Learning to Listen
Learning to Listen
One of the most familiar of all children’s stories is told in this chapter. Samuel heard a voice that he mistook as Eli’s. Each time he ran to the old priest, he was told to go back to bed. Finally Eli realized that God was speaking to Samuel, and told Samuel that if the voice called again, he was to say, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.”
In those days the word of the Lord was rare
Chapter 3 begins with an interesting statement: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare.” The statement is made as a background setting to the story of the word of the Lord coming to Samuel, but it also bears witness to the low religious low of the day. The Scripture did not say that “there was no religious activity in those days” because the people went on with the business of their religion whatever. Many people today are confused by the fact that there is a religious revival in the world and also some of the worst moral and ethical problems at the same time. Could it be that while there is no shortage of religious words experienced, nonetheless the “Word of the Lord is rare.” The lack of the word was not so much connected with God’s reluctance to communicate with the people as with the lack of a human instrument to receive and speak the word of the Lord.
There’s more to the words “the Lord called Samuel” (v. 4) than is obvious at first reading. His mother had lent him to God for his entire life, but only the Lord could call him to prophesy. Most people don’t think of Samuel as a prophet because they associate the word “prophet” with predicting future events. While there is that aspect, the main business of the prophets was to speak God’s word to their contemporary situation. When we read the accounts of the calls of the different prophets it helps us to understand their lives and ministries. The clues to the rest of Samuel’s life are found in this text.
When the call came to Samuel, he thought it was his master, Eli, calling. How easy it still is not to be able to discern God’s voice from other voices. It would be so much easier if all of God’s messages to us came with a clearly printed label: “From God.” God speaks to us through familiar voices. While there is a tendency to think of the more dramatic revelations of God as normative, most people experience God’s guidance in quite ordinary ways: through experiences good and bad, while reading the Scripture, through the counsel of another, or out of a growing interest.
Eli’s Role in Samuel’s Call
A marvellous aspect of Samuel’s call was the provision of Eli to help him interpret the call. There is an interesting set of contrasts involved. First, Eli is much more tuned into Samuel’s spiritual experience than he was to Samuel’s mother whom he thought at first was drunk. But the most interesting contrast is between Eli’s physical and spiritual vision. Verse 2 says that his eyes “were becoming so weak that he could barely see.” Fortunately his spiritual vision was better than his eyesight because he “realized that the Lord was calling the boy” (verse 8). And it was Eli who worded for Samuel the response, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (verse 9). Servants listen to the master differently than others. Eli’s wise advice is a good reminder that God can often use us to give better advice to the children of others than we have been able to give to our own.
A good example of this truth would be Max Cherry who died last Monday. Max had a remarkable 52-year coaching career, during which time he was mentor, friend and inspiration to more than 1000 athletes. He coached Devonport Olympian David Chettle, a marathon runner who went to the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Some of his protégés include, Commonwealth Games competitors Randal Markey and Donna MacFarlane, and world champion orienteer Hanny Allston.
One of the highlights of Cherry's career was guiding MacFarlane to a bronze medal in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Donna MacFarlane has paid tribute to Max, saying she would take with her to Beijing his last lesson - "run hard right through the finish line".
She said that Max told her that she can be the best in the world. Her parents told her that as well, but she started to believe it only when Max told her that.
Most people, if they reflect a while, will realize that God is always supplying people like Eli or Max Cherry, at different times when we are finding it difficult to discern God’s direction for our lives at some critical juncture. Questions like what to do about a relationship, which job to take, how to deal with a problem, or what to do with our lives are often made clearer by someone with spiritual wisdom who helps us to hear God’s voice in the familiar and encourages obedience as the best way. God wants us to hear what He has to say but we’ll do this only after we learn how to listen. I want to draw some listening lessons from 1 Samuel 3:
Look at 1 Samuel 3:1: “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” Samuel’s job was to serve the Lord, doing menial jobs like keeping the lamps lit, and probably keeping the place clean. The key here is that Samuel ministered even when the spiritual climate in Israel was fairly frigid. Likewise we must keep on serving even when we’re in a “winter of the soul” stage. We could say it this way, Try even if you’re dry. God’s Word was scarce and we know from verse 7 that Samuel didn’t even know the Lord yet. He knew about God but didn’t know Him personally…yet. But he did the proper practice. Friend, keep doing what you know you need to be doing even if God feels distant, when His Word seems dry, and whether you feel down or not.
Samuel not only ministered, verse 3 tells us that “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.” Did you catch that? He was where the ark of God was. “If you want to hear God, you got to be near God.” James 4:8: “Come near to God and He will come near to you.” Are you in God’s proximity? Are you sincerely trying to get as near to Him as you can through regular worship, Bible study, prayer, and your faith-walk? Friends, God communicates with those who are close to Him. His revelation comes to those who are in relationship with Him. If you are distant from God, you will drift. Related to this, make sure that you are cultivating enough quiet time in your life as Psalm 46:10 reminds us: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Samuel not only had dedicated service and stayed in constant nearness; he also had at least three priorities:
He wanted to be a submissive servant (10). The Lord called Samuel and he replied with this great statement of surrender: “Here I am.” Thinking that it must be Eli who was calling, he ran to him three different times. After the third time, Eli realizes that it must be the Lord calling Samuel and so he tells him to go and lie down. Here’s what we read in verse 10: “The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’” Don’t you love that God knows our name? His call to us is personal. And God loves it when we say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” It’s very similar to what Isaiah said in Isaiah 6:8: “Here am I. Send me.” When we invite the Lord to speak into our lives and we remind ourselves that we are His servants, He is greatly pleased. Tragically, Eli didn’t hear God’s voice any longer and didn’t even get out of bed to see how he would be led by the Lord.
He wanted to be an obedient servant (18). The message Samuel received was not easy to deliver but he passed it along because he was obedient. Look at verse 18: “So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him.” Interestingly, the Hebrew for “listen” is the word “obey.” To say we will listen to the Lord means that we will do what He says, no matter how difficult it is.
He wanted to be a devoted servant (19). I love verse 19: “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.” This was a metaphor that came from the idea of water being spilled on the ground. Don’t let God’s Word carelessly spill to the ground. When he prompts you to do something, do it. Give, serve and go. Whatever it is, don’t disregard His direction. If God says it, that settles it. If you ever hear yourself say, “I know what the Bible says, but…” you are in danger of letting His Word drop. God’s Word is wonderful; don’t waste it.
What does it really meant when someone says, “God spoke to me.” I guess most people are not referring to an audible voice. God speaks through His Word, through sermons, through His Spirit, through our conscience, through circumstances and through others. Here are some tests to use to see if God is really speaking:
· Is what people say God said God-centred or self-centred? 1 Samuel 2:30: “Those who honour me I will honour, but those who despise me I will despise.”
· Is what people say God said in sync with Scripture? God will never contradict Himself.
· Is what people say God said consistent with what godly counsellors are saying? Samuel sought out Eli. Proverbs 15:22: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”
· Do you have personal peace about it?
Does God speak? Yes he does. He’s speaking all the time. The real question is this: Am I listening? I believe that the story of God’s encounter with young Samuel teaches us at least five principles about listening to God:
1. To Hear God, We Need a Servant’s Spirit (vv. 1, 9–10). We can’t be running our own lives.
2. To Hear God, We Need a Discerning Ear (vv. 4–8). We need to be able to pick out God’s voice from the many voices out there.
3. To Hear God, We Need an Encouraging Environment (vv. 3, 5–6, 9). We can’t be in the clutter of noise and movement all the time.
4. To Hear God, We Need to Listen to God Rather Than Speak (v. 10). Most of the time, we do the talking and God does the listening. It needs to be the other way around.
5. To Hear God, We Need a Tolerance for Hard Truth (vv. 11–18). We must be willing to accept something difficult from God for what’s best rather than what makes us feel good. The message consisted of the announcement that the promised removal of Eli’s family from the priesthood was about to occur. It was an announcement so shocking that it would cause the ears of the people to ring like hammer blows on a bell. The reason is explicitly stated—Eli’s sons were wicked, and though he knew it he failed to restrain them.
Dear friends, if we hear God then we better pay attention to Him. God is calling. Will you answer? When He says, “Can you hear me now?” will you say, “Speak, for your servant is listening?” Amen.