Priests of the Bible – 6. Eli
We first come across Eli in the often-repeated story of a barren woman, Hannah, on her annual family visit to the Tabernacle at Shiloh to make an offering to God, pouring out her heart to Him in bitterness due to not being able to conceive. In her prayer she said she would dedicate any male son she would have to God, vowing the vow of a Nazarite: “then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head” 1 Samuel 1:11b. There in the midst of her anguish she was spotted by Eli, who at first thought she was drunk but once told the reason for her grief, Eli blessed her and she went on her way, after which she conceived. Eli was the High Priest and a judge in Israel, following in the footsteps of earlier judges as well as becoming a notable prophet.
Hannah dedicated the son who was born to her to the Lord. When old enough, he was taken to Eli and put in his charge, for Samuel had been set apart for God’s service. For all intents and purposes, despite often being given an unsympathetic press because of his wayward sons, who assisted in the priestly duties (as was the custom), who he failed to sufficiently reprimand, Eli was likely a good priest when it came to carrying out his duties and as we see at the end of his life his concern was for God’s glory. He was a good mentor to Samuel, who was to play an important part in Israel’s history as a prophet and Israel’s last judge before it had a king. However, Eli failed to take needed action, allowing his sons to bring dishonour to God’s name while ministering in the Tabernacle.
Eli was warned by an unnamed prophet of God’s displeasure due to his son’s conduct which he had allowed to continue and that there will be judgment affecting future generations of his family and the premature deaths of his two sons. Likely a period of years elapsed before Samuel received the call of God and was given the same message that the prophet had earlier given to Eli. The way Eli conducted himself during the call of Samuel was to be commended. But judgment was swift and decisive and was dispensed at the hands of the Philistines, which beat Israel in battle, slew Eli’s two sons and captured the Ark of the Covenant, which Israel under the two brothers took into battle as if it were a lucky charm. When news of what had happened was brought back to Eli, it was the taking of the Ark that was to prove the greatest shock. Soon after his death, the wife of one of Eli’s sons gave birth to a son. “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, the glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband” 1 Samuel 4:21, a sad commentary on what transpired.
Eli’s story is a tragic one, especially given his privileged position and responsibilities. As for his own service, he appeared to carry this out faithfully. But he was weak and failed to honour God as he should. The words of the unnamed prophet are poignant and ones we do well to take to heart in performing our own service for the Lord.