Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
It is not a good time for God’s people. The word of the Lord is rare, and there are not many visions (1 Samuel 3:1). Faith has grown cold. The older, long-accepted version of faith can no longer see clearly. Its eyes are dim (3:2). It fails to restrain its children as they devour God’s people (3:13). And since it can no longer hear the Lord, it is completely dependent on overhearing a word to a boy who does not yet even know the Lord (3:16-18 and 3:7).
Today is not the only day that our faith communities have seemed blind, deaf, hapless, and without resources.
Eli comes off badly in this passage. He is faith’s yesterday. He has an important office in God’s temple, an illustrious role among God’s people. Yet his fate will be so catastrophic as to cause the ears of all who hear it to tingle (3:11). Punishment for his house forever. Sin that cannot be forgiven. No expiation or sacrifice or offering can undo it (3:14). There is no future for Eli or his family—only death.
And you thought our churches were having a hard day?
There are some important warnings here for God’s people. As important, as safe, as preeminent in God’s eyes as we may think ourselves to be, we can be nudged aside in a moment. This is not just a warning for clergy. And it’s certainly not a warning for clergy or other religious types to discipline our children more harshly. It’s a warning for the church as a whole.
Sure, God has chosen us, invited us into God’s company, given us holy work to do. And God can undo those invitations as quickly as God made them in the first place. The house of Eli had been promised God’s favor “forever” (2:30). Now it is promised God’s opprobrium “forever” (3:14). Now, be careful with these curses and their everlasting timelines. God does have a soft spot for those who are excluded, even if they were once God’s favored and favorite. But the warning is against religious arrogance. In this story, Samuel is an outsider (3:7), Eli an insider. Epiphany shows that those roles can be reversed.
But Eli is not entirely useless in God’s saving work. It may take him a comedic three tries, but he does know what to do when God calls. He at least has a dim memory of when this sort of thing used to happen in this house (3:8). Tell God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (3:9). Samuel does just as Eli says, and then hears the word that makes ears tingle. Eli’s day may be over, his house finally done with making a hash of God’s calling. But he knows what to do when God turns back up in God’s house.
As one who does not often receive God’s word, Eli also knows what to do when someone else has. He berates poor Samuel into telling him exactly what God said. He even seems to have a premonition that the news might not be good: “May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me” (3:17). Even if news from God might be bad for us, it is still news from God. It must be proclaimed. Eli also knows what to do when he’s heard from the Lord. “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (3:18). One could hear this as a passive word of resignation. Or one could hear it as a faithful response to a word from God, whatever its content—like the response Job gives to his unbearable suffering (Job 1:21).
I take this from Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman: Eli’s day might be past, but he still has a role to play in God’s economy.1 He knows what to do when God appears. He knows to ask the Lord to speak, and how to listen himself. He blesses the Lord even when the news is bad for him and his house personally. Samuel’s day is coming. His youth and newness show that God has not forgotten his people, Israel. God will raise up faithfulness in the debris of human unfaithfulness.
And in a religious world where we often cling to the husks of things long dead, this is good news. There is a new generation coming. God will not let its words fall to the ground (3:19). The best days of God’s people are not behind us, with the exodus and Sinai and the promised land. No, the best are still to come, with yet more prophets, and an entire world redeemed. God’s people cannot be known for our nostalgia. We must be known for our hope.2
And yet, there is something to Eli, to the temple, to his office, to all these matters institutional, that is still essential. Such institutional fixtures know how to distinguish between a word from God and any old human word. They know what to do when that word comes. And they know to praise God’s name, however badly something may affect us and our family. Eli needs Samuel: there is no future without him. But Samuel also needs Eli: he would still be popping out of bed and asking confused respondents “What do you want?” if Eli hadn’t noticed that the address was emanating from another plane.
The church, like the synagogue, is one of the only places in our culture where the young and the old make our lives together. Where else in our culture do people from four different generations entangle themselves in mutually dependent relationships without sharing the same last names? I’ve wanted to weep when I see parishioners sit together with great-grandparents or children, often unaware what a treasure they have. God is the God of all generations, ancient and new, and God needs us all, together, to make this the world God dreams about.
- Stephen Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
- I’m echoing here Samuel Wells in A Future That’s Bigger Than the Past: Towards the Renewal of the Church (Norwich: Canterbury, 2019).