Samuel, whose name means ‘Name of God,’ was dedicated to God by his mother, Hannah, as part of a Nazirite vow she made before he was born (1 Samuel 1:11). After Samuel was weaned at the age of four, he was brought to the tabernacle to serve under Eli the priest (1 Samuel 1:22-25). Even as a child, Samuel was given his own ephod, a garment normally reserved for a priest as he ministered before the Lord in the tent of meeting at Shiloh, where the ark of the covenant was kept (1 Samuel 2:18; 3:3). Traditionally, the sons of the priest would succeed their father’s ministry; however, Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, abused their position by demanding the best cuts of the sacrificial meat for themselves. This was seen by God as a great sin as it revealed their contempt for the Lord’s offering (1 Samuel 2:17). Meanwhile, Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men (1 Samuel 2:26).
At a time when prophecies and visions were rare, Samuel heard what he first believed to be Eli calling him during the night. Though Samuel was ministering in the tabernacle, he still didn’t know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him (1 Samuel 3:7). This calling happened three times before Samuel answered the Lord the next time he heard Him calling. Samuel took his first leap of faith, and the following day he described the vision to Eli and all that God confirmed to him about what had been prophesied to Eli regarding the downfall of his family (1 Samuel 2:35). Samuel’s credibility as a prophet spread throughout Israel, and God continued to reveal Himself through His word to him (1 Samuel 3:20-21).
For over twenty years, the ark of the covenant remained at Kiriath Jearim, after it had been returned by the Philistines who had taken it in battle. As the Israelites cried out to God, Samuel instructed them to be rid of the false gods they had been worshipping. After Samuel’s intercession, and by God’s power, the Philistines were overcome by the Israelites, and there was a time of peace between them (1 Samuel 7:9-13). Samuel was recognized as the judge of all Israel.
Like Eli’s sons, Samuel’s two sons, Joel and Abijah, sinned before God by dishonest gain and perverted justice. Therefore, the elders of Israel demanded a king (1 Samuel 8:1-5). Samuel’s initial reaction to their demand was one of great displeasure, and he prayed to God about the matter. God gave Samuel leave to permit their request but instructed him to warn the people what they could expect from a king (vss. 6-21).
In time, Saul, a Benjamite, was anointed by Samuel as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 10:1). Even so, Samuel called on God for a sign to show the Israelites the evil of choosing to replace God as their king with an earthly king (1 Samuel 12:16-18). After a couple of years had passed, Samuel learned that Saul was not the king that God wanted to lead His people because of disobedience (1 Samuel 10:8; 13:11-13). Samuel immediately warned Saul that God had already sought out a replacement for him (1 Samuel 13:14). After Saul proved his disobedience to God again, Samuel denounced him as king (1 Samuel 15:26). Though Samuel returned home, never to be at King Saul’s side again, he mourned for him (vs. 35). God instructed Samuel to choose another king from the family of Jesse (1 Samuel 16:1), and Samuel anointed Jesse’s youngest son, David (vs. 13).
Samuel was the last in the line of Israel’s judges and is considered by many as the greatest (Acts 13:20). Samuel is cited alongside Moses and Aaron as men who called on God and were answered (Psalm 99:6). When the Israelites were in disobedience to God, He declared they were beyond even the defense of Moses and Samuel (Jeremiah 15:1). This is a clear indication of the respect God had for Samuel.
There is much to learn from the life of Samuel. In particular, we see the sovereignty of God in Israel, no matter whom the people chose to reign over them. We may allow other things or people to occupy the throne of our hearts, but God will always remain sovereign and will never accept usurpers to His authority in the lives of His subjects.
We can imagine how daunting it must have been for the young Samuel to give an honest account of his vision to Eli. However, it appears that even from a young age, Samuel’s absolute allegiance was to God first. There may be times when we feel intimidated by those in authority, but as Samuel proved more than once, it is God who must always remain our priority. The world may look on us cynically when we remain steadfast in our faith. However, we can be confident that God will vindicate those who have remained faithful to His Word (Psalm 135:14).
Though Samuel had deep reservations about letting the people have a king, he was quick to consult God about the matter and abided by His decision (1 Samuel 8:6-7). Many of us may consult God about important decisions in our lives, but how many of us are ready to accept His counsel and abide by it, especially when it appears to go against our own desires? Leaders in particular can learn from Samuel’s example of the power he derived from his close relationship with God, generated by a healthy prayer life. Samuel was a great man of prayer, and his people respected him for it (1 Samuel 12:19, 23). Even though Samuel was aware of the evil in Saul’s life, he never stopped praying and mourning for him. Indeed, Samuel described it as a sin not to pray for the people under his care. Perhaps too quickly we may write a brother off when we see him fall into sin. Certainly, God’s plans for each individual will come to pass, but it should never stop us from continuing to pray and to care for those who are weaker in their faith (Romans 15:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
The main theme throughout Samuel’s life is that God alone should receive the glory and honor. After making his sons judges, it must have been the saddest thing for Samuel to learn that they were unfit to lead. When he consulted God about the people’s request for a king, nothing was said in defense of his sons. Samuel was obedient to God’s instructions to give the people what they wanted.
There isn’t much to criticize in the life of Samuel, save perhaps one issue. We can only imagine that, due to the time and effort Samuel spent in his service to the Lord and His people, he afforded little time to spend with his sons. This may well have been a factor in their going astray. No matter how high a calling we receive from God, we must never neglect our family’s needs (1 Timothy 3:4-8).
The key verse in the life of Samuel contains his words to King Saul: “But Samuel replied: ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams’” (1 Samuel 15:22). No matter how great our ministry, obedience to God’s Word must always be our top priority.