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.
And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore.
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 thee shall no razor come upon his head.
If there was a point of transition during the period of the judges when the spiritual life of Israel having reached its low began to revive, it was during the lifetime of Samson. There can be little question but that at the beginning of Samson’s labors the spiritual life of Israel had reached an extremely low level. This was evident from the life of Samson itself; for, although he was judge and a spiritual leader in Israel, Samson was enough a child of his day to shock our sense of propriety even to this day. And even more was it evident from the fact that when Samson went out to seek occasion against the Philistines and so to fight against Israel’s enemies, the people of Israel were offended. They turned against Samson themselves and sought to deliver him into the hands of the Philistines. Israel did not want a deliverer. They were satisfied to live in subjection to the heathen if they could have peace at that price. Gradually, however, through the lifetime of Samson, this began to change. The people received Samson as their judge and began to recognize the Philistines as being their enemy. They began to draw closer to their God.
At the same time during which Samson lived, there was also another judge laboring in Israel. He, like Samson, was a man about whom we are apt to hold some serious reservations; but he also fit into his place according to the counsel of God for the revival of spiritual life in Israel. The man was Eli. He was a high priest serving in the tabernacle at Shiloh, but at the same time he served as a judge over the people. To him the people would come with their spiritual problems and disputes for him to judge and counsel them. Eli was a good man, and his counsel was usually good. The difficulty was that he lacked the strength to insist upon and enforce those things which he knew to be right. His own sons were the chief example of this. They were evil men, and serving as priests in the temple they did countless evil things which dishonored the name of God. Eli knew this and reproved them for it; but when they refused to listen, he did nothing more about it. This was generally true of all of Eli’s efforts. He was a kind and gentle man and could be very understanding and helpful to those who sought his aid. But it was an evil day when the need of Israel was for a man of strength who could stand for and enforce the righteousness of the law. Such leadership Eli could not supply.
Actually the importance of Eli’s life was not so much in what he himself did; it was rather in the part he played in the life of the greater judge that followed him, Samuel. It was he that brought the very different works of Samson and Eli to their completion.
The history of Samuel begins with Elkanah his father. Elkanah was a Levite who lived in the town of Ramathaim-zophim, otherwise called Ramah. Elkanah was a God-fearing man, one of the few in that day who came down regularly to the tabernacle at Shiloh to worship. Although he was a Levite, it does not appear that he was called upon to serve in the tabernacle at regular intervals as the law prescribed. The tabernacle just was not that busy a place to need a great number to help in its functions. Eli and his family lived a quiet, unhurried life at Shiloh, and only a few like Elkanah came with any great regularity to sacrifice and worship there.
In the life of Elkanah, however, there was one great scar that festered. Elkanah was a bigamist, he had two wives. This had come about, perhaps, when after his first marriage to Hannah, the woman whom he loved, they had not received any children. For them this had been a cause for very real concern, for without any children their name and place in the covenant nation of Israel would eventually be cut off. To Elkanah there appeared to be one very reasonable solution, he married another wife, Peninnah. Soon there were children; but the scar remained to cut deep into the life of his home. As is inevitable with bigamy, his family became divided. In the first place, Elkanah loved Hannah and not Peninnah. The love of husband for his wife is not something that can be divided and shared. The result was that the two women were set over against each other with jealousy and hatred. On the one hand, Peninnah felt very deeply that Elkanah did not love her as he did Hannah; so she became very embittered toward Hannah and did her utmost to hurt her. On the other hand, Hannah felt even more than before the hurt of being without a child of her own in Israel. Neither was it any longer possible for Elkanah to share this sorrow with her as he had before. Formerly Elkanah and Hannah had grieved for their lack of children; but they had shared their grief together in a love that was deep and full. Now this was no longer possible. The fact was that Elkanah no longer felt this sorrow and could not share it with Hannah. He tried to comfort her but to no avail. She only felt the more how much she was really alone in her own home.
It was finally one year as Elkanah was taking his family to worship the Lord in the tabernacle at Shiloh that these tensions came to a head. Ordinarily this should have been a very joyful occasion. It had been in the years before Peninnah had been joined to the family; but now it was no longer. It seemed to provide opportunity as at no other time to bring all of the bitterness that divided the two women out into the open. By this time Peninnah had received a goodly number of children, both sons and daughters, and she was not one to let Hannah forget it. She knew that Hannah was a deeply religious woman, and she never neglected to let Hannah know that it was considered a curse in Israel for a woman to be left without children. The words of Peninnah cut deeply into Hannah’s heart, and she did not have the courage to answer back. She felt that it was a curse indeed that she bore until she finally began to blame the Lord for the injustice of it all. But that did not help; it only hurt her the more and added to her grief.
Neither was Elkanah unaware of what it was that was happening. He knew full well how cutting Peninnah’s remarks could be and how deeply Hannah was affected by them. For many years now their annual trips to Shiloh had been rent with discord because of them; but Elkanah’s reaction was far from helping the situation any. He only tried to counteract the bitter barbs of Peninnah with special acts of favoritism for Hannah. Elkanah’s love and sympathy was with Hannah, and he did not try to hide it. This he did very particularly at the meal which customarily accompanied the sacrifices at the tabernacle. This was the high point of the visit to Shiloh. To each member of the family was given a generous portion of meat from the flesh of the free-will offering which was brought to the altar. At that point Elkanah could not resist the temptation to humiliate Peninnah and show his favoritism for Hannah by giving to Hannah a portion double that received by all the others. But Peninnah was not one to be so easily squelched. She continued to drive her barbs home until Hannah was too upset to eat anything else. So it was that the sacrificial meal, meant to be a most joyful occasion, was broken apart in bitter division. It was the fruits of bigamy for Elkanah.
With Hannah in tears, the sacrificial meal was ruined. Vainly Elkanah sought to comfort her as they went off together. “Hannah,” he said, “Why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?” They were very poorly put words for comfort. They only reflected how little Elkanah really understood Hannah anymore. Once he had known that Hannah’s sorrow was essentially a spiritual matter; but now that he had children of his own through Peninnah, he no longer shared the loneliness that Hannah felt in Israel without the blessing of a child. Elkanah’s words only made her hurting deeper.
Thus it was that Hannah was finally driven to the only place where she could go any longer for consolation, to the Lord in prayer. Alone she went to the very veil of the tabernacle and bowed herself in prayer before God. From her heart poured forth the anguish of years brought to a head by the cruel taunts of Peninnah. We have recorded for us the principal thought of what she said. “O Lord of hosts,” she prayed, “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 razor come upon his head.” In this it was quite evident wherein Hannah’s chief concern was to be found. She did not wish for a child merely for her own satisfaction, a child which she might hold and call her own, over against Peninnah, a child to be with her as she grew older as a comfort and a consolation. This she was willing to sacrifice. What she desired was that she too might be a mother in Israel to bring forth a son and a family unto the service of God. She recognized the promise to Israel that it would be the people of God forever to live unto the glory of its Maker. She as a mother in Israel wished to have her part in the fulfillment of that promise. This she made completely evident by promising to give her child, if God would grant her one, to be a Nazarite separated unto the service of God all the days of his life.
While Hannah prayed, thinking she was alone, Eli was sitting close by on a seat by the tabernacle. Those were quiet days in Shiloh; not many came to worship before the Lord, and the priests were not busy. Even more, when people did come, it was mostly to find in the sacrificial meal an occasion for festivity with excesses of eating and drinking. The one thing hardly to be expected any longer was to find people at the tabernacle earnestly concerned with presenting the concerns of their souls unto the Lord. Thus when Eli observed Hannah submersed in prayer, anguish of spirit written across her face, with her lips moving while no sound came forth from her lips, he quickly concluded that she was a woman overcome with excess of drinking. In’ his mild way, he thought to reprove her and said, “How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee.”
But Hannah had not been drinking, and her answer made this quickly evident. “No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto.”
Eli was touched by compassion for this woman in her sorrow, and the answer he gave was to Hannah as a pronouncement of God. “Go in peace:” he said, “And the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.” With it her sorrow was banished.