Nothing is more tragic than to be without the Word of God. Without access to special revelation from the Lord—His words through His prophets and Apostles—all we have is His general revelation, which is His revelation in nature and on our consciences of His attributes and our being under His wrath. To be without God’s special revelation is to be without the hope of the gospel and thus without the hope of redemption (Rom. 1–3; 10:14–17).
Early in Samuel’s life, Israel lacked words from God—“the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (1 Sam. 3:1). Of course, the Israelites had at least the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—but as we have seen in our look at the era of the judges, the priests were not teaching God’s law to the people (2:12–25). Moreover, prophets were rare at that time. With Samuel, that was about to change.
Today’s passage tells us how the Lord called Samuel to the prophetic office. The call came to Samuel when he was a young boy ministering in Shiloh. He was asleep in the temple, likely a semipermanent building the Israelites had erected around the portable tabernacle (3:1–3). Three times the Lord called out to Samuel, and three times Samuel went to Eli the priest, confusing the voice of God with the voice of Eli (vv. 4–9). At Eli’s direction, the young boy asked to hear from God the fourth time the Lord called to him. There is some sadness in this account, for Eli told Samuel how to respond to the Lord, and yet Eli himself had not been listening to God. The Lord told Samuel that He was about to bring an end to Eli’s priesthood because of the sins of Eli’s sons and Eli’s failure to discipline them (vv. 10–14). Eli stands as a warning to us that we must heed the Word of God ourselves and not be content merely to teach others to do so.
Hearing of his family’s impending downfall, Eli resigned himself to his fate (vv. 15–18). This was the wrong response, for God relents when He announces judgment and His people repent (Jer. 18:1–10). The failure of Eli to repent and ask for mercy further evidences his spiritual lethargy. In any case, the Lord was raising up Samuel to speak His words to Israel, and Samuel was established as a prophet before all Israel (1 Sam. 3:19–4:1a). In this, the Lord showed His faithfulness to His people. Matthew Henry comments, “When old Eli was rejected, young Samuel was established; for God will never leave himself without a witness nor his church without a guide.”