Hannah’s Song; 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; November 14, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Troubled Israel, as the books of Samuel begins, is waiting. Israel is portrayed as a marginal community. Threatened externally by the power and the pressure of the Philistines, Israel is politically weak and economically disadvantaged. But there is also an internal, moral and spiritual dimension to Israel’s trouble. By the end of the book of Judges, Israel is shown to be a community in moral chaos, engaged in brutality, and betrayed by undisciplined religion. We read in a number of places this description of this time in Israel’s history: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Israel does not seem to have the ability, the strength, or the determination to extricate itself from its afflictions.
Israel is waiting. Waiting for a king who will protect, defend, gather, liberate, and legitimize the community. The waiting is long, hard, bitter and confusing. Israel doesn’t know for certain where its future lies. It is a nation in desperate need and seemingly without hope for a future.
And so, we hear the story of Israel today, told through the story of a sad, barren woman named Hannah.
Hannah is married to Elkanah, a man of stature, with a strong family lineage. Elkanah has two wives: Peninnah, who is able to bear him children, and Hannah, whom he loves.
But Hannah grieves. In this culture, women are valued for the number of sons she can produce. The love of her husband is not enough. Elkanah gives Hannah a double portion and attempts to comfort her with kind words. It’s not enough. Peninnah taunts and provokes Hannah. She is depressed and unable to eat.
The family has made their annual journey to the temple in order to worship and bring their sacrifice. Hannah comes alone to the temple, where she pours out her heart and soul, offering to God her own sacrifice. She vows that if she is given a son, this son will be set aside for obedience only to Yahweh. He will be given back to God as a Nazirite, a holy person, pledged to live set apart and only for God, until the time of his death.
When Eli, the priest of Shiloh, sees Hannah in prayer, he assumes she is intoxicated and scolds her. But as she tells him of her despair, he assures her that God will answer her prayer, and she leaves—at peace, confident that God will respond to her need.
Hannah’s prayer is answered, and she fulfills the promise she has made, bringing Samuel back to the temple when he’s about three years old—to live, to learn, and to grow in the presence of God. Her prayer of joy in the second chapter that is echoed again in Psalm 113, praises God for reversing—not only her particular situation, but also, the history of Israel. We share Hannah’s joy and exaltation as we know “the rest of the story”—that Hannah will bear five more children, and that Samuel will grow to become one of the most significant religious figures in the history of ancient Israel.
It’s a story of long waiting that moves us gradually from a time of grief and despair, of barrenness and hopelessness, to a time of faith and reassurance, of hope and abundance. It’s the story of Hannah and Samuel, the priest and prophet who would eventually anoint Israel’s king. It’s the story of Israel and David, the king who would reclaim and restore the nation. It’s a story for you and for me, that new life can emerge out of barrenness—our waiting, our hoping and our receiving may be fruitful by the power of God.
We each experience barrenness in our own way, at one time or another. We might feel professionally unproductive or unchallenged or uncertain; you wonder if what you do makes a difference. Perhaps our relationships seem empty or superficial. Homelife isn’t what you might have hoped it would be. You wonder if the pandemic will ever end, if a decision will ever be made by our insurance company, if life will ever return to some kind of normal. There are times when we might feel spiritually depleted, lost or alone. Our frustrations begin to overwhelm us; we become disillusioned. We begin to wonder: is God really with us? Listening to us? Caring for us? Concerned about our wants? Our needs, pains or desires?
The following Psalms are poignant in their exposure of human emotion. We read them and we can identify with the anguish they express:
Psalm 60 reads: “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused land to quake; you have torn it open. Repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things…”
In Psalm 63, the writer cries out, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirst for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water…”
And in Psalm 69: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I have come, into deep waters, and the flood seeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”
The Psalmist asks, Israel asks, Hannah asks, and we sometimes ask: Where is God? Where can God be? Doesn’t God care that I’m in pain? I’m angry! I’m lonely! I’m afraid! Where are you, God? I need you!
The hymn, “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” was written in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey, after the death of his wife and child in childbirth. Tired, weak and worn, feeling lost with nowhere to go, he headed to the river, planning to take his own life. There on the riverbank, deep in desperate prayer, he felt what he described as the hand of God holding him back, giving him the bit of courage he needed to continue in this most difficult time of his life. He came back to write a soulful hymn of deep faith that can sustain us today, as we, too, experience times of barrenness.
The deep faith expressed by Dorsey in this hymn can break away the barren despair brought about by the crises that confront us in our lives. The deep faith expressed by Hannah as she pours her heart out to God can break away the barren despair brought about by our unmet needs that confront us in our own lives. And new life can be ours because God is present here and now, even in our most difficult times. Barrenness can break away to productivity and joy in due time. Be strong, be of good courage, for God is listening! Barren despair does not have the final word.
And that’s what Hannah sings. Her song gives evidence to the joy she feels as she sings praise to the One who has seen her, who has heard her, and who has given her the deepest desire of her heart. Hannah sings, and this beautiful song reveals not only her own thanksgiving for what God has done and will do in her life, but offers thanksgiving for the One who will lead Israel out of this time of barren despair; from this time when “there was no king in Israel and all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” God will give them a king and God will lead them forward…
As we hear Hannah’s song, we are reminded of Mary’s song that will come later, as she lifts up her thanks to the One who has looked upon the low status of his servant…as she celebrates and prophesies that the one whom she carries in her womb will turn the world upside down, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
Turning barrenness in the world to joy.
Turning hopeless to hope-filled.
It doesn’t happen on our schedule…but God is faithful.
God is always faithful.
Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).