How was Samuel a hero? Samuel is perhaps best-known for the story of his childhood. When God wanted to speak to him, Samuel's ready response was "Speak, for Your servant is listening" (I Samuel 3:10). His exemplary service for God went far beyond that initial willing disposition. He faithfully judged Israel all his life (7:15-17) and was a major influence in Israel's deliverance from the Philistines (7:5-14). One of his prayers during this conflict was answered by a thunderstorm so mighty it caused the Philistines to flee. Samuel often led Israel in sacrifices and worship, and he passionately challenged the people to serve God (12:14-25). In fact, the word of God had been mostly absent in those days, and it was Samuel's ministry that brought a renewal of God's revelations to His people (3:1 & 21; 4:1). Samuel's fervent desire was to direct the people's hearts to God (7:3). Samuel fearlessly proclaimed the truth to Eli, to the people, and to Saul. He obeyed God in anointing Saul and then David as kings of Israel. He then confronted Saul when he sinned (13:11; 15:14). In spite of his great sorrow over Saul's failure (15:11), Samuel would not compromise or condone Saul's actions (15:26 & 35).
How did Samuel fail? This great man's failure is most clearly noted in the lives of his sons. He had seen Eli's failure with his sons, and had in fact relayed God's message of judgment to Eli concerning his wicked sons. In spite of this example, Samuel was not able to direct his own sons to follow God. Even worse, although he knew the condition of his sons' hearts, he still appointed them as judges to take over for him when he was old (8:1-3).
What was Samuel's heart response? From a very young age, Samuel's heart was directed toward God. It would be easy to imagine the opposite. His mother had "abandoned" him at the tabernacle when he was a young boy; he then had no choice but to live and serve there. His mother dedicated him to God's work. Instead of rebelling against the path of service to God that someone else had chosen for him, Samuel gave every indication that he had chosen to serve God of his own accord. The story of Eli and Israel is repeatedly punctuated with God's statements about Samuel. The repetition in these statements is very interesting. "But the boy ministered to the LORD before Eli the priest" (2:11). "Now Samuel was ministering before the LORD, as a boy wearing a linen ephod" (2:18). "And the boy Samuel grew before the LORD" (2:21). "Now the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favor both with the LORD and with men" (2:26). "Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli" (3:1). "Thus Samuel grew and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fail" (3:19).
Readers may be tempted to believe that Samuel's dedication to God was a given - a natural result of his growing up in the tabernacle and with a priest as his mentor. This would be an erroneous conclusion. Eli's sons grew up in the very same atmosphere and from an even earlier age. They had their father the priest to guide them, yet they were very wicked. "Thus the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for the men despised the offering of the LORD" (2:17). These brothers abused the offering of sacrifices by taking for themselves first rather than allowing the people to sacrifice properly. In addition to this desecration of worship, they habitually committed adultery right at the tabernacle. In the rebellion of their hearts, they "would not listen to the voice of their father" (2:25). The way Samuel turned out was not dependent on his upbringing or circumstances. Samuel had a heart for God alone (7:3), recognizing the danger of following someone other than God (10:19).
How did Samuel's story end? The saddest part of Samuel's life was the negative influence that he unwittingly had on the nation of Israel. Samuel himself discouraged Israel from following a king, warned them against the dangers of having a king, and encouraged them to simply follow God instead. The reality, however, is that it was because of Samuel that the people wanted a king. As he grew older and established his sons as rulers in his place, the people saw the wickedness of his sons. They did not want that kind of leadership, and they requested a king instead (8:3-5). Samuel himself remained true to God through the end of his life. As Saul fell into disfavor with God, Samuel compliantly transferred his support to David. When he died, he was appropriately mourned by Israel (25:1).
Application: Samuel's story puts the emphasis on the heart of the individual. Neither Eli's nor Samuel's heart for God transferred to their children. Neither was it Hannah's heart for God that transferred to Samuel. Samuel personally desired to follow God, and that is the way it must be. No believer can depend on anyone else or rely on anyone else's testimony; dedication to God is personal. It is good and right to challenge others toward God, but no one can force another person to follow God, nor can one person make that decision for someone else. God is interested in the condition of the individual heart, a principle that is highlighted repeatedly throughout the story of Samuel's life. Samuel challenged Israel to follow God with all their hearts. "Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, 'If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines' " (7:3). After Saul was established as king, Samuel again challenged the people. "Samuel said to the people, 'Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart' " (12:20). When Saul sinned, Samuel confronted him with what was truly important, stating, "But now your kingdom shall not endure. The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after his own heart, and the LORD has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you" (13:14). After Saul's next failure, Samuel again highlighted the importance of an obedient heart even over seemingly good actions. "Samuel said, 'Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams' " (15:22). God Himself reinforced the importance of the heart at the anointing of David. "But the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart' " (16:7). The challenge for each believer is to have a personal heart relationship with God and a desire to serve Him with the whole heart.