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Biblical Prayer - Hannah


By Ted Schroder

What do you do when you live day in and day out with the realization that your identity is in question, and your value is diminished by, what you consider, a great injustice? Your soul is embittered as you look at others around you who seem to have it much easier than you. There are some close to you who seem to enjoy reminding you of your inadequacy as a person. You are bitter because you have suffered abuse, you have been treated poorly, by people close to you. They may have been spouses who ill-treated you, or alcoholic parents, or mean siblings, or employers who exploited your faithful service. As a result you are sometimes confused about life, about God, about purpose, about your sexuality. You wonder whether you are a freak, or whether you have done something wrong for which you are being punished. You long to be normal, and to be able to accept yourself as you are, but you feel incomplete, and trapped.

If you do not identify with such a person, you may know someone who does. Such a person was Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, whose story is told in 1 Samuel 1 and 2. Her husband loved her very much, but she was barren, unable to bear him any children. We are told that "the LORD had closed her womb." Because of her childlessness, Elkanah had taken a second wife, Peninnah who bore him children. Peninnah was mean to Hannah. "She kept provoking her to irritate her until Hannah wept and would not eat." What form this provocation took we do not know, but it must, at least, have been name-calling about her inadequacy as a woman, constant provocation about her failure to conceive, and her uselessness to her husband. In other words, she was being constantly put down, bullied, made the butt of jokes by a cruel woman with whom she had to share a house and a husband. This went on, we are told, year after year.

What would you feel like and do if you had been in her place? Hannah probably withdrew emotionally, and socially, and nursed her wounds. Nothing could console her, not even her husband expressing his concern: "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons." But not all such reassurance in the world could compensate for her pain.

In this condition Hannah prayed to the Lord. "In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow, saying, 'O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon 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."

We are told that she prayed in her heart, silently. She was accused by Eli the priest of being drunk, but defended herself by saying, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled, I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief."

Here is guidance for you. Whenever you are deeply troubled, you can pour out your soul to the Lord. Genuine prayer is borne out of great anguish and grief. In such times in our lives we are filled to overflowing with our suffering. Let it overflow. Let your soul be poured out to the Lord. It will not be wasted. The psalmist says of God, "You have noted my lamentation; put my tears in your bottle; are they not recorded in your book?" (Ps.56:8) God treasures our tears, and keeps them stored up. He knows what troubles us.

What is in your soul that needs pouring out? What is troubling you that needs to be expressed? Note that Hannah did not blame either Peninnah or the Lord for her troubles. She does not turn her back upon the Lord who had closed her womb. Instead she exercised her faith in prayer, believing in the sovereignty and care of God.

In the process of pouring out her soul she made a vow that she would dedicate her son to the service of the Lord. In a sense, this is what we are doing in infant dedication or baptism. We give back to the Lord what he has given to us. Children are a gift from the Lord. They are not ours by right. It is an act of faith that recognizes this by giving them back in service to the Giver.

What vows can we make to the Lord when we are deeply troubled? Can we give ourselves and all that we are and have to Christ to be used in his service? Is what we pray for so important to us that we are willing to dedicate ourselves wholly to God. There is a prayer that I use which expresses this kind of vow.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you, and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the good of your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

It may be a test of how important and urgent our prayer is to see whether we are willing to make that kind of vow, and follow through on it. Hannah could easily have made the vow and then reneged on it when her son was born, but she didn't. After Samuel was weaned he was given to Eli to be raised in the house of the Lord. Hannah said to Eli, "As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the LORD. For his whole life he will be given over to the LORD."

She was given a son, her reproach was taken away, and one of the great prophets of Israel was given to the service of the LORD. Her great anguish and grief led to the prayer of faith, which led in its turn to the life of the great and famous leader of Israel, the prophet Samuel. She had no idea when she prayed that she would be granted, not only to become a mother, but the mother of one of the leaders of her nation. We don't know, when we are deeply troubled, and pour out our souls before the Lord, what God can do with our requests, our desires, and our vows.

James reminds us that "you do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2,3)

Our troubles should lead us to pray, not complain. Our motives should lead us to make our vows that our lives, and all that we pray for, will be dedicated to the service of the Lord. What we get, is to be spent, not on our pleasures, but in the service of the Lord and his kingdom.

When Hannah fulfills her vow she prays again: "My heart rejoices in the LORD." Centuries later the virgin Mary would sing parts of the song of Hannah in response to the message of the angel bringing her news of the Holy Spirit's conception of Jesus. Hannah's song is a means of expressing her gratitude and praise to the Giver of life.

"The psalm of praise which Hannah sings, reveals her understanding of divine things in an age when men had small understanding of their God. It recognizes the power of God and the certainty of ultimate justice. It expresses faith in God's power to keep, and joy at answered prayer. It vibrates with gratitude." (E.M.Blaiklock, Today's Handbook of Bible Characters, p.125)

Just as her bitterness of soul led her to pray, so also her overflowing gratitude poured out in this prayer of thanksgiving. Gratitude leads, not to complacency, and self-satisfaction, but to praise and thanksgiving. Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "A humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grow." Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, "A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues." John Henry Jowett said, "Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road." William Shakespeare prayed, "O Lord that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness."

Ten men prayed that Jesus would take pity on them and heal them of their leprosy. As they went to show themselves to the priest, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him - and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:17,18)

The prayer of thanksgiving is the response to answered prayer. Praise is essential in Christian experience. We are made to praise and thank God who gives us so much. We are made to return thanks and to rejoice in God's goodness. Hannah praises God for his holiness. He alone is pure and righteous. He alone does what is right. He alone rescues his people. He is like a rock - dependable and strong - from which waters of blessing flow. Hannah praises God who provides for his people, who protects those who are his, and who knows our troubles. The more we know about God, the more we want to praise him.

Tim Chester writes, "Does the story of Hannah teach us that God will provide children to childless women who earnestly pray to him? Does it suggest that if we make a vow to God he will be more likely to answer our prayers? The answer to these questions is no. Hannah's story is told not because it is typical but because it is untypical. There were no doubt many childless women in Israel who prayed to God and remained childless. Hannah's prayer is not granted because her prayer was more devout, or her anguish more acute, or her vow more sincere. Her prayer was answered because of God's grace. Eli says to Hannah, 'Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.' (1:17) The answer to her prayer lies in the gift of God. Hannah herself replies, 'May your servant find favor in your eyes.' (18) The word favor or grace in Hebrew is hen, and so this is a play on Hannah's name. Hannah's name is a reminder that God acts in his grace,.. and through her in the life of the nation. Hannah's story is told because it is part of a bigger story - the story of the provision of a Saviour." (The Message of Prayer, p.131)

God takes a troubled, childless woman, and through her prayers he advances his purposes of salvation. He takes someone who was reviled and ridiculed, and gives her joy. It is when we pray that God can use us. Prayer changes us and the world. God gives you the freedom to ask, so that you will receive what you, and the world, need, most of all.

The Rev. Schroder is pastor of Amelia Island Plantation Chapel in Florida

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