As I said, a list of his character flaws would read like a catalogue of the present generation's besetting sins. Eli is the patron saint of all spiritual couch potatoes. The tragedy that played itself out in Eli's life ought to sound a shrill warning to all of us who are prone to be lazy and spiritually apathetic. His whole life is a reminder to us that when we tolerate sin in our lives, we expose ourselves to the Lord's discipline. And He will discipline those whom He loves. Hebrews 12:6: "The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." That, I would say, is the central application this morning's lesson, so bear it in mind as we look at the life of Eli.

     I want to look at three telling episodes in Eli's life. Each of these episodes reveals a serious character flaw. And it was character flaws like these that ultimately led to his undoing. For those of you who are taking notes, here are the three character flaws we'll see in Eli's behavior: incompetence, indifference, and indolence.


Episode 1: We'll see how Eli's incompetence made him a failure as a priest.

     We're talking about spiritual incompetence here. You see it in Eli's own wilful dereliction of his priestly duties. His utter incompetence as a spiritual leader and shepherd of God's flock is evident from the first time we meet him. Turn to 1 Samuel 1, and we'll just launch into the story. This chapter focuses, of course, on Hannah and her prayer for a son. And Scripture introduces Eli to us almost in passing.

     To set the context, remember that this story took place as the era of the judges drew to an end. God was about to institute the monarchy. The Tabernacle was permanently pitched at Shiloh, and since the Tabernacle was now a stable fixture there, Scripture occasionally refers to it as the Temple. In fact, verse 9 is the first use of the word temple in all of Scripture. It says, "Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD."

     Eli himself is mentioned for the first time in verse 3, which says, "Now this man [Elkanah] used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD."

     So when we first meet Eli, he is an old enough man to have two grown sons who were also serving as priests. And they have to be some of the worst priests in the history of the priesthood. (More about that later.)

     But here is Eli, in the patriarchal role, sitting in a seat of authority near the post of the Tabernacle. And he is there (v. 9) when Hannah comes to pray for a son.

     Now Hannah, according to verse 10—

was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly.

11 And she vowed a vow and said, "O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head."

Does that sound familiar? If you remember the story of Samson, it will. Hannah's prayer echoes the prayer Samson's mother prayed. Hannah is in essence promising God that if He will grant her a son, she will devote him to the Lord with a Nazirite vow (or something very nearly like a Nazirite vow) for all of his life. She undoubtedly knew the story of Samson, and she is following the example of Samson's parents.

     This was not a passionless prayer: "She was deeply distressed [and] wept bitterly" (v. 10). The King James Version translates the expression this way: "she was in bitterness of soul." But rather than allowing a root of bitterness to make her bitter, she put her afflictions to good use, and she let suffering drive her to pray.

     It helps to understand that in this culture, childlessness carried a peculiar stigma. It was deemed a sign of the Lord's displeasure, and in Hannah's case it was an especially bitter fortune, because her husband had two wives. (People always ask about this, so I'll take time to say it: God did not sanction polygamy, even in the Old Testament. God's plan from the beginning was for "a man [to] leave his father and his mother, and . . . cleave unto his wife: and [the two of them] shall be one flesh." That's Genesis 2:24, and it set the standard of one man, one wife, all the way back in the Garden of Eden, even before Adam fell. All those who practiced polygamy in the Old Testament reaped the fruit of their sin, including Abraham, and Jacob, and David, and Solomon—and everyone else about whom it is recorded they had more than one wife. The Old Testament records the fact of polygamous marriages, but don't get the idea that God ever sanctioned those unions.)

     In Elkanah's case, his multiple marriages gave occasion for strife between his wives, and even though he loved Hannah, her childlessness gave her a distinct disadvantage in this polygamous arrangement. For all those reasons she desperately wanted children.

     Remember the prayer of Rebekah in Genesis 30:1? "Give me children, or I shall die!" Hannah's prayer was more modest than that. She did not pray for children, but for one son. She begged God for a child, a son, one who would be fit to serve in the tabernacle. If God would give her a son she would give him back to God, verse 11.

     Hannah's desire was intense—agonizing. In fact, this unfulfilled longing for a son was what caused the "bitterness of soul" spoken of in verse 10. She knelt there in the Tabernacle and prayed poured out her soul before the Lord (v.15).

     But with all the turmoil going on inside of her, she prayed silently (v. 13): "Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard." She knew that the Lord knew her heart, and despite how she must have felt like crying out, she purposely prayed her prayer in secret. Although she was in a public place, she kept her prayer between her and the Lord. She was not like those New Testament Pharisees who prayed to be seen of men. Her business was with God and God alone.

     Notice Eli's response. He was the priest charged with overseeing the Tabernacle. He sat on a seat of authority by a post, probably in a corner where he could both see who came and went, as well as observe what was going on inside the tabernacle. He's an old man, functioning more like a WalMart greeter than a high priest. He has appropriated the trappings of spiritual leadership without any of the dignity of that role. And his incompetence is seen in his own failure to differentiate between someone who merely sits in the seat of authority, and the priest who is a true shepherd.

     From this perch that he had made for himself, Eli had a clear view of Hannah. Verse 12 says he observed her mouth—meaning he was watching her lips move. Verse 13 says, "Only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman."

     And look what he did. This is appalling, really. He rebuked her. Verse 14: "Eli said to her, 'How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.'" There is no suggestion that he moved from his seat or came and whispered this rebuke in her ear to keep it private. The impression we get is that from his seat at the doorpost, he barked this rebuke at her like a megalomaniac hall monitor at a junior high school.

     This was not only rude, it was horribly insensitive, and incompetent. This was the very same accusation the unbelieving mob made against the apostles on the day of Pentecost, wasn't it? The fact that he would assume the worst about a woman like Hannah shows how shockingly devoid of discernment Eli was. Drunkenness usually makes people noisy and boisterous. Hannah was silent and keeping to herself. There was absolutely no valid reason for him to rebuke her.

     In fact, as a priest, it was his duty to show her compassion. Hebrews 5:1-2 says that the high priest is a man rather than an angel or some kind of heavenly being precisely so that he can have empathy with those who come to worship: "Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness." So Eli's rebuke of Hannah was a complete failure of his duty as a priest.

     It may well be that Eli was accustomed to seeing drunken women at the door of the tabernacle. That would fit what we know about the sinful practices of Hophni and Phinehas, which we'll see in a moment. In light of the way Eli's sons ran the Tabernacle, it's no wonder, really, that Eli mistook Hannah for a licentious woman. Such was the low spiritual climate of that time that Eli acted as if he had never seen a godly woman come to the Tabernacle to pray silently. He completely misjudged her.

     It's interesting (isn't it?) that Eli, the priest, did not even seem to recognize silent prayer when he saw it. This suggests to me that he was lax in his own private prayer life. And if anything is a sign of incompetence in a priest it is a lackadaisical prayer life. If Eli's own praying had been what it should be, you can be certain he would not have been so quick to condemn someone else's private devotion to God. But he did not even recognize Hannah's praying for what it was.

     There seems to have been a pattern of this sort of thing with Eli. We won't go into this in detail, but most of you will remember the story of how God spoke to the young boy Samuel, when Eli was sleeping in the next room. The voice of the Lord came to Samuel three times. It was apparently an audible voice, because Samuel thought Eli was calling him. So he went into where the old Priest was sleeping, and awakened him. It was not until the third time God spoke that Eli realized it was the voice of God calling Samuel. He told him to go back, lie down, and when the voice came again, he was to say, "Speak, LORD, for your servant hears" (1 Samuel 3:9). If you read that account, it is very clear that Eli himself simply rolled over and went back to sleep. We know that, because when God spoke to Samuel, the message included a prophecy of judgment against Eli's house, and Eli had to be told about it the next day.

     Now, I don't know about you, but if I'm a priest and I realize in the night that the audible voice of God is speaking to someone in my house, I'd want to be awake and listening. But Eli was content just to go back to bed and fall right to sleep—almost as if he was annoyed by the interruption. He was utterly incompetent as a priest.

     Now let's turn to—


Episode 2: We'll see how Eli's indifference made him a failure as a parent.

     First Samuel 2 reveals that the spiritual state of things in the Tabernacle had sunk to unprecedented depths. This is further evidence of Eli's stunning incompetence as a priest. But notice, too, how appallingly indifferent he is as a parent.

     I'm simply going to read the account of 1 Samuel 2::12-36. And you're going to be appalled at the behavior of Hophni and Phinehas. They were a couple of unbelievably wicked thugs. They acted like they were Mafia dons whose territory was the Tabernacle. But what I want to call your attention to as I read this passage is Eli's utter abdication of his priestly and parental roles. It's clear that he had been sinfully tolerant of his sons' misbehavior for many years. He had permitted them to indulge in all kinds of flagrant mischief without fear of rebuke. He had tolerated their diabolical behavior for so long that now they brazenly bullied and intimidated worshipers, openly indulged in all kinds of fleshly sins, and blasphemously took for themselves offerings that were meant for God—apparently without fear that anyone would seriously challenge them.

     Eli sat by passively. He scolded poor Hannah the first time he saw her praying in the Tabernacle, but his own sons had abused the priestly office for years without a single word of rebuke from him. Chapter 2, verse 22 indicates that it was not until "Eli was very old," after hearing countless reports of his sons' villainy, that he finally challenged them, and then it was just about the weakest imaginable admonition. This is unbelievable, inexcusable indifference from someone who is supposed to be a man of God. Let's look at this episode:

     I'm reading selected verses from 1 Samuel 2:12-36: "Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD." "Worthless" isn't really strong enough to do the Hebrew expression justice. The King James Version translates it literally: they were "sons of Belial." That's what the Hebrew expression means: sons of the devil. And it's significant that Scripture expressly tells us "They did not know the LORD." That's not said of Eli, because with all his faults and character flaws, Eli did know the Lord.

     But notice how emphatically Scripture declares that Hophni and Phinehas were utter reprobates. Among all the unsavory characters we encounter in Scripture, these were two of the worst! They were cynical, deliberately wicked, unbridled in their pursuit of self-gratification, and just plain mean-spirited.

The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand,

14 and he would thrust it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. All that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there.

Now there was no warrant for this practice. It had evidently become a custom while the Tabernacle was in Shiloh, but in effect, it robbed the worshipers, and more important, robbed God of what was due Him. There was provision in the Old Testament for the priests to partake of certain sacrifices, but this was not the means God prescribed for them to do it. But look, it gets worse:

Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest's servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, "Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw."

16 And if the man said to him, "Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish," he would say, "No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force."

17 Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.

And so they would resort to intimidation to steal that which the people were offering to God. This was a wanton act of blasphemy and a crime against God himself. The worst sort of corruption had penetrated right into the household of the high priest. But it gets still worse. Look down at verse 22: "Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting." In effect, they were operating a brothel at the entrance to the Tabernacle.

     Matthew Henry says this:

     To have gone to the harlots' houses, the common prostitutes, would have been abominable wickedness, but to use the interest which as priests they had in those women that had devout dispositions and were religiously inclined, and to bring them to commit their wickedness, was such horrid impiety as one can scarcely think it possible that men who called themselves priests should ever be guilty of. Be astonished, O heavens! at this, and tremble, O earth! No words can sufficiently express the villainy of such practices as these.

But Eli's response was pathetically lame. look at verse 23: "He said to them, 'Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad.'"

     Talk about a weak response! He goes on to say, "If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?" So he clearly recognizes the gravity of their sin. He is hinting, perhaps, that his sons' wickedness might even be unforgivable. He clearly understands the need for atonement and an intercessor, and he knows that no human intercessor would be adequate to plead their case, even if they were to repent. In other words, he has correctly assessed the theological dilemma of his sons' wickedness.

     Everything Eli said in that little speech was right, but it was not enough. Eli's sons deserved more than a strong rebuke. He was the High Priest. It was his responsibility to guard the purity of the Lord's worship. At the very least he needed to remove them from their office and banish them from the Tabernacle. There may have even been grounds to stone them for such gross and open sacrilege. But Eli was much too tolerant as a father. His response here strongly suggests that it was partly if not mostly his fault that Hophni and Phinehas had grown up to be so wicked in the first place.

     Notice what verse 25 says, starting in the middle of the verse: "they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death." In other words, God had already sovereignly determined to judge them for their sins, so he hardened their hearts against their father's rebuke. The Lord did what Romans 1 says He will do with those who fall in love with their own wickedness: He gave them over to the sin that they loved, and He allowed them to reap the full consequences of what they had sowed.

     Verse 27 says a man of God came to Eli and prophesied the doom of his entire household. He told Eli his sons would die because of the evil they had done. Skip down to verse 34:

And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day.

That is exactly what happened, too. Not only did Hophni and Phinehas both die in one day, but Eli himself died that day as well. It was a sorrowful day for all of Israel. It was that infamous battle in which the Israelites took the Ark of God into battle against the Philistines, as if God were a genie in a box who would magically assure victory.

     First Samuel 4:4 says it was Hophni and Phinehas who brought the Ark into the camp of battle. It was a foolish and superstitious thing to do, and it resulted in doom and calamity all around. Not only were the Israelites defeated, but also Hophni and Phinehas both died on the same day. Before the day was out, Eli would be dead, too.

     Listen, all those tragic consequences ultimately are traceable back to Eli's own failure as a parent. If he had not been so indifferent when his sons began to abuse the privileges of the priesthood, the seeds of national catastrophe would never have been sown.

     That brings us to episode 3 in the life of Eli—where


Episode 3: We'll see how Eli's indolence made him a failure as a person.

     Think about the nature of Eli's character flaws. He was incompetent as a priest and indifferent as a parent. Both of those involve a kind of apathetic passivity. You get the feeling that Eli was a slothful, idle man. In fact, have you noticed that in the episodes we have looked at, Scripture specifically mentions his physical posture? He is always either seated or sleeping. Eli is never once portrayed as a man of action in any of the biblical references to him. He was a lazy man. As I pointed out earlier, he was the kind of person who could roll back over and go to sleep even when he knew God was present and speaking with an audible voice. He loved the seat of authority, but not the duties that came with it.

     And that pathological addiction to indolence played a role in Eli's death. Episode 3 brings us to the account of how Eli died.

     After that disastrous battle when the Philistines captured the Ark and Hophni and Phinehas were killed, a messenger returned to Shiloh with the awful news. First Samuel 4:12—

A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head.

13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out.

14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, "What is this uproar?" Then the man hurried and came and told Eli.

15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see.

16 And the man said to Eli, "I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today." And he said, "How did it go, my son?"

17 He who brought the news answered and said, "Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured."

18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.

Here is Eli at the end of his life. He is an old man, so you wouldn't expect him to be out fighting in the battle. But, as is characteristic of Eli, he is seated. He is fat, and feeble, and typically idle, sitting at the city gate, which was a place that symbolized authority. Eli seemed to like the trappings of leadership—especially sitting in the seat of authority. But he didn't take the responsibilities of leadership very seriously. The mental picture is disturbing: An old man pompously seated in a public place of respect, yet totally neglecting virtually all the actual duties of his office. Here's a man who is morally lazy, physically inactive, and emotionally indifferent to the gross wickedness of his own degenerate sons.

     And yet even more disturbing than all that is Eli's sheer, incorrigible spiritual apathy. He has utterly lost or bartered away whatever spiritual passion he once had. He is not a spiritual man, much less the kind of spiritual leader Israel needed at that hour.

     I think there is a kind of poetic justice in the way he died.

     If Eli had not been so inactive all his life, he might well have avoided some of the calamity that overtook him at the end. If he had disciplined his own sons instead of tolerating their insolence and blasphemy, the spiritual state of the whole nation might have been dramatically different. If he himself had done more in the Temple—taken a real role of spiritual leadership instead of merely sitting idle in the seat of authority—the spiritual climate in and around Shiloh might not have been so bleak.

     But Eli was a lazy, indolent, irresponsible man. And God judged his whole household for it. Never again was a descendent of Eli's in the high-priestly role. Never again did the Ark of the Lord return to Shiloh. You might recall that Phinehas's wife bore a premature son as a result of all this trauma, and as she was dying from the complications of childbirth, she named the child Ichabod, meaning "the glory has departed."

     The glory departed from Shiloh, and when the ark was finally returned to the Tabernacle, it rested on Mount Zion, in Jerusalem. The ark had always been in the tribe of Ephraim. Now it was transferred to Judah. And God wrote Ichabod on the tribe of Ephraim, the city of Shiloh, and the household of Eli.

     Shiloh dwindled to nothing. And many generations later, when the Lord prophesied against Jerusalem and the tribe of Judah, he reminded them of this tragic day in Israel's history. Jeremiah 7:12-15 says this:

Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.

13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer,

14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.

15 And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.

So Eli's character flaws had tragic and far-reaching consequences. All of this is a reminder that whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap. And if we tolerate sin in our lives, God will discipline us severely.


     I started by emphasizing the fact that Eli was a redeemed man. I want to close by pointing out that he was not utterly devoid of spiritual fruit. In each of the three episodes we have seen, there is evidence of grace in Eli's heart alongside the glaring character flaws.

     For example, when he wrongly rebuked Hannah, thinking she was drunk, he listened to her explanation and then humbly added his amen to her prayer. Matthew Henry wrote this:

     [Eli gave Hannah a] kind and fatherly benediction, v. 17. He did not (as many are apt to do in such a case) take it for an affront to have his mistake rectified and to be convinced of his error, nor did it put him out of humour. But, on the contrary, he now encouraged Hannah's devotions as much as before he had discountenanced them; not only intimated that he was satisfied of her innocency by those words, Go in peace, but, being high priest, as one having authority he blessed her in the name of the Lord.

First Samuel 1:17: "Then Eli answered, 'Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.'"

     In the second episode we looked at, when Eli's sons were defiling the Tabernacle by their promiscuous behavior with women and stealing the Lord's sacrifices—

     It is true that Eli's response was weak and ineffectual. But nonetheless we can see in his words that his soul abhorred the sins his own sons were engaging in. At this point Eli seems a bit like Lot, whose righteous soul was vexed by the evil all around him—but not sufficiently vexed so as to move him to take decisive action. Still, his hatred of this evil is a clear sign of a righteous heart.

     And in the third episode, when we see Eli sitting by the gate of the city, Scripture tells us again that his soul was agitated out of fear for the Ark. Notice that the news that caused him so much shock that he fell over and died was not the news about his sons' death. It was the news that the ark was captured.

     Surely Eli, like any Father, would be devastated with the news that two of his sons died in one day—even a couple of wicked boys like Hophni and Phinehas. David was devastated when Absalom died, despite the grief Absalom had caused in his life. Eli would no doubt have felt that sort of fatherly grief for his sons as well.

     But to Eli, the more shocking news by far was the news that the Ark of God had fallen into the hands of pagan enemies. That was what caused him to fall back with such force that he snapped his neck in the fall.

     In all of that, we can easily detect Eli's sincere love for the Lord.

     How tragic it is that Eli permitted his character flaws to color his life so that these are the things that stand out when we study his life!

     And what a sobering reminder this is to us! I confess to you that when I study a life like this, I am brought face to face with my own character flaws, and I am reminded that any life not lived in utter dependence on the grace of God has the potential of turning out this way. Even the life of a minister or high priest.

     We all have the potential of allowing our own proneness to sin to dominate and color our character. We desperately need the grace of God to keep from becoming like Eli. And all of us ought to tremble at the thought. And all of us ought to turn to God and plead for His grace to keep us from that kind of spiritual calamity.