1 Samuel 4:13
And when he came, see, Eli sat on a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God…
The key to Eli's character is in these simple words: "His heart trembled for the ark of God." He was a good man, but timid; faithful, but fearful; with much love in his heart to God and the ark of God, but with little strength of mind or firmness and decision of purpose. His conduct at this crisis may be contrasted with that of Moses on a similar occasion. When the Israelites, discouraged by the report of the spies, refused to go up and take possession of the promised land, and were condemned, in consequence, to wander for forty years in the wilderness — stung with remorse, they resolved hastily to repair their fatal fault: "They rose up early in the morning, and gat them up into the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord hath promised: for we have sinned." Moses strenuously opposed their resolution. He peremptorily refused either to lead them himself, or to let the ark of God go with them: "They presumed to go up unto the hill top: nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, departed not out of the camp." The issue of the engagement was disastrous to the Israelites. Eli is placed in circumstances not unlike those in which Moses acted so nobly. Evidently he has misgivings as to the step about to be taken; and well he may, considering all things. A heavy cloud of judgment overhangs himself and his household. If the ark is to accompany the army, it must be under the custody of his sons. Are they fit keepers of it, vile as they have made themselves, and doomed to perish miserably? Eli may well hesitate; and, when the message from the army reaches him, it must cause him deep distress. The elders and people are importunate. The old man does not resist, though in the very act of yielding his mind misgives him, and his heart cannot but tremble for the ark of God. He is a godly man, and as kind as he is godly. The brief notices of his connection with Samuel are singularly affecting.
I. ELI'S DEFICIENCY COMES SADLY OUT IN ALL THE RELATIONS WHICH HE HAS TO SUSTAIN AS A RULER — IN THE STATE, IN THE CHURCH, AND IN THE FAMILY.
1. Eli was head of the State. He was a judge in Israel. As a judge, in his capacity of civil governor, Eli saw the affairs of the Jewish commonwealth brought to the lowest ebb of fortune. It is true that little or nothing is recorded of his administration; but in the last act of it, the war waged with the Philistines, and in the way in which that war is conducted, we see indications of imbecility not to be mistaken. (1 Samuel 4.) There is an evident want of due consideration and concert. The sudden expedient, the desperate after thought, of summoning the ark to help in retrieving the disaster, only brings out more sadly the absence of all sound and godly counsel in the whole affair at the first; and the conduct of Eli is throughout, that of a habitual waverer. One thing is clear — as a ruler he left the State on the very brink of ruin.
2. As high priest, set over the affairs of the House of God, he lets his weakness still more shamefully get the better of him. The scandalous outrages and excesses committed by his two sons when they were associated with him in the priesthood! never could have taken place had "things been done decently and in order." This laxity Eli must have tolerated; at, least he wanted firmness to repress it (1 Samuel 2:12-17). We are forced to conclude that in his capacity of priest, as well as in that of judge, he was the victim of indecision and imbecility.
3. But it is as a parent that he chiefly shows his weakness; and it is in that character that he is especially reproved and judged. Ah! he forgets that he is invested with parental authority — authority, in his case, backed and seconded by all the powers of law and all the terrors of religion. Nay, it is not so much that he forgets this as that he has not nerve to act upon the recollection of it. It is not really parental love, according to any right view of that pure affection, but self-love at bottom that Eli indulges, and self-love in one of its least respectable forms. It is himself that Eli is unwilling to mortify, not his sons. It is to himself that he is tender, not to them. And when it is considered that his selfish feebleness and fondness show themselves in his neglect of parental discipline even in matters in which the Divine honour is immediately concerned, it is not too much to say that he is preferring his children to his God. Even God's highest honour must give place to the indulgence of his fond and feeble dotage. And the issue is that "the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be purged forever." It is an issue, as to all the parties concerned, sufficiently disastrous. Of the utter ruin of Eli's household we need not speak. The priesthood passes away from his family; the government is upon other shoulders; his seed are a beggared race And all this in connection with one of the meekest and holiest of the saints of Gods. It is a terrible lesson. And, in keeping with it, is the lesson taught by the melancholy notice of his own decease. The messenger of evil delivered his tidings; and his hearer could stand the accumulation of horrors — Israel fled before the Philistines — a great slaughter among the people — ay, and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, dead also. But when the crowning calamity burst upon him — "the ark of God is taken" — Eli could bear up no longer. Such was the end of so protracted a life; thus miserably died this man of God.
II. Many PRACTICAL REMARKS suggest themselves in connection with the painful history which we have been considering — remarks applicable to parents and members of families, to individual Christians, to the ungodly, and to all.
1. It is a most emphatic warning that the fate of Eli gives to parents; and not to parents only, but to all who have influence or authority of any sort in families.
2. Let individual Christians ponder the lesson of Eli's character. Much. very much, there is in it to be admired and imitated. But his defects — or, let us say at once, his sins — are recorded for our especial warning.
3. Let the ungodly tremble. Let them look on, and see how God deals with sin in His own people. Does He spare sin in them? Does He spare them in their sins? Behold the severity of God in His treatment of the good and gracious Eli, and tremble at the thought of what may be His treatment of you! "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinners appear?"
4. And, finally, let all lay to heart the irrevocable decree and determination of God that sin shall not pass unpunished; let them look and see the end of the ungodly, while they stand in awe at the chastisement of the just.
(R. S. Candlish, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.