Long Live the King!
1 Samuel 1
Main Idea: Yahweh, the great King, raises up Samuel to be His priest and prophet in the midst of pain, praise, and prayer.
- Hannah’s Hopelessness
- Romance as the Savior?
- Hannah’s Salvation
- Hannah, David, and Jesus
- Hannah, David, Jesus, and Us
- Most of our hurt and disappointment comes from seeking another “king” besides God.
- God is better than “many sons” or a king.
- Bitterness does not mean God-forsakenness.
- God loves people the world casts away.
David—the man most famous for killing a giant—is himself one of the greatest giants of the Bible. Besides the story of his life, he is mentioned 182 times in the Old Testament and 59 times in the New (Howard, “David,” 41). He was a man of many talents—a shepherd, musician, poet, warrior, and the king by which all Israelite kings would be judged (ibid., 41, 46). Nearly half of the book of Psalms bears his inscription, and the Dead Sea Scrolls attribute another 4,050 psalms to his name (“David,” in Dictionary of Judaism, 151)! In understanding the Old Testament—or the Bible as a whole—it is difficult to overestimate the importance of David. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written, “David is the dominant figure in Israel’s narrative” (David’s Truth, 13).
David came onto the scene at a crucial time in Israel’s history. Israel had settled into the promised land of Canaan, and after many years of turmoil (caused by their disobedience), they asked God for a king. They saw this as the answer to their national woes. All the neighboring nations had kings, which seemed to serve them well enough. A king, they believed, would guarantee prosperity, give them national stability, and protect them from harm. A king was the key to success.
In many ways the book of Samuel presents the story of Israel’s search for that king. After all, in 1–2 Samuel, David would be the ideal king when compared with Saul—and just what Israel thought they were searching for. Readers of the book are struck, however, by how tragically David disappointed everyone in the end, as we saw in the introduction of this commentary. His story ends with an uncomfortable question mark. The reader is left asking (with Israel), “Is that it? David is the best king we could have hoped for, and look what happened to him. Is there no hope?”
If David’s reign represents life as good as it gets, then we are indeed left with hopelessness. This alerts us to the fact that the hero of Scripture is Israel’s true King, Yahweh Himself. As Psalm 95:3 proclaims, “For the Lord is a great God, a great King above all gods.” Psalms 95–100, rightly understood as the theological “heart” of the book of Psalms, affirm that Yahweh reigns, and that is truly good news (McCann, A Theological Introduction, 44). So as great as David is, he pales in comparison to Yahweh, who reigns with equity, justice, and righteousness. He is the hope of Israel and the nations.
David’s story connects Yahweh’s kingship to the Lord’s anointed and appointed Israelite king, particularly in 2 Samuel 7. So Yahweh reigns through the Israelite king whom He installs as His “prince” (from the Hebrew word nagid in 2 Sam 7:8) over His people. So Israel’s king does not have ultimate authority; he only has authority in so far as he rules in a way that accords with Yahweh’s rule over all things.
The story of David, once it is taken in the whole of Scripture from Old to New Testament, shows us that no mere human king would rule as God saw fit. So in the fullness of time, God would send His own Son, Jesus the Messiah, to be the true King over Israel and over all creation. Rather than a mere “prince,” Jesus rules perfectly and is indeed God incarnate. In this way the David story is in the Bible to point us forward to the coming King who would not only be from God but would be God Himself. David’s story points us to Jesus, and Jesus was both Davidic and divine. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is Israel’s covenantal and Davidic King who would rule God’s people but also the Creator and cosmic King who would rule the universe.Jesus, then, is the King of all kings and the King that Israel—and we—are searching for.
This is where David’s story applies to us today. All of us, like Israel, are “searching for a king.” We want someone to guarantee to us our prosperity, stability, and safety. Each of us in our own way chooses someone or something to be our king. For some it may be marriage. Perhaps we think that if we could just get married, then our life would be fulfilling and rich. We imagine that we could handle any other trouble in the world, provided we were happily married. When we think this way, we’ve made marriage our king.
For others of us, success at work may be our hope. If we can get to a point where we are successful at our job, then we will have significance and security. Or perhaps it is just the money we long for. As long as we are financially stable, we feel that we can tackle any other obstacle that comes our way.
Still others might place family on the throne. If our family is healthy, in close proximity, and harmonious, then life is good. We see family as the surest foundation for stability and happiness. Family is our king.
Whatever we desire to give us stability, prosperity, and happiness, that is our king! David’s life shows us that God is the only King that can ever truly satisfy those longings. Everything else will only disappoint. All other kings promise great things, but they are incapable of delivering on their promises.
As we explore the story of David, we will also learn many ways David’s life can serve as an example for us. As Paul notes, God intended for Old Testament characters to serve as an example to us, both good and bad (1 Cor 10:11). Many aspects of David’s life are worth our imitation. But we must keep in mind that the entire trajectory of David’s life is meant not to point to himself but to point us to Jesus. David, like all earthly kings, disappointed; Jesus did not disappoint, nor will He ever. The story of David, like all Old Testament stories, is not meant to give us a hero to emulate but a Savior to hope in.
The story of David begins with a vignette that, on the surface, seems to have no connection at all to David! As we will see, however, the author of 1 and 2 Samuel placed Hannah’s story here deliberately. Hannah’s story and the story of David are intricately connected: Hannah sought on a personal level what Israel sought on a national one.
1 Samuel 1:2-7
[Elkanah] had two wives, the first named Hannah and the second Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless. This man would go up from his town every year to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh. . . . Whenever Elkanah offered a sacrifice, he always gave portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to each of her sons and daughters. But he gave a double portion to Hannah, for he loved her even though the Lord had kept her from conceiving. Her rival would taunt her severely just to provoke her, because the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving. Whenever she went up to the Lord’s house, her rival taunted her in this way every year. Hannah wept and would not eat. (1 Sam 1:2-7)
Hannah was a woman who, to put it plainly, was really down on her luck. Hannah’s problem was that she was incapable of bearing children (v. 2). She was barren. As devastating as that is today, in those days it was even more distressing. According to the Jewish Talmud, a person without children was considered “as good as dead.” Barrenness was even a legitimate grounds for divorce (“Barrenness,” in The New Encyclopedia of Judaism, 108–9)! Why was it so crucial that families have a lot of children? The Israelites saw children as an essential part of the good life for three main reasons:
First, Israel’s society was agrarian, which meant that the more sons a person had, the more potential laborers there were to work the land. The more workers, the greater the crop’s yield. The greater the yield, the greater the income. The greater the income, the higher the status. So children—particularly sons—guaranteed that a family would be financially stable and occupy a higher status in society (Johnson and Earle, The Evolution of Human Societies, 362).
Second, Hannah lived in an age before social security and a 401(k)! Children were the retirement plan of the ancient world. The more children a couple had, the more likely that couple was to be taken care of in their old age (ibid., 361).
Third, having children was necessary for the survival of the nation. The economy and military were completely dependent on having a large number of children born. Bearing children was a life-or-death issue not only for individual families but for the country as a whole (Borowski, Daily Life, 22).
Women who bore a lot of children were, therefore, treated with honor. They were heroes. Women who were unable to bear children felt useless; they experienced shame rather than honor and were looked on with pity rather than respect. In biblical narratives this theme comes up a lot. Barrenness “is an effective metaphor of hopelessness. There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 116). Not many people think about children in this way today. We tend to put more value on the kind of job a person has, where a person went to school, or how a person looks. But think of this from Hannah’s perspective: in a culture that puts all of a woman’s significance and security in her children, she can’t have kids! Practically speaking, she has no significance, no life, and no hope!
To make matters worse, Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had a lot of children. Daily, Hannah was confronted with her failure by a rival who was all too willing to rub it in her face. Verse 6 says that Peninnah “provoked” her, which is a creative rendering of a rather unusual Hebrew expression. The Hebrew word used here literally means “to thunder” or “to roar,” like a storm. This is the sort of word that would be used to describe being caught in a hurricane. In fact, as Tim Keller notes in a sermon on this passage, this is the only place in the Bible that the word is used to describe anything other than an actual storm (The Prayer for David; Firth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 51).
In other words, Hannah’s emotions were thundering and roaring like a hurricane. The text even tells us that Peninnah’s harassment was continual. There was no relief for Hannah from the relentless reminders of her barrenness. To say that Hannah was a deeply distressed individual is an understatement. Verse 7 indicates that her depression was so intense that she even refused to eat. Hannah must have lain awake many nights in despair, feeling like a broken, hopeless failure.
Romance as the Savior?
1 Samuel 1:8
“Hannah, why are you crying?” her husband Elkanah asked. “Why won’t you eat? Why are you troubled? Am I not better to you than 10 sons?” (1 Sam 1:8)
You have to hand it to Elkanah, the husband—he’s trying to be a good guy. And there’s something engaging about this man’s self-confidence, even if he’s not very tactful. “Hannah, baby, you may not amount to much, but I love you, and my love should be better than 10 sons!” Verse 5 indicates that as a sign of his affection, Elkanah would give Hannah a double portion of food. (Admittedly, this is an odd way of showing affection, isn’t it? Imagine Elkanah sitting there with his two wives, and reaching over to Hannah’s plate, winking, as he gives her two scoops of mashed potatoes. Ladies, feel free to swoon.)
Elkanah tried to offer Hannah romantic salvation, telling her that through his love he would be able to fill the void in her soul. But Elkanah’s romantic solution failed to address Hannah’s hurt. Year after year they would all continue to go up for the sacrifice, and Elkanah’s double portion couldn’t still the storms of Hannah’s heart.
This is the primary solution our culture offers to life’s problems. Like Hannah we find ourselves surrounded by Peninnahs who tell us we will never be valuable unless we do or achieve certain things. We need to have a high quality education or a large house or a husband who really cares. So when we fail to live up to these expectations, we feel worthless, jealous, and dissatisfied.
So we seek fulfillment, meaning, and significance in romance. Atheist scientist Ernest Becker put it this way:
The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. . . . What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to this position? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. (The Denial of Death, 160, 167)
We might think good romance and exciting sex will be “better to us than 10 sons.” This is, after all, the consistent message that we receive from Hollywood and pop music stations: love is all you need. The end, however, is tragedy. As Becker notes, “No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood” (The Denial of Death, 166).
Others of us try to dull the pain through drugs and alcohol. Still others simply adopt an attitude of cynicism and retreat into loathing. Deep within us we know that no human romance can fulfill us, that no drug can satisfy us that no cynicism can protect us. We cling to saviors that have no power because we feel like these are the best options we have. Hannah’s story—her pain and the vain attempts to mask that pain—is replicated in each one of us in our own unique way.
1 Samuel 1:9-11,18
Hannah got up after they ate and drank at Shiloh. . . . Making a vow, she pleaded, “Lord of Hosts, if You will take notice of Your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give Your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.” (1 Sam 1:9,11)
Verse 9 contains the turning point of Hannah’s story, but it is a subtle turning point. In fact, a casual reader is liable to miss it altogether: “Hannah got up.” This is not merely a superfluous detail, as if the author were saying Hannah finished her meal and got up to walk into the living room. No, the Hebrew word for “got up” indicates decisive action (Tsumara, The First Book of Samuel, 115, 117). Hannah stood up resolved and made a choice. Something had changed.
What had just changed? What had Hannah resolved to do? We are given her new resolution in the vow she utters. Two features of her prayer are particularly important. The first is that by pleading with God to “remember me,” Hannah indicates that she perceives that God cares for the plight of a rural, barren farm woman who everyone else says is a failure. She reveals a belief that the Lord of Hosts is the sort of God who cares for small, broken, failed people. God is so compassionate and good that He cares even for Hannah. This is faith in God’s goodness and grace: that He is a God full of compassion and an ever-present help for the weak (Exod 34:6). This is the kind of faith that pleases God (Heb 11:6).
Second, notice that Hannah offers to give back to God any son He gives to her. The detail about no razor touching the boy’s head shows that Hannah is invoking what the Israelites called a “Nazirite” vow. Her son would leave the family to serve in the temple of God.
The Nazirite vow was a special provision for those in the nation of Israel who wanted to serve God like a priest. Normally only those sons born into the house of Levi, the priestly tribe, were allowed to serve in the temple. If a person outside of the Levite tribe desired to serve in God’s presence, he could take the Nazirite vow to consecrate himself.
Numbers 6 explains the requirements and details for taking a temporary Nazirite vow as a form of worship. This vow was effective for a certain period of time. Paul took such a vow (Acts 18:18). However, what Hannah is doing here is consecrating her son for his entire life. This is similar to what Samson’s parents did when they were instructed by the angel to consecrate him for his whole life for service as a warrior (Judg 13:4-5). As we know, Samson violated his oath. John the Baptist was also a lifelong Nazirite (Luke 1:15).
When Hannah takes this vow, it means she is giving up all claims to her son in order to let him live in the temple and serve God. The Nazirite vow effectively moved a person out of one’s family. In other words, when Hannah makes this Nazirite vow for her son, she renounces everything that would have been valuable about having a son! Her son would not grow up in her house. He would not be an emotional support for her. He would not be available to take care of her in her old age. He would have no land inheritance, just as the Levites had no land allotment in Israel. Hannah prayed for a son but laid aside every benefit a son could have given her.
Yet Hannah “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (v. 18 ESV). She rejoiced before she received a son, despite knowing that if she did receive one she had renounced everything she had previously hoped for in him. Hannah’s joy is no longer dependent on obtaining a son. Hannah’s joy is now found in God, the God of her salvation (2:1). This discovery anchors her soul to a rock that quiets the storms of her heart (2:2).
We might expect the order here to be
- Hannah prays.
- Hannah gets pregnant.
- Hannah is joyful, and the storms of her life dissipate.
But something different appears in the story. Instead of the order listed above, we find
- Hannah prays.
- Hannah is joyful.
- Hannah gets pregnant.
The order of events is not empty! Hannah found joy and deep faith as she found her deepest needs met in God. Faith-filled Hannah has found a source of joy and security greater than her hope of sons: God Himself! Can you feel the excitement she pours forth in her prayer in chapter 2? Hannah says, “My heart rejoices in the Lord. . . . There is no one holy like the Lord . . . there is no Rock like our God” (2:1-2 NIV).
Faith means rejoicing in God when our dreams are still unfulfilled and resting on God when life is still falling apart all around us. In the following verses of this prayer, Hannah goes on to talk about God’s unfathomable wisdom, His great strength, His perfect beauty, His compassion for small, broken, and sinful people. This, she says, is the ultimate treasure; and because she has found a God like that, she no longer looks to children to provide her with value and worth. This was the moment of Hannah’s repentance and salvation. She found her life, her security, her identity, and her significance in God. She was finally set free from her bondage to the idolatry of family.
Hannah still prays for a son, but her tone is altogether different: “God, I’m still asking You for a son, as I have hundreds of times before. But all my life I’ve asked for You to give me a son to make up for some deficiency in my life. It has always been for me. Now, I’m asking for one for You. You are my sufficiency and my treasure, and if You give me a son, he will belong solely to You.”
And God gave her a son. She would name him Samuel, which means “God has heard.” Samuel grew up to be a great prophet, a priestly figure, and an almost-king of Israel (see 1 Sam 8). Although Samuel is great in the story of Scripture, he anoints another king, a coming king. Eventually he would be the prophet to anoint David to be the king of Israel.
Hannah, David, and Jesus
Hannah’s story is included in 1 Samuel as more than an intriguing situation that led up to David’s coronation. Her story sets a pattern for the story of David. Recall that Israel was searching for a king. Why did they want a king so badly? They wanted a king for the same reasons Hannah had wanted a son. They desired prosperity, stability, and security. Hannah sought these in a son; Israel sought them in a king. To Hannah, God says, “These things are not found in sons.” To Israel He says, “These things are not found in kings.” To both of them He says, “These things are only found in Me.”
There is also a strong pattern that connects Hannah’s story and Jesus’ story. Hundreds of years later another woman would face an impossible birth like Hannah. This woman’s name was Mary. Yet her pregnancy was even more unlikely. She was not barren; in fact, she had never slept with a man! And for Mary, having a child would mean losing everything she held onto for significance and security. To be pregnant out of wedlock in the first century meant the loss of reputation, most likely the loss of her intended spouse, and financial hardship. It would have been a type of death! (See, for instance, Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s untimely pregnancy in Matt 2:19.)
Like Hannah, however, Mary grasped the gospel. She understood that God was a more certain source of identity and security than reputation, than family, than money. She surrendered herself to God and found her identity and hope in Him. She expressed that hope, as Hannah did, in a song. Luke 1 records what we call “Mary’s Magnificat,” with wording nearly identical to that of Hannah’s prayer: “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. . . . He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:47,52; cf. 1 Sam 2:1,4,8). Mary’s song, like Hannah’s, declares that security and significance are found in a God who would care about the broken and poor enough to give Himself to them.
Note all the parallels between Hannah’s story and Mary’s story.Hannah gave birth to Samuel, who would be both priest and prophet, a man who would anoint the king of Israel. Mary gave birth to the One who would be Priest, Prophet, and King of all kings. Most scholars recognize that Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2 is the foundation for Mary’s song that she sang after the angel announced that she would carry God’s Son, the Messiah (Luke 1). The parallels (indicated by the symbol “//”) are too strong to ignore:
Divine Intervention for Hannah
Divine Intervention for Mary
Praise for her Savior (1 Sam 2:1-10)
Praise for her Savior (Luke 1:46-55)
These connections are helpful. They remind us that God answers the prayers of those who fervently cry out to Him. They remind us that God looks on the “lowly” state of ordinary people and loves them with extravagant love. We don’t have to be rich or perfect or glamorous or religious or Democrat or Republican or anything else for God to love us. He loves us because He made us and as a result has gone above and beyond for humanity. He meets us right where we are.
But the parallels between Hannah and Mary take us further than what we have described above. The story of Scripture takes us straight to Jesus. Hannah prayed for a baby, and God gave Samuel to Hannah. The world prayed for a Savior, and God gave Jesus to Mary. Scripture turns to Jesus. Jesus, like Hannah, would pray for deliverance from a curse and shame. But whereas God answered Hannah, He would turn His back on Jesus. Why? So that Hannah’s real shame could be taken away. So that our real shame would be abolished. So that we would have the joy of being restored to God.
Our real shame and brokenness come not from the fact that we can’t have kids or that we aren’t successful. Our real shame comes from the break in our relationship with our Creator. We don’t need children. We don’t need more money. We don’t need better sex. We need to be reunited to God. This is what Jesus would accomplish for us. By being forsaken for our sakes, He would restore us to God.
The story of Hannah is not just an isolated incident about a woman, her aloof husband, and a miracle child. It’s about lost people—us!—and how Jesus came to save us. This is the message of the whole Bible. From beginning to end, the grand narrative weaves a beautiful tapestry of a Creator seeking His people to reconcile them to Himself.
Hannah, David, Jesus, and Us
Hannah’s life sets a pattern for the life of David. It even sets a pattern for the life of Jesus. What is most pressing is that Hannah’s life parallels our story. Hannah looked to a son for security and significance; Israel looked to a king. Where will we look? What is the king we seek? What one thing must we have for life to be good? What one thing could we not imagine life without?
We all crown someone or something king over our lives. This is true of both religious and irreligious people. For the irreligious, something is needed instead of Jesus. Life is found, for instance, in money, fame, or family. For the religious, something is needed in addition to Jesus. The point of the Bible is that knowing Jesus is enough. He is life, stability, and security. This has at least four practical applications for us today.
Most of Our Hurt and Disappointment Comes from Seeking Another “King” besides God
When we are disappointed, hurt, or stressed, these feelings indicate that we have chosen another “king” besides God. These feelings are like smoke from a fire: you can follow the smoke back to the source of the fire. Follow these feelings back to their source, and we will find the altars that have been built to the things we are worshiping. This happens, for instance, with married couples who have placed too much weight on their marriage. They look to a spouse to fulfill them and to be their functional king. When that person lets them down, their world falls to pieces. Bitter, insecure, single people don’t get better by getting married. They only become bitter, insecure, married people. Problems like loneliness and insecurity are not cured by the love of another human being; they are cured by the love of God.
God Is Better Than “Many Sons” or a King
The point of Hannah’s story is not that if you trust God and ask for things long enough, He will give you what you ask for. Of course, this doesn’t mean we never pray to God out of hurtful and difficult situations. We do. But we cannot strong-arm God into giving us what we want just by attempting to “have more faith.” Hannah’s attitude changed before she became pregnant, and she would have had joy even if she never had any children. Many among us will never have a child, despite pleading with God for one. Many will never get rich. Many will never get well again from their sicknesses. By all the world’s standards, we may die “barren.”
But if we have God, we have enough: the one who has God has everything. God is significance and stability. If a loving, all-powerful God is in someone’s life, the approval of others becomes inconsequential. If a loving, all-powerful God is in someone’s life, her future is in capable hands. And if a loving, all-powerful God is in someone’s life, she can endure the harshest struggles because He is enough. God plus nothing still equals everything.
Barrenness Does Not Mean God-Forsakenness
Have we not all heard that voice inside telling us that the problems we are experiencing are God’s repayment for our sinfulness? Have we not all felt abandoned by God? When we experience times of barrenness and brokenness, our natural reaction is to assume that God has forsaken us. It may be a natural reaction, but it certainly is not a biblical one. The gospel is that Jesus Christ was forsaken for us. Jesus’ death on the cross took on our barrenness, our brokenness, and our hopelessness. He was forsaken so we would never have to be. When we approach the cross, we find that all that has been defeated, once and for all. We still experience barrenness and brokenness in this life; but because of Jesus, we can face them, knowing that God is for us. God has not abandoned us in our hour of darkness. He is present in that hour, working all things for good. If we have placed faith in the cross, we can be assured that we are not, and never can be, forsaken.
God Loves People the World Casts Away
Hannah’s story teaches us that God cares for people that the world no longer cares for. Many of us may feel like the story of our lives has been a gigantic failure. We have not accomplished what we set out to accomplish. We are still childless. We are still addicted to alcohol. Our kings have failed us and have cast us aside. In times like these, we need the faith of Hannah. We need to be reminded that God cares for us and has offered Himself—the world’s greatest possession—to us as our treasure. This is the unique message of the Bible: God cares for the outcast. He gives Himself to the broken. There is no greater consolation for those who feel that the world has cast them away.
Let us run to the cross and find there the love of God that pursues each of us. God has not forsaken us but desires to draw us back to a relationship with Him. No matter our situation, we can say with Hannah, “There is no rock like our God!”
Reflect and Discuss
- What does this passage help you understand about God’s love?
- How does this passage of Scripture exalt Jesus?
- What does it do to your heart when you realize that Jesus is the Savior we need?
- How have you experienced the kind of hopelessness and rejection Hannah faced?
- When you get to that place of hopelessness, what is your response? To which “savior” do you turn?
- How does it free you to know that “barrenness does not mean God-forsakenness”?
- Notice the definition of faith: Faith means rejoicing in God when our dreams are still unfulfilled and resting on God when life is still falling apart all around us. How would you apply that definition of faith to your life today?
- How does Hannah’s life anticipate the coming of Jesus?
- How have you been frustrated or disappointed by other “saviors” in your life?
- If you are still trusting in “saviors” other than Jesus, what are you thinking they provide that is more than what Jesus can provide?