Summary: We learn from ten-year old Samuel the importance of being attentive and obedient to God’s call, for we never know where it might lead
This morning’s scripture passage is one of my favorites, as it tells the story of Samuel’s call into the ministry, but when we consider the overall context surrounding this story of Samuel’s calling, we gain a much richer meaning. This is true for any biblical passage. The meaning and way in which we engage the scripture is much deeper and more meaningful when we understand what’s brought us to this point.
This is especially true in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. The theme that stretches throughout the entire book of the Old Testament is the story of the Israelite people and their struggle to maintain their covenant with God as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. God selected the Israelites to be his chosen people, not that they might enjoy the status of most favored nation, but that they might become the vehicle through which other nations come to know and experience God. The Old Testament is the story of their righteousness, their waywardness, their joy, and their pain in living out this covenant. It easily runs parallel to our own journey with God.
Today’s scripture passage may seem like the obscure story of a young boy’s answering God’s call, but it’s much more. Our story picks up during a time of great unrest. The Israelites have long been freed from Egyptian slavery, Moses has died, Joshua has led them into the Promised Land, and he has died as well. The book of Judges tells us that after Joshua’s death, the Israelites begin to disobey God, and as they do, they’re taken as slaves by one of the neighboring people. They then cry out to God, who raises up a judge to free them. They follow God, until that judge dies. They would then fall back into their wicked ways, be conquered by another people, cry out to God, and God would again free them by raising up another judge. This was the pattern of their existence, as we get to the book of Samuel.
At this time, Israel is a loose federation of tribes, facing threats from the militarily, superior Philistines. Not only are they facing these military threats, but also an internal crisis, because of corruption within the priestly house of Eli. Eli is the chief priest, and he is a responsible, upright man of integrity, but he’s got two sons who are described as scoundrels, for they have no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priest to the people. There’s grave concern over what the Philistines might do to them, but God is more concerned about what will happen when Eli dies and his sons are left to lead Israel.
Overall, the Israelites have very little concern in listening for God’s voice, and they have even less interest in expressing his will to society. Their worship has been corrupted for private gain. God was not a steady companion of the people, for they only cried out to God in crises. Our first verse of scripture says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” They had abandoned God, so God wasn’t in communication with them.
It is at this point that we’re introduced to Samuel and Eli. Samuel is the son of Hannah. Hannah had been barren, and she prayed that God might bless her with a son, that she might give him back in service to God. She gives birth to Samuel, and at an early age, Samuel goes to live and learn from Eli. This is why we find him sleeping on the floor of the temple when God begins speaking to him.
Samuel has no clue what’s going on. Three times he hears his name called; and three times he presents himself to Eli. The third time, Eli understands that it is God calling Samuel. He instructs him to go lie down, and if called upon again, he is to answer and present himself as God’s servant.
God does indeed call again; Samuel answers and listens. God tells Samuel that he is about to punish Eli’s house forever, because of the behavior of his sons and Eli’s inability to control them. No sacrifice or offering will ever make it right. Their punishment is forever.
Samuel listens, takes it all in, and lies there until morning afraid to tell Eli what God has said. Eli insists that Samuel tell him everything. Can you imagine being in Samuel’s shoes? Samuel was probably ten years old, and he has to tell his mentor, the chief priest, that God is going to enact a permanent punishment upon his household. Samuel keeps his promise to God, and tells Eli of God’s impending judgment, but listen to Eli’s response: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
This judgment had to have crushed Eli, but he acknowledged that God’s will had priority over his own, and as such, he would not oppose it or stand in the way.