In a strange way, Eli’s rather humiliating death seems to prove that he dies as a believer. He doesn’t want God’s word of condemnation against his sons to be fulfilled, of course, but he knows it’s just and he knows it’s coming. Yet, when he hears about Israel’s lost battle against the Philistines, it’s not the news of his sons’ deaths that causes him to fall from his chair and break his neck. It’s the news that the Philistines have captured the ark of the covenant that essentially causes the priest to die of grief.
Eli knows that ark is the presence of God for the Israelites. It’s how they know God is with them and for them. And so there could be no greater sign of God’s condemnation against him, his sons, and all Israel than allowing these uncircumcised idolaters to take the ark captive. Prior to this moment, Eli has spent years refusing to see the depth of the sin that he’s permitted his sons to bring upon the people. But the second he sees it and reaches true repentance, he dies. All things considered, that’s a pretty good way to go.
Although the best way to go would have been to breathe his last seven months later, when the Philistines, covered in boils and condemnation, returned the ark that broke the idol of their god into pieces and poured out affliction upon them. Because in that moment, Eli would have seen yet another promise of God’s mercy in general and a promise of Christ’s resurrection in particular.
Jesus Christ was the presence of God among His people. He was Immanuel, God with Us. But as a sign of judgment against their sins, God allowed Christ to be captured and had over to uncircumcised idolaters by the hands of faithless priests. And yet, during that captivity where Christ was pierced, that holy ark named Jesus tore down Satan and broke him into pieces. And neither the Romans nor the devil could contain him. On the third day, the ark named Jesus broke out of their prison and the presence of God returned to His people as a sign that God had forgiven their sins and won for them eternal life.
That’s what Eli would have seen if he’d lived to see the return of the ark. So, while dying of grief over your sins is a pretty good way to go, dying of joy as you watch them forgiven is even better. And thanks be to God, that’s how God invites all of us to die every day. The ark has come home. The presence of God stands before you with mercy and love. Christ is risen and you are His own. So when you die, die with joy exploding out of your heart.