Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
A MOTHER IN ISRAEL
ABRAHAM and Sarah had no children. Isaac and Rebekah had no children. Jacob and Rachel had no children. Manoah had no children. Hannah had no children. The Shunamite had no children. Zacharias and Elizabeth had no children. Till it came to be nothing short of the mark of a special election, and a high calling, and a great coming service of God in Israel to have no children. Time after time, time after time, till it became nothing short of a special providence, those husbands and wives whose future children were predestinated to be patriarchs, and prophets, and judges, and forerunners of Jesus Christ in the house of Israel, began their married life with having no children. Now, why was that? Well, we may make guesses, and we may propose reasons for that perplexing dispensation, but they are only guesses and proposed reasons. We do not know. We cannot guess; for it is only those who are intimately and eminently godly, and who are at the same time childless, who can have any experience and assurance of what God's motives are in that matter. And I do not know that any of that inner circle have anywhere come out and broken the divine silence. All the more-Why is it? Is it to spare and shield them from the preoccupation and the dispersion of affection, and from the coldness and the rudeness and the neglect of one another that so many of their neighbours suffer from? And is it to teach them a far finer tenderness, and a far rarer honour, and a far sweeter solicitude for one another? Or, on the other hand, is it out of pure jealousy on God's part? Is it that He may be able to say to them, Am I not better to thee than ten sons? Or, again, is it in order to make them meet, long before His other sons and daughters around them are made meet, for that life in which they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage? Which of all these reasons, or what other reason, has their God for what He does with so many of His best saints? But all this time we have been intruding into those things of which he says to us-What is that to thee?
Elkanah of Mount Ephraim, Hannah's husband, was, as we say, a true gentleman. He would have been a perfect and a spotless gentleman but for one hard spot in his heart; a hard and a dark spot in his heart that came out in a hard and a dark spot on his life. It was because of that hard spot in Elkanah's heart that Moses had consented to let Elkanah take two wives. But Elkanah's shameful licence which he had taken in that matter had by this time sufficiently revenged itself on Elkanah and on his whole house; for by the time we are introduced to Elkanah and to his house, his transgression has been made so terribly his punishment, that his heart is as soft now, and as full of tears, as Hannah's heart itself is soft and a fountain of tears. And Elkanah's heart, far more than even Hannah's, was such a fountain. For to a man like Elkanah, to have done any one a great wrong, is, for all his after-days, to suffer far more than they can possibly suffer who only endure the wrong. I find a law, said Elkanah, as he went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the Lord of hosts in Shiloh, that the greater the wrong done, and the greater the sorrow caused, the more all that comes back on him who did the wrong and caused the sorrow. But, Elkanah, sorrow upon sorrow at home, and yearly worship and sacrifice at Shiloh and all, never could undo the wrong he had done to Hannah and to all his house. He could only take every opportunity to sweeten a little, if possible, Hannah's great and bitter sorrow. But such was the cruel snare that Elkanah lay in, that every effort he made to lighten a little his own and Hannah's load, that effort only locked the teeth of the snare deeper than before into his soul. Elkanah could not move a finger to comfort Hannah's stricken heart without that instant provoking her adversary to fresh insults and fresh injuries. What Elkanah might have been driven to do had it not been for the worship and the sacrifices at Shiloh, we tremble to think of.
Of Peninnah, Elkanah's wife with children, we know nothing-nothing but what we hear from her own cruel and scurrilous tongue. Those of you who are living in the same house with a woman like Peninnah, you could best picture to us poor Hannah's life. The servants who most slighted and insulted Hannah, were Peninnah's prime favourites; and her children were sharp to find out how to please their mother and get their own way. The sacred writer does not keep us long in Peninnah's company: he hastens past Peninnah to tell us about Hannah, that sorely-fretted and sequestered woman, who waters her couch with her tears. But, unless God was mocked on Mount Ephraim as He has never been mocked anywhere else, it does not need a prophet to tell us, if not Peninnah's past as a maiden and a young wife, then her future as an old mother and a widow. There were more sons and daughters of Belial being born and brought up in the house of Israel in these days, than Hophni and Phinehas. Take this child also, Belial had said to Peninnah over her successive child-beds, bring this one also up for me. And she did it. And you may take it for Holy Writ, though it is not written in as many words, that her children, when she was old, did not depart from the way in which she had brought them up.
I am filled with shame for myself and for my order as I see Eli sitting upon a seat by a post of the temple, and as I see Hannah's lips moving in prayer, and then hear Eli's rebuke of Hannah. 'Put away thy wine,' said Eli to Hannah. If he had said that to Hophni and Phinehas twenty years before, and had, at the same time, put away his own, Eli would have had another grandson than Ichabod to bear and to transmit his name. 'How long wilt thou be drunken?' said Eli to Hannah. I do not wonder that Hophni and Phinehas became prodigals. What else could they become with such a father? When the blind lead the blind, what can you look for? That temple post, and that doited old priest sitting idle in the sun, and Hannah drunk with sorrow, and the way that Eli looks at her, and the things he says to her-Rock of Ages, let me hide myself in Thee! Only to Thy cross I cling-as I see Eli, and myself in Eli, and my children in Hophni and in Phinehas and in Ichabod. I see in Eli my idleness, my blindness to my own vices, and to my children's vices, my blindness also to my people's trials and temptations-one provoking and another being provoked, one drunk with pride and insolence, and another drunk with ill-usage and sorrow. I see in Eli my brutish ignorance while all that is going on round about me; as also my headlong and unjust judgments, and the way I preach at my people when I should be away out of sight and deep in God's holy place in prayer for them and for myself and for my children. O my God, when Thou sayest that Thou wilt do a thing at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle, I understand what Thou sayest and concerning whom Thou speakest. And I know, and I acknowledge, that had it not been for Thy long, long suffering, Thou wouldest have done all that to me and mine long before now. But, O my God, let Thy mercy endure for ever. Say to me that in Thy mercy I am to have this year also in which to rise off my seat and to acquaint myself with my people's sorrows, and to go out and in among them spending and being spent. Let me have the grace to preach to them out of Hannah's song, as I have never yet done. To preach to them, and to tell them that there is none holy as the Lord: neither is there any Rock like our God: that the Lord God is a God of knowledge, and that by Him actions are weighed: that He raiseth the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the beggar from the dunghill, and that He will keep the feet of His saints. But, all the time-
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
If Hannah was Elkanah's first wife, then there is nothing to be said but severe blame of Elkanah and deep sympathy with Hannah. But if Hannah was hoodwinked with her own wish to enter Elkanah's household as a second wife in those indecent days, then Hannah's bitter sorrow is just another harvest reaped according to the seed sown. How Hannah must often have envied, not the mothers of children so much, as those bright and merry maidens of Ephraim and Shiloh, whose souls were still their own. And how, as she went up to the temple and came home from it, she must have filled up the time with recalling the way the Lord had led her till she so let herself be misled by Elkanah. Had Elkanah been a bad man, Hannah would not have been misled by him. In that case, Hannah would not have been in this snare. But when it was too late, Hannah learned that evil in a good man is just as deadly as the same evil in a bad man; as deadly, and far more dangerous. Hannah would never have crossed the threshold of any but a good man. You would never, all her days, have seen Hannah the wife of a son of Belial. But when Hannah crossed good Elkanah's threshold, she had still to learn that a sin against purity, a sin against human nature and the human heart, will bring down just as heavy a punishment on a patriarch's tent as on a profligate's. Punishments of that kind are no respecters of persons. And even when some might think your person respected, it may be to this extent, to the great and gracious extent of forgiveness; while, all the time, a sharp vengeance is taken on your inventions. Elkanah and Hannah invented a sin against married life on Mount Ephraim, and, while they were forgiven for it, all the time the vengeance that was taken on it, and on them on account of it broke every bone in their body and every hard spot in their heart.
'Her adversary provoked Hannah sore to make her fret.' Little did her adversary think-only, people like Hannah's adversary never think-little, I was going to say, did Peninnah think what a life of sin she had plunged Hannah into. And little do we think-only one here and there has the power and the will, the mind and the heart so to think-how we plunge this man and that woman into a lifetime of deadly sin just by the way we provoke them to anger at us. Little do we think the sins that we are the true cause of, and of which we shall one day have to share the guilt. If you could see into this man's and that woman's heart, it would frighten you for once. We speak in a hyperbole about hell upon earth; but all the time there is one of the mouths of very hell in that heart that you have hurt till it so hates you. Exercise, I implore you, all your powers of imagination to put yourself in the place of that man or woman you so fret and provoke. Strive with all your might to put yourself inside his heart, so as to see and feel and sin and suffer as he does. Labour to see your self as others see you. Be sure that Butler is right. Be sure that you differ from other people as much as they differ from you; and that you are as offensive to other people, and that they are as full of wicked passions at you as you are at them. And, then, this is terrible. This, that the most obscure of us, the most innocent of us, nay, the very best of us, and the most blameless-we all have many hearts burning like bell underground against us. There are men we have never seen, and men who have never seen us, who are yet provoked and fretted out of all their composure and all their grace and truth at the bare hearing or reading of our names. We never saw them or they us; and if we had the opportunity we would forgive them and do them a service; yet such are the blind and furious passions of their hearts that our very names are a madness to them. Surely the thought of that should make us all walk softly and speak seldom and seek solitude and circumspection. Surely we should seek obscurity, and wish with all our heart that our so offensive name should never be spoken in this world again, or written or read. Nay, your very virtues are a provocation and a constant fury to men it would astonish you to be told about. Your very services, even to themselves; your very talents of which you are so innocent, and of which your Maker must bear the blame-what is there?-there is absolutely nothing in us, or about us, that does not provoke and exasperate somebody. Let God hide us all in the secret of His presence from the pride of men! Let Him keep us secretly in His pavilion from the strife of tongues!
Well, it was all that: it was Hannah's diabolical ill-usage at her adversary's hands, and it was still more, her own wicked and revengeful heart at her ill-usage: it was all that that made that saintly woman absolutely drunk sometimes with her sorrow. She staggered with her sorrow; she fell against the altar; she did not know what she was saying or where she was going; she actually forgot her own name, and did not answer when her name was spoken. Aaron himself would have been provoked to say to Hannah to put away her wine. Hannah was a saint; but she was a woman-saint; and hence her reeling heart. Hannah was able to command herself sometimes for weeks and months after she had been again at Shiloh. But something would happen in the household that would soon show that even Shiloh had made Hannah nothing better but rather worse; for her chastised and well-bridled tongue would all of a sudden break out again till, had it been in Greece or in Rome, she would have been called a fury rather than a woman and a saint. The milk of human kindness, not to say of womanhood, would suddenly turn to burning brimstone in Hannah's bosom. For days and weeks she would be able in the strength of the Shiloh meat to teach them their letters and to play with Peninnah's children better than if they had been Elkanah's and her own. She would toss them up in the air and make them light on their father's knee, till he clean forgot his sin and his shame and his pain. But the very next moment Hannah was within an inch of dashing them against the stones. Elkanah's happiness through any other wife but herself, and his rapture over her adversary's child's delightful ways, made Hannah sometimes go away to her bed like a she-tiger to her den. You will charge me with mocking you, and with an abuse of sacred words, when I call such a woman a saint. 'Among all the saints I have never found one,' said Santa Teresa, 'out of whose case I could take any comfort.' Well, speaking for myself, I can take comfort out of two saints. And one of them is Hannah of Mount Ephraim, and the other is Teresa of Mount Carmel. And out of another. 'Begone!' shouted the aged Philip, 'Begone! you do not know me. I am a devil if you knew me!'
'Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am? Some say that thou art Jeremias.' Our Lord makes no remark upon that. But I do not think that He was greatly offended to be so taken. Had He said anything about the men of Cæsarea Philippi who took Him to be Jeremias, I am mistaken if He would not have said that they were not far from the kingdom of heaven. For they had been drawn to Him just as we have been drawn to Hannah. They had seen Him in the Temple with His lips moving. No, they held, He is neither Moses nor Elias: He is the Man whose sorrow was like no other sorrow that has ever been seen. Pascal is continually preaching to us that the more spiritual light we have, the more spiritual sorrow we have. No wonder, then, that the Spiritual Light Himself was the Man of supreme spiritual sorrow. Who would not have been sad who had eyes to see what went on in Elkanah's house at Shiloh? No man but a blind and a hopeless fool would have been other than sad over houses like the house of Elkanah and Peninnah, and Eli and Hophni and Phinehas. And the land was full of such houses in the days of our Lord, and thus it was that He was what the observing men of Cæsarea Philippi saw that He was. There are multitudes of men and women amongst us who are drunk and dazed with many kinds of sorrow. But it is only now and then that you will come-now in life and now in literature-on a man who is drunk and dazed with sorrow for sin. 'Pascal was greedy of happiness,' says Sainte-Beuve in a fine essay, 'but of a noble and an infinite happiness. He had that profound inquietude which attests a moral nature of a high order, and a mental nature stamped with the seal of the archangel! Pascal is of this leading and glorious race: he has more than one sign of it in his heart and on his brow: he is one of the noblest of mortal men, but he is sick, and he would be cured. Pascal sweats blood. Pascal clings to the Cross as to a mast in shipwreck.' His sister tells us that the noblest and most self-denying of brothers was sometimes so stupefied by reason of his own sinful nature that his very family affections were withered up in the terrific fires that burned his heart to ashes. And an intellectual and a moral nature like Pascal's; a spiritual sensibility like Pascal's; will always bring along with it Pascal's exquisite and awful sorrow. But let not your hearts be troubled, for it is a noble sorrow. It is a supernatural sorrow. It is the sorrow of the great saints; it is the sorrow of the Son of God. And as He was so are we in this world. Our present sorrow for sin is the exact measure and the sure seal of our future joy.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Hannah'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/h/hannah.html. 1901.