The priest Eli has misgoverned Israel, allowing his sons to disdain the Lord. Their contempt for God is an unforgivable sin (1 Sam 2:25). Today we read that Eli's sight is dimming and he is going blind. We also read that 'the lamp of God had not yet gone out in the temple.' The sanctuary lamp that burns all night is almost out of oil, meaning the night is almost over. The symbolic meaning is that a new day is dawning upon a time of darkness and blindness.
In the Jewish ordering, the previous book is Judges. Seven times it records that "Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" (2:11, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). The last judge, Samson, is a dismal failure who makes bad decisions based on pleasing his own eyes. He is not a leader, but a wild loaner who breaks his vows to God. His battles are motivated by personal vengeance, not serving the needs of Israel or serving God. He also ends up blind. In the Book of Judges it says (17:6, 21:25) that "there was no king in Israel so each man did what was right in his eyes." The Book of Samuel begins with the understanding that they are blind people led by blind leaders.
This darkness is expressed starkly in verse 1 "the word of the Lord was rare in those days, there were no frequent visions." No word. No visions. The blind priest Eli has failed as a "seer" for Israel.
The Lord calls the boy in the darkness and three times he runs to Eli saying "Here I am." On the third time the old priest discerns that it is God and instructs his protégé in how to respond: "Speak Lord your servant is listening." Is it noteworthy that young Samuel fails to say "Lord" when he responds? As is so often the case in biblical narrative, we are not told.... I think it is important.
The name Samuel is a composite of the words shama= "hear" and el="God." The English translation of shama includes hearken, hear, listen, understand, obey. The creedal prayer of Dtn 6:4 "Shema Yisrael" (Hear Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One) ties together Moses and Samuel. God has spoken His word who will listen? Who will interpret and speak the divine will?
In the biblical literature, God is not always present. When He is, He is usually silently present. If He speaks to someone it is to call them to a leadership role; but these human instruments remain fallible people. By chapter 8, "Samuel became old." He had plans, setting up his sons as judges over Israel. Ironically, they are like the sons of Eli. They are not worthy to the task. As a result, Israel's elders will demand a king. The era of judges comes to a close and the era of kings begins. Samuel is the end of one and begins the other.
The story of Samuel is about this transition. It is a reminder that God saves by intervening in history, not controlling it. There are ups and downs and lots of twists and turns. God does not preserve people from the struggles of life.
Is God silent and absent in our age? Some claim to hear Him, but they are also fallible and imperfect, and often times I doubt their claims. We do have the Scriptures, though, so as we wait for Jesus to return we can prayerfully search His Word to hear Him. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have the voice of the church. We can say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." We can listen, hear, understand and obey.