The story of Eli is recorded in the first four chapters of 1 Samuel. Eli served as priest; in fact, as High Priest in the house of the LORD in Shiloh (compare 1 Samuel 1:9, 24). Eli was also a judge over Israel (1 Samuel 4:18). Eli was a descendant of Ithamar, the fourth and youngest son of Aaron the High Priest (compare Exodus 6:23).
The account in 1 Samuel also introduces the story of Samuel—the one who replaced Eli as judge over Israel (compare 1 Samuel 7:6).
For Eli, serving as both priest and judge to Israel, a great sense of responsibility and accountability to God was required. Turning to a later account, consider what God said as it is recorded in the second chapter of the Book of Malachi concerning His priests:
“‘And now, O priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, And if you will not take it to heart, To give glory to My name,’ Says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will send a curse upon you, And I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have cursed them already, Because you do not take it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your descendants And spread refuse on your faces, The refuse of your solemn feasts; And one will take you away with it. Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, That My covenant with Levi may continue,’ Says the Lord of hosts. ‘My covenant was with him, one of life and peace, And I gave them to him that he might fear Me; So he feared Me And was reverent before My name. The law of truth was in his mouth, And injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, And turned many away from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, And people should seek the law from his mouth; For he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts’” (Malachi 2:1-7).
Of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who served as priests (compare 1 Samuel 1:3), this is recorded: “Now the sons of Eli were corrupt; they did not know the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:12). They took meat from the sacrificial animals before it was dedicated to God by the people of Israel: “Therefore the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for men abhorred the offering of the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:17).
We also find this indictment of these two brothers—something of which Eli was aware:
“Now Eli was very old; and he heard everything his sons did to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. So he said to them, ‘Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons! For it is not a good report that I hear. You make the Lord’s people transgress. If one man sins against another, God will judge him. But if a man sins against the Lord, who will intercede for him?’ Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the Lord desired to kill them” (1 Samuel 2:22-25).
So grave was this situation that Eli’s sons simply went too far in their rebellious actions, but note that God held Eli accountable as well, because he tolerated his sons’ evil conduct, without preventing it:
“Then a man of God came to Eli and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Did I not clearly reveal Myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh’s house? Did I not choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer upon My altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod before Me? And did I not give to the house of your father all the offerings of the children of Israel made by fire? Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honor your sons more than Me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel My people?”’” (1 Samuel 2:27-29).
Eli knew better; he knew what his sons did, and he placed his sons ahead of God! As High Priest, he had the authority and duty to stop them, but he failed to do so (compare 1 Samuel 3:11-14).
We find another example of how strictly God demands His priests to fulfill their office in representing Him before His people:
“Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, saying: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.” ’ So Aaron held his peace” (Leviticus 10:1-3).
Hophni and Phinehas died by the hands of the Philistines, and the ark of God was captured by them (1 Samuel 4:11); Eli also died (verse 18).
This all came about because of the sin which was allowed to grow and fester until there was no remedy, and this was true of the people of Israel at that time as well. Note how God uses the Shiloh of Eli’s time as a witness against Israel:
“‘But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel’” (Jeremiah 7:12).
When the man of God came to Eli to tell him of the judgment from God that would come upon him and his descendants, God also related that He would choose someone to replace him in the Aaronic line of High Priest:
“‘Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever’” (1 Samuel 2:35).
This prophecy was fulfilled in the days of Solomon’s reign:
“So Solomon removed Abiathar from being priest to the Lord, that he might fulfill the word of the Lord which He spoke concerning the house of Eli at Shiloh… The king put Benaiah the son of Jehoiada in his place over the army, and the king put Zadok the priest in the place of Abiathar” (1 Kings 2:27, 35).
Zadok’s faithfulness in serving as priest to the LORD has become a measure of contrast to the house of Eli. In fact, Zadok’s descendants are mentioned as having priestly roles in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ:
“‘But the priests, the Levites, the sons of Zadok, who kept charge of My sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from Me, they shall come near Me to minister to Me; and they shall stand before Me to offer to Me the fat and the blood,’ says the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 44:15; also compare Ezekiel 48:11).
Let us carefully note the example of Eli who became permissive with God’s laws, who condoned sin and who placed others ahead of God. He paid with his life, the life of two of his sons, a curse on his descendants and the rejection of Shiloh because of the sin that arose in Israel.
Christians are called to be judges and priests in the Kingdom of God. Paul cautions us that we, too, have a great sense of responsibility and accountability to God:
“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The LORD will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26-31).
Lead Writer: Dave Harris