Now let us look a bit at the second of these, the portrait of Hannah the Hebrew woman. First the broader lines for perspective. This peculiar Hebrew nation had two deep dips down morally between Egypt and Babylon; between the first making, and the final breaking. The national tide ebbed very low twice, before it finally ran out in the Euphrates Valley. Elijah stemmed the tide the second time, and saved the day for a later night. The Hannah story belongs in the first of these ebb-tides; the first bad sag; the first deep gap.
The giant lawgiver is long gone. His successor, only a less giant than himself is gone too, and all that generation, and more. The giants gave way to smaller-sized leaders. Now they are gone also. The mountain peaks have been lost in the foothills, and these have yielded to dunes, and levels; mostly levels; dead levels. These mountains must have had long legs. The foothills are so far away, and are running all to toes. Now the toes have disappeared.
It is a leaderless people, for the true Leader as originally planned has been, first ignored, then forgot. The people have no ideals. They grub in the earth content. There is a deep, hidden-away current of good. But it needs leadership to bring it to the surface. A leaderless people! This is the niche of the Hannah story.
The nation was rapidly drifting down to the moral level of the lowest. At Shiloh the formal worship was kept up, but the very priests were tainted with the worst impurity. A sort of sleepy, slovenly anarchy prevailed. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes, with every indication of a gutter standard. "There was none in the land possessing power of restraint that might put them to shame in anything." No government; no dominant spirit. Indeed the actual conditions of Sodom and her sister cities of the plain existed among the people. This is the setting of the simple graphic incident of Hannah. One must get the picture clearly in mind to understand the story.
Up in the hill country of Ephraim there lived a wise-hearted religious man, a farmer, raising stock, and grain; and fruit, too, likely. He was earnest but not of the sort to rise above the habit of his time. His farm was not far from Shiloh, the national place of worship, and he made yearly trips there with the family. But the woman-degrading curse of Lamech was over his home. He had two wives. Hannah was the loved one. (No man ever yet gave his heart to two women.) She was a gentle-spoken, thoughtful woman, with a deep, earnest spirit. But she had a disappointment which grew in intensity as it continued. The desire of her heart had been withheld. She was childless.
Though the thing is not mentioned the whole inference is that she prayed earnestly and persistently but to her surprise and deep disappointment the desired answer came not. To make it worse her rival—what a word, for the other one in the home with her—her rival provoked her sore to make her fret. And that thing went on year after year. That teasing, nagging, picking of a small nature was her constant prod. What an atmosphere for a home! Is it any wonder that "she was in bitterness of soul" and "wept sore"? Her husband tenderly tries to comfort her. But her inner spirit remains chafed to the quick. And all this goes on for years; the yearning, the praying, the failure of answer, the biting, bitter atmosphere,—for years. And she wonders why.
Why was it? Step back and up a bit and get the broader view which the narrow limits of her surroundings, and shall I say, too, though not critically, of her spirit, shut out from her eyes. Here is what she saw: her fondest hope unrealized, long praying unanswered, a constant ferment at home. Here is what she wanted:—a son. That is her horizon. Beyond that her thought does not rise.
Here is what God saw:—a nation—no, much worse—the nation, in which centred His great love-plan for winning His prodigal world, going to pieces. The messenger to the prodigal was being slyly, subtly seduced by the prodigal. The saviour-nation was being itself lost. The plan so long and patiently fostered for saving a world was threatened with utter disaster.
Here is what He wanted—a leader! But there were no leaders. And, worse yet, there were no men out of whom leaders might be made, no men of leader-size. And worse yet there were no women of the sort to train and shape a man for leadership. That is the lowest level to which a people ever gets, aye, ever can get. God had to get a woman before He could get a man. Hannah had in her the making of the woman He needed. God honoured her by choosing her. But she must be changed before she could be used. And so there came those years of pruning, and sifting, and discipline. Shall we spell that word discipline with a final g instead of e—discipling, so the love of it may be plainer to our near-sightedness? And out of those years and experiences there came a new woman. A woman with vision broadened, with spirit mellowed, with strength seasoned, with will so sinewy supple as to yield to a higher will, to sacrifice the dearest personal pleasure for the world-wide purpose; willing that he who was her dearest treasure should be the nation's first.
Then followed months of prayer while the man was coming. Samuel was born, no, farther back yet, was conceived in the atmosphere of prayer and devotion to God. The prenatal influences for those months gave the sort of man God wanted. And a nation, the nation, the world-plan, was saved! This man became a living answer to prayer. The romantic story of the little boy up in the Shiloh tabernacle quickly spread over the nation. His very name—Samuel, God hears—sifted into people's ears the facts of a God, and of the power of prayer. The very sight of the boy and of the man clear to the end kept deepening the brain impression through eyeballs that God answers prayer. And the seeds of that re-belief in God that Samuel's leadership brought about were sown by the unusual story of his birth.
The answer was delayed that more might be given and gotten. And Hannah's exultant song of praise reveals the fineness to which the texture of her nature had been spun. And it tells too how grateful she was for a God who in great patience and of strong deliberate purpose delayed the answer to her prayer.