Samuel and God’s Call

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In the Hebrew Bible, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel are actually one long book. This long book is full of interesting characters, some paragons of virtue, others not. The preceding book of Judges is littered with many “little people,” many of whom had serious problems. Some actually overcame those problems to become great, inspirational leaders, proving God can, and very often does, use people we would over look. But in the books of Samuel, we meet some people of truly outstanding character. People like Hannah, Samuel, David, Jonathan. And we meet some scurrilous people like, Saul, Eli and his sons.

Not only genuinely interesting people, but profound topics are covered in Samuel, and the very first one is prayer. Specifically, the prayer of a mother.

The days of the judges were dark. As Samuel opens, it’s not only dark across Israel, but it’s dark in the life of Hannah. She had no children. That didn’t dampen her faith, however.

Hannah’s prayer, 1 Samuel 1:10 – 16

She was in deep anguish and was crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. And she made this vow: “O Lord of heaven, if you will look down upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you, and he’ll be yours for his entire lifetime, and his hair shall never be cut.” (1 Samuel 1:10, 11 TLB)

It wasn’t a long prayer, but it was an earnest one. We are told she was “in deep anguish.” It doesn’t get any more earnest than that! She was sad and bitterly disappointed that she had no children. She prayed this very brief, two-pronged prayer. She asked God for a son, but then made the Lord a two-part promise if he answered her prayer. Her baby would become a Levitical priest and he would become a Nazarite for his whole life.

What Hannah had no way of knowing was that this whole incident was part of a much large plan that had its origin in the mind of God Himself.

…the Lord had sealed her womb; so she had no children… (1 Samuel 1:5 TLB)

Reading that verse, we are reminded of another one, in the New Testament:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

Obviously Hannah had a great love for the Lord and part of her purpose in His plan was to bear son. Being barren as she was, she couldn’t imagine a plan like that! That’s the way it works with God sometimes. He holds all the cards, so to speak. He doesn’t always let us in on the minute details of His will for our lives. He’s not obligated to. We, however, are obligated to trust Him.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5, 6 NIV)

When we are stuck looking at our lives instead of the Lord of our lives, we might be tempted to be like Hannah and become discouraged and disheartened. Unlike Hannah, when we feel like that, more often than not we don’t pray. Instead we take things into our own hands and then things really get bad. It’s better for us and anybody connected to us if we just rest in Him. There’s nothing wrong with being discouraged, but the right response is key: prayer.

Hannah, as down as she felt, had the presence of mind to pray. Of course, just because one who loves God does the right thing, doesn’t mean other people understand. Eli, the dimwitted priest, saw Hannah praying and he got everything wrong.

Eli noticed her mouth moving as she was praying silently and, hearing no sound, thought she had been drinking. “Must you come here drunk?” he demanded. “Throw away your bottle.” (1 Samuel 2:12 – 14 TLB)

When you trust in the Lord, sometimes you get no support from other believers. You can’t let that discourage you, however. Your strength must come from the Lord, no one else.

Eli the priest eventually came around, no thanks to his supposed faith in God but because of Hannah’s testimony. She didn’t hold back and the priest got the message.

“In that case,” Eli said, “cheer up! May the Lord of Israel grant you your petition, whatever it is!” (1 Samuel 1:17 TLB)

Eli made a mistake, and offered up a kind prophetic blessing, whether he knew it or not.

Hannah is the perfect picture of the true nature of faith. In her prayer, we also see a good definition of the kind of prayer that gets God’s attention: I was pouring out my heart to the Lord. (verse 15 TLB). She prayed and was convinced that God had heard her prayer. Look at verse 18:

“Oh, thank you, sir!” she exclaimed, and went happily back, and began to take her meals again. (1 Samuel 1:18 TLB)

That’s not an insignificant verse. Notice that she went back home “happy” and went back to her normal, everyday routine. That’s a vital part of faith often overlooked. How often do we pray, claiming to be trusting God, yet continuing to fret and worry and doubt?

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:24 NIV)

Hannah keeps her word, 1 Samuel 1:21 – 28

Hannah not only prayed, but she made a promise to God. Remember, she basically told God that if He gave her a son, she would give him back to God. That’s a big promise, but Hannah had a big faith.

“Sir, do you remember me?” Hannah asked him. “I am the woman who stood here that time praying to the Lord! I asked him to give me this child, and he has given me my request; and now I am giving him to the Lord for as long as he lives.” So she left him there at the Tabernacle for the Lord to use. (1 Samuel 1:26 – 28 TLB)

It had been an unspecified number of years since Hannah had prayed for a baby. Her son had lived at home with her and her husband for a while before she made the trip back to the Temple and back to Eli. When she met with Eli, she did what every believer should do when God answers a prayer: she testified about it.

There’s a small but very telling glimpse into the two very different kinds of personalities of Eli the priest and Hannah, Samuel’s mother. In verse 17, Eli refers to God as “the God of Israel,” an impersonal way to refer to Him. But Hannah uses a far more intimate, personal form of address: “the Lord.” It’s a small thing, but it shows that Hannah had a closer, more personal relationship with God than did the priest.

She kept her word and gave Samuel back to the Lord.

Samuel’s calling, 1 Samuel 3:1 – 10

We have no way of knowing how old Samuel was by the time chapter 3 rolls around, but our go-to Jewish historian Josephus suggests he was at least 12. He had to be at least that, maybe even older, to carry out his work in the Temple. He was a young man, not a child. Verse 1 tells us all we need to know about how bad things were in Israel at this time:

Messages from the Lord were very rare in those days… (TLB)

Add to that the fact that we are told Eli the priest was almost blind, and we’re left with the impression that Israel, spiritually speaking, was in awful state of decline. Into this dark and murky atmosphere, God was working. The average Israelite couldn’t see it, but God was working nonetheless. He was calling a young man to become a national prophet. Romans 5:20 is an encouraging verse during times when morality and ethics seem to be losing out to wickedness and evil:

But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound… (JKV)

When all you hear and see is bad news, it’s easy to get the idea that God has left the scene; that He has washed His hands of the mess we have created. That’s never the case. Be on your look out, because when you see the apparent triumph of evil in the world, God is also working, whether you see Him or not.

In fact, God called Samuel more than once. Some commentators have suggested, and I am inclined to agree with them, that the first two calls were really calls to salvation. Samuel may have been working in the Temple, but he wasn’t saved. The young man had now reached the “age of accountability,” and God is going to hold him responsible.

It was the fourth call that get Samuel’s attention. God spoke His first prophetic word to Samuel, and it wasn’t a good word.

Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am going to do a shocking thing in Israel. I am going to do all of the dreadful things I warned Eli about. I have continually threatened him and his entire family with punishment because his sons are blaspheming God, and he doesn’t stop them. So I have vowed that the sins of Eli and of his sons shall never be forgiven by sacrifices and offerings.” (1 Samuel 3:1 – 14 TLB)

God’s Word isn’t always easy to take; sometimes the “Word of the Lord” is downright difficult. That reality gives meaning to this verse:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NIV)

It was bad news for Eli, and his response is indicative of the kind supine temperament he had.

So Samuel told him what the Lord had said. “It is the Lord’s will,” Eli replied; “let him do what he thinks best.” (1 Samuel 3:18 TLB)

The clear theme of the first ten verses of this chapter is “hearing the call of God.” There are many truths tucked away in this chapter. First, God may be silent when His Word is not known, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t working. God is always working on hearts and minds. We should never become discouraged or faint of heart when it seems as though wrong is right and believers are impotent. God’s Spirit is always at work. Second, God may have to call a person more than once and sometimes His call is mistaken. God is always right and prefect, but we who hear Him don’t always get it right. We’re still human, after all. Third, God’s Word can be heard when His people care to listen for it.

Lastly, the overriding lesson of this story must surely be the importance and the power of a praying mother. Her prayer and her commitment to God resulted in Samuel’s acceptance of God’s calling. More important and vital to her son’s spiritual development than Eli was a mother’s faithfulness to God.

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