There is a common understanding amongst Christians that all prayers are heard by God as it states in Jeremiah 29:12 that “you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.” However, disparity arises when trying to understand which prayers are simply heard and which prayers “provoke the hand of God.” Taking an empathetic approach, I use the scenario of a father and son as a symbolic microcosm of God and the children of God, as it elucidates in Genesis 1:27 that “God created mankind in his own image.” On the basis of this scenario, it could be said that a father’s decision to his son’s request is likely to be based on the following: (1) the father’s knowledge of the consequences of the request. (2) The father’s capability/capacity to provide the request. (3) The son’s approach to making the request. From the perspective of the son, the last factor is the only one that is within his control. This goads us to ask, is there an approach to prayer that God identifies best with? In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus answers this in part by proving a blueprint of how best to structure our approach with our words. This structure consists of gratitude, recognition of mandate, repentance and requests, before ending with more gratitude. However, there is disagreement amongst theologians as to whether He offered a schematic or literal example. Furthermore, confusion is also identified when trying to understand best practice actions when approaching God. For instance, are some places more effective to approach God than others and does one’s physical stance make a difference?
In order to form an opinion on this matter, this article aims to analyse Hannah’s approach to God for the request of her son Samuel in 1st Samuel 1:1-28. It will do this by first explaining the context of his birth, then discussing her actual approach, before looking into God’s response.
Contextualising Samuel’s Birth
The books of Samuel spark a chronological transition in governance within the Israelite community. Prior to Samuel’s birth, Israel operated under a loose confederation, with a biblical judge appointed by God – whose role consisted of military leadership and presiding over legal hearings. Samuel was the last Judge of Israel, as a result of the people’s demand for a King. Samuel went on to anoint the first and second King of Israel, and is remembered as a mighty prophet. His achievements are often attributed as a testimony to this mother’s plea and consequent sacrifice to God before and after his birth.
The author of the text sets the scene by describing Hannah’s seemingly chaotic family dynamic. Hannah (meaning favour or grace in Hebrew) was married to Elkanah, who was also married to Peninnah (meaning fruitful or pearl in Hebrew). Although polygamy was never God’s intention, it was generally accepted in the old testament as a result of the scarcity in men due to war. Isaiah 4:1 supports this by stating “…so few men will be left that seven women will fight for each man, saying let us all marry you! We will provide our own food and clothing. Only let us take your name so we won’t be mocked as old maids.” The author attempts to signify Elkanah’s so called ‘righteousness’ by highlighting the fact that he partook in the offering and feast of Shiloh. It was at this annual feast where we begin to see the conflict that arises between Hannah and Peninnah. Out of Elkanah’s wealth he feeds Peninnah and her ten children, but out love he gives Hannah a ‘double blessing’ worth of food – to compensate for her baroness. By way of jealousy, Peninnah begins an annual campaign of provocation and mockery toward Hannah specifically at the feast of Shiloh because ‘the Lord closed Hannah’s womb.’ As a result of Peninnah’s toil, Hannah becomes grievously depressed to the point she refused to eat, and it was then she made her plea to God.
Conflict between two women regarding children seems to be a reoccurring theme in the Bible. Examples of women with conflicts include Abraham’s wives Sarah and Hagar, Jacob’s wives Rachael and Leah, the two women that were brought to Solomon and also the two women described in the book of Revelation. Could it be said that this form of conflict between women in the Bible symbolises the disparity between salvation and destruction? For instance, Hannah being a representation of the church (salvation), otherwise known as the ‘bride of Christ’ (Ephesians 5:25). Whereas, Peninnah is a representation of Babylon and its sons’ destruction. This is further evidenced by the author calling Peninnah Hannah’s “adversary”, which is noteworthy as the Hebrew name ‘Satan’ means adversary. The fact that Hannah was being provoked especially at the feast of Shiloh, where she went to serve God, substantiates Paul’s revelation in 2nd Timothy 3:12, which states that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” This might explain why many Christians find that the pressures and temptations of the flesh grow larger as they attempt to get closer to God.
However, what I found particularly intriguing is that fact that “the Lord closed her womb.” Although the text doesn’t provide an explanation as to why the Lord did this, from an elementary perspective it would seem that the root cause of Hannah’s plight was inflicted by the very same God she continued to serve at the feast of Shiloh each year. But taking into account God’s omnipresent and omniscient nature permits us to ponder the possibility that Hannah needed to go through this period of struggle, possibly to strengthen her faith for issues yet to come and also to provide a testimony that would encourage the faith of others.
How did she pray?
It could be argued that Hannah’s approach to God began with fasting, as the text states that “…she wept and would not eat” (1st Samuel 1:7). Joel highlights the significance of fasting by reminding us of God’s instruction in Joel 2:12, which states “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning.” However, Isaiah 58:1-16 warns us that the heart and actions behind the fast is more important to God than the actual fast itself. It describes the characteristics of a fast that is pleasing to God, in fact, it suggests that accurate fasting and prayer results in God answering “our cry for help” by saying “here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). Additionally intriguing is how the author of the text describes Hannah’s physical behaviour when praying. “Weeping bitterly” she “stood” and poured her heart out to the Lord, she prayed so passionately that “her lips where moving but her voice was not heard.” It was such a sight that Eli, the High Priest, mistook her for being intoxicated by alcohol. This is significant as the disciples of Jesus were similarly accused when the Holy Spirit came upon them on the day of Pentecost. Hannah describes her approach as “praying out of anguish and grief,” this approach is mirrored by Jesus himself at the garden of Gethsemane, as Luke 22:44 states “being in agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” A key taking from how Hannah approached God is this notion of sincerity. She showed sincerity in both her fast and her actions whilst praying to God. Jesus reminds us of the importance of sincerity in Matthew 6:5, by stating “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites who stand on street corners, so they may be seen by men. For that will be there reward in full!”
Where did she pray?
According to 1st Samuel 1:9, Hannah stood up and prayed after the eating and drinking had finished at Shiloh. Shiloh was held at the temple, which was where the arc of the covenant was kept (i.e. the house of the Lord). Hannah’s decision to make her approach in the house of the Lord is extremely significant. Throughout the Bible there is a common theme where individuals who desire something special from God, make their requests specifically in or towards the house of the Lord. For example, when Daniel prayed three times a day he opened his window and prayed towards Jerusalem where the temple was. When Hezekiah was threatened by an enemy army, he brought the letter to the temple and spread it out before the Lord. When David begged the Lord for the healing of his first born son he did it at the temple. When Jesus first began his mission to preach the Gospel He went to the synagogue first. The significance of this trend can be found in Matthew 18.20, where God promises that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” This leads us to assume that there is added value in communal prayer, hence why Jesus took Peter, James and John to pray with Him at Gethsemane.
What did she say?
From out of Hannah’s words we see two areas that are pertinent: (1) recognition that she is a steward; and (2) an action plan displaying how she intends to manage God’s property. Firstly, Hannah honours God by recognising His authority over her as she refers to Him as the “Lord Almighty” and calls herself His “servant.” By making reference to this, Hannah shows that she understands that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). On the basis of this revelation, Hannah makes a proposition to God asking Him to “…look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life and no razor will be used on his head” (1st Samuel 1:10-11). Personally, I find Hannah’s request fascinating as her reasoning for the child wasn’t self-consumed by her current situation or discomfort, but instead, she promises to commit the child to Lord and the building of His Kingdom. Hannah’s strategy here could be related to that of an entrepreneur seeking investment from an established investor. Essentially, she’s asking for an investment and explains how she would use that investment to add value to the interests of the investor. Often times our approach to prayer is based on a ‘what’s in it for me?’ type attitude, when in actual fact we should be taking a ‘what’s in it for God?” type attitude, as it is His resources we are requesting to steward.
Hannah’s Response to her Prayer
After Eli aligns his faith with Hannah by saying “go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked for,” the author states that Hannah “…went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.” Hannah used Eli’s words as a signal of faith that God had at least heard her prayer, and as a result of this faith she ended her fast and decided not to be sad anymore. Philippians 4:6-7 corroborates Hannah’s actions, as it states “do not worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
God’s Response to Hannah’s Prayer
“So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a Son. She named him Samuel, saying “because I asked the Lord for him” (1st Samuel 1:20).
Once the child was “weaned” (made accustom to food other than his mother’s milk), “she took the boy with her, as young as he was, along with a three year old bull, 16kg worth of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh” (1st Samuel 1:24). By Hannah choosing to do this, showed obedience (as she promised to dedicate Samuel to God’s work) as well as gratitude (as she brought an offering that was more than what was required of her). The text continues with Hannah addressing Eli saying “pardon me, my lord. As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord had granted me what I asked of Him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord” (1st Samuel 1:26-28). Here we see Hannah providing a testimony to Eli of God’s faithfulness. This is important as it reminds us of Jesus’ instruction to bear witness to God’s mercy as it states in Mark 5:19, “go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.” In 1st Samuel 2:21 we see that Hannah’s obedience is rewarded by God, as she gives birth to three more sons and two daughters. This gives evidence to God’s statement in Exodus 19:5: “now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.”
At first glance of the text, it could be said that Hannah’s approach to God was the product of a series of practices that were customary to the Jewish religion. These practices included fasting, standing to pray at the temple, giving offerings as well as testimonies. However, once we dive deeper in to the text we begin to understand that God was not particularly moved by the practices themselves, but by the state of Hannah’s heart when engaging in those practises. For instance, Hannah was sincere in her fast, she aligned her faith with Eli’s when making her request, she sacrificed by dedicating the child’s life to the kingdom of God, she was a good steward evidenced by her weaning the child and ensuring no razor touched his head and lastly she was obedient, shown by the fact that she fulfilled her promise to God. Therefore, it could be said that God appreciates authenticity as opposed religious routine. The point behind this article is not to propose a step by step winning formula, but instead to highlight the themes of effective prayer in the hope that you may apply them in the context of your life.