by John Dickie
WHAT an interesting old man we have brought before us in the story of Eli, the ancient Jewish high-priest! He is first introduced to our notice in connection with Hannah's prayer. Sitting on his raised seat beside the entrance to the tabernacle, and easily accessible to any among the meanest, as well as to any among the noblest of the nation who might need his counsel, his eye had lighted upon a woman among the worshippers whose whole aspect made a painful impression on the good man's mind. She was attempting to worship; but her excited appearance suggested the fear that she had been drinking too freely of the wine which it was the custom to drink in moderation at some of the feasts. Offended by so gross an abuse, which turned the solemn ordinance into mockery, the old priest could not refrain from reproving the irreverence. And Eli said, "How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee." Hannah, who in her grief had not been able even to eat, modestly replied, "No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord." More than satisfied that he had been mistaken, and grieved perhaps that he had spoken so harshly to one of the Lord's afflicted, he kindly and earnestly replied, "Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him." What could be more admirable than all this? or what could be more worthy of one whose office made him the father of his people?
The favourable impression thus made on us is not diminished by what we read of him in his subsequent dealings with Hannah, and with her son, the boy Samuel. All that is said of him shows us still the same gentle and holy man of God. Especially in the last hour of life, the devout spirit of the aged priest shines like a star. He is seated on a high stool by the wayside, waiting with anxious heart to hear intelligence from the field of battle. Israel and the Philistines are engaged in mortal struggle, and much depends upon the issue of the fight. Besides the national interests which are at stake, Eli has his two sons on the field; and, what is of more consequence to him than either sons or other selfish interest, the Ark of the Covenant is also on the field, which ark he, as high-priest, should never have allowed to be put in jeopardy. As he thus sat by the wayside, a messenger from the army came to Shiloh. So, soon as Eli heard the stir, he inquired the reason, and the man was brought to him. And the man said unto Eli, "I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to-day out of the army." And he said, "What is there done, my son?" And the messenger answered and said, "Israel is fled before the Philistines." One can suppose that as the stranger so spoke, the face of his aged auditor darkened; but the grief was bearable, so he waited to hear more. "There hath been also a great slaughter among the people," continues the messenger; "and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead." The old man's gentle features grow slightly darker, but he still says nothing. "And the Ark of God is taken," adds the messenger. This last was too much. As if struck by lightning, the old man's strength collapsed, his heart grew faint; he could not even sit, so he fell backwards, and his neck brake.
Now, all this is truly admirable; and if we had been told no more of Eli, we could only have venerated his memory as one of the most single-hearted of saints. But—alas, these buts! There is always some drawback or other; there is always a but somewhere, even in the best of men. It is said of Solomon that he "loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David, his father; only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places" (1 Kings iii. 3). And every Solomon, every Eli, every mere man has his but, his only. And good Eli's but was a very serious one. "His sons made themselves vile; and he restrained them not." In thus winking at their shocking abuse of holy things, he is blamed for honouring his profane sons beyond Jehovah, and for colleaguing with them to kick at God's sacrifice, and at his offering which he had commanded. That very gentleness of disposition, that facileness of temper, which helped to make his natural character so beautiful, resulted at last in the ruin of himself and of his house. And the same principle operates still. Have we a special excellency?—let us watch it with double diligence, for possibly our greatest danger lurks within it. An unguarded vice will certainly injure us; an unguarded virtue may possibly ruin us. In a world like this, it is as unsafe to be a mere dove without the serpents wisdom, as it is to be a serpent without the harmlessness of the dove. Eli's character was not well balanced; and his uncontrolled amiabilities brought ruin on his family, grievous injury on his people, and dishonour on the name of God most high.
The great sin of Eli has been in all ages, a very common one; the amiably passive Eli-character falls into it so easily. Nay, one would sometimes be tempted to think that, since every age has its own peculiar tendencies towards both good and evil, our own age is, to an alarming degree, an Eli-age. Certain it is, that in many circles Christian parents are now bringing up their families with a degree of laxity to which they themselves were strangers when they were under the training of their godly fathers. In many cases, the ultimate results are not in the least degree doubtful; they are recorded for our warning in this story of Eli's sin and of Eli's punishment. "I wonder how it happens," said a good man lately, "that children now-a-days are becoming so unmanageable. There is a general spirit of insubordination abroad among the young, which I do not remember to have seen when I was a child. My children are certainly a great deal worse to manage than my father's children were; and I can see that many families round about me are just as troublesome as mine. I cannot understand where this strange spirit of lawlessness comes from. The tempers of children are surely becoming much changed." "Ah, my friend," was the reply, "children are now what children have always been; but I fear that godly parents are not quite the same. Instead of contrasting your father's children with your own, will you compare your father with yourself, and tell me whether he did not exercise a much stricter rule over his household than you do over yours?" He assented, sighed, and went away. Of course there are many happy exceptions; but this seems to be the direction in which the current of progress—so called—is flowing. Let Christian parents anchor themselves to the unchanging precepts of the divine Word, lest they be drifted listlessly along with the powerful current.
Leaving altogether the story of the ancient Jewish priest, let us glance for a little at the course of one of his modern imitators. This Eli, then, entirely neglected the training of his children during their earlier months and years. He fancied that at their time of life, it would be mere waste to spend much care upon their training, since they were incapable of profiting by it. He therefore left matters very much to their own development, under the idea that it could matter nothing whether he commenced his operations now, or deferred them for a year or two. Alas, where were his eyes? Had he not seen it in the case of many a neighbouring household—had he not read it in his Bible, that a parent cannot begin his parental work too soon? His formal admonitions, indeed, he might have deferred for a season; but his Christian nurture he should have commenced on the day of his infant's birth. Had he done so in the fear of God, the posture of domestic affairs to-day would have been vastly different. Into his hands a little child had been laid, a soft and pliant twig, which, at this period, he might easily have bent at will; but he allowed the twig to grow neglected for a time; and so, when he began to teach the boy, he found that the soft twig had become a sturdy branch, on which, if he work at all, he must toil with sweat and tears. Eli soon grew discouraged; and the same indecision which had tempted him to delay at first, still tempted him to advance his more convenient season further forward into the future, under the hope that years of discretion would bring discretion with them. The years soon came; but, alas! the discretion came not; and now each neglected branch has grown into an oak-tree trunk, beside which Eli stands in his old age in the anguish of desponding helplessness; for the kneed and crooked bole will scarcely break, and will never bend. And all this has come out of the neglect of a soft and pliant twig, as pliant almost as a silken thread. "A twig!" exclaims some reader, half scornfully; "my child is no twig. His sturdy self-will perplexes me, and I know not how to treat him." Indeed! then your complaint involves in it a confession. You have been—to some extent, at least—neglecting the baby; and the neglected baby, grown into a child, is already too strong for you. Learn from this, what the neglected child, grown into a rebellious boy, promises to be. Begin at once! BEGIN at once! No parent may safely procrastinate; but you are the parent who, beyond others, must not lose another minute. If you delay a little longer, you shall be too late; and though your heart-broken repentance may be met by forgiveness for your own sin, it may not hinder in the slightest your child's complete destruction.
This is a most important matter, and must not be lightly dismissed. The child cannot be taught dogmas and doctrines while it is still in the nurse's arms; but even then its disposition is getting a permanent bias, and habits are beginning to be formed which shall by and by acquire the permanent strength of a second nature. Selfishness or self-denial, lawlessness or obedience, ferocity or gentleness, cunning or integrity, are being taught to the child while yet it is nourished by its mother's milk. And these earliest of all lessons can scarcely be effaced by any after-education—they give an abiding bias to the life-long character.
"Praesens gravidum futuro," says a profound thinker; and this principle applies to nothing more strictly than it does to early infancy. The infancy contains in germ, the entire life. As the oak-tree lies hid in the acorn; nay, as millions of oaks are concealed in a single nut, so the first year of life comprises the childhood, the youth, the manhood, the old age,—and shall we shrink from adding to these, the long eternity. Of course no one will think that we presumptuously mean to enunciate a rigid rule which admits of no exceptions. There are exceptions; and yet, with a certain latitude, these solemn words are true. O parent, seek grace to be faithful in the education of your infant, for your training of him is to prove the most influential of all the elements which shall go to decide his everlasting destiny. Labour and pray that the heart of your child may be secured for Jesus, for when the childhood is secured, you have done the best that can be done for securing time and eternity; while, if you leave the enemy to occupy the child, you are doing all in your power to hand over to the same enemy the boy, and the man, and the man beyond the grave.
And how is this early training of the infant to be attended to? Not, certainly, to any great extent by formal instruction; though these, in their own small measure, must not be wholly neglected. But the parent will educate his infant rather by his life than by his words; by his being careful to make himself what he wishes his child to become, rather than by any formal lessons. By a divine arrangement, the hunger of the young heart impels the child to appropriate incessantly the moral and spiritual influences which surround it; and these, be they good or be they evil, it will receive, and assimilate, and by means of them it will gradually build up its own moral and spiritual character. The parent, whether he remember the fact or not, is constantly radiating these influences around him; and the child is as constantly appropriating and assimilating them. There is no intermission. Day by day, moment by moment, the process is going on. There is not a word, not a movement, not a smile, not a frown, not an act of the parent but which is telling for good or for evil on the character, and, therefore, on the future of the child. The parent, then, can only train his child to become what he really is himself. It is not what he says, but what he is, that makes the deep and permanent impression. His infant's goodness will be attainable only by an education which has for its chief element the fact that the educator is good himself. Of course, all this applies with equal force to the mother and to the nurse. If, then, any one ask, How am I to teach my infant in its infancy? there can be only one reply. You must, as a man, be yourself everything that you wish your child to become, if he shall be spared to manhood. There is no other reliable way. If you want to retain low measures of godliness for yourself, while yet you would teach high measures of godliness to him, you shall fail, and fail most shamefully. In this case, you shall only make him a hypocrite; and what better than this can you expect, seeing that you begin your training of him by being a hypocrite yourself?
This fact, that the parent never intermits his teaching, was completely forgotten by our Eli. Often, in easy slippered deshabille, he ungirt himself at table or on the hearth, and poured out his spontaneous thoughts and feelings in frank and careless chit-chat, utterly oblivious that he was still teaching ex cathedra, and that every word was making its deep impression upon his young listeners. Had his attention been requested to this, he would have laughed at the suggestion as an over-refinement. "Tush, it is such a trifle," he would have said impatiently; "it can neither benefit nor harm. When I do happen to say a word which I would rather not have the children hear, I can lower my voice, or give a nod which my wife understands, or speak by allusions which are above their comprehension." Alas, Eli did not consider that there is nothing whatever which a parent does or says in the presence of his children that is a trifle; and he forgot that his nods, and winks, and mysterious utterances were themselves infusing an element of low cunning into the characters of his children. And as for the censorious or unwise remarks which he thus attempted to conceal from them, he would have been astonished had he set himself to discover in what unsuspected fashion their sharp little eyes were reading him, what shrewd inferences their active minds were drawing, and what strange applications they were making of everything that they saw and heard. No, the stream can never rise higher than the fountain; it cannot even maintain itself at the fountain's elevation, but must descend downwards, ever downwards; and just as surely, may an Eli expect that his children will not be better than himself; nay, that they will not be quite so good as himself. Of course, the God who is Sovereign in his grace may please to interfere; but Eli has no reason to count on such unpromised interference. God's ordinary course with an Eli-father, is to suffer his children to grow up into duplicates of Hophni and Phinehas.
It must not be supposed, however, that our Eli totally neglected his little ones. The Elis seldom do this. He both instructed them as to what their duty was, and he occasionally reproved them for neglecting it. So too did Eli, the ancient high-priest. And he said unto them, "Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons, for it is no good report that I hear; ye make the Lord's people to transgress." But admonition and rebuke, good enough in their own place, are something less than nil, when parental training has been limited to these. What good can an Eli expect from his occasional and always disagreeable exhortations to duty, which increase in pungency as the behaviour of the lads becomes more reckless; and which urge on them an ideal of duty much loftier than that which Eli has ever attained himself, or, indeed, has ever attempted? Or what good can he expect from his unpleasant lecturings on the importance of divine concerns, and on the infinite folly of preferring the whole world to the salvation of the soul? He wonders that his boys can listen to such fervent words and yet remain so callous as they manifestly are; they, on the other hand, wonder that he can speak such words, while yet the truths which they express seem to affect himself so little. Oh, if he had begun his work when they were infants; and if he had begun it with himself! If he had then got rid forever of his own prevailing indifference to the salvation of his children, and had begun to cherish in his own heart a continual yearning for their welfare which could have been compared to nothing short of an actual travailing in birth for them, and which eagerness of desire would have been oozing out in spite of him through every tone of his voice and every glance of his eye; if he had spent his years among them in this spirit, most assuredly they would not have been the careless creatures which they are to-day. And if, to his intense desire for the salvation of his children, our Eli had added a becoming concern for the salvation of his servants, who were living under the same roof, and who were advancing along with him and his, towards the same judgment-seat and the same eternity, it would have made the lesson all the more effective. But though our Eli seemed to have forgotten that his servants had souls at all, his children did not forget the fact; and by the help of this remembrance they drew the perilous inference that the preciousness of the soul is a very fine thing to talk about, but there is no urgent need for anything more than words.
At one period, indeed, Eli, somewhat alarmed by certain indications of the state of things in his household, and with his conscience exceedingly restive in regard to his own share of the guilt, made a vigorous but short-lived effort towards the establishment of a rule, which was now as faulty on the side of severity as it had hitherto been on the side of laxity. Happily the spasm was as brief as it was vehement; but it only helped to make the matter worse. Eli-fathers are occasionally seduced into such inconsistencies. He was greatly stimulated to this morbid outbreak of zeal by the words of Solomon in Proverbs, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son;" and this, "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." He had spoiled his children—that was plain enough; he had spared the rod—this was also plain; these passages connected the two as cause and effect; so what could he do but take up the neglected rod, and use it all the more vigorously that it had hitherto been scarcely used at all? It was too late, however, to carry out this method without utter ruin to all concerned; and our afflicted, despairing Eli had to fling away the impracticable rod, to resume his old neglect, and to calm his conscience with the effort to believe that there are certain peculiar cases—his family being one—to which the rules of Scripture do not quite apply.
It never occurred to him to inquire whether his interpretation of Solomon's maxims were the right one. The rod, which, as Solomon tells us, must on no account be spared, Eli understood to mean the birch; and under this misconception, he inferred—in theory, at least—that the only method of ruling boys like his would be to give them plenty of birching. His boys, however, were now old enough to render the establishment of the contemplated despotism an impossibility. It had never struck the father that the Book of Proverbs enunciates its unequalled lessons in a poetical form; and that, unless we interpret them in accordance with this, our very efforts to adhere slavishly to the letter may, all the more surely, make us miss the spirit of the lesson. In rending such a proverb as this, "Bread of deceit is sweet to a man, but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel;" he never mistook gravel for literal gravel; why then did he so hastily take for granted that the parental rod meant nothing more than the literal instrument of punishment? If he had reflected a little, he might have observed that it is quite in harmony with Solomon's style to speak of paternal authority under the figure of "the rod;" just as by a similar figure, kingly authority is spoken of under the name of "the sceptre." He would have discovered then that the "sparing of the rod" is a convenient poetical formula for the neglect of parental authority in general; and he might also have found reason for inferring that the father who wisely uses the "ROD," will seldom have much need to apply the literal birch. The antithesis to the rod is "a child left to himself" (Prov. xxix. 15); that is to say, a child who is under wise parental supervision is under "the rod and reproof."
"But then the child must be broken in," our Eli would have said, while he was under the influence of this spasm. "My boys have never hitherto been quite subdued. I must now, once and for all, break their wills; and I must do it thoroughly." Nay, nay, O Eli; this is work for wiser hands than thine! If there is to be breaking in the case, it is the father rather than the child who needs it most. Seek to have your own heart broken before God in deep and genuine contrition for your sin, and to have your own will hence-forward submitted persistently and devoutly to His authority. Had you been doing so all along, your little ones, brought up from birth under these influences, would have grown into your own spirit; and the merciless floggings, which you seem to upbraid yourself for neglecting, would have been as unknown as they would have been unneeded. Meanwhile, even in your case, the things which are impossible with men are quite possible with God; only, be sure to begin your work now at the right end, and that is with your own heart.
Of course, our Eli never dreamed that, in neglecting his children as he had done, he was taking the likeliest course to secure their final and hopeless perdition. Not at all. He had at least two strings to his bow; and if the first string should unhappily break, there was still the second, which he could always count on. For no man goes grievously astray without allowing himself to be deceived with the hope that all will, somehow or other, come out right in the end. The great expectation which Eli cherished was based on the efficacy of preaching; and, if his children were converted at all, what mattered it whether the work were done at his fireside or elsewhere? God was very gracious, and had made most encouraging promises to prayer; and Eli hoped that, moved by his prayers, which he also expected to become very fervent at some time or other, the gracious One would interfere, and would bring his neglected children to Himself through the zealous labours of some gospel preacher. What madness! Where in all the Bible did Eli get a single word which ingenuity could pervert to such an abuse? The grand old pulpit—God's original ordinance for conversion—will be to Eli's children only what their father's training of them has fitted it for being. There is nothing in preaching itself which can secure the salvation of the hearer; witness the solemn parable of the sower. Even from the lips of Christ himself the truth fell pointless on religiously hardened hearts. The very capacity to receive and to mature the seed which is scattered by the preacher's lips depends very much upon previous preparation of the soil; and home training is God's ordinance for this essential preparation, just as preaching is his ordinance for the scattering of the seed. The parent will therefore do well to stimulate his laboriousness and his prayerfulness to the utmost by the startling thought that his failure, as a parent, almost includes in it the preacher's failure, as a preacher. If the farmer idles through the spring, in the preposterous hope that he may make up in summer for his sloth, it shall be found that a wasted spring implies a wasted summer; and that autumn, which rewards the labours of the industrious, brings nothing for the sluggard but the frightful forebodings of a desolate and famishing winter.
Some years ago, an eminent physician startled many a parent with the decided tone in which he spoke of the incurability of consumption. "Let mothers know," he said, "that consumption is incurable. After it reaches a certain point—that is to say, after it becomes true consumption, the disease cannot be cured, and never has been. I speak with the assurance of perfect certainty. But though it is not curable, it is easily preventable," he went on to say; "and I urge on parents to turn their attention in this direction. Here there is every hope for them; in the other direction there is none. Let not the mother, then, be encouraged to neglect timely precaution, in the hope that the future skill of a physician can remedy her present carelessness. After a certain stage no skill will avail to cure it." These warning words have saved many a life, and will the Christian parent permit me to press with all becoming earnestness this very principle upon his prayerful consideration? Trust to no vainly-expected remedies to neutralize the consequences of your neglect in the spiritual training of your little ones. Aim at prevention; and aim at it all the more earnestly from the conviction that if you miss prevention, a cure shall be still more likely to be missed. Let it be continually realized, that the early home-training of your child is the pivot on which his character and destiny are likely to turn. There are exceptions, of course; but genuine wisdom shapes its course according to the established rule; it never thinks of venturing its all upon a merely possible exception. Parents occasionally think that since so many favourable influences are to come into operation after home influences have been passed through, they can afford to be less careful in the meantime about the early training of their children. The inference is untrue; it is most untrue. Let the parent know that, short of Almighty grace, all influences together are not to be compared with the one grand formative influence of early education; and that if he permit this to be on the side of evil, he is taking the surest means to hand over his little one to final ruin. "To him that hath shall more be given; but from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath." If the father be careful to improve his present opportunities with his children, he is doing what is almost certain to make the succeeding influences sufficient for the carrying on of the process which has happily been initiated at home. But if, on the other hand, he neglects his children in their early years, he is doing his best to render them unsusceptible of good from those very influences on which he professes to rely. The state of heart which would secure the efficiency of these influences depends, under God, on the very training which he is not giving to his children.
It is not denied, it is acknowledged with pleasure, that many children of Eli-fathers have finally been brought to the Saviour, in spite of early parental neglect. But exceptional cases like these furnish no excuse for any Eli; his evil is no less evil, that God's goodness has been, beyond conception, good. Even in such cases, however, the Christian character of the convert permanently suffers from the lack of early culture.
Perhaps it might be useful to glance for a moment at the light in which Scripture sets before us the family of a Christian father; and we shall do so, in order to gather, if possible, some instruction in regard to the nature of the parent's duties. The children, then, of Christian parents are represented as standing in a peculiar relationship to the Church and to God; a relationship which is described by the epithet, "holy" (1 Cor. vii. 14). We are not insisting, at present, that any peculiar meaning be assigned to this word "holy;" if it be allowed to have any meaning at all, our point is gained. It is quite enough for our purpose that the little lambs of the flock be not cast over the walls of the fold, among the heathen men and the publicans who wander outside. This little flock, then, thus called and counted "holy," is so highly favoured, that it has had a man of God, a very prophet, set apart and divinely commissioned to tend and train it. Yes; a veritable prophet, a commissioned messenger from God to speak in His behalf;—for what less than this is the godly father to the ignorant helpless little ones who are entrusted to him, that he may, "bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?" A prophet! Oh, that every Eli were alive to the unequalled responsibilities of his office; and that he felt his message lying on his conscience, a genuine, "burden of the Lord!"
If there be any measure of truth in this view of the case, then the child's faith in its father's teachings, and the child's submission to its father's authority, are to be regarded, at least during infancy, as virtually faith in God and submission to Him. Under both covenants, it has been an established principle in the divine economy, that faith in the message-bearer is virtually faith in the message-sender; in other words, "He that receiveth you, receiveth me." If the parent, then, be perfectly faithful, and our argument assumes this, it is almost certain that the child, in its earlier years shall be, according to its capacity and condition, a religious child. The parent must not be impatiently, unbelievingly anxious to have the child's faith, an exact duplicate of his own; he must be content for a season to let godliness display itself in his child in accordance with the condition of childhood. Of course this state of things cannot last forever; and the grand testing time will be sure to come sooner or later, when the little one, emerging out of childhood, can no longer lean implicitly on the instructions and authority of the father-prophet, but must deal directly with the Saviour, either in the way of accepting or rejecting His claims. This period of trial, however, has been foreseen, and has been graciously provided for; and if the parent has been faithful to his trust during the years of infancy, the danger of failure at this point is reduced to a minimum. The patient instructions of the parents have so filled the understanding of the child with divine truth, the whole training has so cultivated the conscience to a sense of the awful authority of God, and so engaged the affections of the warm young heart by the unequalled graces of the character of Jesus, that as increasing intelligence gradually releases the little one from his implicit dependence on the instructions and authority of his father, he transfers, pari passu, his implicit dependence from the visible shepherd to the Invisible. The previous faithfulness of the parents almost necessitates this happy result. If the good seed of the Word only find a suitable soil—that is, the soil of, "an honest and good heart" (Luke viii. 15)—it is sure to grow; and there is no ordinance which God more honours for the production of such a soil, than the patient, prayerful instructions and example of devout and devoted parents. Happy parents and happy children whose family experience is of this kind; and were it not that there are so many Elis, what is to hinder such an experience from being all but universal in the Church? To some readers this may seem an extravagant notion; but many sober minds have nevertheless held it. Old Richard Baxter does not scruple to say, "If the duties of religious education were conscientiously discharged, preaching would not be God's ordinary method of converting souls; but the greater part would be wrought upon before they were capable of entering into the design of a sermon."
We have ventured to speak of the Christian father as being actually God's prophet to his little ones; and is he anything less than this? Nay, is he not, in a very subordinate sense, a kind of miniature Adam, a sort of federal head to his children? They stand, in a sense, if he be faithful; his fall includes theirs. If he be disobedient, they shall certainly suffer, and possibly be ruined, because of his sin; whereas, if he be believing and obedient, they shall as certainly be benefited. His surrender of himself ought always to include them in it; "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." The child-life, for a season at least, is but a sort of extension of the life of the parent.
Occasionally, indeed, a sort of hazy apprehension of the fact now referred to would occur to the mind of our Eli; but he greatly exaggerated certain aspects of the matter; and he also allowed himself to draw inferences from the whole which were totally false. "Yes," he would sometimes say to himself apologetically, when conscience troubled him; "I have solemnly included my children in my surrender of myself to God, and I believe that He has graciously accepted the dedication." Now this would have been all very well, if Eli had proceeded to make his formal surrender, a surrender in fact, and had set himself to the unwearied discharging of his parental duties, assured that if he were faithful to his obligations, God would be infinitely more faithful to His promises. But, instead of this, he seemed to fancy that this formal surrender, especially when it was frequently repeated, was an act of such extraordinary supererogation, that it could atone for the neglect of all besides. Instead of making this dedication an irresistible argument for diligence, he turned it into an excuse for sloth. But even in this sloth he was not quite consistent with himself; for, while in his fervent moments he had occasionally surrendered his business and all his belongings into God's hands as well as his children, he did not seem to draw the same practical conclusion in each of the two cases. The surrender of the shop did not in the least abate his commendable attention to it; for he did not seem to expect that a neglected business would be providentially preserved from ruin, in the same way that he looked for a neglected family to be. At least, he certainly took great care to avoid the risk in the one case, which he appeared to be willing to run in the other.
This feeling, cherished almost unconsciously perhaps, is no uncommon snare with Eli-fathers; especially with some who may be actively engaged in what they count Christian work. They seem to think that the excellence of some special work in which they occasionally engage gives them ground for expecting that God will not permit them to suffer in respect to interests which they have solemnly committed to His keeping, and which they try to believe they have committed to Him, in order that they may be more free to serve Him in some more needful corner of His vineyard. Let all such notions be dismissed us a wild delusion. There can be no duty more obligatory upon a Christian parent than the proper nurture of his children; and, whatever else he may attend to, if he neglect this, he may confess with shame, "Mine own vineyard have I not kept." So far from securing him from the consequences of his unfaithfulness, God will be sure to judge him for it. "Be not deceived, God is not mocked; whatsoever—whatsoever—a man soweth, THAT shall he also reap."
What could be more lovely than the submissive spirit of good old Eli? "It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth Him good." And yet this admirable submissiveness did not in the least diminish the guilt of Eli's neglect in ruling his sons. And just as little, will the modern Eli's extraordinary activity in other directions modify the guilt of his parental negligence, or mitigate the pain of his coming chastisement. He may be zealous in his services in other spheres, and these services may even be considerably blessed; but if, in his attention to these, he be neglecting his grand commission, the godly upbringing of his children, God shall visit him with heavy stripes for his sin; and he shall do this none the less surely, that the care and the time stolen from his neglected little ones, have been expended on other departments of Christian work. Christian biography, alas! has unhappily no lack of materials for the illustration of this point; and he that has eyes to see may witness for himself the sorrowful proofs of our statement in his own neighbourhood.
Few Christians of his own day were more truly devoted than the celebrated John Howard. He did a great work, and was blessed in the doing of it; but it may be questioned whether he did all his duty to his only son. It is true that the good man included his son in his dedication of himself to God, when he wrote, to use his own words, "a solemn, free, unreserved, full surrender of my soul, my spirit, my dear child, all I own and have, unto Thy hands." And yet this "dear child," so solemnly devoted to God, but entrusted to strangers for his training, grew up to be a wild and wicked youth; and the remembrance of his wicked courses saddened the deathbed of his godly father. At last the young man died, a wreck in mind as well as body, the victim of his self-indulgence. Let the Christian parent note these painful cases; and let him learn that God will not wink at gross neglect of duty on the one side, because of special devotedness on some other;—no, not even when the devotedness and the negligence are those of an Eli or a Howard. "WHATSOEVER a man soweth, THAT shall he also reap."
This is a subject on which the thoughts of our Eli are anything but clear. Looking at the condition of the families around him, our Eli, while ready to confess that strict family training is a very good thing, thinks, nevertheless, that the issue of even the best training is a matter of considerable uncertainty. It may succeed; but then it is quite as likely to fail. The parents who, in his neighbourhood, seem to succeed best are not always the most devout and godly within the circle of his acquaintances. He therefore encourages himself in his own neglect, by the inexplicable mysteriousness of this fact; and he concludes that the whole matter must be left to the adorable but inscrutable sovereignty of God. Now, of all subjects, the very last of which we would dare to think or to speak disparagingly, is this of the divine sovereignty. Amid the hopeless chaos of all that is merely human, where can the troubled heart find any rest, save in the assured faith of this absolute sovereignty of God? But has not this Sovereign issued laws to His subjects, and to parents amongst the number; and has He not been pleased to stimulate obedience by annexing to it a most gracious promise? Are we not, then, making an unwarrantable use of this truth that God is Sovereign, when we bolster up our rebellion with it, instead of encouraging our hearts to a more lowly and devoted obedience? Since God is absolute King, let us hasten to do His will, hearkening to the voice of His word. And to the Christian parent, one of His King's most urgent commands is to bring up his little ones in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Let us calmly reason this matter together for a little, O Eli! Is it not written in the Book of Proverbs, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it?" Is this a promise? and is it God's promise? Is its fulfilment, then, a matter of mere peradventure? or is this very verse one of those inspired words of which our Lord said, "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail?" Well, then, since it is a promise—and your look confesses that you think so—since it is God's promise, since it is therefore worthy of all acceptation, why do you not venture everything on the assured faith of its fulfilment? Did you not repeat to me an interesting conversation which you lately held with an anxious inquirer, in which you persistently answered every one of his difficulties and unbelieving perplexities with the words, "But then God says this, you know." You kept him steadily to the letter of the record, you drove him into a corner, you shut him up there, and you held him prisoner, till he finally broke down, and submitted to the plain statements of Scripture, to his own great joy and yours. But how comes it that you have now so completely forgotten your own lesson? Do not these words in Proverbs include in them a divine promise as well as the other; and is not the Christian parent to venture on the perfect truthfulness of the one, just as the anxious sinner is to venture on the unfailing truthfulness of the other? You shake your head; you refer me to the great multitudes of failures. Failures! God's word a failure? God's honour bankrupt? The promises of Holy Scripture to be cautiously speculated on, as if they were like falling script, and were to be accepted only at a greatly reduced value! Why didn't you remember all this when you were dealing with the perplexities of the anxious sinner? and why did you not allow him the latitude of interpretation which you have no scruple in claiming for yourself? No, no, my friend; you were right then, but you are wrong now. "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail." There are many excellent Christians who make bad business men, and who therefore do not prosper in their business affairs; but we do not ascribe their failure to any mysterious intricacies of providence. And in a similar way there are many amiable Christians who do not make good parents; but their failure, too, is just as little to be ascribed to any inscrutable sovereignty of God. A sufficiently intelligible reason for the failure is generally not very far to seek. Eli was a man of this stamp—a most amiable man, but a most incompetent father; and the race of Elis is far from being extinct. For my part, when you point me to their failures, I prefer to think that the cause of them is to be found in the defect of human wisdom, and not of divine faithfulness. Let God be true, even though His truthfulness implies that every Eli-father has been a careless parent.
This seems to have been very much the view which the Apostle Paul, under inspiration, took, both of the duty and the promise. In laying before Titus the essential qualifications of a Christian pastor, he insists that he be a man who has faithful—that is to say, believing—children, implying that the unbelief of the children is, to some extent at least, to the discredit of the father. In the First Epistle to Timothy, speaking of the same subject, he says of the bishop, that he must be "one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity." And in describing the character of a man to whom might be entrusted the responsibilities of the deaconship, he says again, "Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well" Probably it was from these very passages that the early Church drew the inference which she embodied in her canons oftener than once, refusing all office in the Church to men who had ungodly children. Now, why all this, if they did not consider the parent blamable, in part at least, for the misbehaviour and irreligion of his sons? and why count the father blameworthy, if good training and good success were not so invariably connected in God's providence, that the want of one suggested at least some defect in the other?
Not only has our friend Eli, the most confused and inadequate conception of all this, but he is entirely at sea in regard to what really constitutes a genuine Christian training. Possibly it is this very misconception which leads him to think that a man may train up his child in the way he should go, while yet it is as likely as not that when he is old he shall depart from it. He limits training too exclusively to verbal instruction in orthodox doctrine. This is rather to be included in "admonition;" and while the father is by no means to neglect the due admonition, he is to bring up his children in the nurture of the Lord as well. Eli totally forgets the nurture; and sometimes, in his fervent fits, in order to make up for its entire neglect, he doubles the vehemence of his admonitions, making matters no better thereby, perhaps somewhat worse. How happy would it be for Eli's little ones, if their father could discover that the nurture is the life, the spirit, of a Christian education, without which the admonition is but a body bereft of its soul, a mere lifeless carcass!
The education which a child is continually receiving may be divided into two parts; first, that which is meant to be formal education; and, second, that which is not meant to be anything at all, for it is too frequently undervalued and forgotten, as the former is egregiously overvalued. It is this latter part of the training which is the most effective—it is always effective; and the former is effective only so far as it is sustained by the latter. Of course Eli overlooks this vital element; he thinks that if he guard the pounds, he can afford to waste the pence. No, indeed, O Eli! Leave the pounds to take care of themselves, and begin to take note of the despised and forgotten pence. Not to speak again of your own numberless little improprieties which you will need to reform, what of other minor influences which you permit your children to be affected by? That servant—what sort of man is he? That maid-servant—how does she act and speak before your little ones? These companions—how are they likely to behave, coming out of such families as they do? Nay, do not get impatient! These, O father, are your fellow-workers in the education of your children, both for this life and for the awful next. You may succeed with your plans, only if these fellow helpers co-operate with you; but if they do not, they shall thwart you, baffle you, and carry the day against you. A gallant ship may be sound in every timber, and well equipped in all respects, except that she has one little leak; and yet that one little leak may send her to the bottom as surely as if her whole hull were rotten.
The nurture, too frequently overlooked, is the potent element in a child's upbringing. It begins to operate at his very birth; and it envelops him continually like the atmospheric air. Indeed, the nurture affects the soul much as a pure or a foul atmosphere affects the body. This constitutes the true education; formal admonition is scarcely more than mere instruction. Indeed, it is chiefly because of the nurture which is joined with it, that the admonition has any educational power at all. We see the efficiency of nurture everywhere. One child is born in a gipsy tent, and it grows up infallibly into gipsy life. Everything that it witnesses, or hears, or knows, goes to feed the keen appetite of the fresh young spirit with its one unvarying pabulum; and since it is nourished exclusively on this, what can come out of such nurture, but only a completed gipsy? Another infant is born in an aristocratic mansion. All the influences which surround this child are also uniform; and the finished product of the whole is the polished, genial, self-reliant nobleman. The two infants were nearly alike, the two men differ almost as much as if they belonged to different species; and it is chiefly the nurture which has made them differ. Such is nurture; and such is its efficacy in molding character. If the Elis were to imitate these examples, so far as the unvarying uniformity and persistency of the training are concerned; if they were to take order, that every influence entering into the composition of the family nurture were purely Christian; if, to such nurture, they were to add due measures of devout admonition, not now as a substitute, but only as a supplement; and if to the whole, they were to add the unwearied prayer which honours God, they would be amazed to find that scarcely any law of nature is mere uniform than is this divine ordinance of family nurture, when it is duly observed, in the effectual training of a godly household.
It is in regard to nurture that the educational system of our Eli completely breaks down. His strong point lies in his admonition; and if he play any educational instrument at all, it is this solitary one. Nurture is his weakness, or rather it is not one of his points at all. He does not educate, he only instructs. Of course, his children are receiving nurture in his house, as every child receives it from his parents; and the nurture which they are actually receiving from Eli is as efficient in the gradual formation of their characters, as any nurture can be; but, unhappily, in this case, the nurture is not Christian. Eli, the Christian father, denies his children a Christian nurture. He gives them enough of Christian admonition; but the nurture which they are hourly receiving from him is anything rather than the nurture of the Lord. To give them this, Eli would need to become himself a very different man. His entire inner life would have to be remodeled; and his exhortation would need to be conveyed to them, three-fourths of it, in a holy example, as well as one-fourth of it in the fervent precept. He would require to be what, without being, he at present talks about. But though excellent admonition can be communicated by talking, nurture cannot. What the father says, is only as the small dust of the balance to what the father is. His knowledge he may convey to his children by suitable admonition, but his own character he is always communicating by nurture. Hence it comes that, while he continues as he is, Eli cannot possibly give his children a proper Christian nurture; he can as yet only give them Christian admonition. And will Eli allow himself to sit down and calculate the worth of mere admonition without suitable nurture? For one thing, it is very successful in the making of infidels and hypocrites. When these two parts of a complete education are disjoined, they are like the two lines of figures in an exercise of subtraction, the one falls to be deducted from the other. And in the case at present under consideration, it unfortunately happens that it is the smaller of the two sums which represents the good, and the larger of the two which represents the evil; and so, when we deduct the nurture from the admonition, there remains a minus a great deal less than nothing. On the other hand, when nurture is first attended to, and judicious admonition is added to it, the two are like the two lines in a sum in addition (we had almost written, in multiplication); the result is magnificent, and can be counted on with tolerable confidence.
Let us dwell on this a moment longer; and if we seem to exaggerate the evil a little, let it be forgiven, as it is done on the same principle on which scientific men examine an object under the microscope, that the magnified organs may be more easily discerned. We shall suppose that our friend Eli is a hearty advocate or Sabbath sanctification. His children are sufficiently admonished on this subject. They have heard him speak of it as "heaven begun," as "the first, best day of all the seven," and in a variety of similar commendable phrases. Their sharp little eyes, however, have long ago seen through the hollowness of all this. They cannot avoid noticing how little he enjoys the holy Sabbath for himself. By an hour's longer sleep in the morning, he cuts off its head. By an hour's earlier retirement at night, he lops off its feet. By the help of the public services, at which he frequently grows drowsy, and of the dreary, weary reading of good books, over which he yawns, he gets through the day, his most cheerful moments being those in which he seems to forget the sanctity of the day, and lapses into idle and perhaps otherwise objectionable conversation. In this way, having mutilated it by cutting off head and feet, he plucks out its heart. What good can the admonitions of an Eli like this do to his children, when he urges on them the duty and privilege of Sabbath sanctification? And if the other duties on which he admonishes his children be in a similar way contradicted by his own example, as is likely to be the case, what marvel will it be, since the parent has parted with all, or with most of the spirit of godliness, and has retained scarcely more than the lifeless corpse, that the children, seeing no use and no beauty in the corpse, should cast it out, and should be contented to be as void of the form as their father's "nurture" has trained them to dispense with the reality.
Nothing can be more damaging to the influence of a father than the child's discovery of faults and inconsistencies in his father's own walk. For a long time the child should be permitted to regard his father as absolutely immaculate; so far at least as his own discovery of any defects in life or character is concerned. Not only will such discovery on the part of the child neutralize the father's admonitions on particular subjects, but it will impart a hollowness and suspicion of insincerity to the whole, which shall be perilous to the child's own character. His faith in the integrity of his father has been undermined; and now he knows not whether the remaining excellences are real, or only hypocrisies which are still undetected. And if he once have ground to doubt the sincerity of his father in giving him religious instruction, the very suspicion will be a powerful element in the nurture of the child, to train him to the grossest insincerity in his own conduct.
Not to insist any longer, at this point, on the question of nurture, if a father's spiritual health be so low that he cannot give a proper Christian nurture to his child, even the admonition which he gives is likely to be very imperfect. Though it may be all that could be wished as to its accuracy of statement, it may be communicated in a very irreligious spirit. In this case, it is rather the spirit of the preceptor, than the obligation of the precept, which shall become operative. Old Thomas Fuller tells us a story of a woman whom he overheard teaching her child to repeat the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer, and because the little one, through defect of utterance, persisted in saying, " Forgive us our tespasses," instead of, "Forgive us our trespasses," the mother got angry and threatened to beat her. The gracious words which she was teaching her child to repeat were idle words to herself; and she lost her temper in the very act of repeating a touching lesson of forgiving patience. The Elis are continually making mistakes of a similar kind, for no father can truly teach any farther than he also lives.
In carrying on the nurture of his children, let the Christian father see to it that his own soul is maintained in a measure of spiritual health. This is a prime essential, and can on no account be dispensed with. The father's legalism—if he be legal—may inspire the mind of his child with disgust for religion as a thing of gloom and terror; a something which only adds its alarming thunders to the troublesome upbraidings of the natural conscience. On the other hand, the father's exaggeration of Divine graciousness, with its consequent irreverence and frivolity of spirit, may equally disgust him with a revelation which fails to reveal anything half so godlike as his own natural heart can imagine. In either case, the errors of the parent, magnified in their projection on the mind of the child, may drive him into actual infidelity.
The child to be nurtured is like a piece of cold dull iron. The Christian parent is like the iron which has already been made a magnet. Let him touch the susceptible heart of his child with his heart; let him repeat the contact incessantly, let him continue in prayer for Divine blessing, and his child too shall become a partaker of the mysterious influence. But, in order to magnetize his child, the father must be himself a magnet; nay, to magnetize powerfully, it is necessary that he himself be a powerful magnet. Spirit will powerfully influence spirit; and in this world there is no position in which two spirits can be placed where the influence of the one shall be more decided in its action on the other, than in the case of parent and child. Whatever the father really is, that he is daily and hourly educating his child to be.
Perhaps some reader may blame us for speaking over warmly; but our plea for pardon is, that the Eli-spirit needs to be vehemently dealt with, for on this subject it is slow to hear. And, besides, the evil is one which prevails so extensively, and is so deplorable in its results, that it is improper to speak of it as if one were hinting that it is perhaps a fault. O Eli, the angry breakers are already growling beneath thy bow, the jagged rocks are all but grating on the keel, your sails are filled with the fairest wind, and you and yours are hastening to destruction. Perhaps, even yet—even yet, perhaps, escape were possible. Will you be persuaded to look honestly at the danger, and to change your course? You have already been the channel for conveying to your beloved boy, the fallen and ruined life, inherited with all its alarming responsibilities from the first Adam. This were an intolerable thought, were it not counterbalanced by the knowledge of what has been accomplished by the second Adam. To you, also, O Christian father, this second Adam commits the blessed office of conveying to your beloved one the new life, the better life, the life without which it were infinitely better not to have been born at all. Is it conceivable, is it possible, that a Christian father who has already conveyed to his child the fallen and sinful life, should be negligent, so negligent as to miss success, in discharging his holy trust of leading his lost child to the enjoyment of the true life in Jesus? Remiss and negligent in a work like this! No; surely it is impossible to be so. Well, on theory, one thinks it ought to be impossible; and yet, in fact, there is scarcely anything more common.
It is not meant to affirm that the Elis never desire, or, in a moderate way, aim at the spiritual welfare of their beloved little ones. They seek it in a way; but they do not seek it with a zeal which eats them up. They do not so realize their responsibilities, together with their own inability to meet them, that they feel constrained to bring their hearts to the Saviour, in order that He may possess them wholly, and may make them, fit instruments for the godly upbringing of an immortal creature. They do not bring their households to Jesus, to place them absolutely under His spiritual rule, in order that the Christian home may be in truth a Bethel, a very house of God. They do not bring their little ones to Jesus with a yearning desire so irrepressible, that no trying silence on His part, no apparent rebuff, can drive them away, as they continue to lie on their faces and to cry, "Have mercy on me—ON ME—O Lord, and heal my child." Nay, Eli does not seek the salvation of his children so heartily as at one time he sought his own. Stranger still, he does not feel half so much interest in their everlasting welfare as he takes in their worldly advancement; at least, he does ten times worse for the education which is to fit them for this world, than he does for the nurture which is needed to prepare them for eternity. Nay, strangest of all, though he would not avow it in so many words, he acts as if his own spiritual sloth were infinitely dearer to him than the salvation of his children; for he uniformly allows the latter to be imperiled, that the former may be enjoyed in peace. What can be the end of all this, what, but an end like that of the ancient Eli; an end at which "both ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle." The careless father, forgiven, perhaps—PERHAPS FORGIVEN----for to the Eli, there is always the shadow of a grave, perhaps on this point—may be admitted into heaven, while his miserable child is forever thrust out. Alas! alas! thou most unhappy son, to have had such a faithless father! Alas! too, thou scarcely less unhappy father, to have thus betrayed thy child!
It is not denied that God, in His sovereign grace, may please to meet the neglected child through other channels. He may, but then He may not, and whether He do so or not, the guilt of Eli remains unchanged. And, as a rule, the Eli training fails. Fails! Oh, that it only failed! It fails, indeed, too often to benefit the unhappy object of it; but it never fails to increase his responsibility, and therefore to aggravate his sin. In many cases, it would have been better for the child if he had been blessed with a heathen for a father. But, worse than this, he has had a father who took care to teach him just enough to raise his guilt in the rejection of the Saviour to the maximum; while the formal instructions were accompanied with other influences, which went to lower the likelihood of the child's actual conversion to the very minimum.
What think you of this matter, O Eli? Your fatherly heart has perhaps been touched, as you read in the Bible such a word as this, "Ephraim shall bring forth his children to the murderer;" and your glistening eye has glanced from the page on which you were reading to your fair-haired, light-hearted little ones, sporting on the carpet at your side; and then it has glanced upwards with a look which said, "I thank Thee, gracious God, that my lambs at least are safe from the butchery of violent men." It was well. But will you again look the same little ones in the face; and as you look, will you remember that there is something worse than bringing forth children for the knife of the murderer; and that unless you be watchful and prayerful and faithful, this very worst of all issues may be theirs? Eli, the high-priest, brought this upon his children; and Eli was a godly man.
A single word in conclusion. Possibly some sensitive reader, who is not an Eli at all, but whose very anxiety to be faithful makes him ready to fear that he has not been so, such an one may possibly feel discouraged by some of these considerations. Or even an Eli, reflecting on his sin, may be startled; while yet he is discouraged from attempting anything, by the fear that it is already too late. But there is as little reason for despair now, as there was for presumption at the first. With men, the work may seem, may indeed, be impossible; but man's impossibilities are all possible with God. While the throne of grace remains open, and while the Holy Spirit helps the infirmities of the weakest, never yield to despair. "Despair not of thy child," say the ancient Waldenses in their instructions to Christian parents—"despair not of thy child when he is unwilling to receive correction, or if he prove not speedily good; for the labourer gathereth not the fruits of the earth as soon as the seed is sown, but he waits till the due season." "If ye have faith----NOTHING shall be impossible to you" (Matt. xvii. 20).