Part 1 of 3
A Chocolate Resolution
I have only ever made one New Year’s resolution in my life, which I actually kept the whole year. One New Year’s Eve between the years 1993 and 1997, my husband and I decided that we would not eat a bite of chocolate for the whole year. We both made it through the twelve months, but I can honestly tell you that year was one of the worst – food-wise – that I have ever experienced.
I would go to gatherings and sniff the chocolate desserts, attempting to get my chocolate fix through my nose as I moved longingly past. I would think about chocolate in the weirdest places and at the most inconvenient times. As I gazed at the chocolate on the buffet lines, I would take about three or more desserts of anything non-chocolate, thinking about the chocolate pie, or cake, or ice cream the whole time the other desserts were sliding down my gullet. As it turned out, I did not lose any weight by December 31, which may or may not have been the goal – I do not even remember. The fact is: I probably ended up gaining weight in the long-run.
Though, statistically speaking, keeping that resolution put me in a very elite group of people – only 9.2 percentage of people keep their resolutions the whole year – that resolution became the bane of my existence. It occupied many of my waking thoughts. It made me feel like I was missing out on life; at least one I considered to be worthwhile. I ended up eating more desserts in lieu of what I really wanted. In short, that resolution, while legalistically kept, really did me more harm than good because the next year, I ended up eating chocolate like there really was no tomorrow.
New Year’s Failures
Why is it that about 80% of resolutions made on December 31st only make it to February 1st? Are people just lazy and uncommitted or is there something deeper at play? The top three most common aspirations each year are to eat healthier, lose weight and save money. These are great resolutions, so why do these important decisions fall by the wayside so quickly?
It cannot be for lack of advice; so many people have incredibly good tips on how to keep resolutions. For example, Jeanette Pavini states ten solid principles for making a resolution stick: 1) Set short-term goals, 2) Make your resolution about the journey, not the outcome, 3) Schedule time for your resolution, 4) Employ the buddy system, 5) State your goals, 6) Keep records, 7) Get an app, 8) Celebrate little victories, 9) Reassess your resolutions, and 10) Don’t give up easily. (www.huffingtonpost.com/jeanette-pavini/10-tricks-to-help-you-actually-keep-your-new-years-resolutions_b_4550549.html)
Jeanette has great advice and there’s other equally brilliant guidance out there on the web or from your workout partner’s mouth, or even on your sermon notes from the last Sunday of the year. But I can also guarantee that this kind of advice existed last year before only nine percent of the population managed to make it to the end of this year with their resolutions intact.
Great advice does not a resolution keep.
The best counsel I could find on keeping New Year’s resolutions actually came from a four-year old’s mouth. She began her 1½ minute speech with a clear statement about why she has problems with New Year’s resolutions: “because people think that’s the one time to change.” Her excellent guidance continues, “One big decision isn’t probably going to do it… Keep your resolutions, but go easy on yourself…Will you change? Maybe. But it probably won’t happen in one big moment. It will happen in thousands of little moments (Italics are mine). Everytime you choose to forgive or slow down or be grateful or stay calm, each little moment that you choose what is right instead of what’s easy, faith instead of doubt, love instead of hate…that’s where the change happens. Even if you fail one or two or thirty times, it’s okay. You have thousands of little moments ahead of you. You’ll get better…” (www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/common-new-years-resolutions-stick/)
I believe this little girl has hit a few nails on the head. Change does not depend on a one-time decision. Going easy on yourself is important. Change can happen over thousands of little moments. And choosing what is right over what is easy is a good thing. But there is one problem with her advice: Making a choice to be better does not actually make you “get better.”
So it appears that self-willed change also does not a resolution keep.
A New Year’s Revolution
So what are we to do as we peek over the horizon into 2019? If great advice does not motivate us enough to change and self-will is not strong enough to maintain any long-term change, how do we move forward into this next year of sanctification? Are we doomed before we even begin? Are our New Year’s resolutions already slated to be New Year’s failures? Who has the best advice and how do we get ourselves yoked to all that good wisdom – enough to really change?
As I begin to write this devotional, there are only nine hours left in this year of 2018. I know God wants to work in my life, whether it is the year 2018 or 2019; He wants to conform me to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:29). In order for me to move from unholy to perfectly holy, there are going to have to be a lot of changes in my heart, in my speech, and in my thought patterns. This coming year, I know where I stand on the adjustment scale: many areas of my life need a metamorphosis. And without becoming too discouraged, I know that 2019 will reveal areas of my life that right now, I do not even know need changing. I am so grateful my God is already working in the future to prepare me for those revelations, but as I sit on the cusp of a new year, I cannot disengage my heart from my melancholic thoughts. So many of my good-intentioned resolutions have ended in monumental disillusions. And I think the same frustration may be true for you.
Change is a given. Soul-shifts are a prerequisite for godliness. Adjustments of the heart preclude righteousness. For it was Christ Himself who said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). Christ, our Savior and Lord, is expecting us to change in this coming year. How on earth are you and I going to make that happen?
I am so glad that resolutions have nothing to do with this earth. Neither do they have very much to do with the little power you and I can conjure up. I am not trying to rain on any New Year’s Resolution parades; I think resolutions are a good thing. But as I meditate on how to change, I believe I know the answer to keeping a New Year’s resolution – a number of answers actually. So briefly, and with a whole month of devotional thoughts ahead of us to flesh this out, let me give you some initial New Year’s thoughts, just in case too much eggnog prevents you from following this devotional to its yet undetermined conclusion:
Answer 1: Resolution, if not led by the Spirit of the living God, will quickly fall away. “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). If it is not divinely inspired, your will, most likely, will not stand the test of time, or the absence of chocolate, or the will-power needed to get out of bed thirty minutes early to exercise. A resolution must originate in the heart of God for you and be caught like a Holy-Spirit wildfire in your soul.
Answer 2: You are not strong enough to make a resolution stick, let alone create lifelong change. You are a weak vessel apart from Christ, likened to a jar of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). Paul used this example, knowing that on your own, you are breakable, fragile, and moldable. In and of yourself, you are incapable of bringing about lasting, eternal, Christ-conforming change. If anything, your clay jar body, soul, and spirit will be more impressed by other clay jars rather than being able to strong-arm them into reshaping their interior. This knowledge of being weak is liberating, by the way, for it makes way for Someone much bigger and more powerful to work within you.
Answer 3: A resolution will not stick, even if it is divinely-inspired, unless you plug in consistently to the power source; you must walk constantly in the light of God’s presence. You are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, speak by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and live in Christ, moving and having your very being expressed through Him (Acts 17:28). Then, and only then, will a resolution last. The good news is that as you are weak, you will showcase God’s all-surpassing power (2 Cor. 4:7). Only in your weakness is Christ’s power made perfect (2 Cor. 12:9).
So instead of advice and self-made change, it appears that three principles have to be applied instead: a response to divine conviction, a mindset of weakness, and a dependence upon the inner-working power of the Holy Spirit. These do not sound like resolutions to me. They are not mindsets you can easily acquire and one day simply decide to apply. They are, instead, soul shifts; mini revolutions at the seismic center of your spiritual being.
What change will be wrought in you will not come about by sheer resolution, but by divine revolution. Self will have to be overthrown. Innate strength will have to be forcibly removed from power. The desire for adulation will have to be ousted. Hypocrisy will need to be dethroned. And independence will need to be toppled, paving a smoother way for humble dependence. Then, and only then, will lasting change begin to work toward its sanctifying conclusions.
Turning the Calendar’s Leaf
I have noticed a swelling melancholy in my soul over the past couple of months as I have awaited the turn of the calendar. It is a sadness I am quite familiar with, for I feel it welling up in me almost every New Year. It is a dejection of unfulfilled expectations, a year-after-year kind of pain. I can name a minimum of five huge troubles in my life right now that I have been praying for God to deliver me from – one of them for nineteen years to date – and year after year, there is no movement from the heavens in answer to those particular petitions. The monthly shifts of the calendar only serve to emphasize to me how little God must think of me. Instead of turning over a new leaf into joy, the flip of the calendar’s leaf to a new year lays down another layer of wounded sorrow over a growing consternation of unbelief. If I would verbalize my soul’s self-talk, it would go something like this: 2019 is yet another year in which I will be faithful and prayerful and yet will not see God move on my behalf. What is the point? I am fully aware of this perturbing state of internal affairs since God and I have been working to get to the bottom of this pervading sadness and doubt for quite a while.
At the close of this year, I have felt God’s leading to process these negative inner stirrings and I have been obedient, though the pilgrimage has been quite painful. What He has uncovered within me has been nothing short of illuminating, for it has lurked beneath this growing sadness like an insidious iceberg waiting to rip lethal trenches fore to aft in my faith. What God has showed me is that the lurking iceberg is actually fear, cleverly disguised by my sadness and jealously guarding my doubt, but we will get into that later today.
As God usually does, He used His Word to draw me into His revelation for me. This revelation began with the story of Hannah and these words describing her pain, “And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year…” (1 Sam. 1:6-7a).
Do you see her year-after-year kind of pain? I can hardly describe to you how my mind stood to attention when these words struck my spirit. I felt exposed: heart flayed open, feelings uncovered, and sadness on full display. I felt both unprotected and hopelessly desperate. Yet when these words spilled across my deep, hurting places, my raw heart was soothed and wonder of wonders, I was conscious of being deeply seen and stunningly heard.
You see, Hannah has known my pain. She understands my sadness. She has walked this same path of turning over a calendar’s leaf with nothing new to show for it. Her pain continued year after year – as mine has – and with that astonishing correlation between two womanly hearts centuries removed, God staked a claim in my interest. I knew God was moving me toward a deeper revelation of Himself, which in turn, I prayed would lead to a New Year’s Revolution in my soul; a revolution that would turn over my calendar’s new leaf with joy and expectation and hopeful anticipation.
I am not the only one who dreads the flip of the calendar; many of you struggle with your own year-after-year pain. Unanswered prayers. Uncontrollable circumstances. Unforeseen struggles. And with all of these, unprocessed doubts. It is time to turn over a new leaf, to discover what God is really trying to tell us through this year-to-year kind of pilgrimage.
This month’s set of devotionals is all about positioning yourself for a soul revolution. I believe this revolution will come about by way of three personal resolutions plus one godly revelation. I can almost guarantee that this revolution will not resemble the innate desires of your flesh’s prayers; God’s ways are much higher than that. But I am fairly sure that His revolution in your soul will eclipse any petitions you will ever think to ask.
If you have a year-to-year kind of pain, January’s devotionals are written for you. There are three actions you can take – resolutions, if you will – to position yourself to understand God’s revelation, but only when these three resolutions line up with God’s revelation, will you move into an inner revolution of the soul. Will you join me this month as we delve into Hannah’s story, as we unveil her determined effort to find some peace in her pilgrimage of provocation, and as we seek to know the mind of God in regard to year-after-year struggles?
If so, would you take just a few minutes and read 1 Samuel 1:1-8 ? Please take special note of Hannah’s distressing circumstances, for this intentional meditation may just open the door for a Holy-Spirit revolution in your soul.
Sources of Pain
This story opens with a long introduction to Elkanah, an Ephraimite from Bethlehem. In another time and for another devotional series, this information would be extremely important, for it sets up the lineage of the anointer of king David, from whom the Son of David – Jesus Christ Himself – would come. That anointer is Samuel, an incredibly important player in Israel’s history, but this particular devotional is about Samuel’s mother.
The next seven verses detail the constant stress and turmoil Hannah lived under. This was a misery that went on year after year. Detailing her pain is very important, for in that intense scouring of her hurt, you may find your own hurts laid bare. And once you have exposed your pain to Jehovah-Rapha, you have taken the first step toward soul-healing.
Divided Love (v 2a): Hannah’s story begins with turmoil. We discover that Elkanah was a man of great means; he could afford to have two wives. There are not many mentions in the Old Testament of people having multiple wives unless they were kings or people of great wealth. The author of this book does not inform us of this marriage tension just to let us know Elkanah was wealthy. He was getting to the heart of Hannah’s hurt right off the bat. Hannah was loved, but not loved enough to be chosen singly, treasured solely, and cherished devotedly.
Barren Womb (v 2bc): We find out quickly why Elkanah probably took another wife. In the listing of his wives, Hannah is mentioned first, meaning that she was probably his first wife. Peninnah was taken on later because Hannah was unable to conceive. We see that truth spelled out in stark, painful bluntness: “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none” (v 2c). This statement spoke volumes about Hannah’s year-after-year pain.
Unresolved Tensions (v 3): There is so much foreshadowing in this verse about what is to come, but I want to make mention of five unresolved tensions. 1) The first is that Elkanah went up to Shiloh year after year to worship. The tension seen here hints at events that are unresolved over a long period of time (v 3a). 2) Elkanah went up to worship and sacrifice (v 2a). Israelite men were to make pilgrimages to worship centers for three festivals each year. Many consider this yearly trip to be one of those required occasions and if so, it was to be a time of great celebration and worship. The tension comes in that while Elkanah is worshiping God and sacrificing to him with joy, Hannah has no children and therefore is making the ultimate sacrifice to worship God, howbeit, joylessly. 3) He sacrificed to the LORD Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. We will spend more time on this later next week, but this name of God means two things: God delivers and God judges. There is tension in that Elkanah was sacrificing to the very God who could not seem to deliver Hannah from barrenness. 4) This festival occurred yearly at Shiloh (v 3c). You might be interested to know that Shiloh literally means “place of rest” (ESV Strong’s), yet Hannah knew absolutely no soul-rest while she accompanied her husband. 5) This festival was at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord (v 3b). Remember that the name, LORD Almighty, means that He is judge, but the tension lies in that Eli’s two sons were evil priests. 1 Samuel 2:12 calls them wicked men without any regard for the Lord. Here is a God whose name reveals Him as judge and yet these two sons were getting off scot-free with incredibly worthless behavior. All of these tensions heightened Hannah’s year-after-year pain.
Jealous Division (vv 4-5): When Elkanah would sacrifice at the temple, he would give portions of the meat to Peninnah and her sons and daughters, but verse 5 says that he would give a double portion to Hannah because he loved her and the Lord had closed her womb. Imagine if you were Peninnah and you had given your husband many sons and daughters, yet you could not win his complete love. He still preferred the barren wife over you. Elkanah’s favoritism – like Jacob’s years before – created an atmosphere of jealous bitterness, which eventually became Hannah’s painful irritation.
Faith Crisis (vv 5-6a): Twice in these two verses, the author mentions that the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb. In that era, bearing a child gave a person significance and honor. Conversely, if a woman was barren, she was thought to be unrighteous or even a sinner. People around Hannah would have thought she was under some sort of a curse from God, but the author states the tension even more painfully: The Lord truly had made her barren. Can you imagine the juxtaposition of worshiping a God and sacrificing to Him, but feeling like He was out to get you? I believe this is the tension in which Hannah’s faith was tenuously balanced. She knew in her head that God was a good God, but she was probably struggling in her heart about whether God was personally good to her.
Bitter Provocation (v6): Peninnah saw that God had closed Hannah’s womb and she took advantage of that pain. She “kept provoking her in order to irritate her,” the NIV says, but this word ‘irritate’ is far to gentle a word. She was provoked severely to make her miserable (NKJV). She was taunted cruelly, her rival rubbing it in and never letting her forget that God had not given her children (MSG). That word ‘irritate’ means “to tumble, to be violently agitated, to crash (of thunder), to roar, to make the sound of thunder” (ESV Strong’s). This wife was severely hurtful and would thunder at her, rage at her, trying to make her feel worse than awful.
Long Anguish (v 7a): Scripture says that this provocation went on year after year. I do not even need to say any more, since we can all imagine what it must have been like to endure such persecution every year, without fail. A pilgrimage of provocation always feels like forever.
House of Misery (v 7b): I need you to see this, “Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.” Notice that the pain occurred when she went to the house of the Lord. Imagine that her place of pain was actually God’s house. It was not a house of worship for her; it was a house of misery, and in that statement all manner of spiritual disillusionment is interwoven. The place of joy and worship became the very center of her spiritual pain.
Misunderstanding Husband (v 8): The last pain I notice in these opening verses comes from an unlikely source: Hannah’s husband. When Peninnah would thunder at her, it got so bad that Hannah would weep and refuse to eat. Elkanah would ask her four insensitive questions, “Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
Now, if I was Hannah, I would probably deck Elkanah. How could anyone be so insensitive? He lived in the same household. Did he not hear Peninnah’s picking? Would he not have known how painful this barren situation was to Hannah? Here is the only person in this story so far that actually loves Hannah and he apparently does not even really know his wife: he does not see her pain, hear her questions, understand her heart, perceive her doubts, or seem to care about her needs. He is most interested that she think of him as more significant than the sons she longs for.
When you look at these nine sources of pain, it is easy to see why Hannah grieved. But do you see yourself in any of these painful provocations?
- Are you struggling with feeling unloved; in a marriage or maybe because you want to be in a marriage and have not been chosen yet? Or worse yet, do you feel unloved by God?
- Do you feel barren somehow? It may not be a lack of children, but is there a lack of fruit or impact or a barren attitude in someone you love?
- Are there unresolved tensions in your personal life, in your family, in your workplace or in your church? Do these eat away at your faith like acid?
- Are you a recipient of bitterness or jealousy? Or are you the jealous one due to the experience of neglect in your own life?
- Has God not given you your petitions? Does He seem like He is punishing you? Are you struggling with the truth that you see about God in the Word and the reality you face in your personal walk? Is your faith in crisis?
- Is there someone in your life that hurts you through words or actions? Do you live in a tense environment, where you have to walk a thin line between godliness and honesty? Are you continually provoked in the hurt places you bear?
- Are you experiencing a long anguish? Does the year-after-year pain seem interminable? Do you wonder if your physical death will be the only end to your misery?
- Is your place of pain the church? Have you been hurt by a pastor or a teacher or a dear friend, a believer who should “know better?” Are you wondering if the church is all fake? How can you worship at a place where you are so troubled?
- Do you feel unheard by a loved one; unnoticed, unseen? The one who should know you best just doesn’t seem to understand you? Is someone taking from you more than he/she is giving to you? The very people who should know and love us the best often hurt us the worst.
I have read Hannah’s tale often. In fact, I used this text to speak at a mother/daughter banquet quite a few years ago, but I must confess: I am standing wide-eyed over this story at this present time. Through the eyes of Hannah, I am reassessing my inner life and praying desperately that what God taught her would become an ever-living, present-day theology in my walk with Jesus. Part of that theology is the applicability of grace in suffering, in a year-after-year pilgrimage of pain.
There is a saying, “Whatever doesn’t make you bitter makes you better,” and while that is quaint advice, its perky sappiness does not often translate into good Christian behavior. Many believers are very bitter; I have found that some of that saccharine bitterness has even poisoned some of my Jesus outlets and short-circuited my joyful fellowship. Maybe you can commiserate with me.
Suffering with grace is a godly goal but not many of us do it very well. Pain hurts and when it keeps poking its fingers into the very fabric of our identity and faith, we respond in one of two ways. We either learn to cast all of our cares on Jesus, which is the ideal way to delight in our weaknesses so that Christ’s power rests on us (2 Cor. 12:9), or we numb ourselves to keep from feeling the stabbing pain of our circumstances.
Grieving and crying are normal when we undergo trauma, but there is to be an appropriate handling of that grief. “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5cd). The litmus test of our belief that God is good is actually revealed in the long haul, in the year-after-year kind of traumas. If we are still grieving in the same way after years of walking with the Lord – despite very trying circumstances – I propose to you that there is a deeper kind of suffering and pain going on underneath the irritation and weeping. You are either numbing yourself to what your soul is undergoing or you are allowing an undertow of fear to run rampant through your belief system…or both. Let me illustrate my point from Hannah’s story.
A Spiritual War
These eight verses detailing Hannah’s pain are rife with foreshadowed suggestion. There is a lot more going on here than meets the physical eye. Huge cataclysmic events are occurring in the spiritual realm simultaneously with the hum-drum goings-on of normal, everyday physical life.
On the surface a man has two wives. They fight a lot. One cannot have babies while the other has a quiver of them running around. The man likes to worship and goes to Shiloh on a yearly basis. While trudging the fifteen miles from Ramah to Shiloh, his wives fight on the way and without fail, his favorite wife makes a big scene, crying and refusing to eat. This goes on year after year after year.
But underneath these everyday bickerings lie souls that are being attacked. Underneath the jealousy and identity crises, lives are being torn apart. There is a spiritual element at work here that is hard to see and even harder to define, but it is a moving river of life or death, destroying trust on the one hand or bringing healing on the other. And Hannah is smack-dab in the middle of it all. Let me see if I can prove to you that spiritual warfare is the name of 1 Samuel one’s game.
LORD Almighty (v 3): Never before in the history of the Bible until this point has this name of God been used. Its first usage bursts upon this scene like a hydrogen bomb: with unexpectedness and with explosive power. Elkanah is said to worship and sacrifice to the LORD Almighty at Shiloh, but do you have any idea what this name means?
Jehovah-Sabaoth is one of God’s most powerful and warlike names. It is also translated as “Lord of hosts,” which could mean his host was composed of angels (Josh. 5:14), stars (Isa. 40:26) or men (1 Sam. 17:45). The NCV draws out the resources facet of this name, calling God the LORD All-Powerful. The NLT translation describes Him as the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. The Message echoes this sentiment marking Jehovah-Sabaoth as God-of-the-Angel-Armies. This name “expresses the infinite resources and power which are at the disposal of God as he works on behalf of His people” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries).
In Hannah’s prayer in verse 11, she prays to this name of God, and I firmly believe that she, under the influence and revelation of the Holy Spirit, named God out of her desperation. I believe that the author of 1 Samuel, who might even be Samuel himself, foreshadowed the miraculous events of this chapter by using this name of God in a foretelling type of way in verse three, before his mother spoke this truth out in the heavenly places. That foretelling is very telling, because it alerts us readers to the fact that God deemed this particular event so important that a new name, a new facet of His character, and a new dimension of His abilities needed to be announced.
Why is it so important that this particular name of God was revealed to the players in this particular drama?
Jehovah-Sabaoth is a God of deliverance and a God of judgment (we will look at these two aspects more next week). I believe this time-bomb of a name is lobbed into the events of this story as a frontal attack on the forces of evil in two ways and for two groups of people. First, God was stating His purposes for Hannah. He was going to bring deliverance to her and judge the evil that had been done to her. All of heaven’s resources were at her disposal and for Hannah, this meant a change in her situation; God was going to deliver her from this year-after-year kind of pain and judge her oppressor in the meanwhile.
Secondly, Israel also was slated for deliverance; not from an earthly oppressor, but from spiritual ones. Elkanah is said to have made the trip to Shiloh every year to worship and sacrifice to the God of Angel Armies at the very place where two evil sons of Eli were priests of the Lord (v 3). I believe that these two statements – Elkanah worshiping at Shiloh where Hophni and Phinehas were priests – are juxtaposed, not just for effect, but for a spiritual declaration. I believe that the author of 1 Samuel was saying that the powerful, Almighty, infinite, heavenly Warrior was coming to do battle with the hypocrisy that defiled His temple worship.
This unprecedented name of God dropped into this seemingly painful-but-normal pool of events was God’s spiritual trumpet call, summoning heavenly armies. It was a banner displaying the unlimited power of heaven’s resources and from the initial entrance into this story, its influence eddied out in seismic waves. The one most touched, most helped, most changed by the infinite resources of this All-powerful God was the very one who suffered interminably in seeming insignificance. This poignant thought must not be lost on those of us who have year-after-year types of pain. The God of Hosts will deliver and judge; now, in your life and mine, as much as He did back then for Hannah and the Israelite nation.
Barren Womb: Hannah is the fourth wife in the Bible to be described as a woman who could not have children, but there is something in this painful account that is more specific than the other three. Sarai’s hardship is seen in Genesis 11:30, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” Again in Genesis 16, we see that “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” As it turned out she told her husband that he was responsible for the wrong she was suffering (16:5).
Genesis 25:21 describes Rebekah’s barren womb in this way, “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” By the way, Isaac was the only husband of the four who actually handled the situation in a loving manner. Notice also that he was the husband of one wife that he loved.
The third woman with this particular affliction was Rachel. “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Gen. 29:31). Rachel’s reaction was not unlike Sarai’s or Peninnah’s when she experienced a year-after-year barrenness, “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I’ll die!’ Jacob became angry with her and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?’” (Gen. 30:1-2).
Sarai was barren and she blamed her husband. Rebekah was barren, but Isaac prayed about it to the Lord, and He gave her a child. Rachel was barren and she became jealous. Only her husband, Jacob, credits God as the One keeping her from having any children.
Hannah’s barrenness is reported in very different terms: “The LORD had closed her womb” and this statement is mentioned twice in back-to-back verses (1 Sam. 1:5-6). The first verse seems to indicate that Elkanah knew that since he gave her larger portions as a result of his love and this pain. But the second time this interesting statement is made, it is side-by-side with Peninnah’s abuse: “And because the LORD had closed her womb,” Peninnah kept provoking her.
These two placements are glaringly significant to me. Yes, God was ultimately in charge of the first three wives’ barrenness, but it is not bluntly stated. In Hannah’s story, it is, and the context of that statement reveals to us that much more was going on. Against the love of her husband, God is said to have closed her womb. And because of her closed womb, Peninnah verbally abused her.
God, in closing Hannah’s womb, is contrasted with love on the one hand and hate on the other. This is an invisible war with the physical barrenness as our most likely clue. In stating that God was in charge of Hannah’s year-after-year pain, the author is quite clearly showing us the spiritual struggle in Hannah’s heart: it was a struggle to believe God. She knew that God was big and powerful and worthy of awe and reverence; that is why she went to worship. But in the worshiping, there was provocation and irritation and pain because this same God did not seem able to end her suffering. This is a classic example of spiritual warfare, the type of conflict that exists in all of our hearts when God allows pain to coexist in our walk with Him.
The Rival: Peninnah is mentioned by name in the earlier portion of this sad saga, but when we begin to read about the conflict between she and Hannah, she is termed the “rival” (v 6). This change of terms is another clue that something deeper is running beneath the physical surface of their interaction.
The word ‘rival’ is defined as “tightness (i.e. figuratively, trouble); a female rival…adversary, adversity, affliction, anguish, distress, tribulation, trouble.” It comes from the root word meaning “to cramp…adversary, be in affliction, besiege, bind up, (be in, bring) distress, enemy, narrower, oppress, pangs, shut up, be in a strait (trouble), vex…(ESV Strong’s). Another name, Satan, comes to my mind. The Hebrew word “Satan” is an opponent or adversary. It comes from the root word ‘satan’ meaning “to attack…accuse, be or act as an adversary, resist, oppose” (ESV Strong’s). One last word that screams warfare is this word ‘provoke’ that is used to describe what Peninnah did to thunder at Hannah. To provoke someone is to “trouble them, to grieve, rage, be indignant…to provoke to anger and wrath” (ESV Strong’s).
Peninnah, in her bitter raging against Hannah could have been just another wife, but that is not the way the author views this situation. It reminds me of at time when Jesus was explaining what was going to happen to Him when He got to Jerusalem. He would suffer and be killed, he said, and Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:21-22).
Jesus could have taken that as a surface concern that He was going to die, but that is not how He viewed Peter’s rebuke according to His reaction. He turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mt. 16:23).
Peninnah, the wife raging against Hannah because the Lord had closed her womb, was named the rival; the adversary of Hannah, to be sure, but I submit to you that she was the adversary, the satan, if you will, of God and His plans for Hannah. Peninnah was a stumbling block to God’s work in Hannah’s life; she did not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. And in this name, the rival, the author defined another aspect of the spiritual battle going on in the heavenly places.
Not eating. Verse 7 divulges yet another clue about the serious nature of Hannah’s conflict, “Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.” There are three increasing levels of provocation listed in verses 6 and 7. The first level is that Peninnah would goad Hannah because she could not bear children (v 6), and the second level is that this bitter behavior went on year after year (v 7a). But the final straw for Hannah seems to be that all of this verbal abuse would occur specifically when she went up to the house of the Lord.
This was to be a house of prayer, but Peninnah made it a “den of robbers” (Mk. 11:17). She robbed Hannah of joy in God’s presence. She robbed God from intimacy with His child. She robbed the family of sweet fellowship at the family festival. But most of all, she robbed Hannah of a steady, confident trust in God’s power and goodness toward her.
I know this because of Hannah’s response. Verse 7 states that she wept and would not eat. The text does not say “could not eat” in any translation; just that she would not eat. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I am stressed or anxious about something, I tend to eat mindlessly. I have to watch that I do not medicate my feelings with food. And I think this is the normal response to added stress in our lives: we tend to overeat, especially comfort foods.
But I do know by experience that when I am in a serious depression, which has happened a couple of times in my life, I stop eating very much at all. Food loses its appeal because life loses its appeal. I do not want to be with people. I cannot handle the weight of a normal schedule. I do not want to go to church. I certainly do not want to worship and communion becomes a stressor rather than a joy.
In reading this passage, I believe this was the level of stress Hannah was enduring. She became so depressed that she wept; not a tear here or there, but a moaning, lamenting, grieving, wailing kind of sorrow (ESV Strong’s for the term baka). And in addition to this suffering kind of cry, she made a choice to stop eating.
I know people who suffer from chronic depression; my father-in-law was one of them. Some have chemical imbalances and some suffer tortuously in their mind, but I have not met one depressed person who would say that they did not feel under attack. Depression to the point of refusing to eat is a clear sign to me that there is a spiritual war going on in their minds and hearts. This level of angst is a glaring clue that Satan had Hannah in his sights and for the time being, may have been winning the spiritual battle.
Downhearted. Elkanah sees what is happening in Hannah, but he has no clue how to respond to her. His questions seem surface-like to me, demonstrating his lack of awareness of the extent of Hannah’s pain, but there is one question he asks that reveals to me that he is aware that something bigger is going on in his wife.
After asking why she weeps and why she refuses to eat, he queries her, “Why are you downhearted” (v 8)? In our English language, this question makes sense, because downhearted means discouraged or low in spirit. But why would he ask that when he already had alluded to this in his first question, “Why are you weeping?”
It is because he was discerning something he could not really express. That word ‘downhearted’ or sad (ESV) actually means “to be broken up (with any violent action), i.e. (figuratively) to fear: be grievous…displease…evil, ill, harm, to tremble, quiver” (ESV Strong’s).
My Expositor’s Commentary says that this question more literally means, “Why is your heart bad?” The other place this word yara is used is in Deuteronomy 15:10…”your heart shall not be grudging (yara: sad or downhearted) when you give to him…” My commentary goes on to say that “to do something “with a bad heart” means to do it resentfully or grudgingly. Thus Elkanah is not so much asking Hannah why her heart is sad (Why are you down-hearted?) but why her heart is bad (“Why are you resentful?”) Are you angry or full of spite because you do not have children?”
To be discouraged or sad in this situation is completely understandable, but to be resentful is a different story. It clues me in to the fact that Hannah’s year-after-year suffering is beginning to eat away at her gracious spirit and long-suffering demeanor. Even her husband – who seems relatively clueless to the depth of her emotion – notices that his sweet wife (her name means grace) is struggling in her faith. Nothing short of a full-blown spiritual battle can wring resentment and ill-will out of an innately sweet spirit.
Bitterness: I want to peek into next week’s verses for one short phrase, which will corroborate the effects of this spiritual battle in Hannah’s responses. Verse 10 gives just one more clue about the battle raging for Hannah’s faith, “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.”
Do you see that word ‘bitterness?’ It is the word marah meaning “bitter…angry, chafed, discontented, great or heavy.” It comes from the root word marar that adds “to be enraged” to the list (ESV Strong’s). We know bitterness to be an anger or disappointment at being treated unfairly. We might even add resentment as a synonym to this word.
This word reminds me of another woman suffering a year-after-year pain: Naomi. After losing a husband, two sons and a daughter-in-law in Moab, she returns to Bethlehem and the whole town is stirred at her return with Ruth. The women ask, “Is this Naomi?” which, by the way, means “my delight.”
She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (Ruth 1:20-21). Do you see the rancor, the resentment in Naomi’s life? She was losing the spiritual battle so markedly that she changed her name to match her inward faith crisis.
I do not think it is a coincidence that this same word, mara, is used to describe Hannah’s soul state. For you and I both know that when suffering has gone on too long, it wears down even the most gracious spirit, unless there is a soul-revolution, which we will get to in two weeks. At the point where we are studying, Hannah’s soul is in a state of crisis.
Bitterness is a very effective tool of Satan and he wields it mightily when there is a relationship rupture. Looking in on this three-way marriage tension, it is clear that there is a spiritual battle raging over Hannah’s life. Not only is this war in the heavenly places or in Shiloh or in the house of God or in Elkanah’s family, but it is also in Hannah’s soul (v 10).
Spiritual warfare is often very hard to recognize. Satan employs sneaky methods in battle: flanking, ambushing, and deflecting. He also employs the method of division to separate families and friends because he knows that if he can get a person alone and running scared, she is vulnerable without accountability. That is exactly what is happening in Hannah’s life. She is virtually alone because she is misunderstood, unseen and abused.
The Undercurrent of Fear
We have looked at the sources of Hannah’s pain and we have studied the spiritual forces at play, but there is still one more piece of this saga we have not yet delved into. To tie the pieces together, I must first take a field trip to another similar story.
1 Samuel 21 outlines the story of David running from his enemy, Saul. He obtains the sword that he used to slay Goliath from Ahimelech the priest and runs to Gath, of all places, the very hometown of the giant he had not-so-long-ago slain. He does not realize that his reputation would precede him, but the Philistines soldiers reminded their king that David had a song written about his exploits, that he had killed tens of thousands (v 11).
David took those words to heart and became very afraid of Achish king of Gath. He pretended to be insane: making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard. Achish sarcastically states that he has plenty of madmen and that he should be removed from his house. David’s deception of Achish had worked.
Two of the psalms in our psalter come from this unusual situation. The one pertaining to Hannah’s story is Psalm 56, which begins with a lament about provocation, “Be merciful to me, O God, for men hotly pursue me; all day long they press their attack. My slanderers pursue me all day long; many are attacking me in their pride” (vv 1-2)
The pain of David’s situation is similar to Hannah’s. David writes, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Just like Hannah, David suffered a long kind of pain. David and Hannah understood the agony of provocation, of being verbally abused, of crying into their pillows at night. The aches of their heart might have been verbalized like this, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble” (Ps. 10:1)?
As I was studying Hannah’s story, God led me to this passage about David’s pain of running for his life. For a long time, I could not figure out the correlation between the two narratives or why God was tying the two passages together for this devotional series. David’s painful suffering in Gath is described by fear, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Ps. 56:3). He said this in response to his abuse at the hand of Saul, yet the word ‘fear’ is not mentioned anywhere in Hannah’s story.
The Lord got me to thinking about what Hannah’s deepest longings might have been. These are not stated, per se, in Scripture, but I think they can be deduced by the sources of pain that are listed. Just like the cries of the psalmist in chapter 10, “Why do you stand far off and why do you hide yourself in trouble?” I believe Hannah had similar soul cries. Let’s look one more time at the sources of her pain and see if we can deduce what her longings might have been.
- Divided Love. Her husband had two wives. This could easily have set up a cry for love in her heart. “Why, God, does no one love me for me?”
- Barren Womb. She could not have children. Can you imagine her thinking, “What if my husband divorces me because I cannot bear a son? Why does God hate me so?”
- Unresolved Tensions. God’s name meant deliverance and judgment. “Why can’t God deliver me from horrible circumstances? Why can’t He bring justice on Peninnah for her treatment of me?”
- Jealous Division. Her husband, though he loved her, treated her with favoritism, setting her up for more bullying. “Why can’t my husband leave well enough alone? Doesn’t he see my pain and that he’s making everything worse?”
- Faith Crisis. God closed Hannah’s womb. “What have I done to be treated so poorly? Doesn’t God care about me, about my desires?”
- Bitter Provocation. Peninnah was cruel to her. “Again, doesn’t God see what is happening to me? How can I keep being nice to her when she is so mean? How can God expect this of me? Life is so unjust.”
- Long Anguish. Her pain went on year after year. “I can’t take it anymore. Maybe it would be better if I were dead. God, I am so tired of this. Why don’t you do something to help me?”
- House of Misery. She was treated so badly as she went up to the house of the Lord. “How can believers act this way? Why doesn’t God judge them like He said He would? He said He would repay, but I just don’t see it? Is God a liar? For sure, He doesn’t care about me.”
- Misunderstanding Husband. Elkanah asked inane questions. “Is there no one who really sees me? I have no one in this whole world to talk to about my pain. Even my own loving husband doesn’t understand. There must be something wrong with me.”
If you take all of these concerns as a package deal, her deepest longings were probably similar to many of ours. Her soul cried out for healing, for love, for a deeper relationship with family and friends. She desired to feel significant and joyful. She wanted answers to her prayers, especially for abundance, rest, joy and intimacy with God. Her soul cried out to be seen, to be heard, to be understood and accepted.
Personally, I know that if all of my soul cries lay unanswered in the deepest parts of my life and are not continually surrendered to God, over a long period of time, my faith begins to waver. Satan will use those soul cries against me, causing doubt to settle into my relationship with God like freezer burn. “Did God really say,” is a line he will use or “If you are a child of God…” These statements of controversy pit our longings against God’s promises and if they are not examined in the light of God’s Word and released to Him for safekeeping, they will become ice cubes in our walk with God, freezing out the warmth of His light. That, my friends, is when fear begins to take over.
The Lord showed me that fear and pain are extremely related. Many soul cries, I believe, are God-given; they are actually put in us to cause us to desire God, to want to seek Him, and to have Him meet those inner needs. But when suffering is introduced to the picture, we cannot understand why a God who says He loves us, would ever want us to experience hurt. Pain seems negative to us, but God has a very different perspective. He uses pain as a tool to drive us into His arms.
If we do not seek God and bare our soul’s suffering in His compassionate light very soon after we begin to feel pain, we will begin to doubt Him. That pain, which was supposed to push us toward our heavenly Comforter, will begin to oppress us, lead us to doubt, and eventually confirm all the soul cries we have rooted in lies. I propose then that it will not be long before we feel fear. We are afraid because the lies that Satan has sown seem true. Fear is unprocessed pain personified. Wounds reinforce how a person really feels about himself innately, apart from God’s truth.
If our identity is rooted in God, we will run to Him to have our soul cries met. We will grieve in His presence and find incredible rest and contentment, despite the circumstances. I call this the Pilgrimage of Peace, and this is the journey God eventually led Hannah on.
But if we have not done our spiritual homework of being in the Word and applying it to our lives, if we have not fastened our identity on Christ, Satan begins to stir up doubts about our identity. To do this, he speaks lies over our longings. He twists our soul cries by means of great deception and so when we experience pain, we have nowhere to go. We begin to grieve and ask questions of God that He doesn’t seem to answer, so we assume He has left us. Doubts are introduced into our mind about the goodness and love of our Father and if not explored and laid to rest, these doubts will start a fearful landslide in our souls. Once fear takes hold, we will feel lost and anxious in our circumstances and angry at the Lord for His seeming abandonment. I call this the Pilgrimage of Provocation.
These first eight verses of 1 Samuel 1 show Hannah’s pilgrimage. We can deduce her soul cries as we read between the lines. We can see all the pain that has been introduced and we can also see where doubts have arisen in her faith. I have tried to prove the reality of the spiritual battle in Hannah’s life, so we know that Satan was working overtime to induce Hannah to great fear. I believe that long-term grieving without resolution is really fearful pain turned inward. This can be seen in Hannah’s soul bitterness.
Peninnah, on the other hand, had fears of her own, seeing as she was the second wife and loved less. This set up doubts and fears in her mind and so we see a second way people deal with innate fear: long-term anger without resolution is actually fearful pain turned outward. Hannah bore the brunt of Peninnah’s Pilgrimage of Provocation.
What Is Your Story?
A lot has been said today about Hannah and her deep longings, but what about you? Has this story uncovered any unmet longings in your soul? Are you feeling unloved when you cry out for tender care? Are there areas of barrenness in your life, any areas where you desire to feel significant? Are there unresolved tensions in your family, your ministry, your faith when all you want is to feel peace with God and man? Do you sense division in your belief system or your marriage when healing is a deep longing undiscovered? Are you experiencing faith crises – why’s in your communication with God – when all you desire is deeper intimacy? Is someone provoking you when all you want is justice? Has your anguish been going on so long that the cry of your heart is to end it somehow? Is your misery due to believers? Are you experiencing a spiritual paradox that your greatest pain comes at the hand of people who are supposed to be the most loving? Are you misunderstood by those around you when your soul cries out to be seen and heard?
If any of these questions ring true in your spirit, then I can also guarantee that you are under spiritual attack. Most likely, you are also experiencing some fear, if you would be absolutely honest with your soul. If you are withdrawing inward, retreating within in an effort to numb your sorrows, you are walking a pilgrimage of provocation. If you are angry at God and this spills out into the relationships all around you, you are also walking a pilgrimage of provocation.
My friend, God wants to move you from a pilgrimage of provocation to a sweet pilgrimage of peace. He desires to vanquish your fear with His divine light . Even now, He is waiting in the wings to be your resurrection and your life. Just like the captive Israelites, the LORD of Hosts hears your groaning, remembers His covenant of love, sees your trouble and knows what to do about it (Ex. 2:23-25 – ESV) Just as David realized, God hears your crying in the night, lists your tears in His scroll and records your pain; not so He can only know about it, but so that He can do something about it (Ps. 56:8).
But much of His powerful action on our behalf depends on our dependent action on His power…
Hannah’s First Resolution
…Let me explain.
There is a precious treasure buried deep beneath all of the pain, struggle, and warfare of these first eight verses. This valuable prize, a seemingly insignificant effort on Hannah’s part – a resolution, if you will – is interwoven through the dark colors of turmoil and angst like tiny gold threads peeking out from the back of an incomplete cross stitch. Hints of this richness are subtly spoken, but need a persistent miner engaged wholeheartedly to be excavated.
There are three hints given to us in these verses that point the way to this treasure. One is seen in the meaning of Hannah’s name. It is the Hebrew word hana meaning “grace,” and comes from the root word hanan, “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior, to be gracious, show favor, pity, be favorable” (ESV Strong’s).
Names were very important in the Old Testament; they were, in essence, a description of the character of the name bearer. The fact that Hannah was gracious and showed favor as a general rule is very important to our quest for the hidden treasure.
Secondly, the words “year after year” are incredibly meaningful. Yes, we have looked at these words with her continual pain as the focus of our observation, but I also want you to see what else happened year after year. Elkanah went up to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice to the Lord each year. He took his whole family with him. Despite the provocation she received year after year, Hannah kept going. This reveals something very important about Hannah. Not only is she full of grace, she is full of love for God. Her worship and sacrifice to God overruled her human desire to stay home in order to avoid abuse.
The last gorgeous hint at our hidden treasure is seen in an important phrase: “Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD” (v 7). Notice that this is followed by a year-after-year phrase. Despite the trek, despite, the hardship, despite her barrenness, Hannah kept going to the house of God. This phrase precedes the fact that Peninnah would provoke her on this trip, but Hannah was not only full of grace, not only full of love for God, she was also full of a long-obedience.
These three hints lead us to a valuable treasure, the treasure of Hannah’s first resolution. Whether it was verbalized or written down, whether she was held accountable to someone or not, whether anyone saw or cared, Hannah was faithful. Like the godly Daniel that would come years later, she “resolved not to defile herself” (Dan. 1:8) with the worldly options available to her.
She could have been mean and nasty right back to Peninnah, but she was not; she was gracious. She could have whined and complained to her husband, but she did not. Instead, she humbly walked a road of sacrifice in order to worship the love of her life: Yahweh Himself. She could have allowed resentment to overtake her witness and refused to go to God’s house, but she did not. Instead, she faithfully made that sacrificial path all the way to the very place where she knew God would meet with her, would soothe her hurts, and would infuse her with strength to do it all again the next year.
If you are walking a year-after-year pilgrimage of suffering, know this: your walk is not in vain. When you demonstrate grace in the midst of your provocation, God sees your kindness and mercy. When you engage in a year-after-year sacrifice of worship, God sees your love. He is drawn to your worship with an understanding and compassionate heart. And when you choose to keep going to His house, meeting with Him, seeking His will and desires, God sees your persistent loyalty. He is proud of your long obedience, stunningly pleased by your faithfulness.
How do I know this? Because God’s Word says so: “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man” (Pr. 3:3-4). Faithfulness is an overarching, enduring quality of God. It is part of His very nature. When you and I choose right attitudes, right words, and right behaviors on a faithful year-after-year basis, we are acting like God Himself. God sees this virtuous behavior and if our desire is to win the approval of God, not men, we are considered to be servants of Christ (Gal. 1:10).
Dear one, faithfulness in the midst of hardship makes you look like Jesus. Your simple offering of devoted steadfastness is an offering by a righteous heart. As a righteous woman, full of grace, love for God, and year-after-year obedience, you have a very special promise from God: “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Pr. 18:10).
Even in the midst of weaknesses, insults, and hardships, you can be safe. While undergoing persecutions, difficulties and year-after-year unanswered prayers, you can delight because wonder of wonders, Christ’s power will rest on you (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Your faithfulness, like Hannah’s amazing resolution, will position you, not only for safety, not only for power, but for much more: a soul revolution.
A Hint of Providence
We have spent a lot of time today detailing the sources of pain in Hannah’s life as well as the almost-invisible war eddying around her in the heavenly places. The purpose for this focus is not to discourage you by this negativity, but to help you find your place in this story. Every one of you struggles with some sort of year-after-year pain, I’m fairly sure. To be able to see that pain and name it before the only One who can heal it, is a very important first step in moving into the Pilgrimage of Peace.
Another goal in studying Hannah’s situation is for her faithfulness to come shining through. We have seen how her resolution – though teetering precariously toward the end of these first eight verses – has helped sustain her faith in God. If you take nothing else from this devotional but the value of long-obedience, I feel as if I will have accomplished a great deal.
But let me remind you where we left off. It was quite a dismal place with Peninnah provoking, Hannah weeping and refusing to eat, and her husband asking her inane questions. I want to capitalize on the last question he uttered for just a few seconds to launch us into my final point, which is the most incredible thought of all.
Elkanah speaks this phrase over Hannah’s grief, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons” (v 8e)? In an even more blunt version, the NLT question becomes even more insensitive-sounding, if that is even possible, “You have me – isn’t that better than having ten sons?”
I bring up this question once again because it encapsulates the very essence of Hannah’s pain internal year-after-year pain. Elkanah is verbalizing Hannah’s deepest longings, bringing them out into the open, but they are not brought into light nor into truth. For Hannah cannot even answer without losing: losing face, losing relationship, losing hope. Clearly, Elkanah is not enough to make her oozing wound stop bleeding; in fact, he is adding to it by his comparison and manipulation. Instead of making Hannah feel fortunate for having such a good husband, his constant reminders serve only to remind her of what she is missing: a person to make the pain all go away.
In short, this is an incredibly good lesson for all of us who struggle year in and year out with unanswered questions. It is easy to expect an earthly someone to alleviate our pain. We can begin grasping and searching for answers in all of the wrong places; this is called idolatry, and the slide into darkness is made much easier by just giving up, by abdicating the resolution to be faithful. Not even a loving, good-hearted, caring husband like Elkanah could eradicate Hannah’s pain and answer her desires. She needed a Deliverer…
…And that is exactly what she got. For though the horizon at this point looks very dark for Hannah, a huge hint has been dropped into this yawning hopelessness that revelation will soon be forthcoming. Precious one, if nothing else, Hannah’s sad story so far swings precariously by thin ropes of discouragement and provocation, but I submit to you that these two negative strands hang from a very sturdy foundation. That foundation is a name, a strong tower of safety and victory for Hannah and my friend, for you and me.
For just like David who had to feign craziness to escape the Philistine soldiers, God gave him a word that turned his fear around and delivered him from death and his feet from stumbling (Ps. 56:4, 13). Like Adam and Eve, who severed their intimacy with God for a tempting apple, there was a promise that Eve’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). Like Naomi, who was so resentful over her losses that she named herself ‘bitterness,’ there was a hint of fruit and abundance since she arrived in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning (Ruth 1:22).
Like all of these and many more, Hannah, the broken-hearted bearer of soul-pain, was given a hint of providence, a foretelling of a reversed fortune, a peek into the possibility of a soul-revolution. For it was clearly stated that she, along with Elkanah, worshiped and sacrificed to Jehovah-Sabaoth, the LORD-of-Angel-Armies (1 Sam. 1:3).
A Hopeful Future
For seventeen years I have read yearly through the Bible as part of my devotional time, but in 2018, I did not make it. Frankly, I was enjoying the Old Testament so much that I barely managed to finish Malachi before Christmas. Instead of starting back in Genesis, I decided to more slowly read through the New Testament this year, savoring it like I have not taken the opportunity before. Because of this decision, I have been sitting in the first couple of chapters in Matthew these last three days. Since I just spent the entire month of December studying the Christmas story – and that is where Matthew begins – I prayed that God would show me something new…and He did.
I read Matthew’s description again of Herod furiously giving orders to kill all the boys, in Bethlehem and its vicinity, who were two years old and under. It was important for Matthew to note that these executions were spoken about by Jeremiah and that his murders fulfilled prophecy, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Mt. 2:18).
Doesn’t this sound like a year-after-year kind of pain? Imagine those mothers and fathers who had to live under such an evil regime. Put yourself in their shoes. Maybe that child was their only son. Weeping and mourning and refusing to be comforted. This pain feels very similar to me, mostly because I have been sitting beside Hannah this whole week as she weeps and refuses to eat.
But as I looked back in Jeremiah 31 where this prophecy came from, I was struck by this sad prophecy’s context. The heading above chapter 31 reads, “Hope for Restoration” and the sub-title just before this prophecy is spoken in verse 15 says, “Rachel’s Sadness Turns to Joy.” I could not figure out the irony for as I looked down over this chapter, I saw promise after promise of God’s good intentions for Israel. Nothing more was said about Bethlehem’s sad tale; instead, all mourning was turned to hope and joy.
God asked them to restrain from weeping for their work would be rewarded (v 16). They would be able to return from the land of the enemy and there would be hope for their future (vv 16b-17a). God spoke of Israel as a dear son, one in whom He delighted; His heart yearned for him and He had great compassion on him (v 20). He promised to refresh the weary and satisfy the faint (v 25). Instead of uprooting them, God would watch over them to build and plant (vv 28-29). He would make a new covenant with them: His covenant would be written on their hearts and He would be their God and they His people (vv 31-33). All people would know Him personally (v 34). He is the God who appoints the sun to shine by day and the moon and stars by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar and get this, the LORD Almighty, God of Angel Armies, is His name (v 35). The passage ended with God’s incredible promise to rebuild them so that even the place where the dead bodies and ashes were thrown would become holy in His sight (vv 38-40).
As I tried to figure out what on earth God was saying to me about my year-after-year pain, this is what I wrote in my journal, “Just like Hannah’s weeping precluded the LORD Almighty turning a destiny or Naomi returning before the barley harvest, this sadness of Rachel is a precursor to the blessing of Jesus, who will save His people from their sins.”
Afraid that I was way off base, I consulted my Tyndale Commentary and was elated to find that he agreed with me. “Perhaps Matthew intends us to see also in Bethlehem’s mourning a temporary sorrow, out of which God will bring joy and deliverance through Bethlehem’s Messiah…The relevance is not in Ramah or in Rachel…but in bereavement as a prelude to blessing.”
Dear one, do you know what this means? When the night is the blackest, when the sun refuses to shine, there is a Savior. When the storm clouds gather and the sea roars its intent to capsize and devour, there is One who speaks a word to calm it. When pain raises its ugly head year after year and tears fall like rain from grieving eyes, there is a Deliverer. LORD Sabaoth is His name (1 Sam. 1:3 and Jer. 31:35).
It is true that the first eight verses of 1 Samuel detail an awful lot of pain, even ending on the saddest note of all, but even before the most forlorn parts of Hannah’s tale were offered up for our commiseration, Jehovah-Sabaoth was introduced into the scene. The author of Samuel, like Matthew in writing the book that bears his name, is highly intentional in his placement of this revelatory name of God.
Even before we find out about Hannah feeling unloved, unheard, unseen, God was already there. His name is casually mentioned, but the effects are nothing short of a miracle. Dear one, you need to hear this today: there is hope for your future. The God-of Angel-Armies says so. Just like Hannah, Jehovah Sabaoth is coming down to do battle for you! You are His darling child. He loves you. He longs for you. He sees you. He has mercy upon you. Dear child of the Lord of Hosts, He is going to fight for you!
Until next week when we see Hannah engage the Lord in yet one more resolution, will you resolve to keep seeking Him, keep leaning on Him, keep being faithful? Whether you can grasp this truth or not, your seemingly tiny-but-long-obedience has already caught Jehovah-Sabaoth’s attention. Cry your cares into His ever-loving ears. Allow Him to cup your face in His ever-loving hands and drink deeply from His ever-loving words. And above all, get ready! Your soul-revolution is coming, dear one and joy of all joys, your bereavement is actually a prelude to great blessing!