"When Life is Difficult" by Charles Loder
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. 2 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.
3 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. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.6 And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 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. 8 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?”
9 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. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. 11 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.”
12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 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. 14 And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 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. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18 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.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. 20 And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD.” 1 Samuel 1:1-20 (ESV)
All of us have faced one of the hardest social situations there is - when someone asks, "How are you doing?" You pause. Your week has been stressful; between work, family, relationships, and whatever else, you feel overwhelmed. Your mind flashes to pictures your friend has been posted about that awesome beach vacation, while you have been stuck at home. Your high school friend told you about his great new promotion at his business, while you feel stuck at your job. Your cousin keep raving about her spectacular, upcoming wedding, while you struggle to keep you relationship steady. You feel alienated from your friends and peers. You feel alienated from God. You feel tired, worn out, depressed, angry, and every other emotion all at once. You know that you can't simply unload all these problems at once. You do what comes natural and reply, "I'm doing great." Besides, that the answer everyone expects…
While the Biblical stories are often filled with grand exploits and cataclysmic events (at least those are the ones everyone thinks about), throughout the Scriptures there are stories like this one in 1 Samuel, where you get a glimpse into the human condition. When we read the Bible, it is necessary that we allow the story to speak to us on its own terms. We must listen to what the author says and respond. Because of this, we must read different parts of the Bible differently. When reading Romans, we must be careful to follow Paul's line of argument to understand his doctrine. 1 Samuel is not Romans. We must allow ourselves to empathize with whom the author would have us to empathize.
The Introduction v.1-2
The first two verses of this chapter set the scene. Though short, they are crucial to the entirety of the story. They paint the picture of a family. The husband is Elkanah, and while it may seem that he is the main character of the story, we'll see the rest of his family in the next verse. This man also has two wives - Peninnah and Hannah. If we stopped there, nothing special would be in this verse, but the author reveals a surprising fact. Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not.
Right away the heart bleeds for Hannah. Not only is she barren, which is terrible for in ancient culture a woman's satisfaction came from her ability to bear children, but her contemporary is fertile. Imagine the pain of Hannah, to have to wake up daily to the sound of children, none of whom are yours. To see your rival prosper as you flounder, unable to accomplish to one thing you so desperately desire. From a distance, we can look at Hannah and know that she is in the company of women in the Bible who were also unable to have children - Sarah, who would give birth to the father of a nation; Rebekah, who was like her mother-in-law; Rachel, who like Hannah, had to endure as others around her prospered; and others. We have the advantage of history, but for Hannah, all seems destined for failure.
The Situation v.3-8
Next, the Biblical author gives a snippet of the life of this family. Elkanah is portrayed as a righteous man, going up yearly to sacrifice to the Lord at the sanctuary in Shiloh. Not only does he sacrifice, he gives portions of the sacrifice to his wives. To Peninnah he gives her an appropriate share, but to Hannah he makes sure to give her twice as much. Not only is Elkanah righteous, he is loving. Yet, at the end of v.5 the author reminds us again, that Hannah is barren. Just like Hannah, her condition is before our eyes, a continual reminder of her difficulty.
To compound matters, Peninnah does not demonstrate the kindness that her husband shows. Year by year the same action occurred. The family went to Shiloh and the rivalry would begin. Peninnah would torment her Hannah, and Hannah fell into a depression. In comparison to her rival, Hannah could not measure up and the results were disastrous.
The Solution v.9-18
A lot happens in this section, and only a few of the intricacies can be mentioned briefly. After a meal, Hannah goes to the sanctuary in order to pray. The author quickly notes that the Eli, the priest was there - this will set the stage for the proceeding material. Then, Hannah, in all her torment and distress, exhibits one of the greatest displays of piety all the while weeping uncontrollably. She begins to make a vow. She addresses herself a "maidservant," and she pleads for the Lord's kindness. She makes a vow dedicating her son to the service of the Lord. She makes a vow that appears to be a Nazarite vow (Num 6:1-21).
The episode shifts to Eli in v.12. It is as if Eli has been watching her pray silently to herself the whole time. We know that she is in internal agony, but Eli believes she is motivated by external forces. Hannah had mentioned one stipulation of the Nazarite vow, no cutting of the hair, and before she could get to the second stipulation, no drinking of wine, Eli accuses her of being drunk! She pleads her innocence, and Eli recognizes her situation. Then in a life-changing moment of blessing, Eli admonishes her that the Lord will grant her request.
The Resolution v.19-20
As with any happy ending, Hannah's suffering has been alleviated. She gives birth to a son - Samuel. When it seemed as if all was lost, the Lord remembered Hannah rescued her from her suffering.
Thoughts and Observations
Throughout the story, one theme is at the forefront, namely, the suffering of Hannah. She is devout; she has done nothing wrong, and yet, her life is exceedingly difficult. No blame is placed on Hannah. No reason is ever given for her suffering. However, Hannah emulates the correct response to suffering and hardship. She does not ignore her problem, nor attempt to correct the situation through her own manipulation. She prays.
When we are faced with the daunting question,"How are you doing?", and the more daunting realization that it is not well, we can learn from Hannah. This should not construed into thinking that whatever we ask from the Lord will magically happen. Rather, it should be a somber realization that the God of the universe listens to the words of his people. HIS people. They are those who have come humbly to the Lord in repentance and faith. This story does not and cannot speak to all. It speaks to those who are part of the flock of God, those who are shepherded by the Good Shepherd. Those who are his children, like Hannah, when life is difficult and hard, can pray before their Almighty Father, with the confidence that he hears.