Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/4/2015 in Novato, CA.
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1 Samuel 3
“The Word of the Lord”
As we return to our sermon series on the book of Samuel we are reminded that it’s a book about a transition; transition to better leadership. The book will especially bring a transition from the time of the judges to the time of the kings. Up to this point in Israel’s history, they’ve been in a rather downward spiral during this time where they were led by occasional judges. At this point, Eli was serving as a judge of the people. Eli and his house was also the current priesthood. But we saw last chapter a picture of the corruption of this house, particularly among Eli’s sons. We are not surprised during this time of the judges to see that such leaders were not righteous in their leadership. Eli himself has been painted in a mixed light, showing some good qualities, but also a major flaw of not properly disciplining his very wicked sons. So last chapter emphasized a failure of Eli’s priesthood. In contract, we saw how Samuel was growing in his priestly service, growing in favor with God and man. Well, this chapter again is developing this transition away from Eli’s leadership to Samuel’s leadership. This chapter shows Samuel being established as a prophet. Ultimately, Samuel would be used by God to establish a king in Israel. But for today’s passage the focus is God bringing Samuel as a prophet to the people. Central to the role of the prophet is that they were delivering the word of the LORD to the people. That’s how our passage is framed as well. The first and last verses of this chapter reference the word of the LORD. And so that’s really the theme and interest of our passage for today. It talks about how God was brining the word of the Lord to the people through a prophet.
Let’s begin our first point then for today by looking at verse 1. Our first point is to see the context and background for today’s passage. The context is that in those days the word of the Lord was rare. There was no widespread revelation from God of his Word. That’s what verse 1 tells us is the background to our story. I love that the word for “rare” in verse 1 is most literally a word meaning “precious;” if you have a KJV you’ll see it translated that way. The word was precious in those days, particularly because it came so infrequently to the people. Every revelation of God’s word, of course, is indeed very precious. By the way, this doesn’t mean that there were absolutely no prophecies at the time. Last chapter showed Eli receiving a prophecy from some unnamed person. But there was not much prophecy coming in those days. And yet this chapter shows God changing that. We mentioned before that Samuel becomes the first in a long line of formal prophets. We see his establishment as such a prophet here, and he is filling a need for the people.
What I mean is that God’s people need the word of the Lord. Proverbs 29:18 says that “where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.” God’s people need divine revelation. Of course, the people did have God’s former words at that time. God had already spoken through Moses and given them the Torah, for example. It’s not that they did not have any previous revelation from God to learn and make use of. They did. But this verse tells us that new revelation is not always something that comes for the people. There is something extraordinary and precious about new revelation coming to God’s people from God. And there have been certain eras in history when God was especially giving new revelation, and this was the start of such an era. God was beginning this formal ministry of the prophets as God established a kingdom in Israel. Samuel was used then by God to break the silence. Interesting, we made comparisons before of Samuel with John the Baptist. John also came at a time when there was not much widespread prophetic revelation, as evidenced by the lack of new books of the Bible between the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, and the start of the New Testament, a time of approximately 400 years.
So that’s our first point for today to note. The context and background of that time is that there was no widespread revelation from God. This is shown as something lacking that the people needed. So then, our story today is about how God first reveals himself to Samuel, which is supposed to be seen as out of the ordinary for the time. We’ll turn now then in our second point to see the word of the LORD revealed to Samuel. This is verses 2-18. As we dig into the heart of this chapter then, let’s start with the narrator’s note in verse 7. We’re told there that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, in that the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. Now obviously Samuel had some knowledge of the Lord. He obviously had some good relationship with God already by this point. That’s clear from what we’ve read in last chapter, and even in the first verse of this chapter. Samuel had been ministering to the Lord, performing various priestly duties. He had been living for the Lord already. But the point of verse 7 is that as much as he had some initial relationship with God, there was this aspect as a prophet that he had not experienced yet in that relationship. Verse 7 basically tells us that even though we know that Samuel was a great prophet of God, that at this point in our story he was not yet such a prophet. He hadn’t received any revelation from the Lord yet. So that’s why when God first called him, he didn’t at first realize that it was God calling him.
And so the story is basically that Samuel, still young enough to be called a boy, was laying down to go to sleep, and he hears his name called. He goes to Eli the priest, thinking Eli was the one calling him, but it was not. This happens three times, before finally Eli figures it out. Eli discerns that it must be God calling Samuel. So, that’s when we see Eli’s instructions to Samuel in verse 9. Eli instructs Samuel how to respond to God’s call to receive the Lord’s message for him. Then the fourth time God calls Samuel, he responds as in verse 10, “Speak, for your servant listens.”
This first prophecy that Samuel receives from the Lord is a prophecy against Eli. It is a prophecy of judgment against Eli and his house. This prophecy is very similar to the prophecy that some other unnamed man gave Eli in last chapter. For Eli, and for us then, this prophecy of judgment is something that we’ve heard about twice now. God was making it abundantly clear to Eli. This prophecy, by the way, is a reminder that sometimes the revelation received from God is sobering. It can be difficult to hear when it’s about judgment, particularly if it’s judgment upon yourself! Well, for Eli’s situation, one of the most sobering aspects about this prophecy is in verse 14. There God says that the iniquity of Eli’s house will never be atoned for, by sacrifice or offering, forever! Wow.
We see that main story line here ends with Eli asking the next morning for Samuel to tell him what he heard from the Lord. Eli wants every detail. This is yet again where we see some commendable aspects about Eli, despite the bad things we know about him. Eli does show a real value for knowing God’s word. And right he should! God’s word is a good thing to know. We see in verse 15 that naturally Samuel was afraid to tell Eli the prophecy, because of how sobering it was. But of course, that’s what prophets have to do. They are given the revelation to share. They incur guilt if God gives them a message to deliver to someone but doesn’t deliver it. So Samuel’s mentor Eli helps him here to do what he should do, speak forth the revelation of God’s word. And so Samuel tells the whole prophecy to Eli. Eli’s response in verse 18 is a bit interesting. Eli’s response to this terrible prophecy is to say, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.” That’s interesting, because on the one hand, that is a decent response. Surely, we ought to accept God’s will, and never try to fight against God, or speak evil of God’s plan. So, Eli’s expression of acceptance of this prophecy seems to affirm that God is right in whatever God decides to do. That being said, I can’t help but think that this is again typical of Eli’s spiritual problems. Eli’s problems manifest themselves not in the good and fitting things that he does. They manifest them in what he doesn’t do. Like how he didn’t restrain his sons. Well, here, when Samuel delivers this horrendous word of judgment to him, I would have expected an additional response. I think of how the people of Nineveh responded when Jonah preached to them of how God was to destroy them. They were not sure God would yet relent, but just in case there was any hope, they humbled themselves and repented and fasted and prayed. Or when God had Elijah bring a word of judgment to the horribly wicked King Ahab, Ahab tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted and went about in mourning, 1 Kings 21:27. That resulted in God delaying the execution of the judgment, even for a kind as wicked as Ahab! Certainly such examples would have been something that Eli should have done here.
And so we’ve walked through the main story in this chapter. I’d like to turn now in our third point to see the conclusion offered by the narrator. This is verses 19-21. We see that the narrator then steps back to the bigger picture. After telling us about this initial word of the Lord that Samuel received, he then steps back to tell us that God had thus established Samuel as a renowned prophet among the people. Look first at verse 19. We read there that then Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and let none of his words fall to the ground. So, remember, we were seeing Samuel here first as a boy, but as he grew up we find that the Lord had solidified his role as a prophet. Verse 19 talks about how the people knew with certainty that he really was a prophet. That’s because God did not let any of his words fall to the ground. That seems to be a way of saying that all the prophecies Samuel gave, came to pass. You might recall from Deuteronomy 18, that a test for a prophet was if his words came to pass. If the prophet prophesied something that didn’t come to pass, then you know that the Lord was not with that person; such a person is a false prophet and not to be believed. And so with Samuel, verse 19 is basically noting how God saw to the fulfillment of all the prophetic words that he gave to Samuel for the people.
This then leads naturally into the next verse. Verse 20 talks of how all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel had been established as a prophet of the LORD. Dan is the northern border of Israel, and Beersheba is the southern. So, all of Israel experienced the blessing of Samuel’s role as a prophet. And the fact that they all knew he was established as a prophet looks back to verse 19 that talked as we said about how his words proved true. In other words, he was repeatedly shown in his work as a prophet to be trustworthy in what he spoke, and thus it became more and more clear to all that he really was a prophet sent from God. On a side note, this is how the church receives the Word of God. The church didn’t just one day decide to write the Bible. Nor did it take some existing books and decide to endow them with some special authority. Rather, the church has recognized the word of the Lord. The church didn’t give divine revelation its authority and power. It recognized the authority and power and veracity that was inherent to it. We often talk about that when it comes to the New Testament canon, from which we have a lot more records about the process that was involved in the church for recognizing it. But we see hints here in the Old Testament that it was the same basic approach then too. The Word of God speaks for itself. It is something that becomes clear. In this case, it became clearly evident that God was with Samuel and had chosen to speak through him.
Verse 21 then closes out the chapter with a final note about how God appeared to Samuel again at Shiloh. The sense of the Hebrew is likely that he continued to appear to Samuel at Shiloh. The point then of verse 21 is to be the contrast with verse 1. The story started with the background that there was not widespread revelation being received at that time. But after God first revealed himself to Samuel, he then established Samuel as prophet throughout the land who regularly received and delivered the word of the Lord.
I mentioned earlier that Samuel shared some similarity here again with John the Baptist. And yet, of course, after John came one greater than John. After John came Jesus. Matthew 11:13 talks about how all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. The idea is that the line of formal prophets ended with John the Baptist. But then you have one more. Then you have the Lord Jesus Christ who came as the literal Word of God who became flesh. Jesus came bringing the words from God the Father. He came not only preaching and teaching, but also in power, performing signs and wonders to yet further confirm his prophetic ministry.
I think of the parable of the wicked tenants in Luke 20. There in the parable, the Son is sent by the Father after the people had rejected all the previously sent servants. The point of the parable is clear. Prior to Jesus was the ministry of the prophets. That formal ministry especially took place starting here with Samuel and went all the way to John the Baptist. These prophets were repeatedly rejected in various ways. But after them, God sent Jesus, his only begotten Son, the Word of God sent to man, in the flesh! Jesus then is a prophet, but also above and beyond all the prophets, as the Son of God come to man. He is the prophet of prophets, the prophet par excellence!
Jesus then has declared to us the Word of God. He, with the prophets of old, and the apostles who have also testified to the ministry of Jesus, have made up what we have in the Scriptures. We have been given the Word of God. It is what we need. Without it, we would lack what we would need to know to be saved. But we have not been left in the dark. God has proclaimed to us his word through the Scripture. On the one hand, his word has been a word of judgment. Without being saved, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Without being saved, all would be under God’s wrath and curse and liable to a terrible and eternal punishment. That is sobering. And yet the Word of God has also told us that there is an atonement available for our iniquity. The gospel has been proclaimed that our sins can be completely forgiven through the cross of Jesus Christ. We are told to humble ourselves before God, confess our sins, and mourn over them. And then we are to turn and put our faith in Christ. The scripture has called us to repent and be baptized, for the remission of sins, Acts 2:38. We who are here today as members in Christ’s church, be encouraged then that you have received this word, that you could be saved. And for those who are here today that have not known and trusted in this revelation from God, rejoice today that you are hearing the gospel proclaimed to you. Turn today in faith to Jesus Christ and be saved.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, what application can we take from today’s passage? Let me start with one application not to take. Don’t go home and sit on your bed and eagerly wait to hear your voice called so you can say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Yes, I can see why there is a certain attraction to wanting that. But we must discern the times we live in. We are told in Ephesians 2:20 that we already have the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ as our cornerstone. Jesus already has come after that formal ministry of the prophets. The experience of Samuel and other prophets is not an ordinary experience for Christians. It wasn’t even ordinary in Samuel’s day. So, don’t take the Pentecostal approach to this and think that this is teaching a way for each of us to go and listen for God to personally speak to you. That misses the uniqueness of this Old Testament ministry of prophets.
Rather, what does come out of this passage is God’s heart for his people to have the Word of the Lord. And that is exactly what we do have. We have the inspired, inerrant, infallible, Word of God, right here in the Bible. It’s tempting to want to look back to the days of the prophets and be one of them. But our era of human history is after the day of Pentecost. We live in a day where the Spirit of Christ has been poured out in a rich measure that we would be able to study the Scriptures and understand them. Don’t devalue this time that we live in. It is awesome that we have the word already revealed to us and that we have the Spirit to help us understand it and apply it.
So then, though we don’t expect to receive new revelations from God, that it okay. We don’t need any more. Yes, we need the revelation of God. We desperately need it. We just don’t need new ones. We have what we need already in the Bible. God’s heart comes out in this passage to show us that God knows we have needed his word. God knows that we have needed this revelation from God to be widespread. And so he has delivered it. First through prophets like Samuel. And then in his Son, confirmed by the holy apostles.
And so the application then for us today is to see what wonderful of a treasure we have with the Bible. Let us as God’s people recognize the established canon of Scripture as a record of the prophetic word of the Lord revealed for our sake! Let us see it as “precious”. Let us greatly value it! Let us then seek the proper response to this gospel revelation. And when the Bible confronts us with more sobering and difficult passages, may we respond accordingly. Yes, we of course acknowledge like Eli that that the Lord will do what seems right to him. But may we also know when we ought to repent in light of the word. If there are any non-Christians here today, then this particularly calls you to hear this. But rejoice that we also learn in the Bible that there is a way of salvation. So let us rejoice that he have found and received the offer of an atonement for sin in the gospel.
And along the same lines, even as Christians, there is an ongoing value for having the Word of the Lord in our life. The Bible doesn’t exist only to preach the gospel to us. After having become saved by the gospel, there is an ongoing use of the Bible for all our lives. As it says in 2 Timothy 3:16, it “useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (NLT).
And so as we are renewed today in our appreciation for the revealed Word of God, let us praise of God who has given us these words. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.
1 thought on “The Word of the Lord”
This passage of Scripture is also often cited by the “contemplative prayer” proponents who advocate for listening prayer. However, that is also to import a meaning and purpose to this passage that just is not there. Nor is there warrant to use this as a proof text for such prayer.
Rather, we see here instead quite the opposite. How do we hear from God? It’s by that special revelation that has come through the prophets (along with the apostles and Christ Jesus himself). As Christians we should indeed want to hear from God. We can be comforted that he has spoken to us through the Word of the Lord!