• 1 Samuel 1-2
In his novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens describes the situation in Paris and London during the French Revolution by saying, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The same might be said about conditions in Israel during the period of the judges in which the events recorded in the opening chapters of 1 Samuel occurred. For the infant nation of Israel, it was the worst of times because it was a period of tremendous tumult and instability. But those dark years were punctuated by bright lights in the form of the judges—men and women whom God raised up and empowered to defend and lead the loosely confederated Israelite tribes—as well as remarkable displays of love and devotion such as those described in the book of Ruth.
The opening chapters of 1 Samuel describe the transition from that turbulent era of Israel’s history to the relative stability of the nation under the strong leadership of the judge and prophet Samuel, culminating in a national monarchy under King Saul. The hinge on which that transition pivots is a young woman named Hannah, who in chapter 1 is seen grieving over her barren condition.
That master of unintentional redundancy Yogi Berra once remarked that “you can observe a lot by watching.” Looking closely at the human elements of the study passage, we observe an interesting interplay of personalities: A man named Elkanah, his two wives Hannah and Peninnah (although God in the Ten Commandments had condemned adultery, polygamy still was the unfortunate cultural norm), and the high priest Eli all appear and play their respective roles in the story.
Hannah clearly was Elkanah’s favorite of the two wives, but the least-favored wife was able to give Elkanah something the more-favored one wasn’t—children. Hannah’s grief over her inability to conceive was compounded by the fact that Peninnah used her own fertility as an emotional weapon in her rivalry for their husband’s attention and affection: “And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This happened year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her until she wept and would not eat” (1:6-7).
We might experience an instant dislike for Peninnah, but perhaps she gives us all a reason to take a good look in the mirror and see if we ourselves sometimes—even if unintentionally—are acting in the same kind of provocative manner toward others who might not be blessed in the same ways we are.
Boasting about how good our gas mileage is in our new SUV in front of someone who is struggling financially to fill the tank on his 20-year-old hooptie, or talking endlessly about how much fun we have on our annual Hawaiian vacation in front of a family who can only afford a weekend camping trip to the nearest state park isn’t just tacky, it might even be considered cruel.
Beginning in verse 9, the text describes one particular day that Hannah had gone to Shiloh along with Elkanah and Peninnah to worship. As the high priest Eli looked on, Hannah poured her heart out to God as she prayed for God to give her a child. The inspired writer describes Hannah’s condition with the phrase “bitterness of soul.” She was filled with years of pent-up anger, hurt and disappointment, and those emotions boiled out of her as she prayed to God.
Most of us have been able at one time or another in our lives to identify with Hannah’s emotion. Perhaps even right now you are looking that phrase “bitterness of soul” and are looking at Hannah and saying “I feel your pain.” The text touches us at a profound level: How do we respond when life doesn’t turn out like we planned, or when we are grappling with a difficult situation that refuses to go away or get any better?
But just as we have all stood in Hannah’s shoes, we also all have stood in Eli’s as God places us in situations where we are called to give comfort and encouragement to others who are hurting.
Although Eli at first misunderstood what lay behind Hannah’s actions, when made aware of the facts he gave her encouragement by pointing her to the power of God to transform situations which appear beyond help (vv. 12-18). It is interesting and instructive that Hannah didn’t tell Eli specifically what she was grieving over, and Eli didn’t ask her.
When someone is hurting, we don’t have to know all the juicy details in order to pray for someone, or to stand alongside them and help them.
Hannah left her time of prayer encouraged (v. 18). Perhaps Eli’s words, few though they were, were just what she needed to hear at that moment; or maybe God gave Hannah some inner assurance he had heard her prayers and was at last going to give her a child. Scripture doesn’t say, and neither can we. Perhaps what we see here simply is an example of the “peace of God which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) which comes from surrendering one’s troubles to the Lord and resting in his promises of provision.
And God did indeed transform Hannah’s situation by enabling her to conceive and give birth to a son. She gave her boy the name Samuel, in testimony of God’s answering her prayer for this child (2:20).
We ought to consider how easy it would have been at this point for Hannah to renege on the promise she had made to God, to find some reason or justification for keeping her son and raising him at home just as other families did. But Hannah shows herself to be not just a women of deep faith and devotion, but also a person of remarkable integrity. Hannah kept Samuel at home and cared for him until he was weaned, and then took him to the house of worship at Shiloh and presented him to the high priest Eli, giving her son to the service of God (1:21-28).
I have remarked on a few occasions that God gets all of the blame, but none of the credit. Whenever things go wrong in our lives, we might ask “Why would God do this to me?” or say “If God really cared about me, he would fix this situation.” But then when God answers our prayers or brings tremendous blessing into our lives, we might never pause to acknowledge his love and power at work in our lives.
In chapter 2, we can listen in as Hannah prays and gives full credit for her new son to God. Hannah’s prayer is a psalm-like song of praise, testimony and instruction in which she glorifies God and invites others to consider his goodness.
With 1 Samuel 2, Hannah disappears from the scriptural record, as the scene shifts to that son for whom she had prayed, and who will occupy the central human role for the next chapters.
Earlier in this lesson, we noted how Hannah was a pivotal figure in the transition between the turbulent years of the judges and the renewed work of God through Samuel, leading up to the creation of an Israelite monarchy under Saul. It is important to keep in mind that Hannah was a key figure in this drama not just because she was Hannah, but because of her faith, integrity and prayerful trust in God. Those are the kind of people on whom positive transitions turn.