The book of 1 Samuel opens with an account of how the prophet came onto the scene. It is a poignant story, full of love, jealousy, sorrow, and (eventually) joy. It is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament, and I think that its message stands behind many of the impulses that animate the Christian practice of prayer.
Will the Real Hero, or Heroes, Please Stand Up?
As we begin our exploration of 1 Samuel 1, it is interesting to note who is, and is not, portrayed in a positive light. In other words, we would do well to ask ,“Who is the hero of this story?” Some would, no doubt, argue that God is always the hero of every biblical story, but even if we grant the validity of such an a priori assumption, it is still worth sifting through the biblical characters to find out who really warrants our imitation.
The first and most obvious candidates for “hero” status are Eli and his two sons. They are the priests who manage the sanctuary at Shiloh, and they are mentioned quite early on in the story. But the two sons are wholly absent from the rest of the account, and Eli’s role is that of an imperceptive (and perhaps uncaring) religious authority. These priests are supposed to be the guardians of Israel’s religious heritage and the mediators of God’s merciful presence to his people, but, as we will see later in 1 Samuel, they are nothing of the sort.
So, we are left to sift the family that stands at the heart of the story. A man named Elkanah has two wives. (I guess he didn’t learn from the mess his ancestor Jacob got himself in by marrying two women.) One wife, Peninnah, has children, while the other, Hannah, does not. Obviously, Peninnah is no hero. Like a petulant child, she aggravates her rival at every opportunity over her childlessness. Even the trip to the sanctuary, which is supposed to be a time of introspection and devotion to God, is used as an opportunity to torment Hannah.
For his part, Elkanah wants nothing but for his wife Hannah to know that he loves her. He claims to be better to her than a whole house full of sons (a claim that would have sounded quite strange in a world where an older man could die at any moment and where a woman without a son or sons to take care of her could end up destitute), and I am sure he meant well. But his boast did nothing to address the emotional turmoil and social stigma in which Hannah lived, and it may have worsened her situation with Peninnah (by demonstrating that he loved Hannah better).
So, we turn our attention to Hannah, and here we find, at last, a person whose example is worth examining and emulating. Hannah’s heart is broken. She is so distressed by her childlessness that she sometimes cannot eat. One wonders if (given the setting of this story) she felt abandoned or even rejected by God. And yet, in the midst of her anguish, she prayed.
Praying on Her Own Behalf
There is much that the story does not tell us, and we should not fill in the gaps with our own imaginings (which almost always say more about our own story than about the story that we are seeking to illuminate). The story does not tell us whether Elkanah prayed for his wife as Isaac prayed for Rebekah, and, if we are intended to assume that he did not, we are not told why this obviously devout man would not pray for his wife.
What we are told is that Hannah takes matters into her own hands. She prays for herself. Here she is, a common person (not a priest) and a woman at that, and she is left with the responsibility (so the narrative implies) of taking her sorrow to God. Such may seem like a normal occurrence in our day, but in her day it was worthy of note. This woman, who is barred by her gender and by her tribal identification from having direct contact with the most sacred spaces and things of Yahweh worship, dares to approach the living and holy God and to pour out her very heart to Him. Sure, Eli eventually plays a positive role in the drama by pronouncing a blessing over her. But it is she who takes the initiative, and it is she who makes herself vulnerable before God.
Making, and Keeping, a Promise
Hannah does more than pray. She does more than pour her heart out before her God. She puts everything she has into the request that she makes of Yahweh. How does she do that? She does it by making a promise—one that is of a particular kind, one that would cost her something very precious.
You see, Hannah made what the Old Testament calls a “vow.” Frankly, it is not a practice that Christians usually encourage, but it was a common practice among the ancient Hebrews. The idea is simple. If God will do something for Hannah, then Hannah will do something for God. The “something” that Hannah chooses is remarkable, for she essentially tells God that if He will give her a son, she will give that son to Him.
Can you imagine how difficult this must have been for her? Granted, she may have gotten some status benefits from having a son that served in the religious apparatus of ancient Israel. But she would also be giving up much of the time that she would have hoped to have with him. Moreover, she may also have been giving up the economic stability that would have come with having a son, for he would have been totally devoted to his work in the sanctuary. And yet, in order to obtain this blessing from God, she is willing to make these sacrifices. And when God grants her request and she gives birth to a son, Hannah keeps her vow. She gives Samuel over to the service of the sanctuary.
Enriching Our Own Life of Prayer
There are a number of lessons that I think we can learn from Hannah. First, it is vital that we bring our requests to God. We know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded of it. We especially need to be reminded of it when we have real needs. Too often, our prayers are dominated by the trivial or the remote. We pray for things that either do not matter or that do not matter to us, neglecting to bring what is really on our hearts before the Lord.
Second, we need to emulate the visceral quality of Hannah’s prayers. Like her, we need to be brutally honest with God—not just about what we want but also about how important it is to us. We need to confess that the things we lack have broken us emotionally and spiritually, and we need to urgently and persistently call God to action on our behalf.
Third, I am not sure what I think about making promises to God. My father wisely refused to make promises to anyone because he never wanted to be put in a position to have to break a promise. That is how important his word was to him. I think that all of us ought to treasure our word that much.
Nevertheless, sometimes I wonder if there might be times when it is appropriate to “bargain” with God. I wonder if God sometimes wants us to consider what a particular request is worth to us, and I wonder if doing so might help us better evaluate the importance and the virtue of those things that we desire. And, of course, I think that we ought to keep any vows that we do make.
Fourth, and related to the point just mentioned, I think that we ought to pray in the light of issues bigger than ourselves. Perhaps we should even interpret Hannah’s actions in light of Jesus’ command to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (cf. Matthew 6:33). Perhaps the reason that we do not receive some of the things that we ask for is because we have not thought about how they could be used to advance God’s purposes, and perhaps the reason we have not thought about how our requests could advance God’s purposes is because, in reality, we know that they cannot (cf. James 4:1-3).
I am not suggesting that we can or even should pray in an utterly altruistic manner. Remember, Hannah poured out her heart to God, and if we are to do the same, some of our own desires and motivations will inevitably come spilling out. What I am suggesting is that we pray in such a way that something greater than ourselves is always in view.