The book of 1 Samuel is a study in contrasts. In it, Israel’s last two judges (Eli, a failure, and Samuel, a success) and first two kings (Saul, a failure, and David, a success) are presented. I know, and have known, a lot of Samuels; I’ve never met a Hophni or a Phinehas. Now, there may be several reasons that there don’t seem to be many Hophnis or Phinehases running around these days, but there is no doubt that these two sons of Eli inflicted as much dishonor to those names as Samuel brought honor to his. When you read the narrative of Samuel and the sons of Eli (1 Samuel 1-4) through the lens of a parent, as I do, Scripture provides some great lessons for us about spiritual development of children through the vivid contrasts it presents.
- There are no perfect parents or ideal circumstances for raising kids. Families that don’t have it all together can still produce men and women who love the Lord. And, families who may appear to have it all together on the outside can produce men and women who don’t know Him at all. I could use several texts from Scripture to make this point, but since we are considering here these two families, we need look no further. Samuel’s mom and dad, although they clearly loved each other very much, certainly did not have a perfect marriage. Elkanah’s polygamy caused a jealous rivalry between the two wives (1:6-7), and Hannah suffered occasionally from bouts of depression during which she cried all the time and couldn’t eat because of the way she was treated by Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah (1:7b-8). Samuel grew up in the sanctuary at Shiloh, only seeing his parents and siblings occasionally, and was raised by the priest Eli, whose own adult children (who also served as priests there) were very rebellious and immoral. Yet, Samuel grew up to possess both a deep faith and a heart of wisdom and understanding that I think all Christian parents desire for their children. Don’t buy into the myth of the perfect parent. Whatever your current situation, the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear (Isaiah 59:1). Parents, cry out to God for the souls of your children, regardless of their circumstances (or yours).
- There are no perfect or ideal churches either. Church attendance and participation, while important, is not the determinative factor in spiritual development. I think we all understand this, but it bears repeating here simply because the point is so obvious in this particular story. Hophni and Phinehas were stereotypical “preacher’s kids,” who grew up in the church their father pastored and learned to play the church game. Samuel grew up in the same temple, which was now co-pastored by Eli’s worthless (and pagan) sons, who did not know the Lord (2:12), were abusing their authority (2:13-17), and were engaging in sexual immorality of the worst kind (2:22) – and the whole congregation was aware of it (2:23-24). This very unhealthy congregation welcomed Samuel as their new intern! This sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. We’ve all heard enough horror stories of priests who molest children and pastors who are immoral or indecent to realize the danger of blindly believing that going to church or participating in its programs guarantees anything with regard to spiritual maturity. Hophni, Phinehas and Samuel all grew up in the same church under the same pastor/elder authority. Hophni and Phinehas were religious fakes, idolators and pagans who “would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (2:25). Samuel, on the other hand, “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man” (2:26). By all means, bring your kids to church and get them plugged-in and involved. But, as a former youth pastor, I plead with you not to trust the spiritual development of your children to the church. While it is ultimately God and God alone who can save them, it is your job to teach them about the Lord, and you (not your child’s youth pastor) will be held accountable by God for your failure to do so – just as Eli was (2:27-36).
- Parents need to be consistently pressing into the Lord and growing spiritually themselves. I know this is another one that seems obvious, but maybe not as obvious as you think. Being a parent is time-consuming, and it gets even more time-consuming the more kids you have. Add in an 8-10 hour working day, and there is really not a lot of time left in the day. Most of the parents I know have a full plate just keeping track of their work responsibilities and their most basic responsibilities to their spouse and kids. And now I’m adding responsibilities for their own personal soul care into the mix. I get it. I’m a dad too. But, parents who do not take their own spiritual lives seriously fall into malaise and begin to lose touch with the One that we want our kids to fall in love with. Samuel’s parents cared enough about their own spiritual condition (as well as that of their children) that they regularly worshipped at the temple – even though everyone knew how personally immoral its leadership was (1:3). Hannah had such a rich prayer life that when she prayed for a son, Eli the priest thought she was drunk as she poured out her heart to the Lord (1:12-15). The fact that Eli thought she was drunk indicates that Eli sadly didn’t have much of a personal relationship with the Lord himself. Later, when the Lord called Samuel, Eli apparently lacked the ability to hear the Lord himself, and showed himself to be slow to even discern that the Lord was speaking to Samuel (3:1-9). Perhaps this is because the Lord had already passed by Eli in favor of Samuel. But, either way, this indicates that Eli’s personal relationship with the Lord was lacking. In His judgement of Eli, the Lord tells Eli that he has honored his sons above Him (2:29)! What a tragic indictment on Eli’s relationship with the Lord! Parents, don’t expect your children to love and trust a God that you neither love nor trust. And don’t expect them to believe that you love and trust a God with whom you never spend any time either.
- Parents have to be actively engaged with their kids. When you study the biblical narrative, Eli seems to be completely out to lunch. Everyone in the congregation was aware of the sins of Hophni and Phinehas (2:23-24), yet Eli has only heard of their deeds second-hand. And when he finally hears about all they’ve been doing, he offers a very weak rebuke (2:24-25). Again, the Lord’s judgement of Eli and his family makes it clear that the Lord holds Eli personally accountable for the sins of his children (2:27-36). His sins apparently were primarily sins of omission, he simply wasn’t paying close enough attention to his children – until they were too old and it was too late. Parents, don’t wait until it is too late to discipline your children (Proverbs 13:24 – “he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” can also be translated “he who loves him disciplines him early”). And don’t be the last to know what your kids are up to. If you’re having to hear about your children’s behavior from everyone else, you’re not paying close enough attention.
As I have considered this passage of Scripture, the Lord has re-emphasized to me the tremendous weight of responsibility that rests on my shoulders as a dad. Every night, I pray with my daughter before she goes to bed. And then, later in the night when she is asleep, I return to her room and plead with the Lord to show her grace and save her in spite of her dad’s many frailties and failings. Parents, we have an awesome responsibility. May we, like Hannah, entrust our children to the Lord who alone has the power to save, and rest in His gracious and abundant love for them and for us.