Attitude Check: Are Our Prayers Selfish? (1 Sam 3.17)

“May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”

1 Samuel 3.17


In the last passage, we read of Samuel’s birth and his mother’s vow to dedicate him to God. When he was old enough, he went to live with the prophet Eli to serve at the temple. We also read that Eli’s sons were scoundrels, and not fit for the work at the temple.

At some point (we do not know when), a man comes to Eli with a message from God. He denounces Eli because of his wayward sons. Though Eli was faithful to God, he failed to rein in his sons. Because he allowed their behavior and allowed God’s temple to be sullied, God is going to cut off his family. In their place, God will choose another to lead Israel.

One night, as he lay in bed, the boy Samuel hears a voice calling him. Thinking it is Eli, he runs to the old man. Eli tells Samuel that he did not call him. Samuel returns to bed, but hears the voice again and runs to Samuel. When it happens a third time, Eli realizes that the voice might be God speaking. He tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again, he should respond, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel does so, and indeed it is God. He tells Samuel that He is about to do something stunning. Just as the messenger said to Eli, God will cut off the family of Eli because of the sons’ behavior and lack of courage from the father.

The next morning, Eli asks Samuel about the voice. We can understand why Samuel does not want to tell him. Eli insists and even offers a curse-prayer if Samuel does not tell him everything. When Samuel repeats the message, Eli responds with resignation: so be it, let God do what he will.

This is an interesting use of a curse-prayer. Usually, such requests are about someone who has already committed a wrong or to warn them about committing a wrong or breaking a command or tradition.
Curses are often paired with blessings: “if you do X, then a blessing, but if you do Y (or do not do X), then a curse.” So far, we have studied four passages that contain curse-prayers. Noah, in what seems to be some final words to his three sons, pronounced blessings and curses on them. The curse was for one son because of his disrespect to his father.[^1] In another blessing-and-curse combination, Rachel asked that God curse her rather than Jacob because of the deception that she and Jacob foisted upon their father so that Jacob could get his brother’s blessing and inheritance.[^2] Joshua, after the Israelites destroyed the city of Jericho, pronounced a curse on anyone who might try to rebuild it.[^3] Finally, there is the mother of a man named Micah, who pronounced a curse on a thief who stole money from her, a widow (not realizing that it was her son who had done it.)[^4]

Two of these concern end-of-life messages to family members, one involves a son who stole from his mother. All three are from past wrongdoings. The other curse concerns a city that was to be destroyed by God, and addressed future wrongdoing.

Yet the curse-prayer of Eli does not rise to the level of seriousness of these others. Samuel has not sinned, and even if he did not tell Eli of the message, it could be argued that he still had not sinned. God did not tell him to report to Eli, and his refusal would be from kindness, not selfishness. But Eli uses this strong type of prayer request. Why was it necessary to warn of a curse on the boy? Is it because Eli suspects what the message is? (After all, he had already been told.) Or perhaps it is from pride. Eli is the mouthpiece of God, and he dislikes that this boy might have a message that he does not know.

Maybe it was just that Eli felt it was his obligation to know, as the spiritual leader of Israel. Still, a curse is a harsh response. If God wanted Samuel to tell Eli, He would have said so. So, it appears that Eli, out of pride or fear, has overstepped his authority as Speaker for God.


Do we sometimes overstep the bounds in our prayers? If someone mistreats us, especially in a harsh manner, it is understandable that we might pray for God to punish them or to bring them to account. Or maybe we pray that God take someone out of our life, or we pray that some ill befall someone else because they are not doing what we wish. Even if what we are asking for seems right to us, is it our place to pray in such a manner? Perhaps, instead, we should be praying for understanding, patience, and for God’s will to be done.

Yet there are times when God’s people in the Bible offer curse-prayers. Some are prophylactic: they are warning what will happen if the person acts in a certain way, other curse-prayers are after the fact. We cannot say that such a prayer would never be appropriate in our prayers. They are rare in scripture, so they should be uncommon in our prayers.


It is unlikely that most of us offer curses on people. Instead of praying, we might say, “Oh, I hope they get fired” or some such declaration. Or, if we do pray for them, we might couch it as positive “God, I pray they can learn a lesson from this situation”—meaning that we hope they get fired! Yet it is not our call.

Think of a situation where you might have wanted to offer a curse-prayer. Perhaps there is someone today who frustrates you. Consider whether a curse-prayer would be appropriate. Examine your motives and attitude. We should ask ourselves if your reason might be out of personal hurt, pride, or fear. If so, it might be a sign that we have stepped beyond the right we have been given by God. Instead, pray for that person (“pray for those who persecute you”). Ask God that He work in both of you, to change hearts and mind, so that understanding, grace, and reconciliation rule the day.

1 See “Noah’s Blessings and Curses (Gen 9.25–27)” in Praying Through the Bible, Volume 1 (Genesis–Joshua) (2015).
2 See “A Blessing wrought in Deception (Gen 27.7, 12–13, 27–19; 28.2–4)” in Praying Through the Bible, Volume 1 (Genesis–Joshua) (2015).
3 See “A Curse (Josh 6.26)” in Praying Through the Bible, Volume 1 (Genesis–Joshua) (2015).
4 See “Culturized Prayer (Judg 17.1–3).”

Join the Praying Through the Bible project on Patreon.
For the price of a cup of coffee once a month, get access to all prayer studies, podcasts, books discounts, discussion board, and more.

If you do not want to become a Patron, but would like to support our work,
you can make a donation of your choice through PayPal.

Editor's Picks