Samuel and the word of the Lord. 1 Samuel 3:1b-4:1a

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 3:1b-4:1a

Last week we saw how Samuel and Eli were going in two different directions:

  • Samuel the child, was growing in favor with God and people, getting ready to do great things for God.
  • While Eli the old man, and his house, were told they would lose their place as the chief priestly family in Israel, along with other judgments.

This contrast continues in our story today. The judgment on Eli and his house is confirmed and reinforced, and we see Samuel begin his ministry which offers new hope to Israel.

The setting

As we begin our story, Samuel is anywhere between 8 and 12 years old. (He was 3 or 4 when Hannah left him with Eli. And in the story before this we learn that his mother had five other children. So if she had one a year he might be 8 or 9. But there may have been more space between children, so he could be older. Josephus, the first century Jewish writer thought he was 12 – Antiquities 5.10.5.) And Eli is in his nineties (he dies later at age 98 – 1 Samuel 4:15).

1And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.

 Now we just heard a prophet condemn Eli and his house, but we are told here that such words, as well as visions, didn’t happen very often at this time in Israel’s history. This was, no doubt, a sign of the distance between the people and God due to their unfaithfulness. (Amos 8:11-12; 1 Samuel 14:37; 28:6)

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

We learn several things here. Samuel was sleeping in the tabernacle/temple, although probably not in the holy of holies with the ark, but near to it. (The point is not that Samuel is in the holy of holies but that the ark is in the temple in general. The mention of the ark, prepares us for the following ark stories starting in 1 Samuel 4.). Eli seems to be out of the tabernacle, but nearby.

And it was in the early morning hours, before the lamp of the tabernacle went out at sunrise. Perhaps Samuel was in the tabernacle all night to tend to the Lamp, to make sure it didn’t go out before sunrise, as the Law of Moses instructs, since Eli couldn’t see anymore (Exodus 27:21; Leviticus 24:1-4)

The Lord calls out to Samuel

4Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

 We see here Samuel’s eagerness to serve Eli, his adopted father. He goes to him ready to help him with whatever need he might have. But God doesn’t get through to Samuel.

6And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

So the same thing happens again. Then we have an explanatory word –

7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

When it says Samuel didn’t “know the Lord” it doesn’t mean that Samuel had no relationship or understanding of God, for as we saw last week he served the Lord and grew in favor with the Lord (2:26). The phrase very specifically explains the situation here – he didn’t yet know what God’s voice sounded like. This is in contrast to later in his life when he heard and recognized God’s voice all the time. (The two phrases “did not yet know the Lord” and “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” are synonymous.) (The word for “know” is the same as in 2:12 that describes Eli’s sons, but for them it has the sense of “did not have regard for the Lord.”)

In v. 8 we start to make some progress –

8And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Eli figures out what’s going on and tells Samuel what to do.

10And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”

Finally, on the fourth try a connection is made. It’s interesting that it says, “the Lord came and stood.” This was not just Samuel hearing something, but also him seeing something – it was a vision experience (v. 15). And then we have –

The Lord’s message

 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.

“Tingling ears” means that people will be astonished by what they hear; more specifically in Scripture it means astonished by a coming disaster. (2 Kings 21:12; Jeremiah 19:3)

12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Once again Eli’s responsibility and sin is pointed out. He did not restrain his sons and their activities as priests. Now, this doesn’t apply to all parents and their kids, where after a certain age children make their own choices. Eli’s situation is different. He was the chief priest and he could have removed his wicked sons from their roles.

But since he didn’t, God did it – for all their house throughout all time. If before, God promised to them that they would be priests forever (2:30), here he says that their punishment will be forever; and their sin will not be atoned for forever. And the Lord seals this with an oath.

(What God told Samuel here is pretty much the same as what the unnamed prophet told Eli. But this second message serves to confirm the first word and it makes it irrevocable [Birch]).

Now, put yourself in Samuel’s shoes. He is anywhere from 8-12 years old, and God has just told him that his adoptive family will be severely judged. What would you do?

15Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.

 I would be hesitant and afraid too.

16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”

Eli knows it’s bad. He knew the sins of his sons and that he did not stop them. And he has already heard the word of judgment from the unnamed prophet in chapter 2.

18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

Samuel comes through. Despite his fear he tells Eli everything.

And he said, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”

I don’t know whether Eli’s response is a good one coming from submission to God or whether it is mere resignation that he knows there is no way to avoid his judgment at this point. Either way he accepts it.

Our final verses focus on –

Samuel’s ministry as a prophet

– going into his adult life.

19And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. 21And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 4:1And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

Just as Deuteronomy 18 predicts, God has raised up a prophet like Moses. Samuel is like Moses in that he held three offices at once. He was a Levite with priestly privileges, he was a political leader (a judge, as we will see) and he was a prophet. And he is also like Moses, or any true prophet in that all his words came true (Deuteronomy 18:22). None fell to the ground.

And this means that there is a new hope in Israel. God is once again speaking to them through Samuel. From Beersheba to Dan means from the southern-most point of Israel to the northern-most point. God is speaking to all Israel once again, through Samuel.

This leads me to my first reflection on what we should learn from this story. Even in the most difficult times, when peoples’ ears are tingling it is so bad –

1. God gives hope to his people. Things are really bad. The house of Eli, the chief priestly family in Israel will fade away due to their sin. But there is new hope for Israel in Samuel, the prophet.

And even when things seem bad for us as his people today, God is still working and so we can have hope as well, that God will accomplish his purposes through us.

 2. God works in the lives of children. Already, last week we saw Samuel growing in the presence of God. But here there is more.

  • God speaks to a child/young person and gives him a specific message to deliver to an adult.
  • God called him as a child/young person to serve him as a prophet and this continued on throughout his life.

We need to be attuned to what God is doing in the lives of the children and young people around us so that we can help, just as Eli helped here, to connect them to God.

A question. 3. Is God trying to talk to you? I’m not suggesting that it is something as dramatic as with Samuel here, or an audible voice and a vision. But God does seek to speak to us and his Holy Spirit lives within each one of us as believers in Jesus. Well, Eli and Samuel teach us how to listen.

  • In v. 10 Samuel said, “speak,” Lord. This is an invitation for God to speak to us. Do we ever invite God to speak, or take time to listen for what he might say? Or are we always talking at God with our needs and concerns. Invite God to speak to you.
  • In v. 10 he also says, “for your servant hears.” This indicates that you are not just willing to hear it, you are his servant and so you are willing to do what God says. It is an obedient listening that opens the door to God’s voice in our lives.

Another question. 4. Is God calling you? As we know, God calls various ones to special roles of service among the people of God. And this can happen as here, when you are a child/young person or as with Moses when you are 80 years old. For myself I was 14 years old when God called me.

What about this morning – is there anyone here who is sensing that God is calling you?

And then finally today, 5. We should be brave and do God’s will. Bravery doesn’t mean you don’t have fear. It means that you act despite your fear. And the child Samuel here is an example of bravery to us. Yes, he was afraid, but he spoke out the message anyway; all of it.

  • Even though it was a negative word of judgment.
  • Even though it was to his adoptive family.

If you want to do God’s will it’s not just about encouraging people and making them feel better. It also involves dealing with sin and brokenness in people’s lives and sometimes this is not well received.

But just as Samuel obeyed anyway, so should we when God tells us to act.

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