The Spirit of God introduces Eli in the twilight of his long and active life. He served as priest in the house of the Lord at Shiloh. He had also served as judge in Israel for 40 years (1Sam 4:18). Twice we read about his eyesight.He was going blind (3:2) and, at the end of his life, was blind (4:15). Also, the Spirit notes on two occasions that he was seated, perhaps indicating he was physically weak. His weakness was not only physical (often typical of seniors), but, sadly, was also spiritual.
Chronologically, 1 Samuel follows the days of failure and departure recorded in Judges. The concluding commentary of that period in Israel is, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The same condition characterized the two sons of Eli. Although they were also priests, departure and grave sin marked them both. To his credit, Eli rebuked them. “Why do you such things? For I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons, for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord’s people to transgress. If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall intreat for him?” (1Sam 2:23-25). His rebuke was too little and too late. “Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father.” God’s message to Eli was that he had honored his sons “above Me” (2:29). Following that came the often-repeated truth, “Them that honor Me I will honor, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (2:30). This was one of two divine messages to Eli in which God pronounced judgment on his sons and the removal of the priesthood from his family. Both messages came from a “man of God,” the second being Samuel, who was called a man of God later in life (9:6). The solemn conclusion of this second message was, “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering forever” (3:14). God was true to His word. Both sons were slain by the Philistines when the ark of the Lord was captured. Upon hearing the news of the defeat of the army, and especially that the ark had been taken, Eli fell backwards from his seat. He broke his neck and died immediately.
Reviewing his life, we note some admirable qualities. He blessed Elkanah and Hannah for their faithfulness to God (1:17, 2:20). He encouraged Samuel to submit to the voice of the Lord (3:8,9). Samuel learned from him the importance of delivering God’s message faithfully (v18). Eli was instrumental in training Samuel in godly ways (3:1). He himself was willing to submit to God stating, “It is the Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good” (3:18). Most touchingly, one of the very last concerns of his life gave evidence of godly exercise. His heart trembled for the ark of the Lord when the people took it into battle against the Philistines (4:13).
His failings, however, overshadowed his positive characteristics. He failed in mentoring his sons. He was guilty of collusion with them in the evil practice of making themselves “fat with the chiefest of all the offerings” (2:24). His sons, however, went beyond their father by defying the priority God should have in the offerings, enforcing their will by threatening force, and even committing moral evil in connection with the tabernacle. The result was that “men abhorred the offering of the Lord” (2:17). God records that their sin was “very great before the Lord” (2:17). Sadly, Eli did not take the decisive action needed to cleanse the priesthood from their devastatingly corrupt ways. Not only did Eli have a detrimental effect on his family and the priesthood, but the entire system of worship suffered, so that eventually “God forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh” (Psa 78:60).
The devoted Hannah and her son Samuel are in direct contrast to Eli and his two sons. Hannah and her family worshiped every year at the tabernacle in Shiloh. Though misunderstood initially by Eli, Hannah prayed and God honored her request for a child to be “lent” to the Lord all the days of his life. No doubt her prayers continued for her firstborn and for his usefulness for God as he continued to grow and serve in the house of the Lord. One godly woman was clear evidence that it was possible to honor God in spite of the dire spiritual conditions of the day. In contrast, Eli permitted family relationships to come before the honor and holiness of the house of the Lord. He failed to have the influence on his family and the nation that would have preserved testimony in those dark days.
It was at this dark hour, this time of the failure of Eli and the priesthood, that God raised up Samuel to judge Israel all the days of his life (7:15). He was “established to be a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (3:20-21). Where failure and weakness exist, God can move the heart of one woman and bring notable recovery.
As older believers, we have seen many changes in the world and in the assemblies of God’s people. We are thankful for the goodness of God in saving souls, for adding to assembly fellowships, and for raising up leadership for His glory. We are sad, however, because numbers of those in fellowship are decreasing in many places. Also, it appears the spiritual exercise of some is declining. Nevertheless, Eli’s history assures us that God continues to work.
Let us, therefore, acknowledge and prayerfully support all that is of Him. Like Eli, we are just as liable to weakness, both physical and spiritual. We are never out of danger from self, the flesh, and error, even after a life of service. Let us learn from Eli’s weakness and failings to seek strength from the Lord to be “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1Cor 15:58). We will then be able to manifest the godly influence that God can graciously use to preserve our families and the local assembly.