One of the things that we can find riveting about the Old Testament is the immediacy with which God spoke to some of the men in it. God appears to Jacob in a dream. God spoke to Moses as a man speaks with his friend. Isaiah has a vision of the Lord on his throne. From the very first page of the Bible we learn that our God is a speaking God. He is not like the idols of the land who, though they have mouths, do not speak. In this chapter of 1 Samuel we have another account of God speaking, specifically of God speaking to Samuel in the dead of the night, and as we study it we will see the posture we should have as God speaks to us: that of a humble readiness to hear and obey.
Summary of the Text:
Samuel is a young boy/man living with Eli where he is ministering to the Lord as he grows and matures. One night Samuel was in the temple when he hears a the Lord call out to him, mistaking the voice for Eli’s he goes to Eli who denies having called him, sending Samuel back to bed. This happens several times before Eli realizes that Samuel is hearing the voice of God calling out to him. He directs the boy to say to the Lord, “speak LORD for your servant hears.” When the LORD addresses him again, Samuel responds as directed, leading to the LORD telling Samuel of the coming judgment against Eli and his household for the sins described in 1 Samuel 2. At Eli’s warning, Samuel tells Eli what God had told him. Eli’s response: “It is the LORD, Let him do what seems good to him.”
One of the difficulties of understanding and applying the narrative portions of Scripture is understanding the difference between what is meant to be prescriptive and what is meant to be descriptive. That is, how much of what happens to the characters is simply a description of the unique events as the Lord relates to them, and how much is meant to be prescriptive for how we understand the Lord to act to us? One thing to recognize is that we will probably be tempted to be more prescriptive when we like what happens to the character (who does not want the Lord to speak to him audibly?) and more descriptive when we do not like what happens (who wants to ‘hear a curse be upon your house’?). A recognition of this should alert us that our understanding of how to understand Scripture needs work. Our methods of interpretation should be consistent no matter the text.
So the temptation here in this text to apply it along the lines of ‘is you should expect the Lord to speak to you the same way he spoke here to Samuel.’ The problem? The underlying assumption there is: I’m Samuel in this story. Why am I not Eli, needing hear a message the LORD has spoke to someone else? Why not the rest of Israel who does not get any message? More broadly speaking, is this the way God speaks consistently to his people throughout the Bible? Is this the only way? To Daniel he spoke in dreams. To the kings of Judah and Israel he did not speak directly to them at all but through the prophets. To quote Hebrews 1:1, “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” It is that “in many ways” that is my focus here, to assume God only speaks to us the way he speaks to Samuel in this passage ignores the rest of Scripture.
So what do we see here? First, and we can’t pass this up as obvious as it is: as has already been stated our God is a speaking God. He reveals himself; he does not wait for us to come find him but actively seeks us out. He does not leave us to figure things out for ourselves but reveals himself and his will to us. And our temptation here is to long for him to speak to us in a unique, once-in-a-lifetime kind of way, all the while neglecting the very place he speaks to us (notice I said “speaks” not “has spoken”). In 2 Peter 1:17-21, Peter recounts his witnessing of Jesus’ transfiguration and God the Father speaking to him on that mountain, but then he says something extraordinary. Of the prophetic writings (the Old Testament) he says they are “more fully confirmed.” In other words, they are a more reliable source of God speaking to us and us coming to know him than even God’s verbal, auditory affirmation of his Son!
Our God has spoken to us, and our God speaks to us in his Word! Is our heart that of Samuel’s, “your servant is listening; Lord speak to me now”? When we open our Bibles, is that the posture of our hearts? How easy can it be for us to adopt an attitude of opening the Bible wanting to hear a specific message, not with a humble heart ready to hear whatever the Lord would say to us, whether we want to hear it or not? Eli’s words to Samuel are helpful here: “What is it that he told you? Do not hide it from me?” Sometimes the Lord has hard messages for us, words of rebuke, are we willing to submit ourselves to hear them, knowing that they are ultimately for our good?
And when we have heard a message, what do we do with it? I don’t think Eli’s response to the message of God’s judgment against him is exemplary. He responds to this warning with, “it is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.” I know this response seems pious, but I don’t think we are meant to look on Eli’s response and applaud him. To the contrary. He hears a judgment against his sin and instead of repenting, instead of God’s kindness leading him to repentance, he says, “whatever the Lord wants to do is fine” and continues on. Now it is true, our will should be to do whatever the Lord would have us to do, and whatever the Lord pleases to do should please us, but this does not justify a continuation of our sin. This should not instill in us a fatalistic view of God’s judgment. Twice now in 1 Samuel God has spoken judgment over Eli and his household, all to no apparent affect on him. God’s prophesies of judgment are also invitations to repent. James tells us we must not be hearers of the word only, but doers as well. When the Lord listens, do we trust and obey?
Finally, I mentioned Hebrews 1:1 earlier: “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” but the sentence goes on in verse 2: “but now in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Sometimes we can be a little envious of men like Samuel and wish that God would speak to us as clearly as he did to Samuel in this passage. When such thoughts cross our minds, we forget that he has spoken to us in a far greater way—a way Samuel could not of even dreamed of—in the sending of his Son, Jesus, the word made flesh. In the person and work of Jesus, God has revealed far more of his love, far more of his mercy, far more of his justice than we could have ever known from any other source. Jesus is the climax of God speaking to us. There is nothing more personal, nothing more comforting, nothing more revealing of his love and grace toward us than what he has already said to us in Christ Jesus.
I have been reading a biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne recently, a Scottish pastor living in the early 1800s. He made trip to Israel during his ministry and what struck me was, in a day without any of our modern search tools he was quoting from some obscure passages of Ezekiel and the minor prophets in relation to some of the places he was visiting as easily as we might quote from John or Romans. Here was a brother who knew God’s word! Who disciplined himself to daily listen to God’s word. May we with the humility of Samuel and M’Cheyne daily listen to the Lord as well. God has graciously stooped down to speak to us in his word, may we be quick and ready to listen.