Samuel’s call to ministry and the collapse of Eli’s house occurred at a pivotal time in Israel’s history.This was a period of transition from Theocracy to monarchy, judges to kings and to some extent a general shift from priests to prophets. During the time of the judges, everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Eli the priest was a man of personal piety, yet he failed to restrain his corrupt sons. In stark contrast Samuel was obedient and quickly became established as a prophet. Samuel would judge Israel and anoint both Saul and David whom the Lord had chosen.
Hannah was distressed since she was barren and so she poured out her heart to the Lord. She prayed and made a vow to the Lord that if she bore a son then she would dedicate him to the Lord as a Nazarite. Eli saw her lips moving but could not hear her utter any sounds so mistakenly assumed that she was drunk. Nonetheless, he quickly acknowledged his presumption and gave his blessing. I Samuel 1:20 notifies us that she named her son “Samuel”, because she had heard and asked of the Lord. Significantly, her prayer of thanksgiving resembles that of Mary’s prayer in Luke 1:46-55.
Meanwhile Eli’s sons did not know the Lord and they abused their power and authority. They chose the parts of the sacrifice intended for the Lord for themselves and they were self-indulgent. When challenged on their actions they would take what they desired for themselves through force which was an abomination unto God. Sadly there are pseudo priests today who crave wealth, status or personal gain and serve their own interests rather than serving the Lord who created them.
However, Samuel served under Eli and ministered before the Lord, even as a young child. Eli would bless Samuel’s parents, Hannah and Elkanah, and Hannah bore another three sons plus two daughters. This occurred while Eli’s sons were committing immorality and lay with women at the door of the Tabernacle. Eli reproved them although they took no notice. Was that any surprise considering that he did not put a stop to their misconduct concerning the offerings? A man of God came to Eli informing him that they would all be judged, and his house cut off. The sign was that Hophni, and Phinehas (his sons) would die on the same day and that God would raise up a faithful priesthood.
Listening to God
Many people today struggle to ‘hear’ from God and 1 Samuel 3:1 draws our attention in that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and there was no widespread revelation. It is easy for us to assume that in the Scriptures, God spoke audibly and visibly with regularity. But even in Genesis there were only a small number of those occurrences covering 2000 years. The judges were around for four hundred years, and two prophets are mentioned in that time, namely Deborah and a man of God who appeared to Gideon (Judges 4:4; 6:8).
Samuel was a boy and Josephus says he was twelve years of age though it is difficult to pinpoint his exact age with certainty since the same term is used of David when he slew Goliath.[i] Nevertheless we should never despise or belittle youth and we should remember our Creator in the days of our youth. Jeremiah was a tender age when the Lord called him, and Mary was about fourteen when she gave birth to Yeshua. Samuel had appropriate yet significant responsibility serving in the Tabernacle under Eli.
George Williams writes, “The first three verses picture the moral condition of the nation. Night reigned; the lamp of God was going out in the temple; the High Priest’s eyes had grown so dim that he could not clearly see; and both he and Samuel were asleep!”[ii] There was a spiritual blindness, apathy, and a failure to recognise God’s guidance. At Specsavers it is possible to get both your sight and hearing checked and it appears that they should have gone to Specsavers!
God then called Samuel, yet he did not recognise His voice, and mistook God’s voice for Eli. But notice how dutiful and disciplined young Samuel was who ran to attend to his master’s needs in the middle of the night. The same happened again so Samuel lay down once more. At this point (1 Samuel 3:7), Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the Lord revealed to him.
It was not until the third occasion that Eli perceived that the Lord had called Samuel. His counsel was that next time Samuel should respond with “Speak Lord for your servant hears.” Verse 10 tells us that the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” When Abraham was told to restrain his hand from sacrificing Isaac, the Angel of the Lord called out “Abraham, Abraham!” (Genesis 22:11). When God called to Moses from the burning bush He said, “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:4). Often, we fail to recognise the voice of God. It was the Lord Jesus who said “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things.” (Luke 10:41) and “Simon, Simon” (Luke 22:31) and who in His preincarnate form spoke to Samuel.
Fourteen years ago I travelled from Durban to Port Elizabeth in South Africa and spoke with an Israeli named “Shmuel”. As we conversed, I recalled this passage and there is a great irony in that “Samuel” means “heard, asked, or name of God” whilst “Eli” means “My God”. God was calling Samuel meaning “heard of God” but Samuel only recognised his voice on the fourth call. Sometimes we can be spiritually deaf and blind, and we need to listen to God’s voice and see with the eyes of faith. Sometimes we confuse God’s word with the voice of the teacher or His sovereignty with those who are merely His instruments.[iii]
Remember that “Eli” means “My God and that Samuel mistook the voice of God for that of Eli. In Matthew 27:46-49 there is again confusion since Yeshua called out whilst He was crucified, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is “My God, My God why have you forsaken Me?” Some of those who stood there thought He was calling for Elijah. Messiah was present yet they failed to recognise Him, yet the same was true following the resurrection, until the Scriptures were opened, and Jesus explained all the things that must be fulfilled written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Him (Luke 24:44).
Sometimes we struggle to hear from God although He has already spoken through the prophets, through His Son and through the Scriptures. Every time we read the Scriptures God is speaking to us and we can either receive that or refuse it. How many distractions did Samuel have when he heard from the Lord? We need to actively set aside time and seek the Lord and we will find Him when we seek Him with all of our heart (Jeremiah 29: 13). I suggested to Shmuel that the Lord may through His word be speaking to him, and He may also be speaking to you.
[i] John MacArthur The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2005; Nashville), p308
[ii] George Williams Williams’ Complete Bible Commentary (Kregel, 1994; Grand Rapids), p140
[iii] Matthew Henry Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mhm/1-samuel-3.html