Monday, March 6, 2017

Women in Scripture: Hannah

Servant of our Sovereign God

   The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 and 2 has been a comfort and hope through the ages.  A cursory reading may lead one to believe that the account is merely about a woman’s longing, praying and the ultimate blessing of the birth of her baby.  A deeper look, though, reveals that there’s more to the story.
   During this time in Israel, about 1050 B.C., “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).   Israel as a whole had forsaken God.  They forgot their deliverance from Egypt and turned to the worship of idols.  God was about to raise up a righteous leader for his people, one who would point toward the promised Savior.  As God often does, he chose a humble, insignificant woman through whom he would bring it to pass.
    Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, a man from a priestly family of the tribe of Levi.  Two circumstances caused great sorrow for Hannah: her childlessness and Peninnah (1:2).  It’s probable that Elkanah’s polygamy was due to Hannah’s inability to bear children.  Offspring were important for economic survival as well as for lineage and carrying on the family name, so he took Peninnah as his wife and she bore his children.

   In obedience to the law Elkanah journeyed with his family to the tabernacle in Shiloh for annual sacrifice and worship.  It was during the post-sacrificial meal that the relationship of the two rivals (1:6) reached a level of sheer misery.  Elkanah provided food for Peninnah and her children, but to Hannah he gave a “double portion.”  Peninnah had his children; Hannah had his heart.  Envious of the favor Hannah received, Peninnah retaliated and undoubtedly flaunted her own fruitfulness in front of Hannah.  Her unbecoming behavior struck angry discord in what should have been a worshipful, joyful occasion.  Year after year, it was so unbearable that Hannah could only weep, unable even to eat.  Elkanah attempted to comfort her, his words revealing the depth of relationship between them.
   Notice, though, the real comfort and hope for Hannah in this fact: “the Lord had closed her womb.”  Her barrenness wasn’t random; there was purpose in it because the Lord had done it! 
Our personal trials are never just about us.
“There are many reasons why God brings trials into the lives of his people, often to stimulate our faith, but in the case of the mother of so important a figure as Samuel, the point has to do not with Hannah but with Israel. The Lord closed Hannah’s womb to remind Israel that he had also caused the people to be spiritually barren because of their idolatry and unbelief.” (1)
 If we have true faith and trust in God, our longings and disappointments will lead us to an understanding that God’s purpose for our lives is far greater and wider than we can see.   Our myopic view of life distorts the reality of what he is doing, but when we go to God and the Scriptures to find the help we need, he meets us there.

  After the family finished their meal, the deeply distressed Hannah rose and went alone to pour out her heart to the Lord (1:10-11).  Eli the priest noted the absence of sound as her lips moved as she prayed and wept, erroneously concluding that she was drunk.  Convinced by Hannah of his error (1:15-16), he bade her go in peace and spoke encouraging words to her (1:17).  She was then able to eat and was no longer sad.  They returned to their home, “And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord” (1:20).
   Hannah stayed at home with Samuel until he was weaned, about three years old.  Then keeping her vow (which was confirmed by Elkanah), she and Samuel went with Elkanah to Shiloh, bringing their sacrificial offerings with them.  When the sacrifice was complete, they brought Samuel to Eli the priest.

   How was Hannah able to leave her longed-for son at the tabernacle, knowing that he would be under the care of Eli who had not raised his own sons in the fear of the Lord?   It wasn’t because she trusted Eli; it was because she trusted God.  Her barrenness and grief caused her to turn to God in desperate dependency.  Her faith and trust in him brought her to the point of being able to relinquish her child to God for his service.  She didn’t know what God was going to do through Samuel, but as she burst into her prayer/song in 1 Samuel 2, it’s evident that her joy overflowed because God is holy, he is sovereign and his ultimate work is the salvation of his people.   She rejoiced to participate in whatever he was doing to bring it about.  Each year as she went with Elkanah to offer the sacrifice, she brought a little robe she had made for Samuel and gave it to him; and she left him there, where he “grew in the presence of the Lord” (2.21).   The Lord further blessed Elkanah and Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.
   God’s purposes are far greater than our own.  Some women long for a child but remain barren their whole lives.  Some give birth, but their child dies or is disabled.  Some long for marriage, but a proposal never comes.  Unfaithfulness, disease—suffering comes in endless ways.  What does the story of Hannah say to us in those instances?

   In the moment of our despair, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that all of God’s works have always been about the salvation of his people.  We can be certain that whatever our circumstance, it’s necessary for what he’s doing in our life and/or someone else’s life.  When through the Scriptures and prayer we are increasingly made aware of the magnitude of our sin and how dependent we are on God to deliver us, the more gladly we bow our longings to his will.  When we learn to embrace God’s sovereign works we can at that point rejoice in our suffering.  If we rejoice only in getting what we want, we miss the point of what God is doing in his greater plan of salvation history and our own part in it.

“Hannah came and poured out her soul before God, and he quieted her mind, and took away her sadness. This seems to have been from refreshing discoveries which God made of himself to her, to enable her quietly to submit to his will, and trust in his mercy.  Do not conclude that the particular thing for which you prayed will certainly be given in answer to your prayers.   Yet, God may and doubtless does testify of his acceptance of our prayers, and this we may confidently rest in his providence and in his merciful ordering and disposing with respect to the thing we have asked for.  God manifests his acceptance of our prayers by dong for us that which is agreeable to our needs and our supplications.” (2)
(1) Richard D. Phillips, 1 Samuel Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2012) 8

(2) Jonathan Edwards, quoted in Richard Rushing, ed., Voices from the Past, Puritan Devotional Readings (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009) 133 

About the Author: Rosemary lives in Cedarburg, WI and has been wife and ministry partner to Harry for forty-four years. They have two adult sons and a daughter who awaits them in heaven. A homebody at heart, Rosemary enjoys nothing better than good conversation, a good book, and a good cup of coffee.
This post originally appeared on September 25, 2013 

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