THE BEST GIFTS 1 Samuel 1–3
“All Israel . . . recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:20). When you or I experience frustration or depression, there’s help in the story of Hannah.
Samuel was born in the days of the Judges. During most of his life his people were limited to Israel’s hill country by the powerful Philistines on the sea coast, and by the Ammonites across the Jordan. These early chapters which tell of Samuel’s childhood, focus on important formative influences on one who became Israel’s last judge and most significant prophet since the time of Moses.
Hannah vowed to dedicate her son to the service of God if only He would enable her to give birth (1:1–20). When Samuel was weaned she fulfilled her vow (vv. 21–28), expressing her joy in one of Scripture’s most beautiful prayers (2:1–11). Samuel grew up under the guidance of the priest, Eli, whose own sons were evil (vv. 12–26) and were judged by God (vv. 27–36). In contrast Samuel exhibited a readiness to listen to God (3:1–18), and was early recognized by Israel as a prophet (vv. 19–21).
Understanding the Text
“In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” 1 Sam. 1:1–20. Hannah was a childless woman in a society which viewed bearing sons as fulfillment. Her pain is the same felt by every person who feels himself or herself useless and a failure. In Hannah’s case, the wound was kept open by the constant provocation of her husband’s second wife, Peninnah, who had several children and took perverse pleasure in tormenting Hannah over her barrenness. For years Hannah wept before the Lord when the family attended the religious festivals held regularly at Shiloh, where the tabernacle stood during much of the Judges era. Finally Hannah made a vow—a promise that if God gave her a son, she would give her son up and let him serve God at the tabernacle. There are many lessons to be learned from this brief chapter. The biographies of many Christian leaders tell of mothers who even before they became pregnant gave their future children to the Lord. Many years after I was led to go into the ministry, my own mother told how she had made a similar dedication—and followed it up with a lifetime of prayers that my sister and I might both serve God. We owe so much to godly mothers who see their children as gifts from God intended to be given back to Him. Another lesson is found in the costliness of the commitment Hannah made. Having a son was Hannah’s heart’s desire. Yet she was willing to give up that treasure should it be given to her. Often you and I must mentally surrender what we want most to God before we are ready to receive it. Samuel, Hannah’s son, grew up to become one of the greatest of Old Testament prophets, and surely the greatest of the judges. How proud Hannah must have been to realize as Samuel grew up “all Israel . . . recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.” How wise it is to place our most precious possessions in God’s hand. He is far more able than we to use them for His glory, and for our fulfillment. “He will live there always” 1 Sam. 1:21–28. Hebrew children were typically weaned at three or even four years of age. So Hannah had Samuel for those precious infant and toddler years. Elkanah’s response to his wife’s announcement that she would present Samuel to the Lord is significant. According to the law of vows (Num. 30), a husband could void a wife’s vow when he first heard of it. Here Elkanah confirms Hannah’s vow: “Do what seems best to you.” Hannah needed a godly, understanding husband, for sons were economic assets in ancient Israel. How important that a husband and wife share a common commitment to God. God warns us not to marry out of the faith with no intent to deny us any pleasure. This rule is a wise and loving provision intended to give us unified, happy homes. “My heart rejoices” 1 Sam. 2:1–10. We can imagine Hannah’s anguish as she approached the tabernacle at Shiloh, hand in hand with little Samuel, knowing she must leave him there and return home alone. Yet when the gift had been given, Hannah suddenly found herself filled with joy! God’s Holy Spirit had filled the emptiness she had feared. There would be moments of loneliness ahead. Hannah surely missed her little son. But this song of praise, in which Hannah contemplated the greatness of God, is witness to the comfort she found in her faith. A comfort available to you and me as well. We learn that God also comforted Hannah in a practical way. She saw her son at annual religious festivals. And God gave her three more sons and two daughters (v. 21). It’s good to remember that we can never out-give the Lord. “Eli’s sons were wicked men” 1 Sam. 2:12–26. The priesthood in Israel was hereditary, a role to be filled only by descendants of Aaron. Thus Eli’s sons served in the priesthood as their father had. But while Eli was godly, his two sons were “wicked men.” They treated the Lord’s offering “with contempt” by violating ritual regulations (vv. 12–17), and used their position to seduce women who came to worship (v. 22). The two sons ignored their father’s rebuke. Despite their example Samuel chose to follow Eli’s example, and “grew up in the presence of the Lord.” Samuel and Eli’s sons all grew up next to Israel’s place of worship. Yet only Samuel sensed the reality of God, and lived in His presence. Going to church can be a meaningless experience for us too unless we understand that we are coming together with other believers to experience the presence of God, and to worship Him. “Why do you honor your sons more than Me?” 1 Sam. 2:27–36 The prophet who confronted Eli preannounced the death of his two sons “on the same day.” He asked the aged priest this question. But we may wonder, what more could Eli have done? The answer is grim. Eli surely knew the stories of other priests who had treated God’s altar with contempt and been killed by the Lord (cf. Num. 16). At the very least Eli could have removed his sons from the priesthood. At the most he could have followed the ancient law that permitted parents whose sons were incorrigible to accuse them before the elders, with the penalty, if found guilty, being death (Deut. 21:18–21). Eli’s failure to act showed that he honored his sons more than he honored the God whom the sons treated with contempt. There are times when parents have to take sides against their children. A mom or dad who constantly intervenes to help children avoid the consequences of wrong actions dooms them, as surely as Eli’s failure to act against his sons made their deaths inevitable. The saying, “Blood is thicker than water,” must be balanced by another. “Right is more important than relationship.” “Speak, for Your servant is listening” 1 Sam. 3:1–21. The word “listen” in Hebrew is very significant. To “hear” (the same word in Hebrew) implies not simply the physical act, but also processing and responding to what is said. Thus when a psalmist asks God to “hear my prayer,” he is begging God to act. And when Samuel told God, “Your servant is listening,” he expressed his willingness to respond to everything God said. Here the writer brings out the contrast between Samuel’s attitude toward God and that of Eli’s sons, who “did not listen” to their father’s rebuke but kept on sinning. It was the willingness of Samuel to “listen” that made him suitable to be God’s instrument in a critical period of sacred history. There is nothing more significant for anyone who wishes to be used by God than to adopt Samuel’s attitude of “speak, for Your servant is listening.”
Where to Seek Comfort (1 Sam. 1)
I find it easy to feel with Hannah, so despondent and depressed by what must have felt like total failure. I suspect all of us have down times. Times when life seems dark and empty, as if everything had gone wrong. With Hannah it had gone even further. The pain was so great that her heart had become bitter. In her bitterness food lost all attraction, and she was unable to eat (v. 7). In Hannah’s case, the problem was resolved when she made her vow to God and the Lord answered her prayer. For some of us the answer doesn’t come so quickly. Or perhaps at all. And so it’s important to know where to seek comfort during the bitter times. The answer is seen in the text’s description of Elkanah, Hannah’s husband. The Bible says that “he loved her.” Rather than berate her for her failure to produce sons, Elkanah tried to comfort Hannah, saying, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” It’s clear that despite what Hannah suffered, her husband was a constant, present blessing. This is where you and I are to find comfort while we wait for God to relieve our pain. No, not in a loving husband or wife. But in whatever present blessings God may give us. We need to focus on the good things, for in them we find evidence that God hasn’t forsaken us after all. In them we find evidence that we are loved, even though we may feel despair. Focusing on God’s good gifts won’t take the pain away immediately. But it can make the pain bearable. And in time, whether we receive what we long for or not, awareness of God’s love will sustain us and lead us to experience joy.
God gives good gifts to all. All we need is the wisdom to recognize them, and the grace to appreciate them.