“The Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men”
1 Samuel 2:11-26; 4:12-22; Proverbs 23:15-18, 22-25 (texts); Hebrews 12:5-11
August 24, 2014 * Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear People of God: Today, we come to the fifth and last sermon in our series on “A Little Church in the House: Raising and Strengthening a Godly Household.” In these studies, we have focused on the attributes of a true church applied to our households. We have said that if these marks—true gospel, true worship, and discipline—are applied in our homes, God will be gracious and merciful to us and to our children.
There is a popular saying in raising children, well-known to both Christians and non-Christians alike. This is a general principle that has worked since creation: “Spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Although the Bible does not exactly say this, but it is a saying based on our text in Proverbs 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.”
The story of Eli the high priest and his two sons who were also priests, Hophni and Phinehas, illustrates this principle. Eli did not discipline his two sons, who grew up as wicked men, so that God called them “worthless men.” The results for Eli and for Israel were disastrous. But at the end of the story, there is a hope of a priest to come Who is “ worthy,” not worthless.
This afternoon we will study this very important foundational doctrine, ”The Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men,” under three headings: first, Why They Were Called Worthless; second, The Outcome of their Worthlessness; and third, The Coming of the Worthy One.
Why They Were Called Worthless
Eli actually had three sons, not two, because little Samuel was given to him by his parents to serve as a priest at the sanctuary at Shiloh. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, vowed to God that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate her son to the sanctuary service all his life (1 Sam 1:11).
So Samuel was raised as a godly priest by Eli. Verse 11 summarizes his growth as a young man, “And the boy was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli the priest” (1 Sam 2:11). And again in verses 21 and 26, “And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the LORD… Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and also with man.”
The writer of 1 Samuel contrasts Samuel’s godly upbringing in the sanctuary with Eli’s own sons. In verse 12, after saying that the boy Samuel performed his priestly duties faithfully, the writer says, “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD.” In verse 17, after describing their sin of desecrating the worship at the sanctuary, the writer summarizes, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.”
How did Eli’s sons treat the worship with contempt? They performed their service with greed and disrespect for the ceremonial laws instituted by God through Moses.
First, in verses 13-17, they desecrated the animal sacrifices. Not satisfied with the breast and shoulder, their rightful share as priests, they would take some of the other best portions and the fat, which are to be burned before the LORD. Later, their evil ways took a turn for the worse, so that when Israelites were bringing their sacrifices to the sanctuary, El’s two sons would send their servants to meet the people and force them to give whatever portions they wanted, even by force. The two sons were so corrupt and greedy that some of the people stopped bringing their sacrifices. This was a blatant desecration of the ceremonial laws (see Lev 7:22-25).
Second, in verse 22, we are told that Hophni and Phinehas committed sexual immorality with the women who served at the entrance of the tabernacle. Perhaps these two wicked men were influenced by the cult prostitution very common among the pagan Canaanites around them.
Therefore, the writer calls them “worthless men.” Other versions translate this as “scoundrels” (NIV) and “wicked men” (Holman). The KJV translates it literally as “sons of belial.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word belial describes worthless, wicked, and ungodly people. Some representative uses of this word refer to idolaters (Deu 13:13); people with greedy hearts (Deu 15:9); homosexual men in the tradition of Sodom (Judg 19:22); disrespectful and rebellious men who oppose God-ordained authority (1 Sam 10:27); false witnesses (1 Kgs 21:10); and wicked kings who are God’s enemies (Nah 1:11, 15). Eli’s two sons fit these examples well.
Later, during the time between the Old and New Testaments, belial became a proper noun referring to the devil. This was how Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 6:15, “What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” Here, Paul was warning against Christians having sexual relationship with unbelievers.
The worthlessness of Eli’s two sons had tragic consequences for his family and for Israel.
The Outcome of Their Worthlessness
Because of the wickedness of Eli’s two sons, a prophet pronounced God’s judgment against Eli and his household. In verses 31-34, we read:
Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house… there shall not be an old man in your house forever… and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men. And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day.
Eli’s high-priestly household will be cut off, beginning with the violent death of his two wicked sons. Eli descended from Ithamar, one of Aaron’s four sons, who continued the priestly line. Remember that two of Aaron’s sons were killed by God for offering “strange fire” on the altar in the tabernacle (Lev 10:1-2). The other son was Eleazar. Since God prophesied that Eli’s line would be cut off, the priestly line would continue through the descendants of Eleazar.
We learn from 1 Samuel Chapter 4 how the LORD fulfilled his judgment against Eli’s household. The narrative sounds like scenes from “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” In a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, the Israelites were utterly slaughtered, with 30,000 dead, including Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Not only that, the Ark of the Covenant was also captured by the Philistines, because the Israelites brought it into the battle, thinking that it has magical powers that would save them from certain defeat.
Then one of the survivors of the battle went back to 98-year-old Eli in Shiloh, and broke the bad news to Eli, who was seated by the road waiting for news from the battle. As soon as the man mentioned the capture of the Ark of the Covenant, “Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died” (1 Sam 4:18). Incidentally, falling backward is something that is mentioned in the Bible as a judgment against sinners, as in the arresting soldiers falling backwards when Jesus said to them, “I AM.”
Children, what do you say when you see something gross or disgusting, or taste something that you really don”™t like, like ampalaya or okra? Do you say “Yum!” or “Yuck!” or “Yucky!”? Do you know from where that word comes? The next “unfortunate” event took place when the pregnant wife of Phinehas also heard these tragic events, and gave birth to a son, whom she named Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured” (1 Sam 4:21-22). She too died soon after Ichabod was born. So the name Ichabod then became associated with things that are tragic, bad, and later, ugly and disgusting. Ichabod was also later shortened to Icky, which later became Yucky, then Yuck.
Eli had other descendants who became priests at Nob. When these priests helped shelter David and his men, King Saul ordered the massacre of all 85 priests and the inhabitants of the city. Only one priest named Abiathar escaped. This priest served under David, but Solomon later expelled him from being high priest, finally fulfilling God’s prophecy of cutting off Eli’s house of priests (1 Kgs 2:27).
The two worthless sons of Eli deserved judgment. But why Eli? Eli was a righteous, faithful priest, but he was negligent in one aspect: he did not discipline his sons. Even while he heard of his sons’ wickedness, he allowed them to continue. True, he rebuked them, but it was too little, too late. The sons were already mature men, established in their wicked ways. What should Eli have done? 1 Samuel 3:13 says, “his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” And if they did not cease from their wicked ways, he should have been removed from the priesthood. Did he not remember God’s judgment against Nadab and Abihu?
Instead, Eli actually participated in his sons’ sin. He unlawfully ate the sacrifices with his two sons, so God condemned him, “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?” (1 Sam 2:29) Eli honored and tolerated his sons’ evil ways more than God.
This is a big tragedy in our culture today. Parents do not discipline their children. In the Philippines, spanking has been outlawed in the Family Code since 1989. Maybe because of this, parents are unwilling to apply what the word of God clearly teaches, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die” (Prov 23:13). The next verse is even more striking, “If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.” Not only will your child not die; he will be saved from hell! He will gain eternal life instead of death when he is disciplined. The preacher makes this point very clear, “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death” (Prov 19:18). Not disciplining your children means condemning them to death!
The goal of applying the “rod” is not punishment, but to instill the fear of the LORD and develop godly “wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Prov 23:15-18, 22-25). Parents are not to inflict severe pain on their disobedient child, for this would be child abuse. But a firm slap on the buttocks and a reminder of their wrongdoing would be better than a slight rebuke like Eli’s.
The result of not applying the rod on little children would be that when they grow older, they would not listen anymore, just as Eli’s sons, “But they would not listen to the voice of their father” (1 Sam 2:25). Your children too will grow up without respect for authority, no fear of God, and no love for their neighbors. Their ungodly lives will affect not only your family, but also the church, and other people around you.
This is a sober warning to all of us. If we fail to discipline our children, one of the results is a dysfunctional family. It is striking that the Greek Septuagint translates “worthless men” as “pestilences.” Undisciplined children not only end in a dysfunctional family, but even worse, the destruction of the family with their pestilence of rebellion and ungodliness!
The Coming of the Worthy One
Although Eli failed to discipline his two worthless sons, he was a faithful priest. So was Samuel. But in verse 35, God also prophesied that a faithful priest would come, “And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever” (1 Sam 2:35). Most scholars believe that this priest is Zadok, a descendant of Eleazar, because Eli’s priestly line was cut off. Zadok was faithful to his priestly service to God, and to both God’s appointed kings, David and Solomon (Ezk 43:19). Even the people became idolaters, the descendants of Zadok were faithful to God (Ezk 40:46; 44:15).
This prophecy reminds us of God’s covenant with King David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16. The LORD promised David, “I will raise up your offspring after you… and I will establish his kingdom.” God is refer-ring to David’s son Solomon, whose reign will be the golden age of Israel. He would be a faithful king, because “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men,” and the LORD’s “steadfast love will not depart from him.” And David’s “house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.”
But the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy is not Zadok, Samuel or even David. The coming faithful One who will hold the office of Samuel, who was both a priest and a prophet of God, and David who was a king, would be Jesus the Christ. He holds the three-fold office of Priest, Prophet and King. While the Old Testament priests held office until they died, Christ is our eternal High Priest because of his “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). His priesthood is not from the Aaronic line, but from the order of Melchizedek because had no beginning and no end.
Therefore, unlike Solomon who committed iniquity, Christ was our faithful, sinless High Priest. He never rebelled against his Father, having perfectly obeyed him all the way to his death. God struck him with the “rod of men” on the cross because of our sins, for we are like Solomon whom the LORD disciplines with his rod when we disobey. God poured out on him “the chastisement that brought us peace” with God (Isa 53:5).
Therefore, unlike Eli’s worthless sons, Jesus’ heavenly Father calls him his Worthy Son. David himself praises him, “I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised” (2 Sam 22:4; Psa 18:3). The writer of Hebrews compares Jesus and Moses, “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (Heb 3:3). And John praises Christ, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12).
As our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of praise and glory, you who call yourself Christian are called to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col 1:10; Eph 4:1). And if our life is not worthy of our calling, the LORD disciplines us, sometimes with pain (Heb 12:11). When we know that God disciplines us because of sin, the preacher reminds us, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:5-6). And he adds, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7).
So our prayer would be for God to give us strength when he disciplines us, and not to think that God is wrathful against us when we sin, “O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (Psa 6:1). Then when we understand that discipline is for our maturity and endurance to the end, we will not withhold discipline from our children as well.
Beloved Chosen Ones of God: In our short study of how to raise and strengthen a godly household, let us remember that God has made a covenant not only with us, but with our Christian forefathers in the faith. And our great responsibility is to continue covenant faithfulness in our children.
How are we to do this? It starts in our homes daily, in the morning and in the evening. First, by teaching them God’s wisdom in the Word of Christ, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Second, by leading them in the worship of God””reading Scriptures, singing Psalms, and praying with them and for them. And third, by applying discipline with both admonition and love from our heavenly Father.
When you do this, and with persistent pleading with God to preserve your children firmly in the faith, they will grow up to be worthy men and women walking in obedience to God. We know that not all our covenant children grow up to be godly believers, so our unceasing and persistent prayer is that we will see theÂ day when we can say that our children “increased in wisdom and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).