In the opening chapters of 1 Samuel we are introduced to Israel’s negligent High Priest, Eli. He is an interesting and enigmatic character – at least in some ways. He misidentified Hannah’s prayer for drunken speech (1 Sam 1:14), but then he prophetically blessed her (vs.17). He raised Samuel and appears to have treated him kindly; yet, he didn’t care enough about his sons to discipline them as he should have. He humbly acknowledged God’s sovereignty when God spoke to him through “a man of God” (2:27) and through Samuel (3:18); yet, He didn’t repent of the sin that caused the confrontation.
He was, to say the least, inconsistent.
Although there’s much that can be said, we’ll hone in on the words that God spoke to Eli through the messenger He sent to him in 1 Samuel 2. The entirety of the message is contained in verses 27 through 36. The opening two verses are a kind of rehearsal of the grace that God had shown Eli’s house; the last seven verses outline the judgment that God would bring upon his house; but our attention will be focused on the beginning/middle of the passage where we find the accusation that God brought against Eli. He said,
“Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honor your sons more than Me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel My people?” (1 Sam. 2:29)
The Hebrew word used here for “kick” is baat. It literally means just that – “to kick”; and both times the word is used in the Old Testament the context suggests kicks of defiance or contempt. Furthermore, the metaphor is meant to parallel well-fed cattle that, after being well fed and provided for by their owner, reject their master’s direction and spurn the yoke put upon them. In like manner, Eli kicked at the LORD’s sacrifice and offering because, according to God’s assessment, Eli honored his sons more than Him.
You might think, ‘Well, those sons must have been salt-of-the-earth kind of guys. Poor old Eli probably just had his priorities confused because he was so thankful for his noble boys.’ That wasn’t God’s assessment (1 Sam. 2:12,17, 29). Let’s just say – Eli’s sons were not honorable and Eli’s affection was not noble; rather, it was dangerously negligent and sinfully enabling. His sons robbed the worshippers of their appointed portions of meat and they committed sexual immorality with the women who served at the Tabernacle. All of which happened under Eli’s watch. He committed the sin of permitting them to go on defiling the worship of Israel without being removed from their posts; and, it appears that Eli even partook of the offerings that his sons stole. Eli was thus judicially identified with the sins of his sons.
With that being said, I think there are a couple of lessons we can learn from Eli.
Christians must practice church discipline. Eli honored his sons more than God because he tolerated their immorality and did not practice, as it were, “church discipline”. Perhaps Eli couldn’t have stopped his sons’ immorality but he could have stopped them from being immoral while serving as priests in Israel! Instead of being afraid to correct his sons, he should have been afraid of God, and more afraid of not correcting them. After all, God had killed Nadab and Abihu for being priests that profaned the worship of the LORD. This was serious.
“Church discipline” ought to have been practiced then and church discipline ought to be practiced now. Eli was not only the father of Hophni and Phinehas, he was the High Priest who was over their office. But sadly he would not follow the rules that God had laid out. Hophni and Phinehas ought to have at least been removed from their office, and furthermore, their offense appears to have been a capital offense in taking the fat from being burnt up to the LORD.
Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, 1 Timothy 5, 2 Thessalonians 3, and Titus 3 are all chapters of Scripture that contain teaching about how church discipline should be carried out by church leaders and all Christians. It’s an awkward thing when you have to tell someone, “If you don’t repent of living in this sin, we, as under shepherds of God’s church have a responsibility to see that you leave the fellowship”, or, “if you don’t repent of living in this sin, I, as a Christian, am commanded to abstain from fellowship with you in the hopes that you’ll be repentant and restored”, but it’s an ultimately loving act because it’s what God commands.
Parents must practice parental discipline. Eli tolerated the sin of his children without correcting them. While, on the surface, that might appear loving, it was extremely unloving. Listen to how the Proverbs describe the absence of discipline versus the practice of it…
Proverbs 13:23. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”
Proverbs 29:15 “The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother.”
Proverbs 19:18 “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death.”
Proverbs 22:15 “Folly is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.
It is a loving thing for parents to discipline their children, it is very unloving not to.
Matthew Henry writes,
“Those who allow their children in any evil way, and do not use their authority to restrain and punish them, in effect honour them more than God. Let Eli’s example excite parents earnestly to strive against the beginnings of wickedness, and to train up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
May you be exhorted today to learn from Eli’s example; namely, by avoiding imitating it. Whether you stand in a pulpit or sit in a pew, may God grant you grace to carry out church discipline as the Bible prescribes it. And if you are a parent, may you love God more than your children and love your children enough to lovingly discipline them.