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 ten sons?”
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 longer sad. (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 example.
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 whole.
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.