One of the more difficult aspects of life for me to grasp sometimes is that, although what I’m praying for may be good and even God’s will for me, the timing is not right for that prayer to be answered the way I ask for it. My human nature is to do my best Veruca Salt imitation (“I want it NOW!”). Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one that I am in short supply of at times.
The story of Hannah in I Samuel is one of my favorite Bible studies. I’m so glad that the Bible includes stories of people with deep longings that have gone unfulfilled–in Hannah’s case, the desire for a child. Her longing drove her to prayer at the Tabernacle, a prayer in which she promised to dedicate her child back to the Lord. For some, this could have been a hollow prayer, a rash promise made in desperation, but Hannah meant it. She gave birth to a son, Samuel, and when he was weaned she brought the child that she had so desperately wanted back to the Tabernacle to live and serve under the direction of Eli, the high priest.
I’ve heard and read the story of Hannah since I was a child myself, but only recently did it hit me that perhaps part of the reason for Hannah’s delay in having a child was that the timing was simply not right. You see, while Eli was a devout follower of God and served Him faithfully in the Tabernacle, his sons were far from devout. The actions of Eli’s flesh and blood sons stood in stark contrast to that of Samuel, the child that Eli had taken under his wing.
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels who had no respect for the Lord or for their duties as priests. Whenever anyone offered a sacrifice, Eli’s sons would send over a servant with a three-pronged fork. While the meat of the sacrificed animal was still boiling, the servant would stick the fork into the pot and demand that whatever it brought up be given to Eli’s sons. All the Israelites who came to worship at Shiloh were treated this way. Sometimes the servant would come even before the animal’s fat had been burned on the altar. He would demand raw meat before it had been boiled so that it could be used for roasting.
The man offering the sacrifice might reply, “Take as much as you want, but the fat must be burned first.” Then the servant would demand, “No, give it to me now, or I’ll take it by force.” So the sin of these young men was very serious in the Lord’s sight, for they treated the Lord’s offerings with contempt.
But Samuel, though he was only a boy, served the Lord. He wore a linen garment like that of a priest.
Now Eli was very old, but he was aware of what his sons were doing to the people of Israel. He knew, for instance, that his sons were seducing the young women who assisted at the entrance of the Tabernacle. Eli said to them, “I have been hearing reports from all the people about the wicked things you are doing. Why do you keep sinning? You must stop, my sons! The reports I hear among the Lord’s people are not good. If someone sins against another person, God can mediate for the guilty party. But if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede?” But Eli’s sons wouldn’t listen to their father, for the Lord was already planning to put them to death.
Meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew taller and grew in favor with the Lord and with the people. (I Samuel 2:12-18; 22-26, emphasis mine)
The evildoings of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, did not go unnoticed by God. Nor did the faithful service of young Samuel.
“Therefore, the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I promised that your branch of the tribe of Levi would always be my priests. But I will honor those who honor me, and I will despise those who think lightly of me. The time is coming when I will put an end to your family, so it will no longer serve as my priests. All the members of your family will die before their time. None will reach old age. You will watch with envy as I pour out prosperity on the people of Israel. But no members of your family will ever live out their days. The few not cut off from serving at my altar will survive, but only so their eyes can go blind and their hearts break, and their children will die a violent death. And to prove that what I have said will come true, I will cause your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to die on the same day!
“Then I will raise up a faithful priest who will serve me and do what I desire. I will establish his family, and they will be priests to my anointed kings forever.” (I Samuel 2:30-35)
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the birth of Samuel coincided with the need of Eli for a successor who would follow God’s ways. He was born of a woman who was bold and courageous in following through on her promise to the Lord, and I am sure that she passed those courageous traits on to her son. At just the right time, Samuel was raised to step up as Israel’s leader in place of Eli’s wicked sons.
How soon I forget the importance of timing in God answering prayers. This reminder is yet another reason for me to find Hannah’s story so precious.