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Eli: Castaway Preacher 
& Indulgent Father

by Alexander Whyte (1836-1921)

"Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and how 
they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the 
congregation.And 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’S people to transgress.  If one man sin against 
another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD, 
who shall intreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto 
the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them."
                                                                                               —I Samuel 2:22-25

Knowest thou a man that is hasty in his words? There is more hope of a fool than of him.  "...Eli thought she had been drunken.  And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee."  (I Samuel 1:14)  Yes; but we have hope of Eli in spite of his hasty words. For Eli never forgave himself for his hasty words to Hannah. Eli had many bitter memories as he sat by the wayside watching for the ark of God. And one of the bitterest of those memories was the lasting memory of his insulting language to Hannah. No sooner was that hasty word gone out of Eli s mouth than he would have given all the world to have had that hasty word back again. "Go in peace," Eli said, "and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition which thou hast asked of Him." And all his days, in his sore remorse for what he had said to Samuel s mother before Samuel was born, Eli tried to make up for that insult to Samuel her son. Eli s extraordinary care over young Samuel ; his extraordinary tenderness toward the child ; and, as Samuel grew up, the old priest s secret fear at Samuel; and his growing reverence for him; he had done it all in an attempt to undo the insult and the injury he had done to Samuel s mother. 

Samuel was predestinated soon to succeed to all Eli s forfeited offices. All Eli s high positions were soon to descend to Samuel. And Eli saw all that preparing to come about, and preparing to come about soon. But all that did not alter or abate by one iota Eli s notable goodness to Samuel. Eli could not have treated Hophni or Phinehas better than he treated Samuel, his immediate successor. Frederick Robertson, in his able apology for Eli, makes a great deal of the total absence of envy in Eli. But surely not with that great preacheris lacking insight. My tongue may be cleaving to the roof of my mouth with envy; I may be as blind with envy as Eli was blind with old age; the hair may have fallen off my head till I am bald with envy and yet no man about me may so much as guess it. 

What Eli is to be praised for is this not that he felt no envy of Samuel; but that, feeling envy every day, as he could not fail to feel it, he kept his envy down, and did not let it come out in his treatment of Samuel. Of course Eli had envy of Samuel; all men have envy in their hearts who are placed by God in Eli s circumstances, and it is misleading and mischievous in the last degree in any preacher to say anything else. God alone could say whether Eli had envy or not. And he never says that about Eli or any other man. He says about Eli and all men the very opposite. The point with God is not whether I have envy or not ; but it is this, how I deal with the envy that He knows I have. All that my fellow-men can see in me is not the envy of my heart, but that of my life. They can see and hear whether or not I backbite, and belittle, and detract, and depreciate; as also whether I consent and take part and pleasure with them who do. 

And while that is much to see and to judge, it is far from being all. If the John the Baptist had no envy and no jealousy of his fast-rising Cousin, then he has all that the less praise for his noble reply to his envious and jealous disciples. But if the Forerunner had to fast from his locusts to help him to subdue his pride; if it was only after many unwitnessed days and nights of sweat and prayer and blood that he was enabled to hand over John and Andrew to Jesus whom he had baptized but yesterday beyond Jordan; then John the Baptist is of some use to you and to me. But if John had no such envy and no such jealousy himself as his disciples had on his account, then he was not a man of like passions as we are. If John did not sometimes find himself hating Jesus in his heart till, in his agony, he threw himself over the bleeding rocks of the wilderness, then all I can say is, that Elizabeth s sanctified son was not made of the same rotten stuff with you and me. 

Not only had Eli, with all his envy, a very real and a very deep love for little Samuel; but along with that, and kept alive by that, he had a real, a living, and a deep faith in God, and in God s voices and visions and answers to men. Eli s fine benediction spoken over Hannah the next moment after he had mistaken her for a daughter of Belial; his open-hearted adoption of little Samuel to be his assistant and successor in the temple service; his rich and recompensing benediction pronounced on Samuel s mother because she had lent little Samuel to the Lord; his midnight lesson to his little elect companion; his solemn demand next morning to be told what the Lord had said to the prophetic child during the night; and his instant acceptance of the terrible message that little Samuel was compelled to deliver, all that shows us that Eli, with all his shipwreck of life and opportunity and privilege, had the root of the matter all the time in him. 

There had been no open vision for many a day in Israel. But Eli s mind had been open all the time. You will see men with great faults, and even with completely lost and wasted lives, who yet all through, and to the end, have a certain openness of mind to divine truth, and a certain sure and spontaneous sympathy with divine truth to whomsoever it comes, and through whomsoever it speaks. And poor old Eli was one of those open-minded and truth-loving men. If his own sins and his sons' sins had shut silent the divine vision, then Eli was all the more prepared to believe that the divine vision would hereafter speak to better men than he had been. And when the divine vision did begin to break its long silence, and to speak again, for Eli to accept that vision, even when it came in the shape of a sentence of capital punishment on himself and on his house, well, if ever faith had her perfect work in an open mind, it was surely in castaway Eli s open mind. 

What a lesson is here, and what a noble example to all old castaways among us. The Spirit and the providences of God in His Church have stood still in our day. There has been nothing to call an open vision. We have sinned away the open vision. We have quenched the speaking Spirit. But, all the time, the Spirit of God is only waiting till we are out of His way, and then He will return and will not tarry. As soon as we are dead and gone, and obstruct the Spirit of God no more, Samuel will come, and the Lord will be with Samuel, and will let none of his words fall to the ground. But God s mercies always come mingled up with God s judgments, and if you have Eli s loving heart for the rising generation of God s ministers; and if with that you have a still living, if hitherto a too-barren faith in the ever-living God; in alleviation of your punishment, and in reward of your faith and your love, He will send the beginning of the returning vision before the end of your lost life. And even if that vision comes to condemn your whole life, and to pass sentence on you, and on your evil house; yet, even so, better that than to live and die in the long absence and the total silence of an angry God. Let us expect, then, for our successors what we have sinned away from ourselves. Let us believe and be sure that the coming generation will see visions and hear voices that we have not been counted worthy to see or to hear, because of our great unfaithfulness and unfruitfulness, and because of our great blindness and disobedience. 

And then, look at old Eli s splendid resignation and Gethsemane-like submission. "It is the Lord: let Him do what seemeth Him good." I shall never believe that Eli is lost. Broken neck; dead sons and daughters lying strewed all around him; the ark taken; the temple in ruins, and the glory departed, and all Eli is not lost. No man is wholly lost who lies lost before God like that. "Though He slay me..." said Job. But He did not slay Job as He slew Eli. Job s patience, and meekness, and submission, and resignation were terribly enough tried; but they were not tried down to death as Eli was. And He who so rewarded Job, and who so supported and rewarded His own Son---no, I shall not believe it till I see it that Eli is among the reprobate. It is the Lord. If any thing will cover a multitude of sins; if anything will draw down the mercy of God, surely that cry of Eli s will do it. 

Away back, at the beginning of his life, Eli had taken far too much in hand. Eli was not a great man like Moses or Aaron, but he took both the office of Moses and the office of Aaron upon his single self. Eli was both the chief judge and the high priest for the whole house of Israel. The ablest, the most laborious, the most devoted, the most tireless and sleepless of men could not have done what Eli undertook to do. They called Origen Brazen-bowels, he was such a sleepless student. But Eli would have needed both bowels of brass, and a head and a heart of gold, to have done the half of what he undertook to do. 

And, taking up what was beyond mortal power to perform, the certain result was that he did nothing well, but did everything ill. Both his high priesthood at the altar, and his chief judgeship at the gate, and his sole fatherhood in his own house; both God s house and his own house, and the whole house of Israel, went to wreck and ruin under overladen Eli. It is startling and terrible to think that the unparalleled catastrophe of Eli s awful end had its first and far-back roots in what is as much a virtue, surely, as a vice: his determination to do two men s work with his own hands. 

But, whatever Eli s motives were for loading himself with all this plurality of offices and emoluments, the terrible catastrophe of his own end and his sons end and the end of Shiloh all this had its earliest roots in Eli s vaulting ambition and consequent incapacity and neglect. The mischief was wide spread. But it was at home that the widespread mischief rose to a height that went beyond human remedy and beyond divine forgiveness. And may something of that same kind not be the explanation of some of those sad cases where the houses of able and good and devoted ministers come to such ruin?  What with the pulpit of our land and our day more than enough of itself; and what with the resulting and accompanying pastorate more than enough of itself also for one man working at it in season and out of season; with so many public demands and claims, and with such incessant calls and encroachments at all hours of the day and night, there is neither time nor strength to do any part of a minister s work as it ought to be done. 

And one worried week follows another worried week till his children grow up and grow out of his knowledge. A bishop must be vigilant. Yes; but a bishop in our day would need to have a hundred eyes and a hundred hands and a hundred feet. He must rule well the house of God. Yes; but the apostle tells Timothy that he must know how to rule his own house first. It is a fine picture: One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity. It would almost seem that Paul had had the ruins of Eli s house before his mind when he wrote that fine instruction. All other men have the grave sweet Sabbath-day to spend with their children, ruling and teaching them: all but ministers, and policemen, and some others. But ministers have neither Saturday, nor Sabbath, nor Monday. 

And I never hear them complaining of that, unless it is when they think of their children. We call Eli old, and blind, and idle, and inefficient, and ignorant, and neglectful of his own children and of God s people ; and so he was. But all that was net because he did nothing, but because he did too much to do anything well. Till, at last, broken in life and broken in heart, with his nation and his church and his household lying all in ruins round about him, we see Eli sitting by the wayside waiting for death. A terrible end to such a bold and ambitious beginning. 

Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord. Impossible! you would protest, if it were not in the Bible. But just because it is in the Bible, we are compelled to ask ourselves how it could possibly come about that the sons of such a sacred man as Eli was could ever become sons of Belial. What! not know the Lord, and they born and brought up within the very precincts of the Lord s house! Did they not hear the praises of God in His sanctuary?  Were not the first sights they saw their father in his robes beside the altar with all the tables, and the bread, and the sacrifices, and the incense round about him? And yet, there it is in black and white; there it is in blood and tears  The sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord. 

Let me think. Let me consider well how, conceivably, it could come about that Hophni and Phinehas could be born and brought up at Shiloh and not know the Lord? Well, for one thing their father was never at home. What with judging all Israel, and what with sacrificing and interceding for all Israel, Eli never saw his children till they were in their beds. "What mean ye by this ordinance?" all the other children ask their fathers as they came up to the temple. And all the way up and all the way down again those fathers took their inquiring children by the hand and told them all about Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Moses, and the exodus, and the wilderness, the promised land conquest, and the yearly passover. 

Hophni and Phinehas were the only children in all Israel who saw the temple every day and paid no retention to it.  And, then, every father and mother knows this, how the years run away, and how their children grow up, till all of a sudden they are as tall as themselves. And very much faster than our tallest children did Eli s children grow up. All things, indeed, were banded against Eli; the very early ripeness of his sons was against Eli. He thought he would one day have time ; but it was his lifelong regret that he had never had time. And, what with one thing, and what with another; what with their father's preoccupation and their own evil hearts;the two young men were already sons of Belial when they should still have been little children. 

Why do ye do such things? For I hear of all your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons, this is no good report that I hear. Like our own proverb, Eli is seen shutting the stable-door with many tears and sobs years and years after the steeds have broken out. I have spoken of Job. Well, I always think that Job was the very best father in all the Old Testament, while Eli was surely the very worst. Job let this passage be repeated to himself by every father every day from the first day he is a father, this golden passage Job was one that pleased God and eschewed evil. And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning and offered burnt-offerings according to the number of them all ; for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually. 

Our old ministers when they had a father at the pulpit-foot were used to make him swear that he would pray both with and for his children. Now, it was just here that Eli went wrong. And it is just here that so many of ourselves go wrong, and our children. We scold and scowl at them, and we beat and bruise and lock them up, when we should pray both with them and for them. If, when they tell a lie, or steal or speak bad language, or strike one another, or defiantly disobey us, we would neither lift a hand nor a tongue at them, but would take them to our place of prayer, and there pray both with and for them, as sure as I stand here and you sit there, there would be fewer sons and daughters of Belial in our houses. Let us do it. Let us, after Eli to-night, go home and do it. 

And if our children are grown up and gone away, let us all the more go after them, like Job, with that Sacrifice and that importunity which have the promise and the power to apprehend them and to bring them back. Thus did Job continually. You will all have it well in your mind how this all ended. How the ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain. And how Eli, when he heard the evil tidings, fell from off his seat backward, and his neck brake, and he died. And how his daughter-in-law, her pains came upon her, but she answered not, neither regarded it; and how she named her son Ichabod, and so died. 

The Psalm of Ichabod, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eli, which he sang after that the Lord had repented Him of the evil, and had restored the priesthood to the house of Eli: I will confess my iniquity and the iniquity of my fathers. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children s teeth are set on edge. But pardon the iniquity of Thy servant, according to Thy great mercy, and as Thou hast been a father to the fatherless, so hast Thou been to Thy servant. I was a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbours, and a fear to mine acquaintances. I was like a broken vessel. But I trusted in Thee, and Thou didst deliver me. I was cast upon thee from my mother s knees, and Thou didst hide me in the secret of Thy presence from the pride of men. Thou didst show me Thy loving-kindness in a fenced city. I am a wonder to many, but my boast is in God. Thou hast restored to me what the locust had eaten. Thou hast anointed my head with oil and made my cup to run over. Thou hast taken off my sackcloth and hast girded me with gladness. Come, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold on me; but Thou hast brought up my life from the pit that I might show forth Thy praise. O Lord, I am Thy servant: I am Thy servant, and the son of Thine handmaid. I will pay Thee my vows which my mouth spake when I was in trouble. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and for get not all His benefits. Thus sang Ichabod, the son of Phinehas, after that the Lord had repented Him of the evil. 
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