To be honest, I never quite know what to do with the story of Hannah.
On one hand I’d love to preach a sermon that says if you simply pray hard enough just like Hannah did, then God will give you the desires of your heart. After all, Hannah did pray earnestly and the barren woman did have a son. David also prayed earnestly and lost his son. I can give you examples of people in my life who have experienced both Hannah and David moments. Name it and Claim it doesn’t seem to cut it with this text.
On the other hand I could say that Hannah’s story is an example of God blessing a faithful woman, and so the answer must be to have a strong faith and God’s blessings will come. Job also had a strong faith, and was blameless while losing all his children. Just have more faith doesn’t seem to cut it either.
Perhaps the struggle I have is not so much with this text, but rather trying to make God predictable and controllable, or perhaps make him out to be a cliché. It seems to me that we always want to be able to nail down exactly how God will act. We almost would prefer a genie that is obligated to give us our three wishes rather than the living God of the Bible who acts according to his nature and for his glory all the while being bound to flawed human beings through covenant.
Hannah’s prayer in particular sets up themes that the rest of Samuel will address. Let me give an example of what I’m talking about before returning to Hannah’s story. Most Christians are familiar with the idea of God not changing, and we usually get this from James. Samuel gives us a more detailed look at this concept. The Hebrew word in question is nakham. Let’s look at it in context.
The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.1 Samuel 15:29 NET (emphasis added)
Both places in the text that are italicized are the translations of the Hebrew word nakham. It means to change one’s mind. God doesn’t do that according to 1 Samuel 15:29. It tells us this twice in the same verse! But now let’s look at two other verses that occur before and after verse 29.
“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned away from me”…but the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.1 Samuel 15:11, 35 NET (emphasis added)
Both times the word regret is used is the Hebrew word nakham. God does not nakham according to verse 29, but he does nakham twice in the same chapter. So what does all of this have to do with Hannah? I think the key to understanding this textual confusion is in verse 29. The text tells us that God does not go back on his word. NIV translates this that God does not lie.
In other words, I think Samuel is teaching us that God will nakham based on the actions of the covenant people to whom he has committed himself. Saul turns away from God, so God nakhams. But from God’s own ultimate purpose and character, he will never nakham. Both can be true at the same time. I believe this teaches us that God will always act consistent to his character and purpose in the world, even though that means the details of how he interacts and carries out that character driven purpose in the world might vary.
Back to Hannah. When we look at her prayer we notice quickly that this isn’t a prayer of God’s intervention in one person’s life, rather a prayer of national, even cosmic thanksgiving as God displays his character in the world. And notice the contrast and consistency present in how God acts in the world.
The bows of warriors are shattered, but those who stumble find their strength reinforced. Those who are well-fed hire themselves out to earn food, but the hungry no longer lack. Even the barren woman gives birth to seven, but the one with many children withers away. The Lord both kills and gives life; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord impoverishes and makes wealthy; he humbles and he exalts. He lifts the weak from the dust; he raises the poor from the ash heap to seat them with princes and to bestow on them an honored position. The foundations of the earth belong to the Lord, and he has placed the world on them.1 Samuel 2:4-8 NET
Do you see the contrast? He weakens and strengthens, feeds and starves, gives fertility and infertility, gives life and takes life, gives wealth and poverty, exalts and humbles. God will never nakaham from his mission, his character, and his promises. But the application of this in the world will vary. Hannah testifies to it. Samuel recognizes it. And we are often uncomfortable with it.
And still I find comfort in this text. Bit by bit we are reassured that we serve a God who hears us and knows us. Hannah poured out her soul to the LORD, the LORD heard Hannah, and remembered her. Hannah reminds us that the LORD is a God who knows.
I don’t know why Hannah can pray for a child and God miraculously intervenes. He is a holy God and there is none like him. And at the same time I don’t know why a faithful, childless woman can earnestly pray for years and no miracle comes. He is a holy God and there is none like him.
We sit in the tension. We wait in the discomfort. And that’s where we meet Hannah. She faithfully poured out her soul to God while weeping bitterly, and did the same with rejoicing at the dedication of Samuel. In lack and abundance, in need and in blessing, Hannah poured out her soul to God, and God heard her.
Our God does not nakham. When we pour out our soul before God, our prayers will be heard. We may or may not receive everything we ask. But the LORD is a God who knows. And in that I find great comfort.