He fell off his seat backward, broke his neck and died. That’s how life ended for Eli, the high priest.
I’ve read the story of Eli, his corrupt sons, the routing of the Israelites by the enemy Philistines and the capturing of the precious Ark of the Covenant many times.
But today when I read it, it made me cry. For Eli.
Even though this God-appointed priest seems to have started out well, Eli’s forty years in that position did not result in the godly legacy that he might have hoped for.
Eli’s sons were priests like their father. But the Bible calls them sons of Belial – worthless, good-for-nothings.
They did not know the Lord.
They stole from those who came to offer sacrifices.
They defiled the house of God by laying with the women who served there.
It appeared that they did whatever lustful thing they desired, robbing and abusing the people who came to worship and serve.
How did these rebellious sons get away with their debauchery? Sadly, Eli didn’t hinder them. All he did was warn them that their behavior was deadly, saying,
“If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” (1 Samuel 2:25a).
But those words of warning did nothing to stop them and the Bible tells us why.
“But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for the Lord desired to put them to death.” (1 Samuel 2:25b)
Why did the Lord want to put them to death? It’s likely because Eli and his sons had been dishonoring God and the people for quite some time. Their time to repent was up.
God sent a prophet to rebuke Eli for putting his sons before God and making themselves fat with the choicest of every offering that the people brought to the sanctuary. God tells Eli that his bloodline will be cut off and his legacy ended in disgrace.
A Great Loss
Eli arrived at the end of his long life a weak, overweight, disgraced man. What sent him over the edge to death was the capturing of the Ark of the Covenant.
The enemy Philistines stole the precious presence of God from their midst. There was nothing left. Eli had been caring for the ark for forty years and now it was gone.
Now Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were set so that he could not see. The man said to Eli, “I am the one who came from the battle line. Indeed, I escaped from the battle line today.” And he said, “How did things go, my son?” Then the one who brought the news replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has also been a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been taken.” When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy. Thus he judged Israel forty years. (1 Samuel 3:15-18)
He was gluttonous and greedy.
He raised sons who were lustful and treacherous.
He couldn’t protect the ark of God.
He lost his opportunity to leave a legacy of holiness and fidelity to God.
He lost his sons who the Lord himself killed.
He lost the most precious object on the planet, the ark, the carrier of the presence of God.
He couldn’t control himself.
There are only a couple of times in the Bible that we read that someone is heavy. This is one of them. Eli ate more than the priest’s share of the offerings that the people brought.
He couldn’t control his sons.
Hophni and Phineas were adults, but they were ungodly priests whose behavior should never have been allowed to go on.
I never used to relate to Eli. I saw him as a man who make huge mistakes and paid for it. I saw him as weak but never anything like me. That has changed.
God’s Mercy in Our Weakness
Now that I’m older, and I’ve raised my two sons into adulthood, I see the story somewhat differently. I can relate to Eli’s mistakes.
Maybe I was too hard on my oldest son when he was a teenager.
Maybe I didn’t require enough of my youngest.
There were times when I lacked self-control and raised my voice.
Did I ever place them above the Lord in my heart?
It amazes me that God gives these tiny helpless humans to parents who are so imperfect. In our 20’s and 30’s we haven’t yet learned so many lessons that would make us better parents.
We still tend to be selfish, impatient and lacking compassion. It’s parenting that helps to mature us, but in the process our kids can get hurt.
It’s painful. The past can’t be changed.
I can ask for forgiveness. I can do things differently now. That’s all good. But I can’t alter the consequences that came from my choices.
My hope and peace come from knowing that God loves and forgives and works all things together for good for those who are called and who love him. (Romans 8:28).
I’m grateful for that promise because I need him to work out a lot!
As hard as it is to see my mistakes, it gives me empathy for people like Eli.
The Bible tells us about folks with less than stellar records on purpose.
We relate to their weakness.
We learn to ask for wisdom in our choices, so we avoid the same mistakes.
3 Life Lessons from Eli
- Love and honor God above everyone and everything. Eli and his sons put themselves before God.
Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. (1 Samuel 2:30)
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
- Don’t wait to turn around. Eli and his sons didn’t turn from their sins.
And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. (1 Samuel 3:13)
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
- Develop self-control. Eli and his sons didn’t restrain their lusts.
Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’ (1 Samuel 2:29)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23
There is Hope
Eli, Hophni and Phineas came to a terrible end.
Sadly, there are people all around us that go down the same road. We see it in the news and in our own backyard. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
If we will surrender our hearts to the Lord, he will give us the ability to love and honor him first and above all and not make our children into idols, serving them first.
The Holy Spirit will lovingly convict us of our sin so that we can repent and be set free from the burden and shame. One day at a time.
He will give us the fruit of self-control so that we do not fall into temptation.
There is always hope!
God sees, knows and cares. We can find encouragement in the fact that he will never stop working all things out for our good and for his glory.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. – Jeremiah 29:11-12