In Ephesians 6:1-3 God commands children to obey and honor their parents and fathers to discipline and instruct their children in the Lord. A child who obeyed generally lived a long life, a promise first given to Israel in Exodus 20:12.
The sons of Eli the priest serve as dire examples of lives cut short due to a consistent failure to obey. The failure of Eli to discipline and instruct his sons in the Lord contributed to the shortness of their lives, which should prod parents, especially fathers, to faithfully train their children.
1 Samuel 2:12 describes the sons of Eli as worthless men who did not know the Lord. They selfishly and disobediently demanded their choice of raw meat before it was even offered, disregarding the law (cf. Leviticus 7:28-36). The Lord saw this contempt for the offering as a very great sin (1 Samuel 2:17).
Eli, an old and apparently out-of-touch father, heard about his sons’ sins, which included sleeping with the women who ministered at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Eli confronted his sons (rather mildly, it seems), but his sons refused to listen (1 Samuel 2:22-25).
God laid the responsibility for Eli’s sons on Eli himself. He sent a man of God to him to speak, asking Eli why he scorned the Lord’s sacrifices and offerings and honored his sons above the Lord by letting them take the best parts of the offerings to fatten themselves (1 Sam 2:27-29).
The Lord then declared his judgment on Eli and his descendants:
Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. Then in distress you will look with envious eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed on Israel, and there shall not be an old man in your house forever. The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men. And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day (1 Samuel 2:30-34).
The Lord announced His judgment again through Eli’s brave and obedient young apprentice, Samuel, when the Lord spoke to Samuel one night. The Lord promised an ear-tingling judgment against Israel that would personally affect Eli’s house. The reason for this severe punishment was “the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:13).
Shortly after, Israel went to war against the Philistines. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were present at the battle with the ark of the covenant of God. The Philistines defeated Israel, captured the ark, and killed 30,000 Israelis, including Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 4:1-11).
After suffering the shock of his sons’ deaths as well as the capture of the ark, Eli fell off his chair and broke his neck (in part due to the obesity that may have come from eating the ill-gotten meat from his sons’ sacrificial duties; 1 Samuel 4:17-18). The immediate consequences of Eli’s indulgent parenting and his sons’ disobedient lifestyles had been meted out.
The long-term consequences occurred later. 1 Samuel 14:3 tells us that Ahijah was serving as priest in Shiloh during the reign of King Saul. Ahijah was the great grandson of Eli, the grandson of Phinehas, the son of Ahitub. In 1 Samuel 22:11 we learn that Ahitub had another son serving as priest, Ahimelech (descendent of Aaron’s son Ithamar; cf. 1 Chronicles 24:1-3). Unfortunately, Saul had heard that Ahimelech had aided David and, in his paranoia, ordered the massacre of all the priests at Nob.
Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and strike the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod. And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep, he put to the sword (1 Samuel 22:18-19).
One of Ahimelech’s sons, Abiathar, escaped and fled to David for protection and refuge (1 Sam 22:20-23). Abiathar, for most of David’s life, was a loyal friend and priest. Upon David’s deathbed, however, he transferred his loyalties to David’s oldest son Adonijah, who declared himself king (1 Kings 1:7). Later, after Solomon’s coronation, Solomon removed Abiathar from his position as priest and exiled him to one of the priestly allotments in Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26-27). The narrator describes this punishment as a fulfillment of the Lord’s words concerning Eli’s house.
Both the long-term and short-term consequences of the sins of Eli and his sons were great. Eli was an indulgent, God-dishonoring father. His sons were disobedient and blasphemous. The Philistines killed Hophni and Phinehas, the sword slaughtered a generation of their descendants, and the Lord removed the remaining descendant from his service as a priest.
Eli and his sons serve as warnings to both parents and children. As parents, we need to obey God in our parenting. We cannot honor our children’s desires to the neglect of honoring God. The cost could be great for ourselves, our children, and future generations. And our children need to be faithful to obey their parents in the Lord, for this is right.