Psalm 106:40-48; 1 Samuel 3,4; Luke 24:13-27

Psalm 106:40-48: Writing from exile himself, the psalmist reminds his listeners that this is not the first time that God “gave them into the hand of nations, / their haters ruled over them. /And their enemies oppressed them, /and they were subject to their power.” (40, 41) And it was their fault, not God’s: “they rebelled against His counsel /and were brought low through their misdeeds.” (42)

But we should never give hope, he writes, because in the very next verse, God “saw when they were in straits, / when He heard their song of prayer. / And He recalled for them His pact, / relented through his many kindnesses.” (43, 44)

Thus, the endless cycle of sin and falling away and then God’s inevitable rescue. This of course was the basic reality of the Old Covenant. Under the terms of the New Covenant established through Jesus Christ, God does not punish us for our misdeeds; their consequences are in themselves sufficient punishment. Through the grace of Jesus Christ we are saved once and for all, and we can say with the psalmist, we “acclaim Your holy name and to glory in Your praise.” (46)

1 Samuel 3,4: Samuel, living at Eli’s house, hears a voice in the night. He keeps thinking it is Eli, but Eli figures out it must be God talking, and advises Samuel to say, ““Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (3:9). The next time Samuel hears the voice he replies as instructed. God, “who is standing before him,” says ““See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (3:12) Specifically, God is going to punish Eli because he allowed his sons to run amok.

So, when I hear someone say, “What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it?” I wish God would speak to me with the singular clarity that he spoke to Samuel. But then I think of the content of God’s very clear message that was spoken in Samuel’s bedroom.  The voice of God is not necessarily going to deliver happy news.

Indeed, as the next chapter reveals, very bad things can happen. Israel brings the Ark itself to the battle, doubtless thinking it would cast some sort of magic spell and defeat the Philistines. But God has other plans, and the presence of the Ark, while at first discouraging the Philistines, “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?” (4:8) then ends up encouraging Israel’s enemy to fight hard and “The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” (4:11) The lesson is clear: blithe assumptions about what God is or is not going to do are extremely risky.

A messenger brings the bad news about his sons and the Ark to Eli who can bear the news of the death of his two sons; he knew they had sinned. But when he hears that the Ark is lost, “Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy.” (4:18) And the pregnant but newly-widowed wife of Phineas goes into labor and gives birth to a son who receives perhaps the saddest name of all: “Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” (4:21)  I think the story of Ohineas’ wife is included because the authors wish to make a point that sin’s consequences–here Eli’s sin–impact far more people than just the sinner.

Luke 24:13-27: The risen Jesus–comes alongside the Emmaus walkers, who famously do not recognize him until the very end. I’m struck by the parallels of this encounter with the story of the young Samuel finally hearing the voice of God, whom he did not recognize three times earlier. I think both Samuel and Emmaus teach us that God operates subtly and requires a great deal of discernment on our part. That’s why I tend to be suspicious of people who announce, “I heard God speaking to me.” without at some point shortly thereafter admitting that God’s voice was difficult to hear amidst all the noise of life. Or that God spoke several times before He was recognized by the listener.

This is not to deny the reality of God speaking, but I guess I’m in the “still, small voice” camp. God rarely, if ever, will come to us as single, dramatic theophany, but as with Samuel and the walkers on the road, several times, usually very quietly. I think this process of slow recognition is an essential part of the process of listening–and discerning–God’s words to us.

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