Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 3:1-21) The Lord appears to the Boy Samuel.
And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no open vision.(1) The child Samuel ministered unto the Lord.—The writer of this history, although well aware of the great revolution accomplished in Israel by the prophet whose life and work the Holy Spirit bade him record, gives us but the simplest and shortest possible account of the child-days of him who was only second to Moses in his influence on the eventful story of the chosen people. But short and devoid of detail though the record be, it is enough to show us that the atmosphere in which the child lived was a pure and holy one; the boy was evidently kept apart from Hophni, Phinehas, and their impious self-seeking party. The high priestly guardian was evidently fully conscious of the importance of his charge, and he watched over his pupil with a tender watchful care. Perhaps his sad experiences with his evil headstrong sons had taught the old man wisdom; certainly the training he gave to Samuel was one that educated the boy well for his after-life of stirring public work. The notices of the childhood and boyhood are indeed brief. The first contrasts sharply the lawless profligacy of the priestly houses with the pure holy childhood passed in the sanctuary courts, probably always in the company of the old man. Hophni and Phinehas, the grown men prostituted the holy work to their own vile worldly ends: the child ministered before the Lord in his little white robe; and while in the home life of his own mother and father in Ramah, his brothers and sisters were growing up with the sorrows and joys of other Hebrew children, “the child Samuel grew before the Lord” amid the stillness and silence and the awful mystery of the Divine protection, which seems ever, even in the darkest days of the history of Israel, to have surrounded the home of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord. It was amidst this silent, sacred mystery, apart from the disorders of his priestly sons, that Eli taught the boy the story of his ancestors, with only the dark curtains of the sanctuary hanging between master and pupil and the mystic golden throne of God, on which His glory was sometimes pleased to rest.
The writer wrote his gloomy recital of the wild unbridled life of the wicked priests, wrote down the weak, sorrowful remonstrances of the father and high priest, foreshadowing, however, their certain doom; and then, again, with their life of shame sharply contrasts the pure child-life of the little pupil of the old sorrow-stricken high priest—the boy whom all men loved. “And the boy Samuel grew on, and was in favour both with the Lord, and also with men.”
Once more Eli, now weak with age, is warned of the sure consequences which would follow the evil licence and the irreligion of his priestly sons; and again the boy Samuel and his life, guided by Eli, his guardian and teacher, is contrasted with the wild, unchecked lawlessness of the priestly sons of Eli perpetually dishonouring religion and the sanctuary—a lawlessness which had just been denounced by the nameless prophet (1Samuel 2:27-36).
Josephus tells us that Samuel, when the Lord first called him, was twelve years old. This was the age of the child Jesus when He disputed with the doctors in the Temple.
Was precious in those days.—Precious, that is, rare. “The word of the Lord” is the will of the Lord announced by a prophet, seer, or man of God. Between the days of Deborah and the nameless man of God who came with the awful message to Eli, no inspired voice seems to have spoken to the chosen people.
The “open vision” refers to such manifestations of the Divinity as were vouchsafed to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and Manoah, and in this chapter to Samuel. There may possibly be some reference to the appearance of Divine glory which was connected with the Urim and Thummim which were worn by the high priest. This significant silence on the part of the invisible King the writer dwells on as a result of the deep corruption into which the priests and, through their evil example, a large proportion of the nation, had fallen.
And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep;(3, 4) Ere the lamp of God went out.—There is a Talmud comment here of singular interest and beauty: “On the day that Rabbi Akiva died, Rabbi (compiler of the Mishnah) was born; on the day when Rabbi died, Rav Yehudah was born; on the day when Rav Yehudah died, Rava was born; on the day when Rava died, Rav Ashi (one of the editors of Guemara) was born. It teaches thee, that no righteous man departs this life before another equally righteous is born; as it is said (Ecclesiastes 1:5): ‘The sun riser, and the sun goes down.’ The sun of Eli had not set before that of Samuel rose; as it is said (1Samuel 3:3): ‘Ere the lamp of God was out . . . and Samuel laid down.’”—Tract Kiddushin, fol. 72, Colossians 2.
“It was night in the sanctuary. The high priest slept in one of the adjacent chambers, and the attendant ministers in another. In the centre, on the left of the entrance, stood the seven-branched candlestick, now mentioned for the last time; superseded in the reign of Solomon by the ten separate candlesticks, but revived after the Captivity by the copy of the one candlestick with seven branches, as it is still seen on the Arch of Titus. It was the only light of the Tabernacle during the night, was solemnly lighted every evening, as in the devotions of the Eastern world, both Mussulman and Christian, and extinguished just before morning, when the doors were opened.
“ In the deep silence of that early morning, before the sun had risen, when the sacred light was still burning, came through the mouth of the innocent child the doom of the house of Ithamar.”—Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, Part I.
The Lord called Samuel.—It seems probable that the voice came from out of the “visible glory,” the Shekinah, which on that solemn night of the calling of the child-prophet no doubt rested on its chosen earthly throne—the mercy-seat of God—which formed the top of the Ark, and which was overshadowed by the outspread wings of the golden Cherubim.
And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me. And Eli perceived that the LORD had called the child.(8) And Eli perceived that the Lord had called the child.—The whole story of the eventful night is told so naturally, the supernatural wonderfully interwoven with the common life of the sanctuary, that we forget, as we read, the strangeness of the events recorded. The sleeping child is awakened by a voice uttering his name. He naturally supposes it is his half-blind old master summoning him. The same thing occurs a second and a third time. Then it flashed upon Eli the boy had had no dream. We can well fancy the old man, when Samuel again came in, asking, “Where did the voice you thought was mine come from?” and the boy would reply, “From your chamber, master.” And the old high priest would remember that in the same direction, only at the extremity of the sanctuary, behind the veil, was the Ark and the seat of God. Was, then, the glory of the Lord shining there? and did the voice as in old days proceed from that sacred golden throne? Se he bade his pupil go to his chamber again, and if the voice spoke to him again, to answer, not Eli, but the invisible King—“Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.”
Therefore Eli said unto Samuel, Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he call thee, that thou shalt say, Speak, LORD; for thy servant heareth. So Samuel went and lay down in his place.(9, 10) And the Lord came, and stood.—Then before the boy, as he lay and waited for the voice, came something, and it stood before him. The question naturally occurs to us, What came and stood before the boy’s couch? As a rule, we find that generally, when the Lord was pleased to take some form, the form is specified. Now, as in Abraham’s case at Mamre, it was a traveller; now, as in Joshua’s, an armed warrior; very frequently, as to Manoah, the form was that of an angel; here nothing is specially described. Was it not that simply “the glory” on which Moses gazed when he met the Holy One on Sinai—“the glory” which seemed to rest at times in the lightless Holy of Holies on the golden mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant? Was it not this “visible glory”—Shekinah. as the Hebrews termed it—which filled the chamber of the child, and from out of this came the voice of the Eternal, and spoke to Samuel? “See how God loves holiness in children. The child Samuel was preferred by Him to Eli, the aged high priest and judge.”—Theodoret, quoted by Bishop Wordsworth.
And the LORD said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle.(11) The ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle.—The calamity which is here referred to was the capture of the Ark of the Covenant. Neither the death of the warrior priests, Hophni and Phinehas, nor the crushing defeat of the Hebrew army, would have so powerfully affected the people; but that the sacred symbol of the presence and protection of the invisible King should be allowed to fall into the hands of the uncircumcised Philistines, the hereditary foes of the chosen race, was a calamity unparalleled in their annals.
It seemed to say that God had indeed forsaken them.
For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.(13) Because his sons made themselves vile.—The enormity of the sin of Eli and his house, which was to be so fearfully punished, must be measured by the extent of the mischief it worked; well-nigh all Israel were involved in it. The fatal example the priests had set at Shiloh filtrated through the entire people; the result was, that unbelief in the Eternal was becoming general throughout the land. The old pure religion was rapidly dying out of the hearts of the men, and the profligacy and covetousness of Shiloh would soon have been copied only too faithfully in all the homes of Israel. This fearful state of things was known to the high priest and judge, and still the weak and indulgent father refrained from removing his sons from their high office.
And therefore I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever.(14) Shall not be purged with sacrifice.—No earthly sacrifice, bloody or unbloody, should ever purge on earth the sin of the doomed high priestly house. A great theological truth is contained in these few words. in the sacrificial theory of the Mosaic Law we see there was a limit to the efficacy of sacrifice after a certain point in sin and evil example had been reached: a scar was printed on the life which no blood of bullock or of goat could wash away; but the quiet, though sorrowful, resignation with which the old man received the intimation of the certain earthly doom seems to indicate that Eli, sure of the love of the All-Pitiful, looked on to some other means of deliverance, devised in the counsels of the Eternal Friend of Israel, by which his deathless soul, after the earthly penalty, would be reconciled to the invisible King. Did not men like Eli look on in sure and certain trust to the one hope? Did not these holy, though often erring, patriarchs and priests see in those far-back days, “as in a glass darkly,” the blood of another Victim, which should cleanse the repentant and sorrowing sinner from all sin?
And Samuel lay until the morning, and opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel feared to shew Eli the vision.(15) And opened the doors.—This is another notice which indicates that the sanctuary of Shiloh was enclosed in a house or temple. We have no record of the building of the first house of the Lord, but from the references contained in the record of Samuel’s childhood it is clear that the sacred Tabernacle had been for some time enclosed by, and perhaps covered in with, permanent buildings.
Feared.—“Here was Samuel’s first experience of the prophet’s cross: the having unwelcome truth to divulge to those he loved, honoured, and feared. Jeremiah felt this cross to be an exceedingly heavy one” (Jeremiah 15:10; Jeremiah 17:15-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18).—Speaker’s Commentary.
And Samuel told him every whit, and hid nothing from him. And he said, It is the LORD: let him do what seemeth him good.(18) It is the Lord.—Such a reply, and such a reception of the news of the terrible doom twice communicated to him by a direct message from the Eternal, indicates that Eli, in spite of his weakness and foolish partiality for his sons, was thoroughly devoted to the Lord in his heart. He saw how deeply he had failed in his high office, how he had allowed worldly considerations to influence his conduct, how he had been tried and found wanting; and now, without a murmur, he submits to the righteous judgment of his God, he leaves himself in God’s hands, and never tries to justify himself and his past conduct. Now it was probably too late to attempt any reformation in the priestly life. The influence and power of Hophni and Phinehas were too strong for his enfeebled will to set aside. Eli was probably in his last days little more than a puppet in their hands. He had sown the wind, and now must reap the whirlwind.
And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground.(19) And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him.—Again in a brief sentence the life of Samuel was contrasted with another: this time with that of his predecessor in the judgeship. As the boy grew up to manhood, we hear that while, on the one hand, as, no doubt, in earlier days with Eli, so now with Samuel, the Lord was with His servant, giving him strength and wisdom, guiding him and guarding him; and, on the other, different from Eli, we hear how the young prophet let none of the Divine words fall to the ground. In those dark days of sin and shame at Shiloh, in the midst of scenes of temptation, the boy stood firm; his early life was a perpetual protest against covetousness and iniquity.
And all Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the LORD.(20) A prophet of the Lord.—Then from the northern to the southern cities of the land the fame of the boy-friend of the Eternal was established. The minds of all the people were thus gradually prepared when the right moment came to acknowledge Samuel as a God-sent chieftain. On this rapid and universal acknowledgment of the young prophet it has been observed, “that the people, in spite of their disruption, yet formed religiously an unit.”