|Series Theme: Meditations in 1 Samuel|
PART ONE: Priest to Prophet
Meditations in 1 Samuel: 1: The Harshness of Childlessness
1 Sam 1:1-2 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
When we delve into the Old Testament as people out of the twenty-first century West, we find ourselves so often in alien territory. In these studies or meditations (and we'll do a little of both) we are using narrative text as against the direct teaching that we find in say the apostle Paul's letters. Here we are dealing with a story, a history if you like, and within stories we find a whole raft of things about the human race that are as true today as they were then. 1 Samuel is essentially about the days in the life of Israel under the judgeship of Samuel, a prophet, that takes us on to see their first king, Saul, and then God's dealings with a young shepherd boy, David, who was to become the next king.
We have called this first part 'Priest to Prophet' because it covers the transition period when Eli the Priest is eventually replaced by Samuel the prophet. We will see the closing days of Eli and how a young boy, Samuel, came to be at the heart of Israel and became its new leader.
But here in our opening verses we have a handful of unfamiliar names. Ramathaim, it is thought, is somewhere a few miles north of Jerusalem . The reference to this man being a Zuphite may be a reference to being a descendant of Zuph (1 Chron 6:32-34) but we don't know for sure although the Chronicles names match those of his earlier family recorded here. Whatever else, the writer is wanting to make sure we are no illusions: this is not a made up story, it is well grounded in history.
Now this man Elkanah, an Israelite, had two wives. Monogamy was God's design (Gen 2:23,24) but polygamy was not uncommon, but as the story unfolds we see the downside of that. Verse 2 lays it out so simply: “ He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” Names in Israel were often significant. Hannah means ‘grace, but Peninnah, a concordance suggests means ‘coral' or maybe ‘pearl'. That she thought herself a pearl in this marriage becomes clear and the way she expresses it seems to indicate the sharpness of coral. We could ponder on that some more as we go through the story.
A few verses on we find, “And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” (v.6) Interestingly the writer ascribes Hannah's barrenness directly to God and we'll ponder the providence of God in a later meditation. Peninnah isn't content simply with the satisfaction of bearing children to Elkanah, we might say today she ‘rubbed her nose in it', meaning she pointed out this fact again and again and made Hannah particularly upset, which we'll consider some more in the next meditation.
There are, I suspect, fewer things in life more distressing than being unable to fulfil the desire that most women have, to be able to bear a child. Today we live in a society where often this is sublimated beneath the desire of self-fulfilment through a career which often leads women to put off having children until much later than that which was traditionally the years for child-bearing, which brings difficulties both in heath and in later years bringing up a child in older years.
Not only is there so often a frustration that turns into anguish in such situations but there are question marks that arise in the couple about their inability. What is there wrong in me that I am unable to conceive / father a child? In this case this is very one sided because Elkanah has shown he is quite capable of fathering children which makes it doubly difficult for Hannah. She clearly is the one at fault. But then, when you believe God involves Himself in our affairs, there might be the question, why hasn't God allowed me to conceive, or even, why has He stopped me conceiving? What am I guilty of that this should happen to me? Hannah's story tells us that we should declare loud and clear, it's nothing to do with your sin or defectiveness, it's just what happens in a fallen world where things go wrong. There is no indication that Hannah is a particular sinner (more than the rest of us) and that this is a punishment. It just happens!
If we think more widely in the Bible, we come to realise that this sort of thing is not that uncommon. In the story of Abram, we read of his wife, “ Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) Such hard, cold and definite words! The miracle of their story is that God enabled Sarah to conceive and have a son when Abraham was one hundred years old! Isaac is born, grows up, marries and then we read, “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.” (Gen 25:21) Again such harsh and cold words: “she was barren”. When we look at the details of their story we find, “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah,” (v.20) and “Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth.” (v.26) i.e. twenty years passed before the Lord answered Isaac's prayers.
When we come into the New Testament we find a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and we read, “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (Lk 1:7) There it is again in stark print: “ Elizabeth was barren.” It is almost as if the Bible throws it at us to see how we will respond. Indifference or tears of empathy? In all four cases that we have just noted, the Lord turned up and enabled conception.
I think the most rewarding prophecy that I have ever brought to a couple was, “in a year's time you will have a baby,” especially when I was told afterwards they had been told they could never have children. To my relief (because I hate the possibility of bringing false comfort) they had their child within the year. The same thing happened to my daughter with a word from a friendly prophet. In each case it was a declaration of God's intent contrary to the expectations of man.
May I share a pastoral feeling that I have about these things. I believe today that if we have single people longing to be married or couples longing to conceive, as churches we should commit ourselves to praying for these people until God answers. I firmly believe He wants to provide marriage partners and He wants to enable couple to conceive. It may need some miraculous workings but that is easy stuff for God. It may need battling against unbelief or indifference or declarations of ‘experts' but God is a life bringer. Until we clearly hear the words from God, “not yet” or “I want you to rest in what you are now,” I believe we should be praying our hearts out to bring God's blessing to childless couples and singles who yearn for a partner in our congregations. (For those who actively don't want children or actively want to be single, the Lord bless you as you are.) To sit back and just watch the months and years past without change, speaks of our indifference.
This story has elements in it that are hard to understand and we'll struggle with some of them later on, but at the heart of it we find frustration and anguish that so often comes in this Fallen World where things just don't work sometimes as they should do. That's what life is like in such a world. The crucial things to observe are how we respond to it and what God wants to do about it, and that we'll see as this story unfolds.
Now I'm going to do something I've never done before and that is add a poem that recently came my way, written by a single lady, an English poetry teacher, in honour of her and others like her who turn their energies into bringing blessing to others. She wrote this while invigilating an exam for her students, and I think you will agree it has a certain poignancy about it:
Meditations in 1 Samuel 2. The Anguish of Desperate Prayers
1 Sam 1:11 And she made a vow, saying, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon 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, and no razor will ever be used on his head."
I happened to come across the following quote from a modern Christian writer the other day: “Prayer requires things of us that we are not always willing to give. Time. Attention, Vulnerability. Submission. Transformation. And often we feel inadequate to pray because we are stuck on works-based righteousness that makes us a slave to approaching prayer as a vending machine.” He continues in a similar vein but we'll stop it there. Personally I find the biggest difficulty of praying at a set ‘quiet time' every day, is monotony. I know what God wants of me and I ask for it. I know who I ‘should' pray for (my family, church, friends, etc. etc.) and so I do, but it becomes a rote.
It is only when we come to a prayer like that of Hannah (and others in the Bible) that we realise that the most honest prayers, the real prayers, the prayers that pour out of the heart, come in a crisis. Let's check it out with Hannah.
We saw in the first study that she is barren, which is bad enough in itself, but she is also the second wife in a polygamous marriage and the other wife is bearing children as fast as she can go – and then jeering at Hannah for her inability to become a mother: “ because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” This other women was doing it purposefully “to irritate” or upset her. How unkind is that, and there appeared nothing that Hannah could do about it. She was locked into this marriage and was unable to do anything about her barrenness. (1 Sam 1:6).
This constant, in your face chiding brings Hannah to tears: “ This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.” (v.7) Year after year! It keeps on, nothing changes. Month after month and disappointment comes. They go each year to the Tabernacle at Shiloh to worship the Lord. To be able to do this Elkanah must have been quite wealthy, for many Israelites could only do it rarely, but they do it every year. So here she is with a loving husband who tries to console her, an affluent and probably comfortable life, but all that is meaningless in the face of her inability to become a mother.
By the time of this present visit to Shiloh she is clearly desperate. It has gone on for so long it has broken her. She is so desperate that she would even give away the child to God if she would only have one – she bargains with God. Now we'll leave wonderings about that until we think on God's providence and simply focus on what she feels for the moment. Go back and read that opening quote above. How meaningless that all sounds when you observe Hannah. She needs no lessons in prayer, she is desperate, she is past caring, she just has one focus – God give me a child, I cant take it any more! ( I so want to talk about what is going on behind the scenes in heaven, but we must leave it for now).
A long time ago I researched all the prayers of the Bible – and most of them come in a crisis situation. The New Testament prayer that stands out most to me (apart from Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane) is that of the church in Acts 4, shortly after Peter and John have been threatened by the Sanhedrin and the church comes together and prays. I won't do a breakdown of that prayer here, but one part of it shows the situation: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29) It is a prayer of desperation in the face of the threats of the authorities – and God answers in power. When we get to a point of desperation, God turns up in power. It is almost, it seems, that He waits for us to come to a point where we KNOW the truth – we are helpless – before He steps in.
When our ‘prayers' are nice and respectable – and boring – perhaps we need to ask the Lord to open our eyes to the plight of people around us or the world in general, so that we become moved to really urgent prayer. When stories come back from the church in China , you realise you do not have a problem with prayer when you face real persecution. Our absence of desperation so often means we are not under pressure in the world of affluence that tolerates us but consider your life: is it childless when it comes to bringing spiritual children into this world? I am not wishing to impose guilt and not all of us are called to be evangelists, but would you dare pray, “Lord, burden my heart of the lost”? If you do, get ready for desperation.
But a penultimate thought: I have been taking it for granted that when people get desperate, they pray, but that isn't always so. If prayer isn't a natural part of your life it may be that you don't think to ask for God's help. Don't you realise that our loving heavenly Father just longs to help us and is simply waiting to hear from us?
Which brings me to a final thought. In the previous meditation we thought about a number of women in the Bible who were barren and who only had children in older age. The temptation from the enemy is to think badly of God who ‘stopped' them conceiving, but was that ‘stopping' more a case of simply He had not intervened in the affairs of this Fallen World where things go wrong – one of them being women remaining childless? One of the things the enemy wants us to forget is that in every case we considered, God DID intervene and did enable them to conceive. It is easy to jump to wrong conclusions as we'll see in the next study.
Meditations in 1 Samuel 3. Jumping to Wrong Conclusions
1 Sam 1:12-14 As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."
A story is told of a regular church-goer, a man who we'll call George, who went to his local parish church. One Sunday the vicar noticed that George didn't take communion but stayed in his pew when everyone else came up to take the bread and the wine. At the end of the service as he shook his hand the vicar asked, “How are you George?” “I'm fine thanks vicar.” And that was all the vicar could get from him. As the weeks passed George continued to remain seated when it came to communion and the vicar wondered, “Has George done something wrong, has he sinned and feels he cannot take communion?” He decided to pray for George that the Lord would bring him to repentance and come and confess. Indeed one Sunday morning as he shook George's hand he whispered, “George I'm always here if you need to come and confess and get something off your chest.” Still no change. Eventually the vicar decided to call on George one evening and confront him about this. “George, I've been watching you for weeks now and I've noticed you've stopped taking communion. You know communion is for sinners and is a good time to confess your sins, so if there is something you need to confess…..” His voice trailed away. George looked down and then at the vicar and then said in a low voice, “Vicar, I lost my job about two months ago and we are very hard up. The trouble is that I only have one decent pair of shoes to wear to church and they have a hole in the soles so I'm ashamed that when I kneel down at the communion rail people will see the hole and think badly of me.” Misunderstandings!
It is easy to jump to wrong conclusion and this passage of scripture above, shows just one misunderstanding, a spiritual leader jumping to wrong conclusion. Hannah is in the Tabernacle praying her heart out, but praying silently and yet in her anguish her lips are moving. The old priest Eli, whose sight is failing nevertheless sees her lips moving and assumes she is drunk! He chides her. She came seeking the Lord's comfort in this distress that had built up over years, and all she got was a telling off!
Perhaps a New Testament parallel was what happened on the Day of Pentecost and the disciples poured out into the street speaking in tongues and praising the Lord, and we find, “ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:12,13) What is it about this wine thing that religious sceptics seem to focus on it so much? Is it that it is an easy thing to attribute as the cause of behaviour we don't understand?
I can look back to a period where our church experienced what was known as the Toronto Blessing. We didn't go looking for it, we didn't' ask for it and I for one was unhappy about it, which was tricky because the Lord kept pouring His Spirit out through me whenever I prayed for anyone! People started turning up because they heard what was happening but by and large didn't join in but sat in a group like as little thunder cloud in the midst of the rejoicing and praising the Lord people. In later years I heard from those from other churches who thought this ‘happening' must have been of the devil. “Really,” I would reply, “Wow, the devil is using a new tactic where he's got our young people reading their Bibles like never before and people turning up to pray at the prayer meeting like it's the most important thing on earth! He's got people excited about their faith like I've never seen before. I wonder why he would do that?” Misunderstandings.
We are all prone to it, I have to confess that in an earlier part of my Christian life, I was filled with the Spirit and spoke in tongues and was filled with great joy with a new powerful love for my Lord. Don't ask me what happened because I don't understand my own stupidity, but about a year later I found myself questioning the whole thing and I shut down. That's the only way I can describe it. It continued until one day the Lord in His love and grace decided to do something about me. In the course of the day I ran across three different Christians I know, one at least who I hadn't seen for a couple of years, and all of them were bubbling with the Lord. “Frothy Christians,” I muttered to myself after meeting the first one – and the second one. By the time the third one left in the late evening, I sat alone and prayed, “Lord, I don't know what I've done but these three I've encountered today have got something I used to have but no longer have – your joy – and I want it back. Please forgive me for being an idiot” – and so He refilled me.
How do we do it? We can think wrongly about ourselves and we can certainly think wrongly about others. The worst Christians are always the ones who are more full of the Lord than you! In our defensiveness we conclude wrong things about them.
But it's not always the ‘full-of-the-Lord' Christians, it can be others as well. The other story that always comes back to me was of the man in the Underground train with his two young children who were running riot, and of whom he appeared oblivious. An onlooker was growing more and more annoyed thinking, “Why can't this man control his kids!” It was an otherwise empty carriage but these two boisterous children were racing up and down and destroying the peace. As the train drew into a station and slowed down, the man went to stand up and turn apologetically to the onlooker and said, “I'm sorry about the kids. My mind has not really been on them. I'm sorry. We've just come away from visiting my wife in hospital and I was taken aside and told she probably has less than two days to live.” Misunderstandings.
Gossip and criticism is often unfortunately a feature of church life and the sad thing is that they are both so often wrong. Gossip is passing on what you think someone else thinks they have heard and so often they are wrong in their assessments. If gossip, even in the guise of “we ought to pray for…. because….” is a part of your church, stop it. 90% of the time it is not accurate but founded on misunderstandings. You've probably heard the old adage attributed to ‘native Americans': “Never say anything about someone else until you have walked in their moccasins.” The answer is to get to know people, listen to people, empathise with people and then we are less likely to get it wrong. This example of Eli is a salutary warning, a very real warning for every church.
(Postscript warning: having recently heard a tale of a man [I believe with good heart] giving a woman an unsolicited holy hug and getting a complaint for it, perhaps we should heed Jesus' warning when he said, “ I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Give no one any cause to misunderstand you and complain about you!)
Meditations in 1 Samuel 4. God who answers prayer
1 Sam 1:19,20 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the LORD and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, "Because I asked the LORD for him."
The records within chapter 1 of 1 Samuel clearly attribute Hannah's barrenness to the Lord (v.5 AND 6) and now her ability to conceive. Sceptics might say it was pure coincidence that she now conceived but as a friend of mine used to say, “the strange thing about prayer is that when I stop praying the coincidences stop happening.” When you observe the account dispassionately you observe for a number of year Hannah being unable to conceive, then her praying and then within a short period of time her conceiving. The coincidence is too strong for it to be ‘just a coincidence'.
Thus we arrive at a very simple conclusion: God answers prayer. For Hannah there is no doubt about this. Hebrew names very often had a meaning to them and when she names her son Samuel we find it means “heard of God” and she says she gives him that name “because I asked the Lord for him” and by implication the Lord answered and enabled her to conceive where previously she had been unable to.
The fact that any of us ever pray means we, at least, hope God will answer and change our circumstances but when we look at the Bible record we find a very varied record when it comes to these barren women that we previously noted. In Abram's case, there is no record of him praying, simply that God chooses him and says to this childless man with a barren wife, “ I will make you into a great nation.” (Gen 12:2) and eventually, when both he and his wife are beyond childbearing age, enables them to have a son, Isaac.
In the fullness of time, Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah who for twenty years – despite his praying – remains barren until she eventually has twins. When we come to the fourth couple that we mentioned previously, Zechariah and Elizabeth, there is no record of them having prayed until the angel Gabriel turns up and says his prayer has been answered (Lk 1:13) but I suspect that that prayer had been many years earlier because we are told “they were both well along in years,” (v.7) and then when Zechariah says, “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years,” (v.18) there is a strong inference that he means they are both beyond child-bearing age, and this is reinforced by Gabriel's words to Mary that, “Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age,” again with a strong inference that she was well beyond child-bearing age.
So in the four accounts of barren women Hannah prayed desperately and got a quick answer, Abram doesn't appear to have prayed at all about Sarai's barrenness, Isaac prayed for twenty years for Rebekah who eventually conceived and Zechariah seems to have prayed earlier in life but probably gave up asking as they got too old to have children, before the angel of the Lord turned up with the news of the coming baby. Simply observing these accounts it is virtually impossible to create any clear principles about answers to prayer beyond:
Thus we have a sovereign God who decrees what is right and so He acts into our affairs to bring about what is best. We, on our side, often find ourselves in hopeless situations which make us cry out in desperation and sometimes the Lord answers quickly and sometimes He appears to say, “Wait.”
The “quick answers” are a blessing and a cause for thankfulness, but the long delayed answers require grace in the form of trust in a loving God who knows best, and perseverance to keep on pressing on for what we believe is right.
The subjects of childlessness and healing are closely associated because both require a belief in a God who does intervene in our physical affairs, even when they seem impossible. When it comes down to it, it is a mystery as to why God waits or even doesn't appear to answer at all, and we just have to trust in the Bible record that He is a loving God who does what is best for us.
When it comes to healing my personal testimony includes ALL of the following:
a) I have prayed for people to be healed and they have been. I have prayed for many more others and they have not been.
b) I have had over a long period of time, trouble with both my knees. About fifteen years ago, one of the girls in our congregation just came up to me in the middle of worship and prayed for my knees and I had no pain for some 3 to 4 years.
c) Gradually the pain increased again until I went to a Bible week and was prayed for and was completely healed. A short while later I tripped in a pothole in the road and twisted both knees and was back to square one.
d) Over the coming months I prayed and prayed, full of faith really believing it was God's desire to completely heal me again – as did various other people who prayed for me, but a year later I was on an operating table having a new knee operation – which went incredibly quickly and incredibly well so I was around apparently faster than others having similar operations about that time.
e) Four years later both my knees were again causing me much pain, long and continuous. Sitting in a main meeting at another Bible week, I suddenly found the pain in my right knee completely go. As the speaker called for people to be healed someone prayed over me and the pain in my left knee also completely went. One knee God sovereignly healed, and the other He healed as one of His children prayed over me.
Des God heal? Yes, He certainly does. Does He sometimes want is to use modern medicine? Yes, He does. Does He sometimes move sovereignly in healing? Yes He does. Does He sometimes appear to hold back? Yes He does. Does He wait and use people to bring healing? Yes He does. Overall conclusion? God is not a machine, you cannot control Him. He is an all-wise, loving and compassionate person (who is Spirit) who knows what is best for us. Be assured of His love for you, whether or not He turns up or requires you to wait. His love for you is not under question; what is, is how we will respond if He requires us to wait.
Perhaps I should also testify that the two prayers that the Lord answers most regularly of mine are, “Lord please will you show me where I put…(the keys, pliers, scissors etc.),” and “Lord will you give me wisdom and show me how to….” (see Jas 1:5). I cannot remember the last time when He did not answer those two prayers!
Meditations in 1 Samuel 5. The Mysterious Providence of God
1 Sam 1:25-28 they brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, "As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. 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."
When we speak about ‘providence' in the context of God and the Bible, we mean God's ‘behind-the-scenes' activities, what He does to maintain the world and maintain His plans and purposes for the ongoing world. Often in the Bible we simply see a set of circumstances and are left wondering – how much of this was the hand of God? In our own lives and circumstances, it is again a genuine question, how much of what goes on is the hand of God on my life?
For instance I can look back at a number of things that have happened in my life, some out of my control that seemed random happenings and some that were my actions (motivated by what?) that had consequences. I am able, looking back, to see a clear chain of events that have resulted in me being the person I am today, doing the things I am doing today. A sceptic might say these things were just chance or coincidences but the fact is these ‘coincidences' have resulted in me being where I am today. You may not be so clear in your mind and not be able to see such things in your own life, but is it simply that you haven't thought it through before?
For instance, going right back to my school days. My birthday is in October and someone had given me a book on careers which I had browsed. The next day after my browsing (coincidence?) my headmaster (who I later hear is a Christian) came into our classroom and asked the class to tell him what we each wanted to be, what career we wanted. My mind was a blank. Months earlier I had pondered joining the army but that day I went cold with no idea, but as it came round to me I blurted out the one of the pages in the book I had perused the day before that stuck with me, “A Charted Surveyor, sir,” and so he passed on. I forgot about it but two weeks later he called me into his office: “Right if you are going to be a Surveyor, we'd better get you into a college, and he lined up three interviews in the top three colleges in London where I could study to be a surveyor. You didn't say no to this authoritative man and so I ended up, initially living with an aged uncle and aunt in London to go to this London college.
Eventually their failing health meant they couldn't have me any more so I moved into digs in west London , a most dismal experience. One of our subjects at college was law and we had a lecturer who was a barrister who dictated at a speed faster than I can type. The result was that at the end of the week when I looked at my law notes at least, I had this scrawl which I could hardly read and within a few weeks I would have forgotten the link. So I bought a portable typewriter and typed up my notes every day. A good way of learning and taking in. Add to this the fact that living in a pokey bed-sit in Shepherds Bush in West London , and the college really having no social life, it meant that all my efforts went into learning with the result that after three years I came out top of my class. This opened a door from a top company in the city who headhunted the top of the class every year and thus opened up experience at a level I could never have dreamed of.
Now that was one little block of my life but that led on to another block which was terminated by circumstances. I have changed my career (not just job) four times in my life and every time I took a third drop in salary (initially at least) but a tremendous improvement in quality of life and standard of living. In every change I look back and see the circumstances and marvel – it HAD to be the hidden hand of God working. And as for the contacts, the people and the circumstances, I look back with wonder and thankfulness!
Now I have taken this time and space to share with you because I suspect that many of us have circumstances like this which if we only looked we might discern the hand of God on our lives.
Now consider Israel . There were in a bad way. They were ruled by judges or in the present case, a priest Eli, it seems, and he's old and on his way out. God had a way of raising up new judges to bless Israel but this next one is going to be different, he is going to be a prophet. So how are you going to get this prophet into the heart of Israel , the priesthood, when he is not of the Levitical family? How will you train him to be one who listens to God and thus speaks God's heart to Israel ?
So then we have Hannah who, it is believed, is stopped conceiving by God. She gets so desperate that she offers God her child as long as she can have one - so He enables her to conceive. In the fullness of time Samuel is born and she gives him into Eli's care to serve Eli – that's probably all she and Eli saw in it. So here we have the circumstances that result in this child being deposited with Eli where he will be brought up in the vicinity of the Tabernacle. Nothing terribly dramatic in this but we are only part way through the story. All we've seen so far is how Samuel ends up with Eli.
If you want another story of providential circumstances, read Ex 1-3 and see how Moses, a Hebrew, ends up as a Prince of Egypt – but then fleeing for his life he becomes a shepherd for the next forty years of his life. He too had three ‘careers', first as Prince of Egypt, second as a shepherd in the backside of the desert and then as a champion who brings down Pharaoh and leads out of Egypt a whole nation who he oversees for the next forty years. If you want another providential story, go backwards from Moses and observe the life of Joseph. Amazing!
Again and again we find these stories of significant people chosen by God and whose circumstances are amazing. Later in this book there will be David a shepherd boy chosen by God to be king. We never quite see the hand of God in these stories but it defies the intellect to just write them all off as coincidences.
Can we become a people who learn to discern the hand of God behind the circumstances of our personal histories or even that of the nations? Yes, the Father is working to bring people to Himself but if that's all you think He is doing when Jesus said, “ My Father is always at his work to this very day,” (Jn 5:17) then think again. In this context ponder on Paul's words: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:11,12) and link that with Rev 5 where the Lamb is given the scroll for the role of overseeing the end times. WE are people of significance because God is working blessing into our lives because we are His children (Rom 8:28). We may not be aware of it most of the time, but He is there and He is working. Hallelujah!
Meditations in 1 Samuel 6. The Glory of God
1 Sam 2:1 Then Hannah prayed and said: "My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.
It is interesting that we often speak of the glory of God which refers to His manifest greatness and wonder and the Bible does clearly speak of Him as one who is infinitely great and absolutely wonderful, and sometimes that revelation comes out in scenes of revelation – such as Ezekiel's or Isaiah's or John's revelation of things in heaven and especially God – but often these things come through songs of revelation, when a person is being inspired to sing about God and as they do so revelation comes. Truth and revelation often come through a heart of praise.
So as we come into chapter 2, we find Hannah praying what is tantamount to a song of praise. She rejoices in the Lord because the Lord has exalted her for He has delivered her from childlessness (v.1). When she says she boasts she may be meaning that she now calls out the truth that has exalted her over her adversary who has chided her for so many years, because now she can say (which her adversary cannot) God has specifically blessed her with her child. That surely is all that is there behind verse 1.
But she quickly moves away from herself to the Lord: “ There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (v.2) He is unique, there is no other who is like Him in being (holy) or who comforts and supports us like He does (our Rock). But then she turns back to her adversary who has been chiding her for years, perhaps taunting her that God is against her: “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance.” (v.3a) You don't know what you are talking about, for you are talking about God: “for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.” (v.3b) He see and hears what you say and He judges all things.
Then she compares the two of them to two opposing warriors (for it had seemed like an ongoing battle): “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.” (v.4) Her adversary had appeared strong for so long, firing barbed arrows of malice at her, but now her bow is broken, so to speak, for she no longer has anything to say, and although Hannah had stumbled all those years, now the Lord has blessed her and she is strong.
In a parallelism she speaks of “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.” (v.5a) Her adversary had, for years, appeared full of herself in her position as a mother but now Hannah appears as the one blessed of God and no doubt giving joy to her husband, so now it is her adversary who feels second class suddenly, and Hannah who had hungered for a child, hungers no more for, she declares, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (v.5b) Now whether this was written down after she had had other children or is just poetic exaggeration, we don't know but their roles have been reversed, now that Hannah is the one bringing joy to their husband.
Then comes the revelation about God: “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.” (v.6) He is a life-bringer, He is the one with power over life and death. “The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.” (v.7) The Lord oversees the affairs of mankind and can bring affluence when He wants. He can exalt or humble people, He is God! It seems He cares especially for the poor, needy and downtrodden: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (v.8) You may be one of the downtrodden but the Lord can lift you up. Hannah knows for He has done it for her!
Suddenly her vision enlarges and she sees the Lord for who He truly is: “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD's; upon them he has set the world.” (v.8) This one she had been singing about in her spirit is the Creator and Sustainer of this world – God Almighty, all-powerful. But He's not the one the deist thinks about, a God who made it all but now sits at a distance, indifferent to all that happens on this planet: “He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.” (v.9a) No, He is a God of justice who intervenes in the affairs of this world to preserve His children and deal with the wicked. No, she says, when you look at unjust and unfair situations and long to bring change, “It is not by strength that one prevails;” (9b) for “those who oppose the LORD will be shattered.” (v.10a) No, we may not be able to deliver ourselves from such situations and so we must leave it to Him knowing that He will deal with those who oppose Him and who oppose us.
Yes the Lord will come bringing justice, “He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.” (v.10b) Negatively He will thunder against the unjust from heaven and, positively, “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (v.10c) Yes, His anointed one will come in due season to deal with these things.
What a transformation! For years she had been the downtrodden one at the mercy of the barbed tongue of ‘the other woman', but now the Lord has come and changed her, enabled her to conceive and have a son, and now her spirit soars in a peal of praise and she sees the Lord as the one who does not stand afar off, a distant Creator of the World, but as the one who draws near and delivers those who cry out to Him. Hallelujah!
Meditations in 1 Samuel 7. Accountable to God
1 Sam 2:12 Eli's sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD.
There is a mentality, a way of thinking, that believes that actions don't have consequences. It is of course deception for it is not true. Everything we say of do has consequences. When we say good things we bless other people and they may be changed in a small way at least for good. When we say bad things to people they get upset and from the likes of this feuds are created. These are just simple examples of a principle. But so far we have taken this principle in an almost mechanistic way, and indeed that is how God has made things. An oppressive very hot summer day can cause thunder storms. If we fail to maintain our garden weeds will grow. That is just how the world works and we are part of it.
But this ignores the presence of God and the fact that God does intervene in the affairs of mankind. The apostle Paul taught the Galatians, “ Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7,8) God is seen there as the force who brings life or death and this as a consequence of man's actions.
Now before we move on we should note something about the judgment of God. I have written a book entitled “The Judgments of a Loving God” in which I examine in detail the character of God and the ways God works through judgments. Here I will simply say that it is quite clear from the scriptural record that death as a judgment is God's last option; it is not what He wants. Most of the time the record shows that His intent is to bring discipline to bring change to mankind but where He sees that this man or men will not change, then He will bring a terminal judgment, i.e. death.
Another point that should be made is that very often God waits and waits and waits to give opportunity for repentance, even as the apostle Peter said, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) These are crucial things we should always remember whenever we start talking about accountability and specifically God's judgment.
Thus we arrive at the account of the affair of Eli's two sons. Without going into the detail, these two men acting as priests were abusing their position (see 1 Sam 2:13-17) so much so that we read, “This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD's sight, for they were treating the LORD's offering with contempt.” (v.17) From the verses that follow, time clearly passes and these two men continue in their bad behaviour and we even read, “Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (v.22) The priesthood was thus becoming a mockery.
Now Eli did try remonstrating with them but, “His sons, however, did not listen to their father's rebuke, for it was the LORD's will to put them to death.” (v.25) i.e. it had got so bad the Lord no longer made great efforts to change them for He knew they were set in their ways. But having said that, He does give Eli a further chance to repent and remove his sons from the priesthood because He sends a young prophet to challenge him with the truth and even gives warnings in great detail: “what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you--they will both die on the same day.” (v.34)
But that wasn't it. In the episode where Samuel learns to hear the Lord, the Lord conveys to Samuel (which he passes on the Eli), “I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them.” (1 Sam 3:13) so yet again Eli is being challenged and given a further opportunity to deal with his sons – but he fails to do that!
As we progress the story we will see that circumstances arise whereby the ark of the Lord, accompanied by the two sons, is taken into battle and lost to the Philistines and the two sons killed by the Philistines. But look at the dynamics of this episode:
As Paul said, “God cannot be mocked, ” and as Peter explained, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” We would do well to remember these things.
Meditations in 1 Samuel 8. Lack of revelation
1 Sam 3:1-4 The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel.
I find this particular passage one of the most poignantly symbolic passages of the Old Testament. The setting, as we have recently observed, is that the young boy Samuel has been left by his mother in the care and under the instruction of Eli the chief priest. We have just pondered on the whole business of the two sons of Eli who are abusing their positions as under-priests and Eli's failure to do anything about it. From that we might rightly assume that those in charge of the nation of Israel at this time were not in a good spiritual state. Now look at the words that pile up in these verses above that speak to this situation.
First, “the word of the Lord was rare” Now I have a horrible feeling that most Christians when looking at these words take them for granted but they bring a tremendous assumption to the people of God – that God is a communicator and that He speaks on a regular basis to His people. Now we are going to think more deeply about this in the next meditation but for the moment can we note this assumption, that the expectancy is for God to speak on a regular basis – but at this time He wasn't or perhaps, to be more accurate maybe, there was no one with an ear open to Him, to hear His words. What an awful picture that would be – God speaking to His people Israel and no one taking a blind bit of notice about it, no one hearing, no one responding, a spiritually static people. How terrible! Are we different today?
But then it is repeated but in another way: “ there were not many visions”. Visions are simply one of the ways that God speaks to His people and thus for our era Joel being quoted on the Day of Pentecost said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) Prophecy, dreams and visions, all ways God communicates with His people in every age.
Who has visions? Those with eyes to see. Of course we mean spiritual eyes which makes the next words so poignant: “ Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see.” Yes, that is physical but actually it also describes exactly what he was like spiritually: he could barely see because he had allowed his spiritual vision to become clouded by old age. We aren't told any other reason for it and it that is so, how sad: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree …… They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, "The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 92:12,14,15) That is the challenge for those of us in older years.
But it gets worse for it continues about Eli that he “was lying down in his usual place.” Again, now this is a physical description but again it describes his spiritual state. The call is to “Stand!” (Eph 6:11,14) not to be lying down spiritually. You lie down when are going to sleep and sleep is the way of the sluggard, the lazy person (Prov 6:9), or the person who has given up. Spiritually Eli has given up. He still knows what is right and what is wrong but when it comes to his sons, he just hasn't got the spiritual energy to bring the changes that are needed, he is lying down on the job. “in his usual place”. Yes, again it is physical but also true spiritually; he is in the same old place he always is in, spiritually indifferent or spiritually impotent, and so nothing changes.
Then we find a word of hope: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out,” Yes, yet again it refers to a physical lamp, probably the lamp-stand in the Tabernacle, but spiritually it was true as well. God had not been pushed out of this situation and He had not left Israel (as we see in Ezekiel where the glory of the Lord was seen to be moving in stages away from its place in the Temple in Jerusalem, as a warning of what was about to happen to Jerusalem). There is a glimmer of hope yet in this situation. What was it? “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.” Yes, the young boy was there. Yes, he was lying down reminding us that as yet he had not moved into a position of spiritual ministry for he hasn't yet had his encounter with the Lord (that is coming next) – but he IS in the right place, he is there in the Tabernacle which was where, in the inner place, the ark resided, the ark that represented the presence of God.
This is why all that talk about the providence of God was so important. If change is to come about in Israel , it will happen when someone in the leadership gets in contact with God, listens and then obeys. Where are they most likely to make contact with God? Where He resides – in the tabernacle. Samuel is in the right place and so very soon God is going to initiate the contact and it will all change, the leadership will change from a blind, inactive, ineffective, worldly and dissolute leadership, to one that is holy, one that hears from God and is able to impact the nation accordingly. Now I believe that is all so clear that I really don't have to labour the point. How is your spiritual leadership?
Meditations in 1 Samuel 9. Would we know God's voice?
1 Sam 3:6-9 "My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.' "
We arrive at what must one of the strangest little cameos on the Old Testament where young Samuel starts ‘hearing voices' in the middle of the night or, to be precise, one voice. He assumes it is old Eli for he's the only one in the vicinity but Eli denies it and so Samuel goes back to bed. When this happens for the third time Eli realises there is something going on here and it must be God, so he tells Samuel to reply to the Lord when he next hears the voice – which Samuel does do and the Lord speaks on.
Now whether this was a literal audible voice or such a strong impression in Samuel's mind that he virtually ‘hears' it, we don't know. Both are possibilities. The challenge to some of us is, do you believe God still speaks today? This is not God adding to Scripture but God speaking into your life about your life. Do some of us think, “Well Samuel was a special case, he was a prophet,” and there is a certain amount of truth about that but why should we think that a God who speaks throughout the entire Bible should no longer speak to His children today? Isn't communication likely to be the very main thing that a loving Father will do with His children?
Well, yes, you may say, that's what the Bible is surely? Indeed it is. It is His general communication. Do you also have the experience where there have been times when a verse seems to leap out to you and be especially meaningful? That is His specific communication. Have you ever had the situation where you have say three options before you but just one of them seems to stand out and feels the right one? That again is His specific communication.
Suppose it is not the audible voice of God you hear (because it seems the audible voice is rare and saved for major crisis or major calling situations) and you are left with the strong voice in your head? How do you feel about that? It takes faith to believe. Can I share some stories with you they are all true and without exaggeration.
The first one occurs when I am still a young Christian and am now a father for the first time. One day my baby daughter was in her crib upstairs and I crept upstairs to gaze in wonder on her. As I looked at her I seemed to ‘hear' a thought in my mind that seemed to come from nowhere: “What do you think of her?” Perhaps He was giving me help but I thought, “Oh, my goodness, is that God?” and so I ‘thought back', “She's wonderful, Lord.” Back came the strange question, “What does she do?” I thought for a moment and thought back, “Well I suppose she cries a lot, she keeps us up in the night, she constantly wants feeding it seems and she needs her nappies changing all the time.” “And what do you feel about her,” came back. “I love her, Lord,” I responded. “Why?” came back the next question and I responded without thought, “Because she's mine, Lord.” Back came, “And that's why I love you son. Because you are mine,” and with that I realised that He loved me with all my faults even more than I loved my demanding daughter.
I went through a series of lessons on listening it seemed in those early days. At that time I had to take a fifteen minute bus ride to catch my train to London every day. One day I got on the bus, went upstairs and sat down and immediately I got that same imposing thought in my mind, “You will catch your train.” That's odd, I thought, of course I'll catch it, this bus always has at least five minutes to spare before the next train is due, and so pushed the thought away. After a few minutes I assume the bus driver thought he must be ahead of schedule because he remained stationary at the next bus stop. I looked at my watch. Yes, well, we're just about OK, but it would be helpful if you got a move on. The thought came back with insistence, “You will catch your train!” Hmm. The driver started up and off we went, but he stopped and paused yet again at the next stop. Oh, come on, this is getting silly. Get a move on we are on the edge of me missing my train. “No, you WILL catch your train.” For the remainder of the journey he crawled along and I gave up hope of catching the train when we arrived at the station five minutes after the train time and so I slowly wandered in to the station with a quarter of an hour before the next train was due. Except when I got on the platform there still seemed a lot of people there and a voice came over the loudspeaker, “The 7.48 train for London is running seven minutes late and will be arriving shortly. I caught the train.
Now I could probably tell you literally dozens of similar stories in a variety of contexts that have involved not merely me learning to listen but specific guidance or direction. If this surprises you, that is a shame because it means in your thinking you limit our God. Please, I am not special. I have been a church leader and some of the guidance has been in respect of times of stepping out in faith, but that is what it is all about isn't it?
If you think it is only prophets in the Bible that God speaks to think again. Consider little Ananias in Acts 9, an ordinary disciple: “ In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered. The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." "Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem . And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel .” (Acts 9:10-15)
There is a beautiful song and mime routine called “Sitting in the window praying”, that is based on that – although we don't know for a fact that Ananias was praying when he gets this vision. What is fun about it is how he argues with the Lord, and yet he is so convinced by the experience that he goes and ministers to Saul. Just an ordinary disciple! What will it take for you to become a listener (and hearer) of God? In each of the three examples here today – Samuel, me, Ananias – we all responded like little children in faith to what we thought we were hearing. Dare to start being a listener? Ask Him to open your ears to hear.