In 1 Samuel 2:12-21, we meet the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Pinehas, who were described as worthless. Yes, they were priests, but they were worthless. The actual wording for this text reads as follows, “And the sons of Eli were sons of worthlessness.” The word for “worthlessness” in Hebrew is belial, which derives from beliy (without) and yaal (value). In other words, they were wicked and without any value; they were good for nothing.
Why would the Bible describe Eli’s sons this way?
First, the Bible describes Eli’s sons this way because “they did not know the LORD” (v.12). They were aware of Jehovah of course, but did not truly know Him. In Genesis 4:1 we read, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” The word “knew” in Genesis 4 and the word “know” in 1 Samuel 2 both refer to a personal, intimate relationship. If you do not know God personally, you are like Eli’s sons—worthless before God.
Because Eli’s sons did not know the Lord, they were children of Belial despite being covenant children. “Belial” is used in 2 Corinthians 6:15 as another name for Satan. In that passage we are instructed not to be yoked together with unbelievers. We are also reminded in that same passage that righteousness and lawlessness, darkness and light, are incompatible with one another (2 Cor. 6:14-15). You cannot be both a child of the Devil and a child of God at the same time. You are either a child of God (believer), or a child of Satan (unbeliever). There is no third category.
These observations lead us to ask some personal questions. Do you know the LORD? Eli’s sons even grew up in the tabernacle, but their heritage had no bearing on whether or not they were saved, because they did not know God. The same goes for you and me, growing up in a church cannot save us. “I am religious,” you might say. Eli’s sons were religious too, but religion cannot save you. “I am a spiritual person,” you argue. You can be “spiritual,” and still be spiritually dead. “I am a pastor, or an elder, or a deacon. I am involved in many church activities.” Eli’s sons were in a holy position, involved in many activities of the congregation of Israel, including regular sacrifices and offerings but it meant nothing without a personal relationship with God. As we read in Matthew 7: 21-23, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name… and do mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Jesus never knew them, because they never knew Jesus. So, again, my dear friend, ask yourself, “Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?”
Secondly, Eli’s sons were called wicked because they did not follow God’s law. Belial in Hebrew also means “lawlessness.” 1 Samuel 2:13-16 describes the customs of the priests and what they ought to do. The fat was supposed to be burned and offered to God first (Lev. 7:31). But, in verse 17 of 1 Samuel 2, we learn that the sons of Eli willfully disobeyed this law by demanding their portion of the offering before it was burned on the altar. They chose to disregard God’s law. They were lawless in their blatant and deliberate choice to disregard God’s command. And they never repented of their sin.
Third, Hophni and Phinehas were called wicked because they abused and profaned their office as priests. In their selfish greed, they used their position to their own advantage and for their own profit. They treated the people of Israel with disrespect in the process by taking meat for the offering out of the cooking pot while it was cooking. Hophni and Phinehas even forced the Israelites to give up the meat before they began to offer it (while it was still raw). Furthermore, they committed sexual immorality at the very entrance of the tabernacle. Using their privileged positions for their own gain made them both worthless and lawless in God’s eyes.
What other lessons can we take away from this text?
First lesson: You can be a righteous parent but still have a wicked child. Eli was a believer of God and a righteous man. His name means “my God.” When you read the first verse of our text, it might sound as though Eli was a wicked father: “The sons of Eli were sons of Belial” (KJV). Does this mean that Eli was wicked? No, it does not! He had many shortcomings but he was a believer in the Lord. It is possible for godly parents to have ungodly children. This reminds us that we cannot transform our children, but God can. Do not blame yourself by placing unnecessary guilt on yourself for your children’s evil choices, if, by God’s grace, you have done all you could to raise them in the fear of the Lord.
Second lesson: You can be a believer in Christ and an irresponsible parent at the same time. Eli was both a high priest and a civil judge in Israel for forty years (1 Sam. 4:18). Yet, he failed to discipline and correct his sons as he should have (1 Sam. 3:12.). This failure resulted in God’s judgement on Eli’s entire household. As a parent, do not be afraid to discipline your children. It does hurt, but sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to rebuke your children and let them know they are wrong (Pro. 23:13-14, 29:17). “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4).
Third lesson: Our spiritual leaders also have weaknesses. They fail at times. If we only look to our church leaders we will stumble, too. Do not only look to Eli, the high priest. Look to our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).” Christ is the only one to whom we can look to for a perfect example. Therefore, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus, not on our pastors, elders, or deacons.