If God can’t improve my life … I give up!
(1 Samuel 1 :9-20)
So here you are, in Hannah’s position. Imagine a moment in your experience; a major crisis; a time that you perceive to be one of the most traumatic and oppressive of your life. You are left alone for an hour away from the source and presence of your regular routine and people. It may be family, it may be colleagues at work, but you have escaped from them briefly. You are alone and feeling your very worst. If you do not get some relief, you feel you will die in your heaviness. It is making you seriously ill. The issue is affecting your composure, your ability to relate – your sanity even. What do you do? Where do you go?
Hannah’s trial, like a wound into which cruel hands rub salt, or some other smarting substance, turning excruciating pain into intolerable torture, was even more aggravated by the happier fortune and insolent, adversarial reproaches of her rival. The other wife – a rude, coarse, proud and vulgar woman – turned the scenario into an occasion for triumphing over her, and embittering the springs of her very life source. Strikingly, no response to her foe is recorded. Life asked of Hannah one of the most difficult questions. Giving a reply to Peninnah would genuinely have been casting her pearls before swine. It was not Peninnah who was asking Hannah this huge question. Neither did Hannah see it as an impersonal, “life” ,that was begging her for a response. The issue was between her and the Source of all Life.
However, this woman did have an answer. And I do not mean the trite religious encouragement to, “pray.” I do mean that of course – but with a sledgehammer. I am talking about a heavy-duty cry of the heart. A scream of the soul. The equivalent of a desperate step backwards into suicide – but in the opposite direction; a figurative jump off the cliff, with a huge bungee jump – without the bungee elastic – with a huge elongated free fall into the hands of God. A fleeing into life and reality. No matter what you or I think of the action of a suicide bomber – what I want you to imagine is the awesome, moving, heaving mountain of emotion, heart and spirit that carries a human being to actually walk with a huge bomb strapped to their torso, ready and willing to detonate the thing. Once you can conceive of that sort of logic; that kind of imagination, feeling and commitment to something so deep in the realm of the demonic and evil, and then see the same tsunami placed in the arena of Godliness, goodness and purity, put that into Hannah’s context at the very moment we are talking about, and “Yes!” We are talking about prayer.
We are talking of the stuff that raises the dead, brings floods – or droughts – and/or changes the course of nations, if not the world. We are talking about prayer that goes so far beyond prayer books and,“saying prayers,” as a real Formula One racing car goes beyond a little lad’s “Dinky Toy” version of the same. The word, “prayer,” does not seem to do justice to the concept of what we are talking about here. We can analyse and dissect all that took place in these moments of Hannah’s life. I think that it is a healthy thing to do so. But there is no way we can work out the ingredients of what went on to the degree that we can systematise the process of what happened to her, so that it could happen to me. Notwithstanding, rest assured – of course it can happen to you. There are many things going on as Hannah literally shook heaven loose of the blessing she sought.
Those who like glass case logic and theology can have a field day with what happened outside the tabernacle in Shiloh that day. A study in faith. Lessons in persistency. A model in humility. A classic case of studies for the prophetic, “speaking things into being” (i.e. would Hannah have become pregnant if obese old Eli had not prophesied so, as he was about to do so in the text). The hidden significance, and possibly the lost truth of making inspired vows to God are in the text. Secret closet praying is also in the spirit of what we read. It seems obvious that Hannah believed she was alone. All these issues – and much more are present in the narrative for Bible school test tube analysis.
After exhausting all these juicy bits of theology, there are, for the academic wordsmith a few more choice phrases with which one can build a rationale of “How to Get Your Prayers Answered”. “She was in bitterness of soul.” She, “wept sore.” “She continued praying.” “She spoke in her heart.” “Her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.” All these phrases are right here in Holy Writ as it explains Hannah’s interview with God. Each remark oozes power, truth, grace and insight.
The picture is further embellished by the concept gained by the only pair of human eyes that saw her in her anguish and pathos. Eli was watching. She actually seemed to him to be, “a drunken woman.” Her body language was such that the undiscerning old man told her off in the most defamatory manner for coming to the ancient tent of such holiness, in an inebriated state. The mind boggles! Just imagine what abandonment to her cause Hannah must have thrown into her, “quiet time with God.” She was so lost in what she was doing, and so determined to see the invisible, that she was actually blind to the physical, rotund and aged priest that was sat nearby watching her in prayer. She must have seemed to be a demented woman.
We must beware what and how we learn. Evangelical Christians (one of which I claim to be) are infamous for legalistic lesson learning from the Bible, to the degree that the exercise becomes a detrimental faith killer rather than a glorious release of truth and trust in the heart. This account is not just a tale for convenient three point sermons. This is an in depth account of one human being’s struggle to come to terms with cosmic injustice in her own life, and the desperate longing to fulfil the Edenic command, as well as the Divine promise, to, “be fruitful and multiply.”
A black and white single item rarely sorts out life’s problems. We live in a macro circumstantial world. In plainer English, there are usually multiplicities of reasons that bring issues and problems upon us, and a multiplicity of answers to those problems, where any one or two, or more of them, may bring relief of some sort, in differing degrees. The biggest and most singular lesson to absorb from this woman is, “attitude.” In this twenty-first century we talk of somebody, “with an attitude,” when we mean a negative and cynical frame of outlook. Whatever the opposite of cynicism and pessimism is, take it to the furthest extreme you can conceive of, and that is where Hannah’s pain drove her. She oozed her case, like some courtroom lawyer and spilled her liquefied invisible inners before God Himself. She herself explained that she had, “poured out her soul before the Lord.” She reasoned and she argued; She pleaded and she bargained. She would break before she lost the momentum of putting her situation clearly before the Almighty. She argued against her lot in life with the One who created her, her lot and her life.
Get hold of where this woman was in her emotional and spiritual desolation. There was Peninnah’s animosity against her. There was the fact that she was one wife in a polygamous household. She lived in a society where childlessness was perceived as some kind of Divine curse, a community where people would whisper things like, “She must have done something pretty nasty to finish up like this.” There was within herself, despite all the man made cultural pressures, her normal maternal instinct that was put there by Almighty Yahweh Himself as an inducement for women to take up that most essential and wonderful profession and vocation, namely motherhood. Think of the time she had held her husband in tight embrace with the prayer that she would be, “with child,” as a result of their union. The years had come and gone. Peninnah was pregnant time after time while she remained barren. Hannah had just had enough. She could not feel the pain of childlessness more acutely.
Yet, we notice again that she had not voiced her complaint to her husband, or the other wife. She had an attitude that took the injustices and pains of life to the very Source of Life Himself, and nobody else. Atheism or Agnosticism did not have as much as a sniff in the cosmos of Israel a thousand years before Christ. Neither did religious platitudes or clichés cut any ice with Hannah.
Whatever the stuff of faith, godliness and spiritual power is, this woman had it in abundance. And like some multifaceted diamond it had various colours and angles that shone from it, but neither the colours nor the shapes of the angles make up the substance of the diamond itself. So we can see her patience and meekness; we can glimpse her faith and freedom in the realm of the Spirit; we can stand in awe of her sense of the reality and glory of God as the source of life, but that is not the thing we are looking for, that is simply the outward expression and manifestation of her attitude.
She had incredible strength of character and a determination of spirit that would not let go. In reading the Bible over and over again for over forty years, I suggest that if one takes the scriptures at face value, one cannot but conclude that from Genesis to Revelation, God Himself finds this kind of attitude of determination in faith, irresistible to refuse. I have a conviction that He prefers it when people have this same frame of heart and mind towards him as Hannah did. For that reason, I cannot believe that what Hannah was thinking and believing were concepts and ideas especially created by God to move biblical characters only. A pox on the very idea of such a thing.
This was an attitude arrived at by a process of intuition and deduction. The character of God; the state of man in general; the injustices of life; the very God given sacrificial system of which she was an adherent ; all of these subjects as taught by the books of Moses were extremely powerful, “potters wheels,” trowels and scrapers at work in the shaping of the clay of a worldview that could not abide with injustice or unrighteousness, whether personal, familial, national or universal. These things alligned her attitude to the way God thinks, and her understanding of what God wants, and the possibilities of what she could ask Him for. Her entire being was aligned with God’s entire will and being.
Hannah had an amazing lack of self interest in her expectancy. Her prayer for a child was distinct from any consideration of her own comfort and want. Hannah had learned that the heart’s truest joy is not in children, nor even in the mercies given in answer to prayer, but in relationship with Almighty God Himself. There was a true sacrifice of her more basic and natural inclinations here. It was total self denial, really. What do we mean? I mean that Hannah, in her anguish made two vows. Making vows is, “unwestern,” but biblically, especially around this period of history, quite common.
The first vow was to give the man child that she was asking for back to God, literally, once he had arrived. The second vow was to ensure that this man child would be a, “Nazirite.” A Nazarite was a person of particular separation to God and His service. This child would be what the Talmud describes as a “perpetual Nazarite.” No drink, ever. No haircut, ever. And no touching dead bodies of any kind, ever. An example of this sort of dedication of children would be Samson. Samson was intended by his parents to be a Nazirite. (I hasten to add that Samson the Danite was not a particularly obedient Nazirite.)
Hannah had no idea of the Divinely planned dream she was birthing on earth with her prayer. Peninnah could not possibly have foreseen what her adversarial attitude could have driven Hannah to. Elkanah would have had no insight at all to the pillar of Israelite history and culture that the fruit of his connubial joy with Hannah would bring into being. Eli had no concept of the blessing he was unleashing upon Israel through the prophetic word he was about to speak; for speak he did.
This sublime moment, the results of which were to reshape a nation, and the surrounding nations for the next century or so, was, potentially, shattered in a moment of crass error and bluntness. From the most sublime issue of the sight of Hannah, soberly praying like a drunken woman, we plunge headlong into the utter ridiculous. Picture, If you can, the scene of opposites. You have, a couple of hundred yards away, the sound of partying, singing and dancing. The noise is somewhat faded through the distance, but it is there as the static in the background. Huge numbers of people indulging in a religious feast. But cocooned in a silent space in front of the Tabernacle-cum-Temple are two people. There is elderly rotund Eli, in his nineties, sat calmly, and with only the sound of his breathing, watching Hannah. Hannah is beside herself. She is praying like no one has prayed before. She is writhing. She seems to be either mentally ill or stupefyingly inebriated with wine. It must have been a common sight to Eli to see drunken libertines, as his sons would bring women home to sleep with.
Too much accustomed, in those evil days, to seeing women abandoned to godlessness and debauchery, Eli the High Priest, the head of the nation’s spiritual heritage, concludes Hannah is drunk. People praying, as if it was a life or death issue, was not commonly seen in Eli’s day. Come to think of it: It’s not common in our day either.
“How long will you be drunk?” It would seem that Eli was more ready to reprove Hannah than he is his own sons. In poor old Eli’s favour, the scripture does tell us (but at a later point in the narrative) that he was going blind. In his old age he seems kindly, if somewhat strict, to a degree that his physical demeanour and charisma (or rather the lack of it) were inadequate to impose his convictions on his own sons. He was not, intellectually a strong man, but in his own parochial limited way, he was righteous and faithful.
Surely Hannah would have been justified in rebuking the aged priest for his contempt of factual observation. But when somebody is reaching with faith’s warm finger into the gentle springs of infinite love, it is understandable when they do not respond vituperatively. The woman is touching God, and something of His grace is permeating her responses at that very moment.
Hannah’s reflex action to even further pain is consistent with what we have already seen of her. The meekness of Moses was indeed legendary, but did he, or any other, ever show a milder, gentler, lovelier spirit, a more magnanimous example of how to suffer wrong than Hannah? She did not answer anything but modestly to Eli’s coarse insult. She utters no bitter complaint against her accuser. She does not bind him to look at home and upbraid him with the conduct of his own household. She does not tell him how ill and unbecoming it was for a person in his position to interrupt prayer and abuse a poor disconsolate woman at the footstool of Divine mercy. She does not throw at him a loud note calling him a false accuser. She does not twit him in the teeth and bid him look better at those drunken whoremongers who were his own sons, infamous throughout all Israel, and thereafter throughout all time.
It is easy to think evil of all men. There is sure to be some fault about each one of us, which even the least discerning will ultimately discover upon examination. But prior to Christ’s birth, and the vision of His example, Hannah responds in a way to which we can append no adequate description, apart from saying, she was “Christlike.”
This abrupt introduction tells us nothing of the history of the elderly gent, father to the villainous Hophni and Phinehas. Eli was the son of Ithamar, the last son of Aaron and therefore the office of priest and spiritual judge must have been earned. To put it bluntly, Eli had no right to be High Priest, or even acting High Priest. For this reason it seems Eli must have been an august and vigorous character in his youth, for his post was not inherited, but won in some way. The fact that Eli retained his office to the end of his days suggests that the nation was so backslidden it had no Godly figures to fill the gap, as opposed to me suggesting exceptional Godliness on Eli’s part. Frankly, neither scholars, nor archaeologists know why Eli was in the position of High Priest. It’s a mystery.
Hannah gently explains to him what she is doing. Eli sees his gross error and thus compensates; another plus to the character of the senior priest. He then speaks the most assuring words it was humanly possible for him to utter. Whether he was aware of the power and the depth of his own utterance is irrelevant. The Bible actually has several examples of people who prophesied not understanding the power, or the full picture of what God gave them to say. Some of these characters were not even aware that they were prophesying things into being. Eli had not so much as a clue as to any single word that Hannah had uttered in her prayer.
She gently whispered to him, in the face of accusation of being debauched, “No, my Lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor any intoxicating drink, but have poured my soul before the Lord. Please! Do not consider your maidservant a wicked woman, for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief I have spoken until now.” This all suggest she had been writhing in her prayer for some considerable time.
What Eli spoke was received in Her spirit as solidly as her steamroller of a prayer had echoed in God’s ears and was received in heaven. What Eli spoke was heard, and mixed with faith in Hannah’s heart.
In a moment of time her anguish was dissipated. I do not mean suppressed, or repressed. I mean completely dissolved. It was not pent up to surface another day, but diluted and removed totally and utterly. Hannah had in a flash seen the invisible and received the answer to her spiritual scream. I do not mean she had seen God, although she had definitely touched Him, somehow. I mean, she had seen her son. Yes! Before Samuel was even conceived she had held him. Before the egg had been released from her ovary; before the single tadpole of her husband’s millions of human seeds had invaded that egg, the mother had seen her son. She held fast to the substance of what she was hoping for. She had the solid evidence of what her eyes had not seen. And this is the absolute biblical definition of what faith is, i.e. the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
She stood up and left. Nobody could argue Hannah back into her grief. Peninnah could not taunt her back into tears and sadness. Hannah had received a Word from God. She had heard God when Eli had spoken to her. “Go in peace, and the God of Israel will give you your petition.”
Peace came with that Word. This was the truly prophetic. Dreamed up by God, who put the dream into the heart of Hannah, prayed over, wept over, and prophesied into – the foreordained plan was about to be released into physical actuality on planet earth in the time/space world. See the grace that Hannah received concerning the offspring we know as Samuel. Peace permeated her mind, and her anguish was annihilated.
“Let your handmaiden find grace in your sight,” is all she responded with. She got up and went back to her tent with a spring in her feet. Her appetite returned. Her smile was renewed.
Whenever you are in a similar cul-de–sac of an impossible situation, always remember Hannah’s attitude and world view in the midst of the fog. All things are possible to those that believe.
No remark is made of the response returned by Elkanah or Peninnah, but the following morning they arose early and worshipped together. Elkanah still had his blind spots. Peninnah still possessed her animosity. The children of Peninnah, just by their presence still shouted at Hannah’s soul that she was childless.
Next, in one short phrase, the scripture wraps up the entire issue by simply stating, “Elkanah knew his wife; and the Lord remembered her.”
She called him “Sh’muel.” It does not actually mean, “Asked of God.” Strictly translated, it reads, “Heard of God.” “Because I asked the Lord,” gives the reason why she called him Sh’muel. The very name perpetuates the memory of Mercy. “Samuel” is merely the Anglicisation of “Sh’muel,” just as,”Jesus,” is of the Hebrew “Jeshua,” or the Greek “Yesus”.
The long distance historical background that we have here traced, and the more localised family context to Samuel’s birth, explains to us how this man stirred the emotions, and attracted the love of those around him. What his mother had promised to God, and the manner in which she purposed to fulfil her vow, filled his home environment with talk of spiritual issues and attitudes of faith, integrity and the primary issue of intimacy with God as the top priority of life.
From the moment of his conception, Samuel was in a cosmos that was to fill him with characteristics and outlooks that would be the backbone for millions, before his body would return to dust, and his spirit to the creator of all.
- Good Morning Love: Barrenness (dentreciablanchette.com)
- 1 Samuel 1 (sisterspray4me.com)
- The Power of Prayer: Hannah (ladieswearlipstick.com)
- Give me Children or I Die. (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- Ramah to Shiloh. Across the world in 6 hours. (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- I Will Not Let Him Go Until I Wean Him. (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- No Greater Love Than a Mother Laying Down Her Son (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- Self Denial (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- God’s Own Training School (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- Provoked to Praise (saltlightandwitnesses.com)