1 Samuel 1:9-18

One of the greatest blessings of being a Christian is that, through Jesus Christ, we have access to the Father in prayer. We see this wonderful privilege on display everywhere in the New Testament! Paul tells us that we are to “pray without ceasing.”[1] He writes that we are to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”[2] When the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes that we should confidently “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,”[3] he is reminding us that because Christ is our Mediator, our Great High Priest,[4] we can rest assured that all of our prayers are heard of God. Indeed, our Lord Himself has taught us to pray; we pray His model prayer every Lord’s Day.[5] And we recognize also that He expects we will pray; He does not say “if you pray” but “when you pray.”[6] Prayer is indeed commanded in the New Testament, but it is a command that seems almost redundant. Prayer, dear friends, is the chief exercise of faith in God. It is everywhere in Scripture, and should be everywhere in the church – though, I am sad to say, prayer seems to be missing in the lives of many who claim the name of “Christian”. Prayer does not make you a Christian, just as going to church does not make you a Christian; but, if you are a Christian, you will be joined to the congregation of the faithful, and you will most certainly be someone who prays. Everything we believe makes it certain. Prayer is everywhere in the Scriptures, and not just (or even primarily) in the New Testament. Consider the Psalms; the song-book of Israel is much like our modern hymnals in that they present prayers to be sung to God. And the Psalms run the whole gamut of prayer! The sweet psalmist of Israel writes, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”[7] Have you ever had a deep longing for God that grew so immense that you couldn’t possibly hold it in any longer? And thus, you try to put that longing into words and express it to God, calling out to Him – “I want more of You!” Well, then, you have prayed! David writes again, “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”[8] Have you ever been deeply burdened by your sins? If you have not, you may be assured that you are not a Christian. If you have, under the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit, and you have lifted your confession to heaven even as your tears fell to earth – you have prayed! And because of Jesus Christ, you have been heard and forgiven.[9]

We have mentioned the Psalms, and we could just as easily mention Abraham, and Isaac, and Ezra, and Nehemiah, and many other Old Testament saints whose prayers were heard of God through Christ in Whom they had a forward-looking faith. One of the most beautiful examples of godly prayer in the Old Testament, though, does not issue from the mouth of a Patriarch, or a judge, or a king, or a priest, or a re-builder of walls. Rather, we see her here – ordinary, barren Hannah, the wife of ordinary Elkanah. Without a child, feeling as though she was cursed, being constantly harassed year after year by her rival wife,[10] while her husband continued his heartfelt efforts to comfort her,[11] Hannah was at her limit. Under Elkanah’s godly leadership, the family had come to Shiloh again to worship the LORD at the tabernacle; the harassment continued, the constant remembrance of her inability to have children continued, the thought that perhaps she would have no part in the covenant blessings of God continued. So, after they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. What truly prompted Hannah to rise and to go before the presence of the LORD in prayer? That she was barren? No doubt! That she was harassed by her rival? Again, yes! That her husband loved her and remained faithful to her? Indeed! But the reality that led her to the throne of grace, ultimately, was that she knew that God is sovereign. It was, after all, the LORD Who had closed her womb.[12] The fact that God is sovereign – that He is ultimately in control over everything in the universe, every creature, every event, everything! – is the driving reality behind every prayer. If we did not believe that it was in God’s power to grant our petitions, what would be the point in asking? But, in bringing our requests to God, we are making a statement of our true faith. We are saying that God is able! He is no dumb idol,[13] or puny tribal deity. He is the LORD of hosts! If He has closed Hannah’s womb, He is just as able to open it. I believe there are many who claim to be Christians today, in whose life prayer is foreign, and that because they don’t truly believe that God is capable of granting their prayers. Perhaps they would not admit that, or say it in those words, but it is no less true. Hannah believed that God is able, and thus, in her deep distress, through sobs and tears, she presented her request to God.

Hannah prayed to the LORD, and she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head. Some have looked at Hannah’s prayer as a kind of bargaining, a this-for-that plea to God. She, after all, vows a vow; she binds herself to the performance of what she states in her prayer. But, it’s not nearly as simple as that. She was being ridiculed and harassed, not for reasons merely of vanity, but for theological reasons; because Hannah couldn’t have children, Peninnah likely assumed that the LORD favored her more than He favored Hannah. Hannah didn’t want a child for selfish reasons; why would the LORD grant a prayer only to bolster a woman’s pride? Rather, she wanted a child so that her sorrow would end and she could take part in the covenant blessings and the continuation of God’s covenant people, the end of which being the glory of the God Who made the covenant in the first place! She wanted the child, not for her own glory, but for the glory of God! In this she anticipates James’ statement in his epistle: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”[14] Hannah knows that God is able to give her a son – she addresses her prayer to the LORD of hosts, a name of God that signifies His sovereignty. But, not only did she believe that God was sovereign, she believed that God was good and kind, the God of steadfast love and covenant faithfulness. We know this because of the next few words: if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant. Hannah knew the story of her people, how they had come to Egypt as sojourners, but then remained and became slaves of the Egyptians for 400 years. Then one day the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob appeared to Moses in the burning bush. “Then the LORD said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”[15] The LORD had “heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”[16] Hannah was a daughter of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a woman of the covenant people of God. If God’s great covenant love applied to the people of Israel as a whole, surely it applied to them individually as well; God didn’t just love the people of Israel, but each Israelite with whom He had made the covenant. Hannah was pleading to God to look upon her personal and bitter circumstances, just as He had looked upon the bitter circumstances of corporate Israel when they were enslaved in Egypt. Just as He had “remembered” them – that is, acted on their behalf – so she humbly prayed that He would “remember” and “look” upon her affliction and act on her behalf.

If God chose in His sovereignty, kindness, goodness, and infinite wisdom to act on her behalf and open her womb, the child would be devoted wholly to Him. Again, Hannah is not bargaining with God. She isn’t saying, “For the price of giving me a son, I will give him back to You.” She’s saying, “If You decide to answer my prayer and give me a son, he will be Yours.” God is not in need; Hannah surely knows this. She can’t manipulate God into doing what she wants. So often many pray manipulative prayers, trying to bargain with God; God speaks to this when He says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.”[17] He is the LORD of hosts! We cannot give to Him something He needs, for He is in need of nothing – everything in the universe is His. Thus, when we hear Hannah say, if you… will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head”, we must remember that Hannah is only offering to the LORD what is His already to give or to take. And how would Hannah offer up this child the LORD would give her? He would be a lifelong Nazirite. A Nazirite was someone who took a vow that completely separated himself to the LORD.[18] This vow would usually be for a certain period of time; during this time, the person who vowed the vow would not drink wine or strong drink, would not cut his hair, and would not touch or go near a dead body.[19] The child that God would give to Hannah, however, would be a Nazirite for life, completely set apart for God and His purposes from the womb to the tomb. We have seen already that Hannah is an exemplar of godly prayer; but, we would be remiss to not recognize that she is also an exemplar of godly motherhood. Even before her prayer is answered, before her child is born, she has already devoted him to the LORD. “He will not be mine,” she says, “but Yours, O LORD! He will be completely given over to You for Your glory!” God has not given you children for yourself, but to be brought up in the covenant community to be His own. The sooner Christian mothers realize this, the sooner they will be about the business of seeking to raise godly offspring.

The author of 1 Samuel then relates to us a situation both humorous and telling. As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” All this time Hannah had been praying, Eli, the high priest, had been sitting and watching her. One need not strain to imagine how Hannah must have appeared. She is in deep distress; she has been crying, and her face is reddened by her bitter weeping. And here she is in the house of the LORD, praying a silent, but fervent and faithful prayer in her heart, while only her lips move. Eli’s response is telling, not only about himself, but also about the decadent time of the judges. It is telling about himself, because surely the high priest would recognize when someone is fervently praying to the Lord. And yet, he doesn’t. One wonders if Eli had ever prayed like Hannah had, from the heart and the depths of the desperate soul. Whether he had or not, his response – believing that she was a drunk and then reprimanding her – shows a failure in pastoral care for this child of Israel. His response is also telling about the times and the utter depravity of the population. It may have been that Eli had seen drunk people entering the house of the LORD before and making a mockery of the religious life of Israel. His own wicked sons, as we will see, were perhaps the most notorious of all. It’s interesting, though, that Eli takes such steps to restrain a woman who is earnestly praying to the Lord, but later takes no real action to restrain the wickedness of his own children.[20]

But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Far from being the kind of woman who would get soused and then come stumbling into the house of the LORD to weep and mumble, Hannah had truly been pouring out her soul and speaking in her heart, which was full of great anxiety and vexation. We have seen that one way that Hannah is an exemplar of godly prayer is that she recognizes that God is sovereign over everything. Likewise, she recognizes that God is good and always shows steadfast love to His covenant people. These things are just as true for our prayers today as they were for Hannah in the time of the judges. But there is another thing, a key component of godly prayer that we have seen Hannah represent all along – in her anxiety, with all the cares that her barrenness had brought upon her, she turned to the Lord and laid it all out before Him. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”[21] Peter writes, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”[22] Sometimes, people believe that God can’t work out the things that are burdening them, and so they don’t pray. Others believe that God won’t work out the things that are burdening them, and so they don’t pray. But for those who know that there is nothing too hard for our God,[23] and who are assured of His covenant love toward us, we are called – indeed, commanded! – to lay our burdens down, to pour out our souls before God. Whatever is on your heart, whether it be a felt need, or an untold confession, or a desire to offer up thanksgiving and praise, pour it out before the Lord Who hears! Even if your prayer is nothing more than tears and the barely whispered syllables of “Help me, Lord!”, God hears your tears, and Your Father knows how best to provide for His dear children. Oh that the people of God would turn their fears and anxieties into prayers! How soon they would know the peace of God that surpasses all understanding![24] That you would truly trust the sovereign God Who loves you, instead of proudly holding onto things that are beyond your working out! That you would believe Him when He tells you, “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me”![25] He may not always give you what you ask for, but He will always give you what you need.

The narrative continues: Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” Eli, as we shall see, was ultimately a failure as a priest and as a father. Something that doesn’t become clear until later in 1 Samuel is that Eli was also the judge of Israel at this time;[26] he likewise fails to bring salvation to his people. But still, he was the judge. And still, he was the high priest. Eli’s high priesthood meant many things: he offered sacrifice to God on behalf of the people; he was to teach the people God’s law;[27] he was also to bless God’s people. “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.'”[28] Eli the high priest of Israel, was a signpost pointing forward to Jesus, our Great High Priest. Richard Phillips writes: “What Eli represented, however poorly, was the reality that came with Christ. When Christians pray ‘in Christ’s name,’ we are saying that we come to God through the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. And when Jesus speaks words of comfort and assurance to us through the Scriptures, we should follow Hannah’s example by taking them to heart.”[29] When Eli blessed Hannah, that God would grant her petition, Hannah did, in fact take it to heart. And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad. Hannah had come to the Lord, her heart burdened with anxiety and vexation, trusting in Him to hear her and to act favorably on her behalf; that her prayer was heard of God was confirmed through God’s high priest, Eli; and, though the situation had not changed immediately, Hannah went away a changed person. No longer was her face filled with tears and her stomach empty. She was different! She had laid it all out before the Lord, and had left it at His feet, trusting Him to work in her situation for His glory and her good. And, instead of picking it right back up again, and worrying about it, she believed the comforting words of the priest’s blessing and went her way a transformed woman. If the confirmation that comes from a faulty, sinful Israelite high priest gave her such comfort, how much more ought the words of our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, give us comfort when we pray! “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”[30] As Matthew Henry writes: “Whatever you pray for, according to the promise, shall be given you, if God see it fit for you, and what would you have more?”[31]

Is your heart troubled? Learn from Hannah how to pray! Go to God Who is willing and able to do all for your good and His glory! Lay your burdened heart down at His feet! And trust that you have been heard through the mediation of your Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, and that God will always do what is best!

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

[2] Ephesians 6:18

[3] Hebrews 4:16

[4] Hebrews 4:14

[5] Matthew 6:9-13

[6] Matthew 6:5-7

[7] Psalm 63:1

[8] Psalm 51:9-12

[9] 1 John 1:9

[10] 1 Samuel 1:6

[11] 1 Samuel 1:4,8

[12] 1 Samuel 1:5-6

[13] Psalm 115:4-8

[14] James 4:2-3

[15] Exodus 3:7-8

[16] Exodus 2:24

[17] Psalm 50:12

[18] Numbers 6:2

[19] Numbers 6:3-21

[20] 1 Samuel 3:13

[21] Philippians 4:6

[22] 1 Peter 5:6-7

[23] Jeremiah 32:27

[24] Philippians 4:7

[25] Psalm 50:15

[26] 1 Samuel 4:18

[27] Deuteronomy 33:10

[28] Deuteronomy 6:22-27

[29] Richard D. Phillips, 1 Samuel, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012) 24.

[30] Matthew 7:7

[31] Matthew Henry, Concise Commentary, Matthew 7:7.

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