There’s a well-known worship song that says: “every blessing You pour out I’ll turn back to praise.” While the term ‘blessing’ is often thoughtlessly used, it refers to a deep happiness or gift that God brings into our lives. Hannah, a Hebrew woman we encounter in 1 Samuel, was someone who knew about both receiving God’s blessing and turning it back into praise of His name.
A Hopeful Prayer
Hannah was a barren woman who lamented both her loneliness and shame. In a culture that was built on family and the importance of providing an heir, Hannah was on the outs. Her husband, Elkanah, cared deeply for her but, like many men, wasn’t the best at giving words of comfort: “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8). Hannah’s reply to Elkanah isn’t recorded, but we do see her respond by going to God in prayer. In her loneliness and public shame, Hannah lifts up a hopeful prayer.
A Vow with God
While in prayer at the tabernacle in Shiloh, Hannah speaks out of the depths of her pain, making a vow to God:
Lord Almighty, if you will only 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. (1:11).
In one sense, Hannah’s vow is an attempt to make a deal with God. She wants a child so deeply that she promises something extreme. People tend to do this all the time. We say things like: ‘God, if you will give me a spouse, then we’ll become missionaries together.’ ‘God, if you spare my life then I’ll tell my whole family about you.’ Making a deal with God can roll off of our lips easily but it isn’t always a good idea. Any vow we make carries with it a sense of obligation to the recipient. If we make vow with the Creator, then we have obligated ourselves to a powerful being.
A Prayer Answered
When Hannah returns home, God answers her prayer. Her husband, Elkanah, makes love to her and she becomes pregnant:
Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’ [Samuel sounds like the Hebrew for ‘heard by God’.] (1:20)
In many ways, this seems like the end of the story. The “before” picture shows Hannah and Elkanah alone. The “after” picture shows the two of them again, but this time Hannah wears a bright smile while holding a baby in her arms. God answers the prayer in a powerful way. But it’s not the end of the story at all.
A Vow Fulfilled
Hannah was not like many of us who make thoughtless vows to God. She actually remembers the vow. She does not go up to Shiloh for the annual pilgrimage because she wants to fulfill the vow correctly. She tells her husband as he is leaving:
After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always. (1:22)
So Hannah raises her child until the time is right and then she brings him to Shiloh, to the priest, Eli, who manages the worship and sacrifices (rather poorly, but that’s another story). In bringing young Samuel to Shiloh, Hannah says:
I prayed for this child, and the Lord has 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. (1:27-28)
Here are a few things I find interesting about this story. We don’t have any evidence that anyone knew about the vow other than Hannah. She could have kept it to herself and raised Samuel at home, but she didn’t do that. Eli was not well-respected in Israel because his sons were profligates. Hannah could have hesitated on her vow because of the problems with where Samuel was going, but she didn’t do that. Elkanah must have found this whole situation difficult and strange. He could have hindered Hannah from fulfilling her vow, but he didn’t. Hannah could have kept God’s great blessing – the child she had prayed for – to herself and simply enjoyed this precious child. She could have skipped out on her vow, but she didn’t.
Hannah prayed, experienced God’s faithful answer, and then gave the answer to her prayers back to God. To all appearances, Hannah was right back where she started: childless and filled with longing. But I believe that God did something powerful in Hannah that we may not see. He brought her great joy – a blessing – and then allowed her the equally great joy of returning that blessing to Him as an act of worship.
We also know that Hannah’s gift-child, Samuel, became a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. He initiated the kingship with Saul. He anointed David as the chosen ruler who defined kingship throughout the nation’s history. The Messiah himself, Jesus of Nazareth, came from David’s kingly line. Without Samuel being born and being given to God, where would God’s people be?
Pulling it back to us in our own day, we do well to ask what gifts God has given us that He wants us to return to Him in worship. What would it look like if we were to truly live the song lyrics mentioned before?:
every blessing You pour out I’ll turn back to praise