What to Do When God Speaks (I Samuel 3)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: 1 Samuel 3:1–3:21
Crying for a King
This morning we return once again to the book of Samuel, specifically to chapter 3. Let’s work through this passage together in an attempt to understand the original author’s intention (that’s author with a small “a”) in an attempt to understand the heavenly Author’s intentions (that’s author with a capital “A”), His intentions for us as His people.
II. The Passage: "Speak, Lord, for You Servant Hears" (3:1-4:1a)
Now last week you may remember that we skipped ahead to chapter 4 and saw there one tragedy after another: we saw how the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, we saw how the Ark of the Covenant was captured, and we saw how Eli, his sons, and even his daughter-in-law died in connection with this national humiliation.
So as we come to chapter 3, we are of course coming to events that take place before this battle. How long before is not known. But also remember where we’ve come from in this book. The first two chapters of I Samuel have drawn a line in the sand in terms of faithfulness to God. We learned that on one side of that line, the side of faithfulness, stands Hannah, and eventually her son, Samuel. On the other side of that line, the side of unfaithfulness, stands Eli and his two sons.
Let’s keep this in mind as we look together at this passage.
A. Setting the Scene (3:1)
Look with me at the very first verse, I Samuel 3:1:
Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
The author is establishing the scene for us here in verse 1. He reminds us that Samuel, who was brought by his mother as a boy to Shiloh to serve God, Samuel is still here ministering with Eli, the chief priest. Remember what we learned from chapter 2 about Samuel:
And the boy ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest…Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy clothed with a linen ephod…And the young man Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord…Now the young man Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man. (I Samuel 2:11, 18, 21, 26)
The first part of verse 1 is just another affirmation of Samuel’s unique role in Shiloh. It’s the second half of verse 1 that is setting the stage for what we’re about to read. We read there that a “word” or “oracle” from God was rare in those days. “Visions” from God were infrequent.
While it may not appear to be the case at first, this note about the rarity of God’s communication is also a note about Eli and his household. We will be reminded later in Samuel, in chapter 28, that there were in Israel items called the Urim and Thummim, which were used to receive guidance from God.
Who possessed these items at this point, when Samuel was a boy? The books of Moses tell us that the Urim and Thummim were kept in the breastplate of the High Priest. That’s Eli. So we have here another reminder of the judgment that has fallen on Eli and his family and their ministry at Shiloh. While the noise of the priest’s sin has been heard all over Israel, God has been quiet. These priests receive no guidance from God.
B. Recognizing the Word of God (3:2-7)
So in light of these circumstances, let’s see how the story unfolds. Verse 2:
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3 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. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5 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. 6 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.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
Notice again how Eli and Samuel are contrasted in verses 2 and 3. Eli, because of his blindness, is sleeping in darkness in some other part of the Tabernacle. But Samuel is sleeping in the Holy place, in the temple, near the Ark of the Covenant, and near the lampstand and its light. This lampstand, according to Exodus 27, was to burn from evening until morning. So verse 3 is telling us it is not yet morning.
Why is Samuel sleeping in the temple? Well, we don't for sure, but it could be that Eli's failing eyesight is mentioned, along with the lampstand, as an indication that Eli need Samuel to watch the oil in the lamp, to make sure it didn't run out.
Whatever the reason, the story here is both amazing and humorous. Amazing because, in spite of the fact that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, here is God speaking to Samuel. It's obviously humorous because, as we read in verse, Samuel did not yet know the Lord, that is, he didn't know his voice...he didn't know him in terms of hearing the prophetic word of God.
And because Samuel does not know the Lord's voice he, of course, thinks Eli is calling him. Twice he goes to the old man, and twice is sent back to bed.
C. Receiving the Word of God (3:8-10)
But look what happens next in verses 8 through 10:
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 young man. 9 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.10 And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”
As we read in verse 8, God once again calls to Samuel, and when after he once again goes to Eli, Eli has enough sense to know God was doing something with Samuel. Even though Eli is old and almost blind, even though Eli has failed in so many ways in terms of his duty before God, he knows enough to give Samuel the best advice anyone could have given him at this point.
If God is actually calling to this boy, Samuel needs to know how to address the Lord of Creation. Eli give him those words in verse 9: Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.
And so when God calls to him yet a fourth time, Samuel is ready to respond like a prophet and not a child.
D. Repeating the Word of God (3:11-18)
Look at what God finally reveals to Samuel. Verses 11 through 18...
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. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 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. 14 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.” 15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”
When we talked about verse 1 several minutes ago, I failed to mention that even though God's word was rare in those days, it was not completely absent. We know this because at the end of chapter 2, we saw how “a man of God”, another title for a prophet, “a man of God” came to Eli with a message from the Lord.
And that message of judgment against Eli's house is reiterated here in verses 11-14. God seems to indicate that the fulfillment of his message about Eli and Eli's sons and Eli's descendants, will be carried out soon.
Of course, having worked through chapter 4 last week, we know that this judgment was carried out, all in one day. Others parts of God's judgment were yet to come, like the massacre of the priests of Nob in I Samuel 22, but the bitter beginning of God's promise was carried out swiftly.
Being a boy, or possibly a young teenager, it is not surprising that Samuel is afraid to speak to Eli, his mentor, his caretaker, to speak to him about the painful promise God announced to Samuel only hours earlier.
It is Eli who pressures the truth out of him, it is Eli who, apparently understanding that what Samuel received is another message about the curse that hangs over his house, it is Eli who demands to know what God has said.
As Samuel shares, Eli knows the boy has heard from God. Eli's earlier message from God, that message of condemnation, had apparently been kept secret. But now Samuel, this boy he has raised, this boy who has followed him like his own shadow, Samuel echos back the message of judgment.
And Eli can do nothing but accept that God has confirmed his decision and it will be done.
E. Recruited by the Word of God (3:19-4:1a)
But notice how the chapter concludes. Look at verses 3:19 through the first half of 4:1...
And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan [that's the extreme north] to Beersheba [the extreme south of Israel] knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. 21 And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 4:1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
The author of I Samuel wants his readers to understand clearly that Samuel's amazing experience that night, Samuel's ability to hear God's voice, this was no fluke; it was not a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of occurrence. That was simply the first of many, many, many times that Samuel heard and communicated the voice of God.
As verse 20 makes clear, “Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord”. While a few prophets, like the “man of God” who appeared in the last chapter, have been mentioned before this in the Bible, Samuel is the first prophet who functions like most of the prophets described in the Old Testaments, prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, etc.
He is not a mysterious character who mysteriously appears once and then disappears. These prophets are God's servants who provide leadership to God's people in a variety of ways.
And as we read in verse 19, as should be case with a true prophet of God, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. God had spoken to Samuel, and Samuel spoke to Eli. God kept speaking to Samuel, and Samuel kept speaking to all of Israel.
III. Perspective: When His Word is Rare
Now, as we stop and think about the significance of this chapter, as we think about its significance for us as God’s people, we first need to step back and think about why the author believed this story would be so important for his original readers.
When you are dealing with narrative sections of Scripture, sections that tell a story, that give an account, one of the best ways to understand the emphasis of a particular passage is simply to look at how the passage begins and how it ends. What ‘movement’ is there in the passage? What changes from start to finish?
Here in I Samuel 3 the movement is clear, isn’t it? We begin in verse 1 with a statement that God’s word to His people was quite rare, and we finish the passage in verses 19 through 4:1 with statements about how God’s word was now quite common.
In a book that is ultimately about the coming of a king, in these opening chapters the writer is desperate to show his readers that Israel need not only a new priesthood, but that God’s people desperately needed new leadership.
And…listen…and that leadership desperately needed to be defined by its dependence on the word of God.
Those opening words in verse 1 should sting those who truly belong to God: And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
The Old Testament is clear about how desperately God’s people need God’s word. Proverbs 29 says… Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law. (Proverbs 29:18)
When talking about times of judgment, the prophet Amos declares:
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12 They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11, 12)
Do we recognize just how awful it is when God's word is rare?
The great hope that Samuel brought to God’s people was the great hope that God was again speaking to His people, guiding His people, leading His people. But it begins with His word!
Is the word of God rare in our day? We might think, “But we have the complete Bible, something Samuel didn’t have. We have the word of God, preserved in Scripture.” And that would be absolutely true. But that only modifies the question. Is the word of God, speaking through Scripture, rare in our day? Is it rare in your life?
If I asked about this past week, how frequently did you hear God’s voice as it boomed, or maybe whispered, from the pages of Scripture?
Again, do we recognize just how awful it is when God’s word is rare?
We are so prone to wander through famine stricken lands when it comes to God’s word. Like hungry people chewing on sticks, rocks, and dirts, we are too often content to feed off of human opinion, and worldly wisdom, and personal preference. But those things will not feed us, will they. They will not nourish us.
Are you like Israel this morning, Israel under the leadership of old, blind Eli? Do you feel like better days are behind you in terms of your relationship with God? Do you feel hungry?
I might raise eyebrows by saying this, but ultimately, it is not a completed Bible that makes the real difference for us; it is not simply a finalized prophetic word that counts. It is the content of that word.
Listen to an incredible passage from God’s word, one that shows us how God fulfilled the same grace he demonstrated in I Samuel 3 when he established Samuel as a prophet. Listen:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
The hope that came through Samuel was only a shadow of the hope that came through Jesus. The substance belongs to Christ. As the opening chapter of John’s gospel declares, Jesus is the “word” of God, the word that become flesh and dwelt among us.
Our need for a prophet and our need for God’s word were miraculously merged in the person of Jesus Christ. The embodied word of God came among us, touched us, and finally, died for us. And that word, that was rare in the days of Eli, was raised to life after three days in the grave. That word now reigns at God’s right hand.
In the person of Jesus Christ, because of the work of Jesus Christ, the word of God can never be rare again. It fills the universe, and one day, that fact will be universally acknowledged.
IV. Practice: How We Respond to God’s Voice
Do you believe that God has spoken fully and finally in the person of Jesus Christ? Do you believe that because of Jesus, God has spoken fully and finally in the pages of the Bible?
You should. But if you do, how do you respond, how are you responding to God’s voice?
In and ironic twist, we have Eli to thank for a truly beautiful answer to that question. Look again at verses 9 and 10:
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.10 And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”
Brothers and sisters, friends, we need to let this week, this very day, be defined by a recognition of our need for God’s word. Our need for the Word of God that became flesh, Jesus, and our need for the word of God proclaimed uniquely in the pages of Scripture.
And if and when we recognize those two things, then our week, this very day, should be defined by this statement uttered in our hearts: “Speak, Lord, for your servants hears.”
As you open the Bible each day…“Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”
As you look back to God’s word at those forks in the road of life…“Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”
As you come to a place of temptation…“Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”
When we are filled with a foolish self-confidence in light of our own wisdom…“Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”
If we can truly declare those words, then they say two things about our heart. By God’s grace, they point to the presence of both humility and hunger. In fact, it’s a humility that leads to hunger.
We not only acknowledge that we are God’s servants, but as servants, we acknowledge that only when He speaks, only through word, will we be able to fulfill our rightful duty; which is not just dutiful, but is our joy…which is our worship.
Let’s ask to do something wonderful in us this morning. Let’s ask him simply to show us the true extent of our need for His word.
And when He answers that prayer, we will see just how richly He has provided for His people…His word…His guidance…His leadership…in your life, this week.
Let’s bow our heads together.