Hannah is one of my favorite women in the Bible. Her faith in God is inspiring. She boldly asks for a son from God despite the apparent hopelessness of her request and God answers. She then gives that son of answered prayer over to God for service without regret or complaint. Samuel is the son of answered prayer and yet she trusts her beloved little miracle with God. She is simply an awesome example for all of us.
Hannah’s story, though, could have ended with her life being a very different illustration. Bitterness, rivalry, anger, anxiety, and tears all characterize the Hannah we are introduced to initially. Until she takes her eyes from her enemy, her situation, and her pain and turns them to the Lord, her life is one of disappointment and loss. It is only when she places her hopes in God that a great transformation takes place. It is when Hannah really begins to walk her life by faith that her story of deliverance takes off.
We pick up the story of Hannah when the pieces of her life are all pretty set in place. She is married to a man named Elkanah who happens to also have a second wife, Peninnah. We don’t know how this arrangement came about but it is causing problems. Hannah is the wife that Elkanah loves. Peninnah is the productive wife. Peninnah has a large number of children while Hannah is barren.
In the Jewish culture, children were seen as blessings from God and a sign of stature and standing. If a person did not have kids, they were viewed as cursed and possibly as causing it themselves through sin. So though Hannah is loved, she is likely viewed in a bad light by those around her family. She may be seen as forsaken by God. Elkanah as a necessity would also be required to devote much more time and resources to Peninnah and their children. His line and inheritance would be through her, after all. It is an extremely painful situation for Hannah.
Neither Elkanah or Peninnah help to make it better as well. Elkinah takes the position of many husbands when trying to help their wives through something. He tries to improve things by giving her a gift:
Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb.
Sure, he married another wife and created the problem, but more meat will make it all good. When that doesn’t work, he tries to make it better by poining out how great of a catch he is:
8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
Rather than sit and lament with his beloved wife, he chooses number one in the husband playbook and tries to fix it. If I had not done this a thousand times myself, I might be pulling the Captain Picard here.
While Elkanah’s errors seem done out of good will, Peninnah seems to be acting from ill. It says that she is the rival of Hannah and that she undertook a course of evil against her.
Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.
Peninnah had all of the material advantages at the outset of the account. She has won their battle having been blessed with the attention of Elkanah, many children and likely the respect of the community. Her name also means either pearl or precious gem. In the world’s eyes, she is the valuable one. She is the jewel of the two wives of Elkanah. The name Hannah simply means grace – unearned favor. She has it all and she is not satisfied.
Since she is the enemy of a woman of God, Penninah is not satisfied with winning. She must rub it in Hannah’s face. She feels compelled to provoke Hannah repeatedly to the point of bitter tears and anguish. This left Hannah totally defeated:
Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.
Hannah looks at what she feels she is missing out on and hears the taunts of her enemy and she allows them to win. She is destroyed by her lack and is in bitter anguish. She would have remained this way had she kept her eyes on her rival. If she continued to walk by her judgment of the world, it would have only gotten darker and more painful. Despair can be the bottomless pit of our life that swallows us whole.
After years of pain and tears, Hannah decides to do something different. She takes her eyes off her enemy and her sense of loss and turns to the Lord.
In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord,
Hannah takes all the years of pain, sorrow, want and feeling of loss and boldly lifts them up to the Lord. She is no longer trapped by her enemy in a game of provocation leading to hopelessness. She puts the issue at the Lord’s feet and begs Him to handle it for her.
“I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.” v15
Why do the wicked prosper? It is a good question and one that we have all asked at some point in our lives. But the temptation when dealing with a wicked person prospering in our lives is to get stuck on this question. We can get tunnel vision on our adversary with a ton of money, a job promotion we want or even a fancy television ministry…and rob ourselves in the process. Hannah had to turn away from her attacker. She had to move out of her despair. She even had to turn from the idea that her husband would be the solution to her problem. She had to leave the temporal behind and seek the eternal. That is where all help really comes from.
Was this what God was waiting for or was God’s will moved because of Hannah’s pain filled desperate prayers? That is a question we will have to ask God Himself. But we do see repeatedly in the Bible when a child of God looks away from their earthly problem and to the Heavenly King good things happen. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, God is patient with us, it just matters that we get to God. When we do, He works for our good.
It is a matter of natures. The rival is going to challenge us. The enemy is going to oppose us. The provoker is going to provoke us. That is who they are.
God is the Deliverer, Comforter, Redeemer, and King. What do we think He will do with our problems?
My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
for I delight in your deliverance.