When I visit the zoo, I enjoy going to the reptile house – the lizards appear to move so slowly. They remain fixed in one position for minutes at a time, without even blinking. Eli the priest reminds me a little of this reptilian behaviour – often, as we encounter him in scripture, he is sitting, 1 Sam. 1. 9; 4. 13, or sleeping, 3. 2. Eli liked a lie-down! This was highly unusual for priests who should have been busy people, not lazy. ‘Every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices’, Heb. 10. 11.
Eli was part of the Aaronic family, descended from Ithamar,1 rather than the Eleazar/Phinehas line; therefore, he had no claim on the Phinehas blessing of an everlasting priesthood, Num. 25. 13. Eli was a pick-and-mix priest who exhibited a complex blend of traits – some good, some bad. In this article, we will look at Eli’s relationships with other principal actors in the narrative.
Whereas Eli seemed to follow the Lord’s commands, his sons behaved differently. Hophni and Phinehas were greedy, grasping individuals, who claimed the people’s offerings for themselves, 1 Sam. 2. 12-16. They had no regard for holy living, v. 22, which priests should have exemplified to the people. They were in the job for what they could get out of it – this attitude remained alarmingly commonplace in the New Testament church, Phil. 2. 21. Even elders might have been ‘lording it over those allotted to your charge’, 1 Pet. 5. 3, NASB.
Eli was disappointed in his sons, 1 Sam. 2. 23. He would have been disqualified from eldership since he was not ‘one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection’, 1 Tim. 3. 4. Hophni and Phinehas had been brought up by Eli, but there was no formative godly influence in their youth.
Contrast the spiritual fervour of Hannah with the laid-back attitude of Eli. As he sat, he watched the woman whisper a prayer and presumed her to be drunk, 1 Sam. 1. 12-14. He thought she had been pouring out the wine, when in fact she was pouring out her soul to God, v. 15, cp. Ps. 62. 8. Eli was short-sighted – 1 Sam. 3. 2; 4. 15 – but he also lacked spiritual perception.
However, as soon as Hannah, gracious by name, and gracious by nature, had corrected Eli, he showed appropriate sympathy, and announced a beautiful priestly blessing, ‘The God of Israel grant thee thy petition’, 1. 17. How glad we are that our ‘merciful and faithful high priest’ understands us precisely and meets our need perfectly, Heb. 2. 17; 4. 16.
When Hannah returned to Shiloh after a few years, she brought with her the child who embodied the answer to her prayers. She was prepared to fulfil her vow, allowing Samuel to spend a lifetime in Nazirite service, 1 Sam. 1. 11, cp. Num. 6. 5. Rather than redeeming her firstborn child, she chose to give him to the Lord, Exod. 34. 20. Hannah entrusted Samuel to Eli, who became the young boy’s guardian and mentor. Despite Eli’s failure with his sons’ upbringing, he had a further opportunity to serve as a spiritual guide to Samuel.
Although only a youngster, Samuel had responsibilities at Shiloh. For him, tasks like opening the doors counted as serving the Lord, ‘And the least we do for Jesus / Will be precious in His sight’.2 Eli appears to have been grateful for Samuel’s help, 1 Sam. 2. 20.
When he suddenly heard a voice in the night, Samuel was disturbed, and Eli was his instinctive first port of call. Samuel presumed the aged priest was calling him. This sequence occurred three times, until eventually Eli realized it was the voice of God. Jehovah had bypassed the compromised priest; instead, He wanted to converse with the innocent child. Eli gently and accurately instructed Samuel how to answer – ‘Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth’, 3. 9. The fourth time, God spoke to Samuel again. Samuel repeated Eli’s words – ‘Speak; for thy servant heareth’, v. 10. Samuel’s answer was obedient – ‘speak’, reverent – he wouldn’t use the holy name since he ‘did not yet know the Lord’, v. 7, although he referred to Jehovah in later life as he grew into his role as ‘God’s emergency man’.3 Samuel’s answer was humble – like his mother, 1. 11, he recognized that he was only a servant of the heavenly Master. Eli may have exerted little influence on his sons, but he had a tremendous effect for good on Samuel. Who can we shape in terms of their spiritual experience?
Eli died in tragic circumstances, as the ark of God was captured by the enemy, 4. 17, 18. The loss of the ark affected him more than the death of his sons. Eli’s shock and subsequent fatal fall indicate his reverence alongside his powerlessness. By God’s grace, let us learn lessons from Eli’s life – adopting his good traits while avoiding the bad.
See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eli_(biblical_figure)#Genealogy for details.
Hark! the voice of Jesus crying is a missionary hymn by Daniel March. See https://hymnary.org/text/hark_the_voice_of_jesus_calling_who_will for lyrics.
W. W. Fereday, Samuel: God’s Emergency Man, https://www.stempublishing.com/authors/fereday/SAMUEL.html. This is the best concise book on Samuel. Fun fact: as well as being a pithy commentator, W. W. Fereday was a professional tea taster.