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This is the first in a new series on the book of 1 Samuel. This is an exciting and interesting historical book, and many of the most famous bible stories come from it. It is always important to have a little background about a biblical book, so that we can understand it in context. The events recorded in 1 Samuel took place roughly three-thousand years ago.
This was a very unsettling time in the history of the people of Israel. It was roughly four-hundred years after the time of Moses and the Exodus. The Israelites certainly had their problems in the wilderness, but at the end of it all, they had entered the promised land as a united nation, under strong leadership. However, once they began to settle the land, they splintered back into a loose confederation of tribes. Worse, they ignored the Lord’s command to drive out and completely eliminate the pagan cultures around them in the land. What followed was a few hundred years of the darkest times in their history. They forgot God, and began to adopt the pagan practices of the peoples around them – the very people whom they were supposed to drive out. They were oppressed by those same people, and frequently various areas and tribes of Israel were almost slaves to other cultures. God did not forget them. He used the negative circumstances to remind them about Him. When they prayed for his help, He answered and saved them, but usually within a generation or so, they forgot Him again, and went back to a cycle of worshiping false gods, being oppressed by the surrounding people. Then they remembered God again, and asked for his help, and so the cycle continued. The people were ignorant of God, brutal, and divided. At the time recorded by 1 Samuel this had been going on for long, most people probably felt like this was just how life was. There was certainly no reason to hope or expect that anything could ever change and be permanently different.
The nation of Israel was supposed to be united by their common faith, and they were meant to function as a nation by following God, as they had during the Exodus. Because God was supposed to be the King, technically they were all free. But because they weren’t following the Lord, it wasn’t working. Instead of freedom, they generally alternated between chaos and oppression.
At the time that this particular historical record begins, the spiritual leadership was as bad as the rest of the country. Eli, the High Priest was short-sighted and a weak leader. His sons Hophni and Phineas were self serving – they took every opportunity to abuse the power they had over the people. None of them actively led the country from a position of faith in the Lord or obedience to Him.
1 Samuel 1:1-2:11 records how the Lord began to change all this, not just for a few years, or even just a generation but for the long term. It was an unlikely and surprising beginning. God didn’t call a hero to defeat the enemies of Israel (he had already done that many times over the past few hundred years, and it never lasted). He did not raise up someone to campaign for unity among the tribes. God did not lead anyone to go on a crusade to clean up corruption among the priests, or to start a movement to educate the ignorant children in the outlying areas. If Hollywood screenwriters were making a movie, any one of those choices might be their storyline.
But God did something different and unexpected. He began with a woman who just wanted to be a mother. Her name was Hannah. Her deepest desire was to have a child. She turned her desire over to the Lord, even while continuing to desperately want it. And the Lord pursued his goals through her life and those desires.
Hannah was married to a man named Elkanah. He had a second wife, called Peninnah. He almost certainly married Peninnah only because Hannah couldn’t have children. Chapter 1:5 and 1:8 record that Elkanah loved Hannah deeply. But in those days, having children was simply not considered optional. The culture considered it a curse from the Lord if a couple could not conceive. God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). If someone could not do that, they figured it must mean that God’s blessing wasn’t on them. Besides that, children were the only source of “social security.” When someone got too old to work, he relied on his children to take care of him. Finally, having children ensured that the family name would continue, and be included among God’s people (Israel) for another generation.
All this is why a man like Elkanah, who seemed to have a genuine love for Hannah, would go the length of marrying a second woman just to have children. By the way, some folks say that the Old Testament endorses polygamy without reservation. That is not exactly true. It records that some men had many wives, and it does not condemn them, but it almost always also describes that situation in a negative light. This is true here also. Elkanah had two wives, and there was rivalry and jealousy and strife between them. This was true also of Jacob, even though his wives were sisters. Solomon, had hundreds of wives and scripture makes it clear that it was his downfall.
Anyway, Hannah’s lack of children meant several things to her. First, she thought it meant God somehow had something against her. It had led to the destruction of her married happiness and love with Elkanah. Finally, if Elkanah were die before she did, there would be no one to take care of her in old age. As we can see, the issue was both emotional and practical. There was deep hurt and pain wrapped up in Hannah’s barrenness, as well as practical concern about the future.
One year, when the family was at the annual worship pilgrimage, Hannah reached a breaking point. I love her attitude in 1:9-18. She is another one of those unsung heroines of the faith. I think what makes her so special is that she surrenders her desire to the Lord, while at the same time, she honestly acknowledges it. She tells Eli, the priest:
I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord. Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment. (1 Samuel 1:15-16)
Many Christians in this day and age would encourage you to pursue your desire as if it was somehow holy just because you had it. They paint a picture of God as if he was there for the sole purpose of making your life comfortable and giving you anything you want. They preach a gospel of personal gain here and now. There are other Christians (though less common these days) who treat every personal desire as if it is evil; they suggest the only way to deal with any desire for anything personal is to get rid of it.
Hannah did not follow either path. She desired a child. She wasn’t going to pretend that she didn’t, and she wasn’t going to pretend that she thought her desire was wrong or sinful. She let God hear her anger, anguish and resentment. At the same time, as she asked God to fulfill her desire, she surrendered it back to him. Verses 10-11 in the message version record it this way:
Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried — inconsolably. Then she made a vow:
“Oh, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, If you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain, If you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me By giving me a son, I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you. I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline.” (1 Sam 1:10-11)
Some people may look at this part of Hannah’s prayer as making a bargain with God. But I think it is a little different than that. Hannah will not let go of her desire. She’s asking for a son, not the strength to go on being barren. And yet, while not letting go, she does surrender that desire to God. It isn’t completely clear in the Message version of the bible, but what she is pledging is that when he is old enough, she will physically bring the child to the tent of meeting and he will stay there with the priests and serve the Lord. The child will not stay with Hannah or her family. In a sense, Hannah is saying, “I want to be a mother. But I also want to surrender to you. So if you do make me a mother, I will turn around and live as I was not a mother again. You will gain a child Lord, not me.” So, yes, in a sense it was a bargain. But I don’t see how else Hannah could both hold on to her desire and surrender it at the same time. It is this bravery and honesty that makes her a great woman of faith in my eyes.
To help us understand what Hannah did, I want to put in simplistic and shallow terms. It is as if you prayed, “Lord, please give me one million dollars. If you do, I will give all one million dollars to the church.” Now, looking at it that way, you may say, “What would be the point of that?” We see no point in that because our desire is either not real or not surrendered. If our desire isn’t real, then we don’t want one million dollars so badly that we’re willing to give it all up again just to say we did have it once. If it is isn’t surrendered, then we don’t want one million dollars unless we can keep some of it, or all of it.
Hannah’s desire was real, and it was truly surrendered. The result of that true and surrendered desire was a baby boy named Samuel. Because Hannah surrendered him to the Lord, the Lord was able to use him to change the course of Israel’s history.
The Lord needed both Hannah’s desire AND her surrender to do what he did through her. If she had kept the desire for a child, but did not give that up to the Lord, Samuel would not have been raised in the house of the Lord and become the greatest spiritual leader since Moses. If Hannah had not truly desired a child as deeply as she did, she probably would not have been driven to surrender him in the first place.
Israel was in a bad place spiritually and politically. Society was fractured, life was dangerous, people were ignorant. God did change everything for them. And he did it through a simple woman who was honest about her desire to be a mother while also surrendering that desire. That’s not how we expect Him to save society. But he often works in these unexpected ways.
So what about you? What are the deep desires of your heart? Are you willing to be honest about them? And are you willing to surrender them to the Lord at the same time? God needs people who are willing to follow in Hannah’s footsteps. I think the psalmist was talking about people like Hannah when he wrote:
Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps 37:4, ESV)