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The failures of Eli – Part 1

The failures of Eli – Part 1
Posted on June 4, 2021  - By Sherry Thomas

The book of 1 Samuel begins with the short and disappointing story of Eli, the high priest and judge of Israel. Eli judged Israel for 40 years during a time when everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Unfortunately, instead of facilitating a return to God, he contributed to the spiritual decline in Israel. 

God warned Eli concerning his apathy towards Him, but Eli failed to repent and, ultimately, the Lord judged Eli and his family. Interestingly at the heart of His accusation, God questions Eli’s parenting, ”Why do you honour your sons more than Me?”

As a parent, I can personally attest to the fact that there are many opportunities for mothers and fathers to fail. I’ve experienced failure due to my own ignorance, pride, laziness, fear, busyness, and selfishness — just to name a few. 

I think most parents want to be good parents, but isn’t that a somewhat ignorant notion when we cannot even make ourselves good people (Luke 18:19)? That begs the question, how could Eli miss the mark so badly as a parent that it provoked the Lord to wrath?

The same mistakes 

Before considering what the Bible says about Eli, it’s important to understand that narratives in Scripture are not given to us as a “how to” for living the successful Christian life. Eli’s story is not recorded so that we can walk away with the message, “Don’t be a bad parent like Eli” or “If you do everything the way God wants, your children will not struggle”. 

Even parents who seek to obey the Lord’s will sometimes have wayward children. As parents, the Lord does not hold us accountable for how our children turn out; He holds us accountable for how we raised them and for Whom (1 Corinthians 3:6-8).

The Lord does not hold us accountable for how our children turn out; He holds us accountable for how we raised them and for Whom

This is the first article in a series to examine three of the mistakes Scripture seems to reveal in Eli as a parent and a steward of all that God had entrusted to him. It’s worth studying because Eli’s failures are not unique to his own family; every parent is susceptible to making the same mistakes with their own children. 

As King Solomon stated: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. However, Solomon’s statement should not discourage us because, though humans will repeatedly fall short of what is necessary, God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us”, and it is to His Word and His work that we look to for help as we labour in the roles He has given us.

The following is an introduction to the three areas that we will be delving into over the following weeks: Eli’s failure to lead well, his failure to discipline, and his failure to intercede.  

Failure to lead well

The high priest was the intermediary between God and man. He was to help the people understand the holiness of God and the proper way to serve and worship Him. Unfortunately, Eli’s view of God was small. Though he knew God and His Word, they did not affect his life or the choices he made.

As a part of the tribe of Levi, the Lord had provided food for priests and their families through the people’s offerings to the Lord. The Israelites would bring a gift to the Lord and Levitical law specifically detailed what part of the offering the priests were apportioned and what was to be burned as a sacrifice to the Lord. The fat specifically belonged to God, yet Eli’s sons brazenly took whatever they wanted, including God’s portion. 

One day, the Lord spoke to Eli through an unnamed man and asked, “Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel” (1 Samuel 2:29)? 

Eli’s view of God was small. Though he knew God and His Word, they did not affect his life or the choices he made

Scripture indicates that even Eli was taking from the Lord’s portion. Eli’s gluttony and greed taught his sons that their own pleasure and satisfaction were more important than obedience to God. Eli’s sons should have learned how to love and serve the Lord; instead, they only learned how to love and serve themselves. 

Failure to discipline

For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. 1 Samuel 3:13

The people also approached Eli concerning what they witnessed his sons doing. In addition to stealing the Lord’s offerings, his sons also committed adultery with the women who served at the temple. Though Eli confronted his sons and told them they were sinning, they didn’t suffer any consequences. 

One of the most difficult aspects of raising children is proper discipline. Effective correction requires a love that is more concerned with the child than the parent. Many parents fail to discipline under the guise of love for the child, but it actually points to a greater love for self. 

The writer of Hebrews agrees that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful”. Christian parenting denies the flesh — our own and the sinful nature of our children. A child who is angry or sad that their sin cannot be ignored is a child that still needs to learn how serious sin is. 

The gospel message only affects those who are aware of their own sinfulness. And parents have the unique privilege to prayerfully and wisely teach their children about the gift of Jesus Christ, as they demonstrate correction, reconciliation, grace, and mercy. 

Failure to intercede

Eli’s job as high priest was intercession. He was to go to the Lord for help when God’s people had gone astray. Yet, when his own sons were deep in sin, there is no record of him asking God for help. Why didn’t he ask God to intervene and bring his children to repentance? When they were young, how did he pray for them?

Many parents fail to discipline under the guise of love for the child, but it actually points to a greater love for self 

Many parents correctly pray that God would bless their children and keep them out of trouble, but it is a mistake to limit our prayers to those two sentiments. Genesis states that man was “made in the image of God”; therefore, children are not meant to reflect their parents but their Maker. 

How and when should Eli have prayed for his sons? When you pray for your children, do you give God the freedom to accomplish His perfect will in their lives as He sees fit? Can you admit that your child’s sins offend a righteous and holy God? 

An honourable model

Parents are the primary role model children have to observe what it looks like to honour God. A parent has the freedom to disregard certain scriptures that they do not feel are applicable, but they cannot choose how their children will interpret and apply this same freedom with God’s Word in their own lives. 

Like Eli, we live in a time when the standard for right or wrong is largely driven by society or a mixture of society and scripture. As we continue this series, it’s important to consider from your own perspective, your child’s perspective and, most importantly, through the lens of Scripture if God is indeed the standard and head of your household or if you are.

Sherry Thomas

About Sherry Thomas

Sherry Thomas describes herself as a late bloomer when it comes to being a child of God. She knew Jesus as her Saviour from a young age, but didn’t develop a passion for Him or His Word until well into adulthood. She is grateful for her husband with whom she shares five children, whom she homeschools. Sherry is active in women’s and children’s ministries at both her church and Bible Study Fellowship.



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