One of the Bible’s clearest depictions of God speaking to a human being involves a boy named Samuel.
When Samuel first heard a call from the Lord, in I Samuel 3:4, he didn’t understand what he was experiencing. He ran to his master Eli in response. In fact, he went to Eli again and again, because the experience continued. Eli eventually understood that something special was happening, that Samuel was being called by God.
“Go and lie down,” Eli told him. “If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’”—I Samuel 3:9.
The Lord did call again. Samuel responded, “Speak, for your servant is listening”—I Samuel 3:10. The Lord then did speak, describing to Samuel a fate that was coming for the family of Eli.
There are various points to observe in this simple story. One is that the insight Samuel received came unexpectedly, without the boy asking to be given any news. God chooses the moment and manner of information entering our awareness.
Also, Samuel identified himself as God’s servant. A servant is one who accepts what his master has for him and does what his master has for him to do. Am I prepared to do what God would ask of me in the way that a servant would? The answer to that question might account for the silence on occasions when I say “Speak, Lord” myself.
One other lesson might be seen in the way Samuel disobeyed Eli. The disobedience is so subtle, you might have missed it. Eli told him to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” He left out the “Lord.”
I invite you to seek after the full meaning of this omission. I don’t believe I’ve found it. Someone was standing there with Samuel (literally standing there—look again at 3:10). Who was this?
God comes to us in different ways. He is Son and Spirit, in addition to Father. The Bible says Son and Spirit are both active in our lives, both speaking.
Yet there is also the fact that, as the apostle John put it, “No one has ever seen God”—John 1:18. Whatever we envision when we think of “God” or “God’s plan,” even when we are near to these things, is at best just an icon to represent something too vast for our small minds to absorb and contain. And in some cases, it is an icon created by someone else that we have adopted reluctantly. Samuel loved and obeyed his earthly master Eli, but he did not let this man or this man’s presumptions broker the encounter.
In other words, Samuel confessed how little he knew. He resisted the claim to knowing more than he did. By refusing in this instance even to choose a label for God, Samuel seemed to appreciate the extent to which his role was only to listen and receive, not to try to define the experience himself, and not to try to shape it with his own potentially misguided grasping. In responding to God’s first approach to him without naming the one who called, it was as if Eli was saying, “You know what you want to reveal to me, and you know who you are.”