Desperate Times (Sermon)
1 Samuel 1
Where do you go when you’re desperate? Now when you’re a child and life falls apart, most kids turn to their mom. The kids are playing outside, you hear a crash, a scream, and then a voice, “Mom!” Desperate kids go to their mom and dad for help. Where do desperate adults go? Bankruptcy, cancer, miscarriage, unemployment, divorce—when you’re desperate where do you turn?
In 2009, the film Avatar was released. It’s a science fiction movie set in space, written and directed by James Cameron, known for his five marriages and his foul mouth. Before the big battle at the climax of the movie, the hero begins to doubt their chances of success, and so he goes looking for help. Where will he find help? Where do you think James Cameron—in no sense a Christian—will have his hero seek help? His hero goes to the “god” of the planet and prays for help.
God has wired something unmistakable into our DNA: when we are desperate we need help greater than any human can provide. The popular modern stories—like Superman, Star Wars—turn to an outside source of help in the most desperate times. They acknowledge something we all know deep down. When everything is bleak and the hour is dark, I need supernatural help. These stories echo the true story of our world, written for us in the Bible. What we find in story after story is this: God delivers desperate people. 1 Samuel opens with a small story that reinforces this same theme.
(1 Samuel 1:1-2 CSB) There was a man from Ramathaim-zophim in the hill country of Ephraim. His name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives, the first named Hannah and the second Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless.
The desperate person is a woman named Hannah, and we see why she’s desperate in verse 2—she is childless. We know her barrenness is due to her, not her husband since her husband took a second wife and bore children with her.
Let me pause for a moment and remind you that though this passage doesn’t condemn polygamy, the Bible does. In the very second chapter of Genesis, we’re told marriage is a permanent union between one man and one woman. So the Bible doesn’t have to specifically condemn polygamy every time it’s mentioned—it’s already told us what God expects. We do see that polygamy always breeds problems, as it does with Hannah.
So Hannah has no children, while the other wife, Peninnah has multiple children. This deepens Hannah’s despair.
(1 Samuel 1:6 CSB) Her rival would taunt her severely just to provoke her, because the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving.
She is ridiculed by Peninnah, and I’m sure by others around her. Infertility was seen as a curse—people would have openly questioned what Hannah did wrong. They would have sneered, “She must have done something terrible for God to punish her that way.”
Hannah’s desperation is especially severe on the yearly family trip Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Peninnah would have received multiple portions—one for her and one for each of her children. When those portions were handed out, Hannah was presented with a visible reminder that she had no kids. In her despair, she loses her appetite, and her husband asks her why she’s crying (v.8). Not sure that’s a wise question. Then follows it up with an even worse statement: “Am I not better than ten sons?” The barrenness, ridicule, loneliness all combine to produce incredible pain. She is (v.10) “deeply hurt.” Were told this background information to better understand the depth of her pain. She is at her low point—-broken and hopeless.
Where do you turn when you’re desperate? Where will Hannah turn? I was talking with Caed, my 9-year old son, about this story earlier in the week, and I was trying to remind him of what happened. I mentioned Hannah and tried to prompt his memory by saying, “She couldn’t have a baby, so she…” And without a moment’s hesitation he said, “She stole one!” (Who are this kid’s Sunday School teachers?) That is not what Hannah did, though there is an account in Scripture of a desperate woman stealing another woman’s child. Desperate people often do desperate things.
Hannah could have done what many other women in that culture did. Hannah lived during the time of the Judges, and when you read through the book of Judges you see two names repeated: Baal and Asherah. While Baal was a more common term to describe a false god (likely the god who it was believed could control the weather), Asherah was a Canaanite goddess of fertility.[i] Many of the Israelite families had a Asherah pole on their land or in their community where they would go and offer sacrifices to this pagan goddess hoping for a child. Hannah, in her desperation, did not turn to an idol. Here’s what she did, and it’s our first lesson from 1 Samuel.
Cry to God in Your Desperation
Four times in this passage, the text says Hannah prayed (vv.10, 12, 13, 16).
(1 Samuel 1:9-16 CSB) On one occasion, Hannah got up after they ate and drank at Shiloh. The priest Eli was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple. Deeply hurt, Hannah prayed to the Lord and wept with many tears. Making a vow, she pleaded, “Lord of Armies, if you will take notice of your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.” While she continued praying in the Lord’s presence, Eli watched her mouth. Hannah was praying silently, and though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to be drunk? Get rid of your wine!” “No, my lord,” Hannah replied. “I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord. Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment.”
In her desperation, she cried out to God for help. Notice three remarkable characteristics of her prayer.
Her prayer was humble
She knows who God is, and she knows who she is. She addresses God as the “Lord of Armies”—the first time we find this description in the Bible. She understands God’s power—He controls heavenly armies—and she is under no illusion about her own power. She is just a “servant” (v.10). She, in her weakness, cannot conceive a child, but she knows God has the power to do it. If He controls heavenly armies, then He can open her womb.
Why don’t we pray? It could be that we doubt God’s power, but I think it’s more likely that we overestimate our own. We are too self-confident. When was the last time you really felt powerless? We need to feel our powerlessness often, so we will turn to God in prayer. It’s not as if we move from powerlessness to power, rather we move from feeling our powerlessness to ignoring it. Hannah knew she was desperate—she understood her weakness, so she turned to the God of powerful armies and asked Him to do something she could not accomplish on her own.
Her prayer was personal
She knew God, and she was honest about what she felt. Throughout this chapter, we see Hannah using God’s covenant name (Yahweh). Every time you see the word lord in all lowercase letters, it’s a translation of the name Yahweh. Hannah was not offering generic prayers, but she was pouring out her heart to the God she knew—the God whose covenant love had led her people out of bondage and into a new land.
She knew her God, and she was honest with Him. She doesn’t sanitize her feelings, but brings all of the raw pain and frustration before God. She brings God her “anguish and resentment” (v.16). Do you ever feel like you have to get your life cleaned up before you can pray? You realize you’ve sinned, you’ve ignored God, you’ve chased after your own will, and you think, “I really screwed up today, I can’t pray.” Or “I can’t tell God what I really think because it’s pretty bad”? Why is that? God knows you better than you know yourself. He knows your sin and guilt, your weakness and fear, your frustration and despair. Effective prayer is honest prayer. It’s telling God what you’re honestly struggling with. If you feel resentment, don’t try to work it out on your own in order to pray. Pray in order to work it out with God’s help.
Her prayer was scriptural
She asks God to “take notice of your servant’s affliction” (v.11). The Hebrew words for “take notice” and “affliction” are found together in some earlier accounts in Scripture.
When Moses stood before God at the burning bush, God commanded him to go to Egypt to rescue His people. Why? “Because,” God said, “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt” (Ex. 3:6 CSB) Though translated differently, those are the same two words Hannah uses in her prayer.
When the enslaved nation of Israel heard from Aaron about God’s promise to deliver them from slavery. (Exodus 4:31 CSB) The people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had paid attention to them and that he had seen their misery, they knelt low and worshiped.
Hannah’s reflection on Scripture informed her understanding of who God was and what He could do. She knew He was a God powerful enough to deliver her from her affliction, and she knew He was a God loving enough to listen to her plea. Meditating on Scripture informs our praying—it gives us faith that God will listen and act. That’s why prayer and the Scripture are like the breathing and heart beat of spiritual life.
It’s clear from her example that Hannah knew where to turn in her desperation. Her praying is described as pleading (v.11) and pouring out her heart (v.15). Where do you go when your heart is overwhelmed? How about when it’s broken? Hannah knew she could turn to God and pour it out to Him. She went to God and asked Him to open her womb, even though He was the one who had closed it (v.5). God’s sovereignty should not lead us to passivity but to prayer. We pray to the God who is in control of all things. We pray to the God high enough to control angelic armies, and close enough to listen to us even when we don’t know what to say.
Trust God for Your Deliverance
When Hannah arrived at the tabernacle in Shiloh to pray, she wasn’t alone. Sitting in a corner of the tabernacle was Eli, the priest. When he first saw Hannah, he thought she was drunk. That tells us something about both the spiritual climate in Israel and Eli’s discernment. She assures him she’s not drunk, but heartbroken over her barrenness.
(1 Samuel 1:17-18 CSB) Eli responded, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant the request you’ve made of him.” “May your servant find favor with you,” she replied. Then Hannah went on her way; she ate and no longer looked despondent.
Whether Eli’s words should be taken as a promise or not, Hannah sees God’s care in them, and she heads back to her family knowing God has heard her prayer.
In the New Testament, we find this command given to Christians:
(1 Peter 5:7 CSB) Casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.
Sometimes we wonder what that looks like. How do I do that? Here is a real-life example. Hannah walked into that place of worship with a burden on her back that was about to crush her. Through great spiritual struggle, she took that burden, shrugged it off, and left it in God’s hands. When she walked out, she did so unencumbered—the burden had been cast on the one who cared for her. What she did in that temple was act in faith. She not only cried out to God, but she trusted God to answer.
What burden is crushing you right now? Perhaps it’s a child who resists the gospel. Every day you wake up with this burden that drags you down, threatening to crush you. By the middle of the day, you’re about ready to give up—you just can’t carry that weight any longer. Jesus invites you to hand that burden to Him. Maybe it’s not a wayward child, but a demanding job, or a dying parent, or a terminal disease, or a constant temptation, or a spiritual defeat. Cry out to God, and trust Him to deliver you from that burden.
(1 Samuel 1:19-20 CSB) The next morning Elkanah and Hannah got up early to worship before the Lord. Afterward, they returned home to Ramah. Then Elkanah was intimate with his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. After some time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, because she said, “I requested him from the Lord.”
I love that simple phrase—“the Lord remembered her” (v.19). Had the Lord forgotten her? No, it’s described this way to show that God heard her prayer and then acted towards her in a very personal, gracious way. God listened to her plea, and He responded tenderly and personally to her need. He caused her to conceive, providing her with the son she had prayed for. Her shame had been removed by the sovereign grace of God.
Offer God Your Devotion
Hannah made a commitment to God that if she had a son, he would live under a Nazarite vow, never cutting his hair or drinking wine, and he would serve in the temple. In other words, he would be fully devoted to God. This vow is a picture of complete devotion—everything belongs to God.
But it wasn’t just her son, Samuel, who would be completely devoted to God. Consider what Hannah was doing—she was giving her only child away to serve God. She was giving her prize to God. This son God had given her, was going to be given back to Him. She would offer God the thing most precious to her.
What is most precious to you? Have you given it to God? It was on January 8, 1956 that Jim Elliot died at the hands of the Auca tribe in Ecuador. He famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” But he didn’t just say it, he lived it. He gave his life (which he could not keep) in order to gain that which cannot be lost—the glory of Jesus among a people who had never heard. When I think of someone who offered God full devotion—everything—I think of Jim Elliot.
But I also think of friends in East Asia, who have given up a comfortable life in the States to reach Chinese muslims with the gospel. I think of a church member who has done the same in the Middle East. I think of those sitting in this room who have given up time, money, position, and ego in order to advance the kingdom of God in our community. The only fitting response to God’s deliverance is to offer Him our devotion.
When Samuel was three years old, Hannah loaded him up and took a trip to Shiloh. She brought Samuel to Eli and said:
(1 Samuel 1: 26-28) “Please, my lord,” she said, “as surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this boy, and since the Lord gave me what I asked him for, I now give the boy to the Lord. For as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” Then he worshiped the Lord there.
Imagine the emotion of that moment. You are about to leave your only child at the temple to serve God there. As you walk with him holding his hand, you know you will come back alone and empty-handed. What motivates an act like Hannah’s? How could she give God the most precious thing in her life? God’s deliverance produced Hannah’s devotion. She had experienced God’s grace at her very lowest moment, and it was His grace which led to to the gift of her son.
Her act of devotion is a living illustration of what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans.
(Romans 12:1 CSB) Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship.
Look at the mercies of God! See how wonderful they are! Ponder His grace to you! Now give yourself to Him, and do what pleases Him. Not to earn, not to repay, but to worship. In gratitude for His grace, give Him each day as a gift.
Brothers and sisters, this is what faith looks like. Faith begins with an honest assessment of our own inability. We are unable to provide what we need—we cannot save ourselves, we cannot secure our own future. We need help. But who can help us? God can. But will He? Yes, because He is gracious. We respond to His grace with faith—trusting Him to do what He promised. When He does, then we serve Him out of joy and gratitude. We offer Him everything we have and everything we are because we know He who delivered us from sin and death will provide and protect us all our days.
This story of Hannah and Samuel is located here in this spot for multiple reasons. One is to give us an example of what faith looks like, especially during a dark time in Israel’s history. Hannah shows us what it looks like to trust God for deliverance when everything is dark and scary. But that’s not the only reason it’s here. If it were, we might be tempted to misinterpret it. We might view it as an ironclad promise to all infertile women that God will give them a baby. But it’s not that. There were certainly other faith-filled, barren women in Israel at that time who never did conceive. And many of us know women like that in our lives.
This story is here to point us to something bigger than Hannah and Samuel. I want to summarize this story in one sentence and then zoom out. Here’s a summary of what happens in 1 Samuel 1: People in desperate need cry out to God in faith and He delivers them through a promised Son.
What is happening on an individual level for Hannah has both national and global ramifications. Hannah is the nation of Israel, and ultimately, the world in microcosm. She is desperate and cannot solve her problem, so she cries out to God. He delivers her through a son born in a supernatural way. The birth of this son institutes a new age in Israel. Israel will move from a collection of tribes to a unified country under the leadership of a king. More importantly, a kingly line is established which leads to the birth of King Jesus.
The story of Hannah reveals the intention of God to deliver His people, and that deliverance will come when the promised Son is born. Like Hannah, we are hopeless, afflicted and broken-hearted, though unlike Hannah our affliction is due to our own sin. As Hannah turned to God for help, our only hope is to cry out to God for deliverance. God’s deliverance comes in the form of a Son, born in a supernatural way, zealous for the temple, who is anointed as King forever. Faith in this Son leads to deliverance and should produce a life of devotion and worship.
I’m reading a book on the civil war right now, and even though I’ve heard it before it’s still shocking to hear the number of wounded and dead after the major battles. Often in the aftermath of a battle, a flag of truce would be flown, and soldiers could safely re-enter the battlefield to collect the wounded and take them back to their camp for medical treatment. After one particularly vicious battle, the generals on either side disputed the terms of the truce, and so neither side could safely enter the battlefield to collect the wounded. For two days, the wounded lay in the field, crying out for help. Lying in their own blood, many with mangled limbs, they cried out for someone to come and save them. Soldiers from both sides could hear the cries and screams, but could do nothing about it. By the time the truce was agreed upon, all but one wounded soldier had died.
When you cry out to God for help, He will never sit on the sideline and watch you suffer. He will always respond. If you are wounded by sin or broken by despair, call out to God for help. He will deliver you. Everyone and everything else are like those soldiers hunkered down behind the lines, powerless to save you, but God is not. He hears, He remembers, and He acts in grace. God delivers desperate people.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2017.
[i] Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, kindle edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), p.4.