To make way for the account of God’s revealing himself first to Samuel, we are here told, 1. How industrious Samuel was in serving God, according as his place and capacity were (1 Sam. 3:1): The child Samuel, though but a child, ministered unto the Lord before Eli. It was an aggravation of the wickedness of Eli’s sons that the child Samuel shamed them. They rebelled against the Lord, but Samuel ministered to him; they slighted their father’s admonitions, but Samuel was observant of them; he ministered before Eli, under his eye and direction. It was the praise of Samuel that he was so far from being influenced by their bad example that he did not in the least fall off, but improved and went on. And it was a preparative for the honours God intended him; he that was thus faithful in a little was soon after entrusted with much more. Let those that are young be humble and diligent, which they will find the surest way to preferment. Those are fittest to rule who have learnt to obey. 2. How scarce a thing prophecy then was, which made the call of Samuel to be the greater surprise to himself and the greater favour to Israel: The word of the Lord was precious in those days. Now and then a man of God was employed as a messenger upon an extraordinary occasion (as 1 Sam. 2:27), but there were no settled prophets, to whom the people might have recourse for counsel, nor from whom they might expect the discoveries of the divine will. And the rarity of prophecy made it the more precious in the account of all those that knew how to put a right value upon it. It was precious, for what there was (it seems) was private: There was no open vision, that is, there were none that were publicly known to have visions. Perhaps the impiety and impurity that prevailed in the tabernacle, and no doubt corrupted the whole nation, had provoked God, as a token of his displeasure, to withdraw the Spirit of prophecy, till the decree had gone forth for the raising up of a more faithful priest, and then, as an earnest of that, this faithful prophet was raised up.
The manner of God’s revealing himself to Samuel is here related very particularly, for it was uncommon.
I. Eli had retired. Samuel had waited on him to his bed, and the rest that attended the service of the sanctuary had gone, we may suppose, to their several apartments (1 Sam. 3:2): Eli had laid down in his place; he went to bed betimes, being unfit for business and soon weary of it, and perhaps loving his ease too well. Probably he kept his chamber much, which gave his sons the greater liberty. And he sought retirement the more because his eyes began to wax dim, an affliction which came justly upon him for winking at his sons’ faults.
II. Samuel had laid down to sleep, in some closet near to Eli’s room, as his page of the back-stairs, ready within call if the old man should want any thing in the night, perhaps to read to him if he could not sleep. He chose to take Samuel into this office rather than any of his own family, because of the towardly disposition he observed in him. When his own sons were a grief to him, his little servitor was his joy. Let those that are afflicted in their children thank God if they have any about them in whom they are comforted. Samuel had laid down ere the lamp of God went out, 1 Sam. 3:3. It should seem he lay somewhere so near the holy place that he went to bed by that light, before any of the lamps in the branches of the candlestick went out (for the main lamp never went out), which probably was towards midnight. Till that time Samuel had been employing himself in some good exercise or other, reading and prayer, or perhaps cleaning or making ready the holy place; and then went softly to his bed. Then we may expect God’s gracious visits, when we are constant and diligent in our duty.
III. God called him by name, and he took it for Eli’s call, and ran to him, 1 Sam. 3:4, 5. Samuel lay awake in his bed, his thoughts, no doubt, well employed (as David’s Ps. 63:6), when the Lord called to him, bishop Patrick thinks out of the most holy place, and so the Chaldee paraphrase reads it, A voice was heard out of the temple of the Lord; but Eli, though it is likely he lay nearer, heard it not; yet possibly it might come some other way. Hereupon we have an instance, 1. Of Samuel’s industry, and readiness to wait on Eli; supposing it was he that called him, he hastened out of his warm bed and ran to him, to see if he wanted any thing, and perhaps fearing he was not well. “Here am I,” said he—a good example to servants, to come when they are called; and to the younger, not only to submit to the elder, but to be careful and tender of them. 2. Of his infirmity, and unacquaintedness with the visions of the Almighty, that he took that to be only Eli’s call which was really the call of God. Such mistakes as these we make oftener than we think of. God calls to us by his word, and we take it to be only the call of the minister, and answer it accordingly; he calls to us by his providences, and we look only at the instruments. His voice cries, and it is but here and there a man of wisdom that understands it to be his voice. Eli assured him he did not call him, yet did not chide him for disturbing him with being over-officious, did not call him a fool, and tell him he dreamed, but mildly bade him lie down again, he had nothing for him to do. If servants must be ready at their masters’ call, masters also must be tender of their servants’ comfort: that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest as well as thou. So Samuel went and lay down. God calls many by the ministry of the word, and they say, as Samuel did, “Here am I;” but not looking at God, nor discerning his voice in the call, the impressions of it are soon lost; they lie down again, and their convictions come to nothing.
IV. The same call was repeated, and the same mistake made, a second and third time, 1 Sam. 3:6-9. 1. God continued to call the child yet again (1 Sam. 3:6), and again the third time, 1 Sam. 3:8. Note, The call which divine grace designs to make effectual shall be repeated till it is so, that is, till we come at the call; for the purpose of God, according to which we are called, shall certainly stand. 2. Samuel was still ignorant that it was the Lord that called him (1 Sam. 3:7): Samuel did not yet know the Lord. He knew the written word, and was acquainted with the mind of God in that, but he did not yet apprehend the way in which God reveals himself to his servants the prophets, especially by a still small voice; this was altogether new and strange to him. Perhaps he would have been sooner aware of a divine revelation had it come in a dream or a vision; but this was a way he had not only not known himself, but not heard of. Those that have the greatest knowledge of divine things must remember the time when they were as babes, unskilful in the word of righteousness. When I was a child I understood as a child. Yet let us not despise the day of small things. Thus did Samuel (so the margin reads it) before he knew the Lord, and before the word of the Lord was revealed unto him; thus he blundered one time after another, but afterwards he understood his duty better. The witness of the Spirit in the hearts of the faithful is often thus mistaken, by which means they lose the comfort of it; and the strivings of the Spirit with the consciences of sinners are likewise often mistaken, and so the benefit of their convictions is lost. God speaketh once, yea, twice, but man perceiveth it not, Job 33:14. 3. Samuel went to Eli this second and third time, the voice perhaps resembling his, and the child being very near to him; and he tells Eli, with great assurance, “Thou didst call me (1 Sam. 3:6-8), it could be no one else.” Samuel’s disposition to come when he was called, though but by Eli, proving him dutiful and active, qualified him for the favour now to be shown him; God chooses to employ such. But there was a special providence in it, that he should go thus often to Eli; for hereby, at length, Eli perceived that the Lord had called the child, 1 Sam. 3:8. And, (1.) This would be a mortification to him, and he would apprehend it to be a step towards his family’s being degraded, that when God had something to say he should choose to say it to the child Samuel, his servant that waited on him, and not to him. And it would humble him the more when afterwards he found it was a message to himself, and yet sent to him by a child. He had reason to look upon this as a further token of God’s displeasure. (2.) This would put him upon enquiring what it was that God said to Samuel, and would abundantly satisfy him of the truth and certainty of what should be delivered, and no room would be left for him to suggest that it was but a fancy of Samuel’s; for before the message was delivered he himself perceived that God was about to speak to him, and yet must not know what it was till he had it from Samuel himself. Thus even the infirmities and mistakes of those whom God employs are overruled by infinite Wisdom, and made serviceable to his purposes.
V. At length Samuel was put into a posture to receive a message from God, not to be lodged with himself and go no further, but, that he might be a complete prophet, to be published and made an open vision. 1. Eli, perceiving that it was the voice of God that Samuel heard, gave him instructions what to say, 1 Sam. 3:9. This was honestly done, that though it was a disgrace to him for God’s call to pass him by, and be directed to Samuel, yet he put him in the way how to entertain it. Had he been envious of this honour done to Samuel, he would have done what he could to deprive him of it, and, since he did not perceive it himself, would have bidden him lie down and sleep, and never heed it, it was but a dream; but he was of a better spirit than to act so; he gave him the best advice he could, for the forwarding of his advancement. Thus the elder should, without grudging, do their utmost to assist and improve the younger that are rising up, though they see themselves likely to be darkened and eclipsed by them. Let us never be wanting to inform and instruct those that are coming after us, even such as will soon be preferred before us, John 1:30. The instruction Eli gave him was, when God called the next time, to say, Speak, Lord, for they servant heareth. He must call himself God’s servant, must desire to know the mind of God. “Speak, Lord, speak to me, speak now:” and he must prepare to hear, and promise to attend: Thy servant heareth. Note, Then we may expect that God will speak to us, when we set ourselves to hearken to what he says, Ps. 85:8; Hab. 2:1. When we come to read the word of God, and to attend on the preaching of it, we should come thus disposed, submitting ourselves to the commanding light and power of it: Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. 2. It should seem that God spoke the fourth time in a way somewhat different from the other; though the call was, as at other times, a call to him by name, yet now he stood and called, which intimates that there was now some visible appearance of the divine glory to Samuel, a vision that stood before him, like that before Eliphaz, though he could not discern the form thereof, Job 4:16. This satisfied him that it was not Eli that called; for he now saw the voice that spoke with him, as it is expressed, Rev. 1:12. Now also the call was doubled—Samuel, Samuel, as if God delighted in the mention of his name, or to intimate that now he should be made to understand who spoke to him. God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, Ps. 62:11. It was an honour to him that God was pleased to know him by name (Exod. 33:12), and then his call was powerful and effectual when he called him by name, and so brought it particularly to him, as Saul, Saul. Thus God called to Abraham by name, Gen. 22:1. 3. Samuel said, as he was taught, Speak, for thy servant heareth. Note, Good words should be put into children’s mouths betimes, and apt expressions of pious and devout affections, by which they may be prepared for a better acquaintance with divine things, and trained up to a holy converse with them. Teach young people what they shall say, for they cannot order their speech by reason of darkness. Samuel did not now rise and run as before when he thought Eli called, but lay still and listened. The more sedate and composed our spirits are the better prepared they are for divine discoveries. Let all tumultuous thoughts and passions be kept under, and every thing be quiet and serene in the soul, and then we are fit to hear from God. All must be silent when he speaks. But observe, Samuel left out one word; he did not say, Speak, Lord, but only, Speak, for thy servant heareth, way was made for the message he was now to receive, and Samuel was brought acquainted with the words of God and visions of the Almighty, and this ere the lamp of God went out (1 Sam. 3:3) in the temple of the Lord, which some of the Jewish writers put a mystical sense upon; before the fall of Eli, and the eclipsing of the Urim and Thummim for some time thereby, God called Samuel, and made him an oracle, whence they have an observation among their doctors, That the sun riseth, and the sun goeth down (Eccl. 1:5), that is, say they, Ere God maketh the sun of one righteous man to set, he makes the sun of another righteous man to rise. Smith ex Kimchi.