Today I want to talk with you about the story of Hannah, a woman who was in a desperate situation and who cried out to the Lord for help. There are some aspects of Hannah’s story that we don’t find it so easy to relate to; she was in a polygamous marriage, and the tensions and rivalries of that sort of marriage are hard for us to imagine today. But the main factor in her story is all too familiar to many people; she longed for a child, and her longing had not been fulfilled. There are many people today who know all about that sort of grief, and even if we aren’t familiar with it, we’ve all had times when we longed for things and our longing was not fulfilled. So let’s see what happens in the story of Hannah.
This story takes place about a thousand years before the time of Jesus, and we can find it in the first Book of Samuel, chapters one and two. There we read that there was a man of the tribe of Ephraim named Elkanah and he had two wives; one named Hannah, the other named Penninah. Penninah had children, but Hannah had none. Childlessness is bad enough in a monogamous marriage, but in a polygamous situation, in a culture that saw producing sons as one of the most important duties of a good wife, we can well imagine how difficult it would have been. And Penninah didn’t make things easy for Hannah; the story tells us that she ‘used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb’ (1 Samuel 1:6).
In those days it was the custom for people to go on pilgrimage to Shiloh, a town in the centre of Israel. This was where the Lord’s tabernacle was located – the tent that Moses had made in the desert many years ago, with the box in which the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments in them were kept, and the altar of incense and all the other holy furniture that Moses and the Israelites had made. This was before the temple in Jerusalem was built, so this simple tabernacle was the place above all others where the Israelites felt they could meet with their God. At that time the old man Eli was the priest at Shiloh.
So we’re told that Elkanah and his family used to go up to Shiloh year by year to worship the Lord, to offer sacrifices and offerings. When animals were offered in sacrifice to the Lord, it was the custom to burn a portion of the offering and then for the worshippers to eat the rest. There’s a bit of a translation problem in the text here, because the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Our NRSV says that when Elkanah gave out the food from the sacrifice to his family, he gave Hannah a double portion, because he loved her. However, the Revised English Bible has an alternative translation: ‘When Elkanah sacrificed, he gave several shares of the meat to his wife Penninah with all her sons and daughters, but to Hannah he gave only one share; the LORD had not granted her children, yet it was Hannah whom Elkanah loved’ (1:4-5 REB).
So one possible translation is that Hannah did better out of the situation than Penninah, the other is that she did worse! Whichever is right, it’s plain that there was a lot of tension in the family, and it went on year after year. As often as they went up to Shiloh, Penninah used to provoke Hannah, and so Hannah would not eat and was reduced to tears. And it has to be said that Elkanah wasn’t the most sensitive of guys in this situation; the story tells us that he said, “Hannah, why are you crying? Why don’t you eat? Why are you so sad? Aren’t I more to you than ten sons?”
So on one of these occasions, after they had eaten and drunk their fill, Hannah got up and slipped away from the family group; she went back to the tabernacle, to the presence of the Lord. Eli, the old priest, was sitting on a seat beside the door, and he saw her going into the tabernacle. She was deeply distressed and wept bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. In her prayer, she made a vow to God; she said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will only look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head” (1:11). A nazirite was a person who had been specifically dedicated to the LORD, and abstaining from alcohol and from haircuts was an external sign of their vow.
Now the old priest Eli was watching Hannah, and she was doing something unusual; she was praying silently. Most people in those days prayed out loud; in Hannah’s case, though, her lips were moving but she was not sounding out the words. Eli totally misinterpreted the situation; he thought that Hannah was drunk, and so he rebuked her. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he said; “Put away your wine”. But she replied, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time”. Then Eli answered her, “Go in peace: the God of Israel grant the petition you have made”. And so Hannah went back to her husband and ate and drank with him.
Hannah’s prayer was answered. They went home, and in due course she conceived and she had a son, and she called him Samuel, which apparently sounds like a Hebrew word meaning, “asked of God”. In those days, of course, it was common for mothers to breast feed their children for much longer than today; as long as two or three years in fact. So for the next two or three years Hannah skipped the annual trip to Shiloh; she told Elkanah, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the LORD, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time” (1:22).
Elkanah agreed to this, and so Hannah waited until her son was weaned. She then took him up to Shiloh, where she offered sacrifices to the LORD and then presented herself to old Eli and said, ‘“I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. For this child I prayed: and the LORD has granted me the petition I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD”. And she left him there for the LORD’ (1:26-28). We’re told that every year when she and the family came up to Shiloh she’d bring a new robe for the boy; and Eli would bless her and pray that God would give her more sons and daughters. And God heard that prayer; Hannah had three more sons and two daughters.
1 Samuel 2:1-10 gives us a song of thanksgiving that Hannah sang to God when she brought Samuel up to Shiloh to present him as a nazirite. In this song, Hannah rejoices in God who has turned away the proud and mighty and blessed the weak and helpless; obviously she’s thinking of her own situation here! ‘The barren has borne seven’, she says, ‘but she who has many children is forlorn’ (2:5). I particularly want to focus on what Hannah says in verse 2: ‘There is no holy one like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God’.
The term ‘rock’ is actually one of the most common biblical metaphors for God; it appears over and over again in the psalms, such as in Psalm 95 where we read, ‘O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation’ (v.1). It’s a dangerous thing to try to analyse a metaphor; metaphors appeal to the right hand side of our brain, the artistic side, and analysis is a left-brain procedure. So I’m not going to try to define exactly what the ‘Rock’ metaphor means when it’s applied to God. But if I think about my own impressions of a rock, I find that a number of things come to mind. I think of Jesus’ story of the wise man who built his house on the rock; the rock foundation was firm, and when the storms came the house was able to stand, whereas the house built on sand fell with a great crash. So the rock is a place of safety and security in a storm. And the person who trusts in God also finds that God is a place of safety and security when times get tough.
A rock is also difficult to move. There’s a well-known story about an American warship traveling at sea on a dark night. A light was seen in the distance, and thinking it was another ship, the American captain noted that he had the right of way and signaled asking the other ship to give way to him. There was no response. The captain signaled three times, identifying himself, and asking the other ship to change course; “I am the battleship U.S.S. Kentucky”, said his signal; “We are on a collision course and I have the right of way. Please change your course”. Finally an answering signal came through: “I am a lighthouse; you will have to be the one to change your course!” A battleship may be strong, but if it ran into a lighthouse built on a rock, the lighthouse would probably be the one to survive the encounter!
God is a safe place in a storm; God is not easily moved by those who try to oppose him. God’s love is steadfast and sure, absolutely dependable, not here today and gone tomorrow like sand that the rain washes away.
Hannah found by her own experience that God was her rock. She had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to; only the Lord could help her, and so she prayed and cried and poured out her heart to God. God heard her and gave her what she asked for. But I suspect there are some of you listening today who are feeling uneasy at this point. “Well, that’s okay for Hannah; she got what she asked for. But I asked for something, too, and I didn’t get it. Why not? Am I a bigger sinner than she was? What does it mean to say that God is a rock, that God is strong and reliable, when you ask for something over and over again and you don’t get it?”
This is a huge issue, and we must not hide from it or pretend it’s not there. Certainly the Bible doesn’t hide from it. Many of the psalms are written as prayers of people who don’t seem to be getting what they ask from God, and they aren’t afraid to pose the difficult questions. But one of the most remarkable passages on this subject is the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament.
The first part of Hebrews 11 is a long list of the heroes of faith; it talks about all the wonderful things they were able to do because they had faith in God. It talks about how Abraham and Sarah were able to have a child even though Sarah was long past the age of child-bearing; it talks about how Moses was preserved from death by faith in God and grew up to be a great leader of God’s people. It goes on to list other Old Testament heroes and what they did through God’s strength.
But then it goes on to say this: ‘Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground’ (Hebrews 11:35-38).
This is a different story! It seems that some people had faith enough to trust God to rescue them from their circumstances – but other people had a different sort of faith, a faith that continued to trust God when he didn’t rescue them from their circumstances, a faith that trusted that somehow in the midst of their suffering God knew best, and God was able to give them the strength they needed to carry on.
Many of you here know about this sort of faith. This is the faith of the person who prays desperately that God will heal their dying spouse, but still clings to God after the spouse dies, and somehow finds that God is able to lift them up in the midst of their grief. This is the faith of the person who cries out to God in the midst of chronic pain, and asks to be delivered from it, but finds that instead of being delivered from it they are finding the daily strength to bear it and still be true to the God they believe in. They are not finding deliverance, but they are still finding that the Lord is their rock.
God is our Rock. God is inviting us to call out to him, to come close to him, to take refuge in him in time of trouble. Perhaps we can make these words of Psalm 61 our own: ‘Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy’ (vv.1-3).
But I can’t leave this ‘rock’ metaphor without going back to the words of Jesus. Jesus talks about the wise man who builds his house on the rock, and the foolish man who builds his house on the sand. But who is this wise man, and what does he do to build his house on the rock? Well, Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24).
God is our rock of refuge, and the way we rest on that rock is to follow Jesus and put his words into practice. In context, the ‘words’ that Jesus is referring to are his words in the Sermon on the Mount – the commands to love our enemies, to pray for those who hate us, to stop laying up for ourselves treasure on earth, to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness and so on. The one who learns this way of life, Jesus is saying, will be secure in God forever.
Hannah says, ‘there is no Rock like our God’. So let’s not be afraid to pour out our hearts to God in trouble, as Hannah did, and ask for his help. And let’s also learn to live by the teaching of Jesus so that we can be like the wise man who built his house on the rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:25).