Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Samuel's Choice

Last night I started reading 1 Samuel, including the story of Hannah and her song which is followed by the story of young Samuel hearing God calling him in the night. It's a popular story for Sunday School because it involves a child, and kids always relate strongly to that. I always loved this story as a child, because I so desperately wanted to hear God calling my name. I would have given anything for it to happen to me, and I remember lying in bed at night holding my body completely still, my ears straining just on the slight chance that He was saying my name, but saying it so quietly that I couldn't hear Him.

In the story, Samuel wakes up hearing a voice calling his name; he runs to his teacher, Eli's side saying, "I'm here!" Eli tells the boy to go back to sleep because he didn't call him. This goes on a couple more times until Eli realizes that it was God calling the boy, so he instructs Samuel to go back to bed and when God called "Samuel, Samuel" again, to respond with, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." Samuel follows Eli's instructions (minus the word "Lord") and receives a message.
God said to Samuel, "Listen carefully. I'm getting ready to do something in Israel that is going to shake everyone up and get their attention. The time has come for me to bring down on Eli's family everything I warned him of, every last word of it. I'm letting him know that the time's up. I'm bringing judgment on his family for good. He knew what was going on, that his sons were desecrating God's name and God's place, and he did nothing to stop them. This is my sentence on the family of Eli: The evil of Eli's family can never be wiped out by sacrifice or offering." 1 Samuel 3:11-14

This is a heavy message for a little boy, especially one who was probably about 8-10 years old. A little more backstory: Eli is the head priest of all Israel. He's in charge of the religious life of the entire nation. His sons were priests because of who their father was, not because of any merit or belief on their own, and they completely abused their position. They stole meat as people were offering it up for sacrifices. They committed blackmail, used prostitutes, and were all around bad guys. You can see why God had such harsh words about them, but as I was reading this last night, I had to wonder why he gave the message to Samuel. Especially because 1 Samuel 3:7 says: This all happened before Samuel knew God for himself. It was before the revelation of God had been given to him personally.

After God delivered this heavy duty message to Samuel, the boy spent the rest of the night in bed. Now because I'm me, I have to wonder, what was he thinking in those dark hours of the night after hearing the voice of God. He had to know what was going to happen in the morning, and while he lay there, thinking, reflecting on God's message, he had to decide what to say.
Samuel stayed in bed until morning, then rose early and went about his duties, opening the doors of the sanctuary, but he dreaded having to tell the vision to Eli.

But then Eli summoned Samuel: "Samuel, my son!"

Samuel came running: "Yes? What can I do for you?"

"What did he say? Tell it to me, all of it. Don't suppress or soften one word, as God is your judge! I want it all, word for word as he said it to you."1 Samuel 3:15-17

What would you say? Samuel had been brought to the Temple and left with Eli as soon as he was weaned, which in Hebrew culture would have been around 5 years of age. Hannah, his mother, had so wanted a son that she promised God that she would give the boy over to Him if He would just answer her prayer. So from about age 4 up, he was raised completely by Eli. Eli was a father figure; his teacher and mentor, the source of his food and rest. Eli was training Samuel to work in the Temple, so he was teaching the boy about God, helping him memorize the books of Moses.

What would you say? Would you tell Eli the truth, knowing that it would destroy him to know that his own flesh and blood had been judged as evil by God himself? Or would you shade the truth a bit, maybe fudge the message rather than hurt this gentle, fat old man who was a second father to you? That's what society would have us do. There's no need to share the truth unvarnished like that, it only causes pain and suffering, better to keep a part back to spare Eli grief.

But that's not what Samuel did. So Samuel told him, word for word. He held back nothing... Samuel grew up. God was with him, and Samuel's prophetic record was flawless. Everyone in Israel, from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, recognized that Samuel was the real thing—a true prophet of God. God continued to show up at Shiloh, revealed through his word to Samuel at Shiloh. 1 Samuel 3:19-21

Samuel told Eli the truth, and God rewarded him for it. He made Samuel his prophet to the Israelite people because He knew that Samuel was trustworthy; he would share God's Word, even when it hurt.

There were times when Saul tried to tempt Samuel to temper God's Word, to change it to his desires, and though it hurt Samuel to abandon the handsome king he had anointed, he refused to betray God's trust in him.

Toward the end of his life, he spoke to the Israelites and asked them if any of them had anything against him. Had he taken a bribe or stolen anything or exploited them in anyway? The people replied: "Oh no," they said, "never." 1 Samuel 12:4
"That settles it then," said Samuel. "God is witness, and his anointed is witness that you find nothing against me—no faults, no complaints."

And the people said, "He is witness."1 Samuel 12:6-8

How many people could say that at the end of their lives? How many of us could go to everyone we know and ask them if we've ever done any wrong to them and have them reply, "With God as my witness, no, never." Samuel lived a singular life in that God was able to trust him implicitly, and it all started with a hard message to a little boy and the choice that boy made to tell the truth, no matter how much it hurt.