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Blessed Barrenness

God turned Hannah’s barrenness, in the midst of Israel’s barrenness, into blessedness (1Samuel 1:4-20) inviting us to bless God also in our barren times.

Hannah’s barrenness parallels Israel’s barrenness. Judges, immediately preceding, describes a national cycle whose overall trend was down. After the people entered the Promised Land they prospered as long as they remembered how hard won were their blessings. But as soon as those died who remembered warfare, prosperity took its toll; they fell away and they brought on themselves all the curses that Moses had predicted in Deuteronomy. When judgment fell, they repented, they called on God, and God sent them a judge who freed them from their enemies. As long as that judge lived they had peace and prosperity. But, as soon as he died, decay returned.  At the end of Judges, and the beginning of Samuel, things were desperate. The priesthood was corrupt and they had just had a civil war where eleven tribes turned nearly annihilated the tribe of Benjamin for their wickedness. Only 600 were left when the other tribes relented.

First and Second Samuel tell of Israel’s Golden age – of David and Solomon. But Samuel starts not with stories of strong men, but of weak, despairing, barren Hannah. How could this be good? According to Deuteronomy, barrenness was God’s curse and grounds for divorce. Hannah’s husband didn’t divorce her but her situation was bleak. We don’t know as much about Hannah’s good days as about her worst days. But, the seeds of her best days, and Israel’s best days, were planted in Hannah’s worst days. So, I’m going to read this story about Hannah. It’s about 20 verses.

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. 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.

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. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 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. 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?”

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. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. 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.”

As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 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. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 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.

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. 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)

A barren woman had a child – God did a fertility treatment – another human on the planet – so what? That doesn’t seem a big deal, but in God’s hands it was. For one thing, Elkanah and Hannah show extraordinary devotion toward God and each other in a depraved time. The tabernacle worship was corrupt; the priests served themselves, God’s law was held in contempt. The priests modeled transgression as the path to prosperity.  When the people brought sacrifices to the Temple, the priests picked out the best cuts for themselves. According to Deuteronomy, the best was to go for the sacrifice and priests were to get the leftovers, but in claiming the best for themselves – they put themselves in God’s place. False doctrine and bad example gave grounds for holding worship in contempt.  The priests blurred the distinction between good and evil, encouraging the wicked and discouraging the righteous.

Yet despite this, Elkanah’s family kept going to the Tabernacle, performing their religious duties, and wholeheartedly called on God. They did not stay home saying, “The Church – full of hypocrites and false teachers — I’m not going”. They kept their eyes on God and his word instead of the corrupt leaders of corrupt institutions. They did as Psalm 37 advises us – they did not “fret about the wicked, but trusted in the Lord … Committing their way unto the Lord”. Thus they became witnesses of his mighty deeds. (Ps. 37:3-5)

1 Samuel 2 twice underlines that it was God that had closed Hannah’s womb. The worst case was the true case.  Hannah might have wondered “What did I do to deserve this?”  I know a young person about the same age as Hannah was who has had already twenty or more surgeries in their short life. Sometimes they wonder “Why?” They might be looking at another one or two more serious surgeries soon and they ask me why? She lives a good life and has tried to keep her mind on God. I am struck dumb.

This was Hannah’s situation. She was left to wonder why things were going so well for Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah. She mocks Hannah, “God loves me more than he loves you. You’re bad. I’m preferred.”  We might guess that Peninnah’s children joined the chorus of derision. How can God have been behind this?  Yet, it turned out to be a prelude for God’s reversal. Hannah would only live to see its beginning.

Hannah’s Song praises God’s sovereignty.  Hannah sings “you create wealth and poverty”. It’s easy to think of God sending wealth, prosperity, health — all those good things, but seeing God behind trouble as well – that stretches us. If we thank God at all, we thank God for the pleasant things. Who thanks God for trouble – for barrenness?  Hannah’s story calls us to trust God’s providence.  Year after year they went up to the tabernacle and year after year nothing changed. Chronic trouble is hard to take.  We can weather sudden storms – they wear out quickly.  We pray and it either gets better or it doesn’t. But when trouble comes and camps – when it drags on year after year after year, we faint. We begin to wonder, “I guess God just doesn’t want good things to happen for me”.

Think of Moses – he believed he was called to liberate Israel. His efforts only brought him life as a fugitive in a barren desert where for 40 years, he herded sheep – an occupation despised in Egypt. What was Moses thinking? We are not told, but I know what I would be thinking well before 40 years had elapsed, “I must have made a mistake. Liberator was not what God called me to do. Though raised in Pharaoh’s household, I must accept this lowly, defiled life of a shepherd.” Or consider Abraham – when God called him he was already 80 years old. Surely by that time he would have thought, “Oh well, I guess God does not want me to have children”. With Hannah, Moses, and Abraham, God intervenes after all hope is gone. All have to acknowledge their lack of control over outcomes, as Jeremiah’s confessed, “Thou knowest oh Lord, that the way of a man is not within him”. (Jer. 10:23) We are here today because George Fox gave up. Quakers arose from Fox’s despair. Christ became real, “when all [his] hope in men was gone”. Hannah gave up also.  All she could depend on was God, but even that took great faith because God’s own law said she was under a curse — even God was against her. She became so depressed she lost her desire for food.

There is hardly anything bad enough for me to skip a meal. And, I think that after my funeral nobody is going to be sad enough to miss a meal, because some of Linda’s friends are very good cooks – they make food to die for – butter beans, pound cake, … I will be sorry to miss not to be there for it. They will go ahead and eat.  Hannah was so low that she was not eating. Her husband worried about her. He asked “Why are you downhearted?” The Hebrew translated there “downhearted” means literally “why is your heart bad?” Her soul was broken. She was unable to hope. Broken, she entered the tabernacle to pray. This was Job’s condition at his lowest point. His friends told him to have hope but he said, “I cannot have hope because …”– and then the same Hebrew idea here — his core/soul is broken.  What made him able to form purposes – that was broken and that was the part needed restoration. Hannah went into the tabernacle “in bitterness of soul” — pouring her heart out to God.

Eli misjudged Hannah completely- he was so unused to people in complete sincerity pouring their heart out to God. She was praying silently where Israel’s worship generally prayer was vocal and noisy. Hannah prayed silently, so there was no possibility that she was trying impress anyone but God. All she cared about was her standing before God. What a contrast to Eli and his sons!  How different is the heart before God compared to what looks good to us. David’s appearance was not impressive like Saul’s. Saul stood head and shoulders above the crowd, but his heart was shriveled with diffidence. David was small in stature but great in heart.  Hannah appeared a drunk, babbling in church. Eli despised her, but in God’s sight Hannah was beautiful, and he heard her prayer.

Isaiah says that “a bruised reed he will not break nor put out the smoking flax”. Hannah must have felt like smoking flax, yet she had enough spark of confidence to believe that God would hear and respond.  Hannah fought – in prayer. This was not a prayer of resignation even though her trouble was chronic. She prayed specifically for God to answer in the terms that she asked. She was not praying for acceptance. She was not saying, “God help me accept this condition”. Instead she was calling for a change. Twice here God is described as “Almighty Lord of hosts” so that means God of armies God of nations — sovereign over everything. She was fighting with God. This would be nonsense except that God invites it. It amuses him to watch his people wrestle.

Her ancestor Jacob wrestled with God, and God blessed him for it with a new name — Israel. Israel literally means someone who wrestles with God. Jacob was not particularly virtuous he was a liar and a cheat, but despite his faults he wrestled with God. So with Hannah, she fought God and won. GK Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy that Christianity is a fighting religion in a sense different from Islam. What Islam literally means is submission to God. And so a basic characteristic of Islam is whatever Allah wants Allah gets. There’s no basis in Islam for this kind of wrestling with God. From the viewpoint of Islam, Hannah is blasphemous. She should have submitted. But she fought. PT Forsyth in his book The Soul of Prayer, says sometimes God calls us to fight. So how do we know when it’s time to fight? Surely there is a time to submit. My daughter Rachel works in the trauma ward at the University of Tennessee hospital in Knoxville, where virtually everybody in her ward lies at death’s door. Families regularly have to face the difficult decision of when to turn off the ventilator.  That time comes. Sometimes it comes and passes because people want to hope that a miracle will happen and the person will revive. Every now and then we hear about somebody who was at the point where all hope was gone who did come back. Still, at some point we have to accept that it is over. I had a graduate theology student who was also a doctor and worked in Intensive care at a local hospital on weekends.  He told me of an elderly man with leukemia, who had a heart attack and was clinically dead, but the family insisted that he be taken via helicopter to the hospital, where the doctor did what any local doctor might have done at great savings to taxpayers – he pronounced the man dead.

But, sometimes God calls us to fight.  God promised Israel the land but they had to fight for it. That seems paradoxical – that God would want his people to fight. They don’t have to fight all that hard. All they had to do was march around Jericho six times and then blow the trumpets. But they still had to march and blow. I do not like that way of God doing things. I think if somebody promises something they ought give it up without a fight. They should not say, “I promise you this if you can tear it from my hand”. Jesus praised perseverance in prayer. He told of the widow who knocked until the unjust judge relented.  Beyond the point of reasonable hope, God does wonders. We must try to err on the side of hope. Has anyone ever hoped too much in God?

Hannah prayed in her heart. Eli misread it but God did not. When Eli realized his mistake he said, “Go in peace”. Eli had confidence that God heard her prayer and he expressed that confidence to Hannah. That changed things. Even though her situation was not reversed immediately, she had the confidence to go forward. She got up, she left, she ate, she went home and went about her ordinary tasks, while God did the extraordinary – he gave life in her barrenness.

No longer downcast — I don’t know if Hannah left the Tabernacle skipping but she was able to go forward and often that is the most we can hope.  We are called to rejoice even when we do not yet see the good outcome that we hope for. Habakkuk displays this kind of rejoicing as he looks out on his own barrenness: “though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive tree fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Habakkuk 2:17-18) Habbakuk does not say that he will rejoice because of what he sees, but in spite of what he sees because he clings to God’s word come what may. Hannah finally had a son – Samuel — which literally means the name of God. She names him that because she says, “I asked the Lord for him”. She dedicated that son to God and God gave her more.

Her time of distress turned into a beginning not only of new life for her but new life for Israel because Samuel was Israel’s last and greatest judge. Samuel anointed David and so began Israel’s golden age — begun in barrenness – blessed barrenness.  The best we can do for those who come after us is to bless God in our barren times and watch for his reversals.

Published inPrayerSoul KeepingWorship

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