Saturday, 12 February 2011

Prayer: of desperation and of faith




Story of Samuel: the last judge of Israel and king-maker


Samuel is a book of contrasts:
Judges - Kings
two judges: Eli and Samuel
two kings: Saul and David

Here we see a contrast: two women - two rivals: Peninnah and Hannah
Hannah beloved of her husband, but barren
Peninnah, less favourite of the wives, but fertile.

And Peninnah was going to use this against her rival. She ‘kept provoking her in order to irritate her’. ‘She provoked her until she wept’

And Peninnah had hit Hannah’s raw nerve. A woman’s identity and value in society was dependent on her children. A barren woman was a failure, a nobody.

I’m conscious that even in today’s society there is still a deep subconscious assumption that an infertile woman is only half a woman, just as an impotent man is only half a man. That is still thought to be true even though many women are making the choice not to have children. Infertility still does carry some kind of personal and social stigma, to say nothing often of the desperate pain of couples where they do desire to have children but are unable to do so.

So the story of Samuel begins with a man called Elkanah, and his wife, Hannah, who prays.

Right from the beginning we know that something very special is about to happen. Elkanah is introduced in exactly the same way that Manoah, the father of Samson, is introduced (Judges 13:2). ‘A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth’.

But the focus of these verses is not Elkanah, but Hannah: a barren woman, who is desparate and who prays.

1 Samuel 1:10-11

She prays that:

1. God will remember her

She is praying that God will take notice of her, that he will look at her misery.
This was the prayer of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt
This was the prayer of the Psalmist: Psalm 44:23-24. They were crying out, ‘God, we’ve remained faithful to you. Why have you walked out on us? Where are you?’
This has been the prayer of women and men of God through the centuries: ‘O God, take notice of me, don’t be deaf to me; don’t be blind to me’.

It is actually a tremendous prayer of faith. Hannah chooses to turn to God.
She didn’t have to. She could have turned against God. She could have chosen to turn her enmity against Peninnah into a crusade (Sarah does that a bit with Hagar). She could have done what Eli accuses her of doing - turning to the bottle: drinking just to kill the pain.
But she doesn’t. She turns to God.

We don’t often do that - not really. When we are in trouble, we turn to the credit card, to medical science, to entertainment - to anything which will make us feel better here and now, or which will anaesthetise the pain.

But Hannah turns to God. Only he can answer.

And her prayer is very honest: ‘God, remember me’. Why? Because she feels abandoned.

Maybe we need to learn what it is to cry out to God in desperation:
like the father with the possessed son
like the mother with the possessed daughter
like Jairus or the Centurion crying out for their child or servant
like the tax collector in the temple
like the blind men calling to Jesus.

2. Hannah prays about what matters to her the most

She prays from the heart. She is praying out of her anguish and grief. As she prays, she weeps bitterly.

And she prays from the heart. It is often said that the ancients did not tend to pray in their head. They spoke the words out loud. It is written of Augustine that he prayed silently, and it was something that was strange enough to be recorded. So here, when Hannah prays, because she is so desperate - she moves her lips, but no sound comes out. And that is why Eli thinks she is drunk.

And if we look at her prayer, we realise that she is not necessarily praying for a child - but she is praying for everything that comes with a child: vindication in her rivalry with Peninnah; honour in the eyes of the community; security for the future.

I wonder what really matters the most to you at the moment. Perhaps it is a child, a grandchild, a sibling, a husband or wife. Perhaps we are worried sick about illness or debt or scandal.

I remember being told that the ancients lived in a shame culture. The most awful thing that could happen to you was that you would be shamed publicly; that those you respected and valued would ignore you or think very bad of you. But I am not sure that that was just the ancients. I suspect that today the thing that matters most to us is what others think of us, and what we think of ourselves. We desire material goods for our comfort and freedom, but also because they make us look good in public. We think we matter because we possess. And actually when we desire material objects, we have not really looked deep enough at ourselves: because what we really desire is to live, to matter, to be vindicated, to be respected.

Hannah prays first that God would look on her misery. Then she prays for a son.


And that is significant. Because it might have been that God could have chosen to sort her misery without giving her a son - in which case he was still answering her prayer.

God says that he knows what we really need. In Matthew 6 Jesus warns us against praying long and wordy prayers, because God knows what we need before we ask him. And he does not promise to give us what we think we need, but what we really do need. He promises to give us far more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)

3. Hannah makes a vow to God

Hannah says, 1 Samuel 1:11  The bit about giving him to the Lord and not letting a razor touch his head is Hannah saying, ‘He will be a Nazirite’ (we learn about Nazirites in Numbers 6:1-21). Samson was a Nazirite - so ‘Hannah volunatrily vows for her son what God had required of Samson’ (TNIV footnote)

There is a difference between making a deal with God and making a vow to God. If Hannah had said, ‘God give me a son, and I will come to the temple every day..’ That is trying to bargain with God.

But Hannah doesn’t say that. She says, ‘God if you give me a son, he will be a Nazirite’. It is not a deal. It is a promise. She isn’t trying to twist God’s arm, to think that she can control the creator. She realises that if she has a son it will be God’s work from beginning to end, and that the child will havec come from God and belong to God. So she is promising reality.

So Hannah prays that God will remember her, that God will meet her deepest need, and she makes a vow to God - recognising that if what she prays for happens, it will be fully of God.

It is fascinating that four of the most significant people in the history of Israel were born to women who had been unable to conceive: Isaac, Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. And the most significant person was born of a virgin. In each case, it was God’s way of saying, ‘This child is of me. This child is mine, for my purposes’.

As we look through the book of Samuel we will see those purposes being worked out.

Hannah is an inspiration to us.

  • She is an inspiration because when we look at her we realise that Godly people will experience times of deep anguish and trouble. She and Elkanah were regulars at the temple. 
  • She is an inspiration because she is a woman of faith who turns to God, and pours out her heart to God. 
  • She is in an inspiration because she recognises that whatever happens will be of God, and is therefore belongs to God.

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