The Transcending Purpose of a Woman’s Sorrow

I. Hannah’s Vexation a Provocation to bargain – 1:1-11

A. Who was Elkanah? Elkanah was a Levite, who was from Bethlehem, an Ephrathite (See Ruth 1:2). He would make the journey to Shiloh three times a year and at other times when he as a Levite would act in service of the priests. His devotion to his duty is seen from his faithfulness even when the profligate sons of Eli were the sacrificing priests.

B. Probably he had married Hannah first, and, as she was unable to bear children, he took Peninnah also as a wife. She was able to bear children and she bore sons and daughters. Though polygamy is frequently reported among the Old Testament characters, God’s law and arrangement of purpose in marriage had not changed. One can sense the deep-seated difficulties attending this unnatural relationship.

C. Hannah was more deeply treasured by Elkanah (5), though she had no children. Elkanah sought to demonstrate this by giving her more choice and larger portions of the Peace Offering (Leviticus 7:15). Penninah sensed this. Not only was Hannah her rival in marriage but the more exuberant affection her husband showed toward Hannah provoked her to highlight her greater blessing from God in the bearing of children (6). This continued “year after year.”

D. Hannah wept and would not eat, rightly so, for she was unreconciled to Penninah (Matthew 5:23, 24) though her fast did not arise from spiritual conviction but from disappointed hopes. Even the assurances that Elkanah gave her of his love did nothing to relieve her distress. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asked her. This was cold comfort to Hannah who had her eyes set on a son and relief from the advantage assumed by Penninah.

1. In a similar way, though Christ has wed himself to his people as their husband, often we want benefits other than those that are immediately ours in being loved by Christ. We misperceive the infinite blessings of having Christ and desire lesser things. We feel despondent if we don’t have health, success in worldly estimation, and monetary security. Our union with Christ, however, has secured for us all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). For what should we praise God more than that—to live in the presence of his glory and experience his love for eternity. Eternal life is infinitely superior to any of the perceived comforts and advantages of this life.

2. This year by year provocation drove Hannah to desperation in seeking relief from the advantage of Penninah. Having come to the end of all hope, she conceived of a bargain with God.

She has finally come to breaking point on this issue and comes before the Lord under deep distress and bitter weeping (10).

She addressed God in his covenant name and in the nomenclature of power: “Lord of hosts” (11).

She vowed that if God would give her a son, she would give him to the service of the Lord. She must mean for all of his life, for as a Levite he would be on call for service from age 25 to age 50 (Numbers 8:23-26). In addition, she committed him, not just to a designated time, but to a Nazarite life (Leviticus 6; Judges 13:5).

God had turned her distress into an occasion for altering the direction of the history of Israel. The child would not only serve the temple, he would judge Israel, serve as a prophet, lead them in military action, and anoint their first king as well as  his successor, from whom the Messiah would descend as to his human nature.

II. From a Curse to a Blessing – 1:12-18

A. Eli, seeking the agitated nature of her prayer but hearing no sound concluded she was drunk. Evidently, at the time of these periodic sacrifices consumption of wine could go beyond the borders of temperateness. At Pentecost, the crowd suspected Peter and his cohort of being drunk.

B. Eli upbraided her for her action and told her essentially, to stop drinking and go sleep it off. Though he was not watchful enough over the conduct of his sons, he sought to maintain respectful behavior in the environs of the tabernacle during these feasts.

C. Hannah explained to him that this was no drunkenness but brokenness of spirit and earnestness of supplication before the Lord—“Pouring out my soul before the Lord.” Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5 was being illustrated in Hannah’s prayers: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Her affliction had driven her to the most earnest seeking of the covenant goodness of God that she had ever experienced.

D. On hearing this, Eli’s evaluation changed entirely. He first saw her as foolish and in need of reprimand, but now saw her as earnest and driven by spiritual purposes. She had opened her grieving soul before the Lord with absolute transparency and earnestness of solicitation. If begun in bitterness, it continued in brokenness, and culminated in satisfied resignation. Eli seemed convinced of the special phenomenon this involved. His words, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him,” provide a living occasion of Paul’s assurance in Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6, 7).

E. It seemed so with Hannah for “the woman went away and ate, and her face was no longer sad.” Either she was convinced that her prayer was certainly to be answered or she had become resolved in spirit to leave it all in the hands of the faithful covenant God of Israel.

III. A Gracious Gift Gratefully Acknowledged – 1:19-20 – After their final worship, the family returned to their home in Ramah.


A. The language indicates that Hannah did not conceive upon the first conjugal relation with Elkanah, but that at God’s appointed time she did become pregnant. Even though the conception was delayed, there is no indication that Hannah continued her fretting but had come face to face with the sovereign goodness of The Lord. She was content to leave the matter in his hands.

B. When she did conceive, she did not think, “Well, this would have happened anyway. Perhaps it is not necessary that I give this child to the service of God.” Instead, her resolve from the beginning was to follow through with her vow and to recognize the purpose of God in this entire event. She named the child Samuel, which mean asked of God.

C. In a far greater way that Elkanah ever could have delivered the contentment Hannah desired, nevertheless, his words and his desire for her have come to rest on her soul as the words of Jehovah, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?’ Yes, and more than an infinite number of sons, daughters, grandchildren, and other good things.

IV. A Promise Treasured and Faithfully Executed –  1:21-28

A. It seems that the time that Samuel, the gift-child, was to be lent to the Lord was the feast of the Passover, “the yearly sacrifice.” Elkanah went with the other members of his house, excepting Hannah and Samuel. Not only would he bring the sacrificial lamb, he would “pay his vow,” that is, renew the pledge that Hannah had made and to which he obviously had consented according to the Mosaic legislation (Numbers 30:6, 7, 14, 15).

B.  Hannah did not intend to go until she could leave Samuel there. Her words to Elkanah continued with the imperturbable resolution of her soul that this child would “appear in the presence of the Lord, and dwell there forever” (22) As Elkanah took his leave he committed all the timing to Hannah but also affirmed that the entire matter now had the certainty of the Lord’s establishment of his word (23a).

C. Weaning the child obviously meant more than lack of dependence on her breast, but involved some independence of action and ability to respond to the wishes of other people. Samuel would not have been a help to the old, heavy Eli if any basic child-rearing responsibilities were his to perform. The child was old enough to know what it meant to worship and was capable of providing energy and competence for some basic chores that the priest had to do in caring for the tabernacle (1:26; 2:11). Hannah did not want Eli’s knowledge of the fulfillment of those prayers to come only in stages, but to be a fulfillment in his first seeing of the child.

D. At the time when she observed the readiness of Samuel for the service to which she had committed him, she took him up along with full preparation for the sacrifices. According to the Hebrew, she took three unblemished bulls along with flour and wine. The bulls were for three sacrifices: a burnt offering for her vow (Leviticus 22:18, 19), and sin offering, and a peace offering, from which the family would eat. The flour was either to make bread that would accompany the sacrifice or serve as a meal offering.

E. Hannah took the child to Eli.

1. She reminded him of the event in which her deep aggravation made her appear as a drunk woman.

2. She reminded him of the object of her intense prayer for a child.

3. She showed him the child that was given in answer to her prayer. Hannah had never lapsed in her knowledge that God had given this child in order that he would be given to the service of God. She did not know to what extent that would be true.

4. She presented Samuel, not only as given by God, but now as permanently lent to the Lord.

5. “He worshiped the Lord There.” This is meant of the generality of Samuel’s presence with Eli at this time and in the years to follow. It seems clear also, however, that it means that the culmination of Hannah’s initial bitterness of soul has now issued in a moment of praise and exultation for her that included all present at that moment: Eli, Samuel, Elkanah, and Hannah. The following prayer probably was the central element of this time of worship. It is good to have spontaneous worship when certain moments raise our perception of the goodness and grace of God to heights that normally escape such elevation of affection. It was particularly notable on this occasion as Hannah is lifted into the realm of a prophetic utterance in this time of praise.

IV. A Prayer that exults in the covenantal faithfulness of God. 2:1-10 – The verses in brackets refer to the prayer of Mary in Luke 1, a parallel to Hannah’s prayer that helps us span the years for another glimpse of God’s eternal purpose.

A. She is overflowing with the wonder of God and his salvation1-3 [Luke 1:46-49] True Grace always manifests itself in a sense and conviction of awe at the holy mercies of God

1. God is holy, immutable, and omniscient – 2, 3

2. All are admonished to be humble in light of God’s unwavering knowledge of the moral texture of all our thoughts and actions – 3  [50]

None is humble.

None heeds the call to humility (Proverbs 1:20-33).

B. God is active in demonstrating his Sovereignty – 4-10a  [50-53] True grace draws a person to submit to divine wisdom and prerogative in his management of his world.

1. He, by his power and according to his purposes of grace, makes distinctions between people by bringing some to humility and leaving others in their arrogance – 4, 5, 6, 7  [51-53].

2. He protects and brings to exaltation those he has humbled for spiritual purposes – 8, 9a (cf. Daniel 4:34-37).

3. Those who are left in their opposition to God will experience a frightening judgment of omnipotent justice – 9b-10a [perhaps 52a and 53b].

C. God executes both grace and judgment by his anointed one – 10b [54, 55] True grace relentlessly points to our absolute dependence on God’s anointed one.  

1. Her son given in answer to prayer will anoint the king in Bethlehem who establishes the throne of the eternal king to be born in Bethlehem.

2. Since the anointed one has completed righteousness by his life and has conquered death, so he gives life to whom he will. John 5:21.

3. Since the anointed one received the Father’s judgment in his death, all judgment, subsequent to his completed work, has been committed to the Son. John 5:22, 23; See also Acts 17:30, 31. [2 Timothy1:8-10]

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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