Hannah: Prayerful Suffering

So far in our study series, “Suffering Saints: How Seemingly Bad Things Point Us to the Goodness of God,” we have seen through the life of Job that suffering is God-ordained. We’ve also seen through the story of Joseph how God uses suffering for our good if we are God’s children. Now we come to the portrait of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1, where we  observe the important role that prayer plays in our suffering.

Prayerful suffering: That’s how we should be able to describe our own times of suffering when they come. I want to point out three practical truths from the life of Hannah:

1. The Real Pain of Suffering
2. The Real Power of Prayer
3. The Real Blessing of God

1. The Real Pain of Suffering

The book of 1 Samuel opens by pulling back the curtain and introducing us to the historical, real-life family of Elhanah, son of Jeroham. We are told in verse 2 that this Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. And how are these two women described to the reader? In very simple terms—one by her fertility and offspring, the other by her infertility and lack of biological offspring. We are taken in for a closer look at this family in verse 3 and following:

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Elkanah’s family is presented to us as a pious Jewish family amidst a rather bleak spiritual landscape in Israel 1100 BC. They are a family in some ways not unlike many of the Christian families in churches today. They traveled together. They feasted together. They worshiped together. And to outsiders, they probably seemed like an average family who had a lot going for them. But, also like many families in the church today, behind the external façade there were problems.

Almost immediately upon being introduced to Elkanah’s family, we learn of their turmoil. And as we see, much of the turmoil described for us in these verses centers on Hannah’s struggle with infertility. Indeed, in this narrative we see the real pain of Hannah’s suffering.

I want to point out five basic observations we glean from Hannah’s suffering as explained to us here in 1 Samuel 1, and by extension, what we can take to heart regarding many women’s infertility struggles:

Observation #1: Hannah suffered socially because of her infertility.

In other words, she was looked down upon as we see in verses 6, 13, & 14. We read that Peninnah, her husband’s other wife, would grievously provoke Hannah. She irritated or annoyed her. Why? Because of Hannah’s inability to produce children, which in that culture was widely viewed as a curse from God.

I like how Dale Ralph Davis describes Penninah, as an “overly fertile, mouthy, thorn in the flesh.” As if Hannah’s internal struggle wasn’t painful enough, Peninnah, someone with whom she likely lived in close proximity, would purposefully exploit the very thing that probably caused her the most pain in life. Hannah was exasperated to no end, it seemed, as Peninnah’s taunting continued one childless year after another. Herein we see the social suffering Hannah endured.

Motherhood has always been a social phenomenon. Today it shows up almost everywhere. An entire industry exists to sell to moms with babies via magazines, blogs, and books. Both big-box retailers and online stores are completely targeted at selling products to women with children. Even in the church we see it, don’t we? Conception parties, baby showers, nurseries and nursing rooms. As a nation we even set aside an entire day each May to celebrate Mothers. Pregnancy and motherhood are simply a part of our social And while most (if not all) of this is good and biblical, for those to whom God has withheld children, it can serve as a reminder of the pain. Yes, this is where Hannah found herself: Infertile in a fertile social setting. And it affected her deeply.

Observation #2: Hannah suffered emotionally because of her infertility.

We’re told that Hannah cried due to her saddened heart. Verse 10—“She was deeply distressed…and wept bitterly.” It’s probably not surprising to most of us that infertility hurts emotionally.

And we see this with other women in the Bible, don’t we?…Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, for example—the wives of the Patriarchs—all suffered with infertility for a time. Consider the poignant words of Rachel to her husband in Genesis 30:2—She pleads, “Give me children, or I shall DIE!”

Wow, that seems a little extreme, Rachel.

Was Rachel’s cry mixed with hyperbole? Of course. Was it an expression of idolatry? Most probably. But was it also the natural cry of a barren woman’s heart? Absolutely!

Countless barren women through the ages have echoed the words of Rachel in their hearts. But I want to make note: this heart-cry by itself isn’t necessarily sinful. As we see with other saints like Job and David and Hannah, God allows His children to cry out to Him in their agony and distress. We’re not robots; God has given us emotions.

Consider Proverbs 13:12—“Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” Hope deferred or unfulfilled sickens the heart! Or think about Proverbs 30:15b-16—“Three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough”: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough.”

Notice how the wise writer of Proverbs 30 lumps these four objects into the same category: Fire, the earth, Sheol, and the barren womb. Now, some might say, “Huh?” But to the infertile woman, this makes perfect sense! Just as God created fire to consume, the earth to drink water, and Sheol to continually receive men when they die, so He also created the woman’s uterus to at some point be occupied by the life of a baby human. And when that space is left void, there’s a desire in the core of a woman’s being which is just as natural as a hungry fire and thirsty earth. Thus a barren woman not only struggles with an empty womb, but also struggles with an empty part of her heart and her life. This is the emotional pain that accompanies infertility.

Observation #3: Hannah suffered physically because of infertility.

Verse 7– “…Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.” Not only do we see the social and emotional effects of Hannah’s suffering, but we see how her barrenness took a physical toll as well. She was too distraught to even touch the food in front of her.

It’s common for grief to display itself through outward symptoms. Both loss of appetite and over-eating; both insomnia and fatigue can all be symptomatic of depression. There were some real physical symptoms which accompanied Hannah’s grief as we see here. But further we see…

Observation #4: Hannah suffered relationally because of her infertility.

Look at verse 8—“And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Poor Elkanah. Like a lot of husbands, he just didn’t get it. He saw his wife grieving with sobs and tears, and did he take it personally? It’s not that he was cold and uncaring. We know he loved her dearly and I think he was trying to show his love to her by providing some perspective: “Why do you need a son when you’ve got me?” But like a lot of us husbands, it seems he may have missed the point.

I find it interesting to note how timeless this glimpse of Elkanah and Hannah’s marriage is. Infertility can take a toll on a marriage. It’s hard for husbands too! And if a husband and wife aren’t careful to guard themselves and their marriage, then discontent, bitterness, and strife can easily appear in their relationship. Openness in communication and mutual prayer are critical to the health of any marriage, and especially in times of trial.

Hannah’s husband saw the social, emotional, and physical toll it took on his wife, and what did he do? Did he point her to the Lord? Did he lead her in prayer? Did he shepherd her heart? Not that we’re told. And when we get to 10 we see the spiritual pain Hannah had to deal with alone…

Observation #5: Hannah suffered spiritually because of her infertility.

Now, maybe a better word here instead of “suffered” is “wrestled.” Indeed, Hannah spiritually wrestled with God—through prayer, as we’ll see further—and it was noticeable to others.

Infertility is a unique suffering because it signifies the lack of one of God’s greatest blessings. The Bible teaches as much! And so how does the barren woman deal with passages like Psalm 127? “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Although we know this is no promise to every woman that she will bear children, how difficult it is to know that children are God’s blessing upon a family and to not receive that blessing personally, especially when your body was made to produce offspring. And so as we’ll see next she wrestled with God spiritually. But let us not miss or minimize the multi-faceted pain of infertility. Hannah teaches us as much.

Finally on this point of Hannah’s pain, let us recognize how Hannah dealt with her affliction. She didn’t take it out on her husband. She didn’t return evil for evil with Peninnah. She didn’t even blame God or accuse Him of injustice. No, she humbled herself and went to the Lord in the midst of her suffering. This brings us secondly to see…

2. The Real Power of Prayer

How did Hannah deal with her suffering? She trusted God. How do we know? She prayed to Him. She assumed the posture of humility and cried out to God for help. Look at verse 10 and following:

10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

What a beautiful example Hannah gives us of how we too should deal with our sufferings. Hannah demonstrated an attitude of submission to God. Again, Dale Ralph Davis comments,

“There was nowhere else to turn. She had to flee Peninah’s cruel mockery; she found no solace in Elkanah’s well-meant but inadequate sympathy; not even the clergy understood her. …Hannah could only turn to ‘Yahweh of hosts’…the God with the total resources of the universe at His command. …She addresses [Him]…and assumes that the broken heart of a relatively obscure woman in the hill country of Ephraim matters to Him.”

Well, she assumed correctly, as we’ll see.

Surely we all have things that we are prone to worry about. But Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, you know that thing you fear, that thing that keeps you up at night with sadness or anxiety?… Give it to God in prayer!

Are you hurting? Are you afflicted? James tells us in James 5:13, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” This is exactly what Hannah did in her time of need. She took her cares to the feet of Jesus. In spite of her weak, fragile state, she prayed anyway and we know that God’s Spirit Himself interceded for Hannah “with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

I think this is much the way David felt in Psalm 6:6 & 7. Listen to this: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief…” But then look at the next two verses, “…the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.”

You see, as David and Hannah and Paul all show us, God hears our prayer whenever and however His children pray to Him. The Bible doesn’t tell us that our prayers need to be long-winded or filled with eloquent, Puritan-sounding words. No, instead, as JC Ryle exhorts, let our prayers be filled with humility, earnestness, faith, and boldness.

This is how Hannah prayed. And Hannah falls among others who have set an example for us in their prayers—Abraham, Jacob, David, Daniel, and of course, Jesus Himself who, “being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).

Indeed, more than anything, Hannah points us to Jesus, the ultimate prayer warrior. Hebrews 5:7 tells us that Jesus prayed with cries and tears. He prayed earnestly, regularly, and truthfully in the will of the Father. And best of all for those of us who have been purchased by His blood, Jesus Christ continues to pray to the Father on our behalf as our Great High Priest. Therefore, as Hebrews 4:16 exhorts, we can pray confidently “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” So like Hannah we can take our pains to God in prayer because we have the perfect Son of God interceding on our behalf.

And whether we are praying for ourselves or for someone else, it is prayer itself which God uses as the means through which He grants healing or relief. James 5:16, “pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Prayer has great power as it works! This ordinary means of grace is a means of grace appointed by God through which He works in our hearts through His Spirit to make us more like His Son. That, my friends, is the power of prayer: to make us more like Jesus, even in our sufferings.

My wife Paige and I can closely relate to Hannah’s hurting, to her longing for children. But while we pray and wait, and wait and pray, we realize that even now—through our suffering, waiting, and our prayers to Him—God is working sanctifyingly in our hearts. This has proved to be such a helpful perspective for us. Truly, prayer is a means of God’s grace to us through which He “tinkers” with our hearts and conforms us more to the image of His Son. Thus while we continue waiting His blessing of children, we persevere in prayer and with thankful hearts for all He has already graciously provided us already.

Describing the practice of prayer in a Christian’s life, Thomas Watson wrote, “Prayer is the Christian’s gun which he discharges against his enemies. Prayer is the sovereign medicine of the soul. Prayer sanctifies every mercy (1 Tim. 4:5). It is the dispeller of sorrow: By venting the grief it eases the heart. When Hannah had prayed, ‘she went away, and was sad no more’ (1 Sam. 1:18)” (All Things For Good, p20). After Hannah poured out her heart before God in prayer, we’re told she went away and was sad no longer. Why? Perhaps we see through Hannah the reality of passages like Psalm 145:18-19, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.” This brings us thirdly and finally to see…

3. The Real Blessing of God

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20 And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

What beautiful, encouraging words of comfort: “The Lord remembered her…and she bore a son.” God remembered Hannah; He had not forgotten her or ignored her prayerful pleading. Instead, He favored her, He answered her prayers, and He blessed her with a child! It makes me wonder if Psalm 113:9 was written with Hannah in mind—“He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!” That’s a favorite verse in our home.

Now of course there belongs this disclaimer: Prayer isn’t a golden ticket or magic bullet. Heaven isn’t a vending machine into which we our insert prayers and wait for our blessing to pop out. No, prayer is a means of grace, and we misuse prayer when we treat it as our chance to ask God for more “things.” We need to understand that while God hears every one of His children’s prayers and pleas, He doesn’t always answer affirmatively. We don’t always get what we want; but we always get the good thing we need. Indeed, this should cause us to pray all the more as Jesus did, “Thy will be done.” God hasn’t promised us health or wealth…or even children! But God knows best what we need; His will for us is perfect, and we lack no good thing from our Father.

For Hannah, God not only blessed her spiritually, but gave her a child as well. Matthew Henry rightfully refers to Hannah’s son Samuel as a “Child of prayer.” And this son of Hannah’s would not only be the last Judge over Israel, but he would prepare the way for God’s servant David, the king who would typify Jesus, the everlasting King. Do you see how all of this leads us to Christ? Jesus Christ, not Samuel, is that ultimate blessed Son!

In verse 19 of this text, we see that God made Hannah a mother through very normal and natural means, through the sexual union of husband and wife. But supernaturally, God answered Hannah’s prayer and gave life where there had been nothing.

This is also what God does with us when we were dead in our sins, isn’t it? God sovereignly uses the natural means of speech and human words to communicate His gospel of grace, working supernaturally in the sinner’s barren heart and granting life where there was none. By His predestinating love we are spiritually born again, called His children, and we are new creations in Christ Jesus.

This blessing of salvation through Jesus Christ is the greatest blessing one could ever ask for. And if you haven’t repented of your sins and prayed to God for His mercy, then do it now. Cry out to God for salvation. And just as He was faithful to hear the cries of Hannah and bless her, so will the Lord hear your plea and answer your request with great grace.

This is our God—gracious and merciful. And through His servant Hannah we see the real pain of suffering, the real power of prayer, and the real blessing of God.

I trust that through the life of Hannah we are all more aware of the suffering that is infertility. And if this is something you or someone close to you is wrestling with, first, take it to the Lord in prayer. But also seek counsel. Talk to a friend. See a specialist. And share it with those who will pray with you and for you. And most importantly, I hope that this message has helped you become more aware of the goodness of God to His children, by giving us His Son and by providing a means of communicating with Him through prayer in Jesus’ name.

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