This account of God’s choice of Samuel to be his prophet complements the preceding chapter, which tells of his rejecting the house of Eli. As noted above, chapter 2 contrasts Eli and his sons with Samuel. They were rejected, while Samuel grew in favor with the Lord (2:26). That contrast continues here. Samuel, earlier pictured in a priestly role (2:18), now also assumes a prophetic office. The Lord commissions him to reiterate the Lord’s coming judgment of Eli’s house and subsequently blesses his prophetic ministry, which all Israel recognizes as legitimate. As noted earlier, the narrator seeks to establish Samuel’s prophetic credentials as part of his strategy to demonstrate the legitimacy of David’s kingship. Through Samuel the Lord renews his self-revelation to Israel. This opening of the lines of communication foreshadows the renewal of national prosperity and security that the Lord will bring about through David.
Here the story displays a four-paneled structure. As is typical in such accounts, there is repetition yet also significant variation, especially in the final panel. In the first two panels (vv. 4–6), the Lord calls to Samuel, who goes to Eli, thinking his master has called him. Eli tells him to go back to sleep. To make sure that the reader does not wrongly conclude that Samuel is spiritually dull, the narrator points out that Samuel has never personally encountered the Lord and is inexperienced in such matters (v. 7). In the third panel Eli realizes that the Lord is calling Samuel and gives him instructions on how to respond if he is summoned again (vv. 8–9). In the fourth panel the Lord approaches and calls Samuel, who responds as instructed (v. 10). The Lord then delivers a prophetic revelation to Samuel (vv. 11–14). Through its structure and progression the story draws attention to the shift in authority in Samuel’s life. Initially he goes to Eli, but then, as instructed by Eli, he speaks to the Lord, calling himself the Lord’s servant. As Samuel delivers the prophetic message to Eli, one senses that their relationship will never be the same. Now Samuel is the Lord’s spokesman, whose prophetic word has authority even over Eli. By the end of the chapter, “all Israel from Dan to Beersheba” (v. 20) recognizes Samuel, not Eli, as the Lord’s chosen servant through whom he reveals his word to Israel. From this time forward, Samuel, not Eli, will lead Israel. The text makes it clear that Samuel does not represent a minority faction bent on imposing its will on the nation.
As noted above, this chapter complements the previous one and further develops the theme stated in 2:30: The Lord honors those who honor him but rejects those who despise him. The Lord’s rejection of Eli’s house is reiterated in 3:11–14, but the focus of chapter 3 is on the Lord’s choice of Samuel. The Lord honors loyal Hannah by choosing her son as his prophet, the one through whom he renews his relationship with Israel. Youthful Samuel represents the renewed Israel of the future, whom Samuel will lead to victory (chap. 7). Aging, blind Eli and his sinful sons represent the corrupt Israel of the judges’ period, which will soon experience humiliating defeat (see chap. 4). In the larger canonical context of the Former Prophets, the story challenges the exiles to honor the Lord so that they, as God’s covenant community, may experience a renewed relationship with their King, culminating in the restoration of the nation under the authority of an ideal human king.
Teaching the Text
- The Lord is willing to renew his relationship with his covenant community through those who honor him. In Samuel’s time the Lord renews this relationship by once again providing prophetic revelation and eventually by giving Israel a king. In our day spiritual renewal of God’s people comes through different means. When the covenant community is alienated from God by sin, repentance is essential (for more on this theme, see 1 Sam. 7). Yet it is also vital that we honor God and trust him to reward our loyalty. One of the ways God does this is by establishing leaders who will honor him.
The mention of doorposts (1 Sam. 1:9) and doors (1 Sam. 3:15) seems to indicate that the tent structure had been replaced by something more permanent. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh and reveal himself to Samuel (1 Sam. 3:21).
- The Lord honors those who honor him. In his pronouncement of judgment upon Eli, the Lord declares: “Those who honor me I will honor” (2:30). The story of Samuel’s rise to the prophetic office fleshes out this statement by showing how the Lord honors Hannah’s allegiance. She looks to the Lord alone for relief and justice and then dedicates her son to him out of gratitude for answered prayer. The Lord honors her loyalty by choosing her son to be a prophetic voice in Israel and to eventually anoint the king, whose arrival and success Hannah anticipates (2:10).
Jesus warns the religious leaders of his day that honoring God is not mere lip service and adherence to human rules, but rather heartfelt loyalty (Matt. 15:8; Mark 7:6). No one can honor the Father without honoring Jesus (John 5:23). Those who serve and therefore honor Jesus will be honored by the Father (12:26). More specifically, we honor the Lord by abstaining from sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:12–20) and by generously sharing our material wealth with those who are in need (2 Cor. 8:19; Gal. 6:10).
This is a story about honoring God and experiencing spiritual renewal, not about how God reveals himself to people. New Testament believers reading this story should not expect to be visited by God in the night or to receive prophetic visions about impending judgment. Samuel’s experience was not normative in his day, and the New Testament gives us no reason to expect it to be in ours.
written by Robert B. Chisholm Jr.