Lessons from Eli

By Mike Willis

There are many characters who appear on the pages of the Bible of whom we know very little. Some of them appear so briefly that we know little more than their names and not even that much about many others. Yet, a study of the characters of the Bible is a very profitable study inasmuch as one can learn from the positive and negative attributes of others. I would like to consider the character of Eli for this week’s editorial.

Eli was the next-to-last judge of Israel. He followed Samson as judge over Israel and was confronted with the same Philistine oppression which Samson faced. In addition to being a judge, Eli was also the high priest over Israel; he was the first to hold both of these offices at the same time. Because of these positions which he held, he was a very influential man. Yet, he was not without fault.

Eli’s Conduct Toward His Sons

One of the most notable things recorded in connection with Eli is with reference to his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. These two men served as priests, although they were very worthless men (1 Sam. 2:12). When they offered the sacrifices to God, rather than taking their authorized share of the offering, they took as much as they wanted (1 Sam. 2:13-14; Lev. 7:29-34). In addition to that, they took this portion before the fat had been burnt as a sweet odor to God (1 Sam. 2:15; Lev. 3:3-5,16). Consequently, the people despised the offerings which they made to God (1 Sam. 2:17). The conduct of these men brought the worship of the Lord into disrespect among the people. These two sons also committed fornication with the women who were assigned to serve in the Temple (1 Sam. 2:22).

Eli was very much aware of his sons’ sins. The report of their conduct circulated among the people (1 Sam. 2:23-24) and he knew of it (1 Sam. 3:13). Indeed, he even administered a mild admonition to his children to persuade them not to sin before God (1 Sam. 2:23-24). Yet, that was not enough. Eli was high priest and judge over Israel. He was in a position of authority and responsible for the worship which was offered to God. Whereas he should have dismissed his sons as priests, he continued to let them serve.

God looked down on this sorry scene and sent a “man of God” to Eli. He told Eli that he had honored his sons above the Lord (1 Sam. 2:29) because he did not rebuke them (1 Sam. 3:13). Inasmuch as Eli was in a position to remove his sons from serving as priests, he committed sin because he would not stand up against them and demand that they quit serving as priests while guilty of so much sin. He lacked the righteous indignation which Jesus manifested when He cleansed the Temple (Jn. 2:13-17). Writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, A. C. Grant said, “The character of Eli, while sincere and devout, seems to have been entirely lacking in firmness. He appears from the history to have been a good man, full of humility and gentleness, but weak and indulgent. He is not a strong personality; he is always overshadowed by some more commanding or interesting figure” (Vol. II, p. 928).

I am afraid that many of us are going to be guilty, as was Eli, of lacking the moral fiber to withstand sin. Here are some areas in which we commit a sin similar to that which Eli committed:

a. Lacking righteous indignation. We have become a gutless people-men with rubber backbones. We had rather bend to accept any doctrinal departure from the truth rather than to fight it. Indeed, about the only sin which some men in this country know is the “sin” of withstanding sin. Look around you! The American people can tolerate the Gay Rights Movement but are indignant toward people such as Anita Bryant who oppose it. Americans can tolerate the endorsement of lesbians as priests but will not tolerate the men who oppose it. In the church, brethren can tolerate men who preach another gospel and introduce Calvinism to the churches but they cannot tolerate the men who stand opposed to these false teachers. We need to wake up to the fact that we are becoming more and more susceptible to a “peace-at-any-price” approach toward doctrine. We lack backbone to withstand the advances of sin.

b. Honoring our children above the Lord. Eli also sinned in that he did not remove his sons as priests before God; he honored them above God. In a similar fashion, some parents honor their children above God. I have seen cases in which the church was forced to withdraw from some ungodly children. The reaction of the parents was that they bad-mouthed the elders or quit attending services. Parents are willing to defend their children above the god-fearing elders even though they admit that their children are guilty of sin.

c. Failing to restrain our children. Some of us are tainted with the philosophy of modern psychiatry which teaches that children should not be restrained lest they grow up inhibited. Consequently, we see children of Christians who sass their parents or otherwise act anyway they so please. Parents who so conduct themselves toward their children are guilty of sin before God.

God’s Judgment Against Eli’s House

Because of Eli’s sins with reference to his sons, God brought judgment against Eli’s house. He sent a “man of God” to foretell God’s judgment. He foretold (1) that the descendents of Eli would die at an early age, (2) that Hophni and Phinehas would die on the same day, and (3) that another family of Aaron would be given the office of high priest. Shortly thereafter, the word of the Lord came to Samuel in the night. This revelation from God stated virtually the same thing: God’s judgment against the house of Eli. The next morning, Eli demanded that Samuel tell him the message from the Lord (1 Sam. 3:17). (Notice Eli’s burning desire to know the will of God. His example deserves imitation today.) When Samuel related the word of the Lord to Eli, the aged high priest said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam. 3:18).

Eli’s submission to the will of the Lord reminds us of the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed, “. . . let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Mt. 26:39). Eli quietly submitted to the will of the Lord. He was not like so many who become bitter toward the Lord and complain about their lot in life. Instead, Eli submitted to the Lord’s will, even though he did not like it.

Eli’s Love For The Lord

Sometime after this prophecy, the Israelites engaged the Philistines in battle. At the first encounter, 4000 Israelites died on the battlefield (1 Sam. 4:2). In desperation, the people had Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, to bring the ark of the covenant to lead the children of Israel into battle. In the following battle, 30,000 Israelites died, Hophni and Phinehas were killed (in fulfillment of the prophecy that both of Eli’s sons would die in one day), and the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines.

The aged Eli sat by the gate at the tent of meeting to await news of the battle. His heart trembled for the ark of God (1 Sam. 4:13). Finally, a messenger came to report the news of the battle. When Eli heard that the ark of the Lord was captured, he fell over backward, broke his neck, and died. The Scriptures specifically state that Eli did not die when he heard of the defeat of Israel or when he was told that both of his sons had died. Rather, Eli died when he was told that the ark of the covenant was taken by the Philistines. (Perhaps he had learned to honor God above his sons at this time in his life.) Eli’s concern for the ark manifests his love for the Lord.

Too many of us today fail to manifest this kind of concern over matters pertaining to the Lord and His church. We fret more about a scratch on our new car than over internal problems in the church. We stay at home from worship for any earthly reason. We could care less when we hear that false teachers are ravaging the flock. We need more of Eli’s concern for matters pertaining to God. We need’ men who love the Lord enough to shed tears over matters pertaining to His church. We need men who love the Lord enough to prepare themselves to serve in His church. We need men who are concerned for the lost and are willing to work to lead them to salvation. We need men like Eli who truly love the Lord.


Let us learn lessons from Eli. Let us not make the same mistakes which he made but let us emulate his positive attributes. “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

Truth Magazine XXI: 46, pp. 723-724
November 24, 1977