When first I heard Ralph McTell sing Small Voice Calling my immediate thought was that, when he wrote the words "there's a small voice calling our names", Ralph must have been remembering this story about God calling out Samuel's name.
Where will I find this story in the Bible?
The First Book of Samuel, Chapters 1 to 4 (1 Samuel 1 – 4).
Line drawing by Annie Vallotton
Well, sort of. The tribes are governed by a succession of national heroes, called “Judges”, who lead the people in war and rule them in peace. The people worship Yahweh, their God, at the Sanctuary, where they offer sacrifices to him on feast days.
OK, what’s the story?
Hannah was married, but she was barren. Not like her husband’s other wife, who bore him children. In her shame and desperation, Hannah pleaded with Yahweh for a son, promising to dedicate the boy to his service. And Yahweh said, “Yes”.
And it came to pass that Hannah’s son, Samuel, went to live at Shiloh, where Eli and his two sons were the priests in the Sanctuary. Eli’s sons’ job was to help the people make their sacrifices to Yahweh, in return for which they got to eat some of the meat. But they got into the bad habit of eating the meat before the people had completed their ritual. This displeased the people. And Yahweh wasn’t too chuffed, either. And Eli did nothing to stop them.
The problem was, there was no one to intercede for the people between the priests and God. So, one night, whilst everyone was asleep, Yahweh called to Samuel: “Samuel! Samuel!” Thinking it was the old priest calling to him, Samuel went to Eli to see what he wanted. “It wasn’t me”, said Eli, “go back to sleep”. Twice more this happened, and on the third occasion Eli twigged that God must have a message for Samuel. “Go and lie down”, Eli told Samuel, “and if someone calls, say, ‘Speak, Yahweh, for your servant is listening’”.
Samuel went back to bed, and Yahweh came and stood next to him. “Samuel! Samuel!”, he called. “Speak, Yahweh”, said Samuel, “for your servant is listening”. And Yahweh told Samuel all he had planned for Eli and his sons for their wickedness.
In the morning, Samuel told Eli everything God had told him. And everything God told Samuel became true. This is how Samuel became a great prophet in Israel.
How does Ralph use this story?
In the chorus to Small Voice Calling, Ralph writes:
There's a small voice calling our names outside
And he wants to come in
He says he remembers us from way back…
Ralph may have been thinking of the story of Samuel, and how God invited himself into Samuel’s life when he called out his name. Yahweh remembered Samuel from before he was born, and had a plan for him.
Ralph ends the song with a question:
Oh, how can we avoid him?
How, indeed? As another prophet, Elijah, discovered, you can run but you can’t hide…
Illustration from the Good News Bible
"Speak; your servant is listening."
Small Voice Calling
Small Voice Calling > The Call > Samuel! Samuel!
Who’s in it?
Hannah, a married Hebrew woman
Samuel, her son
Yahweh, the God of Israel
Eli, an old priest
Eli's two sons.
What’s the background?
It’s the early tenth century BC. The Hebrew tribes have been miraculously rescued from slavery in Egypt, and have established their own territory in Israel.