The birth of Samuel in the midst of spiritual apostasy in Israel marked a turning point for the nation. Standing in contrast to the corrupt priesthood of his day, the godly Samuel was established as a bold prophet who would lead the nation into a new era.
We begin our journey through 1 Samuel during a desperate time in the days of the judges when Israel is oppressed by the Philistines. Israel’s greatest enemy, however, is their own spiritual rebellion against God.
Israel is in need of God’s help, and help is going to come through the ministry and influence of Samuel. His biography is recorded in 1 Samuel—in fact, it’s really an autobiography, because Samuel is the author.
The book opens as follows:
There was a certain man . . . of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah . . . He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. (1 Samuel 1:1-2)
Hannah was more than likely Elkanah’s first wife; but since she was barren, he adopted the polygamy of his day in order to have an heir.
Verse 3 says Elkanah went to Shiloh to worship the Lord every year. This is where the tabernacle was located at that time, and where, we’re told, “the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord.”
Now every year, Peninnah uses the opportunity of this trip to ridicule Hannah for not being able to bear children. Finally, Hannah can’t take it anymore. She goes to the tabernacle alone and according to verse 10, “she prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.”
It’s wonderful that Hannah runs toward the Lord and not away from Him in her sorrow. She makes a vow here in verse 11:
“O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and . . . give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.”
She longs for a son, but she’s also longing for her son to serve the Lord.
Eli the priest comes on the scene and eventually hears Hannah’s deep longing. He even asks the Lord to grant her request. And God does. In verse 20 we read that Hannah bears a son and names him Samuel, which means “heard of God,” a reminder that God heard her prayer.
Hannah then keeps her promise. In verse 27, she takes him to Eli and says:
“The Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”
And let me tell you, the nation of Israel will be incredibly blessed because of her sacrifice to the Lord.
Chapter 2 records the prayer Hannah now offers at Shiloh, and it’s a beautiful expression of praise focused on the character of God: “There is none holy like the Lord” (verse 2); He is “a God of knowledge” (verse 3), the one who “brings low and . . . exalts” (verse 7), and He guards “his faithful ones” (verse 9).
Now notice that Hannah’s prayer is offered after giving Samuel away. She’s going home to an empty nursery once again as Samuel stays behind to serve the Lord.
However, the nursery doesn’t stay empty for long because verse 21 tells us that Hannah will have five more children. But Hannah is fulfilled, beloved, not because she has more children, but because she has come to rest in the faithfulness of God, no matter what.
Back in verse 12, we discover that little Samuel has been deposited in a rather ungodly environment. Eli’s sons are described here as “worthless men” who do not know the Lord.
Hophni and Phinehas are taking the best of the meat of the sacrificial animals, which was to be offered to the Lord (verses 13-17). Verse 22 even informs us that they “lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Here these men are, supposedly serving God in this sacred office but using it for their own sinful appetites.
Now we immediately wonder, “Where is Eli?” Why isn’t he doing something about his sons’ ungodly conduct?
Well, Eli has been unwilling to discipline his sons. Verse 22 says Eli “kept hearing” about his sons’ immoral behavior, indicating he had been hearing about it for a long time. Finally—finally, here in verse 23, he gives them a little rebuke, asking them, “Why do you do such things?” He should have removed them from office, but he refused to do so.
Well, God isn’t going to ignore it any longer. In verse 25 we are told, “It was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” They are so hardened in their sin that God has determined to judge them.
Sometimes children choose ungodly paths despite the prayers, the discipline, and the instruction of their godly parents. But that’s not the case here! Over in chapter 3, verse 13, God Himself testifies that Eli would not “restrain” his sons. Eli was responsible, not for his sons’ unbelief or immorality, but for basically ignoring their wicked behavior. PQ
The Lord speaks to Eli through an unnamed prophet who shows up in verse 27 to warn him about his sons’ wickedness. He even accuses Eli of honoring his sons above God. But Eli refuses to change. And now the stage is set for what happens next in chapter 3.
Verse 1 says, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli.” He’s around twelve years of age, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus.
Now notice this telling statement in verse 1: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” A “vision” is a divine revelation given through a prophet.
God had promised to speak through His prophets. During this wicked time in Israel, however, revelation from God was rare—and probably not welcomed, if you want to know the truth.
One night, verse 4 says, “the Lord called Samuel, and [Samuel] said, ‘Here I am!’” Samuel thinks Eli called him, but sleepy Eli had not done so. The call from God comes a second time, and again Eli tells Samuel it wasn’t him.
Now when this happens a third time, verse 8 says, “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the young man.” So, he tells Samuel, “Go lie down, and if He calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”
Well, the Lord calls again and delivers a very disturbing message to young Samuel:
“I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken . . . I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” (verses 12-13)
In the morning, Samuel is afraid to deliver the message to Eli, but Eli insists. So, we read in verse 18, “Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.” Eli realizes God has spoken—there’s no turning back now.
Verse 19 tells us that as Samuel grew, “the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” That is, everything Samuel revealed prophetically came true. And with that, Samuel becomes established as a “prophet of the Lord” (verse 20) who continually hears from God.
These opening chapters remind us of at least two timeless truths. First, unrestrained sin always leads to terrible consequences. Second, what our world needs today are people like you and me who are willing to say, “Speak, Lord. I’m listening. I’ll deliver your message. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
And let me add, we also need parents like Hannah who say to God, “Here’s my child; use him for Your glory.”