A man might be a good man in many areas and yet be marked by a significant weakness in some other part of his life. Sometimes that significant weakness becomes a big part of what we remember about the man. Such was the case of Eli, high priest of Israel, a good man with a heart for God who served as high priest for 40 years.
Here is the paradox of his life. He was the high priest of Israel, a man of eminent piety who served as the spiritual mentor of Samuel when he was a young boy. Because of Eli’s good influence, Samuel listened to the voice of the Lord and became a powerful leader in Israel. You might say that Samuel was Eli’s true spiritual son.
You might say that because his own sons were a total disappointment. Though they served as priests, Hophni and Phineas did not know the Lord. The Bible calls them “worthless men” (1 Samuel 2:12). They used the sacrifices for their own advantage and they used their spiritual position to sleep with the women who served at the entrance to the tabernacle. To use rough language, they were corrupt, whoremongering hypocrites who masqueraded as servants of the Lord.
Only parents who have tried to be faithful in raising their children who later reject the Lord can fully understand the anguish of Eli’s heart. And it is at this point that we need to draw an important distinction. Eli cannot be held accountable for the actions of his sons. But he is fully accountable for how he responded when he knew about their sin. We are told in 1 Samuel 2:22-25 that he rebuked them and warned them of coming judgment from the Lord. Was that not enough? What more could a father have done? Here is the Lord’s condemnation. “He knew what was going on, that his sons were desecrating God’s name and God’s place, and he did nothing to stop them.” (1 Samuel 3:13 Msg). The sons are judged for their sins, but Eli is judged for not restraining them. He warned them, which is what a father should do. But he did not stop them, which as the high priest he had the power to do.
When Samuel reported God’s judgment, it is all to Eli’s credit that he received the bad news meekly (1 Samuel 3:15-18). He told Samuel to tell him everything God had said and not to hold anything back. Then he added, “He is GOD. Let him do whatever he thinks best” (v. 18 Msg). Evidently he could receive reproof but he couldn’t give it in the proper way or with sufficient earnestness or soon enough to his own sons.
It is tough, very tough, to deal with the failures of your own children. Sometimes we hardly know how to respond. But it is very easy to fall into the co-dependent trap of enabling the bad behavior either by not confronting it, or by covering it up, or by being semi-tough when we ought to take even stronger action. We need wisdom and strength and grace and humility and courage all rolled up together to do it right. Eli was weak and indulgent when he should have spoken hard truth even if it made his sons angry. I freely admit that it is easier to say this than to do it. Sometimes our love and loyalty blinds us to the weaknesses of our own flesh and blood.
But since God sees what we won’t or can’t see, he confronts things that we would rather forget. Here’s the bottom line on Eli. Fundamentally he was a good man whose legacy included the godly Samuel. Yet because he could not say no to his own sons, he brought judgment on them and ultimately on his entire family. And in that important respect, he was not faithful to the Lord. He failed as a father, and that is part of the record that we recall when we think about Eli three thousand years later.