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Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the LORD

I Samuel 2:12

The expression “a son of Belial” was an Old Testament expression meaning “a worthless fellow”—that is, a wicked person having no regard for decency or propriety, for law or for order. Such the sons of Eli were called. 

This was of special significance because Eli was the High Priest of the tabernacle, a son of Aaron from the family of Ithamar. It meant that his sons were due to fill this position after him. In fact, Eli was already an old man, and a great part of the priestly duties had fallen upon these sons already. Because of the low level to which the religious life of the nation had fallen, the tabernacle was not at that time a very busy place. The result was that very few other priests were ever really needed to care for the customary activities there. The sons of Eli were able to take care of just about everything, and they dominated the whole life of the tabernacle. There were very few others who were in any position to prevent them from doing almost anything they wanted; and, being worthless men, they did just that. They were only the best of the children of Israel that any longer frequented the tabernacle with any regularity, and these were the ones whom the sons of Eli made their prey. They took worship of Jehovah and turned it into a means of self-satisfaction and sin, corrupting the offices and functions of the tabernacle. 

The first and most apparent perversion of Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, was in their treatment of the sacrificial carcasses. The law was very explicit as to how the meat of the sacrificial animals was to be handled and divided. (Lev. 7:29-34) The fat was to be burned while the breast and right shoulder were to be given to the priest after they were roasted upon the altar. The sons of Eli, however, had little regard for any such regulations of the law. They looked upon the functions and sacrifices of the tabernacle, not as a means of worshipping God, but as something that was there for their own personal use and gratification. It became their custom boldly to approach anyone presenting a sacrifice, and with a three pronged fork to thrust it into any portion of the meat which they happened to fancy at that moment and keep for themselves whatever came out upon the fork. It was a blatant disregard of the law of God; but that was not the worst. As time went on they became even more bold. They began to send their servants to those who came to sacrifice even before the sacrificial victim was brought to the altar and its fat was burned to demand of these worshippers meat for the priest while it was still raw. This was even more serious. It meant that when the sacrificial body was brought to the altar it was only partially there and in a mutilated form. This was contrary to one of the basic ideas of the sacrifice, namely, that the sacrificial victim should be brought to the Lord unbroken and unmutilated in any way. But for Hophni and Phinehas, it was of real advantage. Should they desire, it was rather easy to take the meat while it was still raw and have it sent to the marketplace and put up for sale, taking the money for themselves. So insistent did they become on this sort of thing that, if any refused to comply willingly, they threatened to take the raw meat by force. It was the type of thing that took away the whole spirit of worship from the tabernacle and turned many sensitive believers away from the tabernacle in disgust: And still, even this was not the worst. It soon became known that these men, Hophni and Phinehas, were seducing and committing immoral acts with some of the women who came regularly to help in the service of the tabernacle. It was as though the tabernacle of Jehovah had become corrupted in the manner of’ a heathen, idol temple. 

Under the circumstances, it could be expected that Hophni and Phinehas would have gone out of their way to keep their father ignorant about all that was going on about him. They may have, but they did not succeed. The sins which these men committed were too blatant to be hid even from their aged and often rather naive father. Eli learned what was going’ on, and he knew that it was true. He realized how serious it was and it hurt him, hurt him as nothing else ever could. He was at heart a true child of God, and he could not be indifferent to such wickedness, particularly when it came from his own sons. With a hurting heart, Eli called his two sons to him and spoke. He said, “Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay my sons; but 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?”

What Eli said to his sons was very true. The sin which they had committed was of the most serious sort. They had not just sinned against their fellow man. Had this been their fault, a judge could call them into account and mete out an appropriate punishment for what they had done. But these men had sinned against God. Standing as priests in the name of God, they had used their authority given them by God to perform works which were very evidently contrary to the will of God. They had taken the name of God and the priestly office of God and had put it to an open shame. The one place in Israel where the name of Go should have been honored above all else, they had made a center of infamy and sin. Their sin, calloused as it was, was beyond excuse, beyond entreaty, beyond forgiveness. They had put the name of God to an open shame and sinned against His Holy Spirit. This Eli told his sons very clearly and dismissed them to return to their duties. 

This was exactly Eli’s sin. It was typical of the basic sin of Israel throughout the period of the judges and, no doubt, of Eli’s relationship toward his sons from their earliest youth. Eli had always been a God-fearing man; and, as a judge in Israel, he knew full well the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. Neither did he fail to tell his sons about this. But that was just the trouble, he had gone no further. Something there was in Eli which had always kept him from really punishing his sons for their misdeeds. Perhaps he had tried once or twice in a small way and it had not seemed to work, perhaps he always found himself almost unconsciously making excuses for them because they were so unfortunate as to have been raised in such a wicked day with all of its horrid examples, perhaps he was just tenderhearted. In any case, although he had told them often enough concerning right and wrong, Eli had never been able to do anything to back up and enforce anything which he said. Hophni and Phinehas had never come to know what it was to tremble in fear before the hand of justice, either that of their father’s or of God’s. So they had grown up, indifferent. Now they had become guilty of the greatest sins imaginable, corrupting the worship of God. Still there was only one thing Eli could get himself to do, that was talk. He after all was High Priest. The holy tabernacle of God, for which he was responsible, had been terribly corrupted. It had gone beyond the point where it really mattered that these were his own sons who had done it. His duty was very clear. These men could not properly be allowed to return to continue in their offices, particularly since they had shown absolutely no sign of repentance. They should have been thrown bodily from the tabernacle without delay. They should have, in fact, been driven without the walls of the city and stoned until dead. But Eli was old and beyond the point where he could change his ways. All he could do was talk; and, although it was surely with weeping grieving heart, talk could no longer be effective. Hophni and Phinehas only returned to continue their sins. 

This was pretty much the very trouble that had plagued Israel all through the period of the judges. Throughout this period, there had always been numbers of people who had been God-fearing from the heart; at the beginning of the period there must have been a great number of them. These had loved God and respected the precepts of His law, and even taught them to their children. But in one thing they had failed, that was in proper discipline. When their friends and neighbors had begun to compromise with God’s law and to break its commandments, they had not demanded the punishments prescribed by the law, they had done nothing about it. Sinners found that they could sin with impunity, and they did. Wickedness grew and grew. It came to the point where the most atrocious of sins could be committed, and none even thought to do anything about it. Eli was the prime example of just this. 

The matter would have rested there except that God would not let it. He sent to Eli a prophet to warn him of the future. The prophet was unknown; but his words were clearly from God. He said, “Thus saith the LORD, Did I not plainly appear unto the house of thy father, when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh’s house? And did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to offer upon mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? and did I give unto the house of thy father a11 the offerings made by fire of the children of Israel? Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and at mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honourest thy sons above me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people? Wherefore the LORD God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the LORD saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father’s house, that there shall not be an old man in thine house. And thou shalt see an enemy in my habitation, in all the wealth which God shall give Israel: and there shall not be an old man in thine house for ever. And the man of thine, whom I shall not cut off from mine altar, shall be to consume thine eyes, and to grieve thine heart; and all the increase of thine house shall die in the flower of their age. And this shall be a sign unto thee, that shall come upon thy two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas; in one day they shall die both of them. And I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in mine heart and in my mind: and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before mine anointed for ever. And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left in thine house shall come and crouch to him for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, and shall say, Put me, I pray thee, into one of the priests’ offices, that I may eat a piece of bread.” 

The verdict here expressed was plain. Eli, through his failure to punish his sons for their sins, had come to share in the guilt of them. In fact, God had determined to make his house an example to all of the house of Israel throughout the succeeding generations. From that time forth, beginning with Hophni and Phinehas, there would not be another old man like Eli himself had become. They would all be cut short in the prime of life as a sign of the displeasure of God with this great sin.

Nevertheless, God did not leave Eli without a promise. He said, “And I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in mine heart and in my mind: and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before mine anointed for ever.” In the first place, this was Zadok who was given the office of High Priest in the place of Abiathar as a reflection again upon the sin of Eli. But in the final analysis it was Christ, and in His blessedness also the faithful of the house of Eli would also share.