The Lord does not tolerate those who dishonor his royal authority, including Eli, who passively endorses his sons’ disrespect by failing to confront it forcefully enough. The Lord even cancels his conditional promise to Eli and announces that he will replace Eli’s descendants with those who are more worthy. As noted above, this episode foreshadows God’s rejection of Saul and election of David. In the passage’s larger canonical context (the Former Prophets), it is a sobering reminder to the exiles that a privileged position before God does not insulate one from divine discipline and that disobedience can cause promised blessing to evaporate. At the same time, it serves as a challenge to the exiles not to repeat the sins of the past. They must respect the Lord’s royal authority by obeying him.
Teaching the Text
- The Lord does not tolerate those who value their own selfish desires above honoring the Lord and thereby disrespect his royal authority. In contrast to Hannah, who affirms the Lord’s holiness (2:2), Eli’s sons disrespect the Lord by disregarding his clearly revealed commands and depriving him of his proper portion of the people’s offerings. Their attitudes and actions indicate that they value their own desires above honoring the Lord. In so doing they treat him as if he does not have authority over them. In a New Testament or modern context, disrespect for God’s royal authority may take many specific forms, depending on one’s circumstances. But at the most fundamental level, we disrespect God anytime we disregard his revealed moral will and by our attitudes and actions deny his authority over our lives. Now, as then, God will confront those who treat him with disrespect. In the case of Eli and his sons, they lose their lives and their priestly dynasty. In a New Testament or modern context, God’s discipline may take a variety of forms (see, e.g., Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor. 11:27–32; Heb. 11:15–17, 25), but one thing is certain: it can be unpleasant and even severe.
A corollary of this first principle may be stated as follows: the Lord expects total allegiance from his chosen servants. Eli warns his sons, albeit belatedly, about the consequences of their actions. Yet from God’s perspective, this is not an adequate response. After all, apparently Eli is content to benefit from their misbehavior. Though he is old and weak, he has the authority to remove them from office, but he fails to do so. The Lord punishes Eli because he tolerates his sons’ contempt, even though he does not approve of it or directly participate in it. In this case there is no middle ground. To participate in and tolerate the sons’ sins in any way is to align oneself against the Lord. Eli serves as a reminder that God demands total allegiance from his servants. Halfhearted lip service without substantive action does not impress him.
Eli’s sons dishonored the Lord by not following the sacrificial procedures described in the law. This life-size replica of the tabernacle located at Timna, Israel, shows the altar, with a shovel and three-prong fork leaning against it, in the courtyard of the tent of meeting.
- The Lord may withdraw his promised blessing from those who reject his authority. The Lord is faithful and reliable, and he expects his servants to be loyal and obedient. Being called to a special position, as Eli and his family are, does not insulate one from divine discipline. From everyone to whom much is given, much is required (Amos 3:2; Luke 12:48). God sometimes makes promises to those whom he chooses, but often these promises are contingent upon continued loyalty. Rather than being guarantees that give the recipients a license to act as they wish, these promises should motivate continued obedience.
This is not a text about parenting. One could use Eli’s example to illustrate poor parenting if one were preaching from another passage that deals directly with the subject of parenting, such as a proverb. (The NT frequently uses OT characters and events for illustrative purposes, even when the OT text is not directly addressing the theme of the NT passage.) But if 1 Samuel 2:12–36 is one’s base text for a sermon or lesson, then the themes outlined above, not parenting, should be the focus of the exposition.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.