The chapter opens with a reminder of the environment in Shiloh: relative godlessness. Recall the priest’s Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas from chapter two. They sought their own pleasure instead of fulfilling the commandments of God. Their father the priest Eli was also inadequate in that he did not oversee the temple activities properly, allowing his corrupted sons to participate in unsanctioned and sinful practices. In these surroundings the prophet Samuel comes of age. He will fill the void of godlessness, self-service, and neglect with the voice of God. In addition to the poor environment, we are also told that there had not been other prophets revealing the Word of God in those days.
Samuel was just a boy at this time, but God decided that he was ready to begin speaking the Word of Lord to the people. Samuel, having been given to God by his mother as a small child, lived with Eli in the temple, helping with the tasks and jobs required to maintain temple activities. Verse two tells us that Eli was growing older, his eyesight growing so poor that it was difficult for him to see.
As we begin the main sequence of this chapter, there is foreshadowing in verse three: “and before the lamp of God went out in the tabernacle of the Lord where the ark of God was…” In coming chapters, we will see the ark stolen and the light which is supposed to continually burn go out.
Events commence in a domestic scene as we picture Eli and Samuel sleeping at night in a common tent or structure, if not in the same room. Samuel hears a voice calling his name and it happens four separate times. Each of the first three times, Samuel believes it is Eli calling out for some sort of help in the night. After the third time of Samuel coming to Eli and asking, “Did you call me?”, Eli recognizes that God is the one calling Samuel in the night. Eli tells Samuel in verse nine: “Go, lie down; and it shall be, if He calls you, that you must say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.’”
When Samuel entreats God to speak to him after the fourth time God calls to him in the night, God speaks to Samuel directly. The content of this first message is that God will complete the actions against Eli that were proclaimed by the unnamed prophet in chapter two. In I Samuel 2:27-36, it is prophesied that Eli and his house will be ostracized from the house of God, with their descendants begging to be fed by the new inhabitants of the tabernacle. This is because Eli’s sons were “vile and he did not restrain them.” Hophni and Phinehas were also pronounced to die on the same day.
After receiving his first words from God, Samuel lays down until morning, but the text does not say the he slept. Would any of us be able to sleep in such a situation? Think of it: Samuel had lived with Eli from a very young age. Eli was surely a father figure to Samuel and had taught him all the ways of God and maintaining the tabernacle. Even though Eli was a flawed priest and father, Samuel still must have felt betrayal, shame, and embarrassment in hearing God’s harsh judgment against Eli. Samuel is afraid to tell Eli all that God has told him of the coming punishment.
But Eli is eager to hear from Samuel what God told him in the night. Showing faithfulness in both his new relationship with God and his relationship with Eli, Samuel tells Eli everything that God said, holding nothing back. Samuel’s open-hearted proclamation shows his worthiness as a prophet. In kind, Eli hears and accepts all of these things, showing that he was aware of his faults to some extent and was willing to pay the price for them. Eli says, “It is the Lord. Let Him do what seems good to Him.” The chapter ends with the Lord being with Samuel as he grows. Samuel will perform honorably as a prophet of God and all of Israel comes to know that the word of God comes from the prophet Samuel who resides in Shiloh.
Eli’s spirit is willing to accept the judgment and punishment from God because he understands the sanctity of God’s Word and that there are real consequences at stake for breaking His commandments. There is something for us to learn by Eli’s example. We have all sinned and still do from time to time. Accepting the reality of the consequences of our sins and the attached consequences is an honorable thing. Not only will we be better prepared to repent by maintaining such an attitude, but we will also not hold God in contempt. Holding God in contempt produces rebellion and alienation. Much better are we to accept our punishment and resolve to change our ways.
Likewise, Samuel’s attitude holds lessons for us as well. Even though he was young, he still understood the weight of his responsibility and carried it through honorably. He did not let excuses such as his youth, his relationships, or his (supposed) anxiety get in the way of doing what God asked him to do. Our spirit should yield like Eli’s when confronted with our sin and its consequences, yet it should also be unshrinking like Samuel’s in the face of doing the hard things necessary to accomplish the will of God.