In times of prolonged suffering, we can easily grow bitter and resentful toward God and others. Unable to conceive year after year, Elkanah’s wife Hannah was familiar with sorrow. This woman of faith did not hide or minimize her pain, though; rather, she brought her affliction before God in prayer. Alistair Begg explains that when we, like Hannah, recognize that our circumstances are under God’s sovereign care, He enables us to find peace and hope even in the midst of unresolved trials.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Turn with me to 1 Samuel and to chapter 1, and we read from verse 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.”
I want to use the prayer that Calvin routinely used before he taught the Bible in Geneva. So, let us pray:
We call upon you, our good God and Father, beseeching you, since all the fullness of wisdom and light is found in you, in your mercy to enlighten us by the Holy Spirit in the true understanding of the Word. Teach us by your Word to place our trust in you and to serve and honor you as we ought, so that we may glorify your holy name in all our living and edify our neighbors by our good example. May we render to you, O God, the love and obedience which children owe to the parents, since it has pleased you graciously to receive us in Christ as your children. Amen.
Well, we live in a world of huge advances in technology, not least of all in the realm of medicine. And some of you live your lives there. Others of us are introduced to it as necessary when we get the card or the invitation that says an MRI, or an introduction to echocardiography, or to a CAT scan, or whatever it might be. And in the midst of all of that, there is something quaint and wonderfully reassuring when my doctor actually says to me, “And how is your appetite?” It just seems sort of old-fashioned, and yet it is a not-uncommon question, because being off our food, as we might put it, is often a sign that something else is going on.
And that is certainly true here in the record of 1 Samuel 1 and our introduction to the circumstances of Hannah. The conclusion of Judges was a time not dissimilar to our own in this respect: that it was marked by social and political and religious chaos. The summary statement at the end of Judges we noted last time: “There was no king,” and everybody “did what was right in [their] own eyes,” so much so that people living at that point in history, a thousand years BC, might have been saying to one another, “Can you believe the situation we’re in? It’s almost as if the world is upside down.” And it’s not uncommon for me to hear somebody say that today. Sometimes I hear myself saying it. And in the context of Judges, in the period that we’re now considering, the prospect was that if they could only have an earthly king, then presumably things would be fixed. Throughout the history of man, groups have decided, “If we could only have,” for example, “a coalition,” or perhaps “we could have a revolution”—I think, for example, of Venezuela today—“then,” people say, “perhaps everything would be fixed.”
Now, what is quite striking is the fact that in the midst of all of this—if you like, in that big, macro picture—the spotlight of Scripture is fixed upon the domestic circumstances of this man of Ramathaim-zophim whose name is Elkanah. He’s introduced to us as “a certain man.” We’re told that he has two wives, one of whom is childless. Her name is Hannah—presumably, his first wife—and then a second wife who has sons and daughters. The fact that Hannah is childless is a big part of the opening of this story, because if there was going to be a king that would be provided for the people at this time, then since Hannah was in this situation, there was no possibility that she would have any part in the answering of that question.
And the story is unfolded for us in such a way as to cause us as the readers to view these sad circumstances, to see Hannah’s position as hopeless, to see her in a position of helplessness, to prepare us, if you like, for the discovery that God is once again going to do what he’s been doing throughout all of the history of his people. And that is he’s going to reach into the humdrum life, the ordinary life, of a family, and through his intervention, he is not only going to impact that family, but he is going to redirect the course of human history. So, when Hannah would inevitably have occasion to say routinely in the day, “Why is this happening to me?” the answer to her question was not going to be found in the “this,” and it was not going to be found in the “me.” For what God was doing providentially was something far greater than even her own justifiable concern.
History bears testimony to this. If you think about the chaos, for example, of England in the end of the seventeenth century, the beginning of the eighteenth century, in all of its darkness and the state of mortality and the abuse of children in so many different ways, people would have had occasion to say, “Can you believe we’re in this situation? How are we ever going to get out of this?” Who would have thought that the answer would come in the form of a baby? A baby born to Mrs. Wesley, a baby born to Mrs. Whitefield, and that God in the mystery of his purposes was raising up actually not politicians, although there were good politicians, but was actually raising up somebody who would actually declare the Word of the Lord. And what a difference it would make to then and to now.
Now, I encourage you to think along these lines, because you may be here this morning, and you’re actually saying to yourself, “I don’t really know where I fit in the big scheme of things at all.” You may actually not even believe there is a big scheme of things. You may be the product of a view of the world which regards it all as haphazard—that chaos is what you should expect because chaos is all that is there.
Now, Hannah’s not like that. The Hannah that we focus on this morning is a believer, inasmuch as she believed that God is responsible for the existence of the world. She believed that it was he who gives to all men life and breath, as Paul would later say in Acts 17. And it is because she believes that that she’s in difficulty. You see, if she just believed in a random universe, if she just believed that all things happen by chance, then there would be no real reason for her—there’d be nobody to talk to, there would be nothing to be disagreeable about or concerned about. What would be the question? What would you ask a question, and about what, and to whom?
No, you see, it is because of her theological position that there is a God in heaven who controls everything that she faces her predicament, because she’s childless. And instead of time, as people often suggest, proving to be the great healer, in actual fact, the longer it goes, the worse it gets. And there in verse 3, “This man used to go up year by year.” And the passage of time made the events of her life all the more painful. Again, you may be here this morning, and that is exactly your testimony as well: “If only this could have been curtailed. If only this could have been rectified. But it seems that again and again and again…”
Now, the way in which this is provided for us can be viewed, if you like, in a couple of scenes. Scene 1: from verse 3 through to verse 8. I just called this in my notes, “Back off to Shiloh Again,” which actually stems from, again, my dreadful upbringing, ’cause I was thinking of Steve Winwood and “Back in the High Life Again,” and I said, “This is not ‘Back in the High Life Again.’ That is ‘Back off to Shiloh Again.’”
Because you see here that this man Elkanah, who was not only marked by obscurity, he was marked also by consistency, and his consistency was an expression of his piety. Because Shiloh was an important place historically and religiously. It was one of a number of places that became important to the people of God. A concordance will help you with this. But as recently as Judges 21, you have the record there of the annual feast taking place. And clearly, Elkanah was concerned to go there and “to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts.” You will notice that in verse 3: and he would go there “to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh,” or to “Lord Sabaoth,” for that is the meaning of the phrase, “Lord of hosts”—or “Lord of hosts” is the expression of “Lord Sabaoth,” which we sing in Luther’s great Reformation hymn, “Lord Sabaoth, his name.” To what are we referring in that hymn? We’re referring to this: that he is the God of heaven’s armies, that he is mighty, that he is sovereign.
Now, you might think, or we might be tempted to think, that since he took his family there, and since he took Hannah there, it would be a good occasion then for Hannah “to get herself sorted out”—you know, a visit to the place of sacrifice. And there may well have been some who would have been prepared to say to her, “You know, Hannah, don’t you think that for a little while in your life you could stop thinking about yourself and about your own problem, and since we’re here for this very express purpose, to give your attention to God?” Well, I have found in life, there’s no shortage to Job’s comforters: the people who are able to point out to us when we’re in the midst of difficulty that it’s really just a problem for ourselves and that we would be better off if we looked outside of ourselves. It may well be true, but it doesn’t actually help.
Now, Elkanah, who was responsible for this little journey on an annual basis, had, in taking Peninnah as his wife, got something that he wanted—namely, children. But he also got what he didn’t want—namely, a divided household. And in the routine distribution of the portions from the sacrifice—which you will see are there in verse 4, “When Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions”—his giving of portions actually heightened the tension. Because, as you will see the text in front of you, “he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters.” So, “Here you are: one for you, and one for you, and one for you, and one for you,” and the picture there is of the fullness, if you like, of Peninnah’s experience. She has all these children.
And then, now to Hannah, and what do we discover? Well, he gave to Hannah “a double portion” for two reasons: “because he loved her” and because she didn’t have any children. Now, presumably he’s trying to be a good guy. But I think he compounded the problem. What is she supposed to do with all of this stuff? Nobody’s eating. She has no mouths to feed. She’s got no children to give it to. And I can’t help myself but I see it in pictural terms, you know: “And here’s one and another and another,” and he leaves her. She’s not even eating. Remember? “How’s your appetite?” She’s not eating.
Peninnah, looking on, says to her husband Elkanah, “I know you love her more than me. I know you do. That’s why you give her that stuff.” And then, turning to her rival, to Hannah: “What do you have to thank God for, Hannah? You’ve got nothing. You got no children. God has closed your womb. Surely he’s forgotten you.” So she becomes the catalyst for all this disruption, marked by provocation and aggravation and irritation. And verse 7: “So it went on year by year.”
Every so often, when you have a surgical procedure—I guess medicine’s on my mind today, for no apparent reason—but I’ve had a couple of occasions when the person has come at you with one of those very long syringes and has said something to the effect of “If you can survive the next twenty seconds, you will be okay.” And so, most of us can make it through twenty seconds. But when the word is “If you can survive this for the next twenty years of your life,” if this is a condition that apparently is not going to be resolved…
You see, Elkanah, the husband, knew that all things that come our way or do not come our way we need to take as from a Father’s hand. Hannah knew that as well. But you see, she was having a hard time allowing her heart or her emotions to catch up with her head. You see, the dilemma was that she had a theology, that she had an understanding of God and his purposes, that she knew that he was a God who was interested in the affliction of his people, that she knew that he was a God who wouldn’t forget his own. She knew this—and yet, at the same time, she was having a real difficulty in reconciling what was an apparent contradiction. You may be here today, and that’s exactly where you are in your spiritual pilgrimage: that you’re waiting for your emotions, as it were, to be brought under the jurisdiction of what you know to be true of God. Conversely, some of us actually may have emotionally got there, and we’re waiting for our heads to catch up.
Now, notice how Elkanah, true to form as her husband, makes an attempt at fixing things. He’s guilty, as my old friend Alec Motyer says, of a “bluff chauvinism.” “And Elkanah, her husband,” verse 8, “said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? … Why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad?’” To which she might have said, “Why don’t you go on a long donkey ride?” Fair? “I mean, are you honestly asking me these questions, Elkanah? You want to know why I’m sad?”
It’s like, I had the privilege of watching with my granddaughters the other day—again, Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a great excuse. Grandchildren are a wonderful excuse for watching things you want to watch. And it reminded me again when Tevye and his wife, when he says to her, “Do you love me?” You remember that? And she goes, “Do I love you? I can’t believe you’re asking the question. For twenty-five years I…”
“Why are you crying, Hannah? Why is your face sad? Why have you gone off your food?” Motyer says when he says, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”—you know, in other words, “I’m sufficient. Am I not sufficient?”—he should have said, “Are you not more to me than ten sons?” That would have been the right answer—or the right question. Because her grief was compounded by the fact that she knew that Elkanah loved her in every dimension of their relationship and, along with her, longed to have a child, to have an heir. And so he should have said, “Are you not more to me than whether you give me a son?”—as opposed to, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
So just tuck that away for the six-week course on Marriage Matters, which begins on Tuesday.
Scene 2, beginning in verse 9, is a scene of silent prayer in the sanctuary. Verse 9: “After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh…” It’s a question whether Hannah was at that point part of the “they.” It’s unclear. For me, it’s unlikely. But what we have that is clear is that she has now removed herself from the realm of Elkanah’s questions, and she’s placed herself in the presence of the one who holds the answers.
Now, there’s a physical dimension to this, but it is also true to say that she has had to, if you like, take herself out of the realm of those recurring questions, which were, of course, merely furthering the sense of disappointment and embitterment that was potential to her. It’s a bit like Psalm 73, where the psalm begins, “Truly God is good to Israel,” and then the psalmist says, “But as for me…” “I mean, I know that you are a good God and you look after all of your people, but what about me?” And then he goes on to recount how it was easy for him to begin to envy the wicked and to be completely disoriented in his understanding of things, until he says, “When I thought how to understand [all] this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God.” And that’s exactly what she does. She goes into the sanctuary.
And you will notice, if your Bible is in front of you, that the description of her can be summarized just in these phrases: deep distress, and bitter tears, earnest prayer, “affliction,” “great anxiety and vexation.” You imagine that she’s saying in her heart, “O God, I thank you for my husband. I love him, but he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand me. To you, O Lord, I cry.” But the chances are that Elkanah was in his bedroom praying something similar: “O Lord, I love Hannah, and we don’t get it, but to you we cry.”
You see, what we should be struck with at this point is this: that the response of Hannah to this is not vengeance. There’s no indication that she wants to form a plot to try and eradicate her rival, Peninnah. Nor is there any sense of her becoming resentful towards God, which would have been an understandable reaction. Nor is she fatalistic; we don’t read on and she simply says, “Que será, será, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not [mine] to see. Que será, será”—in other words, the shrug, the most hopeless of all comments in her circumstances. No, none of that! What she’s doing is she’s bringing her tears, her sighs, her longings—which are all an expression of her sad heart—she’s bringing them, if you like, into the presence of God. She’s seeking to bring her life underneath God’s jurisdiction, a God who is too wise to make mistakes and who is too kind ever to be cruel.
Now, loved ones, that is the story of Christian pilgrimage. One can’t be involved in congregational life over a long period of time without being aware of the fact that in the pews, in the seats in front of you, on a regular basis is life after life after life that is dealing with these very same issues. You know, it’s only my preservation of your own security that prevents me, wisely, from actually introducing you individually in a circumstance like this and saying, “Why don’t you stand up and tell the congregation that this is where we have been together, that this is how we have cried out to God—that it is not that we prayed and the tears stopped, but it is that we prayed and we wept more?” There was no simple solution to this. There was no immediate eradication of the problem. And many of us will go through all of our days dealing with circumstances like this.
So it is remarkable what she does: “O Lord of hosts,” verse 11, “if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant—and I know you looked on the affliction of your people. You looked on Noah in his circumstances. You looked on Abraham. You’ve looked on your people. If you will look on the affliction of your servant, if you will remember me, if you won’t forget me, if you will give to your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.”
She’s not making a promise in an attempt to induce God’s favor. She knows better than that. All she is saying is this: “God, you are the majestic God. You’re the God of heaven’s armies. You’re sovereign. I am your servant. I am in this predicament. I regard this as a deep affliction. And therefore, I am asking you to do for me, little Hannah, what you have done for your people in the past.” You see, God’s love in the past is what gives her the confidence to pray as audaciously as she does.
See, she could never have known that in answering her prayer, God was actually addressing the problem of Israel. God, in answering her little prayer, was doing something that was vast in its ramifications. That’s why I said to you, when she asked the question “Why is this happening to me?” the answer to that question is not in the “this,” and it’s not in the “me.” For the ways of God are vast beyond our ability to comprehend. And in many cases, in our journey of life, it will be only in glory eventually that we will make sense of all the tangled threads, of all the black bits and pieces, all the patterns that have been destroyed.
You see, she says, “And I will give you this boy. And no razor shall touch his head all the days of his life.” The reference here is to a Nazirite vow. A Nazarite vow would have a time frame to it. That’s why you read, for example, in the Acts of how Paul had his hair cut according to a Nazirite vow. It lasted for a while. She says, “This boy will be yours forever.”
Now, all these words are put in her mouth, but you will notice that we haven’t heard a peep from her mouth, because in verse 12 it says that “she continued praying before the Lord,” and “Eli observed her mouth,” but she “was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was[n’t] heard.” In other words, her prayers had been heartfelt. In some ways, they were observable prayers, but they were inaudible prayers.
But then, let’s bring in the religious personnel. They’ll be sure to capture the event, I’m sure! What does the pastor have to say? He’s been watching from the corner, sitting there on his chair, looking, making his own assessments. And as he watches from the wings, Eli, who is the father of worthless sons, has concluded that this is a worthless woman, and with an embarrassing absence of spiritual insight, he concludes that she’s inebriated, much the same way as the crowd determined on the day of Pentecost what was happening to the people of God. But they were pagans; they could never understand it. Eli should know. It’s too bad, isn’t it, when your pastor lets you down? You go and pour out your soul, and he doesn’t get it.
What was that song we learned this morning? “My hope is in God alone.” The best of men are men at best. Eli is there as a representative of the religious establishment, missing the point phenomenally well. She has to explain to him that she’s not a worthless woman. She’s been speaking out of “anxiety and vexation.” Eli then twigs at verse 17, and he says, “Well, in that case, go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Well then, let your servant find favor in your eyes.” And then here we go: “[And] the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.”
I call this final little section—I put a heading for myself—“You’re Looking More Like Yourself, Hannah.” Isn’t that what people say to you when you’ve been unwell? “I saw you a few weeks ago, but you’re looking much more like yourself.” It’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? How can you look like anybody else? Unless, I suppose, you dress up or something. “You’re looking more like yourself.” “Oh, you mean it wasn’t myself when I was weeping and sick and sad?” No, it was yourself. But look at this!
Now, she has brought her grief to the Lord, and before it is answered in one way or another, her appetite has returned and her countenance has changed. And the way in which this is written points to the fact that the point of resolution for Hannah was not in her pregnancy, not in the subsequent arrival of a child, but in the fact that she’d had, if you like, her own 1 Peter 5:6–7 encounter, casting her burden upon the Lord. And it was there in the quiet place, in the sanctuary, in her own heart of hearts, that she was then settled in her heart and lightened in her step: “O Lord of hosts, I don’t know what you’re doing or why, but I take the absence or the presence of a child as from your hand.” You see, that has to be it. “I don’t know what you’re doing or why, but I…” All of us have stuff like that.
When I finished this, my mind went immediately to Helen Roseveare. Helen Roseveare, who was here with us years ago when we were back on Fairmount Boulevard. And Helen did medicine at Cambridge. She went to the Belgian Congo to serve as a medical missionary. In the uprising of the ’60s, many of her friends were murdered. She was physically tortured and brutalized and went back to England a shadow of herself. Once repaired physically and emotionally, she turned around and went back to the Belgian Congo, back to the same people.
And in talking with her and trying to understand “How did you resolve this? How do you deal with the dilemma, the obvious dilemma, of ‘Here,’ you know, ‘I offer myself to you, I give you my medical degree, I give you my life, I give you the absence of marriage, I give you my whole thing’?”—she said she felt that God had said to her, “Helen, can you thank me for testing you with this, even if I never tell you why?” “Helen, can you thank me for testing you with this, even if I never tell you why?” And she said, “When I answered yes, it was only then that peace began to flood my soul.” Hannah answered yes. And in the challenging dilemmas of each of our lives, surely the only stabilizing answer is for each of us to answer yes.
And Calvin’s prayer after preaching:
“Now let us cast ourselves down before the majesty of our good God, asking him to forgive our sins and renew us in the image of Christ, and to fulfill all his purposes in us and through us.”
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Judges 21:25 (ESV).
 See Acts 17:25.
 See Judges 21:19.
 Martin Luther, trans. Frederic Hedge, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529, 1853).
 Alec Motyer, Roots: Let the Old Testament Speak (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014), 123.
 Sheldon Harnick, “Do You Love Me?,” Fiddler on the Roof (1964). Paraphrased.
 Motyer, Roots, 123.
 Psalm 73:1–2 (ESV).
 Psalm 73:16–17 (ESV).
 Ray Evans, “Que Será, Será” (1956).
 See Numbers 6:1–21.
 See Acts 18:18.
 See Acts 2:13.
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.