Now, before we begin our reading of chapter 1, just a word on the larger context, so we get our bearings. Chapters 1-3 is about the rise of Samuel as the Lord’s prophet, and the contrast of Samuel a faithful prophet with the corrupt sons of Eli, the priests Hophni and Phinehas. We will notice as we get to chapters 2 and 3 that the author alternates between Samuel and the sons of Eli in telling his story, section after section, back and forth, letting us know that he is contrasting the two and emphasizing the importance of the contrast. As one commentator puts it, “…one of the most conspicuous features of these three chapters is the heavily underlined contrast between the exemplary conduct of the young Samuel and the rascality of Hophni and Phineas. The latter, as we shall discover, are marked out for destruction as surely as the former is destined for honour.” [Gordon, 71] All of this prepares us for what follows. We know Israel’s spiritual condition, we know what problems Israel’s first King is going to have to surmount. We are not told explicitly when these events take place but, clearly, we are to understand the setting as late in what is called “the period of the judges,” say, approximately 1050 B.C.
No one acquainted with the Bible will fail to notice the similarity of this history with scenes both before it and after it. Barren women longing for children and the Lord visiting them to give them a child is a staple of the salvation history (Sarah, Elizabeth) and so is the bitter rivalry between wives (Sarah and Hagar; Rachel and Leah). In other words, there is a pattern here. In a very striking way this first chapter of Samuel anticipates the first chapter of Luke and the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist (the forerunner of the Lord as Samuel will be the forerunner of David). But, there is a broader similarity to be noticed in this story. It is the way many stories are told in the Bible. You might compare 1 Samuel 1 with Job 1. “There was a man…” is followed by an account of repeated events that set the stage and define the characters, and then the focus narrows to one particular event. The same pattern is followed exactly in both texts and a number of others.
v.2 The chapter begins with the introduction of Elkanah, for the male is the point of reference in defining relationships. But, as we will see, the story is not about him, but about his wife. Monogamy was not absolutely required in Israel, but it predominates and bigamy was probably not very common and the fact that Hannah is listed first may well indicate that she was Elkanah’s first wife, the wife of his love, and that it was precisely her barrenness that forced her to share her husband with “the depressingly [fertile]” Peninnah. [Gordon, 72]
There is another interesting issue here, viz. the fact that Samuel’s ancestry is drawn from Ephraim here, though he is listed among the Levites in 1 Chronicles 6:33-34. The most common explanation of this double ancestry is that, by reason of his Nazirite vow and his calling as a prophet, Samuel was drawn into Levite tribal membership by adoption. No one knows for sure.
v.3 This is the foreshadowing we saw so often in Genesis. Why mention the two sons of Eli at this point. They won’t figure in the story of chapter 1 at all. But the author is anticipating the development of the story subsequently. (Remember how emphatically at the end of Genesis 11 it is mentioned that Sarah had no children. “Now Sarah was barren; she had no children.” That fact, you see, is to drive the story for a long time to come!) Well so, the priesthood of Hophni and Phineas.
v.6 The similarity to the story of Rachel and Leah is unmistakable. The less-loved wife has children, the more-loved wife is barren and there is a bitter rivalry between the two women. We are to notice, of course, that the sacrament, the sacrificial meal, produced no discernible spiritual benefit in Peninnah! She was just as cruel at Shiloh as at home.
v.7 “year after year” a little touch that makes us feel Hannah’s pain and despair.
v.8 Notice that Hannah does not speak. Peninnah has spoken to her harshly and her husband Elkanah has spoken to her gently, but we have heard nothing from Hannah herself. When she first speaks, it will be to God, which serves, in the narrative to mark her dignity and her faith. Elkanah’s poignant admission that he really doesn’t understand why Hannah is so inconsolable – much as he loves her – is a genuinely human touch: he cares for his wife and he wants her to be happy, but, like many men and many husbands, he is somewhat clueless as to the heart of his wife and, still more, has not controlled the family situation, but has allowed Peninnah to darken Hannah’s life. Either he didn’t know what was going on or did nothing about it. In either case he should have! He is like Jacob in that.
v.9 Everyone else’s eating and drinking at the feast heightens Hannah’s isolation and sadness, for she abstained in her misery, as we read in v. 7. She fasts while everyone else feasts! The reference to “doorpost” and “temple” suggest that some permanent structure had been built; this is not the earlier “tent of meeting” or “tabernacle.” It also justifies the broader use of “temple” for any place of Christian worship. (“To this temple, where we call thee, come O Lord of Hosts today.”)
v.11 Several different things indicate that Hannah had prayed de profundis [Gordon]: her standing up in the temple to pray (the most sacred place to pray to God); her tears; her vow, which is, in effect a Nazirite vow made on behalf of the son that God would give her. Only the not cutting of the hair is particularly mentioned, but the idea of consecration to the Lord indicates that the entire Nazirite vow was meant. Though the Nazirite vow itself was temporary, in both Samson’s case and Samuel’s it was made life-long. So desperate for a son, she is willing to surrender him to the Lord, if only he will give him to her in the first place.
v.14 Eli’s sight was, by this time, very poor (3:2) and so it was easier for him to mistake Hannah’s behavior as that of someone who was drunk.
v.15 Hannah shows great respect for the priestly office even though it had been debased by Hophni and Phineas. That is another evidence of her piety.
v.18 It seems clear that what Eli meant in his blessing in v. 17 was that God would grant Hannah her request. Hebrew grammarians say that Eli’s statement can be read either as a wish for her blessing or as a promise of it. It appears that Hannah took him to mean that the blessing would be hers, as she got something to eat and her face brightened. What is more, the word “favor” is part of the name “Hannah.”
v.23 The delay in going to the sanctuary and the reference to nursing and weaning reminds us of the powerful bond that must have existed between mother and infant son and so of the heartbreak that she must finally bear to fulfill the vow she made to God. Elkanah’s remark seems to be a prayer that God would help Hannah keep her word, another indication of how difficult it was going to be to surrender her child after all.
v.24 Lit. “the lad was but a lad.” Given the later age for weaning in the ancient world and Hannah’s understandable reluctance to part with her son, it is suggested that Samuel may have been five years of age when brought to the temple [Alter]. And with him was brought a very generous offering. Hannah and Elkanah have not forgotten and, even in their sorrow at separation from their son, they do not fail to appreciate the great kindness God did them.
v.28 There is a fragment of the text of Samuel discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls that has the pronoun “she” instead of “he” in the last sentence, which surely makes more sense. In the last two verses the root of the word meaning “ask” occurs four times, in v. 28 the last two, which the NIV renders with “give” and “given” might be better translated “lent”, as the verb also means that.
Samuel is the gift of God and he was given back to God in thanksgiving and loyalty. As the chapter closes, prayer and godliness has changed things only for a single woman. But the narrator has readied us for the developments that are to come in the story. We have met Eli, we have heard of Hophni and Phinehas, we know of the sanctuary at Shiloh (it was at Bethel, apparently, during most of the times of the Judges), and we know that Samuel’s life has been marked from the beginning by a vow of special consecration to God. All of this is the main thrust of the chapter when read in its larger context. For the rise of Samuel is the great subject of these early chapters.
That, in itself, of course, is the beginning of a very important lesson in the ways of God with his people, his characteristic method of advancing the interests of his kingdom in the world. God uses men. He raises up men to do his work and at the great junctures of kingdom history, there are invariably great men prepared to do the heavy lifting. The story of the Bible is the story of her great men, by and large. Abraham through Joseph and Judah. Then, when Israel must be delivered from bondage in Egypt, Moses is raised up and prepared to be the instrument of God’s deliverance. Indeed, there is a familiarity here in 1 Samuel 1 to the opening chapters of Exodus. And so it would continue. Joshua for the conquest, Samuel for the transition to the kings of Israel, certain prophets and certain kings would appear to awaken Israel to spiritual life. Then John the Baptist. The entire history of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus is begun, commenced, with the announcement of the birth of a man who would be the forerunner of the Lord. No wonder the similarities between 1 Samuel 1 and Luke 1. The Lord Christ spent the largest part of his time and effort in the preparation of a few men to lead the gospel’s advance into the world. Think of Paul, the true hero of apostolic Christianity. And so it would continue and has continued. From Athanasius to Augustine to Luther. Then there was Knox, the man, humanly speaking, without whom there would have been no Scottish Reformation and no Presbyterian Church and who himself said in his history of the Reformation that at the crucial moment, at the point of crisis, when Scotland lay open for the taking by the Reformation cause, “God rained men from heaven.”
You cannot read the Bible or church history without this becoming clear: God uses men and at times of great importance he prepares great men. Samuel was such a man, and the next two chapters will complete the story of his preparation for the great work that God would assign him. I can virtually guarantee you that when the Lord returns to the Western church to renew, reform, and revitalize her faith and life, there will be a great man or two who are raised up to accomplish the work. Every Christian will have his work to do, but the Lord believes in leadership, in men of superior gifts and graces, to make possible what the host of his people, by themselves, could not do.
You may have read this verse of William Wordsworth, the English romantic poet.
Milton! thou shouldest be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again:
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Well, at the end of the period of the Judges, a poet may well have written the same. Moses, Israel hath need of thee! Joshua, Israel hath need of thee! And we might say today, in our rudderless American evangelicalism, Edwards, or Spurgeon, or Machen, we have need of thee! The Lord knows what we need. We need men. We need a man! Samuel was that man that Israel needed. And that is what chapter 1 is all about.
But that does not mean that there are not other wonderful and wonderfully important lessons in this chapter. The Bible is such a book as can teach many things at once!
And, of course, chief among them is this absolutely beautiful picture of a godly woman exercising her faith. It is a woman who here is set before us as an exemplar of true and robust Christian faith, just as Mary will be set before us for the same purpose in the Gospel of Luke. Christian women, most of the time, must learn of faith in flesh and blood from the example of men, for, in the Bible, most of the important figures are men and most of the exemplars of faith are men. But, from time to time, they are women and men can learn as well how they are to live and believe before the face of God from Hannah as the women learn from Abraham, David, or Jeremiah.
It is worth noting, as an aside, that when the Bible gives us, as it does here, a picture of a godly woman, it expresses little interest in the things that seem most important to people, even Christian people, today. I say, whether we are speaking of the feminist image of the successful woman – confident in the world of business, with drive and ambition equal to any man, while at the same time a devoted mother and efficient home-maker – or the popular Christian image of the adult woman – the homemaker, unstintingly devoted to husband and children, always romantic and alluring, wise and understanding, the efficient manager of her home and, at the same time, the champion of Christ’s cause in the community – I say, the Bible spends little time on such things. I don’t say that it has nothing to say about such things, but rather that these are the details, the flourishes on the portrait. Look at Mary, or Ruth, or Esther, or Deborah, or Hannah and you will see that the Bible is chiefly interested in what we might call her “spirituality”, i.e. her devotion to God, her faith in Him, and the practice of both.
And, we surely have such a picture given us of Hannah.
See first her faith. Here is a woman who is barren – a greater curse in those days than even in our own! Her situation is made all the more miserable by the fact that her co-wife has children and, because Peninnah is a mean and spiteful woman, never tires of pointing out to Hannah her inferiority as a woman, a wife, and a mother. [This, by the way, is another good example of the Bible’s consistent practice of backhanded slaps at bigamy.]
But what does Hannah do in this situation? To whom does she turn? Not to her husband, so far as we can tell, either because she doesn’t think he will or he can do anything to assuage her grief.
I remember Rutherford’s counsel to Lady Kenmure, who suffered, being married to an unspiritual man.
“Your ladyship goeth on laughing and putting on a good countenance before the world, and yet you carry heaviness about with you. You do well, madam, not to make them witnesses of your grief who cannot be curers of it.” [Letters, xx]
So Hannah turned to God and poured out her soul to him. She knew that he was the ultimate cause of her trial and she knew that no one could take the trial away apart from him. Childbirth is as much in his hands as barrenness. And, when the baby is given, she gives her thanks where it belongs, to God.
No doubt Peninnah saw nothing of this. She didn’t think of the Lord as the cause of her fertility nor of Hannah’s barrenness. She didn’t imagine that prayer could bring Hannah a child and, no doubt, afterward, she never really understood that the Lord had intervened on Hannah’s behalf. She lived in a world of sight only. Spiritual realities, the most real things of all, were unseen by her. And there are so many like her, even in the church. But, to live rightly in this world, one must live by faith in God. It is the only way a human being can connect with the true meaning of things, of life, and the only way in which a person can find his or her true place in life. God is the maker of all things, the ruler of all things, the decider of everyone’s life circumstances. Faith connects us with him and with his purposes.
No doubt, as the text says in v. 19, the child was conceived as all children are and have been, save one. But Hannah was not deceived. And she gives the credit to God. As she will say in her great Song in chapter 2: “The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and exalts.”
We are shown Hannah exercising her faith so wonderfully precisely that we might imitate her, that we might learn from her how to live ourselves. Surely you can see how you might do as Hannah did, with your trials, your frustrations. Turning to God only, laying your need before him and awaiting his word.
Then, take note of the strength of Hannah’s feeling. There is a great deal of passion in the Bible and true godliness is everywhere in Holy Scripture a thing of passion. Hannah was such a person. She felt things deeply. She cared about what a human being ought to care about. She felt her faith in God deeply and her disappointment in God deeply. And the passion she poured into her prayers, seem clearly here in 1 Samuel 1 to be a reason, if not the reason, humanly speaking, that God heard her cries.
As Alexander Whyte once put it, “The more passionateness any man puts into his prayer, the more space and the more praise the Bible gives to that man.” [Lord Teach us to Pray, 73] And Rutherford put the same point in another way.
“Tears have a tongue, and grammar, and language, that our father knoweth. Babes have no prayers for the breast, but weeping; the mother can read hunger in weeping. … Words are but the body, the garment, the outside of prayer; sighs are nearer the heart-work.” [Trial and Triumph, 66-69]
St. Teresa said it still more simply: “Tears gain everything.” And Calvin, “Tears and prayers are our weapons.” All of this is true, of course, because the Lord pities his children as any true and loving father. Remember this always from Hannah and from Augustine: “We do not come to God upon our feet, but upon our affections.”
And ask yourself how much passion and affection is in your praying and whether the lack of it has weakened your prayer. At least begin by praying about what you know you have passion about and so can pray with real earnestness and zeal. Eli thought Hannah was drunk. Paul says do not be drunk but be filled with the Holy Spirit. There is that in our Christian life that must, that ought to be a matter of deep emotion, real passion; that which would make someone observing us know we felt very deeply about what we were saying to God. We should feel deeply. The things of our faith, of this world, and of heaven and hell deserve a passionate feeling from us.
Third, notice Hannah’s integrity. She remained faithful to her commitment to God, even though, of all women, that commitment must have been extraordinarily hard for her to keep. She loved her son as only a woman long barren can love the son of her age. But to get that son she had promised to give him up to God and now she kept her promise. How terribly poignant, but how like life.
Here is a woman who had been haunted for years by her barrenness, tormented by a co-wife who constantly paraded her own children before Hannah’s red and sore eyes, twisting the knife at every opportunity. Hannah never went to sleep at night without thinking of her barrenness and never woke up in the morning without thinking of it again. And then, after years of this despair, God granted her a son. And now, after holding that baby in her arms, nursing him, watching him grow up to a five year old boy, she must give him away to be raised by another. We might well wonder if it wouldn’t have been easier for this woman never to have been given the child than to give him to her and then take him away.
But this was the commitment she made and she kept it. And, I tell you, my friends, if she had not kept it, if she had balked at the last minute, if she couldn’t stand the sorrow of this parting, the book of Samuel would begin another way and we would never have heard of a woman named Hannah.
No one knew, no one appreciated the wrenching sorrow of what she had to do better than the Lord God himself, who, after all, knows what it is to give up an only Son! No one was more pleased or honored with her obedience than he was; no one more proud of it than he was.
When Jesus later said that to be his disciple one had to be willing to give up even one’s children, I’m sure he was thinking of Hannah long before. Where is this integrity, this granite-like resolve to be faithful to our commitments to God, come wind, come weather?
I suspect that when the Lord saw Hannah parting with her beloved son at Shiloh and walking home alone with her husband, he turned and said to the hosts there surrounding his throne, perhaps with a catch in his throat, “I will not permit this to be forgotten! Prepare something wonderful for this woman! And so he made this son whom Hannah sacrificed one of the greatest men the church of God has ever seen and then, to soften the pain, he gave Hannah three more sons and two daughters (2:21). What will he do for you, if you are as loyal to him as she was?
Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious,
Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way.
Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious,
And all thou spendest Jesus will repay.