The story of the boyhood of Samuel is remarkable because the young Samuel lived with a dysfunctional family and yet the evil ways of Eli’s son did not diminish Samuel’s commitment to serve the Lord. Samuel’s father and mother had committed their son to God and from early in his infancy, Samuel was brought to Shiloh and entrusted to Eli so that the boy would grow up to serve God.
It was in the temple at Shiloh, while “Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli” (1 Samuel 3:1), that Samuel first met God. During the early years of his life in the temple, Samuel had not yet had a personal encounter with Yahweh. The biblical writer says that “Samuel did not yet know the LORD” (1 Samuel 3:7). The same expression is said about Eli’s sons, “the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:12 ESV). Eli’s sons were wicked individuals who had no regard for God nor acknowledged him as Lord. Samuel did not know the Lord because the Lord had not yet appeared to him. But things were about to change.
Hearing from God
The reason Samuel had not yet had a personal experience with God was because “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1). The scarcity of the word of God was a fact during the days of the judges. After the death of Joshua, “another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD” (Judges 2:10). During those dark days in the history of Israel, the people were oppressed by many invaders. The period of the judges was filled with violence, inhumane behavior, and moral decay, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The sons of Eli were no exception to the degeneracy of the times, for “they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22).
While Samuel ministered at the tabernacle in Shiloh, he served the Lord with his adopted family, a family of priests headed by Eli. One night, when Samuel was sleeping in the temple, near where the Ark of God was, Samuel heard the voice of the Lord calling him. This experience with God was remarkable because “in those days the word of the LORD was rare.” This sad statement reflects a situation in which people did not have much regard for the Lord. God was silent because of the people’s rejection. God showed his disapproval with the people’s behavior by withholding his word, “”The days are coming when I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11).
In the days of Samuel, there were few prophets, “because there were not many visions.” The Hebrew word for “visions” is a reference to the prophetic words entrusted to prophets. During the many years when judges ruled, almost no prophets appeared in Israel. Now Yahweh appears to Samuel to raise him to become a prophet, a prophet who would receive the prophetic word and would proclaim it to Israel.
While Samuel was sleeping near the Ark, Eli was lying down in one of the rooms of the sanctuary. Samuel’s proximity to the Ark of God is significant. The author seems to imply that Samuel was closer to God than Eli and his sons. During his manifestation to Samuel, God called him by name, “Samuel! Samuel” (1 Samuel 3:4). Samuel heard God speaking to him but that first encounter with God was not very productive, for Samuel believed that it was Eli who had called him.
Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me” (1 Samuel 3:5). Eli told Samuel to go back to sleep for he had not called him. The reason Samuel did not recognize the Lord’s voice was because he “did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7). So, the Lord reveals himself a second time to Samuel and once again Samuel believed that Eli had called him.
When Yahweh called Samuel the third time and when Samuel came to Eli the third time, Eli realized that God was the one calling Samuel. Eli told Samuel to return to his room. Eli instructed Samuel on what to do. He said to him that when he heard the voice calling again that he should say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” Samuel returned to his room and lay down to sleep. The Lord appeared to Samuel a fourth time. This time Yahweh came and “stood” before Samuel. The first three times Yahweh appeared to Samuel, Yahweh called him, maybe in a dream or from a distance. Now Yahweh stands before Samuel. In this vision of God Samuel hears God calling again by his name, “Samuel, Samuel.”
Samuel heard the voice of God and the message he was entrusting to him; it was a message of judgment against Eli and his family: “I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told 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” (1 Samuel 3:12-13).
Because of the wickedness of Eli’s sons and because of Eli’s failure to control their behavior, Eli and his family would no longer be priests in Israel. Samuel received from Yahweh the same message of judgment that the man of God had proclaimed against the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:27–36). Yahweh had promised that Eli and his family would be priests in Israel forever, but because Eli and his sons did not honor God, he would no longer honor Eli and his family, “those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt” (1 Samuel 2:30).
In the morning, when Samuel opened the doors of the sanctuary, Eli approached Samuel and asked him the message Yahweh had given him. Samuel was afraid to tell Eli the message Yahweh had given him. Eli insisted that Samuel tell him God’s message by pronouncing a mild curse. He said, “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” (1 Samuel 3:17). Samuel then told Eli everything the Lord had spoken to him. Eli accepted God’s judgment upon his family, “may the Lord do what he thinks is right.”
Learning from Samuel
The narrative detailing how God spoke to Samuel and how Samuel learned to recognize the voice of God provides a blueprint on prayer and on how to hear God’s voice. Samuel’s journey provides five steps for effective prayer.
When Samuel heard the voice of God, Samuel was in a place where faith was possible. Samuel was where God was in the temple, near the ark of God (1 Samuel 3:3–4). Because he was in the temple and because he was near the Ark, a symbol of God’s presence with his people, Samuel was able to feel God’s presence and hear the voice of God speaking to him.
Listen to God
Samuel believed that Eli was calling him, but Eli realized that it was God who was speaking to Samuel. When praying, one must distinguish between the voice of the heart and the voice of God, between the thoughts of one’s own mind and the message from God’s mind. When listening to God, one must listen and discern what comes from him and what comes from one’s heart.
Evaluate What Is Heard
When listening to God, one must evaluate the message and what is heard. What Samuel heard from God had already been spoken by God through a prophet. When Jeremiah wanted to validate the true message of God from what a false prophet was proclaiming, Jeremiah invoked “the prophets who lived before you and me” (Jeremiah 28:8). The true word of God must be consistent with what God had said before. What Samuel heard God say was what God had already said.
Obey the Word
When Samuel heard the voice of God, his response was a response of obedience, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Hebrew word translated in English as “hear” has the basic meaning of “pay attention” and to “obey.” Samuel heard God’s word and he declared that he was ready to obey. His response was a response of obedience to the voice of God. When God speaks one must obey.
Know Who Is Speaking
When God spoke to Samuel, Samuel did not know it was God who was speaking to him. God had to repeat what he said to Samuel three more times. God spoke to Samuel but Samuel could not recognize his voice. The Bible says that God is patient with his people (Nehemiah 9:30). In his patience, God waited for Samuel to understand because God knows that humans have problems in hearing and understanding what he is trying to say to them.
Discerning God’s Will
Samuel struggled to recognize the voice of God, but after four times, Samuel learned how to distinguish between the voice of God and the voice of Eli. In the end, Samuel knew that it was God who was speaking to him.
The struggle to recognize the voice of God was very important to Samuel as a judge and as a prophet. From an early time in his life, Samuel had to learn how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of Eli. He had to learn how to distinguish the voice of his heart from the voice of God. Samuel learned to listen to God and in the process, he also learned how to distinguish between his will and the will of God.
This ability to discern God’s will became very important in two events that greatly impacted the life of Israel. Samuel had to listen to God and not to the voice of his heart in selecting a king for Israel.
The Selection of Saul
When the elder of the people came to Samuel and told him “appoint a king to lead us” (1 Samuel 8:5), Samuel was very displeased because he knew that by selecting a human king, the people were rejecting Yahweh as their king. Samuel was against kingship. However, God came to Samuel and told him, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7). The voice of Samuel’s heart said, “no king.” Samuel, however, heard the voice of God and he anointed Saul as king. Because Samuel had learned how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of his heart, he was able to do what God commanded him to do.
The Selection of David
After God rejected the kingship of Saul, Yahweh commanded Samuel to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse and anoint one of his sons as the new king. Samuel did not want to go. He said to God, “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2). God again told Samuel to go and he obeyed.
When Samuel came to Jesse’s house to anoint his son as the new king in Israel, Jesse brought before Samuel his first born to be anointed. The voice of Samuel’s heart said, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD” (1 Samuel 16:6). But the Lord spoke to Samuel and said, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
The voice of Samuel’s heart said one thing; the voice of God said something else. Because early in his life Samuel had learned how to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of Eli, Samuel made the right decision and anointed David, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
Prayer was the way Samuel connected himself to God. Prayer is talking to God, but biblical prayer is not a monologue, it is not sending a message to God declaring obedience to the voice of one’s own heart. More than once Samuel had to learn that the voice of his heart was not the voice of God. Biblical prayer is the communication between two persons, God and a human being. Because Samuel learned how to pray and discern the will of God from his own will, God declared Samuel to be a man of prayer. When God told Jeremiah that judgment was coming upon the people of Judah because of their rebellion, God told Jeremiah not to pray for the people. Then God told Jeremiah, “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people” (Jeremiah 15:1).
On May 30, 2021, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-21 titled “Samuel: Lessons From a Remarkable Child – Hearing God.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
Jeff begins his sermon by talking about how an old telephone switchboard was used to connect people. When people made international connections with family members who lived overseas, the operators made the connection to help people talk to family and friends. Jeff said that prayer is a way for people to connect with God. God reveals himself and speaks to his people through the Holy Spirit. People must learn how to hear the voice of God and how to distinguish God’s voice from the voice of their own hearts.
In his sermon Jeff tells how he became the pastor of The Compass Church. His experience as a pastor has been focused on hearing the voice of God. His job as pastor of The Compass Church was based on hearing the voice of God. He heard God’s voice about marrying his future wife, about the adoption of his two children, and about helping people to follow God.
Jeff concludes by affirming that life is exciting because God speaks to us. Life is exciting because we are able to hear the voice of God guiding us daily. When people live on the fringes of faith, to hear from God will make all the difference in their lives.
The Sermon: “Samuel: Lessons From a Remarkable Child – Hearing God” by Jeff Griffin.
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Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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