The story of Eli demonstrates that true repentance sometimes demands firm action to restrain evil, not just changed attitude or talk. Eli, the High Priest before Samuel, knew God. However, his sons Hophni and Phinehas, did not know or obey God. Instead, they abused their offices as priests to enrich themselves—stealing from the worshippers’ portions of offerings made to God—and sleeping with the women who ministered at the door of the tabernacle. (I Samuel 2:12-16, 22). Eli knew what his sons were doing, and repented—after a fashion—but his repentance was inadequate. All he did about their sins was to reprove them orally:
23 He said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all this people. 24 No, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear! You make Yahweh’s people disobey. 25 If one man sins against another, God will judge him; but if a man sins against Yahweh, who will intercede for him?”
I Samuel 2:23-25a (WEB)
However, Eli’s sons did not listen to him and repent of their sins—because, as the text notes, God had determined that they should die for dishonoring him. I Samuel 2:25b. When the oral reproof was ineffective, Eli did nothing more to restrain his sons. He allowed them to continue serving as priests, when he should have removed them from their positions. But he did nothing more than talk.
Indeed, after Eli spoke to his sons about their sins, but did nothing more to restrain them, God sent him two prophets to warn him of the consequences of his inaction. The first, unnamed prophet told Eli precisely what the problem was—Eli was honoring his sons above God:
27 A man of God came to Eli, and said to him, “Yahweh says, ‘Did I reveal myself to the house of your father, when they were in Egypt in bondage to Pharaoh’s house? 28 Didn’t I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? Didn’t I give to the house of your father all the offerings of the children of Israel made by fire? 29 Why do you kick at my sacrifice and at my offering, which I have commanded in my habitation, and honor your sons above me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel my people?’
30 “Therefore Yahweh, the God of Israel, says, ‘I said indeed that your house, and the house of your father, should walk before me forever.’ But now Yahweh says, ‘Far be it from me; for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me will be cursed.
I Samuel 2:27-30 (WEB)
This accusation was accompanied by a dire warning—Hophni and Phinehas would both die on the same day, and Eli’s entire house would be punished by removal from priestly office and by death at young ages throughout their generations. As is true of all such warnings delivered by God, this prophet’s warning implied that Eli had an opportunity to repent—by restraining his sons, not just nagging them—and thereby avoiding the consequences of which the prophet warned. But Eli ignored the warning, and continued to honor his sons above God.
The second prophet God sent to Eli was the young man Samuel. Samuel was not of a priestly lineage by blood—he was of the tribe of Ephraim (I Samuel 1:1, 20). However, Samuel’s mother had promised him to God if God would open her womb (I Samuel 1:11), and Eli had raised him in the Tabernacle from the time he was weaned (I Samuel 1:21-28, 2:11) . One night God called Samuel, who had not previously heard God’s voice. The first two times, Samuel thought Eli was calling him. The third time, Eli recognized that it was God calling Samuel, and instructed him to tell God that he was listening. (I Samuel 3:7-10). God’s message to Samuel confirmed that of the earlier, unnamed man of God who had spoken to Eli:
11 Yahweh said to Samuel, “Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from the beginning even to the end. 13 For I have told him that I will judge his house forever, for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves, and he didn’t restrain them. 14 Therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be removed with sacrifice or offering forever.”
I Samuel 3:11-14 (WEB)
The next morning, Samuel delivered God’s message to Eli. Once again, God’s warning to Eli implied an opportunity to repent—by restraining his sons. But Eli’s only response to this warning was resignation: “It is Yahweh. Let him do what seems good to him.” (I Samuel 3:18b). Not long after that, the warnings were realized. Israel went to battle against the Philistines, and had Hophni and Phinehas carry the Ark of the Covenant before them into battle—as a kind of good luck charm assuring victory. (I Samuel 4:1-4). This was an unauthorized use of the symbol of God’s presence with his people, but Hophni and Phinehas had taught the people to use God rather than worship him by their performance as priests during the preceding years. Thus, the people’s decision to misuse the Ark as a magical charm was a natural consequence of the sins of their priests. However, the battle did not go as expected. Israel lost the battle, with 30,000 casualties, the Ark of God was captured by the Philistines, and Hophni and Phinehas died in battle. (I Samuel 4:10-11). When news of the capture of the Ark and the death of his sons was brought to Eli, he also died. (I Samuel 4:18).
So, in Eli’s situation, true repentance would have required him to take the action within his power to restrain his sons’ abuse of their priestly offices. He had the authority to remove them from their positions to end the reproach they were bringing upon God. Simply nagging them wasn’t enough. To be sure, in the church, correcting the sins of others must start with gentle reproof, with a correct heart attitude (Matthew 18:15-18; Galatians 6:1-2). There are procedures to be followed, with the purpose of correction, not punishment. But, whether my own personal sin or that of a brother is involved, merely talking, when action is required, is not true repentance on my part.