Whenever relating the truth as it is in Jesus, we must look to the Bible—God’s Holy Word—for the truth in principle, and for the provided illustrations that give the correct rendering of meaning. In some cases, the illustration furnished in Scriptures reveals the pitfalls and failings of those who do not live according to the principles of truth.
Eli is such an example given to us so that we can avoid his particular sin that brought dishonor and disaster to his family, the tabernacle of God, and congregation of Israel, as well as to the surrounding nations. What was his sin? Eli loved his sons. How was this sin? He misplaced his love. He loved them unconditionally, as we will see while tracing the events of their lives.
As the high priest and officiating judge of Israel, Eli served in the most elevated positions of responsibility and influence within the nation of Israel. Undoubtedly he received instruction and training from his own father in preparation for the duties comprising these positions. Certainly, as a part of that instruction and training, he had knowledge of Aaron’s experience—losing two sons for careless disregard of God’s commandments concerning the services in the sanctuary.
Aaron had four sons dedicated to the tabernacle services as priests. God, through Moses, commanded only sacred fire kindled by God Himself to be used in the sanctuary. But Aaron’s neglect in properly training and disciplining his sons prepared the way for Nadab and Abihu to present strange fire leading to their destruction by God. God further instructed the priests not to drink wine or strong drink because of alcohol’s influence to blur the distinction between holy and unholy, clean and unclean, and between sacred and common (Leviticus 10:1-11).
“God distinguished Aaron by choosing him and his male posterity for the priesthood. His sons ministered in the sacred office. Nadab and Abihu failed to reverence the command of God to offer sacred fire upon their censers with the incense before Him. God had forbidden them, upon pain of death, to present the common fire before Him with the incense.
“But here is seen the result of loose discipline. As these sons of Aaron had not been educated to respect and reverence the commands of their father, as they disregarded parental authority, they did not realize the necessity of explicitly following the requirements of God. When indulging their appetite for wine and while under its exciting stimulus, their reason was clouded, and they could not discern the difference between the sacred and the common. Contrary to God’s express direction, they dishonored Him by offering common instead of sacred fire. God visited them with His wrath; fire went forth from His presence and destroyed them.
“Aaron bore his severe affliction with patience and humble submission. Sorrow and keen agony wrung his soul. He was convicted of his neglect of duty. He was priest of the most high God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. He was priest of his household, yet he had been inclined to pass over the folly of his children. He had neglected his duty to train and educate them to obedience, self-denial, and reverence for parental authority. Through feelings of misplaced indulgence, he failed to mold their characters with high reverence for eternal things. Aaron did not see, any more than many Christian parents now see, that his misplaced love and the indulgence of his children in wrong was preparing them for the certain displeasure of God and for His wrath to break forth upon them to their destruction. While Aaron neglected to exercise his authority, the justice of God awakened against them. Aaron had to learn that his gentle remonstrance, without a firm exercise of parental restraint, and his imprudent tenderness toward his sons were cruelty in the extreme. God took the work of justice into His own hands and destroyed the sons of Aaron.” (Ellen White, Vol. 3, Testimonies for the Church, 295, emphasis added.)
As we look around us today, do we see the problems that have arisen due to mingling common with the sacred? All around we see the push for emerging church theology, liturgy, and mysticism. Yet the root problem is misplaced love—unconditional love—that will not properly discipline in a redemptive manner. What is so troubling is that even so called conservatives in the church (who are so ready to point out the irreverence, the disrespect, and the disobedience of the emerging church proponents) fail to comprehend that the fundamental problem is unconditional love!
Even with the history of Aaron before him, Eli failed to appreciate the lessons provided. As the leader of the nation, Eli should have been an example to the people. But when raising his sons, he neglected his duty because he considered it of little importance. As judge of Israel, he refused to judge his sons. As governor of the nation, he neglected to rule his own household.
“Eli was an indulgent father. Loving peace and ease, he did not exercise his authority to correct the evil habits and passions of his children. Rather than contend with them or punish them, he would submit to their will and give them their own way. Instead of regarding the education of his sons as one of the most important of his responsibilities, he treated the matter as of little consequence. The priest and judge of Israel had not been left in darkness as to the duty of restraining and governing the children that God had given to his care. But Eli shrank from this duty, because it involved crossing the will of his sons, and would make it necessary to punish and deny them. Without weighing the terrible consequences that would follow his course, he indulged his children in whatever they desired and neglected the work of fitting them for the service of God and the duties of life….
“But Eli allowed his children to control him. The father became subject to the children. The curse of transgression was apparent in the corruption and evil that marked the course of his sons. They had no proper appreciation of the character of God or of the sacredness of His law. His service was to them a common thing. From childhood they had been accustomed to the sanctuary and its service; but instead of becoming more reverent, they had lost all sense of its holiness and significance. The father had not corrected their want of reverence for his authority, had not checked their disrespect for the solemn services of the sanctuary; and when they reached manhood, they were full of the deadly fruits of skepticism and rebellion.
“Though wholly unfit for the office, they were placed as priests in the sanctuary to minister before God….
“Eli had greatly erred in permitting his sons to minister in holy office. By excusing their course, on one pretext and another, he became blinded to their sins; but at last they reached a pass where he could no longer hide his eyes from the crimes of his sons. The people complained of their violent deeds, and the high priest was grieved and distressed. He dared remain silent no longer. But his sons had been brought up to think of no one but themselves, and now they cared for no one else. They saw the grief of their father, but their hard hearts were not touched. They heard his mild admonitions, but they were not impressed, nor would they change their evil course though warned of the consequences of their sins. Had Eli dealt justly with his wicked sons, they would have been rejected from the priestly office and punished with death. Dreading thus to bring public disgrace and condemnation upon them, he sustained them in the most sacred positions of trust. He still permitted them to mingle their corruption with the holy service of God and to inflict upon the cause of truth an injury which years could not efface. But when the judge of Israel neglected his work, God took the matter in hand.” (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 575-577, emphasis added. See also Deuteronomy 21:18-23 for the judgment Eli should have executed.)
Instead of avoiding the avoidable, he went on to commit greater sin than Aaron. Knowing their characters, he still dedicated these incorrigible sons as priests to serve a God they didn’t know or respect. Yet God in His mercy sent Eli a message of warning.
“And there came a man of God unto Eli, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Did I 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 all 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.” (KJV, 1 Samuel 2:27-35, emphasis added.)
Upon receiving this rebuke, Eli made a national confession. But he failed of making a complete renunciation of sin. Though much time was given for Eli, his sons, and those Israelites who imitated their behavior, to repent, sin continued to abound. Those who perpetuate sin rather than repent of their wickedness will be punished, even if God’s chosen judge refused to do so.
“Year after year the Lord delayed His threatened judgments. Much might have been done in those years to redeem the failures of the past, but the aged priest took no effective measures to correct the evils that were polluting the sanctuary of the Lord and leading thousands in Israel to ruin. The forbearance of God caused Hophni and Phinehas to harden their hearts and to become still bolder in transgression. The messages of warning and reproof to his house were made known by Eli to the whole nation. By this means he hoped to counteract, in some measure, the evil influence of his past neglect. But the warnings were disregarded by the people, as they had been by the priests. The people of surrounding nations also, who were not ignorant of the iniquities openly practiced in Israel, became still bolder in their idolatry and crime. They felt no sense of guilt for their sins, as they would have felt had the Israelites preserved their integrity. But a day of retribution was approaching. God’s authority had been set aside, and His worship neglected and despised, and it became necessary for Him to interpose, that the honor of His name might be maintained.” (Ibid, 582, 583, emphasis added.)
Unconditional love is egalitarian. There is no hierarchy because there are no conditions to support hierarchy. All are loved equally regardless of what they do. This is not the case with God’s love. There is hierarchy. The first commandment as recorded in Exodus 20:3, “Thou shalt not have any other gods before me,” establishes that point!
Jesus said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (KJV, Luke 14:26.) This means we are not to love anyone more than God. Eli loved his sons more than God. He honored them above God.
With God’s pure, unselfish love there are conditions of righteousness and probationary time. If we thoroughly confess and repent of sin, then all is well. But if we do not, then the only outcome will be the total annihilation of sin, the originator of sin, and those who unrepentantly become sin by their beholding, cherishing, and practicing of sin.