Here we are on the second instalment of our new sermon series, Great Prayers to a Great God. Some of these prayers are by key bible figures, some are more important because they come at key turning points in the bible story. They're going to teach us things about God, about his mission, about us, and about prayer itself. Rob kicked things off last week with a prayer by Moses after God had rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and we've moved on to the book of 1 Samuel today.
So just to fill you in, since last week's prayer by Moses, the Israelites have entered Canaan, the land God promised them, taking it over in a series of unlikely military victories as God delivered it to them. You can read about that in the book of Joshua, Joshua the man who led them into the land. However, they weren't careful to completely rid the land of the people who occupied it before them and the result was that their identity as God's distinct people was blurred, blurred by intermarriage and participation in pagan religions. God allowed his people to suffer defeat and oppression because of their sin and eventually they cried out to him, he raised up a saviour figure and things were better for a time, until the cycle began again with their sin. That cycle of sin, repentance, rescue, sin repentance, rescue is the story of the book of Judges. Throughout Judges we read a line that also happens to be the last line of the book: In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. God's people failed to treat God as king and so God was going to raise up human kings to lead his people. That's what Samuel is all about – first there's King Saul, who turns away from God, and then Samuel anoints the shepherd-boy, David, a man after God's heart, to replace Saul. Samuel is the story of how God's people got a king.
So there are serious historical events happening in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, so it's something of a surprise to find that the books start, not with a gathering of the leaders of Israel's tribes or a conference of military generals or a sword locked in a stone that whosoever shall pull this sword from this stone etc, but rather they start with a very personal story of a dysfunctional family from up in the hills. Turn in the blue bibles to 1 Samuel 1, page 191, and let's try to capture the essence of the story before we come to the prayer of ch 2. I want you please to follow the text with me as I summarise, starting at 1 Samuel 1, v1.
There was a certain man … from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah. He was probably a significant figure, judging by the fact that four generations before him can be named. V2: Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah, listed first, was probably his first wife and v5 tells us he loved her especially but the Lord has stopped her from having children. Perhaps he married Peninnah for that reason. Two wives, two women and probably both were unhappy.
V3: Every year the family went to worship God at Shiloh. V4: Part of the sacrifice process was to eat some of the meat. It was a big family occasion. V6-7, Peninnah, probably jealous that Elkanah's love for Hannah was there on display every year with the double portion of meat, goaded Hannah and aggravated her. You can imagine it.
"Oh Hannah, come and sit with us for this meal. Come and sit here between two of my children. It's a bit of a squeeze but there's room for one more – it's only one after all. Quiet down kids; Hannah's not used to all this noise. Oh Hannah, did Elkanah tell you that I'm pregnant again? Number 8 and counting!"
v7: She provoked Hannah until she wept and couldn't eat. In v8 Elkanah puts his foot in it: "Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?" What a stupid thing for a man with two wives to say. There was only one way she could turn. She went to the doorway of the temple and wept and prayed to God, begging for a son, and promising to give her son to serve God for his whole life. That might sound like a rash bargain but many believing parents share the prayer that above any worldly relationships or benefits, their child will know and serve the Lord, so perhaps it was not so rash.
In 12-14 Eli, the priest, shows that he was staring out the window during the Pastoral Care classes at priest college. He mistakes Hannah's distressed praying for drunkenness. But Hannah with admirable restraint explains that she has been pouring out her soul to God in anguish and grief, and Eli recovers enough to send her on her way with a blessing.
And v18 we see that the process of praying to God and talking to Eli does bring some peace, even though her circumstances are unchanged. V19 God remembered Hannah, meaning he moved to help her, and in v20 she has a son, Samuel. In 21-28 Hannah keeps Samuel and weans him, which may have taken around 3 years in that context, and then she presents him to Eli at Shiloh, leaving him there to serve God, as she had promised.
So we come to Hannah's prayer in ch 2, and I know it's taken a while to get here, but I think we needed that context. Let me quickly tell you how this prayer is put together and then we'll have time to draw out a couple of learning points from it. There are three blocks. In verses 1-3 Hannah praises God for the salvation she has experienced personally. In verses 4-8 she expands on the theme, proclaiming that the particular way God saved her, the reversal of her painful circumstances, is characteristic of the way God rules over and saves his world – he is a God of reversals. Then in v9-10 she looks forward to how it will be when God ultimately rules in the new creation. Let's have a look at the prayer now and let me make these two points:
1) The hardest circumstances are temporary for those who belong to God.
2) The happiest circumstances are temporary for those who reject God.
The hardest circumstances are temporary for those who belong to God.
I want to suggest three reasons for that from 1 Samuel 1 & 2. The hardest circumstances are temporary – because (a) God might bring relief from our trials, (b) God's grace/peace are sufficient for us, and (c) God is guarding us for eternal life of pure joy and peace with him.
Number 1: God might bring relief from our trials. This is eventually what happened to Hannah. All that pain and prayer as she couldn't get pregnant, month after month after month, every time her hopes dashed. But, ch 1 v 20: In the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. In God's timing he did bring relief to Hannah and she praises him.
1 Then Hannah prayed and said:
"My heart rejoices in the LORD;
in the LORD my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
for I delight in your deliverance.
2 "There is no one holy like the LORD;
there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Later in ch 2 we read that the Lord was gracious to Hannah; she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. God did give her what she yearned for. And in so many ways he does that for us as well.
But, Number 2, God might not give us the relief we want from our trials, but instead we may grow to learn that God's grace and his peace are sufficient. Nothing feels further from the truth at the time, but in time it is often the testimony of many believers. The Apostle Paul yearned for his so-called 'thorn in the flesh', presumably an illness, to be removed, but it was not removed, he was not healed, and God told Paul that his grace was sufficient. And so Paul can write that paragraph from Philippians that we read earlier.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Bring your requests. Pour out your heart and soul as Hannah did. Are we promised what we ask for? No, we're promised peace.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Hannah's anguished prayer to her God brought some peace even that night at the temple, peace that came from her knowledge that the God of creation, the God of judges and prophets and kings, had listened to the anguish of one woman. God cared for her. She could lean on him as her Rock. God's grace and peace are sufficient.
Lastly, Number 3: God is guarding us for eternal life of pure joy and peace with him. In verse 9 Hannah proclaims, He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness. God is preparing his people in the best way for eternity with him. He is preserving and protecting our hearts, training us to love and trust him. Generally that probably won't include giving us everything we ever want. People who have everything don't fare too well in verses 4-8. People who have an easy life don't often attribute their blessings to God, relying on him for everything and thanking him.
No, God is training us to love and trust him, because he has something in store for us that is much better than any and every earthly blessing, something that the greatest joys of this life can barely hint at. He is preparing us for eternal life of pure joy and peace with him. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain. Those things will be consigned to the past, relics of a past time, dim, distant, gone. God is guarding us for eternal life of pure joy and peace with him. The hardest circumstances are temporary for those who belong to God.
(i) Walk closely with God and bring every anxiety, care and request to him.
(ii) Lean on God, the solid rock, for grace and peace in every trial.
(iii) Trust God to work for your eternal good.
The hardest circumstances are temporary for those who belong to God, and more briefly,
The happiest circumstances are temporary for those who reject God.
3 "Do not keep talking so proudly
or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the LORD is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
4 "The bows of the warriors are broken,
but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food,
but those who were hungry hunger no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children,
but she who has had many sons pines away.
6 "The LORD brings death and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.
7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honour.
God is a God of reversals. Those who think they don't need him might well find their comforts and their strength removed in this life. Those verses might sound comforting if you feel like the world is against you, but if you're not right with God, as Hannah was, you can forget it. If you're not right with God, these verses should make you really uncomfortable. Let me summarise them again. God is a God of reversals. He can turn any scenario upside down. The weakest, most broken person who casts themselves on him will be lifted up. But the man who relies on himself, whether apparently successfully or just plain stubbornly, will find himself stumbling, hungry and poor. Perhaps that reversal will come in this life, perhaps not, but it will come. Read from the second half of v9:
It is not by strength that one prevails; 10 those who oppose the LORD will be shattered. He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.
Those who think they don't need God, those who think they're just fine without him, those who oppose or reject him will find their strength sapped and their comforts evaporated like mist when Jesus returns. The happiest circumstances are temporary for those who reject God. So turn to God and trust in him while there is still time. We're about to remember Jesus' death in our place. Why not ask him, today, right now, in this anniversary service, to deal with your sin there.
The hardest circumstances are temporary for those who belong to God. The happiest circumstances are temporary for those who reject God.