1 Samuel 3:1, 21 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. . . . And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, because the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.
The word of the Lord forms an inclusio for 1Samuel 3, providing us with a framework in which to read the account of Samuel’s call. The story is replete with the kind of vocabulary we would expect in a passage given to the word of the Lord: calling, speaking, listening, tingling ears, etc.
But there are three instances where terms associated with sight appear:
“And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions [Heb, chazon] were infrequent.” (3:1)
“But Samuel was afraid to tell the vision [Heb, marah] to Eli.” (3:15)
“And the Lord appeared [Heb, raah] again at Shiloh because the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” (3:21)
This strikes me as curious since the text never says that Samuel “saw the Lord” nor does it provide a description of a vision as we might expect. It’s entirely possible that Samuel did, in fact, see something that night but the framing statements (vv 1, 21) seem to point in a different direction.
The last sentence in 3:1, has an almost poetic quality to it that borders on synonymous parallelism:
word of the Lord was rare
visions were infrequent
In fact, the Hebrew chazon (vision) is frequently used to signify a revelation without any indication of something seen, particularly in prophetic contexts (see Isa 1:1; Obadiah 1:1; Nahum 1:1; Hab 2:2-3). After surveying the background and use of the chazon root, the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concludes:
Its primary meaning is a form of revelation . . . consisting in nocturnal perception of a divine voice during a deep sleep. . . . The verb was also used in the sense of perceiving God and his works, undoubtedly from the realization that in the prophetic experience the word refers to a kind of perception, i.e., hearing God. . . . Only rarely is seeing with the eyes meant. [TDOT 4:290]
So if we have good reason to understand vision along the lines of perception rather than literal sight, what are we to make of 3:21 which states that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh?” The answer here is a little more obvious on closer reading. The Lord is said to have appeared because he revealed himself by the word of the Lord. God is where his word is.
None of this is to deny the biblical accounts of dreams and visions, but it’s a great reminder that the word of the Lord is no mere consolation prize and that anyone who would see the Lord must see him through his Word. And if God is to be seen by his word, what visions must now be available to us (Psa 119:18; Jn 1:14, 18; 2Cor 4:6; 2Pet 1:19)?