“Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 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. 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.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called to 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 boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”…Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19)
As is so often the case, there is far more here than meets the eye. What appears to be an almost bare-bones account of the call of a single faithful man actually marks a turning point in the whole history of Israel and, if we allow it, a turning point in our faith as well.
To see this more clearly we have to widen our focus a bit to get a better sense of who these two men were. Eli was both a judge and a priest and his sons, also priests, were infamously corrupt. Although Eli did not directly participate in their corruption, he also did not effectively curtail it, and as a result he and his entire house were under the Lord’s judgment (2:27-36).
Samuel, on the other hand, was a young man consecrated to the Lord who had lived in the temple under the tutelage of Eli nearly his entire life. He is portrayed as a virtuous young man who grew in favor with the Lord and men as he also grew in stature (2:26).
The differences between the two could not be starker. Whereas Eli and his sons enjoyed positions of religious and administrative leadership within Israel yet proved to be either corrupt or ineffective, Samuel came from a family with no noted lineage, but who proved to be holy and faithful in the fulfillment of their obligations to the Lord. Eli is portrayed as an aging man with failing eyesight who is sleeping “in his place”, while Samuel is a young man who is alert to his surroundings (and, of course, the voice calling to him) and who sleeps by the ark of the Lord. One is a stagnant, aging character who does not even physically move throughout the majority of the chapter while the other is a young dynamic individual who, although limited in his understanding of the situation, is eager to respond (running back and forth) and obey.
Why do you think Eli, who had been in the Lord’s service for decades, did not hear or recognize the Lord’s voice? He was at least close enough for Samuel to think that it was he that was calling him. And why was he so astoundingly slow to perceive that it was the Lord speaking (it took him three times!)? It seems reasonable to expect that someone who had been in such a position for that long would have at least been able to hear the voice of the Lord when he spoke and (one would hope!) recognize it as the Lord’s voice.
But that, sadly, is precisely the point. Eli couldn’t hear the Lord because, despite physically being in the Lord’s service for decades, he was no longer sensitive to his voice. He might have been physically present, he might have even carried out his liturgical duties “to the letter”, but in his heart lay greater allegiances than his allegiance to the Lord. In chapter 2 the Lord tells Eli that his family is under judgment not only because his sons were corrupt, but also because Eli was more faithful to them than he was to the Lord.
It is this we see coming to a head in this passage because the message that the Lord ultimately reveals to Samuel (not included in the passage excerpt above) was that the time for judgment had come; the Lord had removed his favor from the house of Eli and they would soon lose everything. Samuel’s first call as a prophet was to reveal this painful message to the very man who had become like a father to him. Would he do it? Or would his familial allegiance prove greater than his love for the Lord? Would he, in essence, succeed where Eli had failed? Or would he follow in his footsteps?
It is not that family is not of consummate importance. It is! Nor is it that we should not love our families with a deep, committed and even sacrificial love. We should! But as Fred wrote about a few weeks ago, the best way we can do so is to love and serve the Lord first. Only then can we know how to truly love our family and friends well, particularly when we are called to love them in ways they may not initially appreciate.
The difference this makes is manifested in the lives and legacies of these two men: One lost everything and watched as his family ultimately crumbled, while the other went on to help usher in the greatest period in Israel’s history by anointing its first two kings. Because Samuel was faithful with the word given to him regarding Eli “the Lord…let none of his words fall to the ground.” The Lord prospered him in his work and used him mightily.
So the question we must ask ourselves, then, is “Who will we be like?” Will we be like Eli, with greater allegiances increasingly obstructing our ability to perceive the work of the Lord in our lives? Or will we be like Samuel, ready, willing and available?
And will we be obedient to the call he places on our lives even though it may seem to cost us everything? Make no mistake, the call the Lord placed on Samuel’s life was costly from the start, but the Lord used him mightily because he was faithful to that call, for as a priest of mine often says, “The Lord will not be outdone in faithfulness.”
Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author, speaker and editor.