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Lesson 1: The Mother Who Gave Away Her Son (1 Samuel 1-2)

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Sometimes we mistakenly think that good Christians don’t have any problems. We come to church and see others smiling and looking happy, and we think that they must have it all together. We wonder why we have problems.

Some Bible teachers convey that if you will just learn the secret of the abundant Christian life, temptations will just glance off you without a struggle. Your Christian life will be effortless. If you are struggling, they teach, you’re not abiding in Christ. I once heard a well-known Bible teacher say that his devotional times were always rich and rewarding. After his message, I asked him if he never struggled or went through dry times with the Lord. He wagged his finger under my nose and said, “Young man, expect nothing from God and you’ll get it every time!” In other words, my dry devotional times were due to my lack of faith!

We’re going to look at a devout family that had problems. They worshiped God faithfully, yet even in the middle of the worship service, there were tensions. The wife got so upset that she couldn’t even participate in the worship service. She went out to the car and cried her eyes out and refused to come in and eat at the potluck supper. The husband tried the best he could to comfort her, but he really didn’t understand why she was crying. But underneath it all, the wife really was a godly woman and she has much to teach us about how to deal with our problems through prayer.

Their story is in 1 Samuel 1 & 2. Elkanah, the husband, had two wives, which was a major source of conflict in his family. Although in Old Testament times God tolerated polygamy, the Bible never portrays it in a good light. God’s original plan is for one man and one woman to be committed in marriage for life. Any violation of that plan, whether several wives at the same time or a succession of wives (or husbands) due to divorce, creates problems.

In Elkanah’s situation, the tension was increased because one of the wives had many children (a clear sign of God’s blessing in that culture), while the other wife had none. To complicate matters, Elkanah favored the wife without children over the wife who had all the children. This led to jealousy and rivalry between the two women. When they went to worship at the tabernacle, as they did faithfully each year at the appointed time, Elkanah tried to balance the rivalry by giving double portions of food to Hannah, the wife without children.

But this only made things worse because Peninnah, the wife with all the children, would say to Hannah, the barren one, “You’ve got the food, but I’ve got the children!” Hannah would cry and Elkanah would wring his hands and try to comfort her by saying, “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (1:8). Hannah graciously would not answer that question! All she could think about was, “Why doesn’t God bless me with children? Why has He blessed this mean-spirited woman above me?”

So here you have this devout, “church-going” family with problems. Poor Elkanah never knew whether he would come home to an all-out civil war or to a temporary cease-fire. But on the best of days, there was just a tense truce. He always walked on tiptoe, ready to take cover, not knowing when another spark would set off another round of explosions.

Perhaps some of you relate to this family. But whether your problems are in the realm of family relationships or somewhere else, I know one thing for certain: Each one here has a set of problems. It goes with the turf of being human. And it is critical that we think biblically about our problems and learn to handle them as Hannah did. The first thing we need to see is that …

1. God graciously gives us problems.

Granted, some problems are of our own making. But whatever the immediate source, God is the ultimate sovereign over the problems we face. You cannot escape this conclusion in Hannah’s situation. The text repeats it twice so we won’t miss it: “The Lord had closed her womb” (1:5, 6). Hannah emphasizes it in her prayer: “The Lord kills … He brings down to Sheol … The Lord makes poor … He brings low …” (2:6-7). It wasn’t just an accident of nature that Hannah was not able to conceive children. If modern medicine had been available then, the doctors may have found a reason. But behind the medical reason was the clear action of God: “The Lord had closed her womb.”

Many don’t like to give God this much sovereignty. We don’t like to think that God gives us problems, so we say, “God allowed this problem, but He didn’t cause it.” If that helps you mentally to get God off the hook, I guess that’s okay. But even if God allows a natural disaster to kill all our children, as He did with Job, we need to join Job in affirming that we must not only accept good from God, but also adversity (Job 2:10). Otherwise, we will not properly submit to Him as the Sovereign Lord and we will not view Him as adequately powerful to deal with our situation; thus we will not trust Him as we should. We must recognize that our problems come from God’s gracious, loving hand.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? How could a loving and good God allow a small child to die or a young mother to get cancer? How could He permit a godly missionary to be brutally murdered? How can He permit tragedies such as wars, earthquakes, famines, and floods, where thousands of people are killed? But if God is not sovereign over such tragedies (Job 1-2; Isa. 45:7; Exod. 4:11), then either Satan is of equal power with God (= dualism, with no guarantee that God will ever defeat Satan); or you have a nice God who wishes that He could eliminate such terrible suffering, but He can’t because He gave us free will. Free will, not God, is sovereign!

Be careful here, because the Bible attributes the origin of evil to Satan, not to God. To the question, “Did God cause Satan to sin?” the answer is that in His inscrutable wisdom, God included Satan’s (and man’s) sin in His eternal plan. And yet both Satan and sinful people are fully responsible for their sin. Once Satan rebelled against God and caused the human race to rebel, God uses Satan and evil people to fulfill His ultimate purpose of being glorified (see The Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. V).

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). That “working together for good” will not be accomplished until eternity. We may not understand in this life how God can possibly do it. But unless we hold to His absolute goodness, sovereignty and power, even over the forces of evil, we cannot believe that He will be able to work it all together for good.

So when we face problems, even though intermediately they may stem from human wickedness or from satanic forces, we must recognize that ultimately the problem comes from the Lord. Otherwise we will not seek and trust Him as we should. Problems are God’s gracious way of teaching us to seek Him in a deeper way than we ever have before. Peninnah did not seek God as Hannah did, because Peninnah didn’t have the need.

We also need to keep in mind that being godly does not exempt us from suffering. Of these two women, clearly Hannah was the more godly. Yet she was the one with the problem. “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines” (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). Such discipline is not necessarily the direct result of some sin in our lives. Even Jesus learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). Our problems are God’s gracious way of training us to become like His Son. So, what should we do with our problems? Hannah’s problem led to Hannah’s prayer (1:10-11).

2. We should take our problems to God in prayer.

As Christians, we all believe in prayer. But in practice, prayer is not our natural first response. Consider some of the other ways, besides prayer, Hannah could have dealt with her problem.

She could have become angry at God and blamed Him for closing her womb: “God, this isn’t fair! Peninnah has provoked me, but I haven’t provoked her. I’ve come to Your tabernacle every year and offered sacrifices. Why haven’t You given me a son? See if I serve You anymore!” She could have blamed everyone else: “Elkanah, if you hadn’t married this other woman, I wouldn’t be having these problems!” Or, “Peninnah gets me so stressed out! It’s her fault!”

Hannah could have accused Peninnah of being unfaithful and spread the lie all over town, hoping that Elkanah would divorce Peninnah. Hannah could have issued an ultimatum: “Take your pick, Elkanah! One of us has to go!” She could have drowned in self-pity and become a bitter, disagreeable, woman.

Hannah could have gone to a Christian therapist, who would have said, “You’re crying all the time. You’re depressed. You have an eating disorder. It’s obvious that you’re sitting on a lot of anger and suffering from low self-esteem. You need to let out all of your rage toward God. Hannah, you’re co-dependent and you need to set some boundaries. You’re enabling your husband and this other woman to carry on. You can’t really love your husband until you learn to love yourself. You need to start looking out for your own needs for a change. Let’s get you started on Prozac.”

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not against Christian counselors who help people understand their problems from a biblical perspective. Nor am I suggesting that all you need to do to solve your problems is to pray. But there are many counselors who claim to be Christian but who are telling God’s people that prayer, Bible study, and trusting God “don’t work” in dealing with life’s problems. I’m saying that learning to lay hold of God in prayer as your refuge and strength is a very real help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1).

Hannah poured out her soul to the Lord of hosts (1:11, 15) and the Lord met her need. “The Lord of hosts” is a common name for God in the Old Testament. But it’s significant that Hannah was the first to address God in prayer with this title. It emphasizes the fact that God is the sovereign of the universe who rules all the powers of heaven and earth, visible and invisible. If that’s who God is, then learning to come to Him in prayer is not just a nice, but impractical and impotent, thing to do when it comes to dealing with our problems. Prayer is our means of access to the all-sufficient God who alone can meet our needs!

Yes, we should seek godly counsel concerning our problems. Yes, we should get medical help if the problem is medically related. Yes, there may be some practical steps that will help resolve our problems. But prayer should permeate the whole process. Prayer isn’t just a tip of the hat to God before we get down to the real solutions. Prayer is laying hold of the living God who understands our deepest needs. Prayer is acknowledging that we are depending totally on Him. Prayer is the God-ordained way for believing people to deal with their problems.

By nature, we’re all self-sufficient. We think we can handle things by ourselves, with an occasional boost from God. So we keep Him tucked away in our back pocket for emergencies. But then God brings us up against something we can’t handle by ourselves. He wants us to draw near to Him, to learn to depend on Him in ways we never would if we didn’t have these problems. If we don’t learn to pray in our problems, we’re missing how God is seeking to work in our lives.

But we need to go deeper. Note that Hannah didn’t just pray, “Lord, give me a son.” So God gave her a son and she lived happily ever after. No, Hannah prayed something radical: “Lord of hosts, if you will give your maidservant a son, then I’ll give him to the Lord all the days of his life and a razor shall never come on his head” (1:11). That meant that she was dedicating her son to God as a Nazirite, one separated to serve God (Num. 6:1-21). This tells us that not only should we pray about our problems, but, also,

3. We should pray according to God’s purpose.

Hannah had a need and her prayer was directed to meet her need, to be sure. There is nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But if we stop there, we do not understand prayer. Jesus said that we are to pray for our daily bread (to meet our need), but even before that, we are to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The purpose of prayer is not to solve all our problems so that we can live happy, trouble-free, self-centered lives. The purpose of prayer is to get God’s will done, to glorify Him.

To understand Hannah’s radical prayer to give her son back to God, we need to remember that she lived in a spiritually desperate time. It was the day of the judges, when every man in Israel did what was right in his own eyes. Word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent (1 Sam. 3:1). Eli’s wicked sons, who were serving as priests, committed immorality with women at the door of the tabernacle (2:22)!

God wanted to raise up a man who would hear from Him and speak His word faithfully. Hannah understood that God’s purpose for His people was to raise up His Anointed as King (2:10). “Anointed” is the Hebrew word transliterated “Messiah.” Through Hannah’s prayer, God raised up her son Samuel as the first of the prophets. Samuel anointed David the King and from David came God’s true Anointed, Jesus Christ.

Hannah knew that God’s purpose for His people superceded her personal desire for a son. So, while she prayed for a son, she also prayed for God’s greater purpose and willingly yielded her son to meet that purpose. That’s how God wants us to pray—not just to meet our needs, but for His purpose to be fulfilled through the answers to our prayers.

For example, let’s say that, like Hannah, you are unable to have children and you’re praying for children. That’s fine. But how about praying, “Lord, if you give us children, we’ll do our best to instill in them a vision for those who have never heard the name of Jesus. We’ll yield them to You to serve as missionaries some day”? The old hymn, “O Zion Haste,” has a verse that goes,

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 pray’r victorious;
And all thou spendest Jesus will repay.

Note 1 Sam. 2:21. It tells us that after Hannah gave her precious Samuel to serve God, He graciously gave her three more sons and two daughters. You can never give more to God than He gives back to you, in some form or another!

Or, perhaps you’re out of work and praying for a job. That’s legitimate. But, also, pray that when God gives you that job, you’ll be His ambassador there and you’ll give generously from each paycheck to further His work. Or, perhaps you’re sick and you’re praying for health. That’s fine. But, also, pray that when God restores your health, you’ll give of your time and energy to serve His church in some capacity. Perhaps you’re single and praying for a mate. A godly mate is a wonderful gift! But, also, pray that God will give you a mate, not just so you’ll be happy, but so that the two of you can serve God in some capacity.

I think you get the idea. But, remember, it’s always easier to make such promises to God than it is to carry them out. Can you imagine Hannah’s feelings when she had to leave her little boy (probably between three and five-years-old) at the tabernacle with Eli and return home childless again? God hadn’t given her the other children yet. What faith on Hannah’s part to keep her promise and give that much-wanted, much-loved little boy back to the Lord! So when God grants your prayer, don’t forget to be obedient in yielding the answer back to Him to fulfill His purposes!

Thus, God gives us problems so that we will pray in accordance with His purposes. The final result is:

4. God’s answers to our prayers should lead us to praise Him.

When God answered Hannah’s prayer and she kept her promise and gave Samuel back to the Lord, instead of being depressed about the loss of her son, Hannah breaks forth in a hymn of praise to God (2:1-10). Her psalm exalts God’s greatness and human weakness. The theme is that God works through the weak, not the strong. Note (2:6), “the Lord kills [He brings our problems] and makes alive [He delivers us].” And, (2:9), “For not by might shall a man prevail.” How do we prevail? By going to God in our absolute weakness and calling out to Him, so that the answer is clearly His doing. Then He gets all the praise.

If God was looking for a prophet, why didn’t He pick one of Peninnah’s sons? She had plenty to spare. Why did He close (rather than open) the womb of a woman from whom He wanted to produce His man? Because God doesn’t help the strong. He doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who are helpless who call out to Him. That’s what grace means, that God showers His favor, not on those who deserve it, but on those who do not. By the way, the name Hannah, in Hebrew, means “grace.”

Our problem is not usually that we are too weak for God to work, but that we are too strong. We trust in ourselves; we think we can do it with just a boost from God. Sure, we ask God’s blessing, but then we use the latest methods that are guaranteed to work. Sure enough, the methods work and God gets a tip of the hat, but the methods get the glory. We tell others, “You’ve got to try this! It worked for me; it will work for you!” But where is the praise to God that comes from saying, “I was helpless and hopeless. I cried out to God and He delivered me! Glory to God alone!”

Conclusion

Hannah didn’t learn how to deal with her problems in this way from the religious establishment of her day. Eli, the priest, didn’t even recognize what Hannah was doing when she prayed. He thought she was drunk (1:13-14)! Eli’s sons were worse than he was. They didn’t even know the Lord (2:12). They were in the ministry for what they could get out of it in terms of material compensation (2:13-17) and sensual pleasure (2:22). Eli was too passive to confront their sin.

Today, we’ve got all sorts of seminars telling pastors how to have successful churches and telling Christians how to find happiness and success. But what we all desperately need is to learn how to come to God in prayer in our helplessness, so that He gets all the glory and praise when He delivers us. God is still looking for men and women like Hannah: People with problems, who will take their problems to God in prayer according to His purpose so that He gets the praise. We need to apply this both to our personal problems and to our problems as a church. This mother who gave away her son teaches us:

God gives us problems so that we will pray according to His purpose, resulting in praise to Him.

Hannah was just one woman out of thousands in Israel in her day. Yet the whole nation was blessed because this godly woman had a problem and prayed according to God’s purpose, unto His praise. Everyone benefited from Samuel’s ministry. Our nation desperately needs a godly remnant that will stand against the tide of even the religious establishment as people of prayer. Where do you start? What is your problem? Start there!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can God be good and yet give us problems (Exod. 4:11; 1 Sam. 2:6-7; Job 1 & 2; Ps. 119:67-68, 71, 75; Isa. 45:7)?
  2. How can we know whether to live with a problem or to pray for deliverance (2 Cor. 12:7-10)?
  3. How do we find the right balance between prayer and proper methods?
  4. How do we know whether a method is right or wrong?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Prayer, Suffering, Trials, Persecution, Worship (Personal)