The story of Samuel’s calling by God from the Old Testament frequently defines how we view God speaking to us, but it also presents challenges. A crystal clear interaction, such as this, is rare, even in the Bible. Samuel’s call meant speaking against the person closest to him, and later, against an entire nation’s stated desire. That’s no easy thing to do. But, as Vernon writes, perhaps the most fundamentally challenging aspect is discerning the will of God versus our own desires and intuitions.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 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. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up 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.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
This text raises questions like: Who is called? How does God call? And finally, what does God expect when he calls? They focus on theophany—the physical manifestation of God. Such an experience was rare in the days of Samuel and is rare today. In real life, as was the case with Samuel, it is often difficult to hear God’s call—much less discern what he wants from us in any particular situation.
An approach that might be more relatable to ordinary life is to ask how do we take God into account? In the text, taking God into account meant that Samuel brought bad news to his mentor, the established religious hierarchy was overturned, and when the nation sought a king. Samuel sought to warn them that reliance upon a king would lead the people away from reliance upon God. In each case, taking God into account fundamentally changed how decisions were made. The same is true for us. In real life, listening to God will complicate your life. It means you must constantly balance your wants and desires with the needs of others. We cannot make decisions based solely on what is best for us. Listening for God’s call is a process of discernment—-and discernment is always difficult.
But before we look at contemporary application, we need to look at the historical context. This story is set near the end of the period of Judges and just prior to the beginning of the monarchy. Eli was the High Priest and his religious authority was hereditary. It was his responsibility to prepare and train his sons (Hophni and Phinehas) to take over his role. Unfortunately, they were sleeping with the woman who served at the entrance to the temple as well as taking the best meat of the sacrifices for themselves. As 1 Sam 2:1 says: ““the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” Hophni and Phinehas abused the power of their position. They served themselves rather than the people and Eli failed to stop them. Their behavior was blasphemous and unacceptable.
Also, during this time, the people of Israel were pressing for a King. Ironically, Samuel had the same problem with his sons as Eli had —,”when Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel….Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” (Samuel 8:1,3) The people did not have confidence in Samuel’s sons to take over leadership. They wanted to be like other nations and they hoped that with a change in government, their status as a people and nation would be enhanced. Samuel warned them of the dangers of kingly authority—much as he had warned Eli about the misuses of priestly authority. But the people did not listen. The common theme is that human beings are fragile and unreliable containers of authority. The human desire to rely on human authority whether it be religious, secular or even parental is equivalent to building your house upon the sand.
This scripture fits into a biblical pattern of God’s using unlikely people and unexpected interventions to show us his way. In this case it is a young boy (Samuel was probably no older than 10 or 11). Later it is the eighth son of Jesse (the runt of the litter) to be king—-and later still, it is the ‘illegitimate’ child of a poor family in Nazareth to be the Messiah. There are many many more examples. God consistently steps outside of the secular and religious order to transform both. But that transformation requires we leave room for the unexpected.
In FIRL, we tried to identify how the word ‘call’ most often applied to ordinary life. Several definitions were postulated Our call can be thought of as ‘What is our purpose in life? Where do our skills meet the world’s needs? What are we made for? In our particular groups, most people described their struggle with these questions as a process more than event. Only in retrospect could we observe a pattern and direction to the shape of our lives. The most common feature was that the questions about God’s desire and intention for our lives remained open. There wasn’t really an answer so much as a direction of inquiry.
But, before any inquiry about where God fits into our lives, we must be open to the possibility that he is speaking to us. Initially, Samuel’s did not realize God was calling him. He responded out of what he expected. His task in the temple was to obey and serve Eli. It was outside his expectation or imagination that listening to God might require something more. He had been raised in the church. But understanding that God wanted him to be more than a good boy, obedient to his mentor, required a shift. For Samuel and for us, listening to and relying upon YAHWEH, is a different kind of obedience. Samuel thought that by serving Eli, he would be serving the Lord. It never occurred to him that the voice calling his name could be any except Eli. It took multiple attempts (as well as Eli’s help) to realize his job was to serve the Lord—even if it meant confronting Eli with bad news. Our service is not to the church, it is to God. We too, must be careful not to confuse the two.
This brings me to the question ‘How does God call?’ The first answer has to be —’not very clearly.’ But the problem is more likely to be with us than God. It is hard enough to hear his voice but it is certainly more difficult when we do not seriously consider that his voice is present. Our first reaction, like Samuel, is to hear what we expect. In real life this regularly occurs in our political dialogue. People are categorized and dismissed based upon which news outlet they listen to. Spouses, especially in conflict, ‘know’ what their partner ‘really’ means. But each time we act as if we ‘know’, we leave God out of the equation. It takes work to listen. Sometimes we must be told to pause and say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Even then, in real life, it can be very difficult to discern when we are listening to our own wishes and when we are listening to God. Do we want to change jobs because God is calling us elsewhere or because our job is difficult and we do not want to face the challenge? Does our boredom mean it is time to move or time to get started? How long do you support an adult child? How long do you stay in a difficult marriage? When do you pray for a gracious death for a loved one and when do you pray they fight on?
Real life questions are rarely binary and I can assure you that no amount of listening or prayerful reflection will protect you from making serious mistakes. (Both Eli and Samuel ‘failed’ as parents.) But we can give ourselves a better chance if we deal with these questions in community. Listening to God’s call is always very personal but it is rarely private. A key element in Samuel’s call story is that he needed Eli’s help. It took awhile for Eli to realize what was going on, but when he did, he did not tell Samuel what to do, his counsel was to listen. Pay attention. In real life, there will be contradictory voices. There are always people who are sure they know the will of the Lord for themselves or for others. It is tempting to simply dismiss them. And sometimes you should—but only after you have listened. God’s call does not simplify our lives but it constantly keeps before us the question of how do we take God into account in our decision making.
Finally, this narrative suggests that taking God into account, listening to his call, requires that we speak honestly and for justice. Samuel did not want to speak his truth. Eli was his surrogate father and Samuel’s call was to speak against him. But he did so. He was later called to speak a similar truth to the nation. Also notice, that though he spoke the truth and took the risks, the people still chose to have a king.
When humans rely upon—or claim—human authority rather than the Lord’s, there is a terribly high probability that the authority will be exploitive. In Samuel’s story, the priests (Eli’s sons) blatantly abused their position. Then Samuel’s sons did the same. We have a long history of the powerful exploiting the weak. Economically the rich exploit the poor in order to stay rich. (We are not immune. We depend upon third world wages for the ‘good deals’ we get at the store). Men have exploited women. The disabled are easy targets. Children needed basic labors laws to keep them out of factories before they were ten. If you don’t take God into account, none of this is a problem—as long as your personal needs are met. If you do take God into account, taking advantage of others is never acceptable.
Samuel’s prophecies were consistent warnings not to rely on human authority—not because human authority is in itself bad but because when humans assume power, there is a great temptation to quit taking God into account. We start believing our safety and well being are up to us. Yielding to God means listening to Him. It means acknowledging that our self interest is important but not paramount. It means being accountable to something greater than ourselves.
Taking God into account will change how you make decisions—It will not simplify them, it will complicate them. In fact more will be expected of you. We may choose badly but that is not our measure. We are called to say “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
God, grant us the willingness and courage to take you into account in every aspect of our lives. Let it be so.