READ : 1 Samuel 3
Little Samuel was dedicated by his parents to the Lord’s service from the day he was born. He learned an important lesson at a very young age about how to listen to God, and respond.
Do you know the wonderful story of the prophet Samuel’s birth? A man called Elkanah and
his wife Hannah were devout Israelites who lived near the end of the period of the Judges
in the Old Testament. Each year, the Bible says, they made a pilgrimage to the shrine at
Shiloh in the territory of Ephraim. This was where Eli the high priest lived and served,
and where the ark of the covenant was housed in a sanctuary. Elkanah loved his wife
Hannah, but there was a great sadness in her life. She was barren, which to an Israelite
woman was the worst of tragedies. And if that weren’t bad enough, Elkanah had a second
wife, Peninah, who had numerous children, and who never missed an opportunity to make
Hannah miserable as she drove home the difference between them.
What an awful place that home must have been, filled with envy, spite, and cruel and
bitter words. Godly Hannah carried the daily grief of her childlessness, but along with it
the burden of Peninah’s jealous hatred of her because she was Elkanah’s favorite. The
human psyche was not designed for three people to fit into one marriage. So Hannah wept
and wept at her rival’s cruelty until she could not eat, and her fumbling husband tried to
comfort her. “Hannah, what’s the matter? Why are you crying? Don’t I mean more to you than
A man can never really understand the longings and deepest feelings of a woman, even
one that he loves. But Hannah did know someone who would understand her, and one year as
they visited Shiloh, she entered the temple to lay her pain before the Lord. Foolish old
Eli, the ignorant priest, saw Hannah at her devotions and took her to be drunk. He rebuked
her, until Hannah’s beautiful answer caused Eli to change his censure into blessing. This
is how we read the story:
As [Hannah] continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was
speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli
took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk?
Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in
spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul
before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have
been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and
the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your
servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no
1 Samuel 1:12-16
Isn’t that a lovely little story? Hannah’s heart was eased after her prayer was
answered, her burdens were lifted. She left with the assurance that the Lord had heard and
would answer her prayer, and we read in the sequel to the story that “the Lord remembered
her” (1:19; what a marvelous phrase that is!). “And in due time,” we read, “Hannah
conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for
him from the Lord'” (1:20).
“Speak, Lord, Your Servant Is Listening”
Fast-forward a few years. Little Samuel has, in his mother’s words, been “lent to the
Lord” (1:28). Hannah had dedicated her son to the God even before he was born (1:11), and
when the promised child finally arrived, she did not forget her vow. As soon as little
Samuel was old enough, Hannah took him up to Shiloh and left him there with Eli to grow up
in the sanctuary and help in the ministry of altar and ark before the Lord. Samuel would
spend his entire life as one devoted completely to God’s service.
Some years passed, during which Samuel faithfully assisted old Eli with his priestly
duties. The biblical writer says that “the boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under
Eli,” and adds the comment that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were
not many visions” (3:1, NIV). We already know from earlier comments by the writer that
Eli’s two sons, Hoffni and Phinias, who also served with him as priests were utterly
worthless. They cared nothing for the Lord (chapter 2:12). They were the very worst kind
of religious leaders: cynical unbelievers who treated religion as a racket just to make
themselves rich. So spiritual conditions in Israel were just about as bad as they could
get. In addition to official corruption among the priesthood, there was no prophet, or
spokesman, who could declare the truth of God’s word to the people, no vision to be shared
from the Lord.
In these circumstances young Samuel received his call to ministry as both a judge and a
prophet of the Lord. God will not for long leave himself without a witness among his
people. Just when it looks like things are totally corrupt, when spiritual conditions seem
hopeless, the Lord will raise up new servants to proclaim his word, teach his truth, and
call people back to himself. The lovely story of Samuel’s call in the night is one such
He was twelve years old, according to Jewish tradition, the night he heard the Lord
calling his name. At first he thought it was Eli who needed his help. The Bible says that
Samuel had not yet known the Lord, at least not in the sense of hearing his voice directly
and receiving a message to deliver to others (v. 7). So it was old Eli who first realized
just what was happening. He told Samuel how to respond. “The next time you hear his call,”
the old priest said, you should reply, `Speak, Lord, for your servant hears'” (v. 9). And
Samuel did just that. He responded in faith and obedience, just as Eli had coached him,
and from that time forward, Samuel became a great prophet and judge in Israel (vv. 19-20).
The Last Judge
So Samuel grew up to lead the people of Israel. Eli’s death came soon thereafter in the
aftermath of God’s judgment upon his whole family (2:12-18). That judgment came in the
form of a disastrous defeat suffered by Israel at the hands of the Philistines, a defeat
that included the loss of the ark of the covenant and the destruction of the city of
Shiloh, which had until then been the center of Israel’s worship (cf. Jeremiah 7:12).
Taken together, these events constituted an unparalleled disaster for the people of
Israel. The high priest was dead, and his family wiped out, the Tabernacle dismantled, and
the ark, which soon proved to be nothing but trouble for the Philistines, ended up in
storage in a private home in a village of Judea. Thus the situation continued for twenty
years of Samuel’s leadership (1 Samuel 7:2). Israel’s religious life lay in a shambles,
and politically, economically and militarily she suffered under the domination of her
deadly enemy Philistia.
But then at last Samuel’s leadership bore fruit. He led a great spiritual revival which
climaxed in victory over the Philistines. I think it’s interesting to compare the
activities of Samuel and the other famous Israelite judge of just that same period,
Samson. Both of these judges were active during the time of Philistine domination over
Israel, and both served as rallying points for the people of God against their enemies.
But while Samson’s deeds were heroic, individualistic, spectacular, they were also largely
ineffectual. Driven by his own passions, the great strongman gained personal fame by
killing Philistines, but his heroics accomplished nothing for Samson’s people as a
By contrast, Samuel worked quietly but effectively behind the scenes. He preached God’s
word. He judged the people, working all along to bring about repentance, renewal, and
ultimately national deliverance. For twenty years he labored quietly — no stirring
battles, no defiant acts — teaching the people the Word of the Lord, calling them
back to faithfulness to God’s Law until at last Samuel’s work bore fruit, when, as the
Bible says, “all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:2).
There was this great national time of repentance. Samuel called a huge assembly at a place
called Mizpah where the people of Israel fasted and prayed, confessed their sins, and
conducted a liturgy of reconsecration to the Lord (1 Sam. 7:3-6).
When the Philistines learned of this activity, which, in effect, constituted a
rebellion against their rule and their religion, they drew near to attack, but God
delivered his people with a decisive victory over the pagan hosts (vv. 7-11). Samuel
commemorated that day by setting up a monument that he called “Ebenezer,” which means,
“Stone of help,” for, as he said, “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (v. 12).
That tremendous victory at Mizpah brought lasting benefits to the people of Israel. Not
only did they enjoy peace from their enemies in Philistia, not only did they recover their
lost territory, but for the first time since Joshua’s day the tribes experienced a
significant degree of unity under the leadership of Samuel. He eventually settled in his
ancestral home at Ramah, in the hill country of Ephraim, but Samuel would follow a circuit
each year in judging the people of Israel which took him to all the major religious
centers of the land.
In addition to Mizpah, Samuel visited Bethel, the famous place where Jacob had seen his
visions of the Lord and where even earlier Abraham had lived and worshiped. He also
traveled to Gilgal just west of the Jordan river, the site of Israel’s first camp in the
promised land, the place where Joshua had set up the twelve stones of remembrance which
commemorated the crossing of the Jordan (vv. 16-17).
Such was the ministry of Israel’s last and greatest judge. But the time was at hand
when the people would demand a king, just like their neighbors, and God would give them what
they wanted. True, it wouldn’t turn out quite like they were hoping and expecting, but the
Lord would use too, as he uses all things, to further his own plan of salvation and to
enhance his glory.