Eli and Samuel were probably taking their turn sleeping in the tabernacle to keep the lamp lit. They slept in little rooms or closets near that special area of God’s presence. It was when Samuel heard a voice call his name that he sat up in his little pallet and called back, “Yes?” No one answered.
You can’t always tell from Scripture whether God’s voice is audible or “heard” by some other means. When Saul (later Paul) was on the road to Damascus, he heard the voice of the resurrected Jesus talking to him in a vision, and the sound could be heard by his entourage. It was audible. In Genesis 6, God spoke to Noah and gave him specific instructions. We might assume that the voice was audible—that is, he heard spoken words with his ears—but the Lord may have “spoken” to him mind to mind. We don’t know for sure. God’s voice to Daniel sounded like thunder, but centuries earlier to Elijah, He spoke with “a noiseless sound.” In Samuel’s case, God spoke in such a way that Samuel literally heard His voice. He spoke with the voice of a normal Hebrew man so that the boy thought it was Eli calling to him from the other room.
Eli probably thought Samuel had been dreaming, so he sent him back to bed.
The LORD called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he answered, “I did not call, my son, lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD , nor had the word of the LORD yet been revealed to him. (1 Samuel 3:6–7)
The last sentence represents the storyteller’s clarifying comment to the reader, who already knew of Samuel as a powerful prophet of God. It’s the author’s way of saying that this occurred before the Lord had initiated a personal relationship with the boy. Keep this in mind, as it will become an important part of the story as it unfolds. By the way, in the Old Testament, having a personal relationship with the Lord in the way we have come to know it by the new covenant and the indwelling Holy Spirit was a rare and truly awesome privilege. I think we take this privilege far too lightly!
Excerpted from Charles R. Swindoll, Great Days with the Great Lives (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.