When we started walking through the first book of Samuel two weeks ago, we saw the story of Hannah. We will continue this part of the story this morning. Leading up to our current passage, Hannah has experienced and continues to experience grief because of her sister-wife’s oppression against her. Hannah is barren because the Lord had closed her womb (1:5, 6). It is the Lord who is responsible for providing all things.
In the text today, we continue to see Hannah’s desperation. So, we ask the question that the text leads us to ask because we are starting with the text itself. In what ways have we been desperate in this life? In what ways are we desperate now? What things are we desperate for in our homes, families, workplaces, and churches? What does this desperation have to do with God’s providence, a truth which has already been established and will continue to be established in the text?
1 Samuel 1:9-18
Then Hannah rose after eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She, greatly distressed, prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. She made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.”
Now it came about, as she continued praying before the Lord, that Eli was watching her mouth. As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. Then Eli said to her, “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you.”
But Hannah replied, “No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the Lord. Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation.”
Then Eli answered and said, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him.”
She said, “Let your maidservant find favor in your sight.” So the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.
The prayer of desperation (v. 9-11)
When we get to chapter two, we will see that Hannah believes absolutely in the sovereignty of God and in God’s providence according to His will alone. As we discovered in the previous passage, grief causes people to do some things out of desperation that we normally would not do. Here we read about Hannah’s prayer of desperation, and it doesn’t quite fit Hannah’s own theology or the truth about God’s sovereignty presented in Scripture.
Hannah essentially haggled with God because she was desperate while under the oppression of her sister-wife. She vowed that if God would give her a child, she would dedicate the child to God all the days of his life. She would give up her child to spend his life working in the temple (2:18-19). Hannah promised that a razor would never touch the child’s head, which reflected the Nazarite vow of purity that we saw with Samson in Judges 13:5. Hannah’s desire of desperation was to bear a child, not necessarily to have a son of her own to care for and raise.
If we read ahead we see that God will indeed bless Hannah with a child (v. 20) and that man does not prevail based on his own might but are led in their ways by God (2:9). Through the first book of Samuel we will see that this child, Samuel, will be the one God will use to establish the throne of the Messiah through King David. God is working all of this together in order to accomplish His own purposes. He is setting Hannah’s path and “keeping her feet” (2:9). God is being faithful despite Hannah’s lack of faith. He is working together even Hannah’s desperation for the purpose of His own plan according to His own will.
I have this question for us this morning. How often have we prayed the prayer of desperation? We know that God is king. We know He is sovereign. We know that God is the only one who works all things together. Yet, how often have we haggled with God on behalf of a loved one? How often have we begged God not to take someone from us? How often have we bargained with God so that He might grant us some sort of success on this earth? How often have we been so desperate for healing that we have promised God many things if He will simply remove our ailments or our stresses or our sadnesses? Let’s be honest with ourselves this morning as we examine our own lives and hearts.
I want to notice two things about this prayer of desperation. First, it is ungodly and reveals human wretchedness. On Wednesday evenings we are walking through Matthew’s Gospel. This week we will read the third temptation according to Matthew. In Matthew 4:9, Satan has taken Jesus to a mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world. Satan said to Jesus, “All these things I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” When we pray the prayer of desperation, we actually make God out to be like Satan and we exhibit the human tendency toward the Prosperity Gospel that Satan preaches in Matthew 4. The prayer of desperation depicts a belief in a god who answers us according to our many words (Matthew 6:7) or who subjects himself to the counsel of people. When we read through the Scriptures it is so important for us to recognize this fact- even Godly people like Hannah are fallen sinners. Hannah lacked faith and her prayer did not reflect the character of God. It was a prayer of personal desperation.
Second, God works together the prayer of desperation. God was working together all of this purposefully in order to prepare the everlasting throne of the Messiah in the midst of His own creation. Samuel would be born. He would grow up serving in the temple. He would become Israel’s prophet and priest. He would be the one to anoint God’s king.
The provocation of desperation (v. 12-16)
Hannah reveals that she is pouring out her spirit before God. This means simply that Hannah is telling God how she feels. Eli, the high priest, saw Hannah praying and assumed immediately that she was drunk. Even though the prayer does not reflect Hannah’s understanding of who God is and even though the prayer doesn’t reflect good Biblical theology, Hannah explains to Eli that she has poured her soul out to the Lord. She wasn’t intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol, she was drunk on her emotions and she could not help but tell her God exactly how she was feeling and weep before Him because she is oppressed in spirit.
Hannah reveals that she can’t help but pour these feelings out to God, and she does so out of great concern and provocation. She was concerned about her own state of being and she was provoked by her sister-wife. This outside force was bearing down on her and she did not know what to do or how to respond. By Hannah’s own admission in this text, her attention was moreso on herself than on God. By her own admission in this text, Hannah was being selfish in her prayer of desperation. She spoke out of her own great concern and out of her own great provocation.
Biblically, this is opposed to the way in which Jesus would later instruct His disciples to pray.
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]’
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:5-15).
By looking at Hannah’s petition in light of Scripture and by interpreting the Scriptures by the Scriptures alone, we see what the prayer of faith looks like and how our own desperation causes us to focus on ourselves and our own wills rather than the will of God. The primary purpose of prayer is explicitly so that we might verbally submit to God’s will and providence in all things. In Hannah’s desperation, she shows in which way her faith is lacking. This helps us to see in what ways our own faith might be lacking. We even see the shortfall or the high priest, who asked Hannah if she was drunk. On the daily devotional blog and in the devotional commentary for this section of Scripture, we make this realization: “Not only do we see here that priests, prophets, or pastors do not have secret knowledge, they don’t have perfect discernment about what ails people. We must speak honestly about our afflictions if we are to receive encouragement.”
In this narrative, we are being reminded of the total and essential depravity of all people so that God will be revealed as the able provider and sovereign king. In his letters, Paul would write,
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Even Paul prayed this prayer of desperation out of great concern and provocation, which God answered saying that His grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in the weaknesses of people. God is working this together so that His power is made evident in our weaknesses. It is so that God might be known. God alone receives all glory.
The time of desperation (v. 17-18)
Eli blesses Hannah, but this blessing would not move God to action. It was an intended encouragement for Hannah. It was like when we tell others that we are praying that they receive some blessing. It is understood that our prayers do not mean the person will receive whatever blessing they hope to receive. We communicate hope while trusting that God provides according to His will.
Hannah was not consumed by her grief. Even though she had not had a child, she went away, ate, and her face was no longer sad. The text isn’t explicit about what caused this change in Hannah’s appearance. After having this conversation with Eli and admitting that she was crying out from her own great concern and provocation and after Eli speaks a few words of encouragement, Hannah was able to overcome her grief enough that her face was no longer sad. It seems as though she overcame the appearance of grief as a result of both her realizing the self-centeredness of her own prayer and the encouragement of the priest, but we can’t know for sure. What we do see is a change in Hannah’s demeanor as a result of God’s sanctifying work through this process or time of desperation.
There are many things that may cause a great depth of grief and desperation in our own lives. We might be desperate
- to earn money so that we can provide for our families,
- to overcome some sickness or ailment,
- to be accepted by others in some way,
- to earn a promotion at work,
- to want to raise children well without messing them up,
- to restore a relationship with an estranged family member or friend,
- to move out of the small town you grew up in,
- to succeed in school,
- to get rich,
- to earn the acceptance of your peers or colleagues,
- to become or stay independent,
- to grow a church or ministry,
- to make a relationship work,
- and so on…
The truth we glean from this part of the narrative is that desperation reveals the depravity and unrighteousness of people. Through the depravity and unrighteousness of people, God is making His own strength, sovereignty, and providence known.
Trust in the sovereignty of God and His ability to provide all things according to His own will is a comfort for us. In fact, it is the only comfort for us. In our desperation we cry to God out of our great concern and provocation. God answers by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you. Power is made perfect in weakness.” Any other answer we think we hear is a contradiction to the Scriptures and is contrary to the work God is doing for His own glory, that He might be known. God will give Hannah a son, but this is not because Hannah bargained with God. God gives Hannah a son because it is His will to do so that He might accomplish His own purpose in His creation for His glory.
It is very easy to misinterpret the Scriptures if we do not read them carefully and in context without importing our own ideas into the text. It is impossible to know God’s answer to prayer if we elevate human experience or tradition or theology as an authority above Scripture. This is why, as a reformed church, we believe in the doctrine of Scripture Alone and strive to be as faithful as possible to God’s message. We want to know God fully and make Him known. We want to be truthful about what God reveals concerning our own nature and about what God is doing.
Biblically, we have to say that the reason we experience desperation is always the glory of God and the good of God’s people. Through our desperation we experience sanctification. It remains a mystery to us as to why some people must experience some things that other people do not, but Scripture is clear about the purpose of our desperation in this world. God knows us intimately enough to know our specific struggles and to work in and through every particular struggle that overcomes the lives of all people, especially those who belong to Him. If I am experiencing any form of desperation, I can be sure that the God who knows me intimately has worked that together for my own sanctification and that His grace might be revealed as sufficient and that His power be made perfect of evident in my weakness. Praise God for my weaknesses, every single one of them.