The Rise of Samuel and the Fall of Eli and Sons (1 Samuel 3:1--4:22)
You may have heard the story of the man who spent his first day in jail. That evening, all of the inmates gathered about in the courtyard. One man would call out a number and then the rest would laugh heartily. Another number would then be called, with even more laughter. So it went for the evening. When the man returned to his cell, he turned to his cell-mate and asked, “What was going on out there?” “Oh,” his cell-mate responded, “that’s the way we tell jokes around here. You see, we know all the jokes, and we’ve heard them hundreds of times. So rather than waste time retelling them, we number them. When someone calls out a number, we all know the joke, and so we laugh!”
The next evening, the same thing happened. After a few numbers were called and the rest responded with laughter, the neophyte thought he would try his hand at this kind of joke-telling. In a quiet moment, he called out a number. Not one person laughed. The new inmate was puzzled, but kept quiet until he returned to his cell and his cell-mate. “What happened?” he asked. “Why didn’t anyone laugh?” “Well,” his cell-mate replied, “You know how it is . . . some people can tell ‘em, and some can’t.”
When I come to the story of Samuel’s call in 1 Samuel 3, I feel as though I could almost call out a number:
- One, for Noah and the ark.
- Two, for Moses in the basket in the Nile River.
- Three, for David and Goliath.
- Four, for Jonah and the great fish.
- Five, for the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
- Six, for Daniel in the lion’s den.
Seven, for the call of Samuel.
We may all think we know the story of the call of Samuel quite well. We’ve heard, or told, it many times. All I may need to do is call out a number, and my work for this lesson will be done. Perhaps we should not be quite so hasty, for we may only think we know the story well. Our lesson focuses on some of the unfamiliar dimensions of this event, which may be key to our understanding of the meaning and message of this text.
We see in 1 Samuel 3 the account of the rise of Samuel to the position of a prophet, a fact acknowledged and accepted by every Israelite. We come in chapter 4 to the account of the defeat of Israel and the death of Eli, his two sons, and his daughter-in-law. In chapters 2 and 3, God prophetically foretells of His judgment on Eli and his house. That judgment takes place in chapter 4. In chapter 3, we see God’s hand at work, preparing Samuel for a prominent leadership role over Israel, and in chapter 4, we see God’s removal of Eli and his sons so that Samuel can assume the leadership for which God has prepared him.
The Call of Samuel
1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. 2 And it happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well), 3 and the 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, 4 that the LORD called Samuel; and he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he 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. 6 And the LORD called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he answered, “I did not call, my son, lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, nor had the word of the LORD yet been revealed to him. 8 So the LORD called Samuel again for the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli discerned that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and it shall be if He calls you, that you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for Thy servant is listening.'“ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Then the LORD came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Thy servant is listening.” 11 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 “In that day I will carry out against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 “For I have told him that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them. 14 “And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Samuel is referred to in verse 1 as a “boy,” a term flexible enough to use with reference to a newborn infant or to a young man.10 Here in our text, I understand it to refer to Samuel as a young man, 12 years of age or so. It seems several years have passed since the end of chapter 2 and that chapter 3 picks up in Samuel’s teen years.
The writer informs us that, “word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent” (verse 1). Men were not listening to God in those days, and God did not speak very often. This “silence” is often a form of divine judgment, and if not broken, would prove to be Israel’s undoing (see 1 Samuel 28; Psalm 74:9; Isaiah 29:9-14; Micah 3:6-7; also Proverbs 29:18). We are told that prophecy was rare, so that we see the calling of Samuel as an end to God’s silence (see 1 Samuel 3:19-21).
The details provided for us in verses 2, 3, and 7 help us understand the setting in which the events of chapter 3 take place. Samuel is lying down in his appointed place inside the tabernacle, not that far from the Ark of the Covenant, which is inside the Holy of Holies. Eli is sleeping somewhere else, not too distant for Samuel to hear when he calls. As the author informs us, Eli’s eyesight has greatly deteriorated, so that his vision is seriously impaired (see also 4:15). With Eli’s age, weight, and visual limitations, he needs the help of a boy like Samuel. Samuel can bring Eli a drink of water or run other errands for him. It is only natural for Samuel to assume that a call late at night comes from his master, Eli.
From the writer’s statement in verse 3, we know that the call of Samuel comes in the early hours of the morning, for he says that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” The lamp is the golden lampstand, with its seven lamps which are to “burn continually” (Exodus 27:20-21; Leviticus 24:2). This does not mean they are to burn 24 hours a day, but that they are always to burn at night. This becomes clear from the words of 2 Chronicles 13:11:
11 “And every morning and evening they burn to the LORD burnt offerings and fragrant incense, and the showbread is set on the clean table, and the golden lampstand with its lamps is ready to light every evening; for we keep the charge of the LORD our God, but you have forsaken Him.”
There is no need for a lamp to burn in the daytime, but during the day oil is prepared so that the lamps can be lit before dark. They will burn through the night and burn out at daybreak. Since the lamp of God has not yet gone out, we know it is still dark, in the early morning hours, that God calls to Samuel.
Like Eli’s sons, Samuel does not know the Lord (compare 1 Samuel 2:12 and 3:7). The difference between Samuel and the sons of Belial is that Samuel does not yet know the Lord. It is obvious that Eli’s sons did not know God, and never would. It is important to see, however, that Samuel is not saved at the time of his calling. He, like Saul (Paul) in the New Testament (see Acts 9), is saved and called sometime during his encounter with God.11
The first two times Samuel is called by God, the young lad assumes he is hearing the voice of Eli, his master. It makes sense, especially if Eli sometimes calls to Samuel for assistance during the night. It is not until the third “call” that Eli finally grasps the situation and realizes that God is calling Samuel to reveal His Word to the boy. At his instructions, Samuel responds to God when He once again calls. A portion of that first revelation (if not all of it) is recorded in verses 11-14.
God announces to Samuel that what He is about to do will cause the ears of those who hear the news of it to tingle, both ears!12 This is no exaggeration. When Eli hears, he collapses, resulting in his death (see 4:18). The message seems to be a personal one addressed to Eli. It is somewhat like the prophecy God reveals to Eli in 2:27-36, except that the prophet is identified. In fact, the prophet will be Eli’s replacement, functioning as a prophet, a priest, and a judge. The prophecy of chapter 2 is more distant, having apparently been delivered several years before Israel’s defeat by the Philistines as described in chapter 4. The prophecy given to Eli through Samuel seems to speak of the defeat of Israel and the death of Eli’s sons as an imminent event.
The message given to Samuel focuses on Eli’s sin more than on the sins of his sons. More specifically, God indicates that He is bringing about judgment on Eli and his house because Eli knows of the sins of his sons and does nothing to hinder them. In contemporary terms, Eli is an “enabler.” He facilitates his sons’ sinful behavior rather than resist and oppose it.
I am disappointed in the translation of verse 13 in the NASB:
13 “For I have told him that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them.”
It certainly appears that Eli actually does verbally rebuke his sons as we read in 2:22-25. While the word “rebuke” is absent, this is the sense of his words. I do not believe God judges Eli for failing to rebuke his sons, but for failing to go beyond mere verbal rebuke when they refuse to listen to him.
The context certainly raises questions with the word “rebuke” in 3:13, and a concordance study shows these questions have much merit. The term used here is an interesting one. The term is never translated “rebuke” elsewhere in the Old Testament (in the NASB) and should not have been rendered this way here. Interestingly, it is the same word found in verse 2 of the same chapter (3) in reference to Eli’s failing eyesight. It is used of the eyesight of Moses, which is good (Deuteronomy 34:7), and of the poor eyesight of Isaac (Genesis 27:1) and Job (17:7). It has the normal sense of growing weak, dim, or faint. It is the term used in Isaiah 42:3 and 4 for the dimly burning wick, which our Lord will not extinguish, and for the spirit of Messiah, which will not be disheartened.
How then did the translators come to render the term “rebuke”? I fear they were overly influenced by the rendering of the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). The Septuagint (LXX) translators chose to render the Hebrew term in our text with the Greek term noutheo, the word Jay Adams employs to characterize his method of counseling, which he calls nouthetic counseling. Noutheo does mean admonition or rebuke. This, however, does not seem to be the primary sense of the Hebrew term or the meaning required by the context.
I believe the best rendering is found in the King James Version, the New King James Version, the NIV (essentially), the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version and others, all of which employ the term “restrain.” In our text, it looks like the author is making a play on words. Eli’s eyes are dim; they can barely see. Eli does not take a dim enough view of his son’s actions. Using the analogy of light, his sons’ sins are on high beam. He may not be able to extinguish the “light” of their sins, but he can have a dimming effect. He can exercise some restraint -- for example, he can remove them as priests. He can make it difficult for them to sin. Instead, he facilitates their sins, and it is for this that God deals so severely with Eli and his entire house.
Verse 14 indicates that the sin of Eli’s house is now beyond repentance; God’s judgment is imminent. There is no sacrifice or atonement to set this matter straight, only judgment. In simple terms, Eli and sons have passed the “point of no return.” They refuse to repent, and judgment is coming. This is because Eli’s sin and the sins of his sons are committed with a “high hand;”13 they are sins of presumption.
Samuel’s Reticence and Eli’s Persistence: The Prophecy is Told
1 Samuel 3:15-18
15 So Samuel lay down until morning. Then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. But Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 Then Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And he said, “What is the word that He spoke to you? Please do not hide it from me. May God do so to you, and more also, if you hide anything from me of all the words that He spoke to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the LORD; let Him do what seems good to Him.”
When morning comes, Samuel seems to avoid Eli. He goes about his regular routine, just as always, as though nothing has happened. Eli knows better. He knows that God has called Samuel three times during the night. He knows it is God who is about to reveal something to Samuel. He does not know what it is, although he surely has his fears. The last message he received from a prophet was a foreboding one. And so Eli presses Samuel to tell him all that God spoke to him. He does not allow Samuel to hold back. And so Samuel reluctantly tells Eli the whole message.
What is most disturbing, to me at least, is the response of Eli to the prophecy. Eli is informed that judgment is coming, and this time at least, it cannot be stopped.14 God’s judgment cannot be avoided, but Eli can at least repent of his own sins of neglect. Instead, Eli speaks words which have a religious ring and appear to be an evidence of his submission to the sovereign will of God, but which are really an expression of Eli’s willingness to continue on in his sin. What we read is not an expression of faith in God’s sovereignty, but an expression of fatalism couched in religious terms.
Samuel’s Accreditation as a Prophet of God
19 Thus Samuel grew and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fail. 20 And all Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the LORD. 21 And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, because the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.
I take it that the first encounter Samuel had with God is his conversion experience, as well as his call as a prophet. As mentioned earlier, this is much like Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9). The author now informs us that this encounter with God, and the resulting reception of a word from the LORD, is the first of many. Verse 21 tells us specifically of a second appearance of God to Samuel at Shiloh, and the inference is that others will follow. It is here, at the first appearance of God to Samuel, that he not only seems to become a believer (in the wording of the author, he came to know the LORD),15 but he also becomes a prophet. Soon, he will become a priest and a judge as well.
The way a true prophet is accredited is spelled out in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:14-22. A true prophet speaks in a way that calls upon men to follow God, to obey Him. Furthermore, a true prophet is one whose words come to pass. Our author tells us literally that God let none of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” (verse 19). Everything Samuel says will happen does happen. And every Israelite realizes that God’s hand is upon Samuel and that He speaks the Word of the LORD. From Dan, the northern-most part of the land, to Beersheba, the southern-most city, all Israel recognizes Samuel as a prophet of God. The silence is broken.
The Defeat of Israel, and the Death of Eli’s Sons
1 Thus the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle and camped beside Ebenezer while the Philistines camped in Aphek. 2 And the Philistines drew up in battle array to meet Israel. When the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines who killed about four thousand men on the battlefield. 3 When the people came into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us take to ourselves from Shiloh the ark of the covenant of the LORD, that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts who sits above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 And it happened as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, that all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp. 7 And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 “Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. 9 “Take courage and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight.” 10 So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent, and the slaughter was very great; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
The Israelites have been dominated by the Philistines for some time so that the Philistines look upon them as their slaves (4:9). For some reason, battle breaks out between the Philistines and the Israelites, and the Israelites are badly beaten. When the dust settles, it is learned that 4,000 Israelites have died (verse 2). When the Israelites return to camp, they cannot understand how God would allow them to suffer this defeat.
Without fasting and prayer, without consulting God, the Israelites decide to practice what Dale Ralph Davis calls “Rabbit-Foot Theology.”16 The Ark is not viewed as a symbol of God’s presence, but as a magic lamp, which they but need to rub rightly to summon God to their aid. The Ark is a good luck charm, so that wherever they take it, they will be blessed. “Of course,” they reason, “we didn’t take the Ark along with us! We’ll take the Ark when we go to battle tomorrow, and we’re certain to win. God is sure to be with us because His Ark is with us.”
The plan backfires miserably. At first, it does not appear so, but in retrospect it is a huge disaster from the perspective of those who thought the Ark would assure them victory. When the Ark is brought out of the tent and into its place before the Israelite soldiers, a great shout resounds from the Israelite camp. It becomes like a huge pep rally before a football game. The Israelite warriors are really pumped. They cannot lose. God is going to be with them.
The Philistine soldiers hear the uproar coming from the Israelite camp and wonder what could cause such a triumphant shout from the Israelite camp. Then they learn that the Ark has been brought out into the camp of the Israelites. They, like the Israelites, look upon the Ark as though it is capable of magic. They recall that when God led the Israelites against the Egyptians, they were defeated. They remember the stories of the victories God gave the Israelites over their enemies, and that whenever the Israelites fought their enemies, they took the Ark with them. They now fear that the presence of the Ark before the Israelite armies assures Israel of a victory. They might die, the Philistines conclude, but at least they can die like men. And so, rather than give up, the Philistines become motivated to fight to the death, and to die like heroes. This results in the Philistines being even more motivated to fight than the Israelites, and the Philistines once again defeat the Israelites -- only this time 30,000 Israelites are slain. Among the dead are Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, who are slain as the Ark of God is captured as a trophy of war.
The Israelites foolishly conclude that taking the Ark of God to war is their guarantee of success in battle. In the plan of God, the Israelites taking the Ark into battle is the means God ordained of fulfilling the words of prophecy He had spoken through the unnamed prophet. Hophni and Phinehas accompany the Ark to war, and when the Israelites suffer defeat and the Ark is taken, the two sons of Eli die on the same day (see 2:34).
The Death of Eli and His Daughter-in-Law
The Word of the LORD is fulfilled, in part, but there is more divine judgment to come on this day of infamy. Eli is stationed by the road in his seat, trembling in heart as he eagerly waits for news of the battle. He must sense that this is the day of judgment. The Ark of God is gone from Shiloh, as are his two sons, and Eli is not at all comfortable. A certain Benjamite escapes death and flees back to Shiloh from the battle scene with his clothes torn and dust on his head. It is a sign of mourning and defeat, which Eli is not able to see because his vision is all but gone. The rest of the city begins to cry out as word of their defeat quickly circulates.
Eli can hear even if he cannot see, and what he hears frightens him. His ears, as it were, are about to tingle (see 3:11). Eli asks what the commotion means, and the man who has escaped hastens to his side where he briefly sums up his report. There is no “good news” and “bad news” but only “bad news” -- Israel has been defeated by the Philistines, Eli’s sons have been killed, and the Ark of God has been taken. The news is more than Eli’s 98-year-old body can handle. He collapses, falling from his seat in such a way that he breaks his neck. Eli is dead, along with his sons, and all on the same day. His forty years of service as judge over Israel has ended.
The dying is not yet over for the house of Eli. The wife of Eli’s son, Phinehas, is pregnant, and the news of Israel’s tragic defeat, the loss of the Ark, and the deaths of Eli and her husband bring on her labor. As she is in labor, things do not go well. While those helping try to comfort her, she refuses their help. When she learns that her child is a boy, she names him Ichabod, a name meaning “no glory,” because the Ark of God has been taken and her husband and father-in-law have died. This daughter-in-law of Eli seems more perceptive than her husband. She realizes that the greatest disaster is the loss of the Ark. In her mind, the capture of the Ark is the departure of God’s glory.
Actually, I think she was wrong. As I understand the Old Testament, the glory had long since departed from the tabernacle. Consider these words in Exodus, which describe the coming of God’s glory to the tabernacle:
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 36 And throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; 37 but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. 38 For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel (Exodus 40:34-38).
God promised He would meet with the Levitical priests there at the entrance of the tabernacle:
42 “It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 “And I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. 44 “And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. 45 “And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. 46 “And they shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God” (Exodus 29:42-46).
Somewhere along the line, the glory of God departs from the tabernacle. This departure appears not to be as dramatic and apparent as the coming of God’s glory to the tabernacle, as described above. Samuel lives in the tabernacle. He sleeps but a few feet away from the Ark of God (3:3), yet he has not yet come to know God and seems to have no special sense of the presence of God there. God’s appearance to Samuel in the tabernacle is described as something special, something unusual. God comes there and stands, calling Samuel (3:10) in a way that is not at all typical. Samuel does not recognize that it is the LORD; he has to be told who it is by Eli. Even Eli is not quick to discern the LORD’s appearance.
The Ark is not the manifestation of God to Israel there in the tabernacle. It is no idol. It is a symbol of God’s presence with His people. While the symbol remains in the possession of the priests there in Shiloh, the glory of God has long since departed. The capture of the Ark only symbolizes what is already true, what has been true for a long time. It is certain that the glory has departed from Shiloh, but God’s glory will never be hidden by sinful men, as our next lesson in this series will show.
As we come to the tragic ending of an era in Israel’s distant past (of Eli’s 40-year service as judge and priest), let us pause to reflect on the lessons this text has for us as Christians today.
First, let us consider what our text teaches us about God. How gracious God is to His people Israel, especially when they are sinful and undeserving. Graciously, God repeatedly warns Eli of the judgment which is coming upon His house. The years that pass between the first warning and the fulfillment of God’s promised judgment are a time when Eli could repent and act properly in response to the sins of his sons. God is gracious in breaking the silence and again revealing Himself and His Word to the nation through the prophet, Samuel.
God is gracious, and He is also sovereign (a grace that is unmerited must, of necessity, be sovereignly bestowed). Samuel does not know God, nor does he even recognize His voice. Samuel is not seeking God, and yet God appears to him, causing him to know Him, and calling him to be a prophet. God accredits Samuel before the nation, so that all Israel knows there is now a true prophet of God. God sovereignly prepares the way for the removal of Eli and his sons by raising up young Samuel, calling and gifting him to be a prophet.
God hates sin, and He judges sinners who will not repent. These are dark days for the nation Israel. The priesthood is corrupt. Those who are to serve God and the nation are abusing their office and abusing the people. The priests are thieves and robbers. They are corrupt and immoral. God’s Word clearly indicates the sacredness of this office and ministry and reveals the ways in which priests should reflect and respect the holiness of God. Eli’s sons shake their fists in God’s face, and finally their day of judgment comes, precisely as God has said. God’s day of judgment may come later than we expect, but it will most certainly come.
God seldom works in ways we expect or predict so that we may marvel at His wisdom and power in accomplishing His will and His Word. Who would have thought that the judgment of God would be brought to pass through the enemies of God and of His people, the Philistines? By presumptuously taking the Ark to battle with them, the Israelites show their lack of reverence for the holiness of God, and by taking the Ark to war, the death of Eli’s sons on the same day is accomplished. God works in strange and wonderful ways.
Second, let us consider what this passage teaches us about men. Just as God does not change, and thus He is the same “yesterday, today, and forever,” so men do not really change either. We are not called to be prophets as Samuel was so long ago, but our calling is not all that different from his. Just as he was not seeking God, and God sought him out, so lost men are not seeking God today (see Romans 3:10-11). Men are saved, not because they are seeking God, but because God is seeking and saving lost sinners. It is His finding us more than our finding Him. It is His sovereign grace which draws us to Himself. Salvation, praise God, is of the LORD, and it is He and He alone who is worthy of our praise.
My point is that God calls men today just as He called Samuel so long ago -- and for essentially the same reasons. He has revealed His Word to us, not by a personal appearance or vision, but through His Holy Word, the Bible. Our purpose, like Samuel’s, is to declare God’s Word to men. Every Christian is “called” to faith in Christ and “called” as well to proclaim the Word of Christ to men.
We are not like the Israelites of Samuel’s day, who can say that “a word from the LORD is rare.” The truth is that God has spoken to us finally and fully in the person of His Son and in the Scriptures we hold in our hands (see Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4). The problem today is not that God has not spoken, but that men are not listening. No wonder we find the expression repeated in the New Testament, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (see Matthew 11:15; 13:9, 43; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Would that each of us could say in sincerity, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This is the spirit of the one who will “hear” the Word of the Lord.
As I consider our text, I see three responses to God which are typical of the responses men have to God today. The first is the response of the Israelites. The Israelites want God in their midst, to “be there for them” in their hour of need, to do the things they wish Him to do. They take the Ark of God to battle with them, expecting God to give them victory. Rather than seeing themselves as God’s servants, God is their servant. Theirs is a “god” to use, not a God to honor and glorify and praise and worship and obey. This is the “rabbit-foot theology” Davis speaks of which is so popular today. If we but do the right things, go through the right steps, then God is obliged to do our bidding. It is just not so. God is not there to jump through our hoops. And those who foolishly suppose that He is are in for some serious trouble.
The second response to God is that of Eli. His response is one of fatalism, of resignation. At least twice God speaks to Eli through a prophet to warn him of the judgment coming upon him and his house because he does not deal with the sins of his sons. Eli does nothing beyond verbally rebuking his sons. Even now, when the death of his sons is around the corner, Eli does absolutely nothing. His response has an empty religious ring, “It is the LORD; let Him do what seems good to Him” (3:18). It is simply a pious sounding version of “what will be, will be.” When David is rebuked for his sin with Bathsheba, he is informed that the child will die (2 Samuel 12:14). This does not keep David from doing anything about it. David beseeches the Lord, prostrating himself on the ground all night, praying that God might spare the child (2 Samuel 12:16-17). Eli seems to simply shrug his shoulders and say, “It is God’s will.”
Sadly, this fatalism is found in Christians today. Rather than finding the sovereignty of God a motivation to strive to please God, some use it as their excuse for doing nothing. In preaching this lesson, I defined a fatalist as “a tired Calvinist.” I later changed my mind and decided a fatalist is a “re-tired Calvinist.” A friend and fellow-elder, Don Grimm, called my attention to the crucial difference between a true Calvinist (one who believes God is in control, and finds this a proper basis for godly effort) and a fatalist. The Chaldeans of old were fatalists. They studied the heavens, believing that the relationship of the heavenly bodies determined what would happen on earth. Fatalists do not see the ultimate cause of earthly events as a sovereign, personal God, who desires fellowship with those who trust in Him. It is one’s relationship with God personally, through faith in Jesus Christ, that causes one to find God’s sovereignty the reason to strive, rather than an excuse to sit. Eli’s faith had deteriorated to little more than the thinking of a fatalist.
Finally, there is the response of Samuel. Samuel does not do anything to prompt God’s appearance or to reveal His Word in prophecy. Samuel is simply going about his daily duties. There is nothing particularly romantic or “spiritual” about dusting and cleaning tabernacle furnishings, about sweeping the floors, or about serving a nearly blind, nearly dead old man (Eli). But in the course of going about his assigned tasks, God finds Samuel and reveals Himself to Him. Many people want to do something spectacular (like take an Ark along to battle) to obtain God’s blessings and power. Samuel teaches us that this is not the norm. Let us go about our lives, faithfully doing the work God has given us to do, leaving the spectacular interventions, the great successes, to God. When it is His time for them to happen, they will happen, not so much because of what we have done, but because God always keeps His promises.
10 The Hebrew term found here is used of very young children, like Samuel in his infancy (1 Samuel 1:24) or the newly born Ichabod (4:21). It is also used of servants who are young men (Genesis 14:24; 18:7). It is used of Shechem, who raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah (Genesis 34) and of Joseph at 17 (Genesis 37:2) and later (Genesis 41:12). It is used also of the spies who spy out Canaan (Joshua 6:23). It is used of Eli’s sons (1 Samuel 2:17) and of David when he goes up against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:33).
11 A friend pointed out to me that while Eli instructs Samuel to respond, “Speak LORD, for Thy servant is listening” (verse 9, emphasis mine), Samuel actually replies, “Speak, for Thy servant is listening” (verse 10). Somewhere in the course of this conversation, it seems, Samuel becomes a believer.
13 “Eli’s family was apparently guilty of ‘a sin of the high hand’ (cf. Num. 15:30-31). For such defiant sin there was no atonement, and the death penalty would be immediately applied (2:33; 3:14). Perhaps this is an Old Testament example of a kind of sin that is ‘unto death’ (1 John 5:16-17).” J. Carl Laney, First and Second Samuel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), pp. 23-24.
14 My understanding of prophecy is that when a prophet speaks of coming judgment, God is often giving those who hear the prophecy one last chance to repent. This is clearly the meaning of Jeremiah 18:7-8 and is the hope of the king of Nineveh in the third chapter of Jonah. There are times, as in our text, when the judgment is irreversible (see also Isaiah 6:6-13).
15 I would not be willing to go so far as to say that God could not reveal prophecy through an unbeliever, for Balaam may well have been an unbeliever, and Balaam’s ass was surely not a saint (though more a saint than Balaam, it seems – see Numbers 22-24).