As we launch a new study of 1 Samuel, we remember that although the book’s narrative took place thousands of years ago, it is included in the Bible for our instruction and encouragement. Beginning with barren, brokenhearted Hannah, this story introduces us to ordinary people with real aspirations, fears, and failures who are helpless and hopeless unless God does something. Alistair Begg reminds us that just as the word of God brought light and hope to Hannah’s life, it remains the answer to the crises we face today.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel 1:1:
“There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
“Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
“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. 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.’
“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.’ 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.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.’ 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.”
Father, as we have expressed ourselves in our song by way of prayer, grant then that the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts may be found acceptable in your sight, Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
There is a small town in the southwest of England, in Somerset, called Weston-super-Mare. I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I have been preparing this particular study this morning. And it is a coastal town. It is on the Bristol Channel. We took our children there when they were very tiny, before ever we came to live in America. And the thing that they were the most excited about was that they were going to the seaside, that they were going to the ocean, that they were going to the shore, and so were we. Little did we realize, though, that one of the unique features of Weston-super-Mare is that low tide is a significantly low tide and puts the ocean itself approximately one mile from the shore. And so, the dreadful experience, as Daddy, of walking with these little creatures and them constantly saying, “Are we ever going to get to the ocean?” And the answer is “Oh yes, we will definitely get there.”
“Well,” you say, “why have you been thinking about this?” I say, well, I’ve been thinking about it because although I’ve called our study this morning “Introducing 1 Samuel,” the further I went in my preparation, I decided that this was really an introduction to the introduction. And then deeper into the week, I said, “You know, this is really the introduction to the introduction of the introduction.” So, I say all this just to whet your appetite and to acknowledge that you will be saying in relatively short order, “Are we ever going to get to the text?” The answer is yes, we will, but you’re going to have to be patient.
My approach this morning is purposeful. This is not filler; I think you know me well enough to know that that is not part of my approach to things. But as we begin a new series of studies, and as some inevitably arrive in our context as a result of invitation or perhaps having been present at Christmas, it is important for us to affirm before one another what it is we actually believe about the teaching and preaching of the Bible. After all, we say to one another that the reason we gather is primarily to hear from God. We say to one another that what God has said to us is actually of more significance than whatever we have to say to him, although he wants us to speak to him. And so, it is helpful, I think, just to lay down a marker, and to do so intermittently, to remind ourselves of a baseline when it comes to doing what we do.
Let me begin with a definition of preaching by Jim Packer. Jim Packer is now about ninety years old, has been such a wonderful help to many of us in both his preaching and teaching and writing. Some years ago, in Scotland, addressing ministers, he provided us with this definition of preaching: “Preaching,” he says, “is the event of God bringing to [a congregation]”— “God bringing to [a congregation]”—“a Bible-based, Christ-related, life-impacting message of instruction and direction from himself through the words of a spokesman.” What is so vitally important in that is that the subject of that sentence is God himself, reminding us that the message is God’s message, that that message stands as fixed and true not on account of the vehemence of the teacher, because, in fact, that may come or go.
And when you add to that what I’m going to give you now, the point is made even more forcibly. Zwingli, in the Reformed Church of Switzerland many years ago, was very influential, and the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed Church—which is a bit of a mouthful in itself—contains this very, very helpful statement:
When [the] Word of God is now preached in the church by [ministers] lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself … is to be regarded, [and] not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still [good and true].
What does that do? It majorly puts the focus where the focus needs to be: on the authoritative sufficiency of God, out of whose mouth, from whose lips, have come the very Word itself.
Luther on one occasion was confronted by some of his congregation who said they would very much love to hear God himself speak. They said that they would run to church if it were possible that God would speak in person—to which Luther replied, “You now have the Word of God in church … and this is God’s Word as surely as if God Himself were speaking to you.”
Now, it would be worthwhile beginning in this way almost every Sunday, to make sure that we have absolute clarity about what is going on, or at least about what we pray will be going on—in other words, that God’s Word will be doing God’s work by God’s Spirit in God’s people through the words of a frail, fallen, passing spokesman. And in light of that, I then take for myself the words of Newton to his congregation in the eighteenth century. He said to them, as I say to you, “To your bibles I appeal. I intreat, I charge you to receive nothing upon my word, any farther than I can prove it from the word of God; and bring every preacher and every sermon … you hear to [that] same standard.”
We have in our songs, if you like, given voice to our professed disposition in coming to the Bible. We have said that “we want you, God, to speak as we come to you to receive the truth of your Holy Word.” Many of you are teachers. You know that in teaching there are all these elements that are involved. There is the material that is to be conveyed. There is the preparation of the one who teaches the material. There is the reception of the individuals who receive that which is then taught. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those who are the taught—and ultimately both teacher and pupils in this context are all the taught—but in this sense, it is incumbent upon the children to come prepared to listen and to hear and to learn. That’s why the teacher has so much time saying, “Excuse me, would you please turn around? Would you stop sticking your pencil into Mary?” and that kind of thing. “Would you please show up on time tomorrow?” That sort of thing. “Would you at least come with a sense of expectation?”
And that’s why James is very clear when he talks about receiving the Word of God. Remember he says, “You know, if you are going to hold bitterness or anger in your heart, don’t expect to benefit from the teaching and reading of the Bible. If you come with your head full of dirtiness, don’t expect to benefit from the teaching of the Bible.” So the disposition of the listener is absolutely crucial in the communication process: God, through the words of a spokesman, his truth to our lives. And in the same way, it is vital that the one who is given the privilege of teaching the Bible is bowing underneath the same concerns.
William Ames in an earlier generation said that the manner in which the Scripture is to be delivered by the preacher is “out of the inward affection of the heart without … affectation.” See how important the English language is? “Out of the inward affection of the heart without … affectation.” You see, the danger for the preacher is that it is a lot of affectation and no affection. And the way in which it comes out of the inward affection of the heart of the preacher has to do not simply with the preacher’s own preparation in the silent place, in the secret place, but it has to do with the preparation of the congregation who in turn are praying through the week, “Bless the preacher, Father, whoever he is when he comes, and grant that he won’t come with affectation but that what he says will emerge from genuine affection for the Word and for those to whom he preaches.”
Now, all of that is relevant all the time, every time. But I suggest to you that it is particularly important that we give our attention to it given the fact that we’re now turning to 1 Samuel. Some of you may be very familiar with 1 Samuel. I have never taught through 1 Samuel. First Samuel is historical, it is a literary piece, and it dates back to around 1050 BC. So in other words, we are now turning this morning to historical material that is three thousand years old. Now, that in itself ought to give us cause for concern. Unless we’re interested in archaeology, or unless we’re doing history in some academic institution, by and large, none of us are paying any attention to anything that’s three thousand years old. Why would we? There’s so much that everybody didn’t know three thousand years ago, and we know so much now. And if we live with the notion that because we have been born later than all these other people, therefore, we are different and we are smarter, then our temptation will be to say, “Well, there’s not very much for us here.” But in actual fact, if it is the Word of God and it never errs, then it remains absolutely applicable.
When Paul is writing both in Romans and in 1 Corinthians, he actually makes mention of this. And I found this helpful as I was thinking about it during the week, because I was saying to myself as we begin this new study, “You know, what are people going to say about this ancient thing?” and so on. This is Romans 15:4. Paul writes, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” But he’s writing in the first century. It was written for their instruction in the first century. So something that was 1050 BC was written for our instruction. To what end? Answer: “that through endurance and … the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So reading the story of a childless lady from 1050 BC is relevant to dwellers in twenty-first-century America. To the Corinthians he says the same thing. “The things that happened to our fathers are illustrations of the way God works,” and once again, “they were written down for our instruction.” Okay?
Now, we’re almost there. But if you turn back two pages to the end of Judges… You just skip back through Ruth, which we have studied in the past—four chapters. That very final verse of Judges helps to set the context for our beginning 1 Samuel: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Now, we’re not going to work our way back through Judges, but as you rehearse that for yourself at your own pace, then you will realize the Judges period was a period of chaos. It was a period of instability, both spiritually and at the same time socially and politically. And the circumstances are ripe—we might put it that way—for a big shift in the structure of the leadership of the people of God. And the word that is out there on the part of some is, “You know, if only we could have a king like some of these other nations have a king, then I think we would be in a far better position.” That, of course, was going to give rise to conflicting perspectives, as we’ll see. But if you grasp this, then you will have a helpful sense of what is going on.
What we’re moving into is a period of transition; a transition from, if you like, theocracy—and I’ll say something about that in a moment—to a dynastic monarchy. Okay? So the period of the judges and the period up until this time was the theocratic rule of God, whereby the Spirit of God, he put his hand on someone and raised them up for a period of time in order to exercise leadership amongst his people. And they came, and they served, and they left. Now, in the establishing of a dynastic monarchy, there was going to be a succession to that leadership in a way that was not true of the judges. And so there would be someone who became the king, and then someone who was the heir to the king, and so the establishment of this framework. And 1 Samuel essentially gives to us three key figures in the entire thirty-one chapters. First of all, basically chapters 1–7, the focus is on Samuel, the last of the judges and the prophet of God; then on Saul, who is anointed king; and then on David, who is going to succeed Saul.
With all that said, it is now time to put a toe in the water. I am conscious of the fact that the pace of our study through this is going to have to be moderated in some way. After all, there were what, 83 studies in Ephesians? Which is roughly 14 a chapter. So if we do 14 a chapter in the thirty-one chapters of 1 Samuel, that will be 434 studies, which, if we do one a week straight through, fifty-two weeks a year, then we will be looking to finish sometime around 2027. But the chances are we won’t be able to go straight through the fifty-two. Therefore, 2027 is really beyond our reach, and few of us will be ambulatory by that time, and we will be propped up in some place, I’m sure. What I’m saying is, we’re going to pick up the pace. Otherwise, we’re in trouble. Now, we’re not picking up the pace this morning, as I have illustrated so wonderfully. But let us begin.
“The Birth of Samuel”: “There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country.” Wow, there’s a start! Doesn’t it just grab you? Yeah. Well, actually, you see, it should, in a funny kind of way. Because this actually is a book that is able to hold children spellbound with its stories. If you’ve been brought up in the church, you, like me, have often gone to bed at night wondering as a child whether ever you would get a call in the middle of the night like Samuel got a call, and he ran through to Eli’s bedroom and so on, and then had to come back again, and that wonderful, amazing drama that is contained there, in the minds of a youngster, so rich and full. And later on, the excitement and the challenge that is represented in the story of David and Goliath and so on, and so much more besides. It’s all in here. But this isn’t exactly what you would call a dramatic beginning, is it?
Now, here is another sort of parenthetical statement: when we study the Bible, we study the Bible as the Bible is given to us. So studying a letter like the letter of Paul to the Ephesians is different from studying the narrative that is given to us in 1 Samuel. It is different in its style; it is different in the way in which truth is conveyed. And if we do not put ourselves underneath that and understand it, then we will be tempted to teach the Bible in the same way no matter where we are in the Bible. So, for example, we could end up simply saying, “Hannah didn’t have any children, and she was really a very nice lady, and she prayed to God, and you’ve got some problems in your life, and you should be a nice lady too, and why don’t you pray to God this week? And have a great day.” Now, all of that would be true, but what has that got to do with the story of 1 Samuel? Precious little.
So we have to put ourselves underneath the authority of the Scripture in the literary framework in which it is presented to us. And it is presented to us here as a narrative, as a story—so that the way in which you read a story is different from the way in which you read a textbook, right? You read a textbook looking for definitions. You don’t look for definitions in a story. So therefore, what we have to do as we come to this study is we’ve got to put our story hat on, as it were. We are reading real history, real people, in real time, given to us in a narrative that should cause us to ask questions in a way that leads us to the truth that is being conveyed.
What we ought to find quite amazing is that this man Elkanah is essentially an unknown individual. He’s an unknown individual. There are four generations of his family mentioned, so that gives him some kind of stature, but beyond that we know very little. Furthermore, Ramathaim-zophim is not exactly the center of the universe. So we’re immediately introduced to the obscurity of a man, to an unknown man, in a town that doesn’t really seem to present very much at all, causing us to say, “Well, this is interesting. Does this mean that the man of God’s appointing—namely, Samuel—comes not from among the powerful and the prominent in Israel but from the obscurity of this house?” And the answer is yes. In actual fact, from the point of view of social standing—or, if you like, fame, notoriety, power—within the nation of Israel, Elkanah and his family were nobodies. Nobodies. Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. It’s an interesting name, Noone: N-o-o-n-e. And I asked him one day, I said, “How come your name is Noone?” He said, “It’s not Noone. It’s no one. I’m no one.” If you had spoken to this guy, he would have said, “I’m no one. Ordinary guy. My grandpa I remember. But beyond that, nothing.”
What is significant about him? Well, we’re told what is significant. Verse 2: “He had two wives.” Now the story’s really hotting up, isn’t it? What we’re supposed to be saying is, “I wonder why the two wives are mentioned—the two wives—and are the two wives important?” What we’re going to discover: that the two wives are fundamentally important, because if one hadn’t been such an aggravational nuisance, the other one would perhaps not have prayed to the extent that she prayed, therefore, may not actually have become the mother of Samuel. So in other words, the bad stuff that is introduced into the framework of this dysfunctional family by Peninnah contributes in the providence of God to the good result of the birth of this child.
But we jump ahead. Presumably, Hannah—the name means “grace”—being his first wife, had been unable to produce for Elkanah a son and an heir. As a result of that, he had taken to himself a second wife, Peninnah, in order to keep the family life alive. And as we discover from the text, she had obviously been blessed in this way. Now, we’re not gonna stall on this issue of polygamy or multiple wives in the Old Testament, except to acknowledge this: that this kind of arrangement, which we find in reading the Old Testament, is clearly tolerated, but it is never commended. It is never introduced, if you like, from God’s side, and it is never described for us in a favorable light. If you track these occasions, you will discover that it is always an expression of conflict, as it is here, and of chaos and of disappointment and of pain.
Alec Motyer, my old friend and Old Testament teacher, when I asked him on one occasion, I said, “Well then, why do we have all of these things? Because it’s very difficult,” I said, “Alec, when you’re teaching the Bible and you come across a thing like this: ‘And Elkanah had two wives.’” “Well,” he said, “I think it is only there in the Scriptures in order that it serves as a dark backdrop against which to show up the reality of God’s perfect plan for marriage.” One of the Puritans, John Trapp, in the seventeenth century writes, “Polygamy was [always] a sin, though in the patriarchs and ancient saints, a sin of ignorance.” You remember when the religious leaders come to Jesus, and they ask him about divorce, and Jesus says to them, he says, “Yes, well, Moses was prepared to issue a certificate of divorce, but that was because of the hardness of your hearts. It was not so from the beginning.” In other words, it was an accommodation to that which had emerged. And in the same way, I think you can deal with the matter here.
Suffice it to say that the domestic circumstances of Elkanah’s home, in what was actually a kind of dysfunctional family, brings to the forefront Hannah, who then becomes the central figure in these opening chapters. And that in turn ought to cause us to wonder again. What we’ve said is that this transitional period is of huge significance. It is of great significance to the people of God in terms of their structure of leadership, their obedience to his law, their relationship with the surrounding nations. So, politically and socially and in every other way, it is a matter of great significance.
Well, isn’t it strange that the way in which this should be introduced to us is to have the spotlight focusing not, if you like, on the palace, or on the citadel, or in the institutions of national government and so on, but the spotlight is turned on a lady called Hannah, who had no children. So, “There was a certain man…. He had two wives”; one of them “had no children.”
What are we to do? Well, this comes back to what I’ve been saying to you earlier. The theology in 1 and 2 Samuel is to be discovered by the reader not by definition in a textbook way but is to be discovered by the reader as it is revealed in the extraordinary ordinariness of the lives of these individuals—so that we are supposed to read this material, to reflect upon it, in order that we might learn lessons from the text, in order that we might be able to say that although this is three thousand years ago, these are, as I’ve said to you, real people in a real place, and they’re dealing with real hopes and real fears, real aspirations and real failures. Now, that ought to immediately be a point of contact for some of us. Because all of us as we live our lives are dealing with hopes, fears, aspirations, and failures. And the fact that we live three thousand years beyond this has not removed us from that realm. We may be more conscious of it than ever.
So what we need to understand is that the problem that faced Hannah—which is true, actually, of the problems that face us—that Hannah’s problem was not just personal in her barrenness, but it was also theological. “Well, why do you say?” Well, because the promise of God to his people—and you can read this in Deuteronomy 7; in fact, I’ll make sure that it’s there. But in Deuteronomy 7:14, as God lays out his concerns for and plans for his chosen people, he says to them at one point, “You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock.” “You’re gonna be blessed, and there’ll be no barren among you.” So Hannah wakes up in the morning and the next morning and the next year and the next year, and she has the issue… The predicament is that she has no children, and she’s in the house with a lady who has the children; to that we will come. But the real predicament is, “How do I understand this in theological terms? If God has made this promise, where do I fit in this?”
But think about it: Isn’t that true for all of us, in all kinds of ways—that God has said this, and here I am? Is this the end of this discussion? Is there more to come? It would seem that I am absolutely hopeless. It would seem that I am absolutely helpless. If we had had occasion to speak to Hannah, and we had said to her, you know, the contemporary question, “And so, how do you feel?” what would she have said? “I feel wretched. I feel confused. Unless God does something, I’ve got no hope.”
So, her predicament was not just a personal predicament, but it was theological. And finally, her predicament was not unique to her. Was not unique to her. If you’re a Bible person, you will find yourself saying, “But wait a minute. This is a familiar story. Haven’t we seen this already, a lot?” And you say to yourself, “But isn’t that the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac?” Yes. “Isn’t that the story of Rachel, who was barren, and the birth of Joseph, who was to be the savior of his people in Israel during the famine? And isn’t it also,” to come far more up to date, “true in the Judges, that it tells us that there was a certain woman who was barren, and she became the mother of Samson?” Reminding us of what? Well, in each case, in each of these women, each of them shared Hannah’s sad experience. And in each case, a child was born who was going to prove to be God’s answer to the crisis of the time.
But it was to be set against the background of obscurity. It was to be set against the context of “Who’s Elkanah? Where is this place? Who is she?” If you come even further on, you’re in the realm of Elizabeth and Zechariah, to which we’ve just spent time at Christmas. Elizabeth cannot give birth. God provides for her. In fact, we’re immediately in the realm of Mary and Joseph. Mary was not barren, but she was childless. And when the angel came to announce, “God is with you, you’re highly favored, you’re gonna have a baby,” she doesn’t say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” She says, “How [can] this be, [since] I know not a man?”—King James. “How can it be?” The answer is God: that the word of God is light in the darkness of Elkanah’s home, that the word of God is hope for the hopelessness of Hannah’s heart, and the word of God is the answer in Jesus not only to the crisis of that time but to the crisis of every time, and the answer to whatever your crisis is as you come here this morning, as we begin together these studies in 1 Samuel.
 See Psalm 19:14.
 J. I. Packer, “From the Scriptures to the Sermon: I. Some Perspectives on Preaching,” Ashland Theological Journal 22, (1990): 42–43, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/22-1_42.pdf.
 Second Helvetic Confession, chap. 1.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American edition, vol. 22, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1–4, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1957), 527.
 John Newton, “Of a Living and a Dead Faith,” sermon 18 in Sermons Preached in the Parish-Church of Olney, in Buckinghamshire (London, 1767), 290.
 Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “Speak O Lord” (2005). Paraphrased.
 James 1:19–21 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 10:11 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 10:11 (ESV).
 Judges 21:25 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 3:1–14.
 See 1 Samuel 17:1–58.
 John Trapp, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, ed. Hugh Martin, vol. 1, Genesis–Second Chronicles (1662; repr., London: Richard D. Dickinson, 1867), 412.
 Matthew 19:8 (paraphrased). See also Mark 10:5–6.
 See Genesis 29:31; 30:22–24.
 See Judges 13:2–25.
 See Luke 1:7, 57–66.
 Luke 1:30–31 (paraphrased).
 Luke 1:34 (KJV).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.