Samuel: A Study In Character - Week One "Hannah's Prayer"

For the next several weeks our preaching team will be preaching and teaching on the life of Samuel, the great Hebrew prophet from the book of 1 Samuel.  This is part of our ongoing journey through the Old Testament---a journey that is bound to surprise even the most "churched" church-y person.

Our study of Samuel is entitled, "Samuel: A Study in Character."  Samuel was called by God to lead the people of Israel during a critical time in her history.  The people of Israel had begun to desire to be like the other tribal peoples around them, who were led by "kings" or more specifically "elected" kings who were chosen by the gods, recognized by the religious leaders of the tribe and then affirmed by each of the tribal leaders themselves.

The people of Israel had worshipped God as king up to this point, so this was a serious departure from the covenant they'd been living under for hundreds of years.  But the Philistines (tribes from the coast) had begun to exert even more control over the area, the high priestly family, members of which were the de facto rulers of the people, was corrupt and they craved visible, strong leadership.

This is the moment in which Samuel entered the scene.

Read the first chapter of the book of Samuel here.  

The story of Samuel's birth is quite extraordinary and bears repeating.

Which I will do.

His father was named Elkanah, which means "God has possessed."  He was a man who had an impressive lineage that the author of 1 Samuel was keen to relate.  But he had no real future--where it mattered.  He had two wives, but the wife he dearly loved was unable to have children.  Her name was Hannah, which means "Favor" and we discover later in the story that she is indeed favored by God, which continues God's habit of choosing the "least of these" to do extraordinary things.

But at the outset of this story Hannah finds herself being ridiculed by her "sister wife" Penninah, whose name means "pearls" or "woman with rich hair."  This is a subtle way of saying that Penninah was attractive---at least by the world's standards.  But Elkanah showed Hannah preference especially when the family took it's yearly pilgrimage to the tabernacle to make their offerings and worship God.  He gave her extra meat to offer and to eat, which sounds odd to us, but in the ancient world was a sign of his love and affection.

I wonder if my wife would dig me more if I gave her ground beef instead of flowers... I wonder.

I love how this story parallels what's happening in the land of Israel at that moment.  Elkanah is the land itself, where God dwells with His people.  Peninnah could be the stronger, more attractive tribes that dominate the area, and seem so fruitful and powerful.  And then there is Hannah, the one who is favored by God, but yet struggles to find faith in the midst of her childlessness.

Great story so far, right?

Like I said, Elkanah brought his family to Shiloh every year to worship and offer sacrifices at the tabernacle/temple.  And every year Hannah goes into the temple and prays fervently that God will grant her the gift of a son.  When we enter into the story, Hannah is praying silently in the temple so passionately and fervently that she catches the attention of Eli, the high priest.

Hannah, we find out, promised God that if He would give her a son, she would give him back to God in service of the temple and that he would be a nazrite for the rest of his life. This is a serious vow.  As we learned in the story of Samson, a nazrite never cut his hair, drank strong drink or associated with dead carcasses.

Eli sees Hannah praying and thinks that she is drunk and rebukes her.  She replies as passionately as she prayed.  She tells Eli, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled" and "I was pouring out" my soul.  The words that are used here are literally translated "I am a woman with a stubborn spirit."  How awesome is that?  The high priest comes up to give her what for and Hannah turns on him in her vulnerable agony and says, "Don't mess with me...I'm not giving up without a fight here."

Eli sends her away with a blessing that the Lord will grant her the request she has brought to Him.  And guess what?  It comes true.  She conceives and bears a son, to use the language of another part of the Bible.  And when se realizes this, she says something awesome:  "The Lord has remembered me..."

In fact, the name Samuel means "Heard by God."  Good stuff man.

Here's what we learn from the story of Hannah:

Prayer helps teach us that we are not forgotten by a God who is a powerful rememberer.

Hannah is so important to the Jewish people that the Talmud, one of the ancient Hebrew books of teaching and wisdom, has many important rulings on how to pray based on her prayers.  In fact, the Amidah, which is a daily prayer prayed by Hebrew faithful is traditionally prayed silently while moving ones mouth as Hannah did in the temple.

When Samuel was three years old, Hannah brought him to the temple to be dedicated.  Interestingly, he could have been "redeemed" for a fee to the temple and return home with his mother.  But Hannah did nothing to redeem him.  She kept her vow to God.  In a world where no one seems to be doing what is right in the eyes of God, Hannah breaks the mold.

There had been a great problem.  There was barrenness, Elkanah had no heir with his beloved wife, there was no son, no future, no historic possibility.
But there was a resolution.  Through worship and prayer, the future was opened because of Hannah's faithfulness.

Which brings us to three important lessons that Hannah teaches us:

1.  If Hannah had not experienced the pain of childlessness, her son would not have become a great leader.
2.  If her disappointment had led her to resignation, if she had given up---things would have turned out differently.
3.  Her prayer life, her relationship with God was stubborn.

These three things are so important for those of us who find ourselves struggling in prayer, waiting for God to intervene in our lives to accomplish something that we are desperate to see resolved.

And here's something that we need to address.  Hannah believed that she was being punished because she was childless, which is something we can easily judge her for from our historical distance.  But how often do we do the same thing?  One of the first things that comes out of our mouths when we experience the pain and frustrations of life is "Why me?"  Especially when we believe the story we often tell ourselves that we are "a good person," who doesn't deserve to have bad things happen.

I think that sometimes we are more intent on presenting a portrait of how we are trying to be faithful than confessing our struggles.  We come to God and say, "God, I go to church, I do good deeds, I tithe now and again, I volunteer my time..."

Or we admire positive thinking in our problem solving and totally gloss over how we really feel.  I was leading a Bible study once where an older couple told the rest of us that they never doubted God, never got upset about what God allowed to happen to them, never complained to God...  and this after the rest of the group had admitted to doing all of those things.  But this is typical of what happens in most churches.  We are afraid to tell God and tell others how we really feel.

Hannah just brought her junk to God.

I heard this story about a politician in DC who left a church he was attending because each Sunday they had a time of public prayer request sharing.  He said that he never wanted to attend a church where everyone poured their guts out every Sunday.

What Hannah knew was that the wholeness she sought in her life lay beyond what she could control, what she thought she could fix----resting in the hands of God, who was the larger reality of her life.

Let me show you a photo:

I took this photo at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem--the section that extends underneath the city and is only accessible through tunnels.  It's open to Jewish women in the morning so they can come and pray.  I saw this woman praying silently with her mouth moving just like Hannah.  I snapped it out of instinct and didn't really know what I had until I opened it later on my computer.

I love this photo.  It's nearly perfect to me.  This unnamed woman is clinging to the wall that used to be the base of Herod's Temple not too far from where the Holy of Holies was.  She must come to this spot every day.  I don't think she could get any closer to it.  I wonder what she is praying for---for her children, her husband, for peace, for the deliverance of her people.  Maybe she feels as though God has forgotten her, but she stubbornly comes to this spot each day, praying, pleading, whispering her prayers that come from deep within her---hoping that God will remember.

Every day.  At this wall.  It shames me to realize how anemic my prayer life is in contrast...

Do you pray like this?  Are you afraid of what might happen if you do?

What are the places that are barren in your life?  Are you struggling with doubts?  Do you wonder if you will ever get ahead of the bills that seem to be piling up each month?  Are you realizing that your marriage is empty and loveless?  Maybe your children are breaking your heart.

Don't hold back.  God can handle your stubborn prayers, your hurt and your passionate frustration.  God never forgets.

And it's the act of prayer that helps us to connect with this unbelievable reality of grace:  Prayer helps teach us that we are not forgotten by a God who is a powerful rememberer.  

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