Eli’s Worthless, Evil Sons and The Ark Lost To The Philistines

Psalm 127 Unless the Lord builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it;
Unless the Lord guards the city,
The watchman keeps awake in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early,
To [cz]retire late,
To eat the bread of [da]painful labors;
For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.

Behold, children are a [db]gift of the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.

Is it always a blessing to have a quiver full of children? What about those children who turn out bad, rebellious, a shame to the family? What about Eli’s 2 sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 1-5)? They were “worthless”, keeping a forbidden part of the offerings of the people for themselves. They had sex with the women who came to offer sacrifices. Eli did rebuke them verbally, but that is all he did. They would not listen. He should have taken them before the elders as rebellious sons to be stoned to death. God rebuked Eli for not being firm enough in the discipline of his sons. He said that Eli “honored his sons more than he did God”. By allowing his sons to get away with abusing the sacrifices offered to God, he was placing more value on his sons than’s God’s offerings. God told Eli that the priesthood would be taken from his family and all his offspring would die early in life. God told Samuel of this punishment of Eli and his house: 1 Samuel 3:13 13 For I have told him (Eli) that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them. 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord; let Him do what seems good to Him.” Eli accepted his fate and punishment.

A battle followed with the Philistines, and Israel was defeated. They decided that God would give them victory if they took the ark of the covenant with them into battle. 1 Samuel 4:4 So the people sent to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. At first this scared the Philistines and excited the Israelites, but Israel was defeated again and the ark was captured and Eli’s 2 sons were killed. A man from the battled came to tell Eli of the battle. 1 Samuel 4:13 13 When he came, behold, Eli was sitting on his seat [e]by the road eagerly watching, because his heart was trembling for the ark of God. Eli asked him how the battle went: 1 Samuel 4:17-18 “How did things go, my son?” 17 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.” 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, [f]Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for [g]he was old and heavy. Eli was 98 at the time.

What a sad story, but one that has been probably repeated hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history. What makes it sadder, as is often the case, is that Eli seems like a godly man. He revered the ark and it sounds like it was the news that the ark had been captured that caused him to fall backwards, not the news that his 2 sons had died. He tried, as many good parents have done, to rebuke his sons. He just didn’t do the “tough love” that was called for in their case. How many parents have done that? How many parents have bailed their children out of trouble over and over when maybe they should have used tough love? I say that realizing how hard it must be to use tough love. What does a parent do when his/her child is in deep pain or trouble because of his bad choices? Do you just let them suffer endlessly without intervening? Do you try one more time to help them break an addiction or a life of crime? Do you just write them off until they come to their senses and repent? I would never judge a parent who just could not apply that tough love because I can’t imagine what they have gone through with their children. All I can we do is pray for them to have the wisdom in dealing with their children. And pray for their children.

It is interesting that this story of Eli’s sons follows one of the best stories of motherhood in the Bible. ! Samuel 1-3 tells the story of Hannah. She was barren. Elkanah her husband had 2 wives: Hannah and Peninnah. To make it worse, Her rival, however, would provoke her bitterly to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb (1 Samuel 1:6). Elkanah tried to make up for Hannah’s grief. He would give a double portion of the sacrifices he offered (some sacrifices could be shared with the offerers) to Hannah, but that did not help. 1 Samuel 1:6-8 so she wept and would not eat. Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Hannah went to the tabernacle (there was no temple yet) and prayed for a son. 1 Samuel 1:10 10 She, [a]greatly distressed, prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. She made a vow to God, that if He would give her a son, that she would give him to the Lord all the days of his life.

Her prayer must have been very intense. Eli noticed that her lips were moving but her voice was not heard, and she was weeping bitterly while she prayed. He thought she was drunk, and rebuked her. Hannah told him that she was not drunk, but was “pouring out her soul before the Lord”. Have you ever been at that point in your life, where you are so desperate and sad that you fall on your face, weeping, praying incoherently? Not just weeping, but weeping bitterly, maybe because of some tragic events or unfulfilled expectations (things don’t go as you hoped but go terribly astray)? I remember doing that a few times, almost a nervous breakdown, panic attacks, etc. When she explained her situation to Eli, he said: 1 Samuel 1:17 17 Then Eli answered and said, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him.” 18 She said, “Let your maidservant find favor in your sight.” So the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad. Apparently she became pregnant soon after that and bore a son, Samuel. She kept him home until he was weaned (maybe even 3 years old) and then she brought him to Eli to spend the rest of his childhood ministering to Eli in the tabernacle at Shiloh. Over the years they would visit Samuel each year and bring him a little white robe to wear. Eli asked the Lord to reward her with more children, and God blessed her with 3 sons and 2 daughters in addition to Samuel. Samuel would go on to be the last judge and the first great prophet. God would use him to anoint the first king, Saul, and go through difficult times with God’s rejection of Saul as king due to his bad heart and disobedience. He would then anoint the 2nd king, David.

What a contrast in child rearing! The thing that always impressed me about Hannah was her conviction that, if she was blessed with a child, she would give him back to serve the Lord. Shouldn’t that be the mind set of every parent. We are only given the task and responsibility of raising our children for a few years (even if 18 or so years, still relatively few. We enjoy watching them grow from toddler to teen. We fill our scrapbooks and phones with hundreds of pictures of them growing up. We celebrate their accomplishments and special times in life: when they started school, when they first rode a bike, when they started cheerleading, when they played sports, when they dressed up and went to the prom, when they won a state championship, when they graduated high school, when they went off to college, when they graduated college, when they got married, etc. Sure, they might have gone through some bad “attitude” times, even a little rebellious, but overall they turned out pretty good. But did we train them to be mature Christians? Paul puts the leadership of parenting on the fathers: Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.What if we spent the same amount of time, energy, and money on training our children in spiritual disciplines as we do sports, cheerleading, academics, etc.? Those things are not wrong in and of themselves, but they should not be the main priorities in raising our children.

But what about when one or more of our children turn out to be like Eli’s sons. Proverbs 22:6 says, Train up a child in the way he should go,[a]And when he is old he will not depart from it. Is that a false promise? No. It is however, a general rule, just like many of the other proverbs. Yes, there can be exceptions. Also, there can be other factors involved in addition to the parenting of the parents. God Himself trained Israel and yet they rebelled as His children. Was God to blame for being a bad Father to them? Ezekiel 18 gives the example of a righteous parent who has an unrighteous child, and then an example of an unrighteous parent who has a righteous child. He says that each parent and child will be held responsible for his/her own sins, not the sins of his/her parent or child. I’m sure the righteous parent in that example was not a perfect parent, but was overall doing what is right. Only God is the perfect Father who gives the proper training and discipline, as the Hebrews writer points out: Hebrews 12:9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? So parents who tried to raise their children in the Lord should not feel guilty if any of their children turn out “bad”. Sure, they made mistakes and they could have done a better job but good children will not hold that against them, and nor will God. Each child will have to make his/her own choices and be responsible for those choices.

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