A reflection on 1 Samuel 1-2
Perhaps you are like Hannah in the story at the beginning of 1 Samuel: someone living in despair, so sick with the troubles of life that you barely muster the strength to go on—and nobody knows it, except God, who seems to be silent despite your prayers. Nonetheless, somehow you end up at another worship service, waiting among God’s people for God to respond to your cries.
You are Hannah: in a state of tormented patience, overwhelmed with prayers of anguish, longing for God’s favor to flow like a waterfall, crashing over you, surrounding you, bathing you in a pool of love and grace.
In the story, Hannah is so sick with despair that she cannot eat. From all appearances, God seems to have abandoned her a long time ago, yet she still goes up to the Temple in Jerusalem. Year after year, Hannah returns to the Temple to worship God, even though God answers her cries with silence.
In the darkness of despair, the rituals of faith keep alive her life with God. Hannah goes on, with enduring patience, trusting in God’s love even though she hasn’t seen the evidence that would lead her to assume that God actually cares about her life. “O Lord Almighty,” Hannah prays, “look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and [do] not forget me” (1 Samuel 1:11).
With each prayer, with each visit to the Temple, Hannah draws closer to God. She is drawn into the intimacy of silence where, as the Syrian monk Pseudo-Dionysius wrote in the sixth century, “the mysteries of God’s Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.”
As she returns again and again to the silence, God cannot forget her. God gives her a son—a child as a gift, not a possession. Gifts from God are meant to be shared, so Hannah gives her child to the priest, surrendering Samuel to God’s work for the people: “As long as he lives,” she says, “he is given to the Lord” (v. 28).
As waves of profound gratitude and deep heartache wash over her, Hannah prays, “I delight in your deliverance” (2:1). As our Bibles share her prayer with us, we are invited into her delight in God’s work of redemption. Hannah’s prayer summons us to rejoice in the God who promises to change the distribution of power in the world: “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more” (v. 4). Hannah, this one who knows God’s love, describes God as the one who delivers the lowly from the forces that keep them on the underside of society. “God raises the poor from the dust,” she declares, “and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (v. 8). As the Dominican preacher Herbert McCabe puts it, “We have to recognize that the only God we know is the God of the poor, the God who takes sides.” That God takes sides is a great scandal of the biblical story. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” God says to Israel, “out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 5:6). The God revealed to us in the Bible is the God of the oppressed, the God who chooses the enslaved people of Israel “out of all the people on the earth,” not Egypt (14:2). When it comes to oppression, God is not neutral. God doesn’t straddle the fence.
According to Hannah’s prayer, when God’s love flows into the world, the central focus is the poor—the hungry and the lowly. Hannah speaks from personal experience, for God has looked with favor upon her, a humiliated member of her community. Being humble is not a virtue that Hannah chooses; her pursuit of humility has nothing to do with a desire to please God. Instead, she is humble because she is humiliated by her barrenness. She learns humility not as a result of her will but because she has been humiliated through no fault of her own. Yet, as she is overwhelmed with humiliation, Hannah discovers that God is moved by a profound love for the humiliated, for her—and not just for her but for all who are lowly: “God raises the poor from the dust,” she prays, “and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” She speaks of what she knows, a personal knowledge of God’s love for the humbled, for the poor and hungry.
Hannah bears witness to what God’s love looks like in our world. God’s love flows like a waterfall: the river of God’s eternal life gushes over the rocks at the very top, splashing God’s presence everywhere as the water finally pools at the bottom. Like a waterfall, the love of God is indiscriminate, soaking everyone on the way down. Yet the direction matters: God’s love is drawn to the low places; that’s where God’s presence forms pools of healing and grace. Baptism is an invitation into these waters, into the river of life, the life of God in the world. The Christian life involves getting caught up in this flow of grace as God’s presence rushes through and around us, as we find ourselves with people like Hannah, who face their enemies alone because their friends and communities have abandoned them.
The good news according to the story of Hannah is that God does answer, although God seems to take longer than we think we can bear. In the meantime, we pray with Hannah: O Lord Almighty, look upon our misery and remember us and do not forget us.
Isaac S. Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. This reflection is an edited version of a sermon Isaac preached at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, in 2010 for the congregation’s annual spiritual renewal weekend.