LINK: 1 Samuel 3-4
God has been mostly silent in Israel at this time. It is still the time of the judges, and Israel is drifting through its cycles of disobedience and redemption. This is the first time Samuel ever heard the voice of the Lord, but it certainly won't be the last. He didn't understand who was calling him at first, but Eli figured out it must be God and instructed Samuel to listen. The message God gave to Eli through Samuel was a difficult one, but Samuel gave a faithful account of God's message and Eli accepted it as God's will. Now the people of Israel knew that God was still there because they heard about Samuel's encounter with God.
The ark of the covenant symbolized God's presence and power in Israel. But the Israelites took God's presence lightly and came to regard the ark of the covenant as a superstitious object. They used it like a good luck charm and carried it into battle against the Philistines. God was not with them, however, and they were defeated. The Philistines recognized the ark as powerful and feared it before the battle but were later able to capture it. Eli's sons died in the battle, and when Eli heard the news, he fell over and broke his neck so that he died as well. His daughter-in-law went into labor when she heard the news of their deaths, and then she died in childbirth. Before she died, she named her son Ichabod, which means "no glory," because the ark of God had been taken.
Word from the Lord was rare in those days so Israel wasn't hearing much from God. In contrast, as believers we have God's word and the Holy Spirit to communicate to us continually. We never have to experience the same kind of lapse in communication. That's not to say that we don't always do our part to keep up the communication, but God is always there. And the loss of an object does not remove God from us.
We also have full access to God. Hebrews 4:16 says, "Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need."
There's a contrast here between Eli and Samuel. On chapter 2, God rebuked Eli because he was allowing his sons to despise the offering of the Lord. Eli talked to his sons about it, but didn't act on it by removing them from service. God saw Eli's response as honoring his sons above God, and in chapter 4 God removed the family from service. In contrast, God has placed Samuel (a descendant of Ephraim, not Levi) into service. Samuel will come to have great respect for the sacrifices of the Lord and will honor God above men. I want to be like Samuel when he said to God, " Speak, for Thy servant is listening." And I want to truly listen to God, to obey and honor him above all others.
Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.