The advent of Samuel introduces a new era in the history of Israel. During the period of the judges, “open visions” were scarce. This was about to change. A theocracy under kings was also soon to begin, and God would now make His will known to the king, and to the people, by means of prophets. After the time of Moses, special revelations had been few. Samuel was the first of several great prophets who began to receive special revelations. Samuel was a prophet, and for a long time, a judge.
Like Moses and Aaron, Samuel descended from the Levitical family of Kohath through his father Elkanah (1 Chr. 6:34-38). The Levites had been scattered throughout the land of Israel, and Elkanah and his family lived in the territory of Ephraim. Elkanah had two wives. Polygamy, practiced by some Israelites, did not bring about good results.
And he [Elkanah] 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. And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions: But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb. And her adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb. And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat (1 Sam. 1:2-7).
The family rivalry that resulted from this arrangement was not good. Hannah wanted children so much she could not be comforted. The situation had become intolerable. She was so anguished that she went into the Tabernacle and beseeched God with her whole heart.
So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk. Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head (1 Sam. 1:9-11).
Eli thought she was drunk, but soon realized her torment. He was so moved by her circumstances that he blessed her and promised that God would give her a son. In her vow she dedicated her son to the Lord as a Nazarite, a service that would far exceed those of a Levite.
God answered her prayer:
And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her. Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD (1 Sam. 1:19-20).
The name “Samuel” means, “asked of God.” When Samuel was weaned, he was given to the Lord for His service. Hannah told Eli: ” . . . Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD. For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him: Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. . . ” (1 Sam. 1:26-28). “And Elkanah went to Ramah to his house. And the child did minister unto the LORD before Eli the priest” (1 Sam. 2:11).
There was a serious problem at the Tabernacle. Eli was elderly, and his sons, who officiated as priests, were wicked. They were sons of Belial, that is, men in whom there was no restraint. They lacked self-discipline and could not control their lusts. They had no respect for God or His Law. They did not know the Lord (1 Sam. 2:12). “Wherefore the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD: for men abhorred the offering of the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:17). Their selfishness and bad example had caused the people to develop distaste for God’s sacrifices. These sons were out of control, greedy, lustful, and abusive. The people were turning away from God. Samuel grew into manhood in this atmosphere, but it did not affect him as he ministered to the Lord. Eli was so pleased with Samuel that he again blessed Hannah, and the Lord gave her five more children.
Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he said unto them, Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the LORD’S people to transgress. If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD, who shall intreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them. And the child Samuel grew on, and was in favour both with the LORD, and also with men (1 Sam. 2:22-26).
God sent a prophet to warn Eli. The prophet told him:
Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and at mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honourest thy sons above me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people? Wherefore the LORD God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the LORD saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father’s house, that there shall not be an old man in thine house . . . . And this shall be a sign unto thee, that shall come upon thy two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas; in one day they shall die both of them. And I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in mine heart and in my mind: and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before mine anointed for ever (1 Sam. 2: 29-31, 34-35).
About this same time God began to reveal Himself to Samuel. God now warned Eli through 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 . . . . the LORD called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I . . . . Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him . . . . And the LORD came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak; for thy servant heareth. 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. In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house: when I begin, I will also make an end. 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. 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 (1 Sam. 3:1, 4, 7, 10-14).
This revelation was frightening to Samuel, and he was afraid to tell Eli. Finally he did, but Eli paid no attention. Eli’s age and lack of vitality were, no doubt, factors in his poor response and failure to act. As for Samuel: “And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the LORD (1 Sam. 3:19-20). Samuel’s influence began to be felt on a national scale (1 Sam. 4:1). The whole nation was now beginning to rely on Samuel’s oracles from God. God now moved to deal with the sons of Eli.
” . . . Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek” (1 Sam. 4:1). The Philistines were trying to establish their dominance over Israel. The Israelites superstitiously thought that if the Ark of God were in their presence, they would prevail in the coming battle. So, Eli’s sons carried the Ark of God to where the Israelites were camped. This presumption would not assure them victory; it was to be the means by which Eli’s sons would be killed. “And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain” (1 Sam. 4:10-11).
The Israelites did not seek God’s help. They simply assumed that the Ark-a physical object-would be their means of deliverance. Their act was akin to idol worship. They failed to realize that they must first have God’s blessing. And this blessing would not come until they established a proper relationship with God. This task would fall upon the shoulders of Samuel.
While Eli probably expected God’s vengeance upon his sons, what deeply troubled him was the loss of the Ark. The Philistines had captured it.
Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see. And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son? And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken. And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years (1 Sam. 4:15-18).
This calamity set the stage for a national reformation. Samuel now went to work.
And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the LORD, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the LORD only. And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the LORD. And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh (1 Sam. 7:2-6).
Samuel was now a prophet, a judge, and an intercessor for God. As this event took place, the Philistines began an invasion. They viewed this national assembly as a threat. But because of Samuel’s work, God was soon going to grant a great victory to Israel.
And when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel were gathered together to Mizpeh, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines. And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines. And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the LORD: and Samuel cried unto the LORD for Israel; and the LORD heard him. And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Bethcar. Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us. So the Philistines were subdued, and they came no more into the coast of Israel: and the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even unto Gath; and the coasts thereof did Israel deliver out of the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life (1 Sam. 7:7-15).
Perhaps Samuel’s many duties and absence from his home led to what we read about next. “And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abiah: they were judges in Beersheba. And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (1 Sam. 8:1-3). Deep resentment began to set in. Justice was being perverted, and something had to be done. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:4-5). The elders did not want a repeat of what had happened as a result of Eli’s sons, but their solution to the problem would eventually lead to even more serious repercussions. In contrast to Eli, it does not appear that Samuel was aware of his sons’ conduct until the elders brought it to his attention. One thing Samuel really understood, though, was the negative aspect of a monarchy.
There was another reason the elders did not want Samuel’s sons for judges. The Israelites wanted a king to protect them against a threatening invasion by Nahash, the Ammonite. They did not trust Him for deliverance. They wanted someone physical they could look up to.
But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee. Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them (1 Sam. 8:6-9).
So Samuel gave them a preview of what would occur if they insisted on having a king.
And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint [them] for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day (1 Sam. 8:10-18).
But the people were adamant. They insisted on having their way.
Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said unto the men of Israel, Go ye every man unto his city (1 Sam. 8:19-22).
Samuel continued to play a role in the affairs of Israel for some time. We will see his continuing influence when we examine the life of King David. Samuel was instrumental in anointing both Saul and David as kings of Israel. Let us summarize by saying that as a child Samuel was completely dedicated to God. He was so outstanding that he was recognized as a special servant of God from his youth. He was not only a prophet, but also a judge and intercessor. He affected a great national reformation in the land of Israel. While Samuel must have been deeply disappointed with his sons, there is no indication he was aware of their character defects until informed by the elders. Samuel was the bridge between the period of the judges and the establishment of a monarchy. He was first in the line of the great prophets God used as instruments to instruct His people. When Samuel prayed to the Lord, his prayers were answered. God spoke to him directly. For this reason he has been likened to a second Moses. His devotion and love for his people motivated him to serve them honestly, wholeheartedly, and with dedication. Samuel was truly a man great man of the Old Testament.