1. Childlessness

Meditations in 1 Samuel: 1:  The Harshness of Childlessness

1 Sam 1:1-2   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.

When we delve into the Old Testament as people out of the twenty-first century West, we find ourselves so often in alien territory. In these studies or meditations (and we’ll do a little of both) we are using narrative text as against the direct teaching that we find in say the apostle Paul’s letters. Here we are dealing with a story, a history if you like, and within stories we find a whole raft of things about the human race that are as true today as they were then. 1 Samuel is essentially about the days in the life of Israel under the judgeship of Samuel, a prophet, that takes us on to see their first king, Saul, and then God’s dealings with a young shepherd boy, David, who was to become the next king.

But here in our opening verses we have a handful of unfamiliar names. Ramathaim, it is thought, is somewhere a few miles north of Jerusalem. The reference to this man being a Zuphite may be a reference to being a descendant of Zuph (1 Chron 6:32-34) but we don’t know for sure although the Chronicles names match those of his earlier family recorded here. Whatever else, the writer is wanting to make sure we are under no illusions: this is not a made up story, it is well grounded in history.

Now this man Elkanah, an Israelite, had two wives. Monogamy was God’s design (Gen 2:23,24) but polygamy was not uncommon, but as the story unfolds we see the downside of that. Verse 2 lays it out so simply: He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.”  Names in Israel were often significant. Hannah means ‘grace, but Peninnah, a concordance suggests means ‘coral’ or maybe ‘pearl’. That she thought herself a pearl in this marriage becomes clear and the way she expresses it seems to indicate the sharpness of coral. We could ponder on that some more as we go through the story.

A few verses on we find, “And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” (v.6) Interestingly the writer ascribes Hannah’s barrenness directly to God and we’ll ponder the providence of God in a later meditation. Peninnah isn’t content simply with the satisfaction of bearing children to Elkanah, we might say today she ‘rubbed her nose in it’, meaning she pointed out this fact again and again and made Hannah particularly upset, which we’ll consider some more in the next meditation.

There are, I suspect, fewer things in life more distressing than being unable to fulfil the desire that most women have, to be able to bear a child. Today we live in a society where often this is sublimated beneath the desire of self-fulfilment through a career which often leads women to put off having children until much later than that which was traditionally the years for child-bearing, which brings difficulties both in heath and in later years bringing up a child in older years.

Not only is there so often a frustration that turns into anguish in such situations but there are question marks that arise in the couple about their inability. What is there wrong in me that I am unable to conceive / father a child? In this case this is very one sided because Elkanah has shown he is quite capable of fathering children which makes it doubly difficult for Hannah. She clearly is the one at fault. But then, when you believe God involves Himself in our affairs, there might be the question, why hasn’t God allowed me to conceive, or even, why has He stopped me conceiving? What am I guilty of that this should happen to me? Hannah’s story tells us that we should declare loud and clear, it’s nothing to do with your sin or defectiveness, it’s just what happens in a fallen world where things go wrong. There is no indication that Hannah is a particular sinner (more than the rest of us) and that this is a punishment. It just happens!

If we think more widely in the Bible, we come to realise that this sort of thing is not that uncommon. In the story of Abram, we read of his wife, Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) Such hard, cold and definite words!  The miracle of their story is that God enabled Sarah to conceive and have a son when Abraham was one hundred years old!  Isaac is born, grows up, marries and then we read, “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.” (Gen 25:21) Again such harsh and cold words: “she was barren”. When we look at the details of their story we find, “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah,” (v.20) and “Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth.” (v.26) i.e. twenty years passed before the Lord answered Isaac’s prayers.

When we come into the New Testament we find a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and we read, “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (Lk 1:7)  There it is again in stark print: “Elizabeth was barren.” It is almost as if the Bible throws it at us to see how we will respond. Indifference or tears of empathy?  In all four cases that we have just noted, the Lord turned up and enabled conception.

I think the most rewarding prophecy that I have ever brought to a couple was, “in a year’s time you will have a baby,” especially when I was told afterwards they had been told they could never have children. To my relief (because I hate the possibility of bringing false comfort) they had their child within the year.  The same thing happened to my daughter with a word from a friendly prophet. In each case it was a declaration of God’s intent contrary to the expectations of man.

May I share a pastoral feeling that I have about these things. I believe today that if  we have single people longing to be married or couples longing to conceive, as churches we should commit ourselves to praying for these people until God answers. I firmly believe He wants to provide marriage partners and He wants to enable couple to conceive. It may need some miraculous workings but that is easy stuff for God. It may need battling against unbelief or indifference or declarations of ‘experts’ but God is a life bringer. Until we clearly hear the words from God, “not yet” or “I  want you to rest in what you are now,” I believe we should be praying our hearts out to bring God’s blessing to childless couples and singles who yearn for a partner in our congregations. (For those who actively don’t want children or actively want to be single, the Lord bless you as you are.) To sit back and just watch the months and years past without change, speaks of our indifference.

This story has elements in it that are hard to understand and we’ll struggle with some of them later on, but at the heart of it we find frustration and anguish that so often comes in this Fallen World where things just don’t work sometimes as they should do. That’s what life is like in such a world. The crucial things to observe are how we respond to it and what God wants to do about it, and that we’ll see as this story unfolds.

Now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and that is add a poem that recently came my way, written by a single lady, an English poetry teacher, in honour of her and others like her who turn their energies into bringing blessing to others. She wrote this while invigilating an exam for her students, and I think you will agree it has a certain poignancy about it:

Now all my teaching comes to face the test
Why will I ask, did I do all I could?
I know I tried to do, I did, my best
With love, with patience, with the very blood
From my heart’s pulse of poetry I strove to give

Both fact and thought, ideas, instructed feeling,
That when this stress was past there still might live
A joy within their minds I showed them, stealing
At quiet hours upon them, a gift of mine.
This joy in growing minds is what I crave,
This hope I nourish with my oil and wine,
For this is all the life, my life, can have.
Then let none judge my barrenness a dearth.
Have I not laboured to achieve a birth?

Walk of Heart-Ache


1 Sam 1:2 There was a certain man …..whose name was Elkanah …..He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

This series is about walking, and there was one particular walk that Hannah had to do every year that accentuated her position and increased her heart-ache. The story involves an Israelite who had two wives. Not a good start! In the early days of Israel, monogamy was not required – consider how many wives Solomon had and the trouble they caused him! Two wives mean shared affections and breeds grounds for jealousy and competition. The ‘competition’ between Peninnah and Hannah was over child-bearing (as it had been between Jacob’s wives). Hannah is childless while Peninnah has sons and daughters (v.4) – she was fertile! Each year the whole family would trek to Shiloh, where the Tabernacle of God was located, to make offerings to the Lord. Elkanah, the husband, tried to show Hannah that it didn’t matter and that he loved her, by giving her double portions each year at the sacrificial feast, but that only seemed to make it worse. Peninnah, perhaps jealous of Elkanah’s attention of Hannah, used to make comments about Hannah’s infertility, in front of her.

Thus the annual walk to Shiloh probably became a walk to be dreaded, a time when Hannah’s infertility became even more obvious. Imagine them all getting ready for the journey, all the noise and bustle of Peninnah’s side of the family getting ready – and Hannah alone.

How many of us seem to be trapped in circumstances beyond our control, where again and again we have to go through family or work rituals that only accentuate our painful situation. The pain of childlessness is perhaps one of the worst anguishes to cope with, especially for the wife. Here she is with a body designed to carry new life, and month by month nothing happens. Every month becomes a time of dread. Like Hannah you may be godly and gracious. You know the Lord, love the Lord, serve the Lord, but still, despite praying, nothing happens. Maybe your husband is praying and still nothing happens (Isaac prayed for 20 years for Rebekah before she conceived – Gen 25:20,26). That almost seems to make it worse. At times this particular heart-ache seems almost impossible to bear.

Perhaps there are other circumstances where, perhaps a brother or sister seems more favoured than you and year by year the differences are accentuated by comments made about the more clever, or more handsome or more beautiful brother or sister. There is nothing said maliciously but the hurt is there nevertheless, and it seems that nothing you can do can change it.

What hope is there in these situations? God! From your painful perspective it may seem trite but that is the answer. No, I don’t know why it happened or why it has dragged on for so long, but one thing I am sure of, that the faith I have speaks of a God who again and again and again comes into the situation where death is reigning and brings life. Your body may appear dead, your circumstances may appear death and there appears no hope for nothing ever sees to change – but God is still there.

In Hannah’s case she prayed, God eventually turned up, and Samuel was born, a most significant young man. The Bible has a number of these children, born to apparently infertile women after many years. Isaac born to Sarah, long after child-bearing age, Jacob (Israel) born to Rebekah after twenty years of wait, Samuel born to Hannah after years of anguish, and John born to Elizabeth in her old age. You can’t find a more significant bundle of individuals!

Over the years I have twice had the privilege of being the messenger to a childless couple that they will have a child within a year – and they did. I have watched as my own daughter struggled with hopeless medical odds until a visiting man of God declared that before the year was out they would have a child – and they did. Childlessness is a curse of the fallen world, but all  I know is that God delights in changing that.

It sounds a cliché but it is true nevertheless – the Lord knows and understands what you feel and feels with you. Hold on to what Gabriel said to the young girl, Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God.” Can we cope while we wait for God to turn up and bring the change that seems impossible otherwise? Yes, because His grace IS sufficient for whoever and in whatever situation (2 Cor 12:9). As you walk the walk of heart-ache, reach out and receive what only He can give – hope, peace and grace, and know you are loved.

Big Picture Needed

Lk 1:21-25   Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.  When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
There is always more than one way of looking at life. As we’ve suggested previously, Zechariah’s dumbness could be considered (by him and by critics) as a really hostile move by God but, as we started thinking about it, I hope you saw that it was, in fact, a means of encouraging Zechariah on, to ensure he moved into the place of blessing.
I’m not sure that I know of any Christian who relishes James’ injunction: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” (Jas 1:2) because trials are, by definition, trying times. To be able to appreciate what is happening, we need to be able to see the bigger picture (what is actually going on in this) and the end results (what will be achieved by it). Unfortunately, so often, we can’t today see either of those things and we just have to trust that it is the Lord working and at the very least, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (Rom 8:28).
So here is poor old Zechariah, having just encountered an angel and quite possibly feeling totally bemused by the whole thing. He takes a while to come back out to where the people were and when he goes to speak, he finds he can’t! Just like the angel said. He starts out in his new career of sign language and manages to convey that he’s had some sort of encounter with God, a vision at least. His time for service comes to an end and he returns home to Elizabeth. Now I think we have to draw a veil over what went on back there, over whether it was a spontaneous coming together of this couple who had been apart, and over whether he had been able to communicate with her what had happened and what he had been told. Whatever happened, the end result was that Elizabeth found herself pregnant, to her great joy.
It is not improper to speculate, to try to put ourselves into the picture, as long as we recognize that it is speculation. Sometimes the writers in Scripture drop in a few words but don’t give us any explanation. For instance we find here that after she finds herself pregnant, Luke tells us that she for five months remained in seclusion, and we’re not told why. Perhaps she was suffering bad morning sickness, perhaps she just felt that she shouldn’t do anything that might risk the baby, perhaps she just felt that she should ‘lay low’ until she was absolutely sure that everything was all right and the signs were that she was well and truly on the way to having a baby. After all those years of childlessness, you can’t be too sure! The truth is, we don’t know!
However, what we do know is that this lady is absolutely sure in her own mind what has happened: God has stepped in and enabled her to conceive! Perhaps Zechariah had managed to explain what had happened, but whatever it is, she is sure that God is involved and she is blessed! Indeed, all of the years of childlessness, the comments and gossip no doubt, about why, the feeling of disgrace at not being able to conceive, suddenly all this is wiped away and this, she is certain, is the favour of the Lord.
Now put that alongside Zechariah’s trials – because he still can’t speak – and you have two sides of life, one a bane the other a blessing, but the truth is that the bane was necessary to bring about the blessing. On one side of the equation we have one really dumb guy, and now on the other a really blessed woman. What does this say to us? Only what we’ve been saying already – that sometimes trials seem to have to go before blessings. But there is yet something bigger.
Zechariah is an example to us to show us that God does not give up on us. Yes, He may have to take some serious actions but when He knows that He can do much more for us, that is warranted. The crucial thing is that He knows what he can achieve through us and what it will take to help to bring us through to the place of achievement!
It’s a crazy thing – caused by the presence of sin in the world – but God desires to bless us more than we are to be blessed! Here was God wanting to end their childlessness and Zechariah can’t believe it. But, hey, remind yourself, how many times has the Lord said something great to you and you’ve said, “No, that’s too good. It can’t be.” I was once leading a group, running a course on the wonder of God’s love, and one of the ladies in the group said, “I can’t believe what you are saying. I can’t believe it is that good!” And she left the church! How terrible is that! The pressures of life had been so great that she couldn’t believe that now God wanted to bless her. Don’t let the enemy rob you of God’s offer of blessing. Take Him at His word. Receive it joyfully.