Eli’s Failure As a Father

June 18, 2006 / No. 3311

Dear radio friends,

     The passage that we consider today on the occasion of Father’s Day is a very sobering and humbling one.  It is taken from the life of Eli.  It is found in I Samuel 2 and 3.  It constitutes a warning of God in love to us as fathers.  We read in I Corinthians 10:11, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples:  and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”  Do not do, father, what Eli did.

     What was it that Eli did as a father?  It was not that he did not love the Lord.  He surely did.  Nor was it that he did not love his sons.  He did.  Nor was it that he did not warn them.  He did.  Nor was it that he did not love the cause of God.  He certainly did.  What was his failure?

     We read in I Samuel 3:13 God saying this:  “I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.”  Eli, as a father, spoke – but he did not carry it out.  He warned – but he did not see to it.  It was too painful for Eli to displease his sons.  He honored his sons more than God.  And his sons knew that Dad would not do anything about it.

     Now we love our sons and our daughters.  The very thought that any one of them would grow up like Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to be ungodly and to kick at the worship and service of God, to show contempt and indifference at the very things of God – the very thought of that is enough to make us weep.  More, the very thought that the church of the living God would be ridiculed on account of the wickedness of one of my children is a horrible thing to consider.

     Therefore, the warning of the Word of God to us as fathers today is that we be not blind to the failure that is very common among fathers and parents – a failure that Eli knew he had committed.  We read that God would judge him for the iniquity which he knoweth.  Eli knew that he had honored his sons above God.

     But looking upon Eli today will also be an opportunity for us to have good hope and encouragement, for we also read in Romans 15:4, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”  Hope is found when God tells us where Eli went wrong.  Eli honored his sons above God.  God calls us positively, as fathers, to the basic principle of child rearing – to honor God.  For those who honor God will God honor.

     To honor God above our children does not mean that we cut the nerves of our fatherly love and instinct.  It does not mean that we become a brute and insensitive.  That is sin.  But it means that we, in our heart, have the interest that God has in our sons and in our daughters – that they be God-fearing.  When you honor God above all things, your home will be on target, your home will be warm, your home will be healthy, your home (in one word) will be God-centered.

     Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, we read in I Samuel 2:12, were sons of Belial.  They knew not the Lord, they made themselves vile.  A son of Belial means “worthless, empty.”  Eli’s two sons were thieves and fornicators.  They were covetous and adulterers.  They took the meat of the thank offering.  Eli was the priest.  He was in charge of the sacrifices of God in the tabernacle.  His sons took the meat of the thank offering.  The law was that first the offering was to be given to God, and after that, the leftover went to the priest.  Eli’s sons turned that around and took for themselves first.  In addition, they fornicated with the women who served at the door of the congregation.  They said of those women who were there to serve and worship God, “their bodies are for me.”  They said that the figure of a young girl is there to serve the lust of their eyes.  Their lives were ruled by lust, by what they wanted, when they wanted it, and as they wanted it.  They had no higher interest in their lives, these two sons, than sex, pornography, and pleasures.  We can see the same things often in the church:  professing Christian youth saying, “It’s all about me.  It’s all about my pleasure.  It’s all about good times.  Later on in my life, perhaps, I’ll be godly.  But now sex and drinking.  And it doesn’t matter.”

     What did others say?  Perhaps many looked at the wild life that these two sons were living and laughed over their escapades.  But God’s judgment upon it was this:  worthless, empty, vile, consuming others at the puny altar of their own self.

     But behind that was Eli’s failure as a father.  This does not let Hophni and Phinehas, his sons, off the hook.  They were, of course, responsible for their actions, as is every covenant son or daughter.  But in all of those wicked acts, Eli did not stop them.

     Now it is possible that  parents not be guilty of Eli’s failure, and yet their children live an ungodly life.  But the Holy Spirit here is focusing upon the life of Eli, the father, and his place of responsibility.  His failure was this:  He did not restrain them, we read in I Samuel 3:13.   And, down in his soul, he knew that.  Eli did not look at his sons in their wickedness and say, “What did I do wrong?”  Though it was hard to admit it, he knew the failure was this:  he did not restrain them.

     At first, that might seem not to be true, for we read in the Scriptures (I Sam. 2:23, 24) that he did rebuke his sons.  And he rebuked them pointedly.  He put his finger on their sins.  He said unto them, “Why do ye such things?  For I hear of your evil dealings by all this people.  Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear:  ye make the LORD’speople to transgress.”  He said, “Your lives are bringing a reproach upon the name of God.  The worst of it is not simply what you do.  That’s awful.  But worse still is that your actions are now making the people of God to sin when they see you, as the servants of God, my sons.  They say, ‘Well, if that’s what the service of God is, if that’s what it means to be a Christian, you can keep it.’”  Eli got right to the point.  Eli, and that is a good example to us as fathers, got to the point.  “Son, daughter, what is your life saying about God?  What will others say about God from your life?  Will others show contempt of God because you take His name upon your lips and you live that way?”  Oh, Eli’s words were to the point.  And Eli’s words were sharp.

     But the problem was that that is all that he did.  He did not stop them.  He did not bring them to the elders in the gate.  He did not depose them from their priestly office.  He did not remove their priestly garments.  He did not bar them from performing sacrifices.  He did not call the people to stone them for their fornication.  That all was required in the Old Testament law.

     But this is what characterized Eli’s life as a father:  he spake, he yelled – but he did not back it up.  He was indulgent.  He had a hard time saying “No.”  It hurt him when he had to say “No.”  He did not displease his sons.  He did not spank.  He did not want to cause his children pain.  He did not want to run the risk of, perhaps, upsetting them and making them angry.

     Eli is not alone.  We read even of the great and mighty David, that he did not restrain his son Adonijah, who later attempted to usurp the crown when David was an old man.  We read of Adonijah and David this in I Kings 1:6:   “And his father had not displeased him at any time.”  He did not say, “I’m not going to give you what you’re asking for because it’s not good for you.  We can’t afford it.”  He did not say, “You are going to obey the simple rules of this family.  I will see to it.”  But David’s son knew the bottom line, as did Eli’s sons, that Dad would talk but that’s all.

     Beloved, this is a warning to us today as fathers.  We must not, of course, try to correct this indulgence of our flesh by going to the other extreme.  We are prone to do that.  This Word of God is not saying, “Be harsh, rigid, without compassion.  Be a tyrant over your family.  Provoke them unto wrath.”  The Scriptures warn us not to do that.  That is an evil that we must be warned against and against which the church may not be silent.  Children may not be abused!  They may not be abused with cruel, hateful words.  They may not be abused in beatings out of our own frustration.  They may not be sexually abused.

     But the warning is also this to us as fathers:  You must not simply talk.  There comes a time when you must act.  Children must know that when they walk in a way that blasphemes God, Dad will do something about it.  He will not tolerate defiance of Mother.  He will not tolerate watching pornography on television.  He will not tolerate skipping church.  Children must know that if they do those things, Dad will make them suffer.

     There are a number of things in the text that show the seriousness of Eli’s failure.  First of all, the seriousness was found in what was said about God and about His cause and about His name and about everything that we hold dear.  Men, we read, abhorred the offering of the Lord.  Eli said to his sons, “Ye make the people to transgress.”  You can imagine.  Who would want to bring any offering to the Lord’s temple when the priests took what they wanted and when they committed fornication with the women publicly, out in front of you?  Who would want to come to church?  Who would respect anything of the tabernacle?  Who would respect anything of religion?  They would say to you, “Keep your religion.  Why pay attention to the church if the young men of the church act this way?  Why should I have any respect at all for your religion?”  That was the worst of it, yes it was, even for Eli.  You might say that the worst of it for Eli was to see his sons go in the way of wickedness.  That did hurt.  But you have to give this to Eli’s credit:  the worst of it for Eli was what his sons’ action said about his God, about his God’s Christ, and his God’s name.  He saw that the church was corrupted.  And right there is the nerve of God’s grace.  Do you have the sensitivity of the grace of God in your heart?  Then you say, “What does my action say about God?”  That, ultimately, is the thing that matters.

     The second thing we see here from Eli’s failure is that God does indeed take the training of our children seriously – so seriously that He judged not only Hophni and Phinehas, but also Eli for his failure.  God says, “Train your children in the way.  Train them as those who must not follow their own way, the bondage of their own feelings, or bow down at the idol of their own ease.  They must not simply say constantly to responsibilities and to spiritual matters:  “I’m too tired.  I’ll do that some other time.  It hurts me right now to have these disciplines of godliness.”  You must not give way to your child’s sloth.

     And, as a parent, you must not live for your own ease, because you know that it will be painful for you to exercise in a wise, loving, consistent, thoughtful manner proper discipline.  Oh, there is a hurt there.  And it requires diligence and thought and prayer.  As fathers we may not kick at that.  We may not say, “That’s asking too much.  Instead I will smile indulgently at their disobedience to me as a little child.”  No, God says, “Mount up in faith.  Teach them with an open Bible in your hand, with the love of God in your heart.  Teach them the simple rules of godliness.”

     Hophni and Phinehas knew not the Lord.  We would say, “How can that be?  Certainly they knew about the Lord!”  Oh, yes.  They had it all straight in their head – but not in their heart.  They knew all about the temple and the sacrifices and the history of Israel.  But they did not love it.  They did not reverence it.  They did not love the blood of the Lamb.  As children their nature was set against this.  And they were never shown by wise discipline the power of the call to serve God at the cost of self.  Eli thought it was kindness not to make his children learn the disciplines of self-denial.  But Eli was saying this when he failed to discipline and carry through with his discipline of his children: “The Christian can follow the easy, natural way.  We can talk about religion.  But when it actually comes down to the cost of religion, well, that’s not so important.  To actually deny oneself and to take up the cross and to follow Jesus – you can be a Christian, and live for your own ease too.”  There was his failure.

     Our children must know that when we say “No,” we mean no!  Our children must learn that we do not believe the lie of the devil that it is a phase young people go through when they drink, when they fornicate, when they listen to evil CDs.  Our comfort is not, “Well, they all do it, and they’ll come out of it someday.”  That is the deception of the evil one.  But our children must learn the discipline of our taking the CD and breaking it; of evil behavior that, by the grace of God, is stopped; of car privileges that are taken away.  They must know that I as a father will see to it, even if it means much inconvenience to me, that my children know the loving services and the disciplines of grace – that there will be substance in this confession:  that everything in this home is yielded to the honor of God.  And remember, father, that when they are nineteen or twenty years, or sixteen or seventeen years old, you do not begin then to think about discipline.  Your discipline is done then.  At the ages of five, six, seven, eight, your discipline is half done.  Your discipline begins when God gives them to you.  You must love them in Christ and strive that Christ be formed in them.

     But with respect to all these things, Eli was a failure.  He did not restrain his sons.  And, in refusing the pain that punishing his sons would cause him in his own life, he experienced a greater pain of seeing his children grow up into a worthless life.  Now, Eli was a believer.  He was troubled over his sins.  He was troubled over the sins of his sons.  We would go to Eli and we would wrap our arms around him and we would grieve with him.  He hated what his sons were doing.  He wept.  He loved the Lord.  It hurt.  And, as I said, it hurt most of all in what it all said about God.

     In the next chapter, if you read in I Samuel 3 and following, you will see that Eli was humbled before God.  And he humbled himself before God.  But God’s loving chastisements are very severe upon Eli.  And His loving chastisements upon His son Eli make me silent, and make me tremble, and bring me to my knees for mercy.  The judgment of God came upon Eli’s house.  His sons would die in one day, impenitent.  The priesthood would be removed from his family.  All of his descendants would die young.  The service of God would suffer.

     Yes, God gave him mercy.  Yes, God pointed out to him the Christ.  Read verse 35 of I Samuel 1, and you will see Jesus there.  In the midst of Eli’s failures, God pointed him to Jesus and told him, “You are saved by Jesus.”  Yet the consequences were painful.  God’s judgment of Eli’s failure was that the worship of God was now corrupted, the church was corrupted.  That was the worst of it.  And the judgment was this:  A generation arose that did not want to be and would not be restricted or restrained from the way of evil but would give themselves to every way of evil.  They would not be told, as teenagers.  They would not be admonished in the preaching of the gospel.  They did not like, they did not want, preaching like that.  They said, “Preaching must make us feel good.  We must be able to indulge ourselves.  We will not go to a church that talks about sin and the call of repentance and the power of a holy life in self-denial.  We won’t go there.”  Then elders, deacons, and ministers came up out of such a generation.  And these are the ones who begin to clamor for laxness and say that the difference between the church and the world is really insignificant.  And the leaven of disrespect for God is sown in the whole house of God.

     As we see Eli’s failure as a father, we are pointed also to the perfect cure.  And that cure is faith in the promises of Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior.  It is faith in the blood of Jesus Christ that forgives our sins, for sure.  But faith in the blood of Jesus Christ that strengthens us shows us our responsibilities as parents and as fathers, lays that responsibility upon our hearts, and by the Spirit of the risen Lord gives us a wisdom to go about that responsibility in a God-honoring way.  God’s Word comes to you and to me today as fathers and says, “Honor Me in your children.  Stop them in the ways of sin.  Don’t say, ‘I can’t.’  Don’t say ‘I can’t stand to see them not happy.’”  Honor God and show them the blessedness and the privilege and the joy of serving God.

     Then God’s strength will work through our weakness as fathers.  God’s mercy will be shown to our children and to our young people, who will be equipped to stand faithful in the battle of faith.  They will be ready to choose the paths of difficulty, suffering for Christ’s sake, and to honor God, at the expense of their personal ease, because parents, fathers, have taught them to honor God, and have taught them to honor God by not only saying “No,” but by restraining them and stopping them in the way of evil.

     Yes, that will cause pain.  That will come at the sacrifice of our own ease.  But, through this, through fathers who are dedicated to honor God first, God will build His house, and God will equip a generation of children and young people to stand without shame to serve Him.

     Let us pray.

     Father, we are indeed humbled before Thee today, humbled before Thy Word.  Oh, Father, look upon us as fathers, as we stand in Thy name, and equip us in our hearts with all spiritual wisdom, all understanding, all zeal, and all love of Thee, that we may teach our children to honor Thee and that they may see one thing:  that Dad will honor God.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.