20/20 Vision, Blind Faith, and Prayer

As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.

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The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.

But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.

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Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.

If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV via http://www.biblegateway.com)

This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here:
https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.

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The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.

Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.

When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.

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As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.

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Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.

Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.

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He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.

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In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.

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Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

Five Smooth Stones

God’s ways are not our ways. God often turns our expectations on their heads– choosing Abraham and Sarah to become parents at an advanced age; choosing Moses, reluctant, disgraced, and hot-tempered, to shepherd close to a million refugees across the wilderness; choosing David, young and poorly armed to defeat the mighty giant, Goliath; choosing to send His Messiah as an infant, the son of a teenage girl stranded miles from home in a cattle shed…

Not only that, but God chooses to include cryptic and seemingly random details in many of the stories we read in the Bible. When Abraham and Sarah received news that they would become parents, Sarah laughed. Such a small detail, but God called attention to it, even giving the name Isaac (Laughter) to this promised son. When God called Moses, He didn’t just include the details of the burning bush and the miraculous signs, He chose to include Moses’s excuses and objections, and a curious command to Moses to remove his shoes.

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Recently, I found a short discussion about the “five smooth stones” David used to defeat Goliath. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17%3A26-50&version=MSG Some teachers spend time talking about the number of stones– why five? Did David doubt God’s power and provision? Can we attach significance or apply principles to each stone? But someone commented (I’m sorry, I lost the reference, or I would attach a link) on the fact that the stones were smooth–I’d never really noticed that detail before. David chose five smooth stones from the brook, not five heavy rocks, not sharp-edged stones of flint, not round balls made of iron– five smooth stones. The smooth stones in the brook may seem like a strange choice to us if we are not used to using a sling, but to David, such stones meant greater accuracy and speed. Five such stones would have been about a handful– easy to carry, load, and fire in rapid succession, if necessary.

I would like to suggest that there are some principles here that apply to both prayer and Christian living, especially involving how we can pray for and interact with the “giants” and “enemies” in our lives:

  • First, understand the reality of the “Giant”—Goliath was huge; bigger than any single warrior in Israel. But he wasn’t bigger than God. Goliath was also hampered by his heavy armor, his size, and his arrogance. David was offered armor and weapons similar to Goliath’s, but David’s greatest weapon was his understanding that Goliath was no match for the God of Angel Armies! We often make the mistake of magnifying our enemies. We see their size, their shining armor, and heavy weaponry. We forget that God is the maker of smooth stones!
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  • Second, actions really do speak louder than words. Goliath inspired fear; he taunted the army of Israel. Yet he never landed a blow against David. Goliath scoffed, bullied, and talked a good game, but David paired his words with action. Goliath demanded that David (or any other warrior) “Come down to me..” He had a javelin and a spear, but he never used either one. I find it interesting that many “enemies” of the Church behave the same way. They want to challenge the followers of Christ in debates; they publish books and articles filled with arrogant words, accusations, and complex arguments. It is tempting to respond in kind– to get into a war of words; to match their arrogance with our self-righteous assertions. What if we fought their words with action, instead of spending so much of our time answering and defending ourselves against empty arguments and accusations. We will not “win” any culture wars; we will not “win” the hearts and minds of the next generation; we will not “defend” morality by using bigger, better, or more persuasive words, or by having better armor and sharper weapons than our enemies. We need smooth stones from the brook–small acts of kindness and humility and grace that defy all the logic and brute force of those who trust in their own understanding.
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  • Third, accuracy is better than power. Goliath had one spear–and it was impressive–” His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.” (verse 7). Still, Goliath had a javelin, a sword, and several pounds of armor. David had no armor, one shepherd’s staff, and his sling and five smooth stones. But he only used one stone! It was accurate and true; it was sufficient, and it won the battle! Sin likes to flaunt it’s power–shiny armor, impressive weapons.. But if we are “true”–if we hold fast to the truth and follow the words and example of Jesus Christ–if we are faithful in our everyday walk with Christ, it is sufficient.
    There is an amazing climax in the movie, Star Wars (episode 4, A New Hope), where the young Luke Skywalker is sent with a group of fighters on a seemingly impossible task– destroy the “indestructible” Death Star! There is only one weakness–one small target. Luke’s small fighter plane is old and outdated; he and his fellow soldiers are under attack, and the pressure is on. But Luke’s accurate shot leads to victory. It is a modern retelling of the story of David and Goliath (with several space-age gadgets and extra plot twists).
    How many of our interactions with others get “sidetracked” by anger, envy, bitterness, and pride, to the point that we no longer reflect Christ accurately? How often do we consistently pray to stay “true” to God’s word, rather than praying for more powerful opportunities or platforms?
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  • Fourth, know your strengths and weaknesses (and those of your enemy). David knew that his strength was, first and foremost, in God. And David’s passion for God’s honor gave him focus and commitment beyond all that was found among the skilled soldiers of either side. He knew that fancy weapons and armor could not improve his skill with the sling, and that his skill had been tested in battle before.
    But David also knew better than to aim the stone at Goliaths’s breastplate, shield, or greaves. Goliath’s weakness was in his head! His first weakness was in thinking that his power was enough to defy the God of Israel’s army. But he also left his head unprotected from attack. Some scholars have even suggested that Goliath may have had very poor eyesight– that he was a fierce warrior in hand-to-hand combat, but literally could not see the stone coming at his forehead. Perhaps all his blustering and taunting was, in part, to distract from his very real vulnerability.
    I am reminded that this is also true of many of the “giants” we face. Their weakness is in their head and in their vision–they trust in their own understanding and in human arguments, or in their “vision” of who God is, or “isn’t”, or “should be”. They rely on what they can comprehend and control. They wave their swords and rattle their shields; they have gleaming armor and they “talk a good game”. They have locked away their hearts and bodies, often hiding painful scars and deep hurts.
    Goliath was a giant–but he wasn’t a god. He was once a little boy (or maybe never a “little” boy, but a young boy..). David was a young man (probably in his mid-to-late teens), who was a simple shepherd.
    How do we see ourselves? How do we see others around us? Do we know our weaknesses? Do we see the vulnerability in those who would threaten us?
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  • Last, God’s “weapons” are not like those of the world. Five smooth stones do not look like weapons. In fact, five smooth stones from the brook may have looked charming and harmless and even comforting in David’s hand. Four of those stones may have gone back into the brook, to be polished some more by the current, or carried out to the sea.
    Christ’s followers have armor and weapons, but they are spiritual in nature. We are to put on the “whole armor of God” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+6%3A11-18&version=ESV, including the “sword of the Spirit”, which is the word of God. Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Good News, Faith, Salvation– This is how we prepare for battle! And we are to pray at all times! Imagine dropping the weapons of sarcasm and self-righteous posturing, and picking up a smooth stone of grace!
    God calls us to use unconventional “weapons”– not to kill or destroy those around us, but to demolish lies, tear down walls of hatred, and defend the helpless. Has God placed you in a situation where you need to pick up “five smooth stones” today?

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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Jacob Meets– His Maker

It is fascinating to study the life of Jacob. His story is rich with contradiction and confrontation. But it is also a magnificent story of God’s grace, protection, and redemption.

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Jacob’s relationship with Laban, his uncle/father-in-law, and a man who made Jacob’s lies and duplicity look like child’s play. (See https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/01/jacob-meets-his-match-part-one/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/03/jacob-meets-his-match-part-two/ ). While Jacob learned a lot from this stormy relationship, God was not finished putting Jacob to the test. As Jacob moved his family away from Laban, bringing them to their new home in Canaan, he encountered his estranged brother, Esau. (See https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/06/28/jacob-the-brother-of-esau/). But, just before the encounter, Jacob encountered someone else. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+32%3A22-32&version=ESV He wrestled all night with “a man”, and he refused to let go until he received a blessing. “The man” touched his hip joint, so it was wrenched out of its socket, and gave him a new name, Israel. When Jacob asked the man’s name, he returned with a strange question: “Why do you ask my name?” He never answered Jacob’s question, but he didn’t need to. Jacob acknowledges that he wrestled with God– he met him, spoke to him, and grappled with him face-to-face– and his life was not only spared, but blessed!

I love this story of Jacob, and it gives me a great deal of hope for many reasons:

  • Jacob got a new name. This is significant throughout the entire Bible. Whenever someone gets a new name, it indicates that he/she has a new nature, a new future, a new relationship with God. Jacob was named for all the worst of his character attributes– he literally came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, and his name means “heel-grabber” and “cheat”. But his new name, Israel, turns all of that on its head–Jacob “grabbed” hold of God and would not let go! He “struggled” with God, and God promised to be with him in all his struggles; to protect him, to bless him, to be on his side. When we come to Christ in faith, we may not get a new name, but we get a new nature, and a new relationship with God. Christ promises to be our advocate– he will struggle with us, uphold us, strengthen us, and bless us–all we need to do is grab hold of the grace that is offered!
  • God met with Jacob where he was– literally and figuratively. Sometimes, we meet someone who “struggles”– with every thing and everyone. Jacob had contentious relationships with nearly everyone in his life. He was accused, abused, cheated, hated, passed over, fought over, lied to, and aggravated. God didn’t come to him in glory and splendor– he came and wrestled with Jacob–down and dirty, gritty and unannounced. And when Jacob hung on and kept fighting, God let him. He even “cheated” by putting his hip socket out of joint to end the match. God could have showed up and overwhelmed Jacob with his glorious presence. He could have visited him as he did Abraham–stopping by for a meal and a visit. He could even have appeared in another dream. But he knew Jacob from the inside-out– he knew Jacob’s character and temperament; he knew Jacob’s fears and deepest needs. He grappled with a grappler, twisting and turning in sweaty combat. And when it was over, Jacob KNEW his God. He knew that God would not let go– would not send him away, would not let him sneak away in the middle of the night, would not destroy him. Instead, this God would hold him, struggle WITH him, and bless him afterward. I think we often forget that God is not just Holy and Awesome; he is not just a God who loves in a vague and universal way. God is very personal and intimate. He will engage with our doubts, our fears, our high-spirited, strong-willed natures, and he will embrace us with all the fierceness of death–even death on a cross.
  • God’s timing doesn’t always make sense, but it is always perfect. Jacob was leaving horrible situation, on the eve of a difficult confrontation with his brother, and, ultimately, on a difficult journey to reconciliation with his father. God didn’t need to give Jacob a pep talk, or a list of do’s and don’t’s. He gave him a new name and a new blessing to replace the past hurts and inspire Jacob to build a new life. Jacob was able to face his brother and father with renewed confidence that God would see him through.
  • Finally, it is in this story that God literally becomes “the God of Jacob” in a personal and profound sense. God still longs to be the God of __________”– fill in the blank with your own name! If you have been wrestling with God or against God, or just avoiding God, let this be the day that you receive the blessing of God’s grace. It’s yours for the asking. And likely, it will be less painful than Jacob’s encounter!
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Praying to the God of Jacob

Throughout the Bible there are stories of people –sometimes rather ordinary and even deeply flawed people–who end up in extraordinary and miraculous situations. I spent some time exploring Hannah, and her journey through barrenness and into motherhood. I’d like to go back several generations to look at the intriguing character of Jacob.

(For the story of the early life of Jacob, see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A19-34%2CGenesis+27%3A1-28%3A9&version=NIV )

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Jacob often appears as an adjunct character– son of Isaac, and grandson of the patriarch Abraham, he seems to be something of a mis-step in God’s promise to build a nation and bless the world. Jacob seems to bumble through life– the second son, living in the shadow of a heroic older brother; a cheap con-artist, whose deception rips his family in two; a sly cheat who finally meets his match in a dishonest and conniving father-in-law; a beleaguered husband and father, juggling two feuding sisters, their two servants, a dozen warring sons, a tragic daughter… It would be easy to confuse this Bible story with a modern TV sitcom or reality show about dysfunctional family life.

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Yet…
Jacob, like his grandfather, Abraham, saw God face to face, even wrestling with him on one occasion. God gave Jacob the vision of a stairway leading to Heaven; God gave Jacob his blessing, independent of the one from Isaac; he chose Jacob over Esau to carry on the line of patriarchs; God gave Jacob a new name– Israel– which became fixed as the name of God’s people. Generations later, King David prayed to and worshiped “the God of Jacob” as a refuge. Jesus even referred to His Father as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

What makes Jacob stand out? Why does nearly half of the book of Genesis cover the years of Jacob’s life? I want to spend some time in the coming days to look a bit closer at this flawed man, how God revealed aspects of His own character in his dealings with Jacob, and how knowing Jacob better can help us as we pray to “his” God (and ours).

Hannah and Eli

The story in the Bible about Hannah is about prayer; it is also about depression, anguish, misunderstanding, marriage, rivalry, infertility, trust, and obedience.

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the priest, Eli, and his wicked sons. It is that same Eli who becomes a surrogate parent for Hannah’s precious, promised son, Samuel.

Think about that. In all my years reading through this story, it never occurred to me that Hannah had already known about Eli’s sons and their wickedness. Hannah knew that Eli was not the best role model for her small son. She knew that she was sending her child into an environment that included corruption, injustice, and perversion. This child she had promised to “give back” to God would grow up in a family more dysfunctional and dangerous than if he had stayed with Hannah, Elkanah, and even Peninnah and his half-siblings.

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The Bible does not give us all the details of either family, (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A11-26&version=ESV ) but there is evidence that Elkanah was a good provider, an honest and worthy man, and a good father. Eli, on the other hand, was told of his sons’ wickedness, and, other than giving one mild rebuke, he turns a blind eye to their practices and grows fat and lazy in his service. There is no mention of a mother or motherly influence at all in Samuel’s new “foster” family. Why would Hannah surrender her maternal rights (and why would Elkanah agree to forfeit his paternal rights) to send Samuel into this hornet’s nest?

Perhaps the answer can be found just before the account of Eli’s wicked sons. At the end of Hannah’s Song (which we will examine in more detail later), we have a profound statement of faith:

1 Samuel 2:9-10 English Standard Version (ESV)
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
    for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces;
    against them he will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Hannah was not giving Samuel to Eli to raise; she was giving Samuel to God to raise and guide and protect.

I am writing this today, not to encourage parents to absolve themselves of responsibility for training and caring for their own family, but to encourage those parents who may not be in a position to guide and protect their children. Some of us have children, grandchildren, siblings, or other young and vulnerable family members living away from our care or influence. Some are living in dysfunctional and even dangerous environments. God KNOWS. He SEES. He HEARS. We do not know, nor do we understand, why God allows innocent people to suffer. We do not know what fears or concerns Hannah and Elkanah may have had about Samuel’s upbringing. We do not know what Samuel endured under Eli’s care, or what he saw or heard in the presence of Eli’s sons. As a child, he may have been spared some of the worst of their behavior.

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We do know two things, however. Hannah and Elkanah may or may not have had reason to trust Eli. He did allow them to visit each year, and he seems to have been fond of young Samuel; certainly the Bible stories I used to read in Sunday School made Eli seem like a kindly uncle. But the reality was that Samuel’s life was not in Eli’s hands–it was in God’s! Hannah and Elkanah trusted God to guide their son, even as they relished every moment they were able to spend with him. They certainly prayed for his safety and growth in wisdom as he served in the Tabernacle of the Almighty.

Secondly, we know that God can bring good out of even bad circumstances. Eli was weak and indulgent with his sons; he was warned and did nothing. He sat down on the job and faced judgment without repentance. When Samuel was grown, this pattern could have been repeated. Samuel’s own sons began taking bribes and perverting justice. Samuel was still serving faithfully, even as an old man, but his sons were not following his good example. However, when the people came to Samuel with reports of his sons’ activities and asked him to step aside and appoint a king, Samuel sought the Lord. God reassured him, and Samuel was faithful to appoint and advise Israel’s first king, Saul. God was faithful to guide Samuel’s footsteps, and to bring justice against the wicked sons of Eli.

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Eli’s flawed examples of fatherhood and leadership still served as models for Samuel. Even as a child, he showed wisdom, respect, and love for his “foster father” and mentor. Hannah and Elkanah never wavered in their trust that God could and would guide their son and provide for him. Their faith wasn’t based on the knowledge that Samuel would one day become the chief priest and anoint both Saul and his successor, David. They only knew that God could be trusted.

That is not a promise that every child in a bad environment will be “safe” and rise above their circumstances to become famous or powerful. But it is reason to keep hope and faith when we feel powerless. None of Hannah and Elkanah’s (or Peninnah’s) other children are mentioned in the Biblical narrative. They may have been honest, upright citizens, successful in business or esteemed in their hometown of Ramah. Samuel’s story is not a parable–there is no “moral” about “giving a child back” to God and being able to expect success and fame and blessing. There is, however, a lesson here about recognizing that every child is a gift– not a reward, not a burden–our children belong to God. We should do our best to guide them, nurture them, protect them, and above all, to love them. But their destiny– including tragic circumstances and glorious opportunities–is not ours to control.

Next time, we explore another important relationship– that of Hannah and her Son.

Who was Hannah?

The Bible is an amazing book. It is a single narrative, but it is made up of several stories; even several different types of literature. There are stories that seem straightforward; others are clearly meant as parables or metaphors; still others are prophetic visions. Hannah’s story fits the first category. Hannah is to be understood as a real person living in a real time and place in history. She is also representative of a particular situation–she is childless in a society where a woman’s value is measured in her ability to bear children. She is loved by her husband, but taunted and harassed by her husband’s other wife. She is consumed by grief and frustration. In our own time, she would likely be diagnosed as clinically depressed.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a tendency to see Hannah through the rosy lenses of her eventual triumph. I know the end of the story. I indulge her grief, because she “prays her way through it”, and gets the happy ending I think we all long for.

But Hannah’s story isn’t just about the outcome, and it isn’t a parable meant to show that earnest prayer will always result in getting what we desire. Hannah’s happy ending is not a guarantee or a promise for anyone else who suffers from grief or infertility (or both).

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So, I’d like to take a closer look at Hannah– not as one of the “heroines” of the Bible, but as a woman in distress. And I’d like to focus on the others in her story. God doesn’t waste details, even if we don’t always understand why they are included. I think there are several hidden lessons in this story, and they reside in details we often skim or throw aside in the pursuit of the very real truth that God answers prayer.

So, to prepare for this journey, here is the text of Hannah’s tale:


1 Samuel 1 New International Version (NIV)
The Birth of Samuel
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.
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. 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. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 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. 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?”
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.”

Taken from biblegateway.com

Lord, help us to read this story with new eyes. Help us to see how you work even in difficult circumstances and with imperfect people to bring hope and wisdom and salvation to a fallen world.

Next time: Hannah and Her Husband

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