“sons of Belial.” “Belial” is a name of the Devil and the “sons of Belial” are children of the Devil. There is much debate among scholars as to what “Belial” means. The Hebrew is beliya`al (#01100 בְּלִיַּ֫עַל). Recent scholars have placed the meaning in the category of “worthless.” However, it is recognized by the way the word is used in the OT that it refers to a person “whose activities include those that would quickly destroy the moral fiber of a society….”a Although the etymology is debated, beliya`al seems to come from something related to Satan or the underworld. Some scholars argue that it comes from the word “Baal.” Other theories are that it comes from an Akkadian goddess of the underworld, or that it means “those who throw off the yoke [of God], or that it refers to those “without benefit,” or that it refers to a personified enemy. The Arabic cognate word has to do with being entangled or to harm, injure. In the Qumran texts and the Jewish pseudepigrapha, the word is used in a personified manner, which is the way that the NT uses a similar word, “Belial” (2 Cor. 6:15; “Beliar” in the Greek text).b The phrase, “man of Belial” seems to be used in the OT of people who have a relation to Belial as an evil god, and it is also used to describe the attributes of those people (Cp. Deut. 15:9). Thus, we can assert that a man of Belial is a man in league with the Devil, knowingly or unknowingly, as the children of the Devil are in the New Testament.
The Bible never says when or why, but at some time in their lives, Eli’s two sons had made the Devil their god (most likely by making something that the Devil controls and offers such as money or power their “god”).
Although everyone sins, and some people sin horribly, the Bible shows that there is a difference between most sinners and some sinners who have actually made the Devil their god, and the Devil has become their “father.” Some of the religious leaders that Jesus dealt with had done that (John 8:44). Also, Elymas the sorcerer whom Paul dealt with was a “child of the Devil” (Acts 13:10). The children of the Devil reflect the nature of the Devil and are consistently evil and against God, and the Devil helps them and supports their evil work.
The phrase, “son of Belial” (also, “children of Belial;” “sons of Belial;” “man of Belial;” KJV) is a phrase the Bible uses to communicate the special relationship between the “father,” the Devil, and the “son” (or “child”). Although the Bible does not describe the exact nature of the relationship between the Devil and his children, we know from the scope of Scripture that it is a spiritual relationship and an unbreakable bond and that Jesus referred to it as the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31).
“Belial” occurs 16 times in the Old Testament (Deut. 12:13; Judg. 19:22; 20:13; 1 Sam. 1:16; 2:12; 10:27; 25:17; 25:25; 30:22; 2 Sam. 16:7; 20:1; 23:6; 1 Kings 21:10; 21:13 (2x); 2 Chron. 13:7). The Hebrew noun beliyaal is a name for the Devil and it means “worthless,” and also in Jewish literature, it was a name for the Devil. The New Testament also uses it as a name for the Devil: “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” (2 Cor. 6:15). Every “name” of the Devil has a meaning, and the names God gives the Devil are “mini-portraits” that show us what he “looks like” and reveal how he acts. The Devil is “Worthless,” and people who are children of the Devil are “worthless” to God; in fact, worse than worthless.
The Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 2:12 reads, “Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial,” and some English versions read that way (cp. DBY; Douay-Rheims; KJV; WEB). However, because the Hebrew word beliyaal means “worthless,” many English translations miss the spiritual significance of “Belial,” and translate it as if it were an adjective describing a person’s character. Although it is grammatically possible to take the phrase “son of worthless” as a phrase describing a worthless person (cp. “Eli’s sons were wicked men” (NIV); or “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men” (NASB)), that is not the truth that the Word of God is trying to convey. The phrase “son of Belial” shows the special spiritual connection between the Devil and the person such that the person has become a child of the Devil, so when an English version takes the noun beliyaal as if it was simply an adjective, the reader misses the vital lesson the Bible is teaching about the kind of people that children of the Devil are and how they behave.
Jesus knew a lot about the Devil and his children, and he learned it from the Old Testament. The Old Testament shows that the sons of Belial are enemies of God and they reflect the Devil’s nature. Like Cain, they are envious, murderers, liars, and show no genuine godly concern for humankind (Gen. 4:8-9; 1 John 3:12). They lead people away from God and into idolatry (Deut. 13:13); they rape and murder (Judg. 19:22-28), and get people involved in ungodly wars that cost thousands of innocent lives (Judg. 20:11-14); they do not “know” God, but defame God and the things of God (1 Sam. 2:12-17); they can be involved in blatant and harmful sexual sin (1 Sam. 2:22); they resent godly leadership and work to weaken it (1 Sam. 10:27; 2 Sam. 20:1); they sow division (1 Sam. 30:22; 2 Chron. 13:7); they lie even when it results in the death of the innocent (1 Kings 21:10, 13), and they must be dealt with by spiritual power, not just the “hands” of the flesh (2 Sam. 23:6). The New Testament adds more to what the Old Testament says. They do the works of the Devil (John 8:44) and as the enemies of God they always try to pervert the ways of God (Acts 13:10). For example, they twist the words of God and make God’s ways hard to obey (Matt. 15:3-9; Luke 11:46).
God authored the Old Testament with the Messiah in mind, and Jesus gained insight from the Old Testament as to what kind of people he was dealing with when he encountered the children of the Devil. No wonder he told his disciples not to try to win over the Pharisees (Matt. 15:14). While he constantly spent time with “regular sinners” such as prostitutes and tax collectors and worked to turn them from error to truth, when it came to the religious leaders he was dealing with, he told his apostles, “Leave them alone! They are blind guides” (Matt. 15:14). What we see from the Bible is that the children of the Devil are unswervingly evil and have to be dealt with by force and the law, which is why it is important to have godly laws like the Law of Moses, such that much of what they do is illegal.
[For more on the children of the Devil and the unforgivable sin, see commentary on Matthew 12:31.]