Near the broken, far from the proud—1 Samuel 1:1-2, 6-20

Often in history, revival flourishes among the lowly and the broken and spreads from there. Sometimes we get comfortable or even proud, but a pervasive biblical principle is that God is nearest the humble. One could provide many examples, but one illustration is the story of Hannah and Eli.

Hannah was unable to have children in a culture where many viewed inability to have children as God’s curse. Moreover, her husband had another wife, who was jealous and mocked her. My wife, whose parents each grew up in polygamous households, recounted the different kinds of relationships the wives could have with each other. Often in her culture, and always in biblical narratives about ancient Israel’s culture, they proved difficult. In 1 Samuel, the “other woman” helped make Hannah’s life miserable.

In a culture in which many evaluated a woman’s worth by her childbearing, a matter that Hannah could not control, she was powerless and marginalized. She had nowhere else to turn except God. Sometimes we need to recognize that our chief battle is a spiritual one. Jacob recognized that when he struggled with the angel the night before he faced Esau; Elisha helped his assistant recognize that when only Elisha could see the armies of heaven around them. In a different way, Abraham had to realize this when he sent away Ishmael; only God could protect his son. Prayer as a regular discipline is valuable, but Hannah couldn’t afford to simply go through the motions of prayer. She poured out her heart to God, the only one who could help her.

Hannah was desperate. She was so passionate, in fact, that Eli the high priest, seeing her emotional state, accused her of being drunk (1:13). Sometimes, when directed toward God, our desperation counts as faith: putting our trust nowhere else, we throw ourselves completely on God. God has the right to say, “No,” and sometimes does so. (This is true even in the matter of childbearing; we know this firsthand, having been through a number of miscarriages.) But sometimes in Scripture obstacles are there for us to surmount, not to invite us to give up.

This pattern appears often in Scripture, in a variety of cases. One thinks of the woman with the flow of blood; she was so desperate to touch Jesus that she violated cultural protocol to do so. One thinks of the paralytic’s friends willing to damage a neighbor’s roof to get their friend to Jesus for healing. One thinks of the Shunnamite woman whose son died, who would not let anything deter her from getting Elisha’s help in restoring him. One also thinks of the woman whose daughter was demonized, willing to humble herself before Jesus despite his initial refusal of her plea. I think of my own wife, Médine, who, when told by a doctor in Africa that she must abort the child or it would die anyway, refused. The doctor ridiculed her and promised that her child would die. Normally one should trust a doctor’s medical wisdom, but Médine refused to give up on the child. At the time of my writing, he is fourteen.

In contrast to powerless Hannah, Eli was the respected high priest. When he blessed Hannah, she expected that God heard her prayer, and went away happy (1 Sam 1:17-18). She respected his office, and God did answer her faith. But Eli, though a follower of God, was not as pure-hearted for God as Hannah was. Friends have told me of people they knew who were miraculously healed when ministers prayed for them, ministers who were soon discredited for moral failings. But it is God who does the miracles, and he can answer the faith of the recipient as well as that of the minister, or just act directly for his name’s sake.

The contrast between Hannah and Eli fits the contrast between her son Samuel and Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas. It also fits the book’s later contrast between David and Saul. Hannah dedicated her son to the Lord; Eli, by contrast, put his sons before God (1 Sam 2:29). They dishonored the Lord and the priestly office by their greed and sexual immorality (not unlike a few ministers today), yet Eli refused to remove them from office. He valued the personal tie of fatherhood more than his responsibility to keep the priestly office pure.

Hannah was not praying for revival. She was praying only for a son, but she prayed from a pure heart. Yet God used her prayer from a sincere heart to bring change to all of Israel. People were not hearing from God much in those days (1 Sam 3:1), but by the time her son was himself an elder, the land was full of prophets who listened to God (10:5, 10; 19:20). Eli’s sons were not leading Israel in a true relationship with God that brought God’s blessing; Hannah’s son Samuel led his generation in a different way.

We often respect the public leaders of religion; they are the ones we all know about. Yet when God judges hearts, it is often the people that barely anyone knows about, who simply have humble and sincere hearts before God, who make the greatest difference behind the scenes. Those are the people whose prayers have an impact for all of us. May we respect the humble and learn from them, for God is with them in a special way. As Hannah recognized, God brings down the exalted, but raises up the lowly (1 Sam 2:3-8).

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