Hannah’s Story: Finding Favor When Hope Seems Far Away
We’ve all faced bullies from time to time. In the story of the birth of Samuel, Peninnah fits the part of the bully perfectly in 1 Samuel 1. She harasses Hannah because Hannah couldn’t bear children (v. 6). The bullying is described in powerful terms: Peninnah (aka “her rival”) used to provoke her grievously to irritate her (v. 6). Hannah experiences some of the symptoms typical of those who are bullied: emotional despair and loss of appetite (she “wept and would not eat” v. 7). Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, is filled with compassion for her, but stands by helpless with questions that reminds us of the caring but somewhat clueless husband: “why do you not eat? and why is your heart sad?” (v. 8). To add to Hannah’s trouble, Eli the high priest mistakes her fervent and silent prayers for drunkenness! (v. 13). The account underscores in quick succession that it was in fact the Lord who “had closed her womb” (v. 5, 6). Her predicament seems even more hopeless when we realize the bullying from Peninnah went on “year by year” (v. 7).
What does Hannah do? For starters, she doesn’t hide her despair and struggles! Yet there is tremendous determination on her part to seek the Presence of the Lord: “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (v. 11). In all of this, she makes a startling promise that if she has a baby boy (=the end of the bullying), she will give him to the Lord “all the days of his life” (v. 10).
We know the rest of the story: she gives birth to Samuel (Samuel sounds like the verb ‘to ask’ in the original Hebrew text) and we don’t hear of Peninnah ever again. But perhaps that is not the only point of the story. The turn around moment and the relief of her deep distress doesn’t come when her prayer is answered and she fulfills her promise to dedicate Samuel to the Lord.
Instead, the Word of God makes it clear the end of her struggle occurs long before any of the desired outcomes come to pass. Instead, the relief comes when Eli gives her his high-priestly blessing, following her time of prayer in the House of the Lord: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (v. 17). Hannah seizes the opportunity and immediately responds with a request. She asks for favor, quite like Moses did with God in Exodus 33:13: “Let your servant find favor in your eyes” (v. 18). Without any further details, Hannah (whose name means ‘favor’) then literally goes on her merry way, she regains her appetite, and her “face” is “no longer sad.” It’s as if her prayer has been answered long before any of the rest of the story unfolds before us! (We know she ends up giving birth to three sons and two daughters!, 1 Samuel 2:21).
Our Story: God’s Favor Shifts our Perspective
Hannah’s struggle and appeal for favor offers a powerful lesson. How often have we felt like the underdog, pushed around by the ‘bullies’ of life! Let’s name a few: any kind of chronic fruitlessness; whatever plagues us on a consistent basis; and, yes even people sometimes! But Hannah doesn’t get intimidated and takes her plight of desperation directly to the Lord in His presence and she appeals her case to a higher court! Once she realizes that the Lord’s favor is on her life, her whole countenance changes. The Lord’s favor is also ours by faith in Jesus. When we appeal to the true High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, we will receive an abundance of favor (Hebrew 4:15-16) and our countenance/perspective on our situation will change too. The original blessing of the high priest, Aaron, became reality in Hannah’s life and it is ours as well if we put our faith and trust in Jesus:
“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious (=favor) to you; The Lord lift up His face upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26)*
At that precise moment, Hannah got a glimpse of the transformational truth of grasping God’s favor for herself (as Moses did before her). This is why Hannah receives peace even before Peninnah becomes a memory in the story line of her life and before the birth of her son. She walks away from this encounter with Eli convinced in her heart she had the favor of God! Hannah then bursts into a song of praise (1 Samuel 2) in which she lauds the uniqueness of Yawheh (“there is none holy as the Lord”) and rejoices that the Lord raises the needy from the ash to make them sit with princes” (see also Psalm 113). It is no coincidence Mary (whose song resembles the song of praise of Hannah in Luke 1) is recognized as one “who has found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).
Paul got favor too. This is why he was able to say to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances” (2 Thessalonians 5:16-18). He learned to bask in the favor of the Lord, even in the face of adverse circumstances.
Reflections for the Week:
During this Summer of Praise, we praise Him for His favor. In our prayer life we know the variables: He answers in His way and at the time of His choosing (which is not always how and when we want it). Instead the certainty comes in the promise of favor by faith in Jesus, our High Priest. His favor will be enough to lift up our face, to give us peace, so that we too may face life’s bullies.
Take a moment to ask yourself if you have come to this moment of realization that the favor of the Lord is your’s by faith in Christ, even in the midst of adversity. Favor is by definition not something we earn nor deserve. Hannah couldn’t conjure up a change in her circumstances anymore than we can today. But what we can change is our disposition toward the favor of the Lord and receive it with open hearts, just like Hannah, aka ‘Favor,’ did!
*This interplay of “favor,” “peace” and the countenance of Hannah’s face being changed also evokes the original blessing of Aaron. This connection to the Aaronic blessing came to me as a result of a conversation with Dr. Carol Kaminski, founder and co-author of the Casket Empty Bible Study resources .