Remember: If you enter the building you must wear a face covering and complete the Access Log.

Coronavirus COVID-19: Face to face activity is by booking only, but we haven't stopped worshipping. Find out more.

Saturday 19 June 2021


This story concerns the rise of the boy Samuel into an adult figure who became central to the life and politics of Israel. It shows that God is overthrowing the old order, represented by the priest Eli - an overthrow that is necessary because the priestly family has become greedy and disobedient. The passage begins and ends with ‘the word of the Lord’, the expression of God’s concrete will and purpose that is voiced by the human characters in the story.


1 Samuel 3:1-20

This story concerns the rise of the boy Samuel into an adult figure who became central to the life and politics of Israel. It shows that God is overthrowing the old order, represented by the priest Eli - an overthrow that is necessary because the priestly family has become greedy and disobedient. The passage begins and ends with ‘the word of the Lord’, the expression of God’s concrete will and purpose that is voiced by the human characters in the story.

In verses 2-9 the central characters are the boy Samuel and the elderly priest Eli. Eli is depicted as a feeble old man, symbolising the failed priestly order that has exhausted its authority and credibility. Samuel is depicted as Eli’s apprentice, but he learns quickly and he is shown to be more discerning and more responsive to God than Eli’s family. Samuel symbolises a new direction, the new shape of God’s future for Israel. Yahweh is the third character in the story, appearing as a voice in the night - entering the story in a surprising way yet not as an unexpected presence. The story emphasises God’s persistence, Eli’s slowness to hear God calling, and Samuel’s open and perhaps naive responsiveness. In verse 4 Yahweh speaks to Samuel directly and Samuel answers, although on this first occasion Samuel doesn’t know who is talking to him and has disturbed his sleep. This happens again, and again Samuel misunderstands (v.6). And again, Yahweh calls Samuel’s name and he doesn’t know who is speaking to him (v.8). Finally Eli works out what is happening and sorts out Samuel’s confusion. He’s not so old or distracted that he can’t recognise the holy voice that comes in where least expected. Although he’s slow on the uptake, it’s no surprise to Eli that Yahweh speaks.

So Yahweh calls Samuel a fourth time, and Samuel, having been instructed by Eli, now knows what to do. He is ready to listen (v.10). So God speaks, and in verses 11 and 12 Samuel is warned that God is about to issue an ominous verdict that will be deeply disturbing, causing the tingling of ears. The same phrase is used in 2 Kings 21:12 and Jeremiah 19:3, and each time it precedes a profoundly negative pronouncement. If you look back to 1 Samuel 2:30-32 you can read about the oracle that promises the destruction and termination of Eli’s priestly household, due to the actions of Eli’s disobedient sons (we can read about the behaviour of the sons in chapter 2 verses 12-17 - they were greedy scoundrels and didn’t take their roles and responsibilities seriously). So after the general threat of verse 11 and the reference back in verses 12 and 13 to what has been already been proclaimed, finally in verse 14 Yahweh announces the judgement - the house of Eli is completely lost. There can be no possibility of rescue through ritual and sacrificial means. This is a moment of deep dread. All that legitimised Eli as the dominant priestly family has gone. But more than that is lost with it. The entire system of priests and sacrifices on which Israel relied can no longer be justified. It’s a much bigger verdict than it seems, and more is at stake than just the household of a single priest.

Samuel has heard this terrible message and he knows that the power arrangements in Israel are soon going to be dramatically changed. It’s no wonder that he’s frightened to tell Eli what he’s heard. But despite this, Eli insists that he needs to hear the whole message. It’s impossible to tell from the passage as we have it here, but perhaps Eli already suspected and was waiting for the harsh word, knowing what he had been told before. Eli even threatens Samuel in order to get him to tell him everything.

Eventually, under this threat from Eli, in verse 18 Samuel tells what he has heard. Yahweh’s words aren’t repeated here, but we get the point. Eli is told directly that his order and his household will be terminated and he will be expelled from the priesthood. It’s no wonder that Samuel is frightened - this is not good news for Eli., and perhaps Samuel is worried that Eli might respond with anger or rejection or disbelief or violence. I don’t think any of us really anticipate Elis’ response when it comes , marked with deep faith and grace and nobility. “It is Yahweh,” he says. He is immediately submissive and accepting, and he doesn’t question or resist the judgement. He accepts Samuel’s words as truth from the LORD.

The final verses look back to verse 1 and focus on the broader story of Samuel’s rise to power and authority in Israel. We hear again about the word of the LORD - the word that was carried by the boy Samuel, and which continues to be proclaimed by Samuel the man. So this chapter begins and ends with Samuel and the word, and in between we’re given a concrete example of this word which changes the power arrangements of Israel through overthrowing Eli and his family. We’re invited to focus on the power of God’s initiative which is seen in both Samuel’s rise to power and Eli’s fall from it. The boy Samuel is seen to be completely responsive and obedient to the word, and perhaps we’re not surprised by that. What does come as a surprise is Eli who humbly submits to God even though that means death to him. God’s word, a purpose beyond and outside every human strategy and motivation, can cause the rise and fall of those in power. Samuel as a young boy is a striking vehicle for God’s word. But finally what matters is the overriding, transcendent but concrete purpose of God to which all must submit, whether that appears to benefit us personally or not. 

For further reflection…

  • Read through the passage again slowly. Take note of any words or phrases that jump out at you.
  • Read the passage again, imaging that you are Samuel. How does this make you feel? Then read it again, imaging yourself as Eli. How do you feel now?
  • Think of a time when you have been asked to deliver a difficult message. How did you respond? How difficult or easy did you find it in the end?
  • Think of a time when you have received bad or difficult news? Can you think of any occasions when you have “shot the messenger”, or when you have been able to respond well despite the content of the message?
  • Have you ever felt that God has been telling you something that you don’t want to hear? What did you do about it? Do you ever try to ignore or run away from God’s word? Does that seem to work or not?
  • How have you responded when you have felt that God is asking you to say something to someone that may not be well-received?
  • Is God still interested in power and authority in the world today? What do you think God wants to say to the world leaders today? Is God challenging you to convey a message to them?
  • Think about your own response to good and bad news. Spend some time offering these things to God, and ask God for some of Samuel’s discernment and openness, and for some of Eli’s humility and obedience today.