Who are the movers and shakers of history? History books are dedicated to highlighting the most influential individuals across a certain period and demonstrating how these people did awesome or terrible things that shaped and moved the world. It is these people—the Steve Job’s, Winston Churchill’s, and Charlemagne’s—the titans, the disruptors, the innovators, the dreamers that move the ball down the field of history. Of course, every telling of history is highly selective and so open to interpretation. Who is considered in being included in the story depends on who is telling it and what they think.
What would it be like if God wrote a history book? Who would God spend time to focus on? Who would He highlight as the individuals of great consequence? What actions or tales would He deem necessary for us to know of in order to understand history, and so ourselves, rightly? The Bible isn’t exactly a history book (as we tend to think of), but it does include a great deal of history. In fact, the majority of what is written in the Bible is a narrative of history. So, what does God include? Certainly, the Bible is full of extraordinary characters who do unbelievable things, and yet, God has a way of taking individuals who seem to be insignificant and unimportant who make mundane, ordinary decisions, but find that God uses them to shape and mold history. God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things the confound the strong.
We are beginning a sermon series on the book of Samuel, a book that serves as a critical turning point in the history of redemption. But in our text today we will see God using an insignificant person with a normal problem who turns to an ordinary solution, but through that accomplishing an extraordinary feat in the next stage of God’s redemptive history.
1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2 He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. 20 And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD.”
21 The man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice and to pay his vow. 22 But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the LORD and dwell there forever.” 23 Elkanah her husband said to her, “Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him; only, may the LORD establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son until she weaned him. 24 And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and she brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh. And the child was young. 25 Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. 27 For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted me my petition that I made to him. 28 Therefore I have lent him to the LORD. As long as he lives, he is lent to the LORD.”
And he worshiped the LORD there.
We could organize this passage around a couple of major headings: Hannah’s pain, Hannah’s plea, Hannah’s praise. But first, let’s get our bearings with where we are in the story.
Where Are We?
The book of 1 Samuel comes at a critical juncture in the story of the Old Testament. From the very beginning, we have been looking for someone who could do what Adam failed to do; to fulfill the promise of Genesis 3:15, to crush the head of the serpent, bring us back to God, and recover what was lost at Eden. But every time a character enters the picture that you think is the deliverer, that person winds up failing or perishing. From Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses, to Joshua, and on and on it goes, a perpetual story of elevated expectations that are always dashed. As the story on Joshua closes, God’s people have entered the promised land, but the spiritual and moral inertia of Joshua’s leadership begins to stall. And at this point in the story we arrive at the book of Judges.
The book of Judges is one of the bleakest displays of human depravity we have in the Bible. Reading the book cover to cover is like watching one of those time lapse videos of a piece of fruit rotting before your eyes. Israel eventually becomes more wicked and depraved than most of the pagan nations around them, with the story ending in Israel committing an imitation of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, but only worse (Judges 19-21). The repeated refrain throughout, and the very final words of the book is, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25). The book of Judges serves as an apologetic argument for why Israel needs a king. So, by the time we arrive at 1 Samuel, the reader should be feeling a kind of desperation almost: we have experienced disappointment after disappointment, and then after the travesty of Judges, we are in serious need of a king. And this brings us to the book of Samuel, which opens up around the year 1050 BC.
Samuel marks one of the most important pivot points in the story of the Old Testament because in it we find what appears to be answer to the problem of Judges: a righteous king.
But how does the book of Samuel begin? With a relatively obscure woman with a relatively ordinary problem. God doesn’t introduce Samuel through the flash and dazzle of what we tend to assume are the important things and important people, but chooses instead the ordinary, small, and insignificant. He chooses a heartbroken and barren woman named Hannah. It is significant that Hannah’s name in Hebrew means “grace.” God’s grace typically comes to us in the low places, away from the spotlight of the world, in places of neediness and humility.
We see Hannah’s pain right away at the beginning of the chapter, “[Elkanah] had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children,” (1 Sam 1:2). Elkanah practices polygamy, something that was forbidden by God (Gen 2:24), but unfortunately very common at that time. You may wonder why the Bible doesn’t seem to explicitly condemn the practice here, and rarely does in other instances. However, the Bible assumes we are mature readers. In every story of polygamy in the Bible, it always bears rotten fruit, always leads to more pain and frustration. As it does here with Hannah and Peninnah. God explicitly designed marriage to be between one man and one woman, so when that is perverted (as it is in polygamy) brokenness and pain ensues.
Peninnah’s name means “jewel” or “pearl.” She is precious and valuable because she bears children, while Hannah has none. Perhaps the situation here is similar to that of Sarah and Hagar, where Sarah is unable to have any children, so Abraham takes Hagar as a second wife to bear a child (see Gen 16). Maybe Elkanah takes Peninnah as a second wife because of Hannah’s barrenness. While infertility is a tragically common pain many couples face, many women in particular struggle deeply with a profound sense of loss of identity through it. If I can’t be a mother, what kind of woman am I? And how much more painful would it be for your husband to then go find another woman who can do what you cannot.
But there is more pain yet. Later we are told of how Peninnah (filled with insecurities herself, no doubt) would badger Hannah during the yearly offering, “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat,” (1 Sam 1:6-7). And as if being needled by your rival isn’t enough, Elkanah responds rather thoughtlessly, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 1:8). If a husband could win an award for being the most oblivious, Elkanah might be in the running here. He loved Hannah (1 Sam 1:5), but he has taken another wife who has given him children, and who purposely rubs Hannah’s nose in it regularly, and Elkanah has the gall to say, What are you crying for? And then the particularly silly statement, Am I not more valuable to you than ten sons? This husband is totally out of touch with how his sin is currently hurting his wife, and he has a seriously disproportionate view of his own worth.
And while they are up at the tabernacle offering their sacrifice, Hannah goes to pray, goes to the one place where she should find comfort and solace: God’s house. But the priest, Eli, is sitting by and watching Hannah pray and assumes that she must be drunk. So he tells her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you,” (1 Sam 1:14). Now, this is particularly interesting because we are soon going to learn more about Eli through his sons and their gross, wicked behavior, and Eli’s refusal to confront them. Ironically, here we have the priest who refuses to stand up to his worthless sons who are abusing people and defiling the tabernacle, but here he has no problem opposing an innocent, bereft, and grieving woman. And Hannah stands up to him.
Everywhere that Hannah goes she finds frustration, she is misunderstood, and she is criticized.
“She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head,” (1 Sam 1:10-11).
You feel the turmoil Hannah is expressing, she is “deeply distressed” and “wept bitterly” and later in vs. 16 we are told she is praying in “great anxiety and vexation.” Notice how she refers to herself throughout the prayer? She is just a “servant.” Hannah knows that she is of small account, that she has no basis or standing of her own to ask God to act–she is just a servant. And yet, she asks for the King of the Universe to bend His eye towards her.
Hannah asks the Lord to do three things for her in verse 11: look, remember, and give. She wants to know that in a world where she is overlooked, she can be seen by her God; in a world where she feels forgotten, she is remembered by her Lord; and in a world that has taken so much from her, she pleads with her God to give.
Interestingly, however, in Hannah’s prayer for a son she vows that she will give him back to the Lord. The seemingly odd reference to not letting any razor touch his head is a reference to the Nazirite vow from the book of Numbers. Nazir in Hebrew simply means, “to be set apart,” so a Nazirite is an individual who has been consecrated, or set apart. This was a special vow that an individual could make to dedicate themselves wholly to the Lord, and as part of that unique dedication you would not cut your hair for the duration of your vow (see Num 6:5). Hannah is saying that if God will answer her prayer, her son will be set apart and consecrated to the Lord “all the days of his life.” Which is fascinating—she is, as verse 15 tells us, “pouring her soul out” before the Lord in prayer, but promises that if God will give her a son, she will give him right back to God.
Eli, after being rebuked by Hannah (1 Sam 1:15-16), assures her, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad,” (1 Sam 1:17-18). Interestingly, Eli doesn’t actually hear what her prayer is, he simply blesses her, and Hannah responds in faith. She trusts that God can speak a blessing through His priest, even if the priest doesn’t know what she has asked, thus Hannah shows us exemplary faith. She has asked God to look, to remember, and to give, and she trusts that God has heard her.
“They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD,” (1 Sam 1:19-20). Hannah asked God to look, to remember and to give. Here we see God honor her prayer: He sees Hannah’s affliction, He remembers her, and He gives her a son. She calls him Samuel, which means “God heard me.”
We are not sure how old Samuel is when this happens, but at some point Hannah brings Samuel back to the tabernacle with a series of praise offerings and sacrifices to give (1 Sam 1:24-25). Hannah gives Samuel to serve as an apprentice under Eli, he is wholly consecrated to the Lord.
Could you imagine being in Hannah’s shoes? You are heartbroken because you have no child, you are maligned and attacked by others because you have no child, your husband has gone to another woman because you have no child, and when God finally hears your prayer and gives you a child you…give him back to the Lord? One would imagine that if after receiving the child you had prayed for in such earnestness, you were to then lose the child it would be a tragedy from which you may never recover. If you had suffered greatly and asked the Lord to grant you your request, and then it was granted, only to be given away nearly as soon as you had received it, how would you respond? Here, amazingly, Hannah praises God. She breaks into song and extols God’s greatness and mercy (1 Sam 2:1-10).
How can she do that if she is not keeping her son? Hannah can praise God because her greatest joy was not in the gift but in the giver. She rejoices because God has remembered her. God has not abandoned her, He has seen her, He has listened to her plea—that was what she needed to know. In other words, Hannah’s praise isn’t dependent on the gift per se, but on what the gift communicates to her about the Giver. God cares about me. Weak, insignificant, irrelevant, me. She is happy to know that God loves her and cares for her. And Hannah knows that if God hears her, if God remembers her, if God sees her, then God will provide what she needs. She is so confident of that she is willing to give back to God the gift He has just given her! So Hannah is happy to praise God through the gift, chasing the sunbeam back up to the sun.
Hannah praises God amidst her pain because of the miraculous gift of a son who will lead Israel in faithfulness, and so she gives him up to by wholly dedicated to the Lord. Samuel should make us think of another son miraculously conceived and given up. It is no surprise that a young teenage Mary, a thousand years later, would use Hannah’s song of praise for her own song of praise upon being told that, despite being a virgin, she would give birth to a son who not only lead Israel in faithfulness, but would be surrendered over, given up to save God’s people from their sins, and would be called Jesus.
Jesus is a truer and better Samuel, miraculously conceived and, just like Samuel, given to the people to lead them, confront their sin, challenge and rebuke when necessary, who grows up to become one who offers sacrifices in God’s temple. Only Jesus is unlike Samuel in that He doesn’t offer the sacrifices of sheep or goats or cattle—He offers up the sacrifice of His own life, His own blood. Jesus goes before the Father as an atonement for the wayward, sinful, and rebellious people of God. This means that Jesus not only confronts your sin, but has provided a way for your sin to be forgiven.
Now we, like Hannah, can praise God and rejoice in Him because we know that He has heard our cries, He has remembered us. Paul reminds us, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32). Like Hannah, God has remembered us, He has seen, and He has given. And if He has given us this immeasurably precious gift, then will He not also give us everything else we need for life? Can we, like Hannah, trust God in the faith that He will carry through on His promises? Can we, like Hannah, worship God in difficulty, maybe even giving back to God what He has given us?
Don’t despise the little things
Do you feel insignificant in God’s plan? Maybe you feel like life hasn’t opened up many opportunities for you to do any “great” thing for the Lord. Maybe you feel like you are just punching the clock, just doing the regular, mundane acts of obedience that win you no awards, that afford you no applause, and maybe tempt you to feel like what you are doing doesn’t matter. But Hannah’s story should encourage us. Hannah likely had no idea the consequence of what her life would be. All she did was pray and seek God with faith, but through her life God brings about a sea-change in the history of redemption.
Who knows what God may do in the mundane, ordinary, little acts of obedience in your life. You have no idea what the future holds, what your Lord may do with your life.