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He Restrained Them Not

I would like to wish Happy Father’s Day in advance, to all the fathers in the church! Together with your wives, keep up the good and necessary work of “bringing up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

As a father myself, I have come to understand that raising children is a 24/7 responsibility. Although we may sometimes have the help of grandparents and school teachers, parents ultimately bear the final responsibility of leading the child and pointing him in the direction he ought to walk in. One of the important responsibilities of a father is to provide the proper direction and discipline to those in his household (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 6:4). The word “discipline” is often treated as a dirty word in an age where corporal punishment has vanished from homes and schools, but we want to look at an example from the Scriptures: of a father who did not discipline his children.

Towards the tail end of the period of the Judges, we are introduced to a man called Eli. He was a priest (1 Samuel 1:9), and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests as well (1 Samuel 1:3). Samuel, the famous prophet and judge, began serving the Lord as a child in the presence of Eli the priest (1 Samuel 2:11).

Despite the personal faith of Eli, we read that his sons did not possess the same standards of morality as did their father. Under the Law of Moses, the priests were to burn the fat of the animal sacrifice upon the altar (Leviticus 7:31), but Hophni and Phinehas took the fat from the people’s offering under threat of force, thus causing the people to despise the Lord’s offering (1 Samuel 2:12-17). Furthermore, they even engaged in sexual acts with the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22).

What did Eli do about his sons’ great wickedness? He was aware of their “evil dealings”, and rebuked them for their sins (1 Samuel 2:22-25). However, although Eli’s sons “made themselves vile… he restrained them not” (1 Samuel 3:13). Eli did not exercise his authority as a father and a priest by disciplining and punishing his sons for their sins, thus allowing their sins to carry on unchecked.

As a result of Eli knowing of his sons’ sins but failing to restrain them, the Lord would “judge Eli’s house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth…” (1 Samuel 3:13). The Lord would allow the Philistines to defeat the Israelites in battle, resulting in thirty thousand soldiers dead, the ark of the covenant of God captured, and the death of the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 4:10-11). Eli himself would fall backwards, break his neck, and die when he received the news of the death of his sons and the capture of the ark of God (1 Samuel 4:17-18).

What can we learn from the sad account of Eli failing to restrain his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas? Firstly, we learn that discipline is not an optional matter when bringing up our children. We are familiar with Ephesians 6:4, which exhorts fathers to “bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The Greek word paideia, translated as “nurture”, means “education or training, and by implication, disciplinary correction”. The Greek word nouthesia, translated as “admonition”, means “calling attention to, to rebuke or warn”. Thus, we see that it is a necessity for us to correct, rebuke, and warn our children – despite how much it might pain us to do so at times.

Secondly, we learn that discipline can involve varying degrees and methods. Although Eli did rebuke his sons, the implication was that he was unwilling to follow through with more severe methods of discipline, thus resulting in his sons continuing to sin. For example, when Eli’s sons ate of the fat of the offering, the punishment was to be “cut off from his people” (Leviticus 7:22-27). As for their sexual sins, the death penalty could even be invoked (cf. Leviticus 20). Biblical discipline involves a variety of methods – demonstrating the desired behaviour, rebuking and warning them when the desired behaviour is not performed, and even corporal punishment where necessary. The Proverbs writer said that “the rod (i.e. physical punishment) and reproof (verbal correction) give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15). We must be willing to invoke increasingly severe methods of discipline when necessary in this life, if only because we want our children to be spared from the eternal punishment in the life to come. If we say that we love our children, we must be willing to enforce discipline on them as well (cf. Hebrews 12:5ff).

Yes, raising our children is a 24/7 responsibility, and so is the God-given task of disciplining them and bringing them up to be God-fearing individuals. May all fathers everywhere have the courage to take up the task which Eli failed in – of disciplining our children so that they will not “make themselves vile… because we restrained them not” (cf. 1 Samuel 3:13). “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Proverbs 19:18).


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