It’s probably not fair to compare Eli with Paul. But that’s what I did as I read this morning in 1Samuel.
During our Sunday morning preaching series we’re working our way through 2Timothy. Running, as it were, with Paul on the final leg of his last lap, ready to hand the baton of faith off to Timothy his beloved child in the faith, his apprentice concerning the gospel and contending for the faith. And I know what’s coming pretty soon. Even while Paul is being”poured out like a drink offering”, he knows that as death approaches he has fought the good fight; he has finished the race; he has kept the faith. And so, even though imprisoned, in spirit he sprints toward the finish line anticipating the victor’s crown for all who love the Lord’s appearing (2Tim. 4:6-8).
What a contrast to how Eli crosses the finish line. Unlike Paul who, I imagine, breaks the tape with arms raised in victory, Eli falls over it backwards in tragic defeat.
As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
(1Samuel 4:18 ESV)
The man was old and heavy. How’s that for an epitaph?
Now, in all fairness, the man was old. Eli was 98 years old (1Sam. 4:15). Probably in the neighborhood of 35 years older than was Paul when he was promoted into glory. And, to be clear, I’m not being critical of Eli just because he was sporting a BMI in the 40’s or higher. But that God inspires the author or 1Samuel to record this last assessment of Eli’s life I think is purposeful. And profitable if I have ears to hear.
That Eli got old wasn’t Eli’s fault. Not his call. God had determined his days (Ps. 139:16). But that he got lazy in his calling, and loose with the things of the LORD during those days? I think that’s on him. The priesthood was a mess.
Read the first four chapters of 1Samuel and you’ll find that Eli’s sons, the priests in charge of day to day operations in the tent at Shiloh, were out of control. Hophni and Phineas were running amok as they served their own sensual desires rather than their sacred calling. In fact, the holy record declares they were “worthless men. They did not know the LORD” (1:12). They ate what should have been the LORD’s, treating the offering of the LORD “with contempt” (2:12-17). What’s more, they abused their power and slept with women who were at Shiloh to serve the LORD (2:22). And while Eli protested the actions of his sons (2:25), he seems to have retired from protecting the name of the LORD.
That Eli was overweight wasn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, either. Unless of course it was because, along with his sons, he ate from the temple sacrifices the fat which should have been the LORD’s. He may have protested their inappropriate behavior, yet he participated in the contempt they showed for the LORD’s sacrifice. We know that’s the case as the LORD calls Eli on it through prophetic voices.
“I gave to the house of your father all My offerings by fire from the people of Israel. Why then do you scorn My sacrifices and My offerings that I commanded for My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of My people Israel?”
(1Samuel 2:28b-29 ESV)
“And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
(1Samuel 3:13 ESV)
Paul was much younger than Eli. Paul was probably a lot leaner than Eli, but that may have been simply because you can’t bulk up too much when, if you’re not on the run from rioting mobs, you’re in a Roman prison. Nevertheless, Paul was running the race and fighting the good fight until the end. Eli, on the other hand, as much spiritually as physically, was old and heavy.
Not judging him. Learning from his tragic finish.
I don’t want to cross the finish line old and heavy. I want to be on my feet leaning into it, not on my rear falling backwards over it.
Only by God’s grace. Desiring God’s glory.