The Sin of Eli and Its Results

1 Samuel 2‑4  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 10
1 Sam. 2-4
There are few narratives in scripture more calculated to impress us with the solemn reality of having to do with God than the history of the closing days of this aged high priest. We are assured that it is given to us for this purpose, and to faith it will prove “a discerner [κριτκὸς] of the thoughts and intents of our hearts,” and will be our and not we its critic (Heb. 4:1212For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)). We have already noticed that these chapters begin with the bright scene of Hannah and Samuel worshipping the Lord together, but the Spirit passes abruptly on from this to reveal the foul blots with which sin had stained what ought to have been the fairest spot in the whole earth, the home of the high priest of the Lord of hosts. It was a home that in a special way bore His name, but alas! the head of it was indifferent to His glory in it.
We may look at the high priest in Israel in either his official or his personal character. Officially, El had to bear the government and the judgment of all the tribes of Israel, and to instruct them according to the “perfections” and the “light” of God. Of this he was reminded by the shoulder-pieces and the breast-plate of judgment on his priestly vestment. According to the blessing of Levi, the Thummim and the Urim were with him, the highest glory yet conferred upon fallen man (Dent. 28:8; Ex. 28:3030And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron's heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually. (Exodus 28:30)). He was thus to draw near to the Lord for them in all their ignorance and weakness. “His lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth, for he was the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” By redemption, God had brought the people out of Egypt to Himself, and He would dwell among them. He made their wants, their sins, and their defilements to be the continual concern of the priest, while they should as continually feel their need of the provision thus made for them. Supreme care for the honor of the Lord must predominate over all else with him, while compassion, not false tenderness, must also influence his conduct toward them. Everything was done at his consecration, by the ritual he administered, and by the laws that regulated every detail of his life and surroundings, to remind him of the holiness and majesty of the Lord, and of his authority and responsibility to maintain it. It is by a careful study of these things that we shall be enabled rightly to estimate his sin, and the righteousness of the judgment that was pronounced and executed upon his house, and upon the tabernacle system that was set up by Moses in the wilderness of Sinai at the gracious command of the Lord after the worship of the molten calf.
Turning now to his personal character, we know that he was compassed with infirmity. This, while it would tend to make him compassionate toward others, should have cast him more entirely on God for himself. In this he was evidently remiss. He even misunderstood Hannah, who might have been a most useful monitor to him had he learned of her to seek strength where, and as, she did. The state of things in his family through his parental weakness was terrible. His sons, while carrying on the priestly services, “made themselves vile and he restrained them not.” It is true that he expostulated with them, and put their sin before them; he also warned them of judgment from the Lord, but there he left it. His words were true, and in some respects earnest, but there was nothing more than words. Nothing was done to clear the name of the Lord from dishonor, the sanctuary from defilement, and the people from corruption. A holy God could not be dealt with thus, yet He warned before He smote. By a man of God He reminded Eli of the distinguishing mercy bestowed on the house of his father, in not only redeeming him out of Egypt, but in advancing him to the office of the priesthood with all its dignity, its privileges and its advantages. He then, with unsparing truth and severity, laid bare the condition of his house, making no distinction between him and his sons—"Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and at mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honored thy sons above me to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people.” —"Yourselves;” said the Lord. Are we startled at this? If by “the priest's custom” (chap. 2:13) unholy gain was made, as unquestionably it was, could participation in that gain be avoided by those who did not dissociate themselves from the whole iniquity? Has it ever been possible? Oh! how easy to expostulate and yet go on. Surely in this case— “make yourselves fat” —can have no other meaning.
But let it not be supposed that in saying this any doubt is entertained as to this venerable man's piety. What else dictated his reply when Samuel, at his earnest entreaty, told him every word of the terrible judgment which God had pronounced on his house forever? “It is the Lord,” he said, “let him do what seemeth him good.” And when the messenger returned from the fatal battle with the Philistines, he bore up under all the sorrowful tidings until he heard that the ark was taken. This was a death-stroke to him; he fell backward, and his neck brake, and he died.
His piety, however, can in no way be pleaded in extenuation of his false tenderness to acknowledged evil. It rather emboldened the evil doers to regard it as a matter after all, not so very serious, and to go on with it. But how did the Lord regard it? He held him responsible— “I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knoweth.” “Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct Him? he that reproveth God let him answer it.” Unhesitatingly then we must acknowledge that the Judge of all the earth did right in thus estimating Eli's conduct, and judging it with the severity He did.
But here a difficulty may arise in the minds of some who have not learned to distinguish between God's government of His people on earth, and their eternal salvation and glory hereafter. In the O.T. there are cases in which this distinction may be clearly seen, while in the N. T. it is as clearly taught. The subject is one of great practical importance to every child of God; but in an elementary paper (the designed character of this series), a single example from each must suffice. Of the eternal salvation of Moses, by grace, there cannot be a question: the testimony of God and the scene in the holy mount prove it; yet, for trespass against the Lord at Meribah-Kadesh, he was not suffered to enter the land, but died in the wilderness under the government of God (Deut. 32:50-5250And die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people; as Aaron thy brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people: 51Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. 52Yet thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:50‑52)). In 1 Cor. 11:28-3228But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. 30For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. 32But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:28‑32) the teaching is unmistakable, that our Lord Jesus chastens those in the church who will not judge themselves, and that by the inflictions of weakness, sickness, and even death; but it is expressly said that he does this that they may not be condemned with the world. In the case of Eli (of whose eternal safety there should be no doubt, terrible as was the judgment that came upon his house), we must also remember that, dispensationally, he was under the law, but according to the name of the Lord as proclaimed in Ex. 34:6, 76And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6‑7), a fact not to be lost sight of in connection with all His dealings with Shiloh — dealings, that He would not allow His people, as under the law, to slight or forget (Jer. 26:66Then will I make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth. (Jeremiah 26:6)).
The subject, as we have said, is one of great practical importance, and the Christian reader, if not divinely instructed in it, is besought to seek such instruction. How vital it is may be inferred from a whole book of the Bible being devoted to it—the book of Job. As Elihu said, it is but “one among a thousand” that can rightly deal with a soul under God's chastening hand, and the results of wrong dealing are there seen, not in the sufferer only, or chiefly, but in those who so grievously erred in their treatment of him. “Let us not be highminded, but fear.” There are other principles of deep interest to be found in this portion of God's word, and practical lessons that it will be for our profit to study, but we should exceed our limits to consider them here. We cannot however pass over the fact that, in His word to Eli, the Lord specially dwelt on his ingratitude. What grace had been shown to the house of Aaron, therefore to him and to his house! What a position they held! What honors and what privileges were theirs! Yet what was the return? Has this no voice to us? May we not well say, with Harrington Evans, that “of all people in the world, the people of God have proved the most ungrateful.” He that does not feel it must be insensible to what God, in and by Christ Jesus, has done for him.
If the ruin at Shiloh was irreparable (and surely it was, for the tabernacle never received the ark again, and the priesthood never regained the position they held before), it led to a fuller and clearer revelation of the glories of Christ. The Lord told Eli—"I will raise me up a faithful priest” (chap. ii. 35). This is Christ, because perfect obedience is to characterize His every service. And, be it observed, that this is no after-thought, the fruit of Eli's failure. At the institution of the priesthood, the people witnessed a scene so striking, so impressive, of such profound interest and deep instruction, that none but Jesus could take up, fulfill, and embody, all that is presented in it (read Lev. 9:22-2422And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. 23And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. 24And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:22‑24)).
Aaron, in virtue of the completed offerings made upon the altar, lifted up his hands and blessed the people before the manifestation of the glory of the Lord and any visible attestation of their acceptance, though these were accepted, or He could not bless. He then, with Moses, went into the tabernacle, and they were hidden. After this they both came out, and together blessed the people, when “the glory of the Lord appeared, and there came a fire out from before the Lord and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted and fell on their faces.”
Can we fail to see in this the Lord Jesus, when risen, lifting up His hands in the sight of His disciples and blessing them in virtue of His. finished work on the cross (Luke 24:5050And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. (Luke 24:50))? He then is carried up into heaven (ver. 51), and hidden there from natural sight; but the Holy Ghost has come to reveal to us His heavenly glory, and how He sustains for us the two-fold offices shadowed forth in Moses and Aaron. This is plainly set forth in the Hebrews from chapter 3. Then, when the present Christian interval is over, He will come forth again as King and Priest, the true Melchisedec, blessing repentant Israel and bringing back the glory of the Lord to the earth in connection with the manifestation of the acceptance of His atoning work. The joyous shout of the people will be in full accord with the worship of that day, unsuited to heavenly worship now (Psa. 47:1; 98:41<<To the chief Musician, A Psalm for the sons of Korah.>> O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. (Psalm 47:1)
4Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. (Psalm 98:4)