Not By Might Shall Man Prevail (1 Sam 2:1-10)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached September 4th, 2022*

Might makes right. Nice guys finish last. These are truisms that we are familiar with that tell us something that we don’t like. Our culture has been saturated by Christianity long enough that we have a set of moral tastebuds that tell us that the exploitation of others is wrong, and the path of love is superior, even if it means self-sacrifice. No one roots for the bad guy to win. And yet, our common experience tells us the contrary to be true. At times it appears that might really does make right—the winners get to say what is “right” or “wrong.” The tyrant who crushes all dissent and imprisons political opponents seems like he really does win the day. Nice guys don’t resort to underhanded or ruthless tactics in their job, and so might wind up missing out on the promotion or the bonus or the client. A child is confronted by a parent, “Did you do this?” and the child knows that if they lie, they might be able to get out of it without any consequences, but if they tell the truth they might suffer for it.  

What are we to do? Is there a final justice that will right the scales? I wonder if you are familiar with the story of the Chicago River? In the late 1800’s the city of Chicago was growing exponentially, but so was its pollution and waste. With no sufficient sewer system, the city resorted to dumping most of its waste directly into the Chicago River which fed directly into Lake Michigan, which was also their source of drinking water. Cholera and typhoid began to break out and kill many in Chicago, so the engineers in the city began one of the most remarkable engineering marvels of the modern world: they reversed the flow of the Chicago river. They dug a massive canal heading south towards the Mississippi River, causing the river to reverse its normal direction and then drain the Chicago River and Lake Michigan of all of its sewage, waste, and disease. (People downstream from Chicago weren’t terribly excited about this).

There is a normal flow of human history—if you look out for “number one” most, work to get yourself what is best, then you will have a better chance of succeeding than if you prioritize humility, honesty, and an others-first mentality. In our text today in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, the song of Hannah, we find that God has tunneled through the layers of the muck of pride and arrogance to reverse the flow, to exalt the lowly, to humble the proud, to drain the bog of humanity’s sickness with the fresh, clear, cold water of grace.

1 And Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the LORD;
my horn is exalted in the LORD.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.
2 “There is none holy like the LORD:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S,
and on them he has set the world.
9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

–       1 Sam 2:1-10

Overview of the Song

Here is Hannah’s song in a nutshell: God raises up the low, and brings down the high, so be comforted and be warned.

Surprising Reversal #1: The Holiness of God Displayed in Humbling the Proud

“There is none holy like the LORD:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.

–       1 Sam 2:2-5

God is not like us. And that makes Hannah happy, confident, and at peace. Her song begins by rejoicing in the Lord. If we remember from last week, Hannah was praying for a son, but vowed that she would give him back to the Lord if she were to become pregnant. Hannah becomes pregnant, and Hannah follows through on her vow, giving Samuel up to become an apprentice at the tabernacle. But this leads Hannah to praise God. The fact that Samuel is not mentioned once in this song is a testament that Hannah’s joy was not in the gift, but in the Giver: her God had heard her. And this is all the more astounding as Hannah reflects on who this God is. He is not some tribal deity attached to Hannah’s household; He is not a provincial god constrained to a geographic location that Hannah happens to inhabit; He is not one god among a pantheon of gods. If Yahweh was any of those things, it would not be terribly surprising for him to assist Hannah—he is the family god, or the god of the hillside that Hannah resides in, or he is one of the hundreds of other gods that Hannah has been able to appease. No, Hannah tells us,

“There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God,” (1 Sam 2:2).  This is the classic monotheism that set Israel’s religion apart from all the other nations that surrounded them (Deut 6:4). Hannah here confesses the utter uniqueness of God—there is no one like Him. This is what “holiness” refers to—the unique “set apart” nature of God, not only in His moral clarity, goodness, and beauty, but in His very essence. God is wholly other. And reflecting on the holiness and uniqueness of God leads her to warn the arrogant in verse 3 and reverse the typical outcomes of humanity in verse 4-5. In other words, she sees God’s holiness is displayed in the humbling of the proud and the exaltation of the weak.

“Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed,” (1 Sam 2:3). The man who boasts, the woman who brags should be careful. God knows what they have done, and He is weighing and sifting them. This makes me think of Psalm 94:

O LORD, God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance, shine forth!
2 Rise up, O judge of the earth;
repay to the proud what they deserve!
3 O LORD, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
4 They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
5 They crush your people, O LORD,
and afflict your heritage.
6 They kill the widow and the sojourner,
and murder the fatherless;
7 and they say, “The LORD does not see;
the God of Jacob does not perceive.”

–       Ps 94:1-7

But here Hannah reminds: God does see. He is a God of knowledge. There may be a time where it appears that evil triumphs, but God is studiously keeping note of what happens. 

“When you wish to do something evil, you retire from the public into your house where no enemy may see you; from those places of your house which are open and visible to the eyes of men you remove yourself into your room; even in your room you fear some witness from another quarter; you retire into your heart, there you meditate: he is more inward than your heart. Wherever, therefore, you shall have fled, there he is,” (Herman Bavinck).

It doesn’t matter if you try to cover your tracks, it doesn’t matter if years go by and you think you’ve gotten away with it—God sees and He will act. And what is the result? 

4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.

–       1 Sam 2:4-5

The river reverses course. Those who are on top, suddenly find themselves in places of weakness, and those on the bottom, suddenly find themselves in places of strength. There are three word pictures given to us to show this surprising reversal: the image of military action, hunger, and family. Those we assume to be superior find themselves suddenly impoverished in the very area that they would have boasted in: the soldier is confident because of his weapons; the affluent are confident in their ability to provide; the mother is confident in her fertility and family. But notice that the word order here has even reversed. The first two word pictures start with the strong (the mighty…the full) and end with the weak (the feeble…the hungry) as they recount their reversals. But by the third word picture, even the arrangement of the word pictures itself has reversed—the barren woman is mentioned first, the “mother of many” last. It’s a clever way to depict the totality of the reversal God is bringing. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

But consider what an amazing disclosure to us of what the heart of God is. It is His holiness that Hannah emphasizes here that opposes the strong, and is drawn to the weak. We may think that because the holiness of God means that God is strong and righteous and good (and He is!), that He only wants to spend time with those who are strong and righteous and good. That was the mistake that the Pharisee made in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted,” (Luke 18:10-14).

This is a humbling warning to us and a wonderful comfort. If we take refuge in our strength, even our own morality or spirituality, and think it will serve as an impressive resume for which we will earn God’s eye, we are mistaken. We are like the pretty woman who tries to impress a man with her dazzling smile, unaware that there are chunks of food stuck to her teeth. The more she smiles, the more He backs away. But if we simply admit our weakness and need, He is there to bind up, to heal, to aid, to give grace. God doesn’t need your clout or influence or righteousness—He needs your honesty, your humble, simple honest admission of need. This is our God—opposing the proud, but giving grace to the humble. The holiness of God humbles the proud.

Surprising Reversal #2: The Sovereignty of God is Displayed in Exalting the Weak

The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.

–       1 Sam 2:6-8b

Here Hannah reflects on the sovereignty of God and His total control over the affairs of men. From life to death, poverty to wealth, lowliness to exaltation—all of it comes from the providential hand of the Lord. He is the one who puts individuals in their station, determines their lot, portions to them their life. This is why the proud ought not boast in their position. The providence of the Lord has led them to where they are, not their might or skill. This was the problem of King Nebuchadnezzer, ““Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will,” (Dan 4:30-32).

Like a child bragging about how good he is at drawing because he colored in the picture that mom drew, it is foolish for man to boast in his station. When you drive by a homeless person and think, If it were me, I’d never be there; I’d make better choices, be careful lest you functionally deny what verses 6-7 are telling us. You didn’t do anything to choose what family you were born into, what genes you had, or what was done to you at a child. Who knows what may have happened had you been given the same lot.

But notice what Hannah emphasizes in verse 8: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” God uses His sovereign power to exalt the lowly. The “dust” of the poor is an image of total destitution. He has no home, no possessions, no security—just dust. The “ash heap” is likely a reference to the ashes that one mourning the death of a loved one would cast upon their head as they grieved. And it is from these low, modest, and impoverished places that God raises up a king. God is scraping the bottom of the barrel. God choses the weak. 

The seat of honor: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” (Rev 3:21).

Surprising Reversal #3: The Judgment of God Used to Preserve the Faithful

For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S,

and on them he has set the world.

9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,

but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,

for not by might shall a man prevail.

10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;

against them he will thunder in heaven.

The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;

–       1 Sam 2:8c-10a

Verse 8 is using a poetic image of God setting the earth upon stilts to hold it up. It is an artistic way to reference God as the creator of this world. And as the Creator, God has all authority over His creation. And God uses this authority to judge the whole earth. In each of these three movements we have seen Hannah lift our eyes up to the transcendent nature of God: He is holy, He is sovereign, and He is the Creator with all authority to judge. But in each one we see that this high and holy God is not a distant, indifferent God. Rather, He is intimately involved in human affairs, and is actively committed to His people’s good. Here we are told that He guards the feet of His faithful ones and cuts the wicked off. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces, like a clay pot smashed onto the ground.

Nestled in the middle of that is this sentence: “for not by might shall man prevail.” To the faithful wondering how they are going to persevere in their faith amidst opposition and their own weakness, remember: not by might shall man prevail. God is with you and will sustain you. 

To the wicked who think they have everyone deceived and are strong enough to resist God’s judgment: not by might shall man prevail. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how successful you are, how smart you are—God will judge you.

This is a helpful clarifier that demonstrates the timing of all of these reversals. The lowly are exalted and the exalted are brought low at times in history. But those times serves as appetizers and reminders of the final reckoning, when all balances will be brought to account: the Last Judgment. It is then that God ultimately and decisively completes the reversals described here.

The King

“…he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” – 1 Sam 2:10b

This is where Hannah’s song has been going all along: the hope of a king, the anointed. And this song becomes a blueprint for the entire story of Samuel, whose centerpiece is King David. David is the lowly king from humble origins who shatters the bows of the mighty through His trust in God. David is the modest king who doesn’t presume to take the high place, but is plucked up from the dust to be installed in a place of honor. David is the weak king whose life is constantly under threat and who is preserved by God’s help. King Saul is the exact opposite of David—he trusts in his intuition and sense more than God’s, he cares deeply about what people think of him, he is vain, he is intensely jealous of anyone who appears to be a threat to his power, and he is willing to throw God aside if it is expedient. Even in his appearance, Saul is described as being a formidable presence, while David is but a child. But David has a heart for God while Saul doesn’t, so David becomes king. Paradoxically, the path to the literally the greatest station of honor and glory—the king’s throne!—comes through the path of lowliness, weakness, and need.

Which, of course, makes us think of the ultimate King. The King that outshines David the way the Sun outshines the stars. Hannah prays that God will give strength to the king and “exalt the horn of his anointed.” The word for anointed in Hebrew is just the word messiah. The promised deliverer whom David would only prefigure like a shadow. There is good reason why young Mary chose Hannah’s song as the basis for her Magnificat. She knew that, like Hannah, God had taken a lowly nobody like her and was using her to bring about a child that would change history. But unlike Hannah, who only looked forward in hope to the Messiah, Mary would actually give birth to the Messiah.

How does Jesus have his horn exalted? How is head lifted up in victory and triumph? By the lowly path of service, even unto death on a cross. 

And His life now becomes a pattern for us: the cross before the crown. 

We can be honest—we don’t need to pretend we are something great when God has told us that He exalts and blesses the weak. We can confess our sins our freely and truly. 

We can be servants—we don’t need to despise places, acts, or callings that the world says are unimportant when Jesus has shown us that very model for true blessedness. True greatness is found in service.

We can be confident—we need not fear when wickedness seems to win the day when God has told us that He will reverse the flow of human history. The swamp of human depravity will be cleansed with the fresh spring water of the Kingdom.

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