Unfulfilled expectations are the cause of much sorrow and sadness. I was thinking about our son Noah recently and how the COVID-19 crisis ended our expectation of seeing him walk in a graduation at Bible college (which would have been May 2). It would have been a great moment in our lives, but it’s gone now.
As we think about mothers today, I wonder how many mothers have had unfulfilled expectations about motherhood. Maybe it’s harder than you thought it would be.
The sleepless nights…the incessant demands of a baby…the challenge of older children not obeying. There are many ways that mothers could have expectations that aren’t fulfilled.
Motherhood itself is another expectation that, if unfulfilled, causes some women grief and sadness. Why hasn’t the Lord given me children? I am so ready! I would make a good mom!
That brings us to the account of Hannah—a barren woman who suffered great sadness. But she found fulfillment in the Lord. Turn to 1 Samuel 1.
THE VOICES THAT HANNAH HEARD
I don’t mean that Hannah was hearing voices in her head, only that there were people in her life that were telling her things.
1 Samuel 1:1 NOW there was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim [ram-uh-thay-im-zoh-phim, or Ramah for short, verse 19], of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah [el-kay-nun], the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite:
1 Samuel 1:2 And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah [pen-nin-uh]: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
First, we see that Hannah was in a polygamist marriage. Let me stop here and say that this is one of the issues that unbelievers try to knock Christians down with.
They will say, “Hey, look, in your Bible—it was okay to have multiple wives…and now you Christians don’t do that anymore. You aren’t following the Bible like you say you do.”
But in every account of polygamy in the Bible—like here—it was a problem. It caused misery. The Bible is only presenting what was a cultural norm in those days—it doesn’t endorse it.
God’s design is clearly one man and one woman making one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Anyone who says that the Bible says polygamy is fine isn’t reading the Bible correctly.
“Hannah had no children.” I can’t imagine what it is like for a woman to struggle with this issue—Hannah must have all sorts of feelings regarding this. But it was made much worse by one of the voices that she heard.
The Voice Of Peninnah
In Hannah’s polygamist marriage, the second wife (whom Elkanah most likely married because Hannah was barren and could not have children) was a constant pain to her.
1 Samuel 1:6 And her adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb.
You can just hear Peninnah at the supper table. “Do all my children have enough to eat? Oh my, there are so many of you! The Lord has blessed me so! Arrows in my quiver and all that. And you know what, Hannah, I almost forget to mention it to you—I’ll need a break from some of the chores for awhile because, well, I know you’ll be happy to hear that I am pregnant again!”
Well, you can imagine how this made Hannah’s pain much worse. But Peninnah was really only reflecting the voice of their culture’s expectations of women. In that culture…
1) Children Were An Economic Asset
In our culture, children are an economic liability. Everyone thinks, “Can we afford to have a baby? Can we afford to raise a child? Can we afford to send them to college?” Our culture sees having many children as selfish and showing a lack of control and concern for the environment, world’s population, and so forth.
But in Hannah’s culture, it was a benefit to have children. Children were money. The more children you had, the more fields you could plow, seed, and harvest. The more children you had, the more stuff you could make in your shop because you could train them to work.
Hannah produced no children, so Elkanah was forced to bring in another wife to have children. Can you imagine the sense of failure Hannah must have felt?
Also, in that culture…
2) Children Were Personal And National Security
Today the government takes care of our security. When you retire, there’s social security. There’s Medicare. There are stimulus checks. There are other programs. And despite our complaints about how they fail in certain regards, they are still something.
In Hannah’s day, social security was your children. Period. There would be no government check in the mail when you retired, when you were sick, or when a famine hit. Having children provided personal security.
And having children was also good for the nation’s security. The more people working, the more taxes a nation could raise.
This was also an age when nations regularly conquered other nations. It was almost a seasonal thing—“Well, the fields are planted, let’s go conquer a country or two before harvest time!” Nations needed mothers to have children because they needed a military to protect them.
This is what I want you to see: Hannah’s sorrow was much greater than the unfulfilled desire of a woman wanting a baby. Her sorrow was that she was not fulfilling her culture’s expectations. She was a failure.
Every culture has expectations for women (and men). Our culture has its own Peninnah’s who taunt those who are not living up. What are some of the culture’s expectations for women here in America?
Many of the expectations have to do with looks and clothes. Peninnah (in the form of advertising or movies or worldly coworkers) says to women, especially young girls, “You must look like this…these clothes are the cool clothes…look as sexy as you can.”
Our culture wants women to downplay the privilege of motherhood. The cultural Peninnah says, “Wait until you are much older to have children…don’t have children…if you get pregnant, abort the baby because it’s an economic liability or it may stunt your career.”
Are you hearing the voice of Peninnah in the culture? Do you recognize the ways that culture is trying you draw you in to its own expectations?
I don’t think most people really recognize how the culture speaks to them. It’s so immersive and subtle. Please learn to hear culture’s voice, so that you can ignore it!
The Voice Of Elkanah
Hannah wasn’t just hearing the voice of Peninnah, she was also hearing the voice of her husband.
1 Samuel 1:3 And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. 1 Samuel 1:4 And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions: 1 Samuel 1:5 But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb.
Elkanah was a good husband to both his wives. He was a good father to his children. He did not neglect any of them in giving to them their portions of the sacrifice.
But Hannah had a special place in his heart. He gives her a special portion of the sacrifice. When she is sad, he tries to comfort her:
1 Samuel 1:8 Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?
What is Elkanah’s voice saying to Hannah? He says that it’s her that he really loves. The other woman is there only because of children, but Hannah has his heart.
This is, of course, a great voice to hear. It’s one that husbands should say to their wives and wives to their husbands. We need to hear voices like this. But at the same time, it’s not the most important voice to hear.
How does Hannah answer these two voices? She doesn’t. It’s significant that nowhere in the narrative does she fight back against Peninnah. Nowhere does she respond to Elkanah and say, “Oh, honey, that means so much to me.” (I am certain it did).
When the Bible leaves out stuff like that, it doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. Yes, Hannah probably had heated words with Peninnah on many occasions. Yes, Hannah probably responded affectionally to her husband’s comfort.
But it’s still significant that the Bible leaves out her responses—it tells us something. What does it tell us? It tells us that Hannah was not going to build her life on the culture’s expectations or on her husband’s love.
She was not going to be dependent on either of those things—that’s not to say her husband’s love won’t be an important part of her life, but it won’t be the basis of her life either.
I read about a woman, a new Christian, who…
…had lived a pretty horrible life because she had been addicted to male affection, so she had needed always to have a man loving her. That meant she would get into abusive relationships and stay in relationships when she should have gotten out and all of that. She had become a Christian…[and sought counseling to help her with this problem}
…She said, “You know, it’s funny. My therapist has said to me, ‘You have depended all of your life for your self-image on male affection (what men think of you), and that’s not good.’ ” Agreed. “What you really need to do is get a career. Then you’ll feel good about yourself because you’re a career person.”
Here’s what she said. She said, “What’s funny is I’ve always been enslaved to men, but the men I’ve been enslaved to were usually enslaved to their careers. I would get all upset depending on whether the man loved me or not. They would get all upset about whether they were making money or how their career was going.” You can say, “You need to be your own person. Go out and have a career.”
“Okay, so I’m…going to be a Wall Street tycoon.” Now you’re enslaved to the stock market… [she listed other career options]
[Then] She said, “I don’t want to be enslaved to any of those. That’s why I became a Christian. I don’t want to give up a typical female ideal and take on a typical male ideal [of having a career] and somehow feel better about myself.” (“Hannah’s Prayer,” in The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2014–2015)
If Hannah had built her life on the affections of her husband, what do you think she would have done with that?
She would have used it as a whip to beat up on Peninnah! “You are only here to have babies—that’s all—I have his heart!”
This is one reason why Jesus says in Luke 14—
26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Hannah understood that her life needed to be built on a love for the Lord God. She understood that the Lord’s voice was the most important voice she could hear.
HANNAH TAKES DECISIVE ACTION
Up to this point, Hannah has been passive. She had her womb closed by the Lord (see verses 5 and 6). She has been taunted by Peninnah. She has been comforted by Elkanah. But now, she acts for herself.
1 Samuel 1:9 So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk. Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD.
You see that she “rose up”? There are Hebrew scholars who think that is more than just a description of what she did—it’s more than she got up from the supper table. They think it’s an idiom.
An idiom is like when we say that someone is “on the ball.” Someone just learning English might think that is literally true—someone is balancing on a ball! We know it just means that someone is doing a good job. We know it is an idiom.
Hebrew scholars say that “Hannah rose up” is an idiom that means that she took decisive action. What was her decisive action?
1 Samuel 1:10 And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore.
Have you noticed how we don’t think of prayer as a decisive action? We say, “Okay, let’s pray about it, but then let’s do something about it.” Hannah’s “let’s do something” is to pray!
The fact that she prays and the prayer that she prays tells us something about Hannah: she has faith in God. What did Hannah pray?
1 Samuel 1:11 And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no rasor come upon his head.
Hannah “vowed a vow”—making a vow was a very serious thing, not to be taken lightly (Ecclesiastes 5:4). I know it looks like it, but Hannah was not someone trying to bargain with God—“Lord, if you get me this good job, I’ll go to church every Sunday.”
Is that Hannah is doing? Is she saying, “Lord, if You give me a child, I’ll make sure he ends up being a pastor”?
No, for at least two reasons:
1) Her Vow Was Unselfish
When people try to bargain with God, they usually offer something that they can do that really wouldn’t require much sacrifice—like going to church or not using bad language anymore. It’s not something that would change their life forever. It’s not something that others would look at them and say, “You are completely nuts!”
Hannah’s vow? The child that she desperately wants to have, she says, “I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life.” This will entail her giving her child away to Eli the priest while he is still a toddler!
1 Samuel 1:22 But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever.
So this wasn’t the type of deal where she promises that the child will go off to Bible college when he’s eighteen. She couldn’t guarantee that anyway—he might have different ideas when he’s eighteen! No, she was going to give this child up when he was weaned—about three years old.
This would remove all her emotional reasons for having a child:
- She would not have a child to show off to her friends.
- She would not have a child to give her security in her old age.
- She would not have a child that would run up to her to give her a hug and show love to her.
This child would not be someone on which she could depend for the fulfillment of her and her culture’s expectations. Everything that would fulfill her as a woman and mother—she gives up!
Another reason that we know she wasn’t bargaining with the Lord is because of what happens afterwards.
2) She Had Peace Afterwards
Eli the priest walks in while she is praying and mistakes her praying for being drunk—it shows how far off the wagon he had fallen. He’s part of a corrupt priesthood. He thinks someone in devout prayer is drunk!
Christians also sometimes have their devotion mistook by unbelievers as being crazy. I still remember the ribbing a Christian boy in my seventh grade homeroom got because he read his Bible during recesses. All through high school, there were false stories spread about him. Only after becoming a Christian myself did I admire his courage and devotion.
1 Samuel 1:17 Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.
I don’t think Eli is giving a word from the Lord here. I think he’s merely shooing a crazy lady away.
1 Samuel 1:18 And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.
When someone tries to make a bargain with the Lord, they don’t have peace until they get what they want. They keep reminding the Lord about the bargain. They keep hoping that tomorrow—or next week—God’s going to do something. But they don’t have peace.
Hannah’s peace came before she got pregnant.
Her peace shows us that she wasn’t bargaining with the Lord…she had prayed and left the situation in His hands. Hannah was no more dependent on being a mother to be fulfilled. She had given that desire to the Lord and had found peace.
More than that, she made her desire to be the Lord Himself. Hannah was saying, “Lord, I’ve always wanted to have a child for me; now I want to have a child for You.” And the Lord, in His will, allowed it to happen—
1 Samuel 1:19 And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her.
That the Lord remembered Hannah doesn’t mean that He has so many people on His mind that He occasionally forgets about someone for a time. The word “remembered,” when it’s applied to God, means that He takes action on someone’s behalf.
When the Bible says that God will not remember our sins (e.g., Hebrews 8:12), it doesn’t mean that He forgets about them. It means that He will not take action against us on account of them.
In Hannah’s case, God took action on her behalf. God remembered her by causing her to conceive:
1 Samuel 1:20 Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD.
What are you finding your fulfillment in? Is it in the cultural expectations of being woman (or a man)? Do you fret about your looks and your clothes more than you should? Are you consumed with your husband or wife? Are you worried about finding a husband or wife? Do you wonder when you will be mother?
These things are not bad desires to have. Motherhood, for a woman, is a wonderful desire to have.
But what we learn from Hannah is that all the other desires that we have must come in line underneath our desire for the Lord. He must be first in our lives.
To the Christian, the Lord Jesus must be our fulfilment. He must be the fulfillment of our desires. He must be our husband or wife. He must be our career. He must be our wealth. He must be our everything.
Most of all, the Lord Jesus must be our righteousness before God. Only because of Him can we stand in God’s presence one day free from sin and condemnation.
Our good works can never be enough to give us access to Heaven, even though that’s what most people in our culture believe—that’s our cultural expectation. Be good and God will accept you.
No, we need to have faith in Jesus Christ. Then His righteousness becomes our righteousness. Then we can enter God’s presence. Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ today?
When we have faith in Jesus Christ, He can be our everything. Do we let Him be everything? Or are we trying to find our fulfillment in the expectations of the culture and others around us?
When you give whatever you think will fulfill you as a person over to Jesus, and seek fulfillment in Him instead, you find freedom.
I am not saying that He will give you a baby (or whatever it is that you desire) like what happened to Hannah…I am saying that if the Lord had never given her a child, Hannah would have still been happy. Why? Because she had finally found her fulfillment in Him.
Have you found your fulfillment in the Lord?