Gourock St. John’s
Praying the Whole Truth
1 Samuel 1.1-20, 2.1-10 (NIV)
18 October 2020, NL3-6, Becoming God’s People 6
After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.
It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading today is from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2, and I am reading from the New International Version.
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, ‘Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?’
9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.’
15 ‘Not so, my lord,’ Hannah replied, ‘I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.’
17 Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.’
18 She said, ‘May your servant find favour in your eyes.’ Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
19 Early the next morning they arose and worshipped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’
2 Then Hannah prayed and said:
‘My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
for I delight in your deliverance.
2 ‘There is no one holy like the Lord;
there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
3 ‘Do not keep talking so proudly
or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the Lord is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
4 ‘The bows of the warriors are broken,
but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food,
but those who were hungry are hungry no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children,
but she who has had many sons pines away.
6 ‘The Lord brings death and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.
7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and makes them inherit a throne of honour.
‘For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;
on them he has set the world.
9 He will guard the feet of his faithful servants,
but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.
‘It is not by strength that one prevails;
10 those who oppose the Lord will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven;
the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
‘He will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.’
Hannah was feeling really low. She had no children, in a culture that placed women’s value and their security in their sons. Without a son, she was in a precarious position — if her husband died, for instance, she would be completely vulnerable with no protection or resources. And without a son, she was worthless in the eyes of her society, and even the rest of her family. Her one job was to bear children and raise a household, and so she was seen as a failure.
And, of course, her fellow wife was bullying her about it. So there was nowhere to get away from the shame and despair, as even in her own home, the taunts followed her. And when they went up to worship, despite her husband giving her two portions at the meal afterward, everyone knew that was just pity, an attempt to cover the fact that she would soon be alone in the world.
Elkanah tried to help, and I think we should give him his due for continually reaching out and reminding Hannah that she was loved, even if she couldn’t feel it. However much she cried, he kept telling her that to him, she had value, no matter what society said, no matter what Peninnah said. He showed her his love by giving her extra portions at the festival feast, even when she didn’t feel like eating. He tried his best, however clumsy that might have been, and he did what we want people to do if someone they love is in poor mental health — reach out and offer support and love. Sometimes they can’t hear it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Hannah, in her desperation, went into the temple to pray. At the time, the tradition was for people to pray aloud, but Hannah was so down that her voice wouldn’t even come out. She didn’t need anyone’s attention, though, except for God’s. She prayed and prayed and prayed, pouring out her heart and soul, her sadness and despair, to God, begging for God to change her circumstances and her life.
The priest, Eli, could not hear what she said to God assumed she must just be drunk.
That’s when Hannah discovered that she still had some fight left in her after all. She’d laid her troubles at the feet of the Lord, and when confronted by someone maligning her, she found her voice. On behalf of distraught people everywhere, she corrected Eli’s wrong assumptions and reminded him that just because he couldn’t hear didn’t mean it wasn’t an earnest prayer.
The story says that Hannah went home feeling better. She stopped crying and was able to eat. Her outlook improved, and then she did indeed receive what she had prayed for: a son, whom she called Samuel, and when he was weaned, probably around age 3 or so, she took him back to that very same temple and dedicated him to the Lord’s work, just as she had promised God she would.
Now, I want to be very clear about something important: prayer is not a cure-all for mental ill health. We should not read this story and say “if I just pray harder, God will make me feel better.” And we should definitely not read this story and then say to someone else “you should just pray more and God will cure your depression, anxiety, or eating disorder.”
What I think we can say is that the kind of prayer where we bring our whole truth is important. Whether we have all the right words to say, or no sound comes out no matter how hard we try…even if we feel like a complete mess…no matter how deep our despair or how big or small our problem…whether we think God will care or not, and regardless of what other people think…fully laying our burdens before God can bring us some relief, or can show us a different perspective than we could see before, and can give us a sense that we are not as alone as we feel.
Prayer is not a substitute for health care. It is, however, crucial to our well-being.
It turns out that it is also crucial to the well-being of the whole world. Hannah cried out in the midst of her suffering, and God heard her — and the answer to her prayer was not only for her, but for everyone. She begged God to bring life into the barren wasteland, to change things around. And God listened, and in love addressed both her immediate need and also the larger situation of the whole people.
The son Hannah prayed for would indeed change the world — first by upending the household, because no longer could Hannah be the target of scorn and bullying; and then by upending the religious system, as he spoke God’s word to the priest Eli and his corrupt sons; and then by upending the political system, because Samuel would be the last of the judges, the one who would anoint the first kings: Saul, and then David. It is Samuel’s work that will bring the nation together and make the rest of the biblical story possible. And all because Hannah took her burden to God, and laid it there, trusting God would hear even if no one else understood.
When Hannah brought Samuel back to live at the temple a few years later, she did not pray silently but instead sang a song that celebrated the bigger picture she had come to see. Hannah’s song, and later Mary’s magnificat, which is based on Hannah’s song, is a reminder to us all that we can and should demand that God use his power to turn things around, to bring life out of death, to reverse the injustice of this world and create a new system where no one is put down, bullied, devalued, or left out. After all, God is in the business of new life, and Hannah shows us that we, God’s people — however messy our own lives may be — have the power and the privilege to speak to God and ask for big things.
Obviously not every prayer from our own suffering will also be of national or cosmic significance. But Hannah had no way of knowing that her prayer would change the course of history, and neither do we. What we do know is this: God hears us no matter how feeble our voices, and loves us no matter the trouble we’re in. God cares about suffering, and God has a proven track record of changing lives. And sometimes one small thing leads to another, and another, until it’s actually quite a big thing. God may well answer one prayer in a way that sets a whole world-changing vision in motion.
So don’t hold back, but bring your whole self to God — and see what God will do.
May it be so. Amen.