Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 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. Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and 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. And 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. And 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. Therefore 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. And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:1–10).
This passage reveals how God can raise up and train new leaders in the midst of enemies, even while a wicked world order is still in place. That order and its leaders may be the establishment, but they are not in control of the big picture, nor are they the future of the land. God is provident. He works behind the scenes to raise up new leaders for a new generation. He will even use the unwitting establishment itself to help train the leaders that will replace it. What little good there is left in the failed establishment may be used to pass on legitimacy to the new leader—in this case, Samuel—who will be a new light and bring a new order faithful to God. That new faithful order will be marked by a revival of God’s Word and a fresh application of that Word in the land. This is the story of a new light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not comprehending it, but also not being able to do anything about it.
A Failure of Vision
The text begins by noting that the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision (3:1). In an era in which Israel was still expected to be involved in conquest and was yet surrounded by enemies, fresh revelations from God were important. The written word of God—at this point, just the Pentateuch—existed, but copies would have been almost non-existent and read only by the priests. Some oral tradition made its way into the general population, and thus Hannah could reference a song of Moses in her prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1–11. But when it came to the advancement of this small kingdom of God surrounded by her enemies, the nation—via her judges and priests—relied upon the direct revelations of God to guide them. But the flow of revelations—vision—had dried up.
Such a dearth of God’s Word indicated God’s judgment upon the land. God does not stonewall His people for no reason; He is faithful to His promises. But when they have already turned their backs on Him, He responds often by withdrawing His presence in some way or other. God’s Word to His prophets is often enough referred to as a “vision” (Is. 1:1; Oba. 1:1; Nah. 1:1; Hab. 2:2–3). The absence of such visions often enough appears in the context of judgment (Lam. 2:9; Ezek. 22:2; Mic. 3:6). Indeed, the very next generation after Samuel—that is, in this case, Solomon—would understand this lesson well, as the Proverb reflects:
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint [perish—KJV], but blessed is he who keeps the law (Prov. 29:18).
Note that the possession of such “vision” parallels the keeping of the law of God (torah). The lack of such vision thus indicates the opposite, and the result of such law-breaking is that the people “perish” or “are loosed.” Recall Jesus saying that if you smite the Shepherd the sheep will be scattered, and you’ll better understand the greater point here. Compare also God’s judgment of scattering the people after the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:8). Reject the Word of God, and the people will suffer the fate of “loosing” or “scattering.” It is an image of dispossession and impotence. It is an image of impending disinheritance.
Simultaneous with this, we are told that Eli’s eyes began to wax dim, or “decay.” This is both a literal and spiritual reality. The “man of God” had already prophesied this as judgment against Eli in the previous chapter: “that your eyes may fail from weeping and your soul grieve” (2:33). We see this beginning here and culminating in 4:15 when Eli is 98 years old and has totally gone blind. On that same day the ark is captured and his sons killed. In 3:2, we see the beginning of this process, and it leads to Eli’s failure to do a fundamental duty of the priesthood: keep the lamps of the tabernacle to burn continually all night until morning (Ex. 27:20–21). Eli’s personal failure of vision as a covenantal representative ripples into ecclesiastical and national blindness and darkness as well. There should always have been light in God’s tabernacle. And God’s people should always have been a light unto the nations (Deut. 4:5–8; Isa. 42:6; 60:3; Matt. 5:14–16; Acts. 13:47).
In 3:3, Israel’s lamp has not yet gone out for the night, but was fading. This indicates it was probably in the very early morning before dawn. It also parallels the waning of Eli’s vision. The fading light symbolizes God’s soon departure from the tabernacle, the dearth of the vision/word of God in the land, and the spiritual blindness and disobedience of Israel’s priestly and kingly leadership. The light itself symbolizes many things in reference to God: His Spirit (Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), life, presence, guidance, and Word (John 1:5, 8). But even if God’s light still shines, Eli could hardly see it any more.
In this setting, God’s Word breaks into the darkness afresh and a new awakening occurs. This occurs with Samuel, not Eli. Again, this is the beginning of the disinheritance of the house of Eli. We also see the advance of the new heir to the priesthood and leadership, Samuel. Thus all these images and ideas work together to reinforce the same lesson: the old light/vision/word is about to snuffed and a new light is about to shine.
The New Light
There is an interesting interplay in this transition. The Word of the Lord had not come for some time. Eli had likely grown used to its absence. He may have grown dull to it in general. When it comes afresh, it comes to Samuel who has never heard it before at all. Samuel mistakes it for Eli’s voice, and wakes up the old man to see what he wants. He is sent back to bed, likely wondering what in the world he ate that caused these strange dreams. The episode is repeated until, in a third instance, Eli finally realizes the boy is hearing God’s voice. He instructs the boy to respond in submission and willing service when the Lord calls again.
Sure enough, the Lord comes. He not only comes, he came and stood, which means this is a theophany—a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Lord. Just as the Lord manifested Himself to Abraham (Gen. 17:1; 18:1–33), to Jacob (Gen. 32:24–30), to Moses (Ex. 3:2–6), and to Joshua (Josh. 5:13–15) up to this point, so He appears to the next great leader of Israel, Samuel. This would have carried unmistakable meaning for the ancient reader or listener, and likely also for Samuel and Eli if he knew: a new major leader was to be given charge. A new order was about to be established.
The Lord then speaks a fourth time and Samuel does just as Eli instructed. The Lord wasted no time getting to the point. There was no, “Hi, hello, my name is. . . .” It was straight into a message of judgment, confirming what Hannah and the man of God both had already prophesied in the previous chapter:
Then 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. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And 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. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Sam. 3:11–14).
The translators use the word “tingle,” but this isn’t forceful enough. The text is not talking about shampoo. The Hebrew word tsalal seems to refer generally to sound or vibrations, but is used very elastically in many contexts. The Greek Old Testament translates it with echeo, from which we get our word “echo.” It means “resound” or even “roar.” Jesus used this word to describe massive judgment: “And there will be . . . on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring [echous] of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25). A good Hebrew parallel seems to be Habakuk 3:16, where God’s message of judgment made the prophet’s lips “quiver.” Tsalal is there twice set parallel to ragaz: “tremble” or “quake.” The image is of a shaking and quaking in fearful trepidation upon hearing of God’s impending judgment. This fits perfectly well with Samuel’s context as well. The message of judgment to come would be so frightful that the mere hearing of it would resound an alarm to make the ears tremble—presumably implying that the soul, indeed the whole person would tremble subsequently as well. Though a different Hebrew word is used, what we have here is a fearful trembling like what happened when God spoke at Sinai (Ex. 19:16). It is for good reason: Eli and his house had broken that very covenant.
God promises He will in that day fulfill everything He prophesied against the house of Eli. While we will see this begin to come to pass in the death of Eli and his sons in the next chapter, it will not be furthered until the entire priesthood of that generation is wiped out by Saul in chapter 22. In reality, however, there is even then one priest left, and the prophecy is not fully fulfilled until Christ Himself totally replaces the priesthood (Heb. 7:12). That same Christ pronounced judgment upon the old covenant priesthood and its priestly order, the temple system (Matt. 24). Just as like Eli’s eyes and the lamp in the tabernacle were waxing dim in their day, the temple and whole old covenant system were “ready to vanish away” in the apostolic era (Heb. 8:13). That day for the priesthood arrived when the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
There is no way around it. God had laid a tremendous burden upon the young Samuel. For the boy’s first-ever announcement of the Word of God, he would have to reveal a terrible judgment to come upon his closest friends and guardians, the house of Eli. It would be a test of his faith and courage, as well as of his ultimate allegiance: God or man?
When Samuel rises in the morning, he is afraid to bear the bad news to Eli. He goes about his work in the tabernacle. My speculation is that wherever Samuel saw Eli that morning, Samuel made sure to be working on the far opposite side of the tabernacle. God had placed a serious truth upon Samuel’s lips, and that truth ran counter to the welfare of his teachers. He naturally would not want to relate such a painful truth.
But this situation could not last forever, for God has stacked the deck. The Word of God has been rare after all. A revelation would be a monumental occasion after so long a time. An eager Eli seeks out the lad and asks him the pointed question. Tell us everything, Samuel, and don’t you dare hold back anything. Samuel reveals the message of judgment, specifically upon the very person who was inquiring of him. It had to have been a difficult thing to say, but Samuel said it. His test was passed; Samuel was faithful to God. Now he awaited the reaction of Eli.
Eli is surprisingly accepting of his fate: It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him (3:18). Despite his failures in so many ways, Eli still understands basic theology. He understands the God he’s confronted with. God is provident and His Word shall come to pass.
Eli’s stoic acceptance of condemnation upon his own head is understandable once we realize that God had orchestrated the whole scenario. The thrice-repeated calling to Samuel and Samuel’s running to disturb sleeping Eli was no tedium of detail in the story. It was God involving Eli intimately in the young man’s development until the old priest was undeniably invested in the fact that Samuel was hearing directly from God. His instruction ensured that Samuel would respond and receive a genuine word from God. His investment and acquiescence in the situation ensured that Eli would acknowledge whatever Samuel heard as de facto the Word of God. Thus, God dragged Eli into the situation and caused him to be complicit in Samuel’s reception of the Word. The next morning, Eli was on the edge of his seat: tell me, tell me, tell me. When that Word came, even though it was thoroughly negative against Eli, Eli had little choice but to accept it: he had taught the boy how to receive the Word, and the Word was what he got.
What we see here is God’s use of His enemy—despite his unworthiness and dispossession—to help develop the up-and-coming leader in his calling. But in this very relationship, the rejected Eli hears only God’s confirmation of the judgment upon him. It’s kind of like being asked to train your replacement at work, only to find out from him that he’s your replacement and you’re fired. Only this is much harsher: this would be judgment, disinheritance, and the malediction of a family legacy. God uses Eli’s participation in the child’s development as a prophet precisely so that Eli could not deny the authenticity and inevitability of the boy’s message of Eli’s own demise. God took Eli for what little he was worth and transferred that knowledge and experience to Samuel. Much like the Israelites plundering the Egyptians before they left and judgment fell, God spoiled the enemy in behalf of His faithful remnant, Samuel.
The text goes on to say that Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD (1 Sam. 3:19–20). It helped, perhaps, that Eli had acknowledged Samuel’s gift as genuine, but even had he not, God was the ultimate force behind Samuel’s quick fame. It was not about Samuel, really, but about the Word of the Lord. This is the one thing that remains true and trustworthy when men fail around us. God had established Samuel, yes, but more importantly, God established him as a prophet, and thus, God did not a single word of his fall to the ground—that is, fail to accomplish its purpose (Is. 55:11).
1. We must discern the voice of God
It is not difficult to see direct parallels between young Samuel’s times and our own. A nation of people who were once infused with the Word of God in every area of life have now grown dull and even hostile to it. We neglect it and often expel it by the force of civil government. In the face of this, our “priesthood” today—the churches—often cower in fear or stand in ideological indifference, and thus let many corruptions spread unimpeded and with the approval that silence lends. Like Eli, they watch the corruption in their sons, and while they may complain about it, they do nothing about it. Thus, there is no “vision” in the land—certainly not in the public square. It is not a far stretch to say that in most areas of life in our times, the Word of the Lord is indeed rare.
In the midst of such failure of vision, and of the scattering, perishing social mores that follow it, it is the duty of Christians to hear the voice of God calling to us in the darkness. But unlike Samuel, we need not wait until we hear his audible voice. We need not wait for such a special visitation, nor need we be trained in learning to discern His audible voice from someone else’s. We have the tremendous privilege of having His written Law-Word easily accessible in our hands. We need no special training to find that Word and identify it: it is right there in the Bible. Take and read, and let the Spirit begin your enlightenment—for all of man and society—there. The first step in revitalizing churches and nations is to make the Word of God once again central in every area of life. The first step in accomplishing this task is for individual Christians to get busy doing this themselves. Just as Eli’s dimming eyes and the fading lamp of God went hand in hand, so we must recognize that our spiritual sight is directly proportional to the presence of the Word in our lives. This is true in regard to both the person of Christ and the written text of the Word of God.
There is one way in which we may be like young Samuel who was unlearned in discerning the voice of God. We may be unlearned—or even averse because we have been deceived—in discerning how that Word applies to all of life. You may have never considered the economic, educational, and political ramifications of the Word of God. You may have been taught by your pastors that the Word does not even apply to these things. But take and read, and you will learn quickly that there is no major area of life in which God’s Law does not give “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). And when you learn this—like Samuel learning to hear the voice of God when he had not heard it before—you will also gain the boldness to acknowledge that those pastors are a large part of the reason that there is a dearth of the Word of the Lord in this land in the first place. Many of these guys, like Eli, need to be replaced by new lights.
For the one constant through this whole passage is the Word of God. Eli fails, the priests fail, the liturgy fails, the people fail, and even Samuel needs help to get through. But the Word of God is the one solid rock and vitalizing force throughout it all. The multiple failures that are recorded here all occur because of the neglect of God’s Word. Samuel’s inexperience is nothing but inexperience in receiving the Word. And the Word Himself is the cure for all of these ills from start to finish. Likewise today. All of our ills can be traced to a neglect of the Word. All of the failures in our lives, in family, church, and state have compounded gradually as we slowly let the Word lose its centrality in one thing after another. As we neglected it, our lives and institutions waned, the light in society faded, and darkness encroached. And yet there is not a single instance in which the Word of God is not still the answer and remedy. It is still the one constant that will prevail when all else will fail and decay. It is the only thing upon which we can depend with unwavering certainty. Why are we so slow to seek it and to learn from it?
2. We must keep the lamp lit
Just as we need to recover the Word of God for every area of life, we just as desperately need to hold it forth as the light of the world. Jesus called us to do this explicitly:
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:13–16).
One preacher quipped against Christians engaging culture by pointing out that we are not here called to become salt, but that we already are salt. But I don’t see how this changes the picture much. It in fact rather establishes the need to make sure of our saltiness. After all, Jesus’ point here is not of salt versus no salt; it is rather about good salt versus bad salt. He is thus saying that there is no neutrality in life. Either you are salt that transfers its savor to the culture, or you are tasteless rock salt that will be thrown out trampled underfoot by the culture.
The same is true of being the light of the world. The point is that you are in fact the light of the world. It’s not a question of hiding that city on a hill or not. That city cannot be hidden. The whole purpose of lighting that candle is to light the whole room. So, if you have light, make sure your world-light does its job: light the whole world. The question will be this: what kind of light is the world seeing from you? Is it a dim and waning light like under Eli’s watch? Or is it a powerful flood light that illuminates the whole house? Better yet, is your light connected to the Gospel grid and networked throughout society to light the whole city? And another question: where can your light be seen? Do you hide your light in certain places? Is it only a private, personal light, or do you let that light shine in the public square, too, in education, in the halls of government, in your business, finances, and other dealings with men? Or do you hide it under the basket when you venture into these areas? Because, again, there is no neutrality here: your light is either shining, or it is not.
As noted earlier, Jesus’ teaching here is nothing short of the original mission given to Israel, and this included the entire law of God providing an example to all nations:
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut. 4:5–8).
I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness (Isa. 42:6–7).
This remains true in the New Testament era:
For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47 ESV).
We must therefore take our individual understanding of the voice of God in all areas of life and translate that into a corporate understanding in the larger body of Christ. We need to preach the whole counsel of God from our pulpits, train up young Samuels for our day, and support ministries that have taken the lead in such projects. For if we keep the Gospel only to ourselves privately, resting upon padded pews and enclosed within the four walls of our ecclesiastical comfort zones, how is that not hiding so much of our light under a basket? How is that not refusing to bring the savor of our salt to the whole world?
Again, just as the fading lamp of God paralleled the waning light of Eli, so the dearth of God’s presence in our society is a direct outgrowth of the failure of vision among our spiritual leaders. The church must become the leading voice in society, confronting culture with the preaching of God’s Word. Else, the church will be resigned and conformed to the declining society it itself has produced. In short, social decline is a death spiral created by the vicious cycle of, first, ecclesiastical failure, then, ecclesiastical resignation to the results of its own failure. And what can be said of such a church but that it is being trampled underfoot by society?
3. God is in control, even of the wicked establishment
It is often pointed out that the when Paul taught us to obey “the powers that be” (Rom. 13), the most wicked of the Roman emperors, Nero, was on the throne. Thus, many assume, we should tolerate and obey even the wickedest of leaders among us silently and passively. But this narrative reveals that at the very least, God is working behind to scenes to judge, dispose, and replace wicked rulers. In fact, He may use the wicked to raise up and even to train those who will watch those same wicked ones fall and replace them. Thus we should not tolerate and obey wicked rulers (whether civil or ecclesiastical) with mindless loyalty, but only insofar as we understand that God is planning to judge those wicked ones at some point in history. It is not our place to scheme and conspire to depose them. But it is our solemn duty to receive and embrace God’s Word, to preach even the harshest parts of that Word to their faces when the opportunity arises. If and when the time comes, we must study their fall, communicate its meaning to others, and be ready ourselves to lead on.
We learn from this also that it is sometimes necessary to work from within the system. This does not legitimize tax-funded positions, for these are based on theft from the people. But the principle renders acceptable some positions within organizations that may have become corrupt in some ways. I have political parties in mind, generally, but there are certainly other possibilities. I will not speculate on specifics here, but leave those to your Christian conscience. The point is that sometimes we find ourselves in similar situations where “purity” may call us to retreat, but God may have put us there to reform or to bring a message of judgment.
More importantly, and less controversially, we may learn certain valuable lessons about leadership, calling, etc., even from God’s enemies. Again, this does not justify any given person or any particular thing they teach. But we should not fear to speak with, discuss, debate, or even listen to and learn from fallen men, given one particular caveat: we always do so with the Word of God as the final test of the value of what we consider. Like St. Paul, we must “judge all things” (1 Cor. 2:15). This is the mark of the “spiritual person.” But if we are to judge all things, we must not be afraid to encounter all things and hear all things first (overt sins excepted, of course). At the end of the day, we judge such things according to the Word of God.
4. We need courageous faith
The most difficult part of this story is when Samuel has to tell Eli that the much-anticipated Word that came was a fierce message of judgment upon Eli’s head. Eli considered Samuel a son (3:16), and Samuel would have known this. Imagine hearing your son condemn you to your face, claiming it was a prophecy from God. Whether or not he returned affection, Samuel would still have been sensitive to Eli’s reaction to a great degree—both as his assumed “father” and as the high priest of the land. In short, this was no easy message to bring. Great courage was required in order to obey the command of God rather than the face of men.
Likewise, when we begin to preach and to live by the whole counsel of God in every area of life, we are immediately confronted with decisions, situations, and lifestyles that are unpopular, and indeed, are often ridiculed, lied about, and even slandered. We may wake up every morning like Samuel, fearful to say publicly what we really know to be true. But that is a special test which God saves to prove His faithful remnant. We are tested in our courage and in our faithfulness to Him whether we will live out and show our vision to the world or not. And sometimes when we remain silent and try to keep quiet under the guise of going about our daily work, God prepares us an Eli to call us out and ask us point blank, “What is the Word?” He puts us in situations where we cannot escape the choice of either being faithful to Him or selling Him out.
And at the end of the day, we may find ourselves in a position of having to expose and condemn the very people who helped us along the way. They may have grown wicked in the meantime, or we may have grown beyond them in our own spiritual advancement, and now see that they were compromised or even wicked all along. Again, when the situation arises, we must obey God rather than men.
5. The Gospel
The Gospel appears throughout this passage. We have hinted at it already at several points. Samuel was a new light shining in the darkness that Israel had become. His appearance on the scene brought hope to many, certainly. But before any such hope would materialize, some house cleaning had to take place. There was a message of impending judgment. All of this foreshadows Jesus, who is the true Light shining in the darkness (John 1:4–9). He judged the wicked nation of Israel in His time, and replaced that old, wicked priesthood. He is the full manifestation of God who wakes us from our slumber, speaks difficult truth into our lives, and challenges us with tasks that drive us to become sanctified, and develop our courage and faith.
Samuel arose from His encounter with God to go about his business: he began by opening the doors to the house of the Lord (1 Sam. 3:15). Jesus is the true servant in the house of God, who opens the doors of faith, access to God, and Spirit-led opportunity (John 10:2, 7, 9; Acts 5:19; 14:27; 16:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3; Heb. 10:19–20; Rev. 3:8). And as such opportunity for kingdom work is wide open before us, Jesus speaks His word to us in the midst of the darkness of our age and of our society, and He commissions us with particular callings to serve Him in the midst of our enemies.
And finally, He comes and stands in our midst every time we gather as a body for worship. He visits us when the Word is preached, and He is present with us when we come to the table He has prepared for us. At that table we renew our covenant with Him, remembering the service He performed for us and on our behalf—a service unto death, even the death of the cross. And in that fellowship meal we repent and rejoice as He is standing right in the room with us, just as with Samuel, giving us His flesh and blood and speaking His powerful Word directly into our lives. And His sacrifice is not only for us and on our behalf; it is also an example that we should go a do likewise.