Marriage and the Family - 16 - Failing Fathers

Chapter 16

Failing Fathers

In His infinite wisdom, God has provided roles and spheres of responsibility for us all.  The potential good of each role is directly proportional to the potential evil that can arise from its abuse.  The greater the inherent good, the greater the evil that may arise from failing in that sphere.

Fatherhood is one such sphere ordained of God.  It may sadly be true that modern society has traded in parents for babysitters and day-care centers, but God’s order remains.  In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul suggests that all fatherhood evolves from God.  This should not surprise us.  One reason God instituted marriage was to portray the union of Christ and the Church.  Family life itself contains and affords tremendous insights into life in the divine family.  It came then as no innovation when God established human fathers with authority and responsibility similar to His own.  For those who go in for being a “scriptural” father, the reward is a deepening insight into the Father’s heart.  Their great joy is to be able to prepare their children to understand God’s Fatherhood, when they are converted.  For those fathers who choose not to pattern themselves after God’s standard, the results are otherwise.

We must be clear, however, that we are not speaking of perfection, but an exercise to approximate as closely as possible the standard of our Bible.

In the historical books of our Old Testament, the Spirit of God has chronicled the family lives of a number of men.  In these illustrations, we can view for ourselves the tragedy that results from fathers who failed.  The writer finds no great joy in dwelling on the negative; he does not have a secret delight in pointing to the failures of men such as David and Samuel.  The examples are here, however, and so placed by the Spirit of God for our learning.

The great emphasis which the Spirit of God has placed upon the role of fathers, underlines a principle which needs to be stressed at the outset, if this article is to be of lasting value to us.  God has placed the ultimate burden and responsibility for the welfare of the family upon fathers.  Too often we find it convenient to place blame upon our spouses for problems which arise.  As the final source of authority in the family, the father is ultimately responsible for the course which is charted, decisions which are made, and the character of discipline administered.  This is always done in conjunction with the wife, but the father cannot escape responsibility here.

Notice then with me a few of the fathers whose careers are detailed in Ruth and 1 and 2 Samuel.

Elimelech – The Legacy of a Bad Example

The very first father who engages our attention is Elimelech.  Little thought of and even less spoken about, his is the very first name which meets the reader of the delightful book of Ruth.  It is not for us now to seek to discover motives or to discern the measure of blame shared by Elimelech and Naomi.  His motives may well have been better than we would allow; his degree of culpability perhaps less than we have assigned him, but that has not been opened to us by the Spirit.  Without straying from the plain and brief information which we are given, several very important points emerge.  It was a day when the judges ruled (v. 1), and moral, spiritual and domestic relationships were so low as to be almost nonexistent.  Every man did what he felt to be right; absolutes and standards were as old fashioned as Moses.  Here was a man, then, who simply went with the tide.

It is also clear that in a time of trial, he abandoned principles and adopted expediencies.  Moab was where food and prosperity were to be had; unseen were the three graves and broken lives that it also harbored.

Upon Elimelech’s death, Naomi is left with two sons.  Will principle finally prevail?  Will the voice of God be heard in the unforeseen tragedy?  Will Moab’s fields be forsaken for the God of Israel’s fellowship?

Enter the principle of example.  Elimelech had traded principle for profit, and now his two sons do the same.  Some may object that it was only natural.  So it was!  Others might argue for the two sons that it was expedient in light of circumstances.  So it was!  They had learned well from their father.

What type of example are we setting for our children?  The long life of faith of Moses, was initiated by parents with faith (Hebrews 11:23).  The principled and devoted life of an Elkanah doubtless had bearing on Samuel, although we usually stress Hannah’s influence.  We are teaching our children by word and also by our responses to the problems and trials of life.

Eli – Laxity and Its Fruit

The disastrous story of Eli springs to mind whenever the subject of failing fathers is discussed.  While it is difficult to capsulate the failure of Eli into one charge, it would appear that in light of the man of God’s denunciation (ch.2), Eli’s failure lay in not carrying out the Word of God in his own family.  He was accused of “honoring” his sons before God, of not “restraining” his sons.  As high priest, he was responsible to maintain the moral purity of the nation, not to speak of his own family.  With moral weakness and with almost apologetic tones he rebuked his sons for their sin and immorality, but this was not enough.  God expected Eli to honor Him above his sons in carrying out discipline and maintaining divine standards. 

We are by nature creatures of extreme.  That is one of our great liabilities.  We tend to be either remiss or rough, lax or severe.  To walk a balanced path takes constant grace and help from the Lord.  It is much easier to discuss and even support the Word of God in the assembly than to carry out those truths day by day in the home.  Often Eli-like, we condemn others and their families while excusing our own.

Samuel – Lapse in Consistency

Samuel ranks as one of the greatest men in our Old Testament.  He could stand before the nation, in 1 Samuel 12, and challenge any to find evil in him from his “childhood unto this day.”  Yet when the nation was looking for an excuse to justify asking for a king, they came and pointed to his family. We are informed in 1 Samuel 8 that when he was old he made his two sons judges in Beersheba. Unlike their father, they were marked by evil. It may well be that their moral bankruptcy in no way reflected Samuel’s parenting. Yet here were men who had been placed in positions of responsibility, failing to live godly lives.

Their sphere of influence was rather small, being only Beersheba, and the indignation of the people was hypocritical. All this is granted. Yet the issue remains that Samuel had perpetuated Eli’s error on a much smaller scale.  He had shown favoritism to his sons.

What was in reality a very small inconsistency in Samuel’s life afforded an excuse for the people to clamor for a king.  God knew their hearts and brushed aside their pretense in His condemnation of the nation.

Consistency in family life is imperative.  This includes not only matters of discipline, but also personal living and our spiritual lives.  Our children are quick to detect inconsistency in our behavior.  This may then be used to excuse blatantly wrong actions on their part.


Jesse – Lack of Confidence

When Samuel came to anoint a king from amongst Jesse’s sons, he assembled Jesse and his sons together.  This aged patriarch called together seven of his eight sons.  He failed to call David.  Was this mere oversight?  It would appear that Jesse committed an error all too frequent even today.  He lacked confidence in David for the office which Samuel was seeking to fill.  He judged simply by what was natural: age, stature, size, rank.  He failed to appreciate what God saw in David.

Being the youngest, David was set aside and perhaps considered unimportant to the family and its fortunes.  To David’s credit, he never displayed any bitterness or hostility towards his family despite provocation (1 Samuel 17:28).  Other children, however, have not been so fortunate.  At times, a parent will favor one child over another because of some natural ability or personal resemblance.  Recall to mind the divided family of Isaac and Rebekah, with each favoring one of the children.  Favoritism and partiality may engender anger and frustration.  To be overlooked, snubbed, denied, and perhaps degraded because of a lack of physical or intellectual talents may prove difficult to accept.  We may think this very foreign from our ways, but a moment’s reflection may reveal that we are very prone to this.  The boy who does not have his father’s physical prowess, the girl who lacks her mother’s talents, the child who does not follow in a parent’s footsteps intellectually, may feel as though they have disappointed their parents.  As parents we must strive to impart to our children an atmosphere of unconditional love; love which is not dependent upon accomplishments, but only upon relationship.

Saul – Liability of Willfulness

All these imperfections in the rearing of our children are really only manifestations and fruit of our fallen natures.  It is not surprising, then, that the person who typifies the flesh with all its inherent evil should also display for us many of the most undesirable qualities for parents.  Saul was an absolute disaster as a father.  His errors were in several critical spheres.  The result of it all was that he literally destroyed his family so that David had to inquire and search if there were any left of the house of Saul.

It is startling that the man who treated God’s word so lightly in 1 Samuel 13, is ready to put his own son to death only one chapter later because he unknowingly disobeyed his orders.  Rather than this being a case of unsparing discipline, it reveals the tendency of Saul to abuse his own family for his own interests.  We notice also that he used his children for his own selfish ends.  His daughters are used in an attempt to ensnare David (1 Samuel 18); Jonathan is expected to betray David (ch. 19), and he cursed and shamed his own children for not conspiring with him (20:30-34).  He used Michal almost as a trinket to lure and then punish David (1 Samuel 24:44).  There is no thought of the happiness or will of God for his children.  It is reduced simply to whether or not his children fulfill his will and live for advancing his purposes.

This may seem like very strong language, and no doubt it is.  But is there not, however, a principle here with which we can identify?  Is there not a tendency for us as parents to also approve or disapprove of our children on the basis of our will rather than God’s?  Is it that far- fetched to think that some parents use their children to live out their own fantasies and desires?  Who among us has not checked himself and had to confess to God the sin of seeking to push our children to do what we always wanted to do?

Whatever my personal desires for my children, be they materialistic, such as place or prestige in this world, or be they spiritual such as desiring a missionary or evangelist, if they are not the will of God, they are wrong.  Worse yet, however, is to withhold approval or acceptance because a child does not follow my desires.

In his dealings with family, friends, associates and even whole cities such as the Ziphites, Saul displayed two additional and interrelated traits, the use of guilt to manipulate, and the use of self-pity.  He sought to achieve his ends by instilling in others a sense of his misfortune and of their obligation to feel sympathy and pity for his plight.  Nothing was too low to use as a means to this end.

Many parents think that the primary goal before them is to get their children to obey.  Some unconsciously employ guilt to manipulate and control.  This may achieve the desired goal of a sort of “obedience” which is really compliance.  But it falls far short of what a father’s goal should really be.  Autocratic rule and subservience are not the ideal for which to strive.  My primary responsibility, from the Scriptures, is to display traits of fatherhood that will enlighten my family as to the character of God.  His great objective is to control by love and loyalty borne of confidence and trust.  Constraining my children through a sense of guilt may well achieve obedience, but it will not achieve “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

Saul sought to live his life through his children.  He attempted to control the lives of his children for his selfish ends.  He endeavored to use his children to punish others.  He succeeded in consigning one daughter to barrenness (2 Samuel 6:23), in leaving three sons slain upon Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31), and sentencing seven grandsons to death at the hands of the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21).  His own life ended in shame, ignominy, and suicide.

The lessons which issue from such a life are sober and searching.  There are no Sauls amongst us for which we thank God.  There may, however, be a little Saul in each of our hearts.  It must be the will of God for our children, their happiness and usefulness, their blessing, and not our own relived lives and desires that matter.  We must take the time to become students of our children, assessing their needs emotionally and spiritually, and not simply putting them into some ready made mold.  All children are unique, different, possessing their own potential and talents.  It is our responsibility and privilege to discover and nurture these.  Far better to be like Elkannah and Hannah and yield our Samuels to the will of God, than like Saul to raise barren Michals whose lives end in despair.

David – Lessons that Humble

David had the tragic experience of burying four sons.  His grievous sin with Bathsheba was the starting point that led to four funeral corteges.  Prior to his sin, David shed many tears which God put into His bottle (Psalm 56:8).  After his fall, it was not God who did the counting of his tears, but David.  Tears flowed freely again, not now because of the hardness and sin of others, but because of his own sin.

David not only saw four sons taken from him, but had the humbling experience of seeing his own sins reflected in his children.  Perhaps someone reading this may not identify with this.  If so, allow me to assure you that the most humbling aspect of parenting, along with our sense of shortcoming, is the viewing of our own failures reproduced in our children.  No doubt God intends to teach us about ourselves from this.  The lesson nevertheless is humbling.  Who has not reined in his anger, when about to denounce the error of his child, because Nathan’s arrow stuck fast in his own conscience, “Thou art the man?”  This repetition of weaknesses and inconsistencies is meant to reveal to us our deficiencies, casting us more upon our Father.

David saw his lust and immorality replayed on a larger scale in his son Ammon.  His arrogance and murder of Uriah were all reproduced in the infamous career of Absalom. 

When David wailed, “Would God I had died for thee,” it was not merely a desperate wish to have died in Absalom’s stead.  David in hindsight was longing that God would have taken him away in discipline rather than allowing him to live.  Sudden severe judgment may well have restrained the natures of Ammon and Absalom.

David’s sin followed him to his deathbed.  As the aged king lies breathing out his last, Adonijah usurps the throne.  “His father,” we are told, “had not displeased him at any time.”  We are told that his mother bare him after Absalom.  Why was David weak in regard to succession?  Was it simply age?  Is there not a hint that it was because Adonijah was Absalom’s brother?  Conscience was still at work.  Feeling responsibility for Absalom’s tragic end, he may have tended to be lenient with his brother to compensate.

We have seen together the collective errors of some of the great men of God, and some of the not so great.  It reminds us forcibly that none of us is exempt from these dangers.  As fathers, we are called upon to raise our children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord,” to “provoke not” our children to wrath and anger (Ephesians 6:4).  These brief, terse injunctions from the Spirit of God, through the pen of Paul, summarize the positive aspect of all the failures at which we have looked.  The idea of nurture and admonition carries with it example as well as teaching and discipline.  We are not to provoke to wrath because the danger of discouragement (Colossians 3:21) is very real.  This does not mean that we try to please our children, but rather avoid constant berating, degrading and negative, harsh criticism.  Praise and approval are potent agents in promoting change and in reinforcing positive character traits.  It will hinder us from Jesse’s error of overlooking David and from Saul’s manipulating of his children for selfish ends.

Above all, the Word of God would remind us that as imperfect men, we are prone to extremes and excesses, to shortcomings and lapses in our parenting.  It will cast us upon God more and more, resulting in the prayer of Manoah being often upon our own lips, “How shall we order the child and how shall we do unto him”  (Judges 13:12).