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Hannah: Ode to the King

We all yearn for something. Our hearts ache for something we don't have, for circumstances to improve, or for some particular problem to be resolved.
From Pubic Domain
From Jan Victor's 1645 painting,
Hanna giving her son Samuel to the Priest.

It's a natural consequence of being creatures made in God's image and then having to live within a fallen, broken world. We know things could be, should be, better. Life is broken and we want it fixed. We also know we should find all satisfaction in the presence of the one who created us, but our hearts still ache.

That's how hearts work when they live in a fallen world, but were created for heaven. We yearn for heaven's glory, but we live with the results of man's rebellion within us and around us. Under these circumstances, we find satisfaction difficult to get.

Of course, these deep yearnings sometimes manifest themselves in more banal desires. We want gadgets, new possessions, more free time, flatter abs, bigger pecs, or the latest fad. But sometimes, these yearnings are for things that really matter: good health for a loved one, freedom from serious addiction, or safety in the face of abuse.

Hannah's story, found in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel, teaches us that our longings and desires can play a part in God's bigger plan.

There once was a certain man

The story opens with the unusual phrase, "There once was a certain man." This exact narrative opening occurs only here and in Judges 13.2, the opening of the Samson story. This is only the first of several literary references that point the reader back to earlier biblical stories. Like the wife in the Samson saga, Hannah is barren. Both stories occur within a background of political and spiritual turmoil for the young nation of Israel. Differences abound between the two stories, but the literary connection is strong enough for the reader to understand that an important lesson is being developed. The Samson saga, occurring at the end of the book of Judges demonstrates the spiritual failure that has overtaken God's people who repeatedly turned away from the One who redeemed them from slavery. Hannah's story begins with a connection to that period of apostasy, but at the same time points forward to a new and different path that will lead toward renewal in the Lord.

Opened wombs, closed wombs

The other literary connections in Hannah's story take the reader back to the account of Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel. In Samuel, chapter one verse five, we read of Hannah that "the Lord had closed her womb," an unusual expression that puts God right in the center of this family conflict. Back in the Genesis story of Leah and Rachel we read of Leah that because she was hated, the Lord "opened her womb." The story of Hannah reverses the rarely used expression to connect the stories but also remind the reader that this story is going in a very different direction than the Genesis story.

Rachel, like Hannah, is loved, but barren, and this creates strife between each of the two pairs of women. Rachel in response, cried out in anger, "give me children, or I shall die." Jacob answers with a rhetorical question, "am I in the place of God," which is itself a literary marker of some importance in Genesis (Joseph later uses the phrase with his brothers). Hannah's response in her story, however, is to actually go to the Lord, who is presumably "in the place of God" in the tabernacle, and pray for a son with a promise he would be given to the Lord.

Click to see a slide presentation of a preaching outline of 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.
This rhetorical device should direct the reader to understand the importance of this moment in the history of Israel. Rachel and Leah brought the twelve tribes into the world, while the family strife was part of Jacob's redemptive transformation from a deceiver into Israel, the personification of the nation. For Hannah, her pain and submissive prayer bring about the birth of Samuel, who will redemptively lead Israel, the nation as the personification of Jacob, into a new system of government. Hannah brings Samuel and Samuel leads us to an anointed king, first Saul and then better, David.

(As an aside: Hannah's dedication of her son to the Lord is really in fulfillment of the command from Exodus 13:12 and Numbers 3:12 that the firstborn who "opens the womb" (there is our literary device again) is to be dedicated to the Lord. Provision is made in the Law that the Levites are to serve that purpose and redeem the firstborn, but in Hannah's story the Levites, Eli and sons, are not obedient, so Hannah's act in effect fulfills the requirements and exemplifies the Law's intent.)

Exalt the Horn of his Anointed

Hannah's prayer in chapter two brings this all into clarity, as her prayer becomes the thematic focal point of the rest of the book of Samuel. In Hannah's prayer the powerful (read Saul, who was taller and stronger than the rest of the people) are broken, while the weak (read David, who is introduced later as a boy tending sheep and unworthy of even his brothers' respect) are lifted up by the Lord. Hannah knew first hand the pain of being the underdog and the glory of seeing her cause championed by the Lord.

Hannah's prayer concludes with a reference to the "Lord's anointed,"  which is a key theme in the book. David refuses to harm Saul, who was rejected by God be remains the Lord's anointed. An anointed king is exactly what the people need, and what the book of Judges presents as necessary. The Lord must rule the people, Gideon reminds us, and yet the people need a king, which is the message of the last chapters of Judges, with the expression, "everyone did what was right in his own eyes, for there was no king in Israel."

And remember, the word anointed is actually the word that becomes messiah, which in Greek is the Christ. We do need a king and yet that king must be the Lord's anointed, and ultimately that king must be the Lord himself.

So Hannah, in her prayer with her obedient response to God's provision of a son, points us to our need for redemption through the Lord's anointed, who is to be our king. Out of our weakness and through our humility, we are lifted up by the Christ who should rule over us. He alone can satisfy the true yearnings of our heart.