Normally I don’t condone making assumptions about someone’s character until you meet that person and talk with them. When it comes to Eli, the priest of God, serving in the temple of the Lord, there are plenty of indications that Eli’s character was questionable.
He accused a woman of being drunk because she was barren and was silently crying out to God for a son.
He let the lamp go out in the temple which was his job to keep lit.
He raised two sons, Phineas and Hophni, who were abominable.
And he feared his sons more than he feared the Lord.
Yet he was the chosen man of God to raise up, teach, and train Samuel, who would grow up to be one of the first major prophets of God in the Old Testament. Let’s take a closer look.
Samuel 2:27 And there came a man of God unto Eli, and said unto him, “Thus saith the Lord, Did I plainly appear unto the house of thy father (Aaron), when they were in Egypt in Pharoah’s house?”
28 “And did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to offer upon mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? And did I give unto the house for thy father all the offerings made by fire of the children of Israel?”
29 “Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and at mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honorest thy sons above me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people?”
(Aaron, was the "Father" of the Levites, God's chosen line to serve Him in the temple. They were responsible for all of the temple, set up, cleaning, keeping the lamp lit, and conducting all the law required for His temple. Eli and his sons were in the lineage of Aaron and thus served the Lord in the temple.)
Eli had swerved off base for some time, and it sounded like God is giving him a second chance until God went on to answer all these questions Himself.
God is our Father. His questions reflected His authority. His love for Eli was apparent in that God did not kill Eli at that time. We see God’s wisdom and His understanding of the issue at hand. He knew Eli’s heart. He was also so very patient, and His timing was impeccable. God knew the future and the plans He had for His people. Eli was an important person in the making of the prophet, Samuel.
With each question, God reminded Eli how he got his position through the lineage of Aaron. He instructed Eli about the responsibilities of His hand-picked priest, Aaron. He also reminded Eli of what his official duties were in the temple, and also of how he was compensated for his work.
The Lord told Eli He knew what was going on in his family. He called Eli’s attention to the fact that he had defied God in his office as the priest of God’s house, in favor of his sons’ desires. The family had all taken advantage of God’s generosity. Eli honored his sons over God, AND that was not acceptable. It had gone on for a long time, long enough to make them fat. They skimmed off the top of the offerings before they were sacrificed to God.
The man, who delivered this message to Eli, did not bring good news. Yet God still questioned Eli in the most loving way. We do not know the tone of the conversation, but we do know that God is merciful, loving, and benevolent. God never changes. This warning delivered to Eli showed that God was perfectly clear about His boundaries.
God’s answers to His own questions contained a judgment upon Eli, his sons, and the whole family. He also allowed Eli to know He presently had a replacement for him at the temple, and that Eli’s family would come begging bread of him. (Read 1 Samuel 2:30-36)
This messenger of God to Eli continued to talk about the dishonor and disrespect that his two sons had shown God. The Lord said it is time for this to stop. And He spoke curses on the family of Eli.
God lovingly gave him the scenario and painted a clear picture of their guilt and the consequences of it. There was no instant retribution here. And God had given Eli the option to right this wrong if he chose to, but Eli did not. Eli feared his sons more than he feared God.
Ironically, God allowed Eli to raise up His servant Samuel from a small boy to be the chosen man of God after Eli had proved a foolish father to his own two sons. Samuel was to play a key role in the lineage of David, and in turn the lineage of Jesus Christ. Why did God choose to entrust the raising of Samuel to a man who had proved himself a terrible father? (This is reminiscent of Jesus entrusting the money bag to Judas, a known thief.) God has His reasons and purposes for His decisions, and He always gets the glory.
God revealed to Eli that He was very aware of what his two sons were doing in the Lord’s house. He even used young Samuel to deliver the final message to Eli that the time had come for the Lord’s hand to move against him.
This is all written out for us to learn from it. God is Who He says He is. When He asks you to do something for Him…He means it! Unfortunately for Eli and his sons at this point, there was no place for repentance. There was no room for apologies. The sin and the guilt hung in the air clearly for Eli to see. He knew he had not done the job he was supposed to do in raising his family along with being the priest of the house of God. He neglected or rejected his responsibility to parent his sons in the ways of the Lord.
Eli didn’t know that God loved him and would have forgiven him if he asked for it. There are two separate occasions that God chose to speak to Eli about his sins, and the sins of his sons.
Why didn’t Eli repent the first time? Why didn’t he talk with his sons? It would have saved the sons from going deeper into more “vile” sin (1 Samuel 3:14). Eli chose not to restrain them.
If Eli had a deep abiding relationship with the Lord, he would have attempted to appeal to his God in this. He would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. He would have taken the information he had, feared the Lord, and talked to his sons. Or had them stoned for their abominations against the Lord.
Were those two sons providing “good” meat and fat to their dad in payment for keeping quiet about their sins? Was the god of their bellies that ravenous and insatiable to override these commands? Philippians 3:19 Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.
Exodus 29:9 States that God consecrated Aaron and his sons to this perpetual office. Why did Eli’s sons mock this office?
Couldn’t Eli have looked into the stories of the law and searched for a time where God makes a statement of judgment and then His people repented, then God repented from the judgment? Sackcloth and ashes meant a lot to God. And God looks on the heart. We know He changed his mind at the city of Nineveh’s repenting.
Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
27 but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
28 He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses….
30 for we know him that hath said, VENGEANCE BELONGETH UNTO ME, I WILL RECOMPENSE, saith the Lord. And again, THE LORD SHALL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.
31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Eli must have spent his days in fear, watching and waiting instead of repenting, and turning from his wicked ways. What made him hesitate on this? It sometimes comes down to perspective. He was so focused on what was done, on what he did and did not do, that he could not look into the eyes of the loving God, find favor with Him, and see His invitation to do what was right and look forward with hope. Eli’s perspective sealed his fate.
At the beginning of the Book of Samuel, Eli sees Hannah, a barren woman crying out to God, silently for a son. Eli accused her of being drunk. She brought her longed-for son to pledge him to the Lord. (Chapter 1:27-28). Hannah gives thanks to the Lord for answering her prayers. She praised the Lord. The last thing out of her mouth before she left Samuel with Eli is: …the Lord shall judge the ends of the earth; and He shall give strength unto His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed. 1 Samuel 2:10c
Hannah had no idea what kind of man Eli was. But she trusted God and was here to fulfill her vow to Him that if God gave her a son, she would give him back to God. At the time of delivering her son to the temple of God, she prays before Eli that the Lord shall judge the ends of the earth. This foreshadowed what would happen to Eli.
Eli, in the office of priest, became the child’s mentor. How did the Lord pick such an unqualified man to be His priest and to raise up this boy into a man of God? Somehow Samuel became a prophet of God. It must have been Hannah’s prayers for her son, Samuel, and that the Lord’s spirit was in his life. Again, such a stark contrast between the two sons of Eli, and this boy, Samuel, who was longed-for, wanted, loved by his mom and given back to the Lord.
God questions Eli’s parenting because he and his two sons are in a place of authority in God’s house. They are abusing their positions to treat themselves with dainties that belong to the Lord. They have chosen the best for themselves, which means the leftovers were offered to God or fed to the people. In the law, whatever the priest pulled out by the three-pronged golden (or brass) flesh hook was supposed to be their meal for that time. The sons of Eli: Phineas and Hophni, are called Sons of Belial (in Samuel 2:12), which means worthless, good for nothing men. They have selected out what we would call the raw prime rib (verse 15) for themselves, leaving the rest for God or the people, depending on the sacrifice. Worse yet, they took the fat that was intended to be offered to God. They threatened the person doing his sacrifice that they would take it by force if they had to, verse 16. God did not take kindly to this behavior. He was always watching. God waited until the ideal time and the ideal way to point out these men’s hearts and their sins.
Eli’s lack of respect and service to the Lord provided the right opportunity for God to speak into his life. Eli let the lamp of God go out in the temple one night. (See the full story in verses 3:2-10) Eli fell asleep on the job.
Eli allows this young man, Samuel, to speak into his life after Samuel heard from God that night. Three times God called Samuel out of his sleep. The boy thought his mentor had called him. Twice Eli dismissed it. On the third time, he realized this might be God calling Samuel. He told Samuel to go back to sleep and if it happened again to answer the Lord, acknowledging Him. How would Eli know this? There is no evidence that Eli communicated with God or vice versa. Maybe his guilt got to him.
Eli continued in his sin and continued to consume fat and tender cuts of meat, even though he knew his fate and the fate of his two sons, and all the future generations of his house were sealed. He must have been depressed and lethargic as he persisted in old habits till the end of his life. Verse 4:18 states that he was “heavy.” Eli didn’t fear God. Eli sat down in the judgment against him.
1 Samuel 3:12 In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house: when I begin, I will also make an end.
13 For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.
14 And therefore, I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever.
This means the family had no way to pay for their sins.
All of these words were spoken to Samuel as a boy serving and apprenticing under Eli. Samuel had to deliver this message to the man, Eli, who was his mentor. This must have been a challenging task for Samuel and an awkward thing for Eli to hear. Yet Eli welcomed the truth of this message. And this conversation, being a hard one, reveals the good rapport the mentee had with his mentor.
We learn about God’s character here: He is Who He says He is! And if He needs to change a few things to set things right again, He can and He will! Again, God knows what and how He wants things done! He has the patience to wait until the time is right for Him to punish the ones who cross Him. Foolishness made Phineas and Hophni, the sons of Eli, think they could use their position for their personal gain. They foolishly thought they got away with their sin. They managed to con their dad but not God, the Father. God had the last say and also instructed the surrounding people and, us, the readers, about Himself through this story.
Samuel had to be the bearer of shocking news and watch it play out in front of him. He knew these brothers personally. He interacted with Eli every day during his apprenticeship. What wisdom do you think he learned from observing all of this?
Eli knew the integrity of Samuel’s mom and when she fulfilled her promise to God by dropping Samuel off for Eli to raise. He must have felt the weight of her promise to God because he raised Samuel right. Eli did not default to his previous parenting skills as with his own boys. He made the effort for Samuel.
The two sons continued to mock the Lord with their actions in the temples as they continued to serve. Verses 2:22-25 proves their unworthiness before the Lord in their offices. They did abominations inside the temple and also led the people to transgress.
Eli’s response to the Words of the Lord, verse 3:18 …It is the Lord: let him do what seemeth Him good.
In the meantime, Samuel grew in favor both with the Lord and also with men. Samuel proved to be a faithful man of God. Verse 2:26. Also
3:19 And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of His words fall to the ground.
20 And all Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.
21 And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord.
Chapter 4 is about the defeat of Israel and the death of Phineas and Hophni. When this news reaches Eli, at ninety-eight years old and blind, a fat old man; he falls over from his seat, breaks his neck, and dies.
God is Who He says He is. He means what He says.
God went through all of this to establish Samuel as His prophet and to bring in David as His chosen King. I encourage you to read the story with fresh eyes. 1 Samuel 1-4.
God used this "worst dad ever" in the life of Samuel and David, and in the lineage of Jesus Christ.
What is God showing you through His-Story?
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Monica DuBois copyright (c) August 8, 2022