People have asked and I haven’t given a good answer yet. A comprehensive explanation is probably not possible, but I hope to begin to answer this question for myself, my son, and anyone else who may be curious.
While it was one of the most significant things we have done as a family, naming our firstborn was quite possibly the easiest decision Kristen and I have ever made together. Samuel just fit. We both thought of it independently. We had joked about other names before, but when it came time to make a list, there was only one boy name on it.
There are several reasons why we settled on Samuel, not the least of which is the fact that it’s simply a fine sounding, timeless name.
Samuel became especially significant to me early last year when my position was cut at the newspaper I had been working at and I found myself with an abundance of time on my hands. I began focusing on developing a more disciplined daily routine and one of the big elements in this new routine was an increased level of scripture study, in addition to devotional readings. The first book I decided to explore, for no particular reason at the time, was Samuel. If I want to be honest (and I do) then I have to admit that up until this point, my knowledge of the Old Testament was hazy at best. I knew all of the key stories and characters, but really understanding how those stories fit together and what drove those characters to act like they did had been left out of my Sunday school lessons.
Samuel made the biblical narrative real to me.
First and Second Samuel document the history of the early Israelites during the time of Samuel — the prophet, priest and final judge of Israel — continuing through the rise and fall of the nation’s first monarchs, Saul and David. Reading these stories of Samuel, Eli, Saul, David and Jonathan, I was struck by how very real these men were. These were the great characters of the Bible, the pioneers of our faith, but understanding their journey means understanding that they were not much different from you and me. They were very real men with very real flaws, yet they loved God with all their might and wanted desperately (with a few exceptions) to serve him. Samuel was a great leader and a devout man of God, but he wrestled with the same problems I face today: pride, fear and frustration constantly threaten to hold him back from the tasks God has set before him; he wants his own sons to know the Lord and seek him, but he understands that ultimately he cannot be responsible for their choices; he has trouble reconciling the ideal community of fellowship God has called his people to with the reality of their situation and the desires of the nation. Samuel, David and Saul may have moved in the upper echelons of society, they may have had personal encounters with God too intense for us to possibly imagine and they may have lived in a radically different world 3,000 years ago, but they were still more down-to-earth than most of the people I come across at church, at school or on the street.
Samuel helped make God real for me. My most ardent prayer — my greatest hope and strongest desire — is that he will be real for my Samuel as well.
Another lesson that I learned from Samuel came from a simple phrase often repeated by the biblical author: “Do what seems best to you.” This phrase is repeated, with some variation, throughout the story of Samuel. Elkanah says it to Hannah once it is revealed that she has pledged Samuel to a life of temple service; Saul’s soldiers offer this affirmation to their leader; David uses the phrase as he heeds the advice of his generals; Mephibosheth uses it to express humility before the king
When Eli receives a prophecy of God’s displeasure with him and his sons, he simply concedes: “It is Yahweh; let him do what seems good to him.” When David decides to begin construction on a new temple at Jerusalem, Nathan tells him, “You should go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.” Once Samuel has established Saul as the nation’s first king, the judge leaves the young man with a final word: “When these signs have taken place, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God will be with you.”
When the prophet’s announced “God is with you” to David and Saul, they were speaking to the kings in a particular context. Still, as Christians, we know that God has sent us his Counselor to guide us as we make our way through life. If our desire is to live within the Lord’s will, his desire for us will become clear.
It may be dangerous to simply say “Do what seems best to you,” especially if there is a possibility that our bad choices may be interpreted as God’s bad guidance. An important part of maturing is accepting responsibility for our actions; an important part of growing as a Christian is trusting God to guide us when we seek to make responsible decisions. This lesson from Samuel came to me at an important crossroad in my life, a time when I had to make a responsible decision but no choice seemed absolutely clear. Finding this balance between freedom and faith, between personal responsibility and surrender to the universal, is a constant struggle for me, and I’m glad.
My first wish for my son is that he may come to know God in a real way; to love him and seek him out, just as the prophet, the king and the shepherd boy did many years ago. My second wish is that he may have the faith to trust God with his hard decisions; to have the humility to know that, even if he is a king on Earth, he will never be able to walk the journey alone, but he does need the courage to act in faith — to “do what seems best” — because after all, as Samuel so eloquently said, “God will be with you.”