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Phil Cox - Go in Peace

Go in Peace

12th January 2008

I'm indebted to my good friend, Allen Brewer, for much of this week's column. I heard him teaching on the first chapter of 1 Samuel and it got me thinking.

1 Samuel 1v1-2
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

Such arrangements were not uncommon in those days (around 1100 B.C.) but in the beginning, God made Adam and Eve; not Adam and Eve and Tracy. And we shouldn't be surprised that there was tension in the family:

1 Samuel 1v3-8
3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the LORD. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. 6 And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.
7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Elkanah her husband would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why donít you eat? Why are you downhearted? Donít I mean more to you than ten sons?"

Inevitably, Elkanah loved one wife more than the other; he loved Hannah more than he loved Peninnah. I'm sure Peninnah wasn't thrilled about this, and she took her revenge by mocking Hannah because Hannah was childless. Hannah was so upset that she wouldn't eat.

Elkanah was a God-fearing man; every year he went to the sanctuary to sacrifice to God. But some God-fearing people can also be highly insensitive. We don't know the tone of voice he used to Hannah, and we can't be sure what he was trying to say, but I don't think a woman who longed to bear her beloved husband a child would be comforted by his saying "don't worry about it dear, have another piece of meat".

Again, we're not sure how Elkanah spoke when he said "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why donít you eat? Why are you downhearted? Donít I mean more to you than ten sons?" but it may well have sounded like "Why do you keep on about having babies? Aren't I important to you then?" Even if that's not what he meant, it may well be what she heard. It certainly doesn't seem to have helped her:

1 Samuel 1v9-11
9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the LORDís temple. 10 In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. 11 And she made a vow, saying, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servantís 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."

Through the pain and the tears, Hannah kept on praying.

But Eli totally misread the situation:

1 Samuel 1v12-14
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 will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."

We have to ask ourselves why Eli thought that it was likely that Hannah was drunk. I think the answer has to be that others had been drunk in the Sanctuary before. I'm glad to be able to say that I don't see many people drunk in church these days! But I also have to say that I have seen various other sorts of misbehaviour in church. Usually, it's people failing to show love to others.

But Eli was failing in his duty. He should not have assumed that Hannah was drunk. He certainly should not have accused her without evidence. How often do we accuse or despise others without knowing why they act as they do?

Hannah wasn't drunk - she was in distress!

1 Samuel 1v15-16
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."

And, as Eli comes to understand the reality of Hannah's situation, he starts acting as a priest should:

1 Samuel 1v17-18
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 favour in your eyes." Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.

Does that amaze you? For years, the pain of waiting for God to answer her prayer, the anguish of listening to the taunts of Peninnah, being so distressed she couldn't eat, and now "her face was no longer downcast". What had changed? A servant of God had listened to her tell her story, and had communicated to her that to keep looking for God's answer to her prayers was the right thing to do. And, although it was to be some time before God answered Hannah's prayer, she immediately knew a significant measure of healing. Eli's compassion, even though he couldn't help her to get what she longed for, brought healing for her emotions. Maybe it also helped her to have faith in God's compassion.

As Christians, we're ALL priests (1 Peter 2v9). We all have a major effect on those around us who are experiencing pain and sorrow.

  • Some of us do the opposite of the Good Samaritan, and walk the other way, in order to avoid having to talk to someone who's hurting. They notice when we do this.
  • Some of us tell them to buck up and be positive, or to "rejoice in all circumstances".
  • Some of us give them a bit of heartless theology - telling them that pain's good for them, because it's character-building.
  • Some of us interrupt them, and talk about ourselves. This makes them feel like they're not worth listening to.
Jesus never did any of these things, and neither should we! We should listen to their story, affirm them in their seeking God's help, and pray with them. As Eli did.

We can derive several lessons from this story. Here's a few of them:

  1. Don't give up praying for your dreams. If you're praying for a good thing, don't stop praying until God answers you, or until God clearly tells you to stop.
  2. Don't be in a hurry to criticise others. You don't know why they're behaving as they are.
  3. When someone's hurting deeply, take their pain seriously. Don't ignore them. Don't lecture them. Don't interrupt them. Don't tell them to "cheer up and get on it". For goodness' sake, don't tell them the Bible requires them to "rejoice in the Lord always". Listen to them, share their pain, and let them know that you've heard them.