Hannah: Living the World of the Psalms

Many readers of the Psalms will have noticed that complaint is one of its dominant themes, even though its title in Hebrew actually means “Praises.” Modern scholars usually classify the psalms according to their types, and although such classification tends to be a slightly imprecise process because many psalms have features of more than one type, it is generally agreed that nearly half the psalms can be classified as complaints. The book of praises, properly understood, includes complaint as an element of praise.

A related feature of the book of Psalms is reference to the enemies. Indeed, after God and the psalmist, the enemies are the next most frequent characters mentioned. These enemies come in a variety of forms – in psalms where the one who prays is obviously the king or where the prayer is about the king the enemies are national, countries which refuse to submit to God’s rule through his king. Psalm 2 is an obvious example of this. But other enemies are more personal. So, in Psalm 7 the enemies are those who have accused the psalmist of a crime, presumably a capital crime, against which the psalmist must appeal for acquittal by God. Still other enemies are former friends whose malicious talk assaults those who pray (eg. Pss. 41:9, 55:12 – 14). In other Psalms, it is God who is said to have become the psalmist’s enemy, though as prayers the psalmists also know that God is the one who alone can deliver them (eg. Ps. 88). So, complaint rises from a variety of contexts, but it always looks to God to put it right. And a near universal feature of these psalms (Pss 88 and 143 are the only exceptions) is that they promise that when God has resolved the situation then the psalmist will return to the sanctuary and offer praise to God in thanksgiving.

But there is only so much of this that we can reconstruct from the book of Psalms itself, because the psalms offer reflection on typical situations but not the details of any one individual. However, we are fortunate that in the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:1 – 2:10 (and briefly again in 2:19) we have an example of a life that reflects the typical experience of the Psalms. In Hannah’s story we see the situation that led to complaint, reference to the fact that it was made, and then the triumphant expression of thanksgiving that brings it to a close. Hannah’s story is one that lives out the types of story that we see in the Psalms.

We are first introduced to Hannah within the context of her family. Her husband Elkanah is probably fairly well off since as well as Hannah he has a second wife named Peninnah. Because polygamy was relatively expensive, it was largely the domain of the wealthy. Although the Bible is clear that monogamous relationships are what God intends, polygamy was practised quite widely in the Old Testament. Elkanah himself is clearly a faithful man since our introduction to the family indicates that their annual custom was to travel to Shiloh, which was then the site of the central sanctuary, for worship. There is no indication that this is part of the pilgrim feasts of Passover, Weeks or Tabernacles that all males (at least) were expected to attend, and it therefore seems that this was the family’s private custom. There may be a hint as to Elkanah’s reason for having two wives given at the end of verse 2 – Peninnah had children but Hannah had none. Since Hannah is introduced before Peninnah it is likely that she was the first wife, so Elkanah would therefore have taken a second wife to ensure that he had children, much as Abraham had a son with Hagar when it seemed that Sarah would be unable to have children (Gen 16).

But there is also something disturbing in Hannah’s experience. Although Elkanah took the family every year to worship it was not an altogether happy time, in spite of Elkanah’s solicitous behaviour towards Hannah. Elkanah would give Peninnah and her children each a share from the sacrifice, but would give Hannah a special portion (though exactly what that was remains unclear) because he loved her. Thus far, all is well, but we are then told that “the Lord had closed her womb” (verse 4). Just in case we miss the point, this is repeated only two verses later. There are a number of stories in the Bible about a barren wife who ultimately has a child (Sarah, Rebekah, and Samson’s mother in the Old Testament, and Elizabeth in the New), but Hannah is the only one of whom it is said that God had made her unable to have children. As is the case in Psalm 88, the cause of Hannah’s distress is laid firmly at God’s feet. Yet her distress was not solely related to God, because Peninnah is also called her “rival” (verse 6), and she used to provoke Hannah greatly. Indeed, we could somewhat literally translate this as “she used to provoke her to thunder.” It was not simply a case of a few snide remarks. This was a situation where Peninnah used her position as a mother to make Hannah’s life as difficult as possible. Both God and an enemy make Hannah’s life miserable even as she goes to worship.

But one year there is a change, and Hannah left the family gathering to pray at the sanctuary. Hers was an impassioned plea, a prayer that would no doubt look like the complaint psalms. We are not told the specific content of her prayer, only that it came out of her deep distress (verse 10), and that she vowed that if God would give her a son then she would dedicate him back to God. Unfortunately, Hannah’s problems went beyond her family because Eli, the priest at that time, could not tell the difference between drunken behaviour and impassioned prayer, and told her to leave the temple because she was drunk. However this gave Hannah the opportunity to put him right, and he in response blessed her, asking that God indeed grant her request.

And that is exactly what God did, as Hannah fell pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. Hannah stayed away from the sanctuary until the boy was weaned, but when this happened she took him to the temple and presented him there to Eli, dedicating him to the Lord. Hannah had discovered that God did indeed answer prayer, and that complaint was not the end of the matter. So, just as the complaints normally end with a promise of thanksgiving, we have the record of Hannah’s song of thanks in 2:1 – 10. It is a powerful song that celebrates God’s saving power, and that he is the one who changes circumstances. Hannah knows that her enemies cannot overcome her because God is the one who gives and sustains life, God is the one who raises up the weak, lifting the poor from the dust but bringing the powerful low. God is the one who protects his faithful ones, and who would ultimately demonstrate the power of his chosen king (2:10). Reference to a king here is remarkable, because there was no king in Israel at that time, but Hannah’s song looks forward to that time, because she knows that just as God has changed her circumstances, so also he would work for his people and that he would do so through his king.

Hannah’s thanksgiving is a powerful testimony to the discovery of God’s grace that gains its power from the fact that it was grace that was discovered in the midst of loss and weakness. Hannah knew that she had no power to change her circumstances, but she also knew that God has changed hers, and that even that time when he had closed her womb ultimately worked for his purposes. Indeed, as we read on from here in the books of Samuel we discover that the story of Israel’s monarchy actually begins with this woman whose womb God had closed, but whose child was the one through whom God would anoint his chosen king. Hannah has lived the life of the Psalms, and her song of thanksgiving (like Mary’s Magnificat) celebrates the wondrous discovery of grace, a discovery that is so much richer because it was grace that was found even when it seemed there was no grace to be had. But this is why we pray, and why also we invite God into the darkest moments, because only then do we begin the path towards grace and ultimately to thanksgiving.

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