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For this child I prayed

The characters in these early chapters of 1 Samuel are at once vividly and yet simply drawn. We feel as though we really know Elkanah and Hannah, Eli and Samuel -- that their sorrows and joys are much like ours. As in the lovely book of Ruth, we observe that the greatest virtue can (and often does) flourish in a spiritual "wilderness". We see in the righteous women of these times a quiet and subtle strength which often surpasses the strength of the men. The faith of Ruth or of Hannah moved mountains and altered the landscape of the Divine plan.

"Now there was a certain man... of the hill country of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah" (1Sa 1:1). Elkanah was a Levite and a descendant of Korah (1Ch 6:33-38). His name means "God-acquired", suggesting two possible interpretations:

  1. All his possessions were acquired from God, or
  2. he was acquired by God, and his possessions were a stewardship. In either case Elkanah's name highlights the lesson of this story: it is about possessions and how they may be used in the service of God.
"And he had two wives... Hannah and Peninnah" (1Sa 1:2). How many sad memories of domestic unrest this verse evokes: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, the households of David and Solomon. "Hannah" signifies grace or favor; "Penninah", coral or pearl. The two women picture the extremes of inward and outward adorning (possessions again!); their characters and subsequent actions reflect their names.

A Domestic Triangle

This domestic triangle was accustomed to go up yearly to worship at Shiloh. There abode Eli ("alah", to ascend) the priest with his sons Hophni ("handful"? -- either of incense or of stolen offerings, it matters not) and Phinehas ("mouth of the serpent" -- wise and subtle, yet also destructive).

"The Lord had shut up her (Hannah's) womb" (v 5). So often we have witnessed the barren women in the Divine plan. Is God unmerciful to deny good things to His servants? Let us recognize that God often works through the adversity of His children, and there is no ultimate evil for those who conform to His will.

"And the adversary ('she' of v 7, no doubt Peninnah) provoked her sore" (1Sa 1:6). Peninnah had all things: children and social rank and satisfaction and probably wealth -- yet she gave no glory to God. By comparison, Hannah had very little (a barren woman was a reproach and a pitiable creature), yet she recognized herself as acquired by God. Therefore her problems were His and she was not alone in her distress. "She prayed to the Lord, and wept sore" (v 10). There was no retaliation, but a turning of the other cheek, a casting of her burdens upon a greater Power. She knelt in the court, outside the veil of the holy place, sensing that her prayer of faith would pierce the heavy curtains and find its way to the golden mercy seat.

Her beautiful and delicate prayer (v 11) and her later song of triumph (1Sa 2:1-10) must have been the constant study of the young maid Mary a thousand years later; we hear Hannah's spiritual daughter prophetically in every word that flows from this godly woman: "Behold Thy handmaid... look upon my affliction... remember me, and give me a manchild" (1:11). Even to this day the whole creation groans in affliction (Rom 8:22), waiting (though it knows not) for the manchild who sits at the right hand of his Father. How great will be the joy of the world when he returns: "Sing, O barren... cry aloud... for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth... thy maker is thy husband, and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel... great shall be the peace of thy children" (Isa 54).

God-acquired or Self-made?

"If Thou wilt give me a manchild, then I will give him unto Thee" (1:11). That very thing that Hannah wanted most, she promised to give away. Do we feel the same about our possessions? Do we view ourselves as "God-acquired", or as "self-made" men and women? Do we ask what we can do for our Father, or rather what He can do for us? Do our prayers often seem unanswered? If so, then James' devastating rebuke may be for us: "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts" (James 4:3).

"Hannah spake in her heart; her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunken" (1Sa 1:13). We may sadly infer from Eli's thoughts that prayer was less frequent than sin at God's House; Eli knew of his sons' adulterous (and probably drunken) consorts (2:22), and no doubt thought this woman one of them.
But Eli should have been slower in judging appearances. We gain an insight into the character of the righteous timid priest: he was severe when he should have been gentle (with Hannah), possibly hoping to compensate for his gentleness when he should have been severe (with his sons). He was a parent with love but no firmness, no discipline. We may imagine his love shriveling year by year, as his seed in the face of his feeble protests were transformed by their natural inclinations into the seed of the serpent.

Hannah, by a soft and wise answer, turned away the misdirected wrath of Eli. Such foresight and meekness prepared the way for Eli's later reception of Samuel as a young child, and this in turn prepared the way for God to work through the young child at Shiloh.

But Hannah, although properly meek before the old man, was not indifferent to his shortcomings: "Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial", she said (1Sa 1:16). We detect a subtle rebuke: Why are you so anxious to criticize my "sin", when the true offspring of Belial are your own sons? (1Sa 2:12).

Here again is the undercurrent of faith in this remarkable woman: Hannah knew of Eli's sons and their deeds; they were a public reproach to Israel. She had prayed for a son, a gift from God, so that she might give him to God. At a previous time, when Israel cried for deliverance (Exo 2:23-25), a faithful woman had cast her son upon the waters (Exo 2:2,3; Heb 11:23), trusting in God to protect and use the goodly child for His purposes (Ecc 11:1). Now Hannah visualized her son-to-be as another Moses, a deliverer of his people from bondage and corruption:

"The Lord will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me (Moses)" (Deu 18:15). The first of such great prophets and successors of Moses was Samuel, as Peter later explained (Acts 3:22-24; Jer 15:1; Psa 99:6).

"All Her Living"

Like the widow with her two mites, Hannah gave away all that she had when she brought the weaned child to Shiloh. Here is the challenge of possessions: We must not hold back -- whether it be time, money, effort, or children. A slave can own nothing! What, after all, can "riches" mean to a man or woman "acquired" by God? What "riches" are there for them but the riches of God's grace and favor? Let us vow from this time forward we will hold nothing back; we will retreat from our responsibilities no further, we will hide behind silly excuses no more. "Render to God the things that are God's"; all of life belongs to the Source of Life.

What we "lose" will be repaid many-fold: Hannah sacrificed one child and received five more (2:21), while not really losing the first. In Samuel she received "an hundredfold" (Mat 19:29). Of Hannah the words might have been written: "She that sows in tears shall reap in joy. She that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing her sheaves with her" (Psa 126:5,6).
Eli by his tolerance and weakness built his "house" unwisely; "And great was the fall of it" (Mat 7:27). His sons were "precious seed" cast thoughtlessly to the wind, and one day it was too late to redeem them. We naturally inquire, "Did Eli 'love' them too much to tell them 'No'?" (2:29; 1Ki 1:6). Eli's work was wood and stubble and it perished (2:34; 1Co 3:12-15), yet Eli himself may be saved "so as by fire".

"The sin of the young men was very great... but Samuel ministered before the Lord" (1Sa 2:17,18). The elderly and broken-hearted Eli saw in the faith of Hannah and the young child a second chance for himself and the nation. Eli accepted a just rebuke from God (2:30-32) and gave over his declining years, not to frustration and sorrow, but to the education of the young prophet through whom God was now to speak (2:35). "He must increase; I must decrease" -- it is a difficult role for any man to assume, especially a high priest. (The arrogant priests of Christ's day would not accept God's judgements and step down from their seats; consequently, not only did their house perish, but they themselves were lost.)

"Asked of God"

Finally we come to Samuel, the "Asked-one of God"; we marvel anew at the wondrous works of God. What a great purpose the sorrow of one barren woman played in His plan! To remedy a great evil in Israel, God chooses no grown man; His ways are not our ways; a thousand years is as a day in His sight, and He seldom hurries. Instead, the Almighty prepares through necessary affliction a special mother, and then causes a special and cherished son to be born. In God's own good time, as the precious seed sprouts and ripens to harvest, deliverance comes. The thankful mother, lost among the thousands of Israel but at one with her God, nourishes at her breast the destiny of her people. With his mother's milk and loving care, the child receives also her simple faith in God. It is for only a few short years, but it is enough. Together they wait for the time to visit Shiloh. May we say with Samuel, "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth" (1Sa 3:9).

"Oh, give me Samuel's ear,
The open ear, O Lord, Alive and quick to hear
Each whisper of Thy word;
Like him to answer at Thy call,
And to obey Thee first of all."

Let us conclude by remembering Hannah once more, for she is surely the central character in this story. We can perhaps appreciate best the depth of love and self-sacrifice and knowledgeable faith in this extraordinary woman by recalling her statement to Elkanah:

"I will not go up (to Shiloh) until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the Lord, and there abide forever" (1Sa 1:22).

Can we not lovingly discipline our children so that we control wisely their passing whims (as Eli did not), and prayerfully direct their eternal destinies (as Hannah did)? Then will parents and children both abide in the house of God forever.

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