A Legacy of Hope

 

Week of May 13, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  1 Samuel 1:10-20; 1:27-2:1; 12:23-24.

 

Lesson Focus:    This lesson is about Hannah’s prayer for a son and what her example teaches us about passing on a legacy grounded in hope.

 

The Rest of the Story:  1 Samuel 12:23-24.

 

[23]  Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. [24]  Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you.

 

As a Levite in the tradition of Moses, Samuel possessed two additional responsibilities, prayer and instruction. The Torah required Levites to instruct the people in the Lord’s Law. Likewise, Samuel was duty bound to pray for Israel. Throughout his lifetime Samuel had been a prophet like Moses; thus it was appropriate and even morally necessary that Samuel should follow Moses’ example of prayer for the nation’s welfare. Thus for Samuel to fail to pray – that is, to bring the people’s needs before God – or to fail to teach – to bring God’s words before the people – would be a sin [23]. In verse 24 Samuel lists three responsibilities of the nation of Israel towards its covenant God. The nation’s ongoing tasks were: to fear the Lord, serve him faithfully with all your heart, and consider what great things he has done for you. This final task involved expectantly looking for evidences of the Lord’s presence in the arena of national life, and giving due recognition to Him for the attendant blessings. Taken as a whole, these three obligations required a total involvement of each person; they mandated external, observable activity as well as internal motivations, attitudes, and perceptions.

 

As for their request that Samuel pray that they may not die [12:19], he commits himself not only to pray for them, but to teach them the right way to live. His stepping aside from leadership does not involve any lessening of his commitment to them and their welfare. If the people and their king are swept away by God, which remains a possibility if they do persist in evil, then it will not be because they had not been taught the way that is good and right. This must have been a powerful speech to listen to. The equivocal nature of Samuel’s position and the frustration, perhaps even angst, that he experienced can be seen clearly, but it doesn’t really distract from the underlying message. The insight we are given into Samuel’s struggle can be a great encouragement to those who are wrestling with similar dilemmas, wanting to make it clear that the place they are standing is not the place they want to be, but at the same time wanting to move on from that point. It is particularly encouraging that in the end, Samuel’s faith, his integrity, his understanding of God’s word and his pastoral heart win through. Samuel may have been an old man who struggled with the changes in the world around him, but he was indeed a man of God [9:6] who served his Lord well to the end. There would have been no doubt in the minds of his listeners that it was God’s support, God’s requirements and God’s judgments that really counted. Samuel may be able to teach them the right way, but it would all be a waste of time unless the people themselves took up the challenge of the responsibilities that were their’s because they were God’s people. Then as now it was not the ability to deliver great speeches, call up electric storms or even pray great prayers that made a great leader, it was the ability to enable people to take up their own responsibilities and to grow in their own relationship with God.

 

Flashback: A Prayer of Desperation:  1 Samuel 1:10-20.

 

[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."  [ESV]

 

[10-11]  Hannah wept and prayed to the Lord bitterly (bitterness of soul), a phrase used elsewhere to characterize the psychological pain experienced by one who has been deprived of a child through death [Ruth 1:13,20; 2 Kings 4:27] or who is experiencing great personal physical suffering [Job 3:20; 7:11; 10:1; Isaiah 38:15]. Relief from this sort of pain is never pictured in the Hebrew Bible as coming from a human being; in each case divine intervention was the only remedy. Wisely, Hannah also went to the Lord for help. Hannah’s prayer was specifically addressed to the omnipotent deliverer of those in distress, O Lord of hosts. Her pain has made her a theologian – no character in Scripture prior to Hannah had ever used this term to address the Lord. In her prayer she implicitly recognized that the Lord alone is the giver of live. She also understood that the proper position of a believer in relation to the Lord is that of absolute subjection; three times she referred to herself as your servant, a term used elsewhere to describe a female household slave. Furthermore, she recognized that a relationship with the Lord involves giving, not just taking. She made a vow – an act without parallel for women elsewhere in Hebrew narrative but conditionally permissible for a married woman [see Num. 30:6-8] – to give him to the Lord all the days of his life. Hannah was certainly portrayed as more intimate in her relationship with the Lord than Eli, the spiritual icon of his generation. Within her prayers in chapter 1 Hannah seven times used Yahweh’s name [1:11,15,17,26-28], where Eli never used the term in this episode; he used the more distant phrase God of Israel instead. As part of her vow, Hannah seems to have promised to give her son to the Lord as a lifelong Nazirite. The assumption is based on Hannah’s declaration that no razor shall touch his head, and a general parallel to the pre-birth circumstances of Samson [Judges 13:5].

 

[12-20]  Hannah’s lengthy  silent prayer caught the watchful Eli’s attention and led him to an incorrect conclusion. On the one hand, Eli appeared to be doing his job, vigilantly guarding the sanctuary from possible desecration by Hannah; on the other hand, he was actually demonstrating his incompetence. Here, as elsewhere, Eli is portrayed as a man unable to distinguish appearance from reality, as a man who himself lacked substance. Though Eli was the high priest of Shiloh – and ostensibly a man of exceptional spiritual maturity, he is consistently depicted by the narrator as spiritually blind and inert. He was a man who watched lips instead of perceiving hearts, who judged profound spiritualty to be profligate indulgence in spirits, who heard nothing when the Lord spoke, and who criticized his sons for abusing the sacrificial system yet grew fat from their take. Fittingly, in the end his powerful career was surpassed by those who were “nothing” – a socially powerless rural woman and a child. The fact that Hannah was portrayed as conversing with Yahweh suggests that the worship of Yahweh was not as sexist as some may portray it to be. A woman was not so unimportant in Israel as to be considered incapable of communicating with Israel’s God. Significantly, Yahweh was also portrayed as a deity who listened to a woman and answered her prayer. Drinks made from fermented grain (strong drink [15]) and of fruit (wine) were an important part of the worship of the Lord since, as products issuing from the Long’s bounty, they were used in the sacrificial ritual [see Num. 15:5-10]. However, Eli’s rebuke of Hannah suggests that personal consumption resulting in alcohol abuse was a problem at the religious festivals held in Shiloh. Biblical evidence elsewhere suggests that drunkenness and immorality were not uncommon at Israelite religious centers. Hannah asked that Eli not to take her for a worthless woman [16]. The phrase suggests one who failed to give due respect to God or others and who therefore represented a threat to proper religious and societal order. Rather than showing disrespect for God, she was praying to Him in a state of great anxiety and vexation [16]. Hannah’s deep respect for authority is affirmed by her self-deprecating use of your servant in her response to Eli. Eli proved quite capable of fulfilling his priestly role, even if he was spiritually dull. Learning the true nature of Hannah’s actions, he validated her prayer with a wish and a blessing. Hannah’s departure from the sanctuary area was an example of faith triumphant. Though she had approached the Lord in the depths of despondency, she left the sanctuary elevated and transformed. Hannah’s spiritual victory, won through the labor of tearful prayers, enabled her to eat the festival meal in peace and hope. At the time of the daily morning sacrifice the next day, Elkanah and his family worshiped at the Lord’s house and then began their journey home. In the context of the marital union between Elkanah and Hannah, the Lord remembered Hannah. Remembered is a soteriological verb when used with the Lord as the subject and suggests the initiation of a major new activity by the covenant-making God. In most miracles touching human lives, the Lord chooses to achieve His desired ends with the assistance of people. Certainly this was true in Hannah’s case. Not long afterward Hannah was found to be pregnant and in the course of time gave birth to a son. The child was given a name intended to memorialize Hannah’s bold faith and the Lord’s gracious response.

 

We should never underestimate the importance of prayer in sharing our thoughts and feelings, miseries and joys with the One who understands all. Hannah clearly acknowledged that her childlessness was in some sense a result of God’s action, or inaction. He had closed her womb. Within her cultural background it seems to have been virtually impossible for anyone to envisage the possibility that God may have had a purpose, perhaps one that might even bring great blessing, in allowing childlessness to continue. For today’s childless believers, still bound by cultural pressures but with greater awareness of the variety of God’s purposes than was possible for those of Hannah’s time, it may be worth asking the question whether in their case God has indeed closed the womb for a purpose. It is not always an easy thing to discern when it is right to keep wrestling in prayer, as Hannah did here, and when it is right to recognize, as Paul did [2 Cor. 12:9], that sometimes we should cease praying for a situation to change and accept that God’s grace is sufficient for us within that situation.

 

A Promise Fulfilled:  1 Samuel 1:27 – 2:1.

 

[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. [2:1]  And Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.  [ESV]

 

Hannah’s explanation of her acts were simple yet profound: For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him [27]. Samuel’s name combines the concept of “asking from” God and being “given over.” More than that, it is an expression of Hannah’s faith. God had given him; Hannah gave him back; and Samuel’s very name was a reminder of these things. We should not overlook the sacrifice made by Hannah; but her loss was to be Israel’s gain, and she felt amply compensated. The final statement that he worshiped the Lord there [28] connects with verse 2:11, the boy ministered to the Lord, and reflects the nature of Samuel’s entire prophetic ministry as one lent to the Lord. Hannah’s prayerful song in 2:1-10 eloquently affirms core concepts of Israelite faith: the Lord is the great judge and overseer of human destinies and a rewarder of those who earnestly seek Him. He is the source of empowerment and victory for those who fear Him, but for all others He is the overpowering authority who dispenses fearful judgment. The prayer’s emphasis on the Lord’s exaltation of those devalued by others serves not only as a testimony of God’s action in Hannah’s own life. It also foreshadows the Lord’s ways in the lives of Samuel, David, and the nation of Israel. Negatively, it also presages what the Lord would do in judgment against the house of Eli. Hannah’s prayer begins on an exuberant and highly personal note, employing four first-person references that express unbridled delight in the Lord. The object of Hannah’s delight is neither herself – that she has overcome the disgrace of barrenness – nor her son; instead it is the Lord, who is the source of both her son and her happy circumstance. Borrowing images and confessions from the Torah, Hannah affirms the Lord’s supreme holiness and uniqueness, and calls Him her strength (Rock).

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         List the three responsibilities Samuel gives the nation of Israel in 12:24. What did these three things require of the people in relation to their covenant God.

 

2.         What do we learn from Samuel’s actions in 12:23-24 when we find ourselves in unpleasant situations but with the responsibility before God to act in a certain way?

 

3.         What do we learn about Hannah in 1:10-20 concerning her situation, her desires, her understanding of God, and her faith?

 

4.         What does this story about Hannah teach us concerning the importance of prayer?

 

References:

1, 2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Inter Varsity.

The First Book of Samuel, David Tsumura, Eerdmans.