Heavenly Father, give us ears to hear your Word, and hearts ready to learn and obey. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
It’s a new year and we start a new series, on 1 Samuel. This evening we’re looking at 1 Samuel 1.1 – 2.10, and that starts on p271 of the Bibles in the pews. And my title is Anguish and Joy.
Now I don’t know if you’ve seen Google Earth on the internet. You start off looking at the whole of planet earth as if from a spacecraft. Then you plug in a post code, and it zooms in closer and closer. You circle the earth until your continent comes into view – then down and down, to your country, your county, your city, your district, right down to your street. I’m sure that was our car on the road outside our house. Thankfully it stops short at the street.
But the Bible doesn’t stop there. It goes to the heart. Sometimes the Bible is rather like a kind of Google Earth combined with a time machine. So let’s jump into our time machine and we’re going back about 3000 years to the early history of the people of Israel. We’re focussing down on to one household – and one woman especially in that household. Her name is Hannah. She certainly did live a long time ago, in a very different world to ours – but she trusted the same God in whom believers in Jesus trust today, and quite apart from the power of her moving story, there are some important things for us to learn from her life and experience. Her story is in these first two chapters of 1 Samuel.
It’s true in our individual lives and also in the life of the church that there is often a sticky period after a time of great growth and excitement. A low often follows a high. If we have some big learning experience that seems to lift us onto a new level of living, then it’s easy for that new lesson to slip away. And that’s what’s going on at this stage of the history of Israel, after their rescue from Egypt is becoming just a memory. Times were neither good nor easy in Israel. And times were neither easy nor good for Hannah.
Now I have four headings that try to sum up what Hannah goes through. So, to begin with:
First, THERE IS TROUBLE IN HANNAH’S WORLD
There was trouble in the nation, there was trouble in Hannah’s family, and there was trouble in Hannah’s own life. In what way?
Well, for a start, there were problems in the nation that were threatening to destroy the relationship between Israel and the living God.
All around Hannah people were worshipping false gods. And we too live in a society awash with false gods. They might be the gods of materialism, or of pleasure, or of looking after number one.
What is more, there was simply the problem of evil in the nation. With all this idolatry and disobedience and no firm leadership, evil was rampant.
Evil shows itself in many different forms, but we too are surrounded by evil and feel its pressure on our lives.
All of that is the backdrop to Hannah’s particular experiences. It was not an easy world then in which to believe in God and to trust him. It is not an easy world now. But that was not all for Hannah. There was trouble in the nation, but there was also trouble in Hannah’s own family. Her family life was full of strife and anguish. All in all God did not make things comfortable for her. And in his loving but mysterious wisdom, he often doesn’t make things comfortable for us either. He is far more concerned that we grow in faith than that we live comfortable, challenge free lives.
Not that there aren’t good times. Family life is delightful, but often other stuff happens too, and it is not comfortable. Hannah’s experience is especially relevant for those for whom life has brought not just delight but trouble. So that’s pretty well all of us – wouldn’t you agree as you think about your own life? If you don’t agree, and as you look back you reckon life has been by and large trouble free, then can I give you a gentle warning? There’s trouble on the way.
Hannah needed no such warning. She’s all too familiar with trouble. Why? Well, Hannah was married to Elkanah. But Elkanah was also married to Peninnah. So he had two wives. That was pretty standard practice in those days. Mind you, perhaps the most obvious thing we could learn from this story is that bigamy is not a good idea – just in case you intended to try it. It leads to rivalry and bitterness and argument. Peninnah had a whole load of children. Hannah had none. 1.6-7:
6And because the Lord had close [Hannah’s] womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.
She suffered great pain, especially as she was provoked to tears again and again by her fertile, successful co-wife. What was supposed to be a great family outing to Shiloh and the temple always turned very sour for Hannah.
So Hannah’s own personal life was full of trouble too. She lived in a troubled nation. She had a troubled family. And she was a troubled woman. She was desperate about her situation. She had an intense desire to have a child. Year after year went by and nothing happened. So what does she do? She turns to prayer. She goes to God and cries out before him and asks that she might have a son. And God hears and says ‘yes’. And she is given the son she longed for - Samuel.
What are the troubles in your own life? And in the face of those troubles, what is your own deepest desire? For Hannah, her desire was for a child. Whatever it is for us, Hannah shows us how to deal with it. So what can we learn from her?
Well, that brings me to my second main heading, which is this:
Secondly, THERE IS FAITH IN HANNAH’S HEART
Notice first the depth of Hannah’s faith in these very tough circumstances. All around her people were turning away from God as they are turning away from Christ today. Her family life is in turmoil and is a torment to her. She probably felt insecure even of her place in the family. And she was barren. Year after year it went on. She got no instant solution. Back then fertility was the ultimate disaster for a woman – ‘the most bitter misfortune possible’ as someone has described it. Infertility remains a bitter experience today. But Hannah never lets go of God. She goes on worshipping. She goes on trusting. She goes on turning to God.
Secondly, do you see how absolutely honest Hannah is with herself and about herself. That’s not always easily done. Some are better at it than others. I’m still learning to face up to what is really in my heart, even if it doesn’t seem especially spiritual or worthy. Hannah doesn’t seem to have had any such difficulty. Her faith dominates her life. But she knows full well she is feeling provoked and irritated and bitter and miserable and deeply troubled – and she knows what her deepest desire is – to have a child. 1.15:
“I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
She knows herself. She is absolutely honest.
Thirdly, notice that it is quite clear that the human solution to Hannah’s plight is totally inadequate. Her husband Elkanah loved her. It’s obvious that he was a pious man. He is especially tender and generous towards her. 1.5:
But to Hannah [Elkanah] gave a double portion [of meat, that is] because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb.
He cannot understand why his attempts to sooth her don’t work. Verse 8:
Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
I suppose the straightforward answer to that is, “No”! Maybe without meaning to, Elkanah is bypassing God and missing the point. Only God can truly fulfil Hannah’s deepest desire. He can’t.
Sorry, husbands, there are some things you’re just no good for. As soon as I say that, I have a nagging feeling that there may be wives thinking to themselves: “There are some husbands who are no good for anything”. I remember hearing about a man who used to sit in a town centre with a notice hung around his neck. It said:
Do not expect from marriage what you can only get from God.
Rather eccentric. But wise. Hannah’s need ultimately could not be met by her husband, try as he might.
Fourthly, notice that Hannah is absolutely open with God. She is honest with herself, as we’ve seen. And that is one step. But then what? She pours it all out to God. And how! Eli thinks that she is drunk. But no. Verse 15 again:
“I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.”
She says, as it were, “Here I am Lord. This is me. This is what I want. Please do something about it.” And she makes a commitment. Verse 10-11:
10In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. 11And she made a vow, saying, “O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.
We need that honesty and boldness in our praying – laying our desires before God, knowing that he hears us.
Then fifthly, notice that Hannah’s faith changes the nature of her desire. Without faith she simply would have longed for a child. With her faith her desire becomes for a child who will serve God with absolute devotion all his life. Her natural desire ceased to be self-centred or selfish as it would become without faith. And it becomes God-centred. Her desire does not disappear – but it changes dramatically, until she is ready to give back to the Lord totally the very person she so desired – her son.
Now, we all have desires. I don’t know what your deepest desires are as you look ahead to the coming year. Maybe for a child, like Hannah. Maybe marriage. Maybe they are tied to your work and ambitions: you desire a particular job, or promotion. Or success in exams. Or maybe your deepest desire is to have children who behave and are helpful rather than driving you up the wall.
Whatever it is, we have to follow Hannah’s example. We must take our desire to God in prayer. We must allow him to put our desire through his transforming process so that it comes out the other end still recognisable but probably very different – and with Christ at the centre.
There is trouble in Hannah’s world. But there is faith in Hannah’s heart. So how does God act?
Thirdly, THERE IS AN ANSWER TO HANNAH’S PRAYER
And it comes in four parts.
First, there is a promise of peace. The Lord speaks to Hannah through the elderly priest Eli. Verse 17:
“Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
The Lord is in control. He knows what he is doing. Rest in him. Receive his comfort. It’s a tremendous picture of what the apostle Paul talks about in Philippians 4:
6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
That is really like a kind of insurance policy that God offers to those who trust him in prayer. What with various troubles that we’ve faced over the years, like burglary and car theft and someone driving into our car and writing it off while it was parked out on our street, we’ve needed our insurance over the years.
Well, this is as if God says to us: “Don’t worry – whatever happens (and I’m not telling you just yet what will happen) you are safe with me and everything will be OK. Even if what happens is the worst that you are imagining, it will be OK in the end, because I will be with you, and I will never leave you. There is a promise of peace.
Secondly, Hannah’s request is granted<.i>. End of verse 19:
… the Lord remembered [Hannah]. So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
God is in the business of answering prayer. To be sure, sometimes he says “Yes”, sometimes he says “Wait” and sometimes, if ultimately he has a better plan for us than we can yet see, he says “No”. But the more we allow him to mould our desires into the shape that he desires for us, the more we will see our requests being clearly granted. There may be a long struggle. It may take years. But God answers our prayers. That’s why we pray – because we know that God is the same God who dealt graciously with Hannah – and he has promised to hear our prayer.
Thirdly, there is abundant blessing. Look on for a moment to 2.21:
And the Lord was gracious to Hannah; she conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.
Six for the price of one! The Lord surprises us with the extent of his blessing.
Then there is one further aspect of the Lord’s answer to Hannah’s prayer: God gives purpose to Hannah’s life. This is very exciting. All that Hannah goes through – the years of barrenness, the anguish, the desperate prayer, the gift of Samuel – all of it can be seen in retrospect to fit into the Lord’s plan. And not just in a narrow way for Hannah’s own life, but for the salvation of the world.
Her son Samuel becomes one of the major links in the chain that runs from Abraham to Jesus – and that was God’s intention all along. Hannah herself disappears from the scene after a couple of chapters – but her long and painful struggle was not in vain. God used her life in an amazing way. The same will be true for us, as we keep on trusting Jesus. He has a plan for our lives that only we can fill.
So that is how God answers Hannah’s prayer: with a promise of peace, by granting her request, with abundant blessing, and by giving purpose to her life and her struggle. Hannah found that God is faithful.
Then finally let’s consider how Hannah responds. So to my last main heading.
Fourthly, THERE IS A RESPONSE IN HANNAH’S LIFE
Hannah is confident that she is heard – even before she gets any answer. She receives the peace that the Lord offers through Eli. She is ready to trust that God is in control – before the issue is resolved. Verse 18:
[Hannah] said, “May your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
Then when the answer does come, she acknowledges it. End of verse 20:
She named [her newborn son] Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
And Hannah carries through her commitment. She remains God-centred and doesn’t slip back to selfish ways as soon as she has what she’s asked for. It’s so easy for us to do that when the black clouds over our lives give way to the sunshine and our troubles ease. Hannah doesn’t forget her promise to God that Samuel would serve him.
And finally, Hannah finds delight in the Lord. Her anguish turns to joy. The long years of bitter struggle have come to an end. At the beginning of chapter 2 she prays a glorious psalm of praise and joy and delight. 2.1:
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.”
When God acts in response to our prayer, we need to respond. Hannah shows us how. Whatever our troubles, and whatever our deepest desires – let’s learn from Hannah.
Lord God, we thank you for Hannah’s responsive faith in the face of trouble. Above, we thank your for your grace and mercy and faithfulness. Whatever we face now or in this coming year, help us to trust you as Hannah did, and may we in our turn experience your grace and faithfulness in our lives and in the life of this church. In Jesus’ name. Amen.