Samuel told Eli everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.” 1 Samuel 3:18
Eli - you can read his story in a few minutes in 1 Samuel 1-4 - must be one of the saddest people in the whole Bible. He was the man called by God to be the priest of Israel - to be, in effect, the spiritual leader of the nation.
But he is also the man who sees Hannah pouring out her heart in prayer - and assumes she must be drunk. He is the man whose two sons become priests like him - and who fails completely to rein in their wicked, immoral excesses. He is the man who teaches the boy Samuel the things of God - and who fails to realise that God is speaking to Samuel that wonderful night in the temple at Shiloh. He is the man who values the ark of the Lord above all things - and who (we must assume) allows it to be taken into battle against the Philistines as if it were some kind of magic charm. Only for it to be lost, the greatest disaster imaginable to the people of Israel.
Poor Eli. No doubt there were good times also, but we don't hear about them. His life seems to have been a catalogue of failures.
What makes the story all the more tragic is that he seems to have been basically a genuine and sincere man. He recognises his mistake over Hannah, and treats her with respect. He does at least try to reprimand his sons, even if his efforts are pathetically feeble. When God pronounces his judgment on him, he accepts it humbly, even though he suffers the humiliation of having it delivered by a child. And when he hears that the ark really is lost - well, his horror is such that it effectively kills him.
It is easy to criticise Eli. But of course his story raises in every Christian the tormenting question, “Am I a bit of an Eli? When my life is over, will people remember me with a sad shake of the head and think not so much of what was as of what might have been?”
Eli’s tragedy was twofold.
First, he seems somehow to have lost his spiritual vision, just as he lost his physical sight. We can only imagine that somewhere along the way his hand had slipped out of the hand of God. True, he was living at a time of spiritual chaos - the period of the judges was Israel’s dark ages - but still his task was to lead the nation with integrity, courage and conviction. This he failed to do.
Do you recognise yourself in this respect? Are you in daily touch with God, or has your vision also become dimmed?
Second, he was weak, lacking in backbone. It seems he had genuine principles, but not the strength of character to stand up for them. You can almost picture him wringing his hands helplessly as things disintegrate around him. Do you recognise yourself here?
Well, we need to have the humility to learn from this sad life. But before leaving Eli it is important to add a footnote to his story. I am worried that someone reading this, perhaps an older person, might sink into despair: “Yes, this could be me; I am an Eli; my Christian life has been just one failure after another.”
I can only say, Please don’t do that! There’s a saying - you won’t find it in the Bible but it’s wonderfully true: “It’s never too late to mend.” If you feel you have made a mess of things, don’t just shrug your shoulders and give up. Come back to God now, make a clean breast of things, and he will give you a new beginning. Remember the thief with Jesus on the cross...
All right, even God can’t turn the clock back and undo the failures, but somehow (to quote a later prophet) he can and does “repay us for the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2). He will still bless you. He can still use you. And - who knows? - he might even do more through you in the relatively short time that remains than many people have achieved in a whole life-time.
God is a specialist in new beginnings - yes, even if you are in the twilight of a disappointing life. Look up - look up with hope!
Thank you, Lord, for the warnings in the story of Eli. Please help me never to lose my way, but to walk with you day by day until I meet you in glory. Amen.