Summary: The Priesthood has failed so God raises up a prophet to bring his word to his people. God uses the circumstances of Hannah to bring about his plan.
I doubt that Samuel realised just what was in store for him as he began his service of God in the Temple with Eli. No doubt it began as a fairly simple routine of lessons and chores with plenty of time for games. As a young child he would have been looked after by the many people who worked and lived in the temple precincts. You can imagine the way they might have responded when they saw him wandering around, knowing that his family had gone home and left him in the care of Eli and the other priests. The community would have pulled together to care for him the way godly communities should.
But as he grew older, the lessons and training would have increased. The time for play would have diminished. His calling as a lifetime servant of God meant that he had much to learn. But in fact it wasn’t the lessons of Eli and his sons that would shape him. It was the voice of God. And that shaping would happen in a very short time in the dark of night.
God was about to give him the first of many messages for his people. Samuel was about to become the first prophet in Israel since the days of Moses. We’re told, as this episode begins, that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread. What was about to happen to Samuel was totally out of the ordinary. He was about to be given a message from the Lord that would highlight, in the clearest of ways, the seriousness of his role as a prophet of God.
His mother Hannah, we’re told in ch 2, now has 5 children. God has blessed her and given her other children to take the place of Samuel. So we can guess that Samuel might be about 10 or 12 years old. He’s still a boy, but growing up.
Samuel is sleeping in the tabernacle court just outside the Holy of Holies where the Ark was kept. It’s the middle of the night. The lamp that was lit at night and allowed to burn until the oil ran out just before daybreak is still alight. A voice calls out to Samuel and wakes him. He thinks it’s Eli so he runs to see what he might want. I guess he would have been used to being called on to help Eli with things that his failing eyesight made it difficult to do. But it wasn’t Eli who had called. So Eli sends him back to bed. This happens 2 more times before Eli realises that it isn’t just Samuel imagining noises in the night. It must be God calling. So he tells Samuel to go back and lie down and if the Lord calls again, to say "Speak Lord for your servant is listening."
This time we’re told the Lord comes and stands there and calls: "Samuel! Samuel!" Well, finally Samuel has worked out what’s happening, so he responds as Eli has suggested: "Speak Lord for your servant is listening." And so God delivers his message.
But before we look at the message we need to think about the significance of God speaking to Samuel with this message which is actually for Eli, rather than speaking to Eli directly. There are probably 2 reasons, in fact. First he speaks to Samuel rather than Eli, because Eli’s inaction, as we’ll see in a moment has meant that he’s lost God’s favour. God is not going to speak to him. Rather he uses an intermediary. But secondly, God speaking to Samuel is a sign that Samuel does enjoy the favour of God. Samuel is God’s chosen spokesperson, his mouthpiece. A new order is being inaugurated at this moment as God chooses out Samuel to act as his prophet, to bring his word to the people of Israel in a new and fresh way. And so God speaks his message.