Eli: Considering the Lazy Leader

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This is not a political blog, it’s the devotional journal of a working pastor. But of course, the cares and concerns of our lives spill out in all kinds of directions, don’t they? It’s like saying that architecture has nothing to do with meteorology. (Of course it doesn’t, directly, but it would be a poor architect who had no idea of the weather conditions that his new house would face, right?)

So there, in the newspaper, whilst I read of the various shortcomings of various contemporary political leaders (he said with studied vagueness), my eye was caught by the tagline “The dangers of a lazy leader.”

And as I read the article, I thought of Eli.

The story of Eli gets somewhat overshadowed by the account of Samuel which follows it, for there’s no doubt that Samuel is one of the towering figures of the Old Testament, but there’s a moment (in the early chapters of 1 Samuel) when the two characters are brought into sharp contrast.

It’s the contrast of youth and age,of one fresh and alive and the other jaded and worn down – maybe even cynical. The younger one seems thoughtful and enquiring; the older dull and passive.

Both are “judges” (political leaders) in Israel, but one is on his way out and the other about to begin. Trickier still, the retiree is about to be sentenced by the new appointee.



Something odd seems to be happening. It’s as if it’s the younger who is counselling, supporting, and admonishing the older. The ivy is supporting the wall. It has grown up on the wall but now it’s holding it together. The wall itself is about to topple.

The account in 1 Samuel 3 highlights another contrast. Eli inherited his role, but Samuel was called to his. Eli took on the family job, but Samuel experienced God’s summons.

It’s sensible enough to develop systems  of political control, elections, voting etc.  It’s a reasonable expedient to have people voted into office, or even inheriting a position: some system is necessary, I guess, to keep things going.

But earthly systems are shadows of something much deeper. Saul is elected (you might say) but David is called.The hereditary high-priests in the  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 so 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 God’s people Israel.

But what was Eli like? Does he deserve the appellation of “Lazy Leader”?

Well, the news is not all bad. Like of all of us, there are good qualities mixed in with the bad. He doesn’t seem to have any envy at all, for example. He encourages Samuel forward, even if it means he is stepping back. God is speaking, but not to him, the top man. The inspiration comes to Samuel, and Eli is superseded and -a little later-disgraced. The message comes to the pupil and the teacher is put to one side.

But Eli not only lets it happen but helps it to happen! He shows him how to hear God! “Go and lie down: and it shall be, if He calls you, say, Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening.

It’s hard to be surpassed by a younger person. I recall being a pastor in my forties suddenly realising that God’s man for the church was this 23 year old whippersnapper, and my job was to get out of the way. I learnt the lesson, but it took a little time.

Even in a less pointed way, we find it hard to be generous with one another, to be truly “in honour preferring one another.” Shopkeepers seldom relish competition. “Churches Together” meetings have to really work hard to achieve true corporate effort.


Eli did well here. He encouraged Samuel and gave valuable advice and then stood back.He might have assumed a sort-of Priestly Authority: “Calm down Samuel. I am, after all,  the man in charge, not you.” He might have insisted on his own interpretation of Samuel’s word. But Eli did neither. He sent Samuel to God. He taught him to inquire for himself; not to boss him about; not to direct his feelings and belief;  but to teach him to walk alone.

Some people gather followers. Others stir up faith, conscience, thought, to do their own work. And this is the real work of the pastor. Often, people 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 …but Eli sent Samuel to listen for himself.


Another thing about Eli: he wanted to know the whole truth. “‘What was it he said to you?’ Eli asked. ‘Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.’”

So Eli hears the bad news and submits to it.  “It is the Lord.” What more can there be than surrender to the will of God?  He wasn’t envious, or self-important; he was humble and submissive.


But there is a down side. He was wavering, feeble and powerless.He meant well but lacked the will to see things through. And he ended up doing nothing.

I wonder how he got like that. Maybe he had spent too long just doing churchy stuff that he forgot how the real world operated. He seemed to know nothing of life; and nothing of character. When Hannah came before him in an agony of prayer, he thought her drunk. He could not manage his own children; he could not rule the Church.

And so I come to the article. “Dangerous, 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 real world.”

In fact, Eli’s feelings were all good: but his acts were all wrong.

His virtues were negative. He was forgiving to his sons, because he didn’t feel the sheer nastiness of their sin. He was free from jealousy, because he had no strong drive to do much about anything. He was submissive, because he was too lazy to challenge the situation.

Sometimes we think highly of people whose good qualities rise out of their defects!

Eli was twice warned; once by a prophet, once by Samuel. Both times he answered submissively. He said he was really really sorry. Both times you would have thought a complete change-around was at hand. But both times he was warned in vain. Nothing happened.  There are people who go through life sinning and sorrowing-sorrowing and sinning. No experience teaches them. And Jesus said, “Not everyone that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

So what was the consequence of Eli’s character? His sons sapped the moral standard of their whole community’s faith: “The people despised the offering of the Lord.” The armies of Israel, without faith in God, and without leadership of man, fled before the enemy. Some of that (at least) was down to Eli.

Lord, speak, your servant is listening. Train me to hear your voice and strengthen my heart to do your will. I realise that there’s a massive knock-on effect in the lives of other people from the way I respond to your call. I want to take that seriously, and I want to hear your voice saying “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”



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