The Son and the Psalm of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1--2:10)
When the Olympic Games were in Atlanta, Georgia, the whole world knew the name and fame of young Kerri Strug. Kerri became the key to the American women’s gymnastic team receiving the gold medal. If she could ace her turn to perform the vault, her team would win the gold medal; if not, they would have to settle for something less. Her first vault was not good, and it resulted in a sprained ankle. Only an excellent second vault could win the gold. As Kerri limped back to the starting line, the world wondered if she would even try, and if so, could she do it? We all know that Kerri did try, and that she performed an excellent vault at the expense of further injury to herself. The result was a gold medal, and much, much more. Kerri’s picture adorned the front page of nearly every newspaper in the world. She was an instant heroine, not only because her vault won her team the gold medal, but because she performed in the midst of great adversity. Had it not been for her previous injury, her performance would already have been forgotten. Because of it, Kerri Strug will long be remembered for her courage and skill at a crucial and difficult time.
Hannah’s story is very much like Kerri Strug’s. Hannah was a great woman, the mother of Samuel, one of Israel’s outstanding prophets. Had it not been for her agony and the adversity in her life, the birth of her first child would soon have been forgotten. But her years of agony and her tears of distress make the birth of her son Samuel an incident to be remembered. They form the backdrop for her psalm of praise, which has become a comfort and inspiration to saints down through the ages. Mary, the mother of our Lord, was especially mindful of it, as we see in her own psalm in Luke 1:46-55. Let us look to the birth of Hannah’s son and her psalm, for there is much to learn to apply to our lives today.
In our English Bibles, the Book of 1 Samuel follows the Book of Ruth. In the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts, 1 Samuel immediately follows the Book of Judges. And so it is in the Hebrew Bible that the last words to be written before our text in 1 Samuel are these:
25 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
“Those days” were far from the high water mark of Israel’s spiritual life as a nation. The Book of Judges describes chaotic days in which the Israelites were often oppressed by the surrounding nations. God would send a judge to deliver them, but their freedom lasted only as long as the judge lived. Even their judges were less than model saints. Samson, for example, was a man whose life was dominated by the flesh, rather than the Spirit. The writer of Judges links Israel’s spiritual decay and political chaos to the absence of a king. The book of 1 Samuel records the process by which God provided His people with a king. Like Elizabeth in the New Testament, Hannah is the mother of the prophet who will designate God’s chosen king. Saul will be anointed as Israel’s first king. Then after his rejection by God, David will be anointed as the head of an eternal dynasty. In the midst of spiritual anemia, Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, stand head and shoulders above their peers. Let us listen to this story and the psalm of praise that serves as its climax.
The Story Retold
Elkanah is a godly descendant of Levi, who lives in the hill country of Ephraim. Because of his place of residence, he is known as an Ephraimite, although he is really of the tribe of Levi (see 1 Chronicles 6:33-38). Elkanah has two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah bears children to Elkanah, but Hannah does not (1:2), because God has closed her womb (1:6).
Every year, Elkanah, Peninnah and her children, and barren Hannah go up to Shiloh, some 20 miles or so north of Jerusalem where the tabernacle is stationed. They go there to observe one of three annual feasts (1:3; see Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16). This very special time is to be a time of rejoicing, and sadness is prohibited:
17 “You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain, or new wine, or oil, or the first-born of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. 18 But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 12:17-18, emphasis mine).
For Hannah, and probably for Elkanah as well, rejoicing before the Lord is most difficult. First, the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, minister there as priests (1:3). For those who are truly righteous, these pathetic priests cast a dark cloud over genuine worship (see 2:12-17, 22-25). But the primary source of Hannah’s pain on this annual trek to Shiloh is that Peninnah takes advantage of this good opportunity to harass Hannah year after year without letting up (see 1:4-7). This results in many tears for Hannah and an inability to join in with the festive meal (1:7).
It is not that Elkanah, her husband, does not try to comfort her or to come to her aid. Elkanah assures her of his love by giving her a double portion of the meat which has been sacrificed (1:5). He makes sincere efforts to compensate for her barrenness, reminding her of what she means to him and what he intends to be for her (1:8). In spite of all this, Hannah dreads the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh where she must live in close proximity to Peninnah, her tormentor.
It is not difficult to envision how this happens. During the year, Hannah and Peninnah probably live in separate tents, well distanced from each other. They do not all eat at the same table. But on the annual trek to Shiloh, they must all travel and eat together. When the sacrificial meat is eaten, a portion is given to each wife. While it is true that Hannah receives a double portion, Peninnah is given enough meat for herself and her children. I can just hear Peninnah cruelly tormenting Hannah: “Oh my, Elkanah, what a lovely large piece of meat for me and all my children! Oh dear, what nice little pieces you have too Hannah.”
On this particular trip to Shiloh, Hannah barely makes it through the meal. Somehow she fortifies herself against Peninnah’s cruel remarks and actions. But after eating and drinking, she hurries off from the family to find her way to the tabernacle, where she pours out her soul to God. Inside, she prays silently as Eli, sitting by the doorway, looks on with interest. He sees her shoulders heaving as she sobs in great distress and weeps bitterly (1:10). Not hearing her words, Eli jumps to the wrong conclusion, assuming that she has been celebrating too much, and that her happiness is inappropriate drunkenness. He rebukes her for drunkenness and instructs her to give up this kind of drinking (1:13-14).
Hannah quickly assures Eli she is not drunk at all, but that she is pouring out her soul before the Lord (1:15). She begs him not to condemn her as a worthless woman (1:16). Ironically, the word Hannah uses (“worthless”) is the very term the author uses in chapter 2 (verse 12) to describe the two sons of Eli. She informs him that she has, up to this moment, been speaking out of her agony of soul.
We know, as perhaps Eli knew as well, that among those words which Hannah sobs out to God is a vow. She promises God that if He will grant her a son, she will give that son back to Him as a Nazarite (1:11; see Numbers 6:1-21; Judges 13:2-7). Eli assures Hannah that God will grant her petition and bless her (1:17). From that moment on, Hannah is able to enter into the worship celebration. She eats the meal, her face now radiating with joy rather than sorrow.
Arising early in the morning, they worship the Lord before making their way back home to Ramah. Some time later, Hannah conceives and bears the promised child. Hannah names the child Samuel. While scholars debate over the terms and their meanings, we are told what the name means to her. She knows that this is the child she asked of the Lord, and that he is the answer to her prayer (1:20). The name Samuel is a constant reminder of this child’s origin and destiny.
While the child is still nursing, the time arrives for the family to make its annual trek to Shiloh. Elkanah goes up with the rest of his family, but Hannah remains behind. She is not trying to avoid keeping her vow (see 1:21-23). Quite the contrary! From the words spoken with her husband, I conclude she does not wish to go up with Samuel and then return home with him afterwards, because he is still nursing and cannot be left at Shiloh so early in life. Her intention seems to be to stay home this time and to wean the child within the year. She will then take Samuel with her when the time comes for the next journey to Shiloh, never to return home to Ramah as a child. Hannah may not have wanted to set a precedent of going to Shiloh with Samuel and then returning home with him for fear she might be tempted not to keep her vow.
The time comes when the child is weaned, and Hannah must take Samuel with her to Shiloh and leave him there with Eli. He is still young, but old enough to be cared for by someone other than his mother (see 1:24). The three-year-old bull they take with them is slaughtered and brought to Eli. Hannah reminds Eli that she is the woman who stood beside him, praying so fervently that he assured her God would grant her petition. She tells him that to fulfill her vow she has brought her child to give to the Lord. Shortly, she will leave the child behind under the care of Eli. Before she leaves, she offers a prayer of praise to the Lord, a prayer by which Hannah will long be remembered.
1 Then Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; My horn is exalted in the LORD, My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, Because I rejoice in Thy salvation.
2 “There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides Thee, Nor is there any rock like our God. 3 “Boast no more so very proudly, Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the LORD is a God of knowledge, And with Him actions are weighed. 4 “The bows of the mighty are shattered, But the feeble gird on strength. 5 “Those who were full hire themselves out for bread, But those who were hungry cease to hunger. Even the barren gives birth to seven, But she who has many children languishes. 6 “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 “The LORD makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts. 8 “He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap To make them sit with nobles, And inherit a seat of honor; For the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S, And He set the world on them. 9 “He keeps the feet of His godly ones, But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness; For not by might shall a man prevail. 10 “Those who contend with the LORD will be shattered; Against them He will thunder in the heavens, The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; And He will give strength to His king, And will exalt the horn of His anointed.”
In Hannah’s psalm of praise, there a number of features well worth noting. As we look at them, perhaps they will stimulate you to do a much more thorough study of this text on your own.
First, Hannah’s prayer is a psalm. A number of the translations indicate this by the way they format the text. It looks just like one of the psalms from the Book of Psalms. Hannah’s prayer employs parallelism and symbolism, which is typical of a psalm.
Second, Hannah’s psalm is a prayer, a prayer Hannah may have prepared in advance for her worship. In the majesty of these words, let us not forget that this is Hannah’s prayer of praise. It is a psalm, but like the psalms, it is a prayer addressed to God, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Some almost automatically assume that Hannah borrowed this psalm as the expression of her praise to God. The psalms of the Bible wonderfully put our prayers into words that very aptly describe what is in our hearts, but there is no indication that this is anything but a psalm Hannah composed herself. Do we think her incapable of such a magnificent work? Or do we think that God cannot put such praise in our hearts? Read on.
Third, Hannah’s psalm is now a part of Scripture. Her psalm is no longer a private work of her own, but a permanent part of the Holy Scriptures for all of us to read, to repeat (if we choose), and to edify our souls.
Fourth, Hannah’s psalm is therefore an inspired psalm. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; . . .” (2 Timothy 3:16). Since this psalm is a part of the Holy Scriptures, we know it is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; 2 Peter 1:21). Are Hannah’s words beyond her own natural capacity to articulate? So are the words of every inspired author of Scripture. This is precisely why we can easily accept that Hannah penned this psalm by the enablement of the Holy Spirit.
Fifth, Hannah’s psalm is the outgrowth of her own experiences. The Scriptures are not mechanically transmitted through their human authors. In some mysterious way (as mysterious as the way in which our Lord is both divine and human), God’s revelation is produced through human instruments, out of their own background and experiences, expressing their individual personalities, and yet in a way which accurately and inerrantly conveys the very words of God.
Sixth, Hannah’s psalm also appears to reflect Israel’s experiences with God in the past. Inspired Scripture has a way of linking itself with the rest of Scripture. Hannah’s words of praise in her psalm seem to flow, in part, from Israel’s experiences in the past, particularly the exodus. Often an inspired writer’s words or expressions are borrowed from other biblical texts, and sometimes they seem to be an almost unconscious part of the fabric of the author’s thinking. Hannah speaks of God as her “rock” (verse 2). God is described as Israel’s “Rock” in Deuteronomy 32:30-31. Hannah speaks of God as exalting her “horn” in verse 1; Moses uses the symbolism of the “horn” in Deuteronomy 33:17. When Hannah speaks of the weak and humble being elevated to power and prominence, was this not true of Israel at the exodus? When Israel speaks of the hungry being fed, was this not also true at the exodus? When she speaks of the powerful being humbled, was this not true of Egypt at the exodus? I believe Hannah viewed God’s work in her life through the perspective of God’s work in Israel’s life at the exodus.
Seventh, Hannah’s prayer goes far beyond her own experience, focusing on the character of the one true God whom she worships and to whom she gives praise. Unlike Jonah’s “psalm” (Jonah 2), but very much like the psalms found in the Book of Psalms, Hannah’s psalm does not concentrate on her sorrow, her suffering, or even on her blessings. Hannah’s psalm focuses on her God. Out of her suffering and exaltation, she comes to see God more clearly, and as a result, she praises Him for who and what He is. Her psalm speaks of God as holy (verse 2), as faithful (“rock,” verse 2), as omniscient (all knowing, verse 3), as gracious (verse 8), as all powerful (verse 6), as sovereign, the great reverser of circumstances (verses 6-10). How much there is of God in these few verses!
Eighth, Hannah’s prayer goes far beyond her experience, beyond the past and present, looking far ahead into the future. Hannah’s psalm is prophetic; it is prophecy. It looks forward to the time when Israel will have a king (verse 10). I believe it looks forward to the coming of the ultimate “King,” our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate fulfillment of her messianic prophecy. Is this not one of the reasons Mary’s “psalm” has a familiar ring to us (see Luke 1:46-55)? It is true, of course, that Mary may see other parallels between her blessing and that of Hannah, but I do not think the messianic connection is ignored.
Ninth, we should not overlook that while Hannah’s psalm is the expression of her great joy and praise, it is offered at the time she must leave her son behind, never again to have him in her home. This is a time when Hannah expresses her joy and gratitude to God for Samuel, the answer to her prayers. It is a time when Hannah expresses her faith in God and her devotion to Him. But it is also a time of separation when she will leave Samuel in Shiloh and return to Ramah. God’s faithfulness in the past is her assurance of His faithfulness in the future, and thus she can give this child to God.
Our text reveals the godliness of both Hannah and Elkanah as a backdrop against the poor parenting of Eli and the worthlessness of his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Elkanah is a godly husband who is sensitive to his wife’s agony of soul. He seeks to encourage her in deed (he gives her a double portion of the sacrificial meat and speaks kind and gentle words of encouragement to her, assuring her of his love for her, regardless of whether she bears any children). He gently reminds her that her spirit of sadness is inappropriate to her worship. He grants her freedom to worship without smothering her or dictating her every action. He lets her go to worship alone, where she makes a vow. While he could have nullified her vow, he does not. He allows her the freedom to decide when she will go up to Shiloh with Samuel.
Elkanah is also a godly man in his relationship with God. He is concerned that his wife does the right thing before God. He is faithful to make the annual trek to Shiloh, even though there are good excuses for not doing so. He could say that he doesn’t have the time or that it is too expensive. More to the point, he could point to the corruption of the priesthood, especially Hophni and Phinehas, saying that he doesn’t want to expose his family to their hypocrisy, immorality, or brutality. He knows full well that at this time of annual worship Peninnah makes things especially difficult for Hannah and for him. In spite of all these reasons for not worshipping God at Shiloh, one could expect to see him there year after year.
Hannah is an example of a godly woman and wife. She endures years of silent suffering because of her barrenness and cruel harassment at the hand of her rival, Peninnah. She accompanies her husband and family (including Peninnah) to Shiloh, knowing how painful it always is. Largely she suffers silently, with no indication that she retaliates against her counterpart, Peninnah. She faithfully worships God, pouring out her tears and petitions. And when God answers her prayers, she not only keeps her vow, she praises God in a way that continues to inspire and encourage saints throughout the centuries. As surely as Eli’s parental failures played a part in the shameful conduct of his sons as priests, so the godliness of Hannah and her husband positively influence Samuel’s priesthood. And they positively influence us as examples of godly faith and action today.
Our text lays the foundation for the unfolding of the events depicted in 1 and 2 Samuel. The last verse of the Book of Judges speaks once again of the fact that Israel has no king at this time. Hannah’s prophetic psalm speaks of the coming of a king. Hannah and Elkanah, like their New Testament counterparts, Zacharias and Elizabeth (see Luke 1), are childless. Both barren wives become the mother of a prophet, who designates the coming king. As Samuel designates both Saul and David, so John the Baptist designates Jesus the Nazarene as God’s Messiah and King.
Hannah’s worship provides great insight into the role of women in worship in the Old Testament times. Her role is not a public or official one, yet she continues to have great spiritual impact on saints down through the ages. Conversely, Eli’s official status and public visibility does nothing for his spiritual life or the spiritual lives of his sons. Hannah, in her silent suffering, and in her quiet and unseen ministry to Samuel, has a great and lasting impact on her times and ours as well. Hannah’s prayer of petition, which expresses her vow to God, is silent, but the result of her prayer has national significance. Her prayer of praise is a part of Holy Scripture and the source of great instruction, comfort, and encouragement. While she had no official leadership position and her ministry was private, she still had great spiritual impact. Let those men or women who wish prominence, visibility, position, and status learn from the way God used Hannah and her ministry.
Hannah’s suffering and her psalm is a paradigm of the way God reveals Himself through the Scriptures. Hannah’s psalm, like all the rest of the Scriptures, is the product of human effort, superintended and divinely empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is both the product of human effort and the expression of a human personality, shaped by the things Hannah experienced. She could not have written this portion of Scripture without having suffered as she did at the hand of Peninnah, due to her barrenness. Neither could Hannah have written what she did about the future without divine inspiration. Her words which have been recorded for us are also the word of God.
Hannah’s psalm, like every other portion of Scripture, is the writing of a person which reflects her education, her personality, and her background of experiences. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit, which conveys the “mind of God” to us. Just as our Lord was both undiminished deity and perfect humanity in one Person, so the Scriptures are the product of man and the work of God in one work.
Hannah’s psalm could not have been written without the suffering which precedes it. It is God who closes Hannah’s womb. It is God who purposes for her to suffer at the hand of her cruel counterpart, Peninnah. It is God who orchestrates all of the painful and pleasant events in Hannah’s life, so that the resulting psalm could become the masterpiece it is. This is the way God employs the human and the divine in the writing of all the Scriptures. While you and I do not write Scripture today, I believe God orchestrates our background and our lives in a way which uniquely prepares and equips us for the ministry He has for us. Let us refuse to see our past difficulties as hindrances to the present or the future. As we look back upon the painful memories of our past, let us look upon them as the foundation stones for our present and future ministry, and then let us rejoice in our tribulations and trials in light of the way God purposes to use them for our good and for His glory.
Our text is a picture of the way God brings about His blessings and manifests His grace in the midst of sorrow, suffering, and human weakness. Having just concluded a study of 1 and 2 Corinthians, I cannot help but see the parallels between Hannah’s experiences and psalm and Paul’s experiences and epistles. Think about these words from the pen of Paul in light of Hannah’s suffering and her resulting psalm:
7b . . .there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me-- to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).
As Paul makes so clear in his epistles, God’s power is demonstrated at the point of our weaknesses. That is grace. God’s grace does not seek out our strong points and enhance them, so much as His grace seeks out our weakest points so that it may be absolutely clear to all that it is God who accomplishes great things through us. Those things which cause Hannah the greatest sorrow, the greatest pain, are the very things God uses to produce her greatest joys. For those who trust in Him, it will always be this way:
28 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. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; 30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
Do you love God? Are you one of His children by faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in your place? This is the good news of the gospel. The gospel is not good news for those who think they are righteous. It is an offense. Such people think God owes them eternal life, and they despise God’s saving grace in Christ as “charity.” It is charity! Those who joyfully embrace the good news of the gospel know they are helplessly and hopelessly lost in their sins, worthy only of God’s eternal wrath. They rejoice in the fact that what they cannot do to earn God’s salvation, Christ has done for them by His death, burial, and resurrection. They gratefully receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of righteousness as divine charity. And they come to learn that the same principle of divine grace, by which they are saved, is the principle by which God continues to work in their lives. I pray that you have received the grace of God through the gift of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. If not, I pray that you will receive it and Him this very hour.