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Sometimes, even with their sins recorded for us, the great figures in the Bible can intimidate or haunt us more than they help us.  There’s many reasons why that shouldn’t be the case and when we allow the great figures of the Bible to make us feel insignificant, we’ve missed the point.  The truth is--the people God uses significantly in these kinds of often public and leadership roles are special cases.  They are each a product of a unique call of God coupled with just the right providential circumstances and well above average levels of God’s grace.  We aren’t called to be prominent, that’s up to God.  We are only to be the most faithful follower of Christ we can be—nothing more or less. 

These outstanding figures in the Bible who had so much of God’s grace at work in their lives should serve as encouragements to us.  They set good examples for us in many ways. They show us—“here is what a person filled with God’s grace does in this situation or that. My attitude should resemble their attitude in that kind of context.  Here is what he/she teaches me about trusting God in that kind of trial.”  The chief value of these exemplary people is that they uniquely point us to Christ—who is the Example of all examples.  Each of these figures in some way reflects Jesus in a way that we are called to reflect him.  One of these figures—who has been an example for women (and for all of us) is in the text you heard read from First Samuel… Hannah.  Today, the goal is to allow God’s grace working through Hannah to point us to Jesus so we can love him more.  Hannah is not the hero of this text—God is.  He’s THE heroic figure in the Bible and the main point of this passage is far bigger than Hannah.  The main truth the author is conveying in this Hannah narrative is:  God is not hesitant to put his people through painful trials to accomplish his larger purposes.  That seems to be the main lesson from this text.

This morning, we will be surveying this story and looking at three areas.  First, the trials Hannah endures, then God’s redemptive work in her and the Jews through those trials and finally, her personal response to God’s work in her life--all of which should direct us to Jesus.  The trials Hannah endures were of two varieties.  The first we’ll call “general trials” because they are common to some women of all eras.  The biggest of these trials by far for Hannah was her barrenness.  This is what every Ancient Near Eastern woman feared perhaps more than anything--that she would not be able to produce children and that her “failure” would end her husband’s family line with him.  To be barren was just about the ultimate in feminine humiliation.  Barren women saw themselves as abject failures, unable to execute the most basic and important duty a woman of her era could perform.  She felt as useless as a knife that wouldn’t cut or a hen that wouldn’t lay eggs—what good was she?  Barrenness is by no means unique to Hannah.  This is a calamity experienced by some pretty prominent Biblical women.  Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother and in the New Testament, Elizabeth were all barren.  God frequently in Scripture used a woman’s barrenness as a vehicle to show his power to rescue and to provide.  In many instances, when God opens a woman’s formerly closed womb it’s a sign that a crucial figure in salvation history is about to be born.  Hannah doubtless knew about Sarah and Rachel, but as we meet her in First Samuel all she knew was that she was couldn’t bear a child. 

We know two things about Hannah’s barrenness from the text.  First, that it evoked intensely strong emotions in her.  The words used to describe her pain—are as strong any other in the Old Testament.  These words appear frequently to convey Job’s feelings in the midst of his suffering.  She was in tremendous emotional pain.  Second, we know that this condition was actively caused by God.  Verse six says, “…the LORD had closed her womb.”  This could not be explained away as simply a result of living in a fallen world where these things randomly occur.  This was done purposefully by God.  That’s what the text says and that’s why I worded the main point of the text: “God is not hesitant to put his people through painful trials to accomplish his larger purposes.”   This isn’t just a problem God “allowed”—as if he’s now in a situation where he must react to this uncaused calamity and turn it for good.  The text won’t let us say that.  This is something God actively caused to further his larger purposes.  God knew every tear Hannah was going to cry—every prayer she would utter and every insult she would ever hear and he did this to her anyway--for a larger purpose that would ultimately bring great blessing to both her and the nation of Israel.  The fact that God caused Hannah to suffer this way doesn’t make him cruel—it just means that Hannah’s (or our own) short-term happiness is not his chief priority—his main objective is his glory and our ultimate joy.  If believers would just understand that basic Biblical truth and learn to trust God and rejoice in it, we would process our trials in a much more Christ-honoring way. And the world would take notice and wonder why.

Aside from the trial of barrenness, Hannah also had to bear the trial of bigamy.  Hannah has to share her husband, Elkanah with another of his wives, Peninnah.   It’s clear from verse five that Hannah was his favorite and because she’s mentioned first, she was also his first wife.  What probably happened is similar to what occurred in other Old Testament stories.  In Hannah, Elkanah marries the love of his life but she cannot produce an heir for him.  He has some wealth so at some point he marries a second wife to keep his family line intact.  Bigamy is not forbidden in the Old Testament, but its painful consequences are borne by these husband-sharing wives wherever it’s seen in the Old Testament.   By the time the New Testament was written, the Jews had broken free of this pagan practice and were able to express more of God’s intention for marriage—which is an exclusive covenant relationship between one man and one woman. 

Not only was Hannah unable to conceive (which means she felt horribly inadequate.)  Daily, she had living in her home another woman who was quite successful in the child bearing department, Peninnah.   Hannah was therefore not only—in her eyes—horribly inadequate, she was horribly inferior.  Every time a child cried in her home or she saw her husband loving on one of them, she was reminded of her inferiority.  Barrenness and bigamy and third, Hannah experienced the pain of bitter provocation.  Verse six says, “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her…” Peninnah liked to remind Hannah that in the most important category for women, she was a failure standing in her shadow.  This was especially painful when the family would go to the house of the Lord to celebrate one of the three main religious festivals.  At the festival, the family would sacrifice an animal and afterward enjoy together a rare meal with meat.  The father would give to each wife enough for her and her children.  Peninnah’s children are referred to in verse four as “all her sons and daughters” so there may have been several portions of meat given to her.  To show Hannah his favor, he gives her two portions, but the difference between the two wives would have been graphically on display as the food was distributed.  This is also evidently when Peninnah’s attacks against Hannah were the most withering.  Verse seven says, “As often as she [Hannah] went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her.  Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.”

In addition to these general kinds of trials, she also bore some burdens that were unique to her which could be classified under “friendly fire.”  Her husband Elkanah and her priest Eli—who both were supposed to be a blessing, in this text are guilty of some serious insensitivity.  Elkanah’s epic failure occurred in verse eight.  8 And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?   Evidently, Elkanah hadn’t attended a marriage enrichment seminary in a while.  A little sensitivity training would have gone a long way with him.  First, he cross examines her in the mist of her anguish and then he questions her sensibilities.  To a person in this kind of chronic grief like Hannah, the way she would process this is—“I can no longer talk to him about my problem because he doesn’t get it and he’s tired of hearing about it.”  That’s a hard realization--when your spouse not only fails to encourage you in your biggest trial, but he/she becomes part of the problem.  When this happens, she now has to struggle on two fronts—one with God’s will and one with her mate. 

Second, the priest Eli makes his first appearance in Scripture and he’s introduced as he will consistently be portrayed—as a bumbler.  Hannah is praying fervently but silently in deep distress.  Eli clearly isn’t terribly observant—I’ve seen both deeply distressed women and intoxicated women and they don’t much resemble one another.  But he mistakenly accuses Hannah of public drunkenness at the temple.  We could all bear witness to the fact that it’s not uncommon in the midst of our trials, that some of the deepest wounds are inflicted by those who are supposed to be supportive of us.  This feels very unnecessary and very unfair and the enemy loves use it to tempt us to fall into self-pity.  But the Father knows about our pain and Jesus knows about it first hand through his own experience.  When he needed the support of his friends, they weren’t there, having either betrayed or abandoned him.  In this way, Hannah’s life points us to Jesus.  When our friends and loved ones become part of the trial instead of helping us out of it, we can experience the fellowship of Christ who knows precisely what we are feeling.

In addition to the painful trials she must endure, we see God’s grace and redemptive work in Hannah through them.  There are several instances of these redemptive works.  First, we see God’s grace in her fervent prayer.  Verse 10 says, “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly.”  It may not sound terribly pious to pray about your barrenness, but the mention of her praying here separates her from other barren women in Scripture.  For example, there is no recorded prayer of Sarah or Rebekah in response to their barrenness.  Isaac prays for Rebekah.  And Sarah, rather than prayerfully entrust herself to God, foolishly arranged for a surrogate in the form of Hagar to do what she couldn’t do. Hannah, by contrast is pictured as asking the Lord to deliver her from her trial. 

Second, God’s redemptive work in Hannah is seen as she makes a sacrificial vow.    Verse 11 says, “11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”   She makes this incredibly selfless vow that if God allowed her to have a son, he would be permanently separated from her for the Lord’s service.  Her vow was almost certainly a Nazirite vow which is explained in Numbers chapter six.  It called for the person under the vow to abstain from grapes and any grape products including wine and avoid dead bodies—human or animal.  Finally, those under this vow were not to cut the hair on their head—think Samson.  Normally the Nazirite vow lasted only for a period of months because these restrictions could make your life very difficult, but Hannah vows that her son would be a Nazirite for life.  The only other man who may have been a life-long Nazirite in Scripture is John the Baptist.  Hannah’s son was to be in a very select group and this vow would have required great sacrifice from both the parents and the son.

Put yourself in Hannah’s place, mothers.  You wait and wait to have a baby and are constantly humiliated by society in general and your husband’s other wife, specifically.  You’re deeply distressed—a gaping wound has opened up in your heart and there are no adoptions.  Would you pray that you could have a son who you would nurse and then give up when he’s just a toddler, to see him only once a year for the rest of his childhood?  This is a great outpouring of God’s grace on Hannah for her to do this.  Another form of God’s redemptive work is her inexpressible peace.  As we’ve noted before, we don’t talk much anymore about “praying through.”  That is—praying as long and as fervently as is needed until whatever burden we are under lifts and is replaced by God’s peace.  That’s what Hannah does.   

After her conversation with Eli which ends her prayer time, it says of her in verse 18, “Then the woman went her way and ate and her face was no longer sad. They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD…” When Hannah got off her knees her circumstances hadn’t changed one bit.  She was still barren, still maligned, still seen as a failure in her culture but her attitude and disposition dramatically improve.  She eats, she stops feeling sad and she worships God.  The difference came about when, at some time in response to her prayer, God showed up and lifted her burden.  He didn’t at this moment solve the problem, but he lifted her burden.  Some of us have experienced this many times.  He’ll do that for us if we will patiently wait in his presence, praying for his work in us.

Another expression of God’s redemptive work in Hannah is her miraculous conception.  Like the wives of the patriarchs, God miraculously opens her womb.  It says in verse 19, “And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her.”  The point is not to say that God had not consciously forgotten her.  It’s impossible for God to forget.  For God to “remember” someone in this sense indicates that he is about to initiate something important in and through them.[1]  Genesis 30:19 says, 22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.”  As for Elkanah, he redeems his earlier insensitivity and we see another expression of God’s grace is his spousal support.  This was crucial for Hannah to fulfill her vow.  The Law teaches that a husband could nullify a vow made by his wife, but he evidently sees God in this and permits this first-born son from his dearest wife to be permanently surrendered to God.  In verse 23 he says to Hannah, “Do what seems best to you.”  He defers to his wife’s radical commitment.  Their subsequent sacrificial payment of the vow is another expression of God’s grace.  It would have been very easy for Hannah to let this vow “slip her mind” once she had her baby in her arms.  It would have been easy to rationalize, “You know, no one surrenders their child for life. I was just being melodramatic.  I’ll surrender him for a year.”  Not Hannah.  She is absolutely resolute and God gives her grace to keep the vow and as we’ll see, she keeps it with joy!  As soon as she stops nursing Samuel (about age three at that time) they take their little boy [v.23] “…and brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh.  And the child was young.

A final redemptive work of God in Hannah’s life brings us back to the main point of the text and that is—her eternal legacy.  Hannah lived more than 3000 years ago and we’re still talking about her.  Her example continues to encourage women in particular.  God continues to receive glory from his work in her life.  It seems pretty clear, when you compare Hannah’s prayer to the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke chapter one, that the Mary had pretty intently studied Hannah’s prayer.  There are many similarities between the two.  Hannah is pictured as the most pious woman in the Old Testament.  Her accomplishments are without peer as a woman.  No other woman in the Old Testament is pictured as going up to the Lord’s house.  Hannah is the only woman in Scripture shown making and fulfilling a vow to the Lord.  She is the only woman in the Old Testament who is specifically said to pray and her prayer is one of the longest recorded in the Old Testament.  As we’ll see, her prayer includes the most recorded utterances of Yahweh’s name by a woman (18).  She is the first person—male or female who addresses God as “the Lord Almighty” or the “Lord of hosts” so, as one commentator says, she is also a theologian.[2]

Hannah’s most important contribution however was of course as the mother of Samuel.  Samuel was one of the most important leaders in Israelite history because by God’s grace he took the Jews from the period of the judges and oversaw the transition to a monarchy.  He helped bring Israel from a place of tribal disunity where everyone did what was right in their own eyes, to national solidarity under the king.  He was the last judge in Israel and, with miraculous intervention from God, won a great military victory over the Philistines at Mizpah.  He judged Israel, ruling on various cases people brought to him, but Samuel is best known as the one who established the office of prophet of Israel.  In this sense he was Israel’s first prophet.  He experienced this call as a little boy and he faithfully and boldly spoke the Word of the Lord to his people all his life.  He probably also founded the school of prophets so the prophetic office in Israel would be well established in preparation for the Great Prophet Jesus.  This is another way Hannah points to Jesus. 

At God’s direction, Samuel both anointed Saul as king and later rejected him.  One of his final acts was to go at God’s direction to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem where he anointed a shepherd boy named David who became the greatest king of Israel.  David’s ancestor, Jesus—the Son of David would fulfill the office of King.  And so Hannah in this way points, not only to Jesus’ office of prophet, but also to his kingly office.  Samuel is one of the most godly men in the Bible.  He’s one of the few characters in Scripture who doesn’t have a serious black mark or scandal attached to his name.  You can’t say that about Moses or David or Abraham or most of the kings, but you can about Samuel.  He was a very important leader of the Jews who powerfully points to Jesus and he was brought into the world through Hannah.

The wonder of God’s plan is hard to miss here.  If Hannah hadn’t been barren, she wouldn’t have offered her son to God as a life-long servant.  It was from her God-induced desperation that she makes that offer to God and God uses that vow, not only to birth Samuel, but also to prepare him for his future ministry.  When his time for public, prophetic ministry came, he’d been in just the right place to get him ready for that—daily studying the Scripture and intimately knowing God’s holiness and grace through the sacrificial system.  When God first spoke to him, in a rare moment of usefulness, Eli—who wouldn’t have been around otherwise, is there as priest to point young Samuel to God.  All of that happened as well as Samuel’s pivotal role in Israel’s history and the history of redemption —because God had made Hannah barren. 

In God’s wisdom, out of Hannah’s barrenness, he brings inexplicable fruit and blessing.  God always has a purpose and often several purposes in our trials.  They don’t happen arbitrarily.  They come from the loving and wise hand of a Creator who is using them not only for his glory and our good, but for the good of others—maybe—as in the case of Samuel—many others.  In the midst of our trials, we should learn from Hannah’s story and focus more on the possible blessings God might bring about through the trial and less on the pain we experience from it. 

We’ve looked at the hardships Hannah endured and God’s grace in the midst of those trials.  Now we want to briefly explore the final area of this narrative—her God-centered response.   Hannah’s response to God work in the midst of her trial is the glorious prayer she prays in the first ten verses of chapter two.  We can only scratch the surface by looking only at how stunningly God-centered this prayer is.  If God answers your prayer for something you’ve waited years for—you expect to be very thankful to God, but Hannah’s prayer is profoundly worshipful. Verse one says, “1 And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.”   It’s clear from this prayer that the most important thing in Hannah’s life was not being a mother—if it was, she would have kept Samuel for herself.  The most important thing to her was her walk with God. She delights first and foremost in him and this prayer is strongly indicative of that. 

If you want to be the best mother or father you can be, learn from Hannah and don’t make your children pre-eminent n your life as so many do today.  Don’t allow your life and ministry to be sacrificed on the altar of your kids. There’s no Scripture to support that.  It’s ok to focus on the family, but it’s not ok to worship the family by allowing it to be preeminent in your life.  Don’t allow your life to tightly orbit around them as the center of your universe.  That will only force them to one day painfully discover that they indeed are NOT the center of the universe.  Don’t allow the way your kids turn out—positively or negatively--to dictate your sense of worth and value as a follower of Christ.  Your value is in God and what he has done for you in Christ, period!  That’s Hannah God-centered, God-preeminent heart. 

Jesus says, “33 seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”   Make God pre-eminent and let your kids know he’s first by what you put on your calendar and how you spend your money.  Do that and God will take care of their needs. Do we believe that?  Or, do we believe the lie of this world that we must try to meet all their needs by what we do for them or buy for them or let them to participate in?  Too many parents just disappear from any ministry other than their family when their kids hit a certain age.  You won’t find that heart in Hannah.  As a parent, her first love was God and she didn’t just say that, she lived it.

Hannah had been a social outcast that God recovered.  Though she was formerly of lowly status, he exalted her.  In her prayer, Hannah implies that the reason God did this is because it’s his nature to work in this upside-down way.  Verse four, “4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor...”  Do you see how she processes her trial in prayer—through this God-centered lens?  She sees God and his character as the very center of her life and she worships him for the way he is.  She doesn’t chide him for taking so long—she exults in the fact that God has shown his gracious character by taking her as a lowly barren woman and uniquely blessing her.

That’s the way to respond to God when he blesses you—by meditating on his goodness and grace and declaring it to others so that no one could ever think that your priority is the blessing God has given you but instead, the God who gave you the blessing.  God is not hesitant to bring pain into our lives in order to accomplish his larger purposes in us and this world.  No one experienced more pain than Jesus “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Out of great pain can erupt great blessing as we wait on God and trust in his larger purposes through our trials.  May God give us the grace to process our trials and love our children from a God-centered perspective for his glory and our joy.

[1] Bergen, 1 Samuel, NAC.

[2] From Bergen, NAC, 1 Samuel (61-77).


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