2. Barren Women

Studies in Isaiah 54: 2. Barren Women

Isa 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”

Ohhhhhh!: How easy it is to pass over words of Scripture and not let them impact you. The analogy here, of Israel (or perhaps Jerusalem), is one of a disheartened, broken woman. Few of us can understand the heartache of being childless, of the yearning to have that sense of fulfillment as a child-bearing woman but who has never yet conceived. But the Bible seems full of such women, key women in the plans and purposes of God, and so perhaps we need to note them to take in the awfulness of the picture that Isaiah now presents to us.

The Women of Anguish: The first of these is Sarai: “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” (Gen 11:30) When she seems unable to conceive, despite the number of times the Lord had promised a family that would grow into a multitude, she gave her servant girl to Abram, who promptly conceives; it is obvious the problem lies with her and not with Abram. (Gen 16:3,4) When God turned up and reiterated the promise that Sarah (as she now was) would conceive, she laughed, but it was laughter of unbelief, of derision, and the Lord pulled her up on it (Gen 18:10-15). When she does eventually conceive she laughs again but now it is of joy (Gen 21:6)

It almost seemed to run in the family. Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, marries Rebekah but she too remains childless for twenty years (Gen 25:21). We aren’t told what Rebekah felt but in the next generation the same thing happens to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  (Gen 30:1) Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Hannah who became the mother of Samuel the judge-cum-first prophet: “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 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.” (1 Sam 1:10,11)

Assessment: Children in the Hebrew culture (and in many others) were seen as a sign of God’s blessing: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:3-5) Thus the absence of children would have acted as a question mark over the spirituality of the wife if not the couple. The declaration of this barrenness that hung prophetically over Israel, as now declared by Isaiah, says six things: First it proclaims that bearing offspring was considered what was natural, what the Lord intended. Second, the absence of offspring was something to anguish over. Third, there must have been a reason for it.  Fourth, transformation was seen as only possible by the blessing of God, and that comes again later in Isa 66:7-11. Fifth, there is given an interesting comparison with others who are not barren but not blessed, which we will see shortly and, sixth, the end of their barrenness is expanded to reveal a much wider blessing on them.

Hannah’s Blessing:  When Hannah conceived, prayed and sang, she declared, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (1 Sam 2:5) Whether she waited until years later to pray and sing, or whether she was declaring her anticipation of what would come, is unclear, but what is clear is the extent of her blessing, seven children, joy, and a sense of being loved (implied by the way her adversary now pined away). The releasing from barrenness in the present passage is similarly indicated in the same way that Hannah had prayed: “because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”  (Isa 54:1)

Now Get Ready to Expand: She, Israel, now has (or is about to have) more children than other nations (whose husbands were idols, we might suggest), and is thus told to get ready to expand. (v. 1-3) Expansion in abundance and enlargement is what is coming. Previously, “you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste,” (49:19a) but now the land, with the Lord’s blessing, “will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” (Isa 49:19)

Forgetting the Past: As He now says in the present prophecy, You will forget the shame of your youth.”  (54:4) The history of Israel, right from the start of the Exodus, was never glorious, filled with grumblings and disobedience and as the years unfolded in the Land, in the period of the Judges, it never improved.  But the good news is that although the Lord requires us to confront the present, He does not hold the failures of the past over us; He is more concerned that we repent (Ezek 18:23,32, 2 Pet 3:9). Now the past will be forgotten in the light of the present blessings and, as we saw yesterday, those blessings can come to us because of the work of Christ on the Cross.

New Application: Under the New Covenant the apostle Paul took this present passage and applied it to the present reality.  (See Gal 4:24-27) So, Sarah was the barren woman who, though technically was Abraham’s wife, never had been previously able to fulfil the full outworking of marriage – bear children – and was replaced by Hagar. Yet we know that the desolate woman, Sarah, was enabled by God to bear Isaac, the child of promise. Paul applies all this to the Law and to slavery because although Hagar (representing the Law) had children naturally with Abraham, she was still a slave.

As the message version puts those first verses: “The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is ….a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.”  Through new birth, from heaven, from the city of God in heaven, the ‘invisible Jerusalem’, which acts as our mother, we are children of promise born to be free. The ‘mother’ of the old covenant was the Law but all those who sought to follow it found themselves slaves to failure and guilt. Born from above, we are now free, children born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, who will one day return to our home – heaven. Hallelujah!

14. The Cry of Anguish

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 14. The Cry of Anguish

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

The number of women in the Bible who initially appeared barren may cause some surprise. We’ve already seen Abraham’s Sarai, and Isaac’s Rebekah and even Samson’s mother. Each one provides a case study of anguish and calling on God for help – which He does bring, but perhaps none of them is as distressed as Hannah in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. The thing about barrenness is that there is this natural expectation in a woman to be able to bear a child, and that is being frustrated, and what is worse is that there is nothing you can do about it.

Hannah’s anguish of childlessness is accentuated by the fact that she is one of two wives of this man. Admittedly her husband tried to compensate for her situation “because he loved her” (v.5) but that only stirred a competitive  spirit in the other woman that made her nasty to Hannah (v.6). The ongoing situation caused such anguish in Hannah that she wept (v.7). But love and weeping don’t change barrenness. The key event that perhaps opened the door to change occurred at Shiloh where the Tent of the Lord was situation and people went to worship God. At their annual visit Hannah was in such anguish that he poured her heart out to the Lord: In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon 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.” (v.10,11)

Now before we carry on we might do well to note something that has appeared twice already in the story: “to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” (v.5,6) The perception was that God is the withholder of life and the bringer of life, but what is the bigger truth here?

Does God ‘play’ with human beings, especially women, causing them great anguish. I believe the bigger truth is that, because of the Fall, things go wrong. Because of the presence of Sin the world does not work perfectly as originally designed and that includes all of us, so our bodies break down and we get ill or we suffer infirmity or malfunction or mis-function, and so barrenness is just another of those things that occur as a result of the malfunctioning fallen world. The only problem about this, from our side of things, is that sickness etc. etc. strikes not according to individual guilt but randomly. Someone carrying the flu virus has close contact with me and pass it to me (which is why the elderly are wise to have injections). There is no link with guilt here. I am guilty of being a sinful member of a sinful human race and therefore there are times when I suffer simply for being a member of this human race, not because I have just committed some terrible sin! And the same thing applies to barrenness.

Now of course God could step in and heal instantly every case of malfunction but He is reticent to keep on overriding our self-sovereignty. He waits until we call. In our anguish and distorted thinking we may blame Him, for yes, He could keep us from such things but that would change the nature of design where negative consequences follow misuse. If I misuse my body it is likely to break down and it is foolish to demand God override my folly. But Hannah, and many other ladies like her demonstrate it is not their fault they are in anguish. If it helps, when we see God in close-up in the form of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, we see Him anguishing in tears for the anguish of those around him. God does not stand afar off stony-hearted.

The expectation of many people in this world, as they view life and the difficulties of life in this fallen world, is that God is cold and callous, and even if they concede He is not the specific author of our woes, they anticipate that he will stand afar off, uncaring. That is not the God who left the comfort and security of heaven, came and dwelt in human form, that of a vulnerable baby, lived on the earth for some thirty or so years, died on a Cross for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended back to heaven. That was a God who gets His hands dirty, so to speak, a God who comes alongside and, wherever given the chance, brings healing and blessing. That is what the incredible revelation of Jesus Christ shows us. – and yet he wept with us.

But what was the outcome of this particular story? The Lord intervenes and enables Hannah to conceive and Samuel is born and Samuel will be the last of the Judges to rule Israel and become a transition between the period of Judges and the period of kings, and he will do that because he is also a prophet! Would Samuel have been that if Hannah had had no problem conceiving? I don’t know. All I do know is what happened: in the prevailing situation caused by the fallen world, the outcome was that when God intervened, a saviour for Israel was born and because Hannah was so desperate, she was happy for her child to be brought up on the presence of God at Shiloh as that saviour, one who would have a closer relationship with the Lord than was normal then.

No expectation of a child, then expectation of change through an anguished prayer, and then, who knows what – because we have not had a judge like this before. This is a new day. What am I saying?  This whole matter of expectations is wrapped up in the sovereignty and maybe even the providence of God (His sovereign moving behind the scenes)  and so from our point of view it is not entirely clear what is going on. As we saw in the outset of this series, sometimes expectations arise when God speaks clearly (Abram). Sometimes there are natural expectations of life (Isaac) but it is at that point as we see here again, that it can start getting murky. In this fallen world, natural expectations don’t always work out as we expect. The lesson is to hold them lightly, but hold our relationship with the Lord ever more tightly. The future may be unclear to us, but it is not to Him. The future may be limited from our perspective but when He steps in, anything is possible. Let’s remember that.

15. 1 Samuel

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 15.  1 Samuel

1 Sam 16:7   the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

This is all about spiritual realities and as we look into it, we will see various other verses that appear, I believe, as highlight verses in this book, but they all go together. It is about spiritual vision, about what you see with your eyes and understand in your heart.

Let’s observe the context first of all. This is the first illustration of at least five that we will look at in this book. Saul is king and has failed at the job so God is going to appoint a new king and he sends Samuel, the prophet, down to Bethlehem to the family of Jesse because He has chosen one of his sons to be the new king. The story that follows is quite hilarious. Samuel gets the sons lined up, starting with the eldest who looks big and strong. This must be the one, thinks Samuel, but then the Lord speaks the verse above. No, don’t go on looks. This is not the one. So he works his way along the line and at each of the seven sons before him, he gets a “No!” from heaven. You can imagine him at the last one thinking, “Lord, I’ve run out of sons. What do I do?” Ask if there are any more, is the answer, and David is revealed, the eighth son out on the hillside looking after sheep for his father. He’s the one!

But the principle has been laid down and it’s one that has already been seen earlier in the book. The second illustration comes before Samuel was born, his mother-to-be is crying out to the Lord because she seems unable to conceive. She is in the tabernacle praying, but not out loud. Old man Eli is the chief priest and he sees her lips moving. He jumps to a wrong conclusion: “Eli thought she was drink”. (1 Sam 1:13). No, Eli, she is praying her heart out! Don’t judge by outward appearances.

A third illustration perhaps, as an extension of this, can be seen in some of the most spiritually poignant words which are found in 1 Sam 3: “The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.” (v.1-3) Spiritual reality? Prophetic words were rare and there were few visions from God. Physical outworking, if you like? Eli could barely see and was lying down. The physical reality reflected the spiritual reality. The lamp of God had not yet gone out – physical reality in the tabernacle, but reflected the spiritual reality; God has the next carrier of His light also in there, Samuel, who is also lying down at the moment. He’ll get up and into action as soon as he learns to hear God’s voice, so God’s light will shine brightly in Israel again.

The fourth illustration comes many years later, when Israel decide they want a king instead of the judges they have had, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” (8:19,20) i.e. we can’t see God; we want someone we can see who will go before us to fight, just like the other nations have. But you’re not like the other nations, you’re better off, you have the Lord! But they persist and so the Lord allows them to have just what they want, a big, tough looking guy to be their king, a guy who was head and shoulders (as some older versions put it) above all others (10:23). That was exactly what Israel wanted except he didn’t live up to the job. Possibly the most memorable Bible Week series of teaching I have ever heard was called, I believe, ‘The King and his army’, given by an elderly Canadian, Pentecostal preacher, called Ern Baxter, back in 1975, who spoke of the transition from the head and shoulders man (head referring to human intellect and shoulders referring to human strength) to the heart man, David (a man after God’s own heart – 1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22) Israel wanted a big tough man, but human wisdom and human strength aren’t up to the job; it needed a heart man! It’s not looks, it’s the heart!

A fifth illustration that comes  to mind, revealing this same principle, is that involving a giant Philistine named Goliath who came with the Philistine army to attack Israel and challenged Israel to put up their best man to fight him, and the winner would designate the victorious nation. This petrified Israel who were cowed into inaction. What always surprises me about this was that Saul didn’t refuse the challenge and send ten of his best men to bring this threat down. But size seemed to hypnotize Saul and his people and so for forty days the two armies just faced each other while Goliath came out and roared out his challenge – the Philistines as an army couldn’t have been feeling too sure of themselves. (see 1 Sam 17:4-16). David turns up and is surprised that size is the criteria that brings Israel to a standstill. As far as he is concerned it is all about relationship: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (v.26) We’re the people of God, this guy isn’t! He knows God has helped him in the past (see v.34-37) and so He will do so in the present. It’s nothing to do with how big the problem looks! It’s all about relationship with the Lord.

And there is the same lesson, five times over in this book. Will we be a people who look and see only material things, or will we open our hearts to discern the spiritual realities of the world in which we live. Will we look at people’s appearances and write them off, or will we look with Jesus’ eyes and see the spiritually hungry and thirsty and be open to bring his love to them (Zacchaeus was a good example of this – Luke 19). The lovely thing about the New Testament gift of prophecy is that it looks past the outward appearance and sees the inner reality and the future potential. Dare we be a people who give up on ‘outward appearance Christianity’, and cry to the Lord to become heart and Spirit people who discern true spiritual realities?

6. The Glory of God

Meditations in 1 Samuel   6. The Glory of God

1 Sam 2:1   Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.

It is interesting that we often speak of the glory of God which refers to His manifest greatness and wonder and the Bible does clearly speak of Him as one who is infinitely great and absolutely wonderful, and sometimes that revelation comes out in scenes of revelation – such as Ezekiel’s or Isaiah’s or John’s revelation of things in heaven and especially God – but often these things come through songs of revelation, when a person is being inspired to sing about God and as they do so revelation comes. Truth and revelation often come through a heart of praise.

So as we come into chapter 2, we find Hannah praying what is tantamount to a song of praise. She rejoices in the Lord because the Lord has exalted her for He has delivered her from childlessness (v.1). When she says she boasts she may be meaning that she now calls out the truth that has exalted her over her adversary who has chided her for so many years, because now she can say (which her adversary cannot) God has specifically blessed her with her child. That surely is all that is there behind verse 1.

But she quickly moves away from herself to the Lord: There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (v.2) He is unique, there is no other who is like Him in being (holy) or who comforts and supports us like He does (our Rock). But then she turns back to her adversary who has been chiding her for years, perhaps taunting her that God is against her: “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance.” (v.3a) You don’t know what you are talking about, for you are talking about God: “for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.” (v.3b) He see and hears what you say and He judges all things.

Then she compares the two of them to two opposing warriors (for it had seemed like an ongoing battle): “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.” (v.4) Her adversary had appeared strong for so long, firing barbed arrows of malice at her, but now her bow is broken, so to speak, for she no longer has anything to say, and although Hannah had stumbled all those years, now the Lord has blessed her and she is strong.

In a parallelism she speaks of “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.” (v.5a) Her adversary had, for years, appeared full of herself in her position as a mother but now Hannah appears as the one blessed of God and no doubt giving joy to her husband, so now it is her adversary who feels second class suddenly, and Hannah who had hungered for a child, hungers no more for, she declares, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (v.5b) Now whether this was written down after she had had other children or is just poetic exaggeration, we don’t know but their roles have been reversed, now that Hannah is the one bringing joy to their husband.

Then comes the revelation about God: “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.” (v.6) He is a life-bringer, He is the one with power over life and death.  “The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.” (v.7) The Lord oversees the affairs of mankind and can bring affluence when He wants. He can exalt or humble people, He is God!  It seems He cares especially for the poor, needy and downtrodden: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (v.8) You may be one of the downtrodden but the Lord can lift you up. Hannah knows for He has done it for her!

Suddenly her vision enlarges and she sees the Lord for who He truly is: “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; upon them he has set the world.” (v.8) This one she had been singing about in her spirit is the Creator and Sustainer of this world – God Almighty, all-powerful. But He’s not the one the deist thinks about, a God who made it all but now sits at a distance, indifferent to all that happens on this planet: “He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.” (v.9a) No, He is a God of justice who intervenes in the affairs of this world to preserve His children and deal with the wicked. No, she says, when you look at unjust and unfair situations and long to bring change, “It is not by strength that one prevails;” (9b) for “those who oppose the LORD will be shattered.” (v.10a) No, we may not be able to deliver ourselves from such situations and so we must leave it to Him knowing that He will deal with those who oppose Him and who oppose us.

Yes the Lord will come bringing justice, “He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.” (v.10b) Negatively He will thunder against the unjust from heaven and, positively, “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (v.10c) Yes, His anointed one will come in due season to deal with these things.

What a transformation! For years she had been the downtrodden one at the mercy of the barbed tongue of ‘the other woman’, but now the Lord has come and changed her, enabled her to conceive and have a son, and now her spirit soars in a peal of praise and she sees the Lord as the one who does not stand afar off, a distant Creator of the World, but as the one who draws near and delivers those who cry out to Him. Hallelujah!

2. Desperate Prayers

Meditations in 1 Samuel   2. The Anguish of Desperate Prayers

1 Sam 1:11   And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon 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.”

I happened to come across the following quote from a modern Christian writer the other day: “Prayer requires things of us that we are not always willing to give. Time. Attention, Vulnerability. Submission. Transformation. And often we feel inadequate to pray because we are stuck on works-based righteousness that makes us a slave to approaching prayer as a vending machine.” He continues in a similar vein but we’ll stop it there. Personally I find the biggest difficulty of praying at a set ‘quiet time’ every day, is monotony. I know what God wants of me and I ask for it. I know who I ‘should’ pray for (my family, church, friends, etc. etc.) and so I do, but it becomes a rote.

It is only when we come to a prayer like that of Hannah (and others in the Bible) that we realise that the most honest prayers, the real prayers, the prayers that pour out of the heart, come in a crisis. Let’s check it out with Hannah.

We saw in the first study that she is barren, which is bad enough in itself, but she is also the second wife in a polygamous marriage and the other wife is bearing children as fast as she can go – and then jeering at Hannah for her inability to become a mother: because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” This other women was doing it purposefully “to irritate” or upset her. How unkind is that, and there appeared nothing that Hannah could do about it. She was locked into this marriage and was unable to do anything about her barrenness. (1 Sam 1:6).

This constant in your face chiding brings Hannah to tears: 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.” (v.7) Year after year! It keeps on, nothing changes. Month after month and disappointment comes.  They go each year to the Tabernacle at Shiloh to worship the Lord. To be able to do this Elkanah must have been quite wealthy, for many Israelites could only do it rarely, but they do it every year. So here she is with a loving husband who tries to console her, an affluent and probably comfortable life, but all that is meaningless in the face of her inability to become a mother.

By the time of this present visit to Shiloh she is clearly desperate. It has gone on for so long it has broken her. She is so desperate that she would even give away the child to God if she would only have one – she bargains with God. Now we’ll leave wonderings about that until we think on God’s providence and simply focus on what she feels for the moment. Go back and read that opening quote above. How meaningless that all sounds when you observe Hannah. She needs no lessons in prayer, she is desperate, she is past caring, she just has one focus – God give me a child, I cant take it any more! ( I so want to talk about what is going on behind the scenes in heaven, but we must leave it for now).

A long time ago I researched all the prayers of the Bible – and most of them come in a crisis situation. The New Testament prayer that stands out most to me (apart from Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane) is that of the church in Acts 4, shortly after Peter and John have been threatened by the Sanhedrin and the church comes together and prays. I won’t do a breakdown of that prayer here, but one part of it shows the situation: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29)  It is a prayer of desperation in the face of the threats of the authorities – and God answers in power. When we get to a point of desperation, God turns up in power. It is almost, it seems, that He waits for us to come to a point where we KNOW the truth – we are helpless – before He steps in.

When our ‘prayers’ are nice and respectable – and boring – perhaps we need to ask the Lord to open our eyes to the plight of people around us or the world in general, so that we become moved to really urgent prayer.  When stories come back from the church in China, you realise you do not have a problem with prayer when you face real persecution. Our absence of desperation so often means we are not under pressure in the world of affluence that tolerates us but consider your life: is it childless when it comes to bringing spiritual children into this world? I am not wishing to impose guilt and not all of us are called to be evangelists, but would you dare pray, “Lord, burden my heart of the lost”? If you do, get ready for desperation.

But a penultimate thought: I have been taking it for granted that when people get desperate, they pray, but that isn’t always so. If prayer isn’t a natural part of your life it may be that you don’t think to ask for God’s help. Don’t you realise that our loving heavenly Father just longs to help us and is simply waiting to hear from us?

Which brings me to a final thought. In the previous meditation we thought about a number of women in the Bible who were barren and who only had children in older age. The temptation from the enemy is to think badly of God who ‘stopped’ them conceiving, but was that ‘stopping’ more a case of simply He had not intervened in the affairs of this Fallen World where things go wrong – one of them being women remaining childless? One of the things the enemy wants us to forget is that in every case we considered, God DID intervene and did enable them to conceive. It is easy to jump to wrong conclusions as we’ll see in the next study.

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

WALKING WITH GOD. No.15

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.