Text: 1 Samuel 2:1-10
It is now our seventh week of readings from the Essential 100 Bible Reading Plan. We have surveyed everything from creation to Abraham, Joseph, the Exodus, the law, the conquest of the Promised Land, and the failure of Israel to keep the covenant. Coming to 1 Samuel, the Bible sets the stage for God to reign over His chosen people forever. And the story involves Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah.
Elkanah loved both of his wives, just as Jacob – at least eventually – loved both Rachel and Leah. And just as in Rachel and Leah’s story, so Hannah and Peninnah found themselves locked in a rivalry over descendants. Like Leah, Peninnah bore many children for Elkanah, both sons and daughters. And like Rachel, Hannah found herself barren, unable to secure her future or the future of Elkanah with her womb, as was expected in that society.
And just like Leah, Peninnah made sure that Hannah knew how much of a failure she was since she could not have children. Hannah’s barrenness left her vulnerable to social stigmas of wealth, value, and honor. Despite Elkanah’s plea, “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Hannah succumbed to despair and anger at God.
This is who she was, at least in society’s estimation: rejected, a failure, cursed, unsuccessful. Everything in her society, culture, family, and worldview proclaimed these estimations. Without a child, she was no more than a freeloader who could not make a worthwhile contribution to the family’s fortune or future. Even worse, without children of her own, Hannah faced a dreadful poverty in her later years should she survive the graces and love of her husband. Naomi had been fortunate to have Ruth and Boaz to help care for her. Hannah had no such fallback. She had Peninnah and Peninnah’s children, and they were not a great source of comfort or security.
We humans invariably arrange ourselves in a pecking order, so named because of the way chickens arrange themselves with their beaks for access to food. We do it in any and every group setting in which we find ourselves. Sometimes we do it consciously, more often unconsciously. Either way, we constantly seek out our place in the lineup. In order to facilitate this, we have to make judgments about people so we can know whether they rank higher or lower than us. Those judgments must be made quickly, and adapted as more information comes in.
This pecking order establishment is precisely what was going on in the tents of both Jacob and Elkanah among their wives. Leah and Peninnah both had the argument, “I am better or more important than you because of I have children and you do not.” We make the same kind of arguments based on our assumptions of wealth, job position, age, and so on. Our judgment of another person’s relative importance means that the lower ranked person must defer to the higher ranked person.
1 Samuel is full of examples of people making such judgments of the worth of others based on their assessments, all in an effort to find a place in one social hierarchy or another and assert their relative privilege over another’s relative lowly state.
Peninnah judged the worth of Hannah in order to secure her future and the future of her children in the wealth of Elkanah. The people of Israel misjudged the importance of kings in establishing themselves among the nations of the world. The people of Israel also judged the value of Saul based on his stature – he stood a full head and shoulders taller than anyone else in Israel, and they assumed that meant he was their most qualified leader. Samuel, the last judge and first prophet of Israel, attempted to judge God’s choice of king from among Jesse’s sons, looking at the outward appearance rather than the heart of the sons, as God was doing. Saul, as king over Israel, judged the aspirations and loyalty of David based on Saul’s own insecurities and jealousy.
The common element in all of these stories is the inevitable tendency for humans to make the wrong assumptions and judgments based on our assessments of a situation. Israel did not need a king, they already had God as their king. Saul, despite his height, proved an incapable king. Based on the fact that he was tall, a firstborn, and handsome, Samuel assumed Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab, would be God’s choice for king. But he was wrong. God’s choice was David. And Saul assumed that David wanted to immediately claim the throne God had given him, but David proved again and again his loyalty to God’s first anointed, despite having already been anointed as king himself by Samuel.
1 Samuel 2 offers a corrective balance to our natural tendency to make judgments and arrange ourselves in a pecking order based. We make judgments based on what we see, but we rarely, if ever, see the whole picture. As God’s people, we need to be reminded of some truths about what we see and how we see.
First, God and God alone is sovereign. Listen to 1 Samuel 2:2-3, “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.” It is God who holds the knowledge of all that goes on. It is only God who can see the “butterfly effects” of our actions. The term “butterfly effect” refers to a theory that suggests that the simple flutter of a butterfly’s wings can set off a ripple of waves in the air that can in turn lead to storms – even massive ones – on the other side of the world. The idea is that even our smallest moves have consequences that we could never expect.
Whether or not a butterfly can really unleash such a tidal effect on the other side of the world, it is true that we can never estimate, guess, or know the full effects of all that we do or say. We cannot know the full extent of our value or importance to the people and world around us. God alone holds the knowledge of that. Peninnah could not estimate the true value of Hannah’s worth, even if she thought she could. Peninnah could not know the future and what might become of Hannah. She could not know what her role would be in God’s plan.
We cannot afford to misjudge someone based on the appearances that we see. Appearances do not tell the whole story, and they certainly say nothing about what may or may not be at some point in the future. So as you enter a room and start trying to find the proper place for your presence and conversation, remember that God can and does use anybody, no matter their circumstances or social standings. Jobs, appearances, socio-economics, possessions, politics, cleanliness, child bearing, retirement nest egg, education level – all of these are meaningless and poor measures of true value and worth. They cannot and do not establish the lasting pecking order of the Kingdom of God.
The second thing to remember as we look at all of those who are around us and start lining up who is better than us and who is not better than us is this: God is in the regular habit of overturning people’s circumstances. Especially the circumstances that we typically use to measure power and position. In verses 4-8 of 1 Samuel 2, we read of many whose positions are exchanged for their opposites. Military might is exchanged for powerlessness while the weak find untold strength. The hungry are fed while the well provided for find themselves famished. The living die and the dead live. The humble are exalted while the royal are brought low.
Circumstances are just that: circumstances. They can change more quickly than we imagine. Someone on the throne of power can be hiding in a ditch just days later, as Saddam Hussein found himself. The rich can lose it all, as many discovered in 1929 and again in 2008. The poor can inherit great bounty. Such changes upend the social order and cause chaos. So why spend our time making such judgments about people? People are people, and every one of them is equally valuable in God’s eyes. Peninnah assumed that Hannah would be barren her whole life. Did she see the future? No. Neither do we. What we are today says nothing about who we will be tomorrow.
The third reminder for us is that God protects those who are His. In verse 9 and 10 we read, “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. … The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.” When we, like Hannah, find ourselves in undesirable positions. When we, like Hannah, find ourselves on the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. We need to remember this: the battle is the Lord’s. He sees, just as He saw Israel enslaved in Egypt. He knows. He fights for us. Even if we should be like Lazarus in Luke 16, dying at the gate of a rich man, God will care for us and avenge us, as He did for Lazarus who went to Abraham.
We do not need to battle our own way into the kind of position or power that we desire. We need to rely on God to take care of us. He will do just that!
Finally, we need to have the right response to God no matter our social standings. At the beginning of 1 Samuel 2, God is praised and exalted. He is found to be the source of strength and honor. When our faith and trust are placed firmly in God, we need to fear no one else. When our faith and trust are firmly and rightly placed in God, our attention and worship will be properly directed. When our faith and trust are in our own rise through the social hierarchy, our attention and worship will be directed to whoever is above us, seeking to get within their power and influence and protection. But God alone is the power, influence, and protection that we need.
When Hannah was barren and desperate, even in her anger, she went to Shiloh to talk to God. She sought God. And in God, she found the protection, provision, and deliverance she needed. God provided. God protected.
Hannah and Peninnah’s story does not end with Peninnah’s ridicule and Hannah’s despair. There, at Shiloh, she poured out her heart to Him. After returning home, Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son she named, “God has heard.” Or, to transliterate the Hebrew, Samuel. After Samuel was weaned, she returned to Shiloh and presented Samuel to the LORD, where he remained to serve God, going on to become both a judge and a prophet. It was Hannah who prayed the prayer that is recorded in the first part of 1 Samuel 2. This prayer would in turn inspire the prayer of a virgin named Mary in Luke 1.
We make judgments all the time, especially as regards to our place in the pecking order of the group we are in. And, of course, as followers of Christ, we know that the pecking order of the Kingdom of God is far different than what we are traditionally accustomed to. Jesus said, “The last will be first and the first last.” My challenge to all of us this morning is to remember that there is only one social hierarchy that matters. It has nothing to do with wealth. It has nothing to do with political or military power. It has nothing to do with the abundance or lack of offspring.
Instead, it has everything to do with our relationship status with God and His Son, Jesus. Are we adopted into the family of God and guaranteed our position of privilege and abundance in His Kingdom? That is the lone and final value judgment. In that family and in that Kingdom there is one Firstborn, and none of us is Him. That is Jesus. The rest of us are adopted as full sons and daughters. We are equal siblings with equal shares of the kingdom. Therefore, we have nothing to boast except in this: that Christ is our Lord and our Savior.
Let us boast in this. And let us be active in inviting and welcoming all of our brothers and sisters from every people, tribe, language, and nation into our family. And let us let the social maneuverings of this world fade into the background of that which is to come.