Does it matter that she had a husband? Does it matter that her husband loved her deeply? That might have helped if the culture didn’t practice polygamy. Her husband had two wives. What made matters worse is the other woman gave him children! Does it matter her husband loves her more, even though childless? Perhaps. But, it complicates things.
Every year they go to the major religious festival in their country. It is held in this place called Shiloh. They went year after year. The way this works is they make a sacrifice—usually a bull. A portion is dedicated to God, a portion to the priests, and they get the rest to feast on. The husband, a guy named Elkanah demonstrates his love for his childless wife, Hannah, by giving her a double portion when it comes time to eat. Do you suppose he does this in a way where no one notices? Obviously not. Because immediately describing this special treatment, the story goes: "her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year…her rival provoked her until she wept and would not eat."
Now her husband gets a little irritated and tries to cheer her up: Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons? Oh great. Now she not only feels worthless, she feels guilty—even though his actions are partially responsible for the rivalry going on between her and his other wife.
We encounter Hannah, her husband and her rival, Penninah in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. So what happens? She runs out of the tent and runs straight to the Tent of the LORD—we also know it as the Tabernacle: the tent structure serving as a temple for the Israelites before Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem a couple of generations later. Eli is the High Priest (and a Judge or military ruler) at the time and he is sitting at the entrance of the tent, as is his custom. Hannah goes to the compound and begins praying—evidently close to the entrance of the compound because Eli can observe her. The book of 1 Samuel words it this way:
In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. And 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.”In other words, he will live as a Nazarite—something like a monastic order among the Israelites.
Now Hannah is going against normal protocol for praying. To this day some orthodox Rabbis do not believe you are technically praying if you are not vocalizing the prayer—that is, out loud. She is moving her lips, but she is not vocalizing. No audible sounds are coming out of her mouth. So Eli thinks she is drunk and he confronts her. This poor woman can’t seem to get a break! It seems that everyone in her life is insensitive and uncaring to her plight. Ever feel that way? No matter what you do, you can’t win. Even your best efforts are misunderstood.
But she explains: Hey, I’m not pouring drinks—I’m pouring out my heart to God! I’m in distress. And here comes the brush off. Instead of inquiring further like a good shepherd, Eli sends her on her way: Well, may the LORD grant your request. Imagine that: Woman, give up your drinking! You’re drunk, aren’t you? No, sir! I’m overwhelmed with grief and bitterness…my life is falling apart. Oh, well, then. May God grant your prayer; good day! The exalted man of God, a High Priest and Judge—a powerful figure in this time of Israel’s history misses his calling.
But Hannah doesn’t go away dejected—she takes heart, cleans up, and begins eating again. I don’t know if she is thinking God will answer her prayer or if she has figured she has done everything she can. If the LORD wants her to have a child, it will be up to him. She can do no more. Regardless, it is clear she has given it to God and has decided to live as if he is the one in charge.
But what seemed impossible happened! Hannah got pregnant! Can you imagine the scene? Of course you can! Some of you husbands and wives know what that can be like. You’ve tried for years to have that child or that second child—for us it was Alyssa. It just didn’t seem like it was going to happen. We couldn’t afford fertility drugs—and they were way too experimental back then anyway. So we just resigned ourselves: if God wants us to have a child, it’s up to him. We gave it up to him. And then it happens! Your wife calls you at work… “Guess what? I went to the Pharmacy and got the kit…” or “I went to the Doctor…” we’re pregnant! You’re blown away! For us, it may have been timing, or the giving up of the stress. But the writer of 1 Samuel makes it very clear: this was the work of God and no one else!
And Hannah breaks out in a praise of God. I don’t know if she had her own garage band or normally wrote songs—but this is an instant where she just has to write a song! These lyrics are so similar to Mary’s song in Luke, some scholars suggest Mary got her material from Hannah. The theme is certainly the same. You can read the song in 1 Samuel 2:1-11.
And so what is the point of this story? It’s found in the song. God is sovereign—he is over all. He creates the rich and poor, the mighty and humble, the barren and fertile. We are not delivered by our own strength but by the soverign God. Most importantly: God is just—he will exalt the faithful humble and bring low the faithless arrogant.
Don’t miss the point. This is not a story to tell you that if you’re having a hard time just pray to God and he will answer your prayer with a “yes.” The point is the same point found throughout the entire four books of Samuel and Kings: God is in control. The humble who trust in him will be used to accomplish his purposes—the powerful who misuse their power or ignore God will do so at their own peril.
Our culture has gotten it all wrong, hasn’t it? Nancy Pelosi flexed her muscles this week and called herself the most powerful woman in America. She screamed out to a cheering crowd: “Let’s hear it for the power!” It could have easily been a Republican or Independent shouting the same words for all I care. She got it so wrong, but we shouldn't be surprised. Power is the way of the world. But God says power will not accomplish his purposes: trust in him will.
Frankly I’m tired of our fascination with power. I’m tired of our mistaken beliefs about what makes for success in ministry. For so many people success is wrapped up in the size of your organization. The only way we can accomplish God’s will is to be a church of 500, 800, 1,000 members. If we can just become huge then we’ll be able to affect Ennis for God! If these four books of Kings tell us anything it is God operates from a different perspective. He doesn’t look at the outward appearances, but on the heart. A barren woman will be God’s vessel. A donkey herder will be the first King. A smelly shepherd--the runt of the litter--will be given an eternal dynasty. An inexperienced and young musician will fight and defeat a huge and mighty warrior. A small, weak, poor and powerless nation will become rich and powerful. And it is all done through the power of God, not through their own efforts and strength. And whenever this truth is forgotten, God humbles them.
God will not make this church effective due to our intelligence or due to our power and strength. He will make this church effective when we decide to trust him completely and start taking on the task and mission he has given us. This little church of 200 people can be used mightily of God. But we’ve got to trust him enough to do something. We’ve got to believe he can take Ennis. We’ve got to believe he can impact the world. This is the constant theme of the Kingdom Parables Jesus told--the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge bush. The kingdom is like a seed that grows even though we don't know how. It's what Paul told the Corinthians: God chose the weak things in the world to shame the strong, the foolish things to shame the wise. God's power is make perfect in weakness.
Are we barren like Hannah? Do you think we’ve not been productive and fruitful as God wants us to be? Do you feel as if we don’t make the cut? Good news! Hannah tells us there is hope! Let’s do as she has done. Pray to God, leave it to him, and begin to act as if he has heard us.
So may you trust God. May you come to believe God can use you to do mighty things. May you not be satisfied to mentally agree, but may you live your life and conduct yourself as if God is truly working through you to impact the world. May you trust him enough to act.