The God of Every Story

Editor’s Note: Today we’re wrapping up our Believing God in Unwanted Circumstances study with reading and/or listening to Psalm 34, and we’re sharing this final post in the series. We hope you’ve been encouraged and challenged by this study and the words our writers have shared. Stay tuned for Abiding, our next study, which will begin next week!

By Sarah Lloyd

Kids love holidays. In my classrooms, students excitedly share details of upcoming celebrations and debate which holiday is the best. Christmas? Birthdays? Summer vacation? My own childhood memories, filled with the happiness of cousin playtime and extended family celebrations, rarely paired the idea of a holiday with sadness or grief. Now, I observe around and within me the complex array of emotions that holidays can provoke. Thanksgiving and Christmas bring wonderful food, music, and entertainment, but they feel lonely when my family is scattered across the globe. For a widowed friend, birthdays and anniversaries spark happy memories of years shared with her husband but are mixed with sadness that death has now separated them. Mother’s Day is a celebration of the gift of motherhood, but for some, it is a painful reminder of the relationships they do not have with their own children or mothers.

Hannah’s story opens with a similarly challenging holiday as every year her husband Elkanah took his family to Shiloh for worship and sacrifice to the Lord. Although Elkanah clearly loved and honored Hannah, this annual event was a bitter reminder of how his other wife, Peninnah, was her rival. In a culture in which a wife’s many sons served as a sign of status and prosperity, Hannah had no children, while Peninnah had multiple sons and daughters. We don’t know Hannah’s diagnosis beyond “the Lord had closed her womb” (I Samuel 1:6), but the narrative presents Peninnah’s actions as the primary cause of her distress, not infertility itself. Her rival provoked Hannah bitterly “year after year, as often as she went up to the house of the Lord,” causing her to weep, refuse to eat, and run away from the rest of the family to cry out in prayer to the Lord.

Does this response sound familiar? Hagar also fled from provocation when it became too intense for her to bear, encountering in the wilderness a God who saw, drew near to her, and gave her the strength to return to an abusive situation. Hannah’s story echoes this pattern. Obviously, their stories share the conflict that arises between wives when one is barren and the other is not, but there are deeper parallels. Just as Hagar fled from Sarai, Hannah fled from Peninnah’s provocation and poured out her soul to the Lord in prayer with such desperation that Eli thought she was drunk. Although Hannah did not hear directly from the angel of the Lord, Eli answered her, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him” (1:17). Whether intentionally or not, Eli spoke to Hannah, using the name Israel, Sarai’s grandson, which evoked the story of Hagar’s own rival in a similar situation. The God who saw Hagar also saw Hannah.

After hearing Eli’s response to her heartfelt prayer, Hannah had a choice. How would she live with Peninnah and all her children year after year? The narrative tells us that even before she conceived, her face was no longer sad. Her song of thanksgiving in chapter 2 tells us why. Hannah’s heart rejoiced in the Lord and delighted in His salvation. Her situation had not yet changed, but her focus was moved from the actions and character of her rival to that of her God. This reminds me of Rahab’s faith and boldness instead of the heart-melting fear exhibited by those around her. As she waited, not knowing what would happen to her as the spies returned to camp and the army began marching around her city, she trusted in the character of the God of Israel, limited as her knowledge may have been. Similarly, Hannah trusted God’s character, confident of His salvation even as she was surrounded by her rival and limited in her knowledge of how God would deliver her from the shame of childlessness.

God did save Hannah from her shame, for “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son.” She called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord” (1:20). Here, we see the overwhelming joy of God’s salvation expressed in Hannah’s prayer from chapter 2. Do you see the parallel to our third Old Testament woman? Last week, we read a song of exultation penned by Deborah and Barak in response to God’s work in their lives. We saw how Deborah praised God and drew attention to His work, rather than seeking glory for herself. Similarly, Hannah’s prayer is full of praise to a God who resists the proud but honors the humble and needy. She does not seek revenge on Peninnah or provoke her bitterly with the fact that Hannah now has both children and the love of their husband. Her prayer does not mention her rival at all! The entirety of her praise and attention are on the work and character of the Lord as she says, “There is no one besides You, nor is there any rock like our God” (2:2).

The same God is our rock today. Even when our circumstances seem bitter and hopeless, we have the great joy of knowing the Lord and experiencing His salvation. My prayer for each of you, my sisters, is that you would experience the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord in the middle of your own unwanted circumstances (Philippians 3:8). As we move into the coming holiday season, as you feel an array of emotion with each tradition that is different this year, may you take time to pour out your heart to the Lord in prayer. Like Hannah, may your heart rejoice in the Lord not because of the blessings He may give but because of Who He is — the God who sees, answers, and delivers us in our distress.