Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 1 Samuel 3.7-10.
This is surely one of the loveliest stories in the Old Testament. The “lamp of God” — the seven-branched menorah which was lit at dusk to burn until dawn (Exodus 27.20-21) — “had not yet gone out” and Samuel is “lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was” (1 Samuel 3.3). In an adjoining room, Eli, the priest, “whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see” is “lying down in his usual place” (1 Samuel 3.2). The scene that is being set is deliberately one of darkness, sleep, and a blindness to God that is made specific in the opening words of the chapter: “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3.1). But against that there is mention of the still-burning lamp and the ark of the covenant — both powerful symbols of the presence of the Lord.
Then, in the silence, the Lord speaks, calling Samuel by name. Three times Samuel gets up and goes to Eli, thinking it is the priest who has called him. But then Eli realises that Samuel is hearing the voice of God so he tells him to return to his bed and instructs him as to how he should answer when the Lord calls him again. This time it would seem that Samuel saw the Lord as well as heard him because we are told that “the LORD came and stood there”. If so, it might explain why Samuel omits the word “Lord” when he responds with the lovely little sentence that Eli has taught him: “Speak, for your servant is listening”. Maybe he thinks that the supernatural being by his bed must be an angel, not the Lord himself.
Whether that was the case or not, the Lord soon makes clear to Samuel who he is; and Samuel’s ability to see him and hear him marks him out from that time onward as one of Israel’s great prophets and men of God. “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word” (1 Samuel 3.19-21).
I ask myself, how many times have I failed to recognise whose voice it is when the Lord has spoken to me? How do I respond when I do recognise that he is speaking? How obedient am I in passing on what I hear? How wonderful it would be if my hearing was so good, my obedience so swift, my commitment so full that the Lord would let none of my words “fall to the ground”!
Hushed was the evening hymn,
the temple courts were dark;
the lamp was burning dim
before the sacred ark,
when suddenly a voice divine
rang through the silence of the shrine.
The old man, meek and mild,
the priest of Israel, slept;
his watch the temple child,
the little Samuel, kept:
and what from Eli’s sense was sealed
the Lord to Hannah’s son revealed.
O give me Samuel’s ear,
the open ear, O Lord,
alive and quick to hear
each whisper of Your word —
like him to answer at Your call,
and to obey You first of all.
O give me Samuel’s heart,
a lowly heart, that waits
to serve and play the part
You show us at Your gates,
by day and night, a heart that still
moves at the breathing of Your will.
O give me Samuel’s mind,
a sweet, unmurmuring faith,
obedient and resigned
to You in life and death,
that I may read with childlike eyes
truths that are hidden from the wise.