In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right.
Eli the priest of God at Shiloh was the default leader of Israel at the opening of the book of 1 Samuel. He was elderly and his two sons, Hophni and Phinnehas, performed the regular priestly duties at the Tent of Meeting. The second chapter of 1 Samuel records that those two sons were evil, ruthless, dissolute, immoral and godless men. How is it that they were allowed to continue to "minister before the Lord"? The answer is found in the fact that their father was a leader with a profound lack of spiritual understanding. He was not a spiritual man. It seems to me that the culture of the day that we find mentioned at the end of the book of Judges has seriously affected this leader of his people and clouded his spiritual understanding. As I read the account I find the following indicators.
1. Spiritual insensitivity
With Hannah – Eli assumed she was drunk (1:14). Maybe it is a statement on Eli’s spiritual expectations that his natural reaction to Hannah’s weeping before the Lord in the tabernacle was to accuse her of drunkenness. Why would he jump to that conclusion unless his ability at spiritual discernment was severely dulled.
With Samuel – it took three attempts to wake Eli to the fact that God was calling the young boy (3:1-9)
2. Spiritual inattention
With his sons – Eli disregarded their wickedness (2:22). Despite one feeble rebuke recorded in 2:22-25 the condemnation was leveled at him by an unknown messenger from God that he was honoring his sons above God. He had lost sight of spiritual priorities.
With God – God’s visitations to his people were rare and His word was rarely heard in those days (3:1). It would seem that the reason for the scarcity of God’s revelation was because Eli, the priest, was not listening to God. He was not spiritually inclined to seek for the voice of God and so it became silent.
3. Spiritual ignorance
The ‘man of God’ who came to Eli and warned him of God’s impending judgment had to remind Eli of God’s calling and anointing on the priestly lineage (2:27,28). It is quite an indictment that the man of God levels at Eli. The rhetorical questions, "Did I not…" imply that Eli has either forgotten or is totally ignorant of God’s dealing with Israel and particularly God’s appointment of the priestly line.
4. Spiritual imprudence
In the account of Eli’s death it is recorded that he was old and very fat (4:18). When the man of God rebuked Eli he condemned him because he had made himself fat off the illicit spoils provided by his sons (2:29). Gluttony blurred Eli’s capacity to think and act as a spiritual leader should.
5. Spiritual indifference
When told of God’s judgment he shrugged it off almost fatalistically (3:18). His response, "He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him" stands in stark contrast to David’s casting himself on God’s mercy after being rebuked by the prophet Nathan. Once again this points to a lack of a true understanding of God’s nature and God’s dealings with people.
It seems to me that the story of Eli should make every Christian (and particularly those in leadership) take a long hard look at their own spirituality. Are there areas of our lives where the culture of the day has dimmed our spiritual vision or dulled our sensitivity? What do our lives demonstrate as to the quality of our spirituality. Do we need to wake up and take stock?