Summary of the Text
The farther you go…the harder it is to return. The world has many edges and it’s easy to fall off.”
Anderson Cooper, Dispatches From The Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
For most of us, when we speak of “hearing God’s call” or obeying God’s call,” we mean it in a figurative way. We pray, spend time in discernment with a community, and ultimately experience God “calling” us in a particular direction. The events that unfold in 1 Samuel 3 on the other hand, are quite different. Samuel “hears” (Hebrew: Shema) a voice, what he would most definitely perceive as a literal voice, vocal cords and all. The voice is not his master Eli’s, as he first supposes, but God Himself. Why does God choose to reveal himself to Samuel? As we will see, the stakes are high. The temple at Shiloh has been desecrated by Eli’s children, who would have been the presumed heirs of Eli’s priesthood. Ultimately, this text is about both the call of Samuel, who will become the next high priest of Israel, as well as the transition away from the house of Eli.
The story of the text is one that many of us have been familiar with since childhood. Samuel, the young child apprentice to the high priest Eli, is lying down in the temple and hears a voice. “Here I am” Samuel responds, assuming the voice comes from his master(Eli). As the Old Testament scholar Bill T. Arnold notes “The single Hebrew word translated “Here I am” (hinneni, 3:4) can be a common greeting, but it is often a more subtle indication that a servant hears and obeys. It is especially significant when someone hears and obeys the divine call (Gen. 22:1, 11; Ex. 3:4; Isa. 6:8).” (New International Version Application Commentary)
Eli informs the young boy that he didn’t call him, and urges him to go back to sleep. Samuel hears a voice calling his name again and he goes to his master, assuming he (Eli) has something for him to do, but again, Eli says it wasn’t him, and urges him to go back to sleep.
The third time Eli finally realizes what is happening. Samuel is not delusional, he is hearing a voice, only it isn’t the voice of a human but God Himself. Eli encourages Samuel to return to his rest, but if he hears a voice, that he ought to respond by saying “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’
Samuel returns and once again hears God’s voice, and this time he responds as Eli instructed him. God responds by saying “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” What exactly does that mean? Once again, Bill Arnold provides clarification, “In the Old Testament, ears “tingle” when people receive news of approaching punishment (2 Kings 21:12; Jer. 19:3)”.
The passage also served to demonstrate the authority of Samuel. The text tells us that Samuel is one who will oversee the priestly duties that once belonged to the house of Eli. And yet, as the text tells us in verse 7, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD:” What does the author mean exactly by such a statement? Does it mean that the young man was not a believer in Yahweh? Most likely not. Commentators generally believe it refers to the fact that Samuel had not yet had a direct revelation of God.
This connects to one of the larger themes in this passage, that is the general lack of God’s presence in those days. In fact, this section of text begins by saying “ In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions” (v.1)
Why was the word of the Lord rare? The text doesn’t explicitly say, though perhaps the behavior of Eli’s sons holds a clue. The profanation of the temple by the high priest’s own family may keep God from revealing Himself to His people. Though perhaps we are making inferences from the text. Nevertheless, this theme of sight, of hearing (which in Hebrew is the same word for obedience (Shema)) is one that figures throughout the passage. The text tells us that Eli was losing his sight just as Samuel is receiving a vision from the LORD. Thus, the theophany Samuel experiences is meant to demonstrate the transition mentioned above.
Indeed, the news is both a judgment on the house of Eli (not, it should be noted, because of anything Eli has done himself, but rather for his inability to restrain the evil acts of his children.)
Eli’s children had abused the temple offering system (See 1 Samuel 2) at Shiloh, and would not repent, even after being confronted by Eli himself. Is there any warning here for those who speak on God’s behalf today? On those whose responsibility it is to shepherd God’s people? Perhaps Jesus’ warning about false teaching in Luke 14 is a fair comparison. There he warns those who teach about God that “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Indeed, we all are called to a high task who choose to teach and preach the gospel.
As we close out this summary, a note on the character of Eli is warranted. As the quote at the beginning of this guide notes, when you are in leadership, there are perils on all sides. How often do we see public leaders in ministry who “build up the church,” only to find they have neglected their families, often to devastating results. All leaders have blindspots, and this text can serve as a reminder to us that sometimes it is not even our behavior that can lead to the loss of a legacy. Having people who can speak into our lives, who can notice where we are deficient is surely a need rather than a want if we desire to finish the race set before us. Too many disgraced pastors and their families have fallen victim to their own weaknesses, when simply having someone to hold them to account may have prevented the trail of wreckage they leave behind. Now on the other hand, there are a number of positive qualities that ought to be attributed to Eli and his ministry.
As many commentators have noted, Eli himself never committed any significant transgressions against God or God’s temple. And when his time of leadership and power was coming to an end, he did not resist in the same way Saul resisted David’s rise to power. Instead he simply asked Samuel to tell him what he had heard from the LORD. And when Samuel had relayed the message of judgment on Eli’s house, Eli responded with a message of faithfulness that only someone with a deep relationship with God would be able to in such a situation: “He is the LORD, let him do what is good in his eyes.”
There is no shooting of the messenger, as might be expected in such an extreme situation. Perhaps there is a bit of resignation in such a statement, nevertheless, Eli was willing to both give up his power and accept God’s punishment. There is more to life than life itself, and Eli seemed to understand this in a way few leaders ever do. Eli has never been added to the rarefied air of other Old Testament heroes, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, perhaps because he was unable to restrain his children, described as “scoundrels” in at least one Bible translation. But he also was unwilling to hold on to power when he easily could have. That is the mark of character, and might we argue, a character that had been built over a lifetime of service to God.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
Jesus loved manhood so much that He delighted to honor it; and since it is a high honour, and indeed, the greatest dignity of manhood, that Jesus is the Son of Man.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Based on the English Standard Version
Comment: This speaks to the incarnation of God and the full humanity which the Son of God clothed himself with in the person of Jesus. The fullness of that love, though, was not simply to take on that humanity and to live estranged from mortal life like some untouchable ivory tower saint, but to walk in our shoes, feel our pain, and experience our journey. It is in this that God, through Jesus, both honors and holds out hope for the humanity which he came to save.
Listen for the Flutes
We must tune our ears to hear God’s voice. It’s like the child who was told by his father during a symphony orchestra concert, “Listen for the flutes in this song. Don’t they sound beautiful?” The child, unable distinguish the flutes, looks up at his father with a puzzled look, “What flutes, father?”
The child first needs to learn what flutes sound like on their own, separate from the whole orchestra, before he is able to hear them in a symphony. So it is with us as children of God. Unless we take the time to hear his voice in the quiet moments of life, we will not be able to hear him the symphony sounds of life.
Hearing a Cricket in Times Square
Dana Visneskie tells the story of a Native American and his friend who were in downtown New York City, walking near Times Square in Manhattan. It was during the noon lunch hour and the streets were filled with people. Cars were honking their horns, taxicabs were squealing around corners, sirens were wailing, and the sounds of the city were almost deafening.
Suddenly, the Native American said, “I hear a cricket.”
His friend said, “What? You must be crazy. You couldn’t possibly hear a cricket in all of this noise!”
“No, I’m sure of it,” the Native American said. “I heard a cricket.”
“That’s crazy,” said the friend.
The Native American listened carefully for a moment, and then walked across the street to a big cement planter where some shrubs were growing. He looked into the bushes, beneath the branches, and sure enough, he located a small cricket. His friend was utterly amazed. “That’s incredible,” said his friend. “You must have super-human ears!”
“No,” said the Native American. “My ears are no different from yours. It all depends on what you’re listening for.”
“But that can’t be!” said the friend. “I could never hear a cricket in this noise.”
“Yes, it’s true,” came the reply. “It depends on what is really important to you. Here, let me show you.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and discreetly dropped them on the sidewalk. And then, with the noise of the crowded street still blaring in their ears, they noticed every head within twenty feet turn and look to see if the money that tinkled on the pavement was theirs.
“See what I mean?” asked the Native American. “It all depends on what’s important to you.