We’re continuing in our series in the first three chapters of 1 Samuel. If you’re just joining us, it’s probably best to begin with the first post in the series, last Wednesday.
Today, we come to the outworking of Hannah’s song: where her little story and God’s big story intersect. It’s a famous one – a Sunday School favourite. That’s because the central human character is a child. But there’s something quite profound going on in the story.
1 Samuel 3:1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
The scene is set for us: Hannah, you will recall, made a promise that if God gave her a child, she’d give him back to God. After Samuel was weaned, she made good on that vow, and he served from a young age under Eli, the priest. That’s the little picture. But we’re reminded again of the bigger picture: there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as they saw fit (Judges 21:25); Eli’s sons were “scoundrels” who didn’t fear God (1 Sam 2:12); and, interestingly, God wasn’t saying much. “There were not many visions,” probably because of the spiritual blindness of that generation.
And, so it seems, because of the blindness (both literal and metaphorical) of Israel’s priest:
1 Samuel 3:2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place.
Things are looking gloomy for Israel, although the light hadn’t quite gone out (either literally or metaphorically):
1 Samuel 3:3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
Then we get to the Sunday School part of the story:
1 Samuel 3:4-5 Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
Samuel hears God’s voice, but thinks it’s Eli’s voice.
1 Samuel 3:6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
The same thing happens second time, to heighten the drama. But here we also get a little commentary from the narrator:
1 Samuel 3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
Samuel has been used to obeying Eli’s commands. Now, Samuel will have to learn to hear God directly. This is a “changing of the guard” scene, where God is about to make good on his declaration of judgement against Eli and his sons, found at the end of the previous chapter:
1 Samuel 2:35-36 I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his priestly house, and they will minister before my anointed one always. 36 Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a loaf of bread…
But Samuel is still subordinate to Eli. God then calls a third time:
1 Samuel 3:8-9 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Eli figures it out, and prepares Samuel to hear God’s voice:
1 Samuel 3:10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The third time is always the punchline. Samuel turns his ear to God, and God speaks – telling him how his little story is about to become a significant part of God’s big story:
1 Samuel 3:11-14 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”
Again, we get the rationale for Eli’s family losing their leadership role. But note that God says he’s doing something in Israel and that the ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. A new chapter is opening up in Israel’s history. A new era is about to be… born? Yes:
1 Samuel 3:15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord.
This is a more significant verse than you might first think. The language (in Hebrew) echoes what happened back in chapter 1, in Hannah’s story. God had “closed her womb” (1:5) and God didn’t grant her children, year after year (1:7) – which parallels the silence of God in that time (3:1). But in opening Hannah’s womb, he also “opened the doors” of the temple, so to speak – so that God’s word would again go out to his people. The little story and the big story intertwined.
1 Samuel 3:15b-16 He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.” Samuel answered, “Here I am.”
Samuel, young as he is, understands the significance of the vision – so he’s afraid to tell Eli. (After all, it’s bad news for him and his family.) Eli calls him, and Samuel responds in the usual way. Yet Eli gives him permission to tell him the content of the vision, harsh though it is, and implicitly passes on the authority to speak for God.
1 Samuel 3:17-18 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”
From this point, Eli disappears from the story, and Samuel takes over as God’s appointed spokesperson – and leader of Israel:
1 Samuel 3:19 – 4:1 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. 1 And Samuel’s word came to all Israel.
The time of silence is over. The barren womb has been opened. The doors of the temple are no longer shut. God again speaks to his people.