Hannah, God Works Sovereignly Through Prayer

Infertility is a common theme in Scripture. It’s difficult to get far in the Old Testament without meeting a woman battling with the pain of barrenness. Hannah is one of these women. Like others we’ve encountered in our study—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel—she is an infertile wife of a prominent man. Her husband, Elkanah is introduced as a Levite (1 Samuel 6:27-28; 35) living in Ephraim. The mention of his ancestry (1 Samuel 1:1) and the generosity of his offering in 1 Samuel 1:24 suggests a man of standing.[1]

Elkanah had two wives. Hannah is named first in the text and then Peninnah, possibly a second wife who comes into the marriage after Hannah is discovered as barren (1 Samuel 1:2). If so, I can only imagine the shame Hannah must have felt when her husband began to consider another woman as a means of gaining an heir. We are told that Elkanah loved Hannah (1 Samuel 1:5); but a man of standing would want an inheritor. So at some point, Hannah must leave her place next to Elkanah for the presence of another woman.

And how long had she suffered this humiliation by the time we meet her in 1 Samuel? The Scripture offers a verse that may help direct our thinking. It states that Peninnah had both sons and daughters (1 Samuel 1:4). For this to be so, we would have to grant at least four children—two daughters and two sons. So if we give time for Hannah’s barrenness to surface, time for Elkanah to arrange a new marriage, time for the conception, pregnancy and birth of at least four children, I believe we can safely assume several years of sorrow for Hannah.

And to make matters worse, Peninnah adds literal insults to Hannah’s injury. Seeing Elkanah’s great love for Hannah, she continuously grieves her rival with provoking taunts and reminders of her vacant womb (1 Samuel 1:6-7). It seems here that, while Hannah’s story is similar to many of the women we’ve studied thus far, hers offers a particularly candid view of the despair of infertility. If nothing else, unlike the others, we have the benefit of drawing close enough to hear Hannah’s desperate prayers.

In so doing, we find this: Hannah believed God.  She was certain of His faithfulness in hearing the prayers of a distraught childless woman and sure of His power to change her condition. Hannah addresses God in prayer as “the LORD of Hosts”—this is the first time this title is used of God in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 1:9-18). In her affliction, she hands her battles to the General of Heaven, One who rides before legions of angelic armies. Abandoning all social protocol, Hannah unleashes her heart and tears at the altar of that good and able God.

Here, a sermon by the late James Boice on Ephesians 1:16 comes to mind. He explains that while God is sovereign and orders everything according to the counsel of His own will, He nevertheless accomplishes those purposes through the instrument of prayer (Ephesians 1:11). God works through means, and one of those is the God-honoring prayers of His people. He uses the prayers of His own to fulfill His will on earth (Matthew 6:9-10). How amazing!

And how fitting then that Christians are commanded to pray with persistence (Luke 18:1-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). In his book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer states: “People who know their God are before anything else people who pray,” and not only this, but “their zeal and energy for God’s glory come to expression…in their prayers.”[2] Hannah is a beautiful example of this. God’s glory--not just her happiness--was the center of this woman’s prayer.  She seeks God for the gift of a son but ultimately, her treasure is the Gift-giver Himself.

As such, Hannah vows to return her son as a Nazirite to God, a boy who would serve the LORD always (1 Samuel 1:9-11). The LORD answers and gives to her Samuel (1 Samuel 1:19-20). Soon after weaning the child—most likely around age three—Hannah fulfills her vow. She leaves Samuel to the charge of priests to serve in the House of the LORD (1 Samuel 1:21-28)

Israelites were to present an offering to the LORD in the fulfillment of vows. Hannah brings a gift that far surpasses the requirements of the law (Number 15:8-10). And with the offering comes a prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10)—likely recalled by Mary in her Luke 1:46-55 magnificat. The LORD had remembered Hannah and she in turn remembers God in praise. She rejoices in the LORD of Hosts, a God who humbles the proud but exalts the humble.

And indeed the LORD exalts Hannah! She conceives and bears three sons and two daughters besides Samuel (1 Samuel 2:21). The barren woman becomes the mother of six and her son Samuel is honored among Israel’s greatest judges. He anoints and instructs the nation’s first kings, one being the great King David (1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Samuel 16:13).

Surely, the LORD is good and strong! In His sovereignty, God works through Hannah’s prayers to establish His will for her and Israel. This same God has given us His own Son. What more then will He withhold from us, His children? Our Father in heaven gives good things to those who ask of him (Matthew 7:7-11). So pray Christian, for the sake of His glory and the praise of His grace, pray!

*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!

[1] The Reformation Study Bible, (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2005) 378

[1] Packer, J.I., Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 28.