There is something special about a mother’s gift, especially her first gift. As is common, a mom often gives her newborn some keepsake gift. She crochets a blanket, buys a cool mobile to go over the crib, or hangs a picture on the wall. Even though the baby is just going to spit up on it, the mom makes the quilt charming and stitches it together with love and meaning. This first present regularly gets passed on to us. Maybe you, or your mom, still has your baby blanket somewhere.
Well, Hannah also made a special gift for her son. This gift was not a blanket or a stuffed animal, but it was beautiful. Woven together with elaborate affection, Hannah gave her son a prayer, a song. So precious did this song of Hannah become to Samuel that he passed it on to his spiritual descendants, even to the point of it coming to Mary, our Lord’s mother. And this song is still draped at the foot of the bed of our faith, so that we can read it and rejoice in Christ, who lifted us up out of the dust of sin and death.
In order to appreciate the elegance and joy of Hannah’s song, we must understand Hannah’s affliction. As a first impression, Hannah’s inability to have kids does not seems that big of a deal to us, so a second read is in order. Year after year, Elkanah would take his two wives up to Shiloh to worship at the tabernacle. And where Peninnah had several sons and daughters in tow, Hannah had none—Peninnah loved to rub this in. She tortured Hannah with provocations and evil words, beating Hannah down every year. Yet, it says in 1 Sam 1:6 that Peninnah harassed Hannah because the Lord had closed her womb. There is no passive construction here—Hannah was barren—which veils the cause of barrenness. The active construction slaps us in the face, “the Lord has closed her womb.” The Lord caused Hannah to be barren.
Hannah’s inability to conceive a child was not simply a medical issue but a spiritual one. In Deut 7:14, the Lord promised, “You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you.” This promise is also repeated in Exodus 23, so that twice the Lord clarified that there would be no barrenness in Israel, due to his blessing. This means Hannah is explicitly under the Lord’s curse. He took the blessing of fertility away from her, locking her under the barren curse. No wonder, Peninnah bullies Hannah with insults—she is like a covenant misfit, which is why the torments come as the family goes up to worship. In the taunts of Peninnah, Hannah is hearing the curse of God.
And Elkanah was not much better to Hannah. The text does say he loved her, but the proof of this love is not impressive. One year, as Hannah is balling in depression, Elkanah says to her, “Why are you so sad?” Is Elkanah a blockhead? Does he really not know why she upset? Of course he does, these are questions of rebuke and irritation. What he means is: “Why are you such a sourpuss? Stop being a party-pooper.” His last question, though, is like a slap in the face: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 1:8). Silly Elkanah, arrogantly thinking that all a woman needs is a man. Elkanah is not more than sons to Hannah. He cannot give her a name to be passed on, only a son can do this. If Elkanah dies, Hannah has nothing without a child. And most of all, Elkanah cannot lift God’s curse, only a child can remove the curse of barrenness.
After Elkanah pours salt in the wounds made by Peninnah, it is no surprise that Hannah is further depressed and weeping. Therefore, Hannah vows that if the Lord grants her a son, she will give the son to the Lord, to serve him his whole life. Consider the significance of this. First, Hannah completely leaves Elkanah out. Elkanah is not going to benefit from this son; this boy won’t be another arrow in Elkanah’s quiver, for the boy will belong to the Lord.
Secondly, this vow reveals Hannah’s true desire. Her desire is not primarily to be a mom. She is not asking the Lord for the opportunity to hold her own baby, for Hannah is giving the boy to the Lord. Hannah will not enjoy the toddler years filled with finger painting and play-doh. All these delights of motherhood, Hannah vows away. This means Hannah’s chief desire is a lifting of the curse. She longs for the Lord to shine his face upon her, begging in tears to enjoy the Lord’s good favor. Only a son can lift her out of the dust of misery and God forsakenness. Only a son can make the Lord’s blessings come to her.
And the Lord answers Hannah’s petition. She conceives and gives birth to a son, and Elkanah does not seem happy about it. In 1:23, he makes sure that the boy is given to the Lord. Elkanah does not appear to want the boy around, as if the child is a reminder that Hannah needed more than him.
When the time comes to wean Samuel, Hannah heads up to Shiloh to worship and give Samuel away. Significantly, Hannah does not offer the song after the birth, but she sings it at Samuel’s dedication to the Lord. Her full redemption comes not at the birth, but at the fulfilling of her vow. This is the true moment when the curse is lifted. Even though Hannah will go home practically childless, she will return in the favor of God. This is what Hannah ultimately longed for and needed, not a husband nor a child, but the salvation of God through a son.
Hannah’s song is her keepsake gift wrapped around her boy, which is why she artfully fashioned her harmony with beauty and unmistakable joy. “My heart exults in the Lord.” Previously, Hannah wept in depression and agony, but now she is overflowing with jubilation and elation. Her tears have become the euphoria of song, which flows not from husband or child, but from the Lord as her salvation. The Lord is the only God and Rock, who saves his people—the Savior of Hannah.
Moreover, Hannah paints her praises of the Lord as the One who brings about great reversals. Her song hums with the themes of power and strength. What is true strength and where does it come from? And these issues are played out on the vertical scale from high to low, from low to high. Hannah rebukes, her mouth derides her enemies; she warns her foes to silence their arrogance. And in the context, it is hard not to include Peninnah and Elkanah with her adversaries. Peninnah stabbed Hannah with the curse as a knife, driving it deeper. Elkanah twisted the blade with his arrogance and insensitivity. Being high, Elkanah and Peninnah couldn’t help walking on little, low Hannah. Her cross-hairs, of course, are aimed at bigger and badder foes.
The Lord, though, has the power to reverse such fates, bringing low those who laud themselves. The mighty warrior’s bow is broken. Those who had freezers and pantries full of food, now have to hold a cardboard sign saying, “Will work for food.” The Lord humbles and he alone exalts. The frail, the Lord girds with strength like a marine. The infertile mother gives birth to seven sons. God takes the dirty homeless man from scrapping life out of dumpster to dining on a seven-course meal as the guest of honor.
Hannah displays the might of the Lord in Vegas lights. And the Lord has the power to do this because he is the only God. He is the God of knowledge—he knows all, nothing can be hidden from him. With this all-encompassing knowledge, God weighs all actions and he holds to account. As the mighty creator, God executes his judgments. Having shaped the mountains and muzzled the sea, the Lord can exalt the lowly and abase the arrogant. God will thunder against his adversaries to cut off the wicked in darkness. While the steps of his faithful ones he will protect and keep.
Therefore, these reversals are not done capriciously by the Lord, but according to his just knowledge, for the good of his faithful people. Indeed, overcoming before the Lord is not a matter of human strength: “for not by might shall a man prevail” (2 Sam 2:9). People do not succeed by their own striving, but it is by God’s might. Our strength comes from believing in God, being faithfully devoted to him.
The insight of Hannah’s poetic quilt, however, does not limit the Lord’s potency to reversing the external circumstances of our lives, but it extends to deepest low of life. From the hands of our Lord surges the power of life and death (1 Sam 2:6). He kills and makes alive. He forms new life in the womb, where there was once unfruitfulness. The Lord can even bring one up from Sheol. The first word in v 6 for “brings to life” can merely refer to the giving of life, like God creating life in Hannah’s womb. The second phrase, though, “raises up from Sheol” explicitly lauds God’s capacity for resurrection. Behind all these economic reversals, the chief reality on Hannah’s mind is a spiritual one. It is not the deliverance from poverty, but the deliverance from the curse of death. Hannah’s salvation is not to be found in getting more money or even becoming pregnant per se. But, it is deliverance from her curse, being restored to the light of God’s face—the place where true life is discovered.
Nevertheless, as we near the end of her poem, Hannah has not sung about the means of God’s salvation. She harmonized about what God’s salvation is, but not how it came to her. What was the means of Hannah’s reversal? Like a crescendo, the high point crowns the end: “he will give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed” (2:10). Out of the blue, Hannah rhymes about God’s king and anointed one. Why does Hannah magic a king out of a hat? There is not even a king in Israel at this point in history. We struggle to follow Hannah’s tune. Well, this mention of the anointed king reveals the means of God’s deliverance; through the anointed king come the reversals. And so, it discloses the true object of Hannah’s hope and joy.
Unfortunately, the clarity of Hannah’s genius is lost in translation. In v 1, Hannah’s literally sang, “my horn is exalted in the Lord.” A horn was a visible symbol of one’s success and strength, which was often applied to one’s progeny—a son. To raise your horn is for your kid to be raised up in might and glory. The raising of Hannah’s horn is the dedication of Samuel to the Lord as the visible sign of her deliverance; her success over her enemies.
Therefore, in v 10, Hannah uses the same language, “The Lord will raise the horn of his anointed.” Hannah equates the raising of her horn with the Lord raising up the anointed king. The brilliance of Hannah’s faith sees that God will use Samuel to raise up his king who will bring about this great salvation. The joy of Hannah delights in the Lord choosing her baby boy for the redemption of all of His people. In faith, she dedicates Samuel to the Lord so that the Lord might rescue his faithful ones from death. This means by faith Hannah embraced Christ from afar. Hannah happily gave up her only son, so that she might receive back life from God’s anointed.
Hannah sewed this song together for her son out of faith in Christ. She was overjoyed because she understood that God granted her the favor of being part of his plan to bring forth the Messiah. Hannah’s clarity saw the reality of God’s plan, as it was none other than her baby who became the king-maker. The oil from Samuel’s horn will rain over David’s head. Samuel’s oil was the anointing Spirit over the Davidic monarchy, ever flowing until it reached the true son of David. And along with this vial of anointing oil came the song of Hannah. It was Hannah’s words of faith and Samuel’s oil that kept the faith of God’s people alive as they waited for the anointed king.
Therefore, when the angel told Mary that the one conceived in her womb was the Messiah of God, she responded with the words of her spiritual grandma, Hannah. Mary constructed her Magnificat off the song of Hannah, in order to express her elation and faith, as Hannah had done in a mother’s gift.
And so, the song of Hannah is our song. Hers is the ideal psalm to praise God with as we think about the birth of our Savior. As the Son of the Most High was born in a barn, he came to reverse our fortunes. Jesus was not sent to reverse our financial stations, but to invert the only poverty that really matters—the poverty of sin. From the dust of cursed death, Christ exalted you up to the soaring riches of heaven by becoming poor for you. Though equal to God, Jesus became a servant. With the might of a warrior, Jesus allowed his bow to be shattered for you. The Holy One became sin for you. By this humiliation, Christ conquered for you, for as Jesus willingly went down to Sheol, so God raised him to a new life for you.
The incarnation and humiliation of Christ is what you behold as the true fulfillment of Hannah’s song. Like a lyrical Beethoven, Hannah composed a song of praise about Christ for your faith and joy. Christ lovingly reversed his fortunes so that he might reverse your everlasting fortunes. He covered himself with dust to lift you out of the mire of sin to seat you in the heavenly places with him.
As we give thanks to Christ for his becoming a man for us, may we use the beautiful language of our spiritual grandmothers, Mary and Hannah. With their poetry, the Spirit gives us the words to honor our Glorious Savior and King with a pure joy and true faith in Him, as we wait in confidence for his second coming, when he will finally deliver us from the sting of death.
Zach Keele is pastor of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in California and a lecturer in Greek, Hebrew, and English Bible Survey at Westminster Seminary California. He is the author of a commentary on Judges for the Rafiki Foundation (2009) and several articles and book reviews in New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
This article was originally published at Modern Reformation on December 21, 2020