There are some basic principles that we can note at the beginning of our study of this book. First, we have here an aspect of God’s preparation for the man of his choice. Samuel became a great man of God, but much of it can be traced to what his mother did before he was born.
Second, God’s plan to reverse decline can be a long-term one; often his answer to such prayer is the birth of children, occasionally through previously barren women. We can think of Sarah and Isaac, Rachel and Joseph, and Elisabeth and John the Baptist.
Third, God’s remedy for such a situation is given in secret. He does not blow a trumpet to announce that the remedy has come. We will see this later in the book with regard to David, whom God chose as the replacement of Saul when he was still a teenager looking after his father’s sheep.
Elkanah – failure to be totally committed to God’s ways
The story begins with Elkanah. He came from Ramathaim, which later became known as Arimathea. We know from the genealogies of 1 Chronicles that Elkanah was a Levite (1 Chr. 6: 26-27, 33-34) and his righteous behaviour is in contrast to the behaviour of the sons of Eli. Yet there was one flaw in his lifestyle, he had two wives. It is likely that Hannah was his first wife but because she had not borne children he married another woman also in order to have children to continue the family line. Although the practice was common, it was not God’s ideal.
There is an obvious lesson for us here: it is likely that we will be tempted to use the customs of our time to solve a difficult situation rather than to live by the principles of God’s Word. Elkanah should have known from the story of Sarah and Hagar, the wives of Abraham, that this kind of solution would bring domestic disharmony and sadness into the experience of his true wife. In one area of his life Elkanah put his own needs before those of Hannah, but when he did so he failed to function truly as her husband. Paul reminds husbands in Ephesians 6 that they are to love their wives sacrificially and wholeheartedly, following the model of Christ’s love to the church.
There is another sad lesson from the domestic situation in Elkanah’s house, and that is that domestic bickering can continue when the family members are involved in the worship of God. Peninnah is a nasty character, marked by jealousy and cruelty. Although she went to worship God in public her heart was not in it. It is hard to imagine why Elkanah married her.
It would be safe to say that Elkanah did not have the same degree of faith as Hannah possessed. He was content with how things were; God had been good to him, so he did not look for anything more. His faith looked to the visible evidences of God’s favour and did not rise as Hannah’s did to what God could do about their circumstances.
Eli – a godly leader without discernment
We will come across Eli later in the book, so we only need consider him briefly at present. He is an illustration of how low even genuine religion had become. He was a religious leader of God’s people. What does the passage highlight about him?
First, he was unable to discern a person in need of spiritual comfort. His words were cruel to a soul seeking the God he was attempting to serve. I suspect that is something a minister should dread being guilty of. Eli was guilty of judging by outward appearances, of speaking too quickly before he had discovered what was the burden of Hannah.
Second, he administered spiritual encouragement when he discovered that Hannah was praying. His words seem to have given assurance to Hannah that the Lord had heard her prayer. Here is another sign of the Lord’s grace; he will even use preachers who are not what they should be to bring spiritual blessing to others.
Hannah – fully committed to prayer
The name ‘Hannah’ means ‘grace’ or ‘gracious’ and her behaviour in this story indicates that she understood what divine grace involved.
First, Hannah realised the importance of worshipping God; although her life had many difficulties problems, she did not let them prevent her attending worship. Her worship was not just external or ritualistic; it came from her heart. Hannah’s example is that whenever we are suffering, confused, lonely or anxious, we should worship our Lord.
Second, Hannah realised that the problem she faced could not be remedied by any human source, even by her loving husband. There was only One who could help her, and that was her Lord. Here she reveals her strong faith: although she was experiencing dark providences, her faith enabled her to see beyond her troubles and bring her distress and disappointment to God in prayer.
There are also several important lessons we can learn from her response in prayer.
First, she did not use the providence of God as an argument against the character of God. She would not have approved of the deduction used by Job’s friends when they deduced from his circumstances that God was against him. Hannah’s providence indicated that she could not have children, yet she knew that the Lord could have mercy on her and give her a child. She referred to God’s character in order to deal with problems with his providence. It is important to note that to question providence is not a sign of rebellion. Ultimately there may have to be an acceptance, as Paul discovered with his thorn in the flesh.
Second, she turned her potential rebellious spirit into a means of intercessory prayer. Hannah was in bitterness of soul, a very graphic description. Though a devout follower of God, her life at one level was difficult. But instead of using her intense emotion to complain against God she used it to express her petition before God. It would have been easy for Hannah to have become bitter, but she did not and became a better believer as a result.
Third, Hannah’s case shows the effectiveness of tears in moving the heart of God. Psalm 6:8 informs us that the Lord hears the sound of our weeping. Admire the graciousness of our God who allows us to pour out our hearts in his presence. The story is told of Monica, the mother of Augustine. She was a Christian but she began to despair of his conversion and she went to see Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who comforted her by telling her that the child of many tears can never perish. The psalmist reminds us that God collects our tears in his bottle. When Moses was sent by God to deliver his people from Egypt he said that he had heard their groanings.
Fourth, Hannah in her distress prayed for a son who would become a devoted servant of God from his childhood. Because Elkanah was a Levite, Samuel would have served the Lord at the tabernacle when he was thirty years old. What is remarkable about Hannah’s prayer is her vision that her child could be God’s servant from his tender years. Her language indicates that she wanted her child to be a Nazarite from the womb, one totally devoted to God. Her prayer did not only focus on her need as a barren woman, it also was concerned with the barrenness of true spiritual leaders in the church, and she wanted a child primarily for the latter reason.
This point raises two issues. First, there is the value of a Christian mother. Then there is the question as to whether it is right for a Christian to make a vow. Obviously it is inappropriate to make vows that we have no intention or opportunity to keep. Neither should we pretend that we have kept a vow; we only have to think of the solemn case of Ananias and Sapphira to see the danger of such deception. Nor can a vow be used as an attempt to bribe God to make us do what we want. Vows seemed to have been made in connection with a religious duty; for example, if God delivered a person from danger or disease, then he would acknowledge the Lord’s goodness publicly at the temple. A vow is not an expression of spiritual ability; rather it is connected to something that is done out of gratitude and through the Lord’s help.
Fifth, Hannah was a humble person. There is evidence that Elkanah was a person of some significance in society; this is seen in his genealogy being kept in such detail, and in his ability to go regularly to worship at Shiloh. Nevertheless Hannah regarded herself as a servant, both towards God and towards Eli. She responded gently to Eli’s cruel assessment of her situation and did not argue or get annoyed.
Lessons to learn
One significant lesson from this incident is to realize the true source of power. At the beginning of the story Hannah is powerless compared to Peninnah, to Elkanah, to Eli. Yet she had power with God because she prayed. This is how to estimate effectiveness, not by where a person is in relation to power structures in society or in the church but where he or she is in relation to the throne of God.
Another important lesson is the need for us to pray for strong leaders. Such were lacking in Israel and I suspect they are lacking today. It may be that the future leaders of the church are young children today and we should pray that God would even now be preparing them for this role.
A third lesson is that dark threads are an essential part of the tapestry God is weaving. But it may be that our dark threads will produce threads of gold in the experiences of others.