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The failures of Eli – Part 3

The failures of Eli – Part 3
Posted on June 25, 2021  - By Sherry Thomas

But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. James 1:14-15

This is sin: a seemingly harmless, unspoken thought (in opposition to the Word of God) that, when left unchecked, grows and brings death to the one who first thought it. It’s oddly fascinating that James used the imagery of conception and birth to describe the beginning of sin. 

Conception and birth in the context of marriage is life — a beautiful product of the love God gives to a husband and wife. To take such a holy (set apart) thing and use it to describe sin helps us to understand just how much sin perverts God’s perfect plan. 

Sin is not harmless; it brings death. Whether sin is committed by a little child or a middle-aged adult, the consequence is the same: death.

Whether sin is committed by a little child or a middle-aged adult, the consequence is the same: death

In this third instalment concerning Eli’s parenting (you can read Part 1 and Part 2 here), we look at Eli’s failure to discipline his sons for their disobedience. Only the first four chapters of 1 Samuel contain Eli’s story and in that section, Scripture tells of three specific sins committed by his sons. 

  1. They routinely took the offerings belonging to God (1 Samuel 2:12-17)
  2. They committed adultery with the women who served at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22)
  3. They took the ark of the covenant to try and win a battle against the Philistines without consulting the Lord (1 Samuel 4:4)

While all sin is rebellion against God and deserving of death, the sins mentioned here seem to highlight the total disregard and disrespect Eli’s sons had for God. His sons were priests who stole from what was specifically set aside for the Lord. They committed adultery with those who served in the Lord’s house. And, finally, they foolishly attempted to use the Lord to their advantage, rather than consult Him for help. 

Do something

For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them. 1 Samuel 3:13 [emphasis mine]

God had expected Eli to do something. His sons’ iniquity had not been hidden from him. As both their high priest and their father, it was Eli’s job to take action — but Scripture only records a single conversation during which Eli tried to reason with his sons. He told them what they were doing was wrong and dangerous, but when his sons did not repent, Eli failed to confront them again or even penalise them (1 Samuel 2:23-25).

During the time of Moses, God had given specific consequences for at least two of the sins Eli’s sons were guilty of. For taking the fat from God’s offerings, Leviticus 7:25 stated that the offender was to be cut off from the people of Israel. Eli’s sons should not have been allowed to live among the Israelites, much less to lead them as priests. Secondly, for committing adultery, Leviticus 20:10 stated that they should have been put to death. Clearly, this was not observed. 

As a parent, I don’t blame Eli for not wanting to sentence his children to exile or death, but he had a responsibility as father and priest to honour the Lord. At the very least, he could have asked the Lord for mercy. Today, we live in an age of grace. While sin is still as serious as it was in Eli’s time, God does not demand immediate judgment, but gives us time to direct our children toward repentance. 

We don’t know why Eli did not discipline his sons. Maybe he was used to giving them whatever they wanted because opposing them took more effort than he was willing to put in. Perhaps Eli was afraid that punishing them would make them bigger spectacles and bring even more shame on the family. It’s even possible that Eli loved his sons so much that he couldn’t bear to see them sad or angry. 

Had he made idols out of them? Regardless of his reasoning, we learn that by not chastising his sons, he set them up for an early death (1 Samuel 4:11).

By not chastising his sons, Eli set his sons up for an early death

Proper discipline can have an eternal impact

Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol (hell). Proverbs 23:13-14

We discipline our children because hell is real. When we discipline them, we link disobedience with consequence. That link becomes foundational in their understanding of the truth that all sin is deserving of death. The realisation of their own shortcomings and guilt before the Lord should drive them to the understanding of why they need a Saviour. 

The writer of Proverbs is not telling readers that beating their children will literally save their souls; however, he is pointing out the strong connection between discipline and salvation. When parents punish or discipline their children for wrongdoing, the child begins to understand at least two things: one, they must answer to a higher authority (John 14:15), and two, disobedience has consequences (Romans 6:23). 

A child who doesn’t understand submitting to their parents will also struggle to submit to an invisible God. Further, a child who has never been made to understand that some choices have regrettable consequences will struggle to understand that their sins must be atoned for. 

Proper discipline points to a greater need

When parents discipline with humility, they don’t approach their children with a self-righteous attitude, but as fellow sinners who look to Jesus for help. On more than one occasion, I’ve fallen into the trap of hypocritically scolding a child for an offence that I have also been guilty of. 

No parent has any right to imply their own righteousness gives them the authority to correct their child. The authority is given by God, and both parent and child are in submission to the Lord. 

The discipline process provides an opportunity to reintroduce the Gospel. Both adults and children struggle against the flesh. Along with giving our children proper consequences for their infraction, it’s also important to discuss how Jesus desires to free us from sin and that He took the ultimate punishment for our sins on the cross (Mark 2:17, John 3:16).

A child who doesn’t understand submitting to their parents will also struggle to submit to an invisible God

Proper discipline is an act of love

My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction; for whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights. Proverbs 3:11-12

He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly. Proverbs 13:24

Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction. Proverbs 19:18

Scripture consistently draws a line between parental correction and love. Because sin leads to destruction, a loving parent will discipline their child to steer them away from bad choices towards something that is better. 

Godly correction is not meant to be suppressive but restorative. Love is a key component in proper discipline because the focus is on what is good for the child as opposed to what is comfortable for the parent. 

When the motive for parental discipline does not involve loving concern for the child, discipline can quickly devolve into abuse. It’s only natural for parents to be shocked or angry when they find out about something their child has done, but it is not acceptable to act out of emotion. A quick prayer or a timeout for the parent is a good way to avoid handing out a punishment that does not suit the crime. My closet, for example, is the place I most often retreat when I need a moment of clarity and perspective from the Lord. 

Alternatively, when the parent fails to discipline appropriately, they demonstrate a greater love for self than for the child. I have never encountered a parent that sets aside daily time to address issues that need correcting. Correction typically interrupts what was already planned for the day. 

It’s tempting to ignore sin in our children for the sake of moving on, but it is a practice and a habit that becomes harder to identify and break. When we consider that the Lord makes the effort to chasten His children individually and specifically, it serves as a reminder that He prioritises proper discipline. 

Eli’s failure to discipline his children appropriately led to the end of his family line. He had the necessary knowledge and authority to lead and discipline those God had given him, but he didn’t have the desire to parent them God’s way. 

Every parent has been divinely chosen by God to love and train up the child(ren) God has given them. Proper discipline is a key component in fulfilling that role; however no human parent will ever be able to get it right because we are too flawed. Fortunately, God has accounted for our shortcomings with His grace and mercy. As we depend on Him, He is faithful to work in us and through us. 

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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