Summary: God acts in mercy once more before His people end up in the dark.
Before the Lights Went Out
Verse 3 says that this event happened before the light went out in the Tabernacle. This is more than just the physical light. The lamp in the Tabernacle was never supposed to go out because it represented the continuous presence of God with the people of Israel. Yet is says here that the lamp was about to go out, and everyone there would be left in the utter dark as the curtains from which the Tabernacle was made were thick. There should have been better care taken for the lamps. Oil should have been added to make sure the light would last until morning. This is one small detail which shows the carelessness that Eli and the priests had for the House of God. Should they have been sleeping in the Tabernacle would be a second concern. The lack of care for the lamp in the Tabernacle is symbolic of a greater darkness.
God had promised Israel that He would care for them and be their God and they His special people. They were to be different than the nations all around them. If they lost their distinctiveness, they would be just like the heathen nations around them. Yet Israel, time and again, were captivated by the external culture and neglectful of the special relationship they had with Yahweh. This could be seen in the Temple itself. The High Priest’s sons were worthless people who stole meat which was to be offered unto the LORD alone. Worse than that, they were sleeping with the women who came to bring their offering to the LORD. This was just like the pagan priests of the fertility cults. It says that Eli was 98 years old at the time. His eyes were dim, and he could hardly see. This is another metaphor which also spiritually describes Eli. He accused Hannah of coming drunk to the Tabernacle because she moved her lips when she prayed for a son. Yet he was wrong, because Hannah was emotionally engaged with the very LORD that Eli should have had. The word of the LORD was rare in those days. Altogether, a picture of the spiritual darkness of Israel at the highest levels was deep. On top of this, Eli was blind to the faults of his sons. Yes, the Lamp of God was about to go out.
The lamp had been flickering for a long time. Israel in the book of Judges records many backslidings which led the LORD to bring foreign nations against them. They would be in bondage and repent. Then the LORD would remember them and raise someone up to rescue them, only to have them backslide yet once more. At times the light of God shone brightly, but at other times it seems to have been in danger of going out completely. So the book of 1 Samuel continues the pattern of Judges. At this point, the lamp was about to go out once more.
But God already had a plan to deliver Israel yet once more. The woman whom Eli thought was drunk and disgracing the holiness of the Temple had a son named Samuel. She had promised in her prayer that se would give him to the LORD’s service. So when this son was weaned, she brought him to the Tabernacle and gave him to the custody of the same person who had so ignorantly thought that she was a drunk. So the lad was raised in the Tabernacle. I wonder if he saw all that Hophni and Phineas were doing there. What an example of corruption these two would have been. Samuel saw, yet Eli was blind to his son’s faults.
One evening when the boy Samuel had grown some, he was in bed at the time the lamp was about to go out. He heard a voice calling him by name. As Samuel did not know the LORD or his voice at this point, he logically assumed that Eli had called for him. But Eli was asleep in the dark. When roused by Samuel, he told the boy that he did not call for him. Who then? Hophni and Phineas? No, they were not there. So Samuel went back to sleep. Again, the LORD called and went to Eli. Again Eli’s spiritual sight was so dim. “Go back to bed; I did not call you.” And the LORD called Samuel the third time, and he went to Eli yet once more. This time, Eli finally started to perceive that the LORD was calling the boy. He told Samuel if he heard the voice again to answer the LORD and say that he was listening. The LORD’s report to Samuel was shocking. What He was about to do would be scandalous to Israel. He was going to judge Israel severely. This judgment would go to the very top. Eli’s sons were going to die and their houses. This would be the end of the priesthood as Israel knew it. God had seen the vileness of Israel’s son’s even more than Samuel had. So Samuel slept on this vision.