Series: Lessons from the Old Testament, by Rosie Moore.
Being a godly leader means letting the Lord rule over all aspects of your life, including the way you raise your children. Eli, the highest Priest and judge in Israel, was a disaster with his family. He may have been an excellent priest, but he was a poor parent who failed to exercise an important aspect of discipline: corrective action. Eli admonished and pleaded with his entitled sons, Hophni and Phinehas, but failed to restrain them by removing them from their priestly service to the Lord (1 Sam 3:13; Deut 21:18-21). Although Eli was aware of the sins of his wayward sons, he enabled their wickedness and was complicit in their abuse of power and worship. He effectively affirmed their sin. The Bible cuts to the chase of the Priest’s failure: “Why do you honour your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?” (1 Sam 2:29). Eli cared more about honouring his sons than about honouring the Lord.
Eli’s story serves as a warning to every Christian parent, especially fathers, who are called to be priests in their own families. In a culture where grace, love and compassion take priority over truth, discipline, and accountability, we must ask ourselves what love for our children really looks like. Eli chose to protect and please his sons rather than allowing them to experience the fruit of their choices.
Protecting and pleasing our children.
Likewise, if we choose to please our children rather than God, we may end up losing everything we value, including our families. If moms and dads value peace in the home more than obeying God’s clear instructions, we may inadvertently support our children’s sinful lifestyle and share in their guilt. Observe how the Lord gets to the heart of Eli’s failure:
“Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honour your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’ “Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honour me I will honour, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (1 Sam 2:29-30, NIV).
Hophni and Phinheas are described in the Bible as “worthless men [who] did not know the Lord” (1 Sam 2:12). It’s a distressing story which ends in God’s judgment on Eli and his house, and the sacred Ark of the covenant falling into enemy hands (1 Sam 2:17, 1 Sam 3:13). Hophni and Phinehas’s unrestrained sin and their father’s inaction had far- reaching consequences for the whole nation of Israel.
Hophni and Phinehas served as priests alongside their father, Eli, the High Priest. These young men took whatever they wanted from the people’s sacrifices. When worshippers protested, they bullied them (1 Sam 2:13-16). They abused their pastoral power by engaging in sexual immorality with the women who served at the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:22). Behind all these wicked acts were hearts of contempt for their pastoral position and rebellion against their father and the Lord.
Eli only confronted his sons with words, not actions (1 Sam 2:23-25). Perhaps Eli did not restrain them because he hated conflict and feared that they would lose their positions as priests. What would happen if they could not support themselves and had to live on the streets? He seemed to care more about the gossip surrounding his sons than their eternal souls. This may indicate a pattern that had been repeated in Eli’s house from when the boys were very young.
A pattern of peace at all costs.
Hophni and Phinehas’s attitude and behaviour as young adults illustrates that discipline from a young age is worth the effort. The stakes are high. Parents like Eli, who seek peace and rest by not disciplining their children from a young age are dooming themselves to the opposite:
Solomon writes, “Discipline your son [and daughter] while there is hope, and do not desire his death” (Prov 19:18). Proverbs 23:13-14 warns, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.” “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Prov 13:24). Proverbs 29:15 says that “a child left to himself” will bring shame to his mother, whereas “the rod and reproof give wisdom”. Moreover, well-disciplined children are a joy to be around, whereas poorly disciplined children are a menace (Prov 29:17.)
Eli did not restrain his sons.
A child with no restraints, who fears no painful, biblical consequences, who is not consistently given equal measures of action (rod) and words (reproof and instruction) from his parents, will bring public disgrace to them—and more importantly—to God. This is what we see in Eli’s family. A failure to discipline children is not kind, but cruel.
Perhaps Eli hoped that if he wasn’t too hard on his boys, they would learn to appreciate him and change their ways on their own. Perhaps he enjoyed serving with them in the tabernacle and didn’t want to risk losing the relationship they shared. Perhaps Eli cared too much about his reputation and wanted to avoid a scandal. Perhaps he had tried to discipline his sons in the past but lacked consistency and persistence. Perhaps Eli had disciplined them in anger, not seeing their failures as an opportunity to show them their sin and need for salvation. Or perhaps Eli had just been an inattentive father, too busy with the Lord’s work to worry about his home.
Whatever the reasons for Eli’s passive inaction in the past, Hophni and Phinehas now saw their father as old and weak. The boys had not grown into wise adult sons, but had become scoffers instead: “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Prov 13:1.) Because they had no desire to please their father or God in heaven, they would pay the ultimate price for their rebellion.
Spoken through the words of the boy Samuel, God’s judgment against Eli and his house was severe and enduring. This judgment indicates how seriously God takes a father’s duty to correct, teach, and restrain his children.
“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’” (1 Sam 3:11-14).
Even at this point, Eli’s response is one of resignation, not responsibility. Instead of repenting of his failure to restrain his sons, taking decisive action against them, and asking the Lord for mercy, Eli sighs, “He is the Lord, let him do what is good in his eyes” (1 Sam 3:18).
Eli is not the only poor parent in the Bible. Samuel also had adult sons who rebelled against his ways (1 Sam 8:3,5) and David would not take action against his adult children when they raped and murdered (2 Sam 13), which ultimately ended in a bloody civil war. Eli’s failure as a father is one that every honest parent can relate to.
Honouring God with our adult children.
After devoting almost three decades to raising our four children, Pete and I are now at the age where our children have left home, either to get married or study in Cape Town. The years have flown by. Even our baby, Hannah, exited the teens last week without any fanfare! Although we didn’t realise it at the time, we were preparing them for the day when they would leave our home and our daily influence, to become mature adults. It was all over too soon.
I have never enjoyed the discipline aspect of parenting, but I can honestly say that the Lord performed the most transformative work in our children’s lives when we allowed them to face the painful consequences of their poor choices instead of shielding them. Some of those moments are still painful for me to remember, but they are producing a harvest of peace and righteousness in our adult children’s lives (Heb 12:1). God truly blesses our smallest acts of faith and obedience in training up our children in both the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:1-4). God uses our words and our actions.
While our relationships with our adult children have changed, Newheiser and Fitzpatrick’s book “You Never Stop Being a Parent” has convinced me that there are still many opportunities to guide, bless and equip our children to live as wise, independent adults. Our home is not really an empty nest after all. We can still honour God with our adult children.
But many parents I know feel helpless and hopeless about their adult children. We are living in the era of the “Twixter”, where children are postponing their adulthood into their thirties, living off their parents while they explore their identity and focus on self and limitless opportunities. Many parents are experiencing the stress of adult children living at home, expecting full adult privileges and freedoms, without adult responsibilities. Australians call these the ‘boomerang kids’ and Brits call them “kippers” (Kids in Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings)!
Some Christian parents are struggling with young adults who have turned away from the Lord and are engaging in substance abuse, sexual immorality, crime and directionless living. Many of these heartbroken parents continue to provide financially for their children–a home, car, cellphone, food, laundry and credit card, even though their children despise them and refuse to follow household rules. They are asking, “What went wrong, and what can we do about it now?”
What went wrong?
Sometimes we have parented like Eli, failing to train or restrain our kids, and this has contributed to their disaster (Prov 29:15; 19:18). It is simply cause and effect. Sometimes it’s because our children make poor choices, like Cain, who grew up to be very different from his brother, Abel. Ezekiel 18 records three generations of men—a righteous father, an unrighteous son, and his righteous grandson. It is not always the parent’s fault that one child accepts instruction and another stubbornly rebels.
But the most important reason why children turn out like they do is God’s sovereign grace. Our children are born in sin and need to be given spiritual life and sight. Not even the most perfect parent can be assured of children who love the Lord and submit to his authority. God alone saves and sanctifies our children (John 6:44). This should humble us and keep us on our knees.
But we can also learn from Eli, no matter how old our children are.
Priestly warnings and promises.
Firstly, like Eli, we hate to see our children suffer and often step in to shield them from the fruits of their own foolishness. In doing this, we are honouring our children above the Lord and standing between them and the painful discipline that the Lord is bringing upon them. We must aim to please the Lord, not our children. As David says, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray but now I keep your Word” (Ps 119:67). It was only when the prodigal son found himself in the far country eating with the pigs, lonely and broke, that he came to his senses and longed for home (Luke 15:11-18). His father had to let him go.
Secondly, Eli’s story reminds us that a foolish young adult will not be persuaded by parental nagging, whining, bribery, manipulation and threats. It is only decisive action that demands their attention.
Thirdly, Eli’s story highlights our utter inadequacy as parents and our desperate need for the perfect High Priest. Jesus Christ placed Himself on the altar to save imperfect parents like Eli, me and you. As the perfect Son of God, He laid down his comfortable life in heaven to rescue foolish, wayward children like Hophni and Phinehas, rebel children like us, and our sons and daughters too. This great High Priest can sympathise with our weaknesses and give grace to help us in time of need (Heb 4:15-16). He’ll give you the strength you need to be a good parent, right to the very end.
Father, we confess that we have often failed to love and respect our children as people made in your image and accountable to you. We have sometimes affirmed them in their sin, instead of restraining them. Give us conviction to truly love our sons and daughters by allowing them to reap what they have sown, while never turning our backs on them when they genuinely seek our help. Help us to do what’s best for our kids to please you, not to spare ourselves feelings of discomfort, fear or guilt. We ask for your wisdom to deal with the root causes of our children’s behaviour, and to use every crisis as an opportunity to show them the gospel. May we trust your Word more than our own thoughts and feelings, and rest in your provision when tempted to be negligent parents. Father, help us to love our child’s soul more than we love peace, comfort and approval. Amen.
Parenting resources and links to local bookshops:
- Jim Newheiser and Elyse Fitzpatrick, You Never Stop Being a Parent—Thriving in Relationship with your Adult Children.
- Fitzpatrick, Elyse, Newheiser, James, Hendrickson, Laura– When good kids make bad choices.
- Paul Tripp, Shepherding your child’s heart.
Note on “You never stop being a parent!”
Whether frustrated or fulfilled as a parent, Jim Newheiser and Elyse Fizpatrick’s book “You Never Stop being a Parent” has excellent advice for all Christian parents of teen and adult children. I would highly recommend this biblical, practical and compassionate book. Here is an excerpt:
“Although it might seem harsh and unloving, taking action may be the very means that the Holy Spirit will use to get ahold of her heart. The Lord may use our simple acts of faith, our attempts at consistent discipline, as the means to deliver her from a lifetime of foolishness and heartache. Perhaps saying hello to pleasing God and saying no to her will be the most loving and kind thing we can ever do for her.”