After the death of Joshua, who led the Israelites in conquering the land of Canaan, God raised up judges through whom He delivered Israel out of the hands of her enemies (Judges 2:16). The last one was Samuel, whom Eli mentored in the tabernacle. What do you suppose we could learn from the life of Eli, Israel’s next-to-last judge? Here are a few lessons:
Before we make an accusation, we need to be certain that we have the facts straight. When Hannah, Samuel’s mother, prayed in her heart to Jehovah while she was in the tabernacle, Eli saw her lips moving, but heard no sound coming from her mouth. He concluded that she was intoxicated, so he rebuked her with these words: “How long will you be drunk? Put your wine away from you!” (1 Samuel 1:14). In fact, Hannah had not been drinking at all, but simply had a sorrowful spirit (1:15). Immense harm can come to a person, family, or congregation by one simple false accusation. Let us think things through before opening our mouths – be slow to speak (James 1:19). The Bible says, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13).
Like others before and after him, Eli had to endure the mental pain of having corrupt children. Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s sons, did not know the Lord. The Bible calls these two men the sons of Belial, meaning corrupt or wicked (1 Samuel 2:12). Because of their position as priests, these two renegades negatively influenced the nation of Israel, but even if they had been common, little-known people in society, every child of God that wants to go to heaven is crushed when his children choose to live according to their own desires instead of submitting to the Lord’s instruction. The Bible’s message of the end of Eli’s earthly life paints a sad picture – an old man (98 years of age, 4:15) receiving the news of his wicked sons’ demise, then his own life being taken (4:17,18). If your stomach feels empty and your heart is crushed because of an unfaithful child, there are no magic words that can be spoken to remove your hurt. But, know this: Eli and others have walked that road before you did. Yes, the pain is immense and may feel unbearable, but remember God’s “lovingkindness is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). Cast your cares on the mighty God (1 Peter 5:7). He sees it all. He cares, too. So do your brothers and sisters in Jesus (Romans 12:15).
It is a sin to honor humans more than we honor the Lord. Eli’s sons sinned greatly (1 Samuel 2:17). Eli was aware of what his sons did, and he spoke to them about their misconduct. In the end, when God analyzed how Eli handled the situation with his sons, He sent a man of God to tell him, “Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering . . . and honor your sons more than Me…?” (2:29). What a serious charge! God instructs Christians to honor government authorities (Romans 13:7), parents (Ephesians 6:2), and others, but our first devotion, our top level of honor, must go to our Creator! Today we honor the heavenly Father by honoring His Son (John 5:23), and we honor His Son by submitting to His words (Luke 6:46).
In order to please God, those in positions of authority must take a strong stand against sin. One of Eli’s glaring faults was his failure to take sufficiently strong action against his sons. God declared that Eli’s “sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:13). Wait a minute; when Eli became aware of his sons’ wicked conduct, he told them, “No, my sons! For it is not a good report that I hear” (2:24). So, he did not turn his head the other way and act as if his sons were innocent. He scolded them. How can he be at fault? To his credit, Eli admitted his sons’ evil ways. And, he did speak to them about correcting their errors. However, in God’s sight, Eli’s action was not strong enough. Parents, are you listening? Discipline your child while there is hope (Proverbs 19:18; Hebrews 12:5-9). Overseers, are you listening? Sometimes gentle reminders work. Sometimes serious warnings are called for (1 Thessalonians 5:14). But, in some cases, stronger “medicine” must be applied in order to bring about a cure (2 Thessalonians 3:6,14). In the case of Eli’s sons, remember that when they were priests, they were not little kids. They had to be at least thirty years old to serve in the tabernacle (Numbers 4:46,47). What was the consequence of Eli not restraining Phinehas and Hophni properly? They made the people of God transgress and abhor the worship of Jehovah (2:24,17). Eli was indirectly responsible for that tragic situation. Lesson to note: it is wrong to take action that violates God’s will; but, it is just as sinful to fail to do what is right, including taking a firm stand against evil.
A wise person wants to hear all that God says on a particular subject and is willing to accept His will. After God spoke to young Samuel about His plans for Eli’s house, Eli told the lad, “What is the word that the LORD spoke to you? Please do not hide it from me. God do so to you, and more also, if you hide anything from me of all the things that He said to you” (3:17). If Eli really felt that way in his heart, then he was a wise man. After he heard God’s sentence of doom, Eli said, “It is the LORD. Let Him do what seems good to Him” (3:18). Again, if Eli was sincere when he said that, then his attitude was commendable. In the Christian era, a truly wise person is one that hears what Jesus says and then obeys Him (Matt. 7:24-27). Can our Lord count on you and me to do that consistently?
— Roger D. Campbell