From Bitterness to Joy
How God used a godly woman’s difficult circumstances to effect change in Israel—and how He can use us, as well.
Everybody loves a good story.
God made us that way so He could instruct us in truth and illustrate it through the people whose lives are recorded in the Bible. Their stories show us, rather than tell us, how to live (Rom. 15:4). Their sinful natures are abundantly evident, and their circumstances are often cruel and agonizing. Yet God ordained these circumstances to advance His will, just as He ordains ours.
Each Bible account records a part of God’s grand and glorious design. Samuel’s account advances Scripture’s purpose to its fulfillment in Christ. His story begins with his mother, Hannah.
Hannah was married to Elkanah, a Levite who lived in the hill country of Ephraim (1 Sam. 1:1). Each year Elkanah traveled with his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah, to worship in Shiloh. Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, served as priests at the Tabernacle there.
Without being told, we immediately see a conflict: two wives. Then we perceive more conflict: Peninnah had children, but Hannah was barren. In that culture, Hannah would have been considered inferior to other Jewish women and regarded as lacking the blessing of the Lord.
Elkanah gave Peninnah and each of her children a portion of the sacrifice, but to Hannah he gave a double portion “for he loved Hannah, although the LORD had closed her womb” (v. 5).
Delighted with her status as the childbearing wife, Peninnah humiliated Hannah. She provoked her and grievously irritated her, not merely occasionally, but year after year. So Hannah wept and refused to eat. Elkanah tried to comfort her: “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (v. 8).
But Hannah wanted a son and unburdened herself to the Lord at Shiloh. Eli, the high priest, saw her. She was weeping and moving her lips, but he could not hear her saying anything. Having no idea she was praying, Eli assumed she was drunk. Little did he know this godly woman’s petition not only would one day affect him and his sons, but also the future of the entire nation of Israel. Out of the bitterness of her soul, she prayed one of the finest vows in Scripture:
O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head (v. 11).
When Eli accused Hannah of being drunk, she humbly and beautifully explained she was pouring out her heart before the Lord, but she did not tell Eli her prayer. Eli graciously responded, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition” (v. 17).
Hannah answered, “Let your maidservant find favor in your sight” (v. 18). Her sad countenance changed immediately.
Lent to the Lord
The next day, the family returned to Ramah. As time went by, Hannah conceived and bore a son. In gratitude to God, she named him Samuel (meaning “name of God” or “God has heard”) “because I have asked for him from the LORD” (v. 20). What a glorious answer to prayer!
We must never think God doesn’t hear us when we pray. He always hears us. In fact, He tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Th. 5:17). But God may not answer the way we want Him to because it is not His will. And His will is always best.
When it was again time for Elkanah and his family to go to Shiloh for the yearly sacrifice, Hannah declined to go. Instead, she chose to spend precious mother-son weaning time with her little Samuel before giving him to God. In those days, it was customary to nurse a child until he was three.
When Samuel was weaned, she took her toddler to Shiloh, where she presented him to Eli for lifelong service to the Lord. On seeing Eli, she told him, “O my lord! As your soul lives, my lord, I am the woman who stood by you here, praying to the LORD. For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted me my petition which I asked of Him. Therefore I also have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives he shall be lent to the LORD” (1 Sam. 1:26–28).
Then Hannah broke into a beautiful prayer of praise and thanksgiving. So wonderful were her words that they seem to have provided the model for Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46–55. Her prayer also has similarities to David’s song in 2 Samuel 22:2–51. God turned Hannah’s prayer of bitterness into a prayer of joy. She exalted in the Lord as the righteous Judge who knows and understands our hearts and actions.
Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1–10 reveals seven contrasts between:
1. mighty and feeble.
2. full and hungry.
3. barren and fertile.
4. dead and alive.
5. sick and well.
6. poor and rich.
7. humble and exalted.
She warned the proud of the Lord’s humbling and declared His care for the faithful—a perfect example of His relationships with Hannah and Peninnah.
Every year Hannah made a little coat to take to Samuel when the family went from Ramah to Shiloh for the sacrifice, and Eli blessed the couple: “The LORD give you descendants from this woman for the loan that was given to the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:20).
The Lord took care of His faithful Hannah by giving her three more sons plus two daughters. Hannah had vowed to give Samuel to the Lord and did what she promised, and the Lord blessed her. God says, “Those who honor Me I will honor” (v. 30). Samuel served the Lord all the days of his life.
The Story Behind the Story
As we look at the account of Samuel, the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his birth, and the godly mother who bore him, we see that the main character in this story is the Lord.
He was the agent behind Hannah’s infertility. He was the agent who used Peninnah’s provocations to drive Hannah to Himself. He was the agent in Eli’s promise and Hannah’s conception. He was the agent in Hannah’s vow and her beautiful words of praise; and He was the one who removed Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas from the priesthood and placed Samuel in godly leadership over Israel. He was the one who gave Hannah’s son the privilege of anointing David, whose dynasty will climax when his descendant, Jesus Christ, becomes King of kings and Lord of lords and reigns for eternity.
It was God who placed Hannah in miserable circumstances. Yet He used her trials for His honor and glory and her good, just as He does with us. He wants our trials to work patience in us, so we can become “perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (Jas. 1:4). He wants our suffering to restore, establish, strengthen, and settle us (1 Pet. 5:10). He wants to transform us and renew our minds, so we may prove “what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
Hannah’s story illustrates how the Bible gives us comfort and hope (15:4). Our lives are made up of circumstances, relationships, reactions, and decisions. Those decisions determine the ultimate success or failure in advancing God’s will in our lives. They also affect circumstances in the lives of our loved ones and have power to influence generations.
We know Hannah’s example was a bright light to her son because of the testimony of Samuel’s life. Hannah laid the foundation for the man Samuel would become, and her story should influence us to exhibit the same soaring faith.