Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 65


The Character of Eli

Preached January, 1848

  Frederick W. Robertson

ďAnd the child Samuel ministered unto the Lord before Eli. And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open visionĒ - I Samuel 3:1


It is impossible to read this chapter without perceiving that it draws a marked contrast between the two persons of whom it speaks-Eli and Samuel.

1. They are contrasted in point of years: for the one is a boy, the other a gray-headed old man; and if it were for only this, the chapter would be one of deep interest. For it is interesting always to see a friendship between the old and the young. It is striking to see the aged one retaining so much of freshness and simplicity as not to repel the sympathies of boyhood. It is surprising to see the younger one so advanced and thoughtful as not to find dull the society of one who has outlived excitability and passion. This is the picture presented in this chapter. A pair of friends-childhood and old age standing to each other in the relationship, not of teacher and pupil, but of friend and friend.

2. They are contrasted, again, in point of office. Both are judges of Israel. But Eli is a judge rendering up his trust, and closing his public career. Samuel is a judge entering upon his office: and the outgoing ruler, Eli, is placed under very novel and painful circumstances in reference to his successor. He receives Godís sentence of doom from the lips of the child he has taught, and the friend he has loved. The venerable judge of forty years is sentenced by the judge elect.

3. Still more striking is the contrast in point of character. A difference of character we expect when ages are so different. But here the difference of inferiority is on the wrong side. It is the young who is counselling, supporting, admonishing the old. It is not the ivy clinging for its own sake to the immovable wall, to be held up: but it is the badly built, mouldering wall held together by the ivy, and only by the ivy kept from falling piecemeal into ruin.

4. Once more we have here the contrast between a judge by office and a judge by Divine call. In the first days of the judges of Israel we find them raised up separately by God, one by one, one for each emergency. So that if war threatened the coasts of Israel, no man knew whence the help would come, or who would be Israelís deliverer. It always did come: there was always one, qualified by God, found ready for the day of need, equal to the need; one whose fitness to be a leader no one had before suspected. But when he did appear, be proved himself to be Israelís acknowledged greatest-greatest by the qualities he displayed, qualities given unto him by God. Therefore men rightly said he was a judge raised up by God. But it seems that in later days judges were appointed by hereditary succession. When danger was always near, men became afraid of trusting to God to raise up a defender for them, and making no preparations for danger of invasion; therefore, in the absence of any special qualification marking out the man, the judgeís son became judge at his fatherís death; or the office devolved on the high-priest. This was Eliís qualification, it would seem. Eli was high-priest, and therefore he was judge. He appears not to have had a single ruling quality. He was only a judge because he was born to the dignity.

There is an earthly wisdom in such an arrangement-nay, such an arrangement is indispensable. It is wise after an earthly sort to have an appointed succession. Hereditary judges, hereditary nobles, hereditary sovereigns: without them, human life would run into inextricable confusion. Nevertheless, such earthly arrangements only represent the heavenly order. The Divine order of government is the rule of the wise and good. The earthly arbitrary arrangement-hereditary succession, or any other-stands for this, representing it, more or less fulfills it, but never is it perfectly. And from time to time God sets aside and quashes the arbitrary arrangement, in order to declare that it is only a representation of the true and Divine one. From time to time, one who has qualifications direct from God is made, in Scripture, to stand side by side with one who has his qualifications only from office or earthly appointment; and then the contrast is marvellous indeed. Thus Saul, the king appointed by universal suffrage of the nation, is set aside for avid, the man after Godís own heart: and thus the Jews, the worldís hereditary nobles, descended from the blood and stock of Abraham, are set aside for the true spiritual succession, the Christian Church-inheritors by Divine right, not of Abrahamís blood, but of Abrahamís faith. Thus the hereditary high-priests in the genuine line of Aaron, priests by lawful succession, representing priestly powers, are set aside at once, so soon as the real High-Priest of God, Jesus Christ, whose priestly powers are real and personal, appears on earth.

And thus by the side of Eli, the judge by office, stands Samuel, the judge by Divine call: qualified by wisdom, insight, will, resting on obedience, to guide and judge Godís people Israel. Very instructive are the contrasts of this chapter:-We will consider-


I. Eliís character.

II. Eliís doom.


1. Eliís character has two sides; we will take the bright side first. The first point remarkable in him is the absence of envy. Eli furthers Samuelís advancement, and assists it to his own detriment. Very mortifying was that trial. Eli was the one in Israel to whom, naturally, a revelation should have come. Godís priest and Godís judge, to whom so fitly as to him could God send a message? But another is preferred: the inspiration comes to Samuel, and Eli is superseded and disgraced. Besides this, every conceivable circumstance of bitterness is added to his humiliation-Godís message for all Israel comes to a boy: to one who had been Eliís pupil, to one beneath him, who had performed for him servile offices. This was the bitter cup put into his hand to drink.

And yet Eli assists him to attain this dignity. He perceives that God has called the child. He does not say in petulance-ďThen, let this favored child find out for himself all he has to do, I will leave him to himself.Ē Eli meekly tells him to go back to his place, instructs him how he is to accept the revelation, and appropriate it: ďGo lie down: and it shall be, if He call thee, that thou shall say, Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.Ē He conducts his rival to the presence-chamber, which by himself he can not find, and leaves him there with the King, to be invested with the order which has been stripped off himself

Consider how difficult this conduct of Eliís was. Remember how difficult it is to be surpassed by a younger brother, and bear it with temper; how hard it is even to be set right, with meekness; to have our faults pointed out to us especially by persons who, in rank, age, or standing, are our inferiors. Recollect how in our experience of life, in all professions, merit is kept down, shaded by jealousies. Recollect how rare generous enthusiasm is, or even fairness; how men depreciate their rivals by coldness, or by sneering at those whom they dare not openly attack.

It is hard to give information which we have collected with pains, but which we can not use, to another who can make use of it. Consider, again, how much of our English reserve is but another name for jealousy. Men often meet in society with a consciousness of rivalry; and conversation flags because they fear to impart information, lest others should make use of it, and they should thus lose the credit of being original.

One soldier we have heard of who gave up the post of honor and the chance of high distinction to cover an early failure of that great warrior whom England has lately lost, and to him a fresh chance of retrieving honor. He did what Eli did: assisted his rival to rise above him. But where is the man of trade who will throw in a rivalís way the custom which he can not use himself? Where is the professional man, secular or clerical, who will so speak of another of the same profession, while struggling with him in honorable rivalry, or so assist him, as to insure that the brightest lustre shall shine upon what be really is? Whoever will ponder these things will feel that Eliís was no common act.

Now, for almost all of us, there are one or two persons in life who cross our path, whose rise will be our eclipse, whose success will abridge ours, whose fair career will thwart ours, darken our prospects, cross our affections. Those one or two form our trial; they are the test and proof of our justice. How we feel and act to them proves whether we are just or not. It was easy for Eli to have instructed any one else how to approach God. But the difficulty was bow to instruct Samuel. Samuel alone,in all Israel,crossed his path. And yet Eli stood the test. He was unswervingly just. He threw no petty hindrances in his way. He removed all. He gave a clear, fair, honorable field. That act of Eliís is fair and beautiful to gaze upon.

2. Remark the absence of all priestly pretensions.

Eli might with ease have assumed the priestly tone. When Samuel came with his strange story, that he had heard a voice calling to him in the dark. Eli might have fixed upon him a clear, cold, unsympathizing eye, and said, ďThis is excitement-mere enthusiasm. I am the appointed channel of Godís communications; I am the priest. Hear the Church. Unordained, unanointed with priestly oil, a boy, a child, it is presumption for you to pretend to communications from Jehovah! A layman has no right to hear Voices; it is fanaticism.Ē Eli might have done this; he would have only done what ordained men have done a thousand times when they have frowned irregular enthusiasm into dissent. And then Samuel would have become a mystic, on a self-relying enthusiast. For he could not have been made to think that the Voice was a delusion. That Voice no priestís frown could prevent his hearing. On the other hand, Eli might have given his own authoritative interpretation to Samuel of that word of God which he had heard. But suppose that interpretation had been wrong?

Eli did neither of these things. He sent Samuel to God. He taught him to inquire for himself. He did not tell him to reject as fanaticism the belief that an inner Voice was speaking to him, a boy; nor did he try to force his own interpretation on that Voice. His great care was to put Samuel in direct communication with God; to make him listen to God; nay, and that independently of him, Eli. Not to rule him; not to direct his feelings and belief; not to keep him in the leading-strings of spiritual childhood, but to teach him to walk alone.

There are two sorts of men who exercise influence. The first are those who perpetuate their own opinions, bequeath their own names, form a sect, gather a party round them who speak their words, believe their belief. Such men were the ancient rabbis. And of such men, in and out of the Church, we have abundance now. It is the influence most aimed at and most loved. The second class is composed of those who stir up faith, conscience, thought, to do their own work. They are not anxious that those they teach should think as they do, but that they should think. Nor that they should take this or that rule of right and wrong, but that they should be conscientious. Nor that they should adopt their own views of God, but that faith in God should be roused in earnest. Such men propagate not many views; but they propagate life itself in inquiring minds and earnest hearts.

Now thus is Godís real, best work. Men do not think so. They like to be guided. They ask, What am I to think? and what am I to believe? and what am I to feel? Make it easy for me. Save me the trouble of reflecting and the anguish of inquiring. It is very easy to do this for them; but from what minds, and from what books, do we really gain most of that which we can really call our own? From those that are suggestive, from those that can kindle life within us, and set us thinking, and call conscience into action-not from those that exhaust a subject and seem to leave it threadbare, but from those that make us feel there is a vast deal more in that subject yet, and send us, as Eli sent Samuel, into the dark Infinite to listen for ourselves.

And this is the ministry and its work-not to drill hearts. and minds, and consciences, into right forms of thought and mental postures, but to guide to the Living God who speaks. It is a thankless work; for, as I have said, men love to have all their religion done out for them. They want something, definite, and sharp, and clear-words-not the life of God in the soul: and indeed, it is far more flattering to our vanity to have men take our views, represent us, be led by us. Rule is dear to all. To rule menís spirits is the dearest rule of all; but it is the work of every trite priest of God to lead men to think and feel for themselves-to open their ears that God may speak. Eli did this part of his work in a true spirit. He guided Samuel, trained his character. But ďGodís Spirit!Ē Eli says, ďI can not give that Godís voice! I am not Godís voice. I am only Godís witness, erring, listening for myself. I am here, Godís witness, to say-God speaks. I may err-let God be true. Let me be a liar, if you will. My mission is done when your ear is opened for God to whisper into.Ē Very true, Eli was superseded. Very true, his work was done. A new set of views, not his, respecting Israelís policy and national life, were to be propagated by his successor; but it was Eli that had guided that successor to God who gave the views: and Eli had not lived in vain.

My brethren, if any man or any body of men stand between us and the living God, saying, ďOnly through us-the Church-can you approach God; only through my consecrated touch can you receive grace; only through my ordained teaching can you hear Godís voice; and the voice which speaks in your soul in the still moments of existence is no revelation from God, but a delusion and a fanaticismĒ-that man is a false priest. To bring the soul face to face with God, and supersede ourselves, that is the work of the Christian ministry.

3. There was in Eli a resolve to know the whole truth.

What is the thing that the Lord hath said unto thee? I pray thee hide it not from me: God do so to thee, and more also, if thou hide any thing from me of all the things that He said unto thee.Ē Eli asked in earnest to know the worst.

It would be a blessed thing to know what God thinks of us. But next best to this would be to see ourselves in the light in which we appear to others: other menís opinion is a mirror in which we learn to see ourselves. It keeps us humble when bad and good alike are known to us. The worst slander has in it some truth from which we may learn a lesson, which may make us wiser when the first smart is passed.

Therefore it is a blessing to have a friend like Samuel, who can dare to tell us truth, judicious, candid, wise; one to whom we can say, ďNow tell me what I am, and what I seem; hide nothing, but tell me the worst.Ē But observe, we are not to beg praise or invite censure-that were weak. We are not to ask for every malicious criticism or tormenting report-that were hypochondria, ever suspecting, and ever self-tormenting; and to that diseased sensibility it would be no manís duty to minister. True friendship will not retail tormenting trifles; but what we want is One friend

at least, who will extenuate nothing, but with discretion tell the worst, using unflinchingly the sharp knife which is to cut away the fault.

4. There was pious acquiescence in the declared will of God. When Samuel had told him every whit, Eli replied, ďIt is the Lord.Ē The highest religion could say no more. What more can there be than surrender to the will of God? In that one brave sentence you forget all Eliís vacillation. Free from envy, free from priestcraft, earnest, humbly submissive-that is the side of Eliís character, and the side least known or of.

There is another c to Eliís character. He was a wavering, feeble, powerless man, with excellent intentions, but an utter want of will; and if we look at it deeply, it is will that makes the difference between man and man; not knowledge, not emotions, not devoutness, not feeling, but will-the power to e. Let us look at the causes of this feebleness.

There are apparently two. 1. A recluse life-he lived in the temple. Praying and sacrificing, perhaps, were the substance of his life; all that unfitted him for the world; he knew nothing of life; he knew nothing of character. When Hannah came before him in an agony of prayer, be misjudged her. He mistook the tremulousness of her lip for the trembling of intoxication. He could not rule his own household; he could not rule the Church of God-a shy, solitary, amiable ecclesiastic and recluse-that was Eli.

And such are the really fatal men in the work of life, those who look out on human life from a cloister, or who know nothing of men except through books. Religious persons dread worldliness. They will not mix in politics. They keep aloof from life. Doubtless there is a danger in knowing too much of the world. But, beyond all comparison, of the two extremes the worst is knowing too little of life. A priesthood severed from human sympathies, separated from men, cut off from human affections, and then meddling fatally with questions of human life-that is the Romish priesthood. And just as fatal, when they come to meddle with public questions, is the interference of men as good as Eli, as devout and as incompetent, who have spent existence in a narrow religious party which they mistake for the world.

2. That feebleness arose out of original temperament. Eliís feelings were all good: his acts were all wrong. In sentiment Eli might be always trusted: in action he was forever false, because be was a weak, vacillating man.

Therefore his virtues were all of a negative character. He was forgiving to his sons, because unable to feel strongly the viciousness of sin; free from jealousy, because he had no keen affections; submissive, because too indolent to feel rebellious. Before we praise a man for his excellences, we must be quite sure that they do not rise out of so many defects. No thanks to a proud man that he is not vain. No credit to a man without love that he is not jealous: he has not strength enough for passion.

All history overrates such men. Men like Eli ruin families by instability, produce revolutions, die well when only passive courage is wanted, and are reckoned martyrs. They live like children, and die like heroes. Deeply true to nature, brethren, and exceedingly instructive, is this history of Eli. It is quite natural that such men should suffer well. For if only their minds are made up for them by inevitable circumstances, they can submit. When people come to Eli and say, ďYou should reprove your sons,Ē he can do it after a fashion; when it is said to him, ďYou must die,Ē he can make up his mind to die: but this is not taking up the cross. Let us look at the result of such a character.

1. It had no influence. Eli was despised by his own sons. He was not respected by the nation. One only of all he lived with, kept cleaving to him till the last-Samuel; but that was in a kind of mournful pity. The secret of influence is will-not goodness, not badness-both bad and good may have it; but will. And on can not counterfeit will if you have it not. Men speak strongly and vehemently when most conscious of their own vacillation. They commit them selves to hasty resolutions, but the resolve is not kept; and so, with strong feelings and good feelings, they lose influence day by day.

2. It manifested incorrigibility. Eli was twice warned; once by a prophet, once by Samuel. Both times he answered submissively. He used strong, nay, passionate expressions of penitence. Both times you would have thought an entire reformation and change of life was at hand. Both times he was warned in vain.

There are persons who go through life sinning and sorrowing-sorrowing and sinning. No experience teaches them. Torrents of tears flow from their eyes. They are full of eloquent regrets. You can not find it in your heart to condemn them, for their sorrow is so graceful and touching, so full of penitence and self-condemnation. But tears, heart-breaks, repentance, warnings, are all in vain. Where they did wrong once, they do wrong again. What are such persons to do in the next life? Where will the Elis of this world be? God only knows. But Christ has said, ďNot every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.Ē

3. It resulted in misery to others.

Recollect what this weakness caused. Those young men, Eliís sons, grew up to be their countryís plague. They sapped the moral standard of their countrymen and countrywomen. They degraded the ministry. ďMen abhorred the offering of the Lord.Ē The armies of Israel, without faith in God, and without leadership of man, fled before the enemy. All that was Eliís doing. A weak man with good feelings makes more misery than a determined bad man. Under a tyranny men are at least at rest, for they know the worst. But when subjects or children know that by entreaty, or persistence, or intimidation, they can obtain what they want, then a family or a nation is cursed with restlessness. Better to live under bad laws which are firmly administered, than under good ones where there is a misgiving whether they may not be changed. There is no wretchedness like the wretchedness caused by an undetermined will to those who serve under it.