“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25). That’s how the book of Judges ends. That book covers a time period of about a century and a half—from the life of Joshua to the life of Samuel. The judges were regional authorities. Today we might call them local chieftains. The book of Judges was written after the monarchy was in place. So maybe there’s some bias; maybe the judges are pictured a tad unfairly.
“All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” There was no king. They were running wild!
Having said that, it is hard to dispute there was some spiritual anarchy. That was the world in which Samuel was born. Here’s one minor example. I won’t go into detail, but the sons of Eli the priest engaged in graphic womanizing and ripping people off when they came to offer sacrifice. In Eli’s defense, he did plead with them to stop being so wicked. But that’s just one symptom of the “anarchy.”
In 1 Samuel we have a story appearing often in the Bible. There’s a woman advancing in years who still hasn’t borne a child. It’s always pictured as the woman who can’t conceive. We never hear about the man who is unable to father a child! I wonder why that is. Maybe in ancient times they weren’t aware such a thing is possible. Then again… But I’ll leave that for another day!
In any event, here, the woman is Hannah. Long story short, she prays to the Lord; she becomes pregnant, and she follows up on her promise to dedicate young Samuel to God. Afterward, she sings of song of praise which serves as the model for the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke 1. That’s how we arrive at Eli’s taking Samuel under his wing.
Look at how chapter 3 begins. “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1). There were few, if any, prophets bringing fresh words from the Lord. Almost no one had any vision. It was a drought of creativity.
That’s not the same thing as saying God did not want to reveal new things to the people. When people are resistant—when we are resistant—there’s no place for the seed to germinate within us. That is, it’s the figurative seed which bursts from the earth and becomes the plant that grows and flourishes. It’s the new life signaling an end to the drought.
Okay, I know the main point of the sentence is a physical condition. Eli is now an old man, and he no longer has an eagle eye! We could say he’s blind as a bat. Still, coming right after that business of visions being few and far between, I think we can see more than a little bit of humor involved. There’s probably more than a little bit of sarcastic humor involved, with a loss of vision also meaning a spiritual condition.
That theme continues in verse 3. “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”
Again, the surface language is talking about an actual lamp which has used up almost all of its oil. But I like that: the lamp of God had not yet gone out. There’s still a flicker; there is still hope. There are still those who welcome the word of the Lord; there are still those who yearn for vision.
By the way, we hear about the Ark of God, or the Ark of the Covenant. It was said to contain holy objects, including the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments. Oh, and just as importantly, it was the star attraction in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which highlighted the face-melting of Nazis when they gazed into it.
I’ll summarize the crazy story starting in verse 4. It’s the story of a boy who keeps waking up in the night because he keeps hearing a voice. And each time, he goes into Eli’s bedroom, who keeps telling him, “I didn’t say anything. Now go back to bed, young man. Goodness gracious, can’t a guy get some shut-eye?”
Finally, Eli realizes Samuel is hearing the Lord. He tells him to listen, and what he hears isn’t very pleasant. It’s all over for Eli and his worthless sons. Their wickedness has come back to haunt them. Eli demands the boy lay it out for him. “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’” (v. 18). Even in bitter failure Eli shows himself to be a man of deep faith.
We can see this as a baton being passed. The sun is setting on Eli, but it is rising on Samuel. This is more than a function of age. It’s more than Eli being old and Samuel being young. There are plenty of folks who’ve been on this planet for over 80 or 90 years and are still vibrant inside. And there are some young ones who are already turning to dust inside.
This is about maturity. This is about understanding gentleness is strength; wisdom begins with acknowledged ignorance; the first will be last, and the last will be first. (Okay, I stole that from someone!)
This is a new word from the Lord; it is a new thing. Young Samuel is infused with vision from God.
There’s an often-misunderstood verse from the book of Proverbs. It comes from the King James Version, which despite much of its beauty, is after all, written in English from four hundred years ago. It is said, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (28:19). That’s been taken to mean many things, such as the vision leaders lay out for those being led. It’s the vision we ourselves have.
Modern translations show the meaning of the Hebrew. “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV). So it really means “where there is no prophecy, no revelation, no vision from God.” And what’s the result? The people cast off restraint. They are unruly.
[Rev. Steve Plank, former stated clerk of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, gave this translation during the August 2017 presbytery meeting: “Where there is no word from the Lord, empty chaos results.”]
As those final words from the book of Judges go, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” What does this spiritual anarchy look like?
Again, it doesn’t mean people are running wild, with blood flowing in the streets. It’s not the plot of a horror story, like that ridiculous movie The Purge, the premise of which says once a year, all crime is legal for a period of twelve hours. No, it’s nothing so over-the-top as that!
One way I think we can see what this anarchy looks like is the sense of rootlessness. It’s the sense of becoming untethered, unmoored. It’s the sense of drifting, of having no firm grasp—nothing solid to hold on to. All the people did what was right in their own eyes.
That also happens in the church. There can be a sense of losing our bearing, not knowing which way to go. At a lesser level, we can see anarchy in congregational meetings, in which it becomes a matter of crowd control. That’s why our Book of Order specifically lists the topics to be discussed at such meetings. It brings anarchy to order!
Back to the original point. A lack of a genuine word from the Lord, a lack of vision, of revelation, affects our society at large.
Many consider Martin Luther King, Jr., as having been a prophet. Whether or not you would use that term, (I trust I’m safe in saying) he did speak a new word, a needed word, rooted in vision and revelation from God. Like the prophets of old, his message comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. It was, and remains, a word for both society and the church.
King ministered during a time of great transition in America—tumultuous transition. I’ve spoken about transition on numerous occasions. Transition is a big part of the job of interim pastor, if not the defining characteristic. Transition is always charged with anxiety, in greater or lesser measure. And it becomes all the more necessary to hear that rare and precious word and to receive the vision.
So how do lack of the word and lack of vision result in a drought of creativity, at least creativity that is worthy of the name?
Could it be we are cut off from the source of creation? We can’t allow the creative Spirit of God to inspire us? We are unable to imagine new things?
Perish the thought! We need not look for the grand and glorious. It begins with one. Jesus was one, and the word spread. With the young boy Samuel, a fresh wind of the Spirit blew into what was decaying. There was a rejuvenation. Anarchy was brought to order.
That is our challenge and our privilege—that we bring our own anarchy and present it to the one who takes what is crumbling and orders it into something wondrous and beautiful and yielding life eternal.
 יׇקׇר (yaqar), also means “precious”