We begin a new series today, in the first three chapters of 1 Samuel.
As humans, we have an inbuilt desire to connect our own, personal story to a much larger story. To see where it is that we fit. To understand how the narrative of my life finds its place amongst the life of my family, my community, and my world.
It’s why some people are so passionate about tracing their family tree. It’s why many children who are adopted seek out their birth parents. It’s why we bother learning history at school. We’re fuelled by a need to see in some way where our story fits into a much bigger story.
Over 40% of the OT is story. And not just ‘big picture’ stories like the Flood, which happened to the whole world. Or the Exodus, which happened to the whole people of Israel. There are hundreds of little stories about individual people. Some of them were significant figures in human terms, like Samuel and King David. Others are almost as insignificant as you can get – like Ruth and Boaz, Rahab the prostitute, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel.
But all those little stories are there because they connect in some way to a much bigger story. To God’s big story. All the other little stories in the Bible are there because they are part of God’s bigger story: what he’s been up to throughout human history; what he did through the life, death, and resurrection of his son Jesus. And what he’s doing right now in you and me, and all of his people scattered throughout the world.
So how does our story fit into God’s big story? That’s what we’re going to be asking over the next four days.
The story of Hannah: God cares about individuals
The first story we’re going to look at is the story of Hannah, in 1 Sam chapter 1. I’m going to ask you to read it in a moment. But as you hear the story, keep in mind that in those days there was an even greater expectation placed on women to have children. Pressure firstly to produce an heir – a son who would carry on the family line. And secondly, the more practical necessity of having children to provide for you in your old age. Added to that pressure was shame factor in not to be able to have children. It was presumed you must have done something wrong to deserve that kind of punishment. Keep that in mind as you listen to Hannah’s story.
1 Samuel 1:1-20 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. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 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. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”
15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
18 She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
Why is this story in the Bible?
Well there’s a number of reasons, but at its most basic level, this is simply a story about God being kind to someone. He’s having compassion on a woman who cries out for help. She desperately wants a child; and not just a child, but to be rehabilitated in the eyes of a society that valued women for the most part on their ability to provide children. So God had compassion on her, and gave her what she asked for.
Even though the book of Samuel is about to go on and detail far more significant events in the course of world history – even though it chronicles the rise of Israel’s greatest king; even though it describes the forging of God’s people into a true nation; even though it foreshadows the family line of Jesus, the Messiah – despite all that, the book opens with the story of one woman, who cries out to God. And he hears her. Why?
God cares about more than just ‘the world’ in general. He cares about us as individuals.
I think this is something we can often gloss over, even forget. Particularly if we’re trying to guard against a human-centred gospel; against an individualistic gospel; against a picture of God that makes him into nothing more than our own personal genie. In doing this, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that God does indeed love and care for us as individuals, on a personal level.
We can get so caught up in proclaiming ‘for God so loved the world’ that we ignore something that’s equally true. For God so loved Tim that he gave his only Son. For God so loved each one of you reading this.
Say it to yourself now. Remind yourself that it’s true. ‘For God so loved me that he gave his only Son, that if I believe in him I will not perish but have eternal life.’
And not only eternal life in the future. But life of an eternal quality, life in abundance now. God cares supremely about your eternal salvation. But he also cares about all the other concerns in your life, too. Like he did with Hannah, he hears your cries. He remembers you in his mercy. Although he doesn’t grant your every request – that would make him nothing more than your personal genie – although he doesn’t give you everything you ask for, nonetheless he cares for you as an individual. He is a personal God who relates not just to ‘the world’ in the abstract, but to individual people. People like us.