Seeing Dimly, Hearing Clearly

Seeing Dimly, Hearing Clearly

This second Sunday of Epiphany, of being reminded of God’s manifestation, his disclosure of himself even to the Gentiles, we are also reminded of the fact that since the time of the Fall of Adam and Eve all humans, beginning with those who existed before God created for himself a nation out of one man, Abraham, have need of God’s revelation; of this manifestation by God; of this self-disclosure of God. For the Fall of humanity changed everything. Whereas in the brief snapshot we have of pre-fallen life we see an idyllic world in which God spoke directly with Adam[1] who cared over the Garden in which he’d been placed;[2] and a world in which Adam recognized and celebrated the uniqueness of Eve, his fellow image of God bearer who was unlike anything else God had created;[3] as soon as Eve and Adam disobeyed God, everything changed. Adam and Eve now hid from God.[4] The relationship they had had with one another was also damaged.[5] And even caring for the earth became difficult.[6] So the beautiful creation and fellowship God had originally made and which he had pronounced to be very good[7] suffered the consequences of our first parents’ disobedience, of their turning away from the riches God had provided them.

And as our passage begins, we see that the time in which Samuel lived reflected this broken world for “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” Not for the first time, in reading this passage I’m so very grateful to be living in a time when God’s Word, the 66 books contained in our Holy Bible, have already been given and preserved for us. Not so with Samuel. During the period in which he lived—between eleven and ten hundred BC—God’s people would primarily have been familiar with the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Old Testament—and so they were dependent upon God’s prophets for instruction and guidance. There was much that God had yet to reveal to his people and he did so primarily through these servants, his prophets, his mouthpiece and spokesmen. So in stating that “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions,” we’re being told that the time in which “[t]he boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli”—and the Hebrew word used here can also mean “young man”[8]— was a time when God wasn’t actively disclosing himself to his people by way of any prophets. Curious to note, however, is that the text tells us that Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. This is curious because a few verses down in verse 7 we’re told that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” So even prior to Samuel knowing God, by means of his service to Eli, a priest of God, Samuel was nonetheless doing God’s work.

Now notice how this passage is full of sensual—as in relating to the senses or physical images—especially the senses of sight and hearing. As the passage begins, we’re not only told that there were not many visions, but as the passage progresses we’re told:

One night Eli’s eyes “were becoming so weak that he could barely see” (v. 2);

“Eli…was lying down in his usual place”—given that it was night, he was probably sleeping (v. 2);

“The lamp of God had not yet gone out” (v. 3); Again, since the lamp was burning, we have another indication that it was still dark;

Samuel, too, “was lying down in the house of the LORD”—again, he also was probably sleeping (v. 3)—at least the first time God called.

And it is during this time of darkness both at the macro, symbolic level—God’s Word was rare and there were not many visionsand at the micro, literal level—Eli and Samuel are sleeping at night, that God speaks.

Whereas all of these statements are expressions of visual darkness, the LORD sheds his light, as it were, by speaking audibly to Samuel. The LORD brings clarity in an aural manner or by means of hearing. So in verse 4 we have the first occurrence of the LORD calling Samuel. And the call was so clear that Samuel assumed it was Eli who had called so he ran to him; the second time the LORD called Samuel is found in verse 6 and Samuel again assumed it was Eli who was bidding him to come so he again went to him; this scenario was repeated yet a third time when the LORD called Samuel, verse 8, and again Samuel got up and went to Eli thinking that it was he who had beckoned him. So God’s initiative in the light of literal and spiritual visual darkness was audible clarity; God responded to lack of sight by means of speech. So we have here an occurrence of seeing dimly, but hearing clearly. And what I’m going to suggest is that Eli may be understood as representing dim sight whereas Samuel may be understood as representing clear hearing. Let me begin with Eli.

We know that Eli was a priest of God who knew Samuel’s parents before Samuel was ever born. Samuel’s mother, you may recall, was Hannah and she grieved not only because she was barren but also because she was tormented for her barrenness by, Peninnah, the other wife of Elkanah, her husband.[9] This painful situation caused Hannah to pray to the LORD and because she one day she was moving her lips as she prayed silently rather than out loud as was the custom, Eli rebuked her for being drunk.[10] Upon Hannah clarifying that she wasn’t drunk but praying, Eli blessed her saying, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”[11] And we know that God did indeed bless her by removing her barrenness when Samuel—whose name in Hebrew sounds like the word for “heard by God”—was born.[12]

Well, Eli’s misreading of Hannah’s prayer isn’t the reason I’m suggesting he represents seeing dimly in our account. Though the inspiration for my suggesting this can be found in verse 2 of our text which, again, notes that Eli’s “eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see,” I think he represents seeing dimly in the spiritual sense because though he knew the LORD and was supposed to act as God’s representative as his priest, Eli didn’t see God in the sense of following him. The primary “exhibit A” is that Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were wicked in God’s sight. They are described as “scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord.”[13] And the reason they were described as scoundrels is that despite their also being priests, they abused the sacrificial system, demanding the best portion of the sacrifices for themselves rather than offering the best to the LORD as was required.[14] And so we’re told, “This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt.”[15] Now Eli heard “about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they”—get this, even—“slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.”[16] And though Eli confronted his sons,[17] he didn’t put a stop to their wicked acts for “His sons…did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.”[18]

Subsequently Eli himself was approached by a man of God who confronted him:

This is what the Lord says: “Did I not clearly reveal myself to your ancestor’s family when they were in Egypt under Pharaoh? 28 I chose your ancestor out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod in my presence. I also gave your ancestor’s family all the food offerings presented by the Israelites. 29 Why do you[plural] scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?”[19]

And so in time the LORD removed Eli and his family from the priesthood[20] and he told Eli that both Hophni and Phinehas would die on the same day[21]—which they did[22]— as did Eli soon afterwards.[23]

So the story of Eli is the one of seeing dimly—of knowing God but only sort of following him.

How very different is the story of Samuel, one who not only heard clearly but who also acted on that hearing. From the time of his birth, his mother’s desire was to dedicate him to the LORD so as soon as Samuel was born Hannah, despite the deep longing she had had for a child of her own, said to Elkanah, her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.”[24] And as soon as he was old enough and had been weaned she did,[25] bringing the boy Samuel to Eli and saying to him, “…now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.”[26] And so “Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the Lord under Eli the priest.”[27] So whereas we’re told that the sons of Eli the priest were “scoundrels,” wicked men who “had no regard for the LORD,”[28] we’re told that Samuel, the son of Hannah and Elkanah, “continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people.”[29] These words are reminiscent of what was later said about the boy Jesus as well.[30]

Now last week we noted a word of caution in interpreting Scripture—namely that we ought not automatically assume that simply because events in Scripture succeed one another in an account, that this means they therefore occurred immediately following each other. So though the end of Matthew 1 ended with the birth of Jesus, by the beginning of chapter 2, as much as two years had passed. This week we need to be careful of common tendencies that may occur not so much in interpreting Scripture but in applying it by claiming promises that were never intended for us. And in the events that occur in the life of Samuel and his parents, there are at least two potential pitfalls along these lines:

First, we shouldn’t take the fact that the Lord responded to Hannah’s prayer for a child as an indication that he will always grant such prayers. Naming and claiming Hannah’s request as our own has been the source of heartbreak for many who have been unable to have children so we need to be clear that Hannah’s story is not our story. Though God desires us to bring all matters before him in prayer, the big as well as the small, we must be careful not to presume the answer to those prayers for ultimately prayer is a means of our talking with God, helping us learn and submit to his will and to see our lives through his eyes. It may be that he will grant the object of our request—but it may also be that he won’t. Either way, we’re called to trust in his goodness and greatness.

A second potential misapplication in this account is to assume that when we dedicate our children to the Lord, even as Hannah did, that this will automatically result in their growing up to follow and serve the Lord as Samuel did. Again, sometimes this happens; but sometimes it doesn’t. Faithful parents may have children who don’t own the Christian faith; and unbelieving parents may have children who grow up to know and follow Christ. And though all Christian parents should dedicate their children to the Lord either by committing them to him privately or publicly by dedicating or baptizing them, the simple act of doing so isn’t magical. We simply can’t know how God is going to work in our lives or in the lives of our children but, again, we are called to commit all things to him and to trust and rest in his goodness and mercy.

As to Samuel, we know—with the benefit of Scripture and therefore in hindsight—that the Lord raised him up to be one of his prophets in a time when, as we’ve seen in verse 1, “… the word of the Lord was rare” and “there were not many visions.” But with the birth of Samuel all of that was about to change for he would be used by God to anoint and speak God’s Word to both King Saul, Israel’s first king, as well as King David, Israel’s most important and beloved king. And one of the many unique components in our passage is that though Eli, God’s priest, was dim of sight both physically and spiritually, God nonetheless used this broken priest to discern God’s call upon the life of Samuel, Eli’s—and more importantly God’s servant.

Now we can imagine how confusing the interchanges between Samuel and Eli must have been. For after each of them had been sleeping, again, we see that the LORD called out to Samuel four times—and in three of those Samuel heard the LORD’s voice clearly but mistakenly—albeit understandably—assumed that it was Eli who had called. After all, so far as we know there was no one else in the house so who else could have called him? As a faithful servant to Eli, each time Samuel heard his name being called out, he quickly beckoned to what he assumed to be his master’s call saying to him each time, “Here I am; you called me” (vv. 5, 6, 8). Too, though God audibly calling out to anyone would be unusual, to say the least, a further complication, as already noted, is that in verse 7 we’re told, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” So it’s no wonder that upon hearing God’s voice, Samuel mistook it to be Eli’s for Samuel did not yet know the LORD. And then, as now, the only way he could know the LORD was for the LORD to reveal his word to him, that is, for the LORD to disclose himself to him.

Now though the first two times God called Samuel, Eli responded by telling him, “I did not call; go back and lie down” (vv. 5, 6)—and how lovely that the second time he calls Samuel, “My son” indicating the close relationship that existed between the two—the third time Samuel appeared by Eli’s side, Eli had an “a-ha!” moment which is recorded for us in the second half of verse 8: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy.” And so he provided Samuel instructions, verse 9, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.”

And, sure enough, our ever-patient and tenacious God beckoned Samuel a fourth time, verse 10: “The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’” Now did you catch the difference between this call and the first three? Whereas the first three times the LORD spoke Samuel’s name once, this time he spoke it twice: ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And as we’ve noted before, this repetition of Samuel’s name tells us that God knows him intimately—as Dr. Stuart once pointed out, we can understand this doubling in calling a person as a repetition of endearment.[31] Samuel is dear to the God who is calling him. And by means of this call, Samuel came to know the LORD he formerly had not known; and Samuel came to serve the LORD who previously had not been revealed to him. So Samuel responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Well, what have we to learn here? If we ought not apply this passage by claiming promises to have children if we have none or for the outcome of their lives if we have children, how should we apply this passage? What can we learn from it?

The first thing I think we can learn is that then, as now, the only way Eli or Samuel or anyone could know the LORD was for the LORD to reveal his word; for the LORD to disclose himself. For God is not only a Person—capital “P”—but he is a Person who made us for himself and he is a Person who desires for us to know and love and follow him. But we can only know him if he reveals himself to us—if he introduces himself to us—if he tells us who he is by opening our eyes to the truth of who is. This is the message of Epiphany—of God’s manifesting himself to us that we might know him.

Second—and perhaps this is more of a third caution in misapplying God’s Word—God calling Samuel may provide some insight into God’s unique relationship with his prophets and how they received his Word to proclaim it to others. Whereas you and I—and most believers for that matter—don’t audibly hear God speak, Samuel did for he, unlike us, was a prophet of God. Even as a child or young man we see God literally calling him to do his bidding. So knowing how clearly God spoke to his prophets ought to give us confidence in believing the Word he has left us to instruct and guide us. Later, by the time of the New Testament, the apostle John similarly testifies that he is bearing witness to that which he has seen with his eyes—and touched with his hands—and heard with his ears.[32] So we can have confidence in the truth of God’s Word.

Third, and building upon this, the primary way God will speak to you and me is by his Holy Spirit helping us understand and follow the 66 books of the Old and New Testament we have been given. As that very Scripture teaches, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.[33] So you and I are called to be students of Scripture—we ought to be reading—and meditating and reflecting upon—the Word God has given that we might be instructed and grow in our knowledge of and love for God. If we do this, we’ll be claiming Samuel’s heritage of hearing clearly and obeying what we hear; if we don’t, we’ll be following Eli’s heritage of seeing dimly for we see dimly when we hear God’s Word—but choose not to obey it. We see dimly when we know the good we ought to do—but end up disregarding that good. So we need to ask ourselves: Do we want to be like Eli and see dimly or like Samuel and hear clearly?

Last, as the time of Advent we recently celebrated was one of waiting for Christ’s light to break through the darkness that permeates this world, the time of Epiphany is one in which we’re called to spread that light to those around us. Scripture calls us to let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.[34]

So dear brothers and sisters, let us be those who commit ourselves to reading and reflecting upon God’s Word that we might better know and love the God who made us for himself—and that we might learn how to love one another—and that we might share that love with those who don’t yet know Christ.

Let us now pray that in learning about God we, like Samuel, might respond by saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”





[1] Genesis 2:16–17: 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

[2] Genesis 2:15, 19–20a: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it…. 19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

[3] Genesis 2:20b, 23: 20  But for Adam no suitable helper was found…. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

[4] Genesis 3:8: Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

[5] Genesis 3:16b: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.

[6] Genesis 3:17b-19a: 17  “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food

[7] Genesis 1:31: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

[8] Hebrew na’ar. Crossway ESV Study Bible note on I Samuel 2:18–21. According to the Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on I Samuel 3:1, “The Jewish historian Josephus places his age at 12 years; he may have been older.”

[9] I Samuel 1:6: Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.

[10] I Samuel 1:12–14: 12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

[11] I Samuel 1:17.

[12] I Samuel 1:19–20: 19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel,[Samuel sounds like the Hebrew for heard by God] saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” Hannah went on to have other children, however, I Samuel 2:21: And the Lord was gracious to Hannah; she gave birth to three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.

[13] I Samuel 2:12.

[14] I Samuel 2:13–16: 13 Now it was the practice of the priests that, whenever any of the people offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled 14 and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. 15 But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” 16 If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.”

[15] I Samuel 2:17.

[16] I Samuel 2:22.

[17] I Samuel 2:23–25a: 23 So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. 24 No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the Lord’s people is not good. 25 If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender; but if anyone sins against the Lord, who will intercede for them?”

[18] I Samuel 2:25b.

[19] I Samuel 2:27b–29.

[20] I Samuel 2:30–33: 30 “Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. 31 The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, 32 and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. 33 Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.

[21] I Samuel 2:34.

[22] I Samuel 4:11: The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

[23] I Samuel 4:12–18: 12 That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh with his clothes torn and dust on his head. 13 When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God. When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry. 14 Eli heard the outcry and asked, “What is the meaning of this uproar?” The man hurried over to Eli, 15 who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes had failed so that he could not see. 16 He told Eli, “I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day.” Eli asked, “What happened, my son?” 17 The man who brought the news replied, “Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years.

[24] I Samuel 1:20. Dead Sea Scrolls translation adds “I have dedicated him as a Nazirite—all the days of his life.”

[25] I Samuel 1:23–27: 23 “Do what seems best to you,” her husband Elkanah told her. “Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good his word.” So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. 24 After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. 25 When the bull had been sacrificed, they brought the boy to Eli, 26 and she said to him, “Pardon me, my lord. As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. 27 I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.

[26] I Samuel 1:28. After giving up her son to Eli, Hannah prays her exquisite and well-known prayer in I Samuel 2:1–10: 1 Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.

“The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. “The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. “For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness. “It is not by strength that one prevails; 10 those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth. “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

[27] I Samuel 2:11.

[28] I Samuel 2:12.

[29] I Samuel 2:26.

[30] Luke 2:52: And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

[31] The LORD similarly called out twice at key points in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, and, and Moses. And the three respond as Samuel did: AbrahamGenesis 22:9–12, esp. v. 11:When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”) JacobGenesis 46:1–4, see esp. v. So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “Here I am,” he replied. “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”). Moses42:) Exodus 3:1–6, see esp. v. 4: 3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

[32] I John 1:1–4: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

[33] Romans 10:17: Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

[34] Matthew 5:16:

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