January 13, 2014


If ever anyone had good reason to quit, it was Hannah. But she didn’t.

Hannah and Her God

Consider first Hannah’s relationship with God. As a child, her young heart must have thrilled at those stories about God and her ancestors—about Moses parting the sea with a rod and fetching water at a blow; about miracle manna in the morning that didn’t last through the night but wouldn’t spoil on the Sabbath; about Joshua tumbling Jericho’s walls and praying for the noonday sun to stand still for a whole day. And the Lord said yes! Hannah learned to admire, honor, and love Israel’s God. She dared to hope that her son would be the longed for Messiah. She dreamt of being the kind of mother that could raise God’s Son.

Then Elkanah came, and the happy day when those dreams would start to be fulfilled. Happy and secure in Elkanah’s love, she blossomed in those early years, so bright with hope—blossomed, planned, and looked forward. But nothing happened. Surely, soon, they thought. But Hannah was never able to whisper to Elkanah, “I have a secret. . . .” 

“Why?” It was the dark shadow across her sunshine. Neighbors turned from meddling to looks of pity or suspicion. Barrenness was God’s disapproval. Hannah needed to search her heart and discover what she was doing wrong. But try as she might, Hannah could think of nothing that warranted her curse. It was wretchedly worse than rightful conviction of guilt. What could she find to repent of? Who would have blamed her then, if after years of unanswered prayer, futile faithfulness, and tormented conscientiousness, she had just stopped trying and said, “What’s the use of serving God?” Remarkably, she didn’t.

Hannah and Her Hubby

Consider Hannah’s relationship with her husband. Elkanah was a practical man. You had to have children. It was the inarguable axiom of life in agrarian Israel. It wasn’t a matter of emotions, a wayward heart, or wandering eye that led to the Peninnah arrangement: he loved Hannah; Peninnah would surely understand her child-bearing role; and loving-hearted Hannah would be happier now, hearing children’s glad voices. It was no ideal. But plan A wasn’t working. . . .

Could Elkanah ever imagine the bitterness into which he was plunging his beloved Hannah? How could he know of her constant battle not to blame him, to remain as devoted and sweet as during those early days of love? How would he know the crucible that Peninnah would create for Hannah? How could he foresee the way Hannah would have to learn to bite her tongue, the pain only those who are wrongfully mistreated can know? We couldn’t blame Hannah for getting hard and bitter, for developing an acid tongue, for coldness toward Elkanah, recoiling from his touch, and being purely hateful toward Peninnah. We couldn’t blame her for turning into a barren shell of forgettable humanity. We wouldn’t be surprised if someday some gossip came by and asked if we’d heard the news of Hannah and Elkanah’s split—she had finally walked out. Or worse: that she’d taken the ultimate escape route. But, she didn’t.

Hannah and Her Church

Consider Hannah’s relationship to her church. Everybody knew what the priest’s sons were doing at the tabernacle! Expropriating the brethren’s sacrificial contributions; seducing employees right there on the dedicated compound. Hannah had probably received the sordidly detailed newsletters and DVDs. As a young woman she had probably gotten a creepy feeling around Hophni and Phineas during her visits to Shiloh. But that wasn’t the worst way her church let her down.

It happened at Shiloh, right at the door of the tabernacle, the closest place an Israelite could come to the presence of God. Overcome with misery at being the constant butt of a rival’s heckling, crushed with grief at her loving husband’s sheer deafness before the calculating cruelty of Penninah’s continuous torment, Hannah poured out her heart to God. This was her Gethsemane. With an anguish only she and God could understand she pled that He would give her what her heart longed for. And she vowed, “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” (1 Sam. 1:11). It was a prayer of desperation, a prayer her heart could not escape praying, and she wept much praying it. The thought of having a son filled her with joy, but the thought of then giving him up to the Lord brought fresh tears. What a struggle was this, a surrendering of herself to the will and work of God.

Eli, her priest, observed her moving lips as he surveyed the worshippers. He was a good conservative believer in God’s laws and plan for Israel, but powerless to restrain his sons in their choices for debauched, cutting edge, Canaanite excitement. Given his own children, given the whole nation’s moral trend, he read the slumped woman, lips moving yet soundless, as part of the drunken excess that now characterized Israel’s religious feasts. Hannah heard the stinging rebuke he should have given his own sons, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine” (verse 14).

What thoughts must have flashed through her mind at that instant! This was a moment for righteous fury: the church’s head, God’s representative to the people, accusing her, in her utter devotion, of being a lush! Could you blame Hannah for turning her back on it all—on a God who exposed her to this unfair suspicion and ridicule; on Elkanah for bedding the miserable, insecure Peninnah; on a corrupt and insensitive church for letting her down when she needed it most? But she didn’t.

Instead, with meekness born of long years of empty waiting and cruel abuse, she responded to Eli’s ignorant rebuke with respectful earnestness, “I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief” (verse 16). Was it her prayer of faith, or was it his awed response that changed Hannah forever? “Go in peace,” he directed, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked” (verse 17). The entire history of Israel, indeed, the world’s history, was impacted by that change. Suddenly Hannah was free from long-borne burdens, homeward bound to rediscover all her lost dreams and joys.

She got her marriage back. She got to say to the clueless but doting Elkanah, “I have a secret . . .”

She got her respect in the community back. She could hold her head up after Shiloh. Nobody’s looks scared or chilled her. And she got her church back. Hophni, Phineas, and bungling Eli notwithstanding, she took the son of her vow to Shiloh and gave him, not to Eli, but to the Lord. The results of her living sacrifice changed the course of a nation.


“We also glory in our sufferings,” says Paul, “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). Hannah would say, “Amen!”