I don’t know about you, but I find it hard not to reach for a tissue box whenever I hear or read Hannah’s story. No sooner do we learn Hannah’s name than we hear those poignant words, “but Hannah had no children.” Hannah is known, at least at first, not for what she has, but for what she does not have. There is no child growing, kicking, squirming, and flipping in her womb. No swaddling clothes to change. No crying newborn to soothe. No infant nursing at her breast. Hannah had no children.
Year after year, Elkanah, her husband, would journey with his two wives, Peninnah and Hannah, to Shiloh, the place of sacrifice, where Yahweh dwelt among and for his people. But Hannah had no children.
Year after year, Elkanah loved his wife, Hannah, even though the Lord had closed her womb. Hannah would receive a double portion of the sacrificial meal, possibly from the Old Testament Feast of Booths, or another annual pilgrimage. A foreshadowing of the double portion that would come to Hannah by God’s mercy. But Hannah had no children.
Year after year, Peninnah never failed to remind Hannah that her nursery was full and Hannah’s was empty. She provoked and taunted Hannah so grievously that her appetite became as barren as her womb. Hannah’s heart was sad. She wept bitterly. She was deeply distressed. Hannah had no children.
Year after year, Hannah prayed, no doubt as she did every day, that the Lord would hear her prayer, open her womb, and give her a child. But still, Hannah had no children.
So Hannah did what we often find ourselves doing in our deep distress and despair. Hannah poured out her soul before the Lord. She vowed a vow. “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” (1 Sam 1:11).
There’s an irony in Hannah’s words. Hannah is barren, yet her mouth is filled with humility, prayer, praise, and faith. Peninnah’s womb and quiver may have been full, yet her mouth was nothing more than a shallow, empty, prideful pit. She may have had many children, yet she was the truly barren one.
As Hannah continued praying, Eli, the priest, saw her mouth forming words. Supposing her for a drunkard, Eli approached Hannah. She was not drunk, however. She was despondent. “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him” (1 Sam 1:16-17).
I love how this part of the story unfolds. Eli had no idea what Hannah had been praying for and what had caused her such deep agony. And yet, he says the one thing that Hannah needed to hear: “Go in peace.” In response to Eli’s words, Hannah speaks a rather “Mary-like” word. “Let your servant find favor in your eyes” (1 Sam 1:18).
Hannah received the Lord’s peace that day in Shiloh. Even though she had no idea how her prayer would be answered, she had received a blessing from the Lord. Even if her womb remained closed, she knew that the Lord’s ear was always open. Hannah went her way. She ate again. And her face was no longer sad.
When we first met Hannah, we found her waiting, wondering, and praying. No doubt she asked the same questions we all do when we wait on the Lord. Why? How long? Why is my womb closed? How long will I remain childless? We are told in 1 Samuel 1 that the Lord had closed her womb, but we are not told why. Just as we are not told why Bartimaeus was born blind or why the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people. All we are told is that the Lord remembered Hannah. And when the Lord remembers, the Lord acts on behalf of Hannah.
In his mercy, the Lord opened more than his ear for Hannah. “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the Lord’” (1 Sam 1:19-20).
When all seems hopeless and lost, God is doing his great and gracious work, often hidden from our eyes.
1 Samuel 2 goes on to record Hannah’s Magnificat, a beautiful song of great reversal. A song filled with the Lord’s mercy. A song that, in the fullness of time, would resound on Mary’s lips as she rejoiced in the Lord.
The story of Hannah begins in heartache but ends in hope. It is a story full of Hannah’s great pain but also of the Lord’s greater promise. The Lord remembered Hannah. The Lord opened her womb. The Lord gave Hannah a child. A son, named Samuel. A son who would grow up to be prophet and priest foreshadows the Son of God, the true prophet and great high priest. A son who would anoint King David and foretell the coming of a greater King, who would be David’s Son, yet David’s Lord. A son whose very name reminded Hannah, as it reminds us, that the Lord hears us.
Hannah’s story is the story about the unexpected, unimaginable, unbelievable grace of God. Against all odds, when all seems hopeless and lost, God is doing his great and gracious work, often hidden from our eyes. God performs his greatest work in humble, lowly, and hidden ways: a son in the barren womb of Hannah, a child in the Virgin Womb of Mary, a baby boy in a manger, Jesus crucified on the cross.
Hannah’s story is the story of God’s great reversal. The Lord turned Hannah’s mourning into dancing, her sorrow into joy, her despair into rejoicing, her barrenness into life. At last, Hannah had a child. And what God does in Hannah’s womb he does on a grand, cosmic scale in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. God creates something out of nothing. God brings life out of death. From the barrenness of our tomb, he brings forth a new creation.
Hannah’s story, then, is our story as well. God comes to the lowly. God joins us in our weeping. God comes in the midst of our waiting, wondering, and “whys.” God may not answer our prayer the same way he answered Hannah’s prayer, but the same Lord who remembered Hannah remembers you.
And when the Lord remembers, the Lord acts on our behalf. The same Lord who heard Hannah’s prayers at Shiloh was born for you with ears to hear our prayers and carry them before the Father’s throne. The same Lord who opened the barren womb of Hannah long ago opened the Virgin womb of Mary to bring forth new life in her Son, our Lord, Jesus.
The same Lord who gave Hannah a child has given us his only begotten Son, Immanuel, God with us.
The same Lord who remembered Hannah remembers you, hears your prayer, and promises to be with you in your waiting.