Originally published March 9, 2016.
Whenever I read Hannah’s story in the Bible, I pause to wonder over the fact that she gave up her sweet boy. After praying “year after year” for him (so the story goes), she finally promises to give him back if God will just hear her prayer for a child. It is reminiscent of the desperate promises that lead to tragedy in some of our best folk-tales, except this one seems to be told with joy and we hear her song of praise, get to see her leading the little boy to the Temple to live with old Eli, watch her making wee garments to take to him when she visits once a year and sees how much he has grown. I chose her words of faith as our own commitment when we dedicated our children: “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27-28) And I meant it, but I always wondered how she could bear to leave Samuel there to travel back home, after waiting so long to hold him. I always thought how she must be a stronger woman than I am.
Once you get past the main attraction here, that God answered a weeping woman’s prayers with a miracle baby, other valuable features of the story come to light, the first of which is that it is not really her story at all, but the beginning of Samuel’s. He himself is writing down the story he must have heard dozens of times– probably once a year when his parents came to visit. (I have it on good authority that parents tend to tell and re-tell their favorite stories about their children…you know we all do it.) And he records it with good reason, in all its detail, because his mother’s struggle has shaped his life– poured the foundation for who he is and the role he will play in the nation of Israel.
The first years of Hannah’s marriage read like an ancient soap opera, with two wives and one good-hearted husband caught in the middle. One wife loved, but barren; a second-choice wife (and probably younger) having child after child, but all too conscious of where their husband’s affections lay. Not surprisingly, their home becomes the grounds for some pretty serious rivalry and drama. Hannah weeps and prays and fasts. The husband gives gifts and coaxes her with declarations of his love. The other wife taunts and shows off her pregnancies and her children, jabs at Hannah’s faith year after year. You can’t help but wonder why Hannah kept praying: she keeps going to the Temple to worship, keeps asking God and does not give up. On the surface it appears that when Eli finally notices her praying in a public place, he casts his favor with her, and God at last gives her what she wants. But the year after year of praying without answers is a key element in the story that we would not want to miss.
We can feel it with her, the monthly cycle of hoping and praying and being disappointed yet again. Every month watching others flourish while she waited on her own body to bear life. Month after month pouring out her heart’s desires and believing that Someone out there was listening and could help her, despite every visible circumstance to the contrary. And I wonder how her prayers began to change as she wrestled. We only catch glimpses of what was happening in her heart: Certainly she prayed for a child to fill her arms…to affirm her womanhood…to bring joy to her life. Surely she prayed for a child to please her husband and validate his love for her. Perhaps she prayed for a child to silence the neighbors’ whispering tongues. To restore her honor. Year after year, the narrative says. Her persistence speaks loudly of her devotion to God and her determination not to turn elsewhere for answers, and in the shape of her prayers we hear how God met her in those wilderness years. “… for the Lord is a God who knows, and by Him deeds are weighed….He will guard the feet of his faithful servants….” (1 Samuel 2:3,9)
She kept on giving her pain and her longing and her dreams into God’s care, until finally she just laid it all down– gave up her ideas of what should happen and why, and said Not my will but Your purposes be accomplished in my life…This child will be from You and for You, and this miracle will be for Your glory. And Samuel did belong to the Lord from the moment he was born, dedicated to serve Him as the last of the judges and the first of the prophets– the one who would guide the great kings of Israel’s Golden Age. Both mother and child were overshadowed by the Holy Spirit so that Hannah could prophesy “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high….for I delight in Your deliverance.” (1 Samuel 2:1)
Maybe this is how she could give up little Samuel to be trained in the House of the Lord– because she had already surrendered her life and her son into the Lord’s good purposes for them. A thousand years later, Jesus will describe the rightful and appropriate cost of obedience this way: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it.” (Luke 9:24) So Samuel begins his book here, with the faith and perseverance and worship of a strong woman who understood her purpose to know God.
This is where Hannah’s story intersects our own, because whatever we long for most, and whenever we labor long in prayer and wait for answers, we can know there is much more at stake than the object of our desire. We can be assured that God’s purposes are much larger than ours, and that He will allow us to wrestle with our emotions, and our circumstances, and His answers, until we are ready to surrender to His right to rule. And we can know for sure “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Hannah understood that if she turned away, He would not be diminished in the least; it was her own everyday experiences that would be affected most by the blessing or loss of His presence. She declared her commitment to draw near to Him: “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:2) Year after year she chose Him, and gained everything that mattered, for both her and for her little boy Samuel. May we be as strong and as faithful.
And we can hear Hannah joyfully singing, “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 honor.” (1 Samuel 2:8)
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.Psalm 73:25-26
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.Jim Elliot