The Story of Hannah
How to Change an Impossible Situation

(Bible Study - April 2001)

The story of Hannah is a fascinating drama of one woman’s righteous anger. It is the story of how, led by a compromising high priest and his degenerate sons, the nation of Israel had strayed far from their God. The very leaders of Hannah’s people had betrayed their commitment to the Truth, and, as is so often the case, the corruption trickled down. It is the story of how Hannah, a woman of spiritual depth and perception, seemed powerless to do anything about it. However, with God we are never powerless, and a study into Hannah’s plight highlights fascinating lessons for any who find themselves wishing to change an impossible situation.

True religion corrupted
The extent of the corruption in Israel is evident in the opening chapters of I Samuel. There we see a high priest, Eli, who was sitting "on a seat by a post of the temple" (I Sam. 1:9). A careful reading of the text reminds us that there was no temple at this time, and there would not be for more than 100 years. Lest we think that there may be a mistranslation, the Hebrew word for "temple" clearly indicates a building, not a tent like the tabernacle. In addition, the word "post" in the original means exactly that, a doorpost; a further clue that this was not the tabernacle God intended. Even more surprisingly, the Hebrew word for the "seat" Eli sat on is usually translated "throne." Something very strange was going on in Shiloh, and it seemed to include a renegade priest setting up a new house of worship with an especially exalted position for himself.

With a leader who had compromised so much, it is no surprise the next generation was even more out of hand. It was well known Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas, "lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation" (I Sam. 2:22). The original Hebrew elaborates that the women "assembled by troops," giving a graphic picture of the priests’ immorality.

To further their iniquity, for pure personal gain they corrupted the very sacrifices others brought to His altar. God had given detailed instructions about the proper procedures for sacrifices. Yet Eli’s sons completely ignored them, developing an elaborate ritual, described in verses 12-17, that ensured themselves the greatest amount of meat from the animals their fellow Israelites brought. "And if any man said unto him, Let them not fail to burn the fat presently, and then take as much as thy soul desireth; then he would answer him, Nay; but thou shalt give it me now: and if not, I will take it by force" (I Sam. 2:16).

Of course, many would have denied the depravity of the situation, and it would have been easy for them to claim that everything was going well. After the idolatry so prevalent during the time of the judges, Israel had settled into the worship of Yahweh. God’s dwelling place was relatively intact and functional, and Levites like Elkanah were making yearly pilgrimages for worship and sacrifice, though even this was a far cry from the three times yearly God had commanded. The keen spiritual eyes of Hannah were not fooled, however, by these outward trappings. Her nation was steeped in corruption.

Hannah’s righteous anger
Many have interpreted Hannah’s despondency as merely the frustrated yearnings of a barren wife, but again a careful reading of the text shows otherwise. In I Samuel 1:7 we see that it was only "when she went up to the house of the LORD" that she was provoked and "wept, and did not eat." In fact, while it is commonly assumed that Peninah was the "adversary" of v. 6 who "provoked her sore, for to make her fret," the original Hebrew text indicates a very different possibility. The Hebrew word tsarah here translated "adversary" is nowhere else in the Bible used about a person. In fact, in all of the 70 or more times it is used in the Old Testament, the word is translated "straightness" or "troubles." In all probability, it was not Peninah at all that was troubling Hannah, but the profoundly disturbing sight she witnessed every time her family visited this aberrant house of God. A sister as devoted to God as Hannah would be appalled every time she visited the tainted tabernacle, just as the text indicates she was. Although perhaps few lost any sleep about it, to Hannah the corruption of God’s way was intensely disturbing.

As further evidence Hannah’s grief stemmed from deep righteous anger, her moving song of praise recorded in I Samuel 2 was not given at Samuel’s birth, but after she sent him to Shiloh to be used by God. In fact, the very words Hannah sang in verses 1-10 are echoed by the man of God sent against Eli in I Samuel 2:27-36. A comparison of Hannah’s song with the prophet’s words is enlightening. "The Lord brings death and makes alive," warns Hannah; "In one day shall both of thy sons die," says the man of God. "They that were full have hired themselves out for bread," sang Hannah in verse 5. God’s prophet warns Eli that "every one that is left in thine house shall come and crouch to him for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread" (v. 36) Here is a woman who was on the same wavelength as the Almighty.

Hannah’s response
But what to do about the problem? Then, even more than now, sisters were divinely limited in their ability to take leadership roles in the ecclesia. If only she had a man that she could set on fire for restoration and revival. Sadly her husband lacked her spiritual vision, and attributed her despair simply to her thwarted maternal desires.

Of course, her barrenness was a big part of the problem because a male child might be trained as a spiritual leader. However, even this slim hope seemed impossible.

Finally she decided on a bold and desperate promise: if God would give her a son, she would send him back to clean up His house. This was her last hope for change, and this was her prayer that day in the tabernacle. God’s approval of her plan was unexpectedly confirmed by the uncomprehending Eli. How little the supposed man of God knew, promising blessing on a plan that had as its aim the end of his corrupt house!

Soon the child of promise was born, and all too soon he was delivered back to accomplish his mission. It was not long before God was using Samuel to voice His condemnation on Eli’s corrupt house, for it was through the boy Samuel that God warned Eli of coming destruction on that memorable night when God called out in the dark. In fact, Hannah’s sacrifice became almost a kick-start to the divine judgment, as God soon after began sending stern prophesies of destruction, followed shortly by the destruction itself. It wasn’t long after Samuel’s arrival that the nameless prophet gave his scathing judgment against Eli and his sons, the judgment that seemed to echo Hannah’s righteous song. And, at the end of his life, it was Hannah’s son who finally anointed a king after God’s own heart to shepherd His people righteously.

Learning from Hannah
Armed with an understanding of Hannah’s plight and its resolution, we can ask how did this faithful woman effect the much-needed change? The question is an important one, because both sisters and brethren today often find themselves in situations that seem hopeless and impossible. Whether the problem is ecclesial or personal, it may seem totally outside their control. But nothing is out of the control of the Father, and an analysis of how Hannah called down His aid may help us to do the same.

First, we see primarily that Hannah’s action was an intensely private one. She did not initiate a direct confrontation with Eli or his wicked sons, nor did she set up a new and better house of worship. She did not even call all Israel to a national gathering of repentance and revival. In fact, outside her own family and a few residents of Shiloh, most of the nation did not even know about her commitment and her sacrifice. And few, if any, of those who did know understood its importance. Yet that did not stop the Lord from using Hannah to change her world.

Of course, there are times for public action. God can and does use the strong words of an Elijah or the zealous organization of an Hezekiah. Yet for many of us, such grandiose deeds of faith are not possible or even appropriate. We cannot control the reactions of others, especially in difficult ecclesial situations. Furthermore, some would shudder at the thought of such notoriety. But we are all capable of those personal, private commitments to our Lord that brought success to Hannah’s endeavor. Like so many down through the ages, "she hath done what she could."

Although private, Hannah’s action was profoundly extraordinary. There may have been many in the nation living in quiet faith and holiness, grieving inwardly at the deplorable condition of their ecclesia. Yet these lives of daily discipleship, as pleasing as they might be to the Father, are not what brought about ecclesial change. A mighty blessing of our Father follows a mighty commitment of love and faith.

There are few forces in life as powerful as the love between a mother and child. Yet that is exactly what Hannah offered to give up in willing sacrifice. It was not a commitment made without great thought, or kept without great heartache. It is hard even to imagine the sacrifice she made. In fact, it is very seldom that we make great decisions or endure mighty tests of faith (even though the Bible is full of such stories). God is pleased with the daily works of love we routinely show, but we cannot expect to accomplish what Hannah accomplished without the extraordinary level of commitment that Hannah showed.

Do something
Many times we would like to take action, but are caught in endless indecision about which action to take. We debate which course of action would bring about the best results or bring the most glory to God. Hannah would have none of this. She seemed to intuitively know that God would much rather his servants do something out of faith than wait until they have figured out exactly the right thing to do. In fact, in the light of human logic, Hannah’s step of faith was as irrational as it was unhelpful. Why would any mother leave her young boy in such a corrupt and apostate place? Humanly speaking, it was much more likely to result in a change to the boy rather than a change to the place. Yet the God with whom all things are possible took Hannah’s illogical offer and used it as the starting point for a remarkable transformation.

Hannah seemed to know that if we truly believe it is God who gives the increase, we ourselves are peripheral. It almost does not matter which particular step we take when it is taken out of a pure desire to bring God’s glory into our situation. What matters is the commitment, the faith, and the decisive decision to take that step of faith, whatever the step may be.

The story of Hannah is an inspiring one for anyone who desires to bring godly change to an impossible situation. Few of us have the ability or assurance to lead our families or ecclesias through the sea and into the Promised Land. And yet we desire to see positive change. From Hannah we see a path toward this end. It is not the only path, but it is one that God can bless. We do not need to spend our lives searching for the correct solution – God already knows what the solution is. Perhaps He is even now patiently waiting for that one brother or sister whose desire to bring Him glory leads him/her to take a step of faith. Perhaps the step is so personal that no one else even knows it happened. Surely it is a step that is so extraordinary the person taking it would never have done so were it not for their intense desire to effect change. Perhaps His whole plan is waiting on that one individual who can and will take a step – any step – of faith and willingly say, "Lord here am I."

David and Nancy Brinkerhoff

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