1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) – listening, but not understanding

Reflecting and Doing

This simple yet intriguing science experiment is a great way to illustrate how we can be ‘listening, but not understanding’.

You will need:

  • some yarn or string
  • metal oven rack, metal coat hanger or similar metal item
  • wooden spoons for hitting the racks

Start by placing a metal rack or coat hanger on a surface. Have as much in contact with the surface as possible. Alternatively, hold the rack firmly, touching a lot of the wires. Hit it with a wooden spoon and describe the sound. Probably not very impressive.

This sound is dulled by being touched and this illustrates how we can deliberately dull the voice of God, as Eli did in this passage.

Now suspend the rack or coat hanger from one finger and try again. You should get a clang, but we are still missing a lot. To really hear properly, we need to be closely connected to God, as Samuel was.

Finally, tie a piece of yarn to one corner of the rack or coat hanger and use this to suspend it in mid-air, not touching anything. Wind the yarn around your index finger and place that finger firmly in your ear. You may need to lean forward so that the rack or coat hanger does not touch your clothing.

Now strike the metal and be amazed!

No-one else will hear what you hear, so you will need to pass it around. Experiment with different items. Can you work out why it sounds so different when you are directly connected?

The Science Bit

Sound is generated when objects vibrate. When you hit the metal, the wire vibrates, and this vibrates the air around it. The vibration travels through the air to your ears, where it vibrates tiny bones inside your head. Your brain decodes these vibrations as sound.

In the first experiment, when we held the wires, we dampened the vibrations, so the sound was dull. In the second experiment the vibrations travelled through the air in the usual way to your ears and we heard the sound normally.

But sound can travel through solid or liquid as well as gas (air). It travels much better through liquids and solids than through a gas, where it dissipates quickly. This is why whale song can be heard through a hundred miles of sea, and why your own voice sounds different to you than to other people. When you hear your own voice, you are hearing it transmitted through the bones of your skull as well as through the air. Other people only hear it through the air.

When you connect the rack to the yarn, and the yarn to your finger, and your finger to your skull, you are allowing the sound vibrations to travel directly by solids, instead of by air. That’s why you hear so much more of the sound.


Sometimes Jesus said odd things. Like when he told a parable that no-one understood, and when his disciples asked him what it meant Jesus replied, “I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ ” (Luke 8:10)

Yeah. Great. Helpful. Not.

Actually, Jesus was quoting Isaiah, who is quoting God. So I suppose we must let him off for being disobligingly cryptic. It comes from God’s first instruction to the newly-commissioned prophet. Isaiah had just responded with a commendably enthusiastic ‘Here I am Lord, send me’, and God tells him to ‘Go and say to this people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” ’ (Isa 6:9)

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like me a lot of the time, and it certainly describes both Eli and Samuel in this passage. Nothing changes, eh?

I love the story of Samuel hearing God’s voice but thinking was Eli. Cute! But there’s a lot more about not hearing and not seeing in the verses around.

To give you some context, this was in the time of the judges, before Israel had kings. God was supposed to be their king (1 Sam 8:7) but, to be honest, it wasn’t going well.  The last verse of Judges sums up the sorry situation with ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.’ And their idea of what was ‘fit’ didn’t correspond with God’s very often.

Our passage starts with a similarly depressing, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.’ There was not much word to hear, not many visions to see, Eli had weak eyes and it was night – so many images of darkness, yet … yet the lamp of God had not quite gone out. There was still something to be seen, something to be heard.

Samuel hears, but does not recognise it as God. It can be easy to miss God’s voice if we’re not expecting to hear him. And even though Samuel was working in the temple, it was not a place that anyone expected to hear God.

The temple religion had become corrupted. Check out the previous chapter where Eli’s sons were using their position as clergy for financial profit and worse. Eli hears about it and lets his sons off with a wrist-slap. Then a ‘man of God’ comes and warns Eli about what will happen, and still Eli does nothing. No wonder ‘the word of the Lord was rare’. He was purposefully not hearing because hearing would have meant changing.

Eli is a perfect example of  ‘listening but not understanding’. It’s reaching his ears but not his heart. Then God speaks to Eli again, through Samuel, and the message finally gets through.

There are several thoughts we can take away from this passage.

Am I Samuel, hearing God but mistaking it for just an ordinary voice? Certainly God uses the voices of those around us to speak, and I know I need to listen better. Take a few moments to look around you. If God were speaking through the ordinary voices of the everyday, what might he be saying, right now?

Am I Samuel being the voice of God to Eli? Perhaps God wants me to say or do something, and I need to obey, even if it is difficult. I can’t have been easy for Samuel to tell aged Eli what he had heard.

Am I Eli, opting for an easy life and ignoring the elephant in the room? Is there something that I need to address before God?


1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised

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.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 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. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

(vs 11-20) Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 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.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.


New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Image – Coathanger Gong by The Batty Boffin


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