I have just completed a series of posts called Death Reigns – Death Defeated. I briefly covered the experience of Eli, but his experience warrants further examination because it speaks to our modern situation. Too many young people are getting cancer and dying, and the church seems to be powerless to prevent it. The actions of Eli, the High Priest of Israel in Samuel’s time, seem to provide an explanation of this problem.
Eli represented God to the people and the people to God. He was the leader of the Levites, who were responsible for teaching the people what God required. You could say that Eli was the senior pastor of Israel. His role is similar to anyone who takes up the role of pastor in the church, using the examples of Peter or Paul to justify their ministries. Modern pastors take responsibility for teaching their people how to serve God.
Eli’s sons and their colleagues were wicked. They used threats to get the people to do what they wanted them to do. They said something like, “If you don’t go along with us, you could lose your salvation”. They treated the people with a lack of respect: as expendable, convenient, serviceable. They also treated the Lord’s gifts with contempt (1 Sam 2:12-17).
A prophet spoke to Eli, the senior pastor and said that the shepherds of Israel had scorned God’s instructions about how the tabernacle sacrifices should operate. They have honoured other pastors more than the people.
Those who honour Me I will honour, and those who despise Me will be insignificant (1 Sam 2:30).
The prophet warned, “Your strength will be cut off. You will see distress in your church”.
You will live long only to have eyes blinded with tears and a heart full of grief. Your descendants will die in the prime of life (1 Sam 2:33).
This is the curse on Eli. He will live long but will be filled with sadness and grief because the children he cares for will be cut off in the prime of life. Eli did nothing. He ignored the prophet and pretended not to see what his sons and their colleagues were doing. His eyes were weak and he could barely see (1 Sam 3:1,11).
In many ways, the behaviour of the executive-pastors of the modern church parallels that of Eli. They have ignored God’s instructions about how the church should be built and followed the plans of other men. Some have treated their sheep as expendable, taking their finances, but not giving them life in return.
The pastors have mostly ignored the prophets. Like Ahab, they hate prophets who say bad things about them. They only like those who promise good things (1 Kings 22:8). Prophets are the eyes of the church. It is a terrible thing when prophets are silenced.
We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be (Psalm 74:9).
A church without prophets is in a dangerous situation. Eli’s weak eyes represent the dearth of true prophets in the church.
The prophet announced that the Lord would do something that will make the ears of everyone tingle. The pastors will be totally shocked by what the Lord does. They will be so surprised that they are forced to listen to the prophets (1 Sam 3:11). The consequence of putting loyalty to their colleagues ahead of the call of the prophets will lead to their people being cut off during the “prime of life”.
Defeat by Death
When the Israelites went into battle against the Philistines, they suffered a terrible defeat, and four thousand soldiers were killed in battle. Instead of seeking the Lord to find out why he had not been with them, the people decided to take the covenant box in battle with them (1 Sam 4:3-7). They confused God with the box over which he met with them and spoke to them. They believed that if they took the covenant box, God would have to go with them.
They wanted to be like the other nations, who often took their idols into battle with them. Or the soldiers wore badges representing their idols as a sign of protection. Israel should not have been copying the nations around them.
They assumed that taking the covenant box into battle would assure them victory. This was presumption of the worst kind.
The Israelites were trying to manipulate God, forcing him to go with them because his covenant box had gone into battle. God hates manipulation and control (witchcraft) and he will not be moved by it.
Eli knew that God was not in the box, but they said nothing to his people. He let them wander down the wrong path. There is a strong parallel between Eli’s experience and that of pastors and the modern church.
They have put God into a box. If people want to meet with God, they are told to go to the church building (box) and they will encounter him there.
People believe that if they praise God staunchly enough in their church meetings, then they will receive a victory in the world. Unfortunately, that has not worked out in practice.
There is an element of manipulation in this approach. People have been told they can meet with God if they come to the box (church building), so God has to turn up, or people will be disappointed in him.
The pastors know that God is everywhere and can be encountered anywhere. Yet they tell people to come to the box where he dwells. They refer to their meeting as “this house”, meaning “the Lord’s house”. The truth is that the Lord dwells in his body and works through it where it is operating together in love and unity.
The world has developed alternative boxes that are more appealing. In medieval times, the church was the only meeting place (box) in a town or village. That is no longer true. The world has created other meeting places, like shopping malls, public halls, schools, universities, movie theatres, sports arenas. They are often more exciting than the church building.
Despite having the covenant box with them, the armies of Israel were defeated and it was taken captive by the Philistines. Thirty-thousand soldiers were killed.
The slaughter was very great (1 Sam 4:10).
This was the result of Death being given greater freedom. Taking the covenant box out of the tabernacle weakened the effectiveness of the tabernacle sacrifices because the place where God dwelt was broken. The human decision was made contrary to the instructions given to Moses on the mountain. The undermining of the process for offering animal sacrifices meant that Death was no longer constrained by the law. Death seems to have a free hand in the modern Church too.
Eli was old and heavy and he heard about the covenant box being captured, he fell off his stool and broke his neck (1 Sam 4:18). His body was cut off from his head. This represents the body of Christ cut off from Jesus, because the pastors have trained their people to listen to them, rather than the Holy Spirit, and coached them to watch God working through them at the front of the meeting, rather than sending them out into the world in the power of the Spirit to do great things for Jesus.
Eli’s daughter in law died young following childbirth, but she named her son Ichabod before she died because the glory of God has departed from Israel (1 Sam 4:19-22). The glory of God has departed from the modern church in a similar way.
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