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The Birth of Samuel
HANNAH, the wife of Elkanah, besought the Lord for a man child. This draws our attention to the scope of human prayer. Men cannot pray by rule. We do but mock men when we say, You must pray for this and not for that. Such an exhortation may do for a man when his heart is not inflamed by the passion of godly desire; it may do for him in his coldest and most indifferent mental states. But when he is in his most vehement and determined moods, he cannot be fettered and limited by such exhortations. We need something more for our guidance than mere maxims. A maxim is too narrow for life. We need principles which can shrink into maxims and can expand into revelations as the exigencies of life may require. Sometimes we are cold and dull, then a maxim will do: sometimes our strength rises to full flood, then we need inspiration. You cannot conduct life in its highest phases and its intensest desires by any set of maxims. You can only control and elevate life by having principles which can shrink and expand, adapt themselves when man's moral temperature rises, when his strength rises, and suit themselves to all the varying phases and wants of his life. Tell Hannah that she ought not to pray for what God has not seen fit to give her, and she scorns your formal piety and your tabulated counsels. Why? She is not in a mood to receive that kind of instruction; there is a hunger in her heart; through her own love she sees far into the love of God; and by the eagerness of her desire she goes far away, with bleeding weary feet, from beaten paths and accepted roads, that she may bind God by the very importunateness of her love. That is not the kind of woman into whose ear you can drop a little formal maxim with any effect Your religion will be to her profanity, if you cannot address her in a higher tone meet her just where her soul is. She is borne away by the passion of her desire; there is one dominating force in her nature that transfigures everything, that defies difficulties, that surmounts obstacles, and that waits with trembling nervous patience till God come. What is love if it be not fiery? What is prayer if it be not the heart on a blaze? Prayer is not mere articulation; prayer is not mere words. Prayers are battles; prayers are the thunders which call for God when he seems to be far away!
Yonder is a wild goat, living on stony hills and desert places. He has wandered a long way from pasture, from food of any kind. In the madness of his hunger he sees on farther edge, five hundred fathoms above the level, just one little tuft of grass the only green thing within a circuit of miles. It is a dangerous place, but then he is in a dangerous condition. He climbs to it, the rock almost trembles under him. A moment more, and, hundreds of fathoms below, he lies a bleeding mass. But impelled by hunger, he does what only the fierce courage of despair dare do. So it is with that keener hunger of human souls. We do sometimes pray for things that lie away from the line of ordinary devotion; we would not pray for them but for that over-mastering, irresistible, spiritual force that holds us in its mighty hand. If we were in coolness and sobriety of spirit and temper, we should be able to reason about it and to put things together and to draw inferences. Man is not fully man when he stands upon his feet; he touches the highest point of his manhood when he lifts the pinions of faith and hope, and goes off into the Unknown if haply he may find God! If you do not know what the hunger is you do not know what the prayer is. You cannot feel as Hannah did without you have been in great straits, and when for the time you have been the willing' victim of a glowing and grand desire. But is there not a limit? Yes, there is a limit, and it is sometimes well not to look at it in the light of a limit. It is true that we are shut up like the sea and watched like the whale, but that is no reason why we should shrivel into a pool or dwindle into a minnow. What is the limit of our prayer? This: "Not my will, but thine, be done!" Is that a limit? it is glorious liberty! Not my will, but thine, not a little will, but a great will, not my thought, but thine, not my love, but thine! Is that a limit? It is the lark rising from its field-nest into the boundless liberty of the firmament! Truly we do not limit ourselves when we exchange the creature for the Creator. When we take up our little thought and say, "Lord, this is what we want, but not our will but thine be done," do we then throw away the greater for the less? It is a contrast, and only such a contrast as you find in the earth and heaven, in the blazing sun and the misty night.
Need we say that there are some things which are not fit subjects for prayer? that there are some things which do not lie directly in the devotional line? For example, no man is at liberty to pray for wealth, merely as such. "Lord, give me riches," would not be prayer; it would be profanity, it would be covetousness carried to the point of blasphemy. Wealth, as such, does not lie in the line of devotion, but far away from it, and can only be made incidental to it by certain moral considerations which the possessor of wealth may possibly know nothing at all about. Looked at in itself, Hannah's prayer was selfish and poor in its spiritual tone; but the woman did not know what she was praying for altogether. It is so with us in our highest devotions. God inspires the prayer, and then answers it; dictates the language, and then satisfies the petition. So that persons who are asking for what may be called a little ordinary daily blessing, may, in reality, be asking for a gift the influence of which shall reach through ages, shall palpitate through eternity. Hannah says, Give me a man child! She knows not the destinies that are involved in that prayer. And that prayer is not her own. Her petition is but the echo of a higher voice. Herein is the mystery of prayer. There be cold, formal, rudimentary prayers; there be labial prayers prayers that come from the lips only; and there be words which are revelations of Christ subdued sighings of the soul, which God prompts and regulates, and which are sent for the trial of our patience and strength, that God may bring in upon our little petition a greater answer than our fancy ever dreamed, than our love ever dared expect!
We shall see in what an extraordinary mental and spiritual state Hannah was, as we read from the twelfth to the sixteenth verses:
"And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the Lord, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto."
There are three remarkable things in this case. First: Here is a religious household disquieted by one unhappy element. Hannah's life was lived under the harrow of Peninnah's reproach. The household was a religious one. Elkanah went out of the city to worship and to sacrifice unto the Lord of hosts in Shiloh. Hannah was a praying woman. We have every reason to suppose that, speaking in general terms, the household was markedly religious; yet there was shot through it one unhappy, disquieting, poisoning element. Let us get away from all that is merely local in the incident, and dwell upon the principle that one sinner destroyeth much good. The head of the house is a worshipping man, reverent, strong in faith, punctilious in religious observances; those that are round about him have religious convictions and religious strength. Yet there is something in the household just one little microscopic thing that spoils the heaven. You cannot exhort people to get out of that The element is little and insignificant in itself; but still it requires a vital remedy. The disquieting cause is different in different houses. In almost every house there is some little spiteful spirit; in almost every family there is somebody that has the power of sneering at other people; in most households undoubtedly there are members who can drop just one scalding drop into a sore place and make it sorer. It can be done so that you cannot print it and publish it; it can be done so that you cannot report it; it can be done so that you can only feel it These are the miseries that spoil many lives. Who are we happily situated, having little or nothing to interrupt our domestic joy that we should in an off-handed manner exhort people to be more patient, and to be this and that and the other, when we ourselves could not be so if we were under the same circumstances? Understand, it is these little, insignificant things that destroy the happiness of a human home. Not great fights, not periodical revolutions in the domestic state; but hasty little words, untimely shruggings of the shoulder, and sneers that are no sooner on the lip than away. What is the cure for all that kind of disease? There is only one cure, and that is, Crucifixion with Jesus Christ Observe, not mere crucifixion. You may nail a man's hand both hands, both feet and crush thorns into his temple till he is bathed in blood; but you may not touch the devil that is in him. He must be crucified; but he must be crucified with Christ in his spirit, thoughts, and purposes. Sympathy with the cross of Christ takes out of human nature the last drop, the final dreg and sediment of evil, hatred, and bitterness; and nothing but that will touch the disease. We may compromise; we may bear and forbear; we may make our life a game at setting up little pieces of wood, and piling up little cards in a certain shape, keeping every breath of wind away lest the little structure should be overturned. That is not life. The only true life is based on right, love, nobleness, law, charity, kindness. All this we find only in that manly, womanly, godly Heart that burst on Calvary.
The second remarkable thing is: A religious use of a daily provocation. Peninnah persecuted Hannah daily; laughed at her, mocked her, jeered her, provoked her sore to make her fret; provoked her to tears, to fasting, to grief of heart. Hannah was in bitterness of soul and wept sore. What use did she make of this daily torment? Do not let us fix upon the one particular thing that she had in view, or the one special difficulty that annoyed and perplexed her; but get into the principle of the case. What was the use which she made of this daily torment? It was a religious use. She prayed unto the Lord; she rose up and went forward that she might pray mightily before God; she spake in her heart and she poured out her soul before God. That was conquest, that was victory! There is a possibility of having a daily annoyance, and yet turning that daily annoyance into an occasion of nearer and nearer approach to God. Let us then endeavour to turn all our household griefs, family torments into occasions of profound worship and loving homage to God. It was in human nature to avenge the insult; to cry out angrily against the woman who delighted in sneering and in provoking. But there is something higher than human nature, something better. And is it not our business, is it not better, indeed, that we should try, at all events, to get away from the human nature, which we are too prone to worship in its generalisation, and seek the divine nature, which has in it the interpretation of every difficulty and the remedy for every affliction? It could not be easy to bear the daily annoyance. A footfall heard in the house might mean a coming sorrow; a sound heard in the distance might awaken painful memories; a turn of a sentence, though it might be unintentional and unconscious on the part of the guilty individual, might afflict the soul. The worst suffering is subtle and unspeakable, and hardly to be told or to be hinted at, made up of ten thousand little things, any one of which is not worthy of a moment's consideration. Yet here is a woman who was able to triumph over all these things, and to bring them in as helps to her continual prayer.
The third thing that is remarkable is, the religious recognition of family mercies. When the son was born the son for whom Hannah had been praying many a day she called his name Samuel, "heard of God." Let us dwell carefully on this point, because everybody is embraced in the application of this truth. We have prayed for a long time for a given object; that object has at length been yielded to us. What then?
"And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy as the Lord; for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.... The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail" ( 1Sa 2:1-2 , 1Sa 2:7-8 , 1Sa 2:9 ).
It was thus with one man. He was very ill; a great strong man in his day; yet disease touched him, shrivelled him up, laid him upon a lowly bed, made him pray to the humblest creature in his house for favours hour after hour. As he lay there, in his lowliness and weakness, he said, "If God would raise me up I would be a new man, I would be a devout worshipper in the sanctuary, I would live to his glory." And God lifted him up again; did not break the bruised reed, did not quench the smoking flax, but permitted the man to regain his faculties. And he was not well one month before he became as worldly as he was before his affliction. He prayed as if his heart loved God; and when he got his health back again he was a practical atheist he was virtually the basest of blasphemers.
It was thus with another man. He had nothing when he started in life. He used to run errands; to sweep doorsteps, and burnish bells in order that he might get some little gifts to buy his next meal with; and he went on suffering daily. He said, "If God would but bring a turn upon my fortune so that I could make something, I would turn all his gifts to the blessing of my fellow-men; I would show the true use of riches; I would be a Christian; in the midst of my abounding prosperity, I would give a spiritual meaning to all the material gifts of God." His little was doubled, then his little became much, and his much became more, and he became, what? He would not look at a poor man; he was ashamed to be seen of men who knew him in his low estate; he was a conceited, swaggering fool! Now the reverse in both these cases is possible. It is possible to be lifted up from the bed of affliction and become a burning, shining light in fulfilment of a vow. It is possible to get on from nothing to little, from little to much, and in the midst of abounding prosperity to be a thankful recipient of God's mercies, a gentle little child, made for the time being a steward of God's gifts.
Blessed are the men who have had praying mothers. The influence of that fact they cannot shake off. They may curse and swear, and go to the very boundary of the pit; nay, go into it, and we doubt whether in all their suffering they can ever shake off the influence of having had a praying mother. The mother's devotion comes up in the boy's veneration, love of right, conscientiousness, magnanimous hope, gentle courage. As with the boy and the mother, so with the girl and father. Sex is not a physiological question only. We find the sex element in disposition, in thinking, in quality of strength. Blessed are they who have had a praying ancestry. As for such as have not had praying forefathers, there is no reason why they should be lost and thrown away. God is our Father; and when father and mother forsake us, he will take us up. He will lift the beggars from the dunghill and set them among princes, and make them inherit the throne of glory.
Let no man be cast down. Let those who have had praying mothers be charged, as by a captain of the Lord of hosts, that they go to the front of the fight, and be the most valorous men in God's camp. Let those who have been born into the world, and have had nothing but darkness and sorrow ever since they came into it, know that Jesus Christ receiveth sinners and eateth with them; and that when he looks upon a sinner the sinner is transfigured into the son of Abraham, as when the morning light looks upon a folded flower it opens its beautiful leaves and shows its thankfulness by telling all the secrets of its heart!
It is on the mother of Samuel that our chief attention is fixed in the account of his birth. She is described as a woman of a high religious mission. Almost a Nazarite by practice ( 1Sa 1:15 ) and a prophetess in her gifts ( 1Sa 2:1 ), she sought from God the gift of the child for which she longed with a passionate devotion of silent prayer, of which there is no other example in the Old Testament, and when the son was granted, the name which he bore, and thus first introduced into the world, expressed her sense of the urgency of her entreaty Samuel, "the asked or heard of God."
Living in the great age of vows, she had before his birth dedicated him to the office of a Nazarite. As soon as he was weaned, she herself, with her husband, brought him to the tabernacle at Shiloh, where she had received the first intimation of his birth, and there solemnly consecrated him. The form of consecration was similar to that with which the irregular priesthood of Jeroboam was set apart in later times ( 2Ch 13:9 ) a bullock of three years old (LXX.), loaves (LXX.), an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine ( 1Sa 1:24 ). First took place the usual sacrifices (LXX.) by Elkanah himself, then, after the introduction of the child, the special sacrifice of the bullock. Then his mother made him over to Eli (1 Samuel 1:25 , 1Sa 1:28 ), and (according to the Hebrew text, but not the LXX.) the child himself performed an act of worship.
The hymn which followed on this consecration is the first of the kind in the sacred volume. It is possible that, like many of the Psalms, it may have been enlarged in later times to suit great occasions of victory and the like. But 1Sa 1:5 specially applies to this event, and 1Sa 1:7 and 1Sa 1:8 may well express the sense entertained by the prophetess of the coming revolution in the fortunes of her son and of her country.
Almighty God, we are all thine; we are twice thine. Thou didst make us, and not we ourselves, and thou didst redeem us with the precious blood of Christ, and bring us out of a worse than Egyptian bondage. We wrestle not with flesh and blood against these there is an answer, sure and unchangeable but with principalities and powers, with spiritual temptations, with difficulties of the soul, with nameless forces and malignest mysteries of darkness. These are our foes; we cannot see them; we cannot touch them or name them; they are here, there, on the right hand, on the left hand, around us, above us, never sleeping, always watching. Against these thou dost call us to do battle; but thou dost call us to put on the armour which thou hast thyself provided, and being clothed in that steel of heaven, we may go on from conquering to conquer, slaying mightily and completely all evil forces and winning the Lord's battles in the Lord's great strength. Thine eye is upon us; it melts with compassion, it gleams with complacency, and if now and again it is bright with anger, we know the justice of the indignation, for we have sinned and done evil in the Lord's sight. We come to thee to find pardon, and through pardon to enjoy peace yea, to begin the eternal Sabbath of the heavens, the calm of eternity, the peace which passeth all understanding. Thou wilt not disappoint us; if we have made any effort to come to thine house, thou wilt doubly reward us. No man can serve God for nought. If we have put ourselves to any inconvenience, thou wilt surely magnify thy grace towards us, and send a plentiful rain of blessing upon thirsty hearts. Pity us in all our littleness and weakness. Remember that our days when they are all counted are but a handful which a child might carry; and remember that we are made out of the dust of the ground, and that the dust still claims much of us. Remember the difficulty of life: its daily burden, its certain care, its sorrows, so heavy and bitter. Remember the deaths which have bereaved us, the losses which have made us poor the disappointments which have torn and stung our hearts; and then let thy mercy come to us in no few, scanty drops of pity, but in great rains of compassion, and let thy heart be moved towards us in all tenderness and grace. But why should we argue with thee, or plead with thee as if thou wert reluctant? The willingness is upon thy side; thou dost wait to be gracious. Again and again, amid all our peevish reasoning, thou dost remind us that if thou didst not spare thine only Son, but freely gavest him up for us all, how much more wilt thou with him also freely give us all things. We forget the love of the cross, and therefore we doubt the love of the providence. The Lord forgive us Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"... only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard." 1 Samuel 1:13 .
Yet it was possible to form some opinion of the agitation of Hannah's mind. It was known that she was not in a jovial mood, but that her soul was cast down within her. The power of the soul to write itself on the face is indicative of its still larger power to write itself on all the circumstances and events through which it passes, and upon the society with which it comes in contact. Now and again we see vivid instances of mind triumphing over matter; never perhaps is this so signally seen as when grief enters into the heart, and writes its grim signature on the whole countenance. These indications of mental action may of course be misunderstood, as in the case of Hannah. Though Eli was a priest, he was not sufficiently penetrating to understand what Hannah was doing. He who ought to have been a prophet, a very seer of God, looking at the heart and reading all its woe, said in tones of harshness, "How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee." When sorrow is misunderstood it is doubled. When men understand our grief, and speak to us in its own tone, they go far towards removing the heartache which makes us groan. When priests misunderstand their age, either in its totality or its individuality, they make the most profound mistakes, and throw insult where they ought to offer benediction. We can conduct a silent ministry in life. We can be known as men of prayer without causing our voice to be heard in the streets: we can express our joy without blatancy; we can show how truly wise we are without trumpeting our own greatness. Sometimes all we can do is to move the lips; the voice will not come through the choked throat, or if it did come we should not know it, it would not be our voice, but another, tortured by the spirit of grief. Let us yield to our emotions up to a given point, but always seek to have some measure of control over them; otherwise we may by exaggeration or wantonness allow our character to be honestly misunderstood, and vilified with some show of reason.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany