“God, if You get me out of this alive, I swear I’ll turn my life around. No more drinking. No more women. I’ll fly straight from now on, I promise.” Meanwhile, bombs and grenades explode all around this terrified soldier, terrified for his life.
You’re probably familiar with this movie trope in which the desperate protagonist tries to cut a deal with God in return for sparing his life. But it doesn’t happen just on the big screen. Because I lived unmarried for ten years after college, I understand the temptation to try to give God something in exchange for an answer to prayer: for singles maybe it’s the promise of sexual purity or commitment to “contentment.” We have a natural (albeit sinful) tendency to think that we can somehow bargain with God to cajole Him into giving us what we want.
Scripture even appears to give a precedent for such prayers. After all, isn’t this what the barren Hannah does in 1 Samuel 1?
Making a vow, she pleaded, “LORD of Armies, if you will take notice of your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give your servant a son, I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.” (1Sam 1:11)
Just a few verses later we read this: “After some time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son” (v. 20). So, it worked, right? Here in the pages of Scripture we have a biblical pattern for attempting to strike a deal with God.
Not so fast.
Yes, Hannah made a vow to God. But dig a little deeper into her story, and I think we find anything but prayerful manipulation.
Description or Prescription?
When reading the narrative portions of Scripture, we often have to answer a fundamental interpretive question: Is this descriptive or prescriptive? Simply put, we have to determine whether the biblical author is merely describing events that happened or if he is prescribing that everyone take such actions? Most of the time, this is easy: boys get haircuts without worrying that they’ll lose their big muscles; brothers do not throw their father’s favorite into a pit and then sell him into slavery; and not many battles today are fought by marching around a city once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. However, sometimes this question is a little bit trickier: Should we set out fleeces the way Gideon did? Is Daniel’s water-and-veggie diet a good idea for us today? If I really want something, should I make a vow to God the way Hannah did?
The way you answer the descriptive vs. prescriptive question will determine how you apply the passage in question. And that means we really need to get it right. In Hannah’s case, I believe the answer is that the writer is describing what she did. In many ways Hannah is exemplary in her prayer, but if we walk away from Hannah’s story in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel thinking that it teaches how to get God to answer your most desperate prayers—that is by making a vow—we will miss out on parts of Hannah’s life that ought to be prescriptive for us today.
From the Depth of Her Anguish
Hannah’s story doesn’t begin with her vow to God; it begins with bigamy. Her husband, Elkanah, had two wives: Peninnah, who gave him progeny; and Hannah, whom he truly loved but who could bear no children (1 Sam. 1:2, 5). As I imagine is often the case in polyamorous marriages, rivalry arose between the two wives. Peninnah, perhaps knowing she was not her husband’s favorite, taunted Hannah about her deepest sorrow (1:6). We don’t know for how long Hannah put up with this ridicule, but eventually she could handle it no more. She didn’t throw a tantrum or even rub her status as Elkanah’s favorite in Peninnah’s face. She went to the temple and prayed.
This was not just the prayer of a woman scorned. Yes, she prayed passionately and desperately. But she “poured out her heart” to God and cried to Him “from the depth of her anguish.” Hannah’s relationship with Yahweh was real. Scripture does not record any of her prayer on that day besides the vow, but from the words describing it, we can glean that she wrestled with a God she knew.
This comes into clearer focus when you take a look at the surrounding context. Intermingled with Hannah’s story is that of the priest Eli and his wicked sons, Hophni and Phineas. Without going into their story, suffice it to say that Hophni and Phineas were perfectly content to wear the priestly clothes, play the priestly game, yet have no relationship with God whatsoever. And, tragically, Eli was too weak to stop them.
Hannah, along with her genuine relationship with God, is a foil to these craven characters. She, therefore, does not make this vow as some sort of “shortcut” to getting God to answer her prayer. That’s what Hophni and Phineas would have done. She makes it because her heart so longs for a child that in gratitude for God working in this way, she would give the child back to him.
Of course, God answers Hannah’s desperate plea for a child, and Hannah keeps her vow. She waits until young Samuel is weaned, and then she takes him to the temple, where he will be devoted to service to the LORD (1 Sam. 1:26-28). I really can’t imagine how hard keeping this vow must have been for Hannah, but she does it (another clue she was not just “manipulating” God). In fact, as the biblical narrative reads, the next words out of her mouth are a psalm of praise to God.
This psalm also clues us into Hannah’s prayerful heart. Far from one of manipulating God into feeding her idols, Hannah revels in the sovereign providence of God. The psalm isn’t about her getting what she wanted so desperately. It’s about God and His ability to do whatever He pleases.
The bows of the warriors are broken,
but the feeble are clothed with strength.
Those who are full hire themselves out for food,
but those who are starving hunger no more.
The woman who is childless gives birth to seven,
but the woman with many sons pines away.
The LORD brings death and gives life;
he sends some down to Sheol,
and he raises others up.
The LORD brings poverty and gives wealth;
he humbles and he exalts. (1Sa 2:4-7)
She speaks of God making the feeble strong, the hungry filled, the barren fertile, the dead alive, and the humble exalted. Why does this happen? Not because of the slick worldly-wisdom of a prayerful manipulator. Hannah says it’s because “the foundation of the earth are the LORD’s; he has set the world on them” (2:8).
Hannah recognized that the earth and everything in it belongs to the sovereign Creator. She made a vow to God and kept it, which was right. However, she does not give us a recipe for how to finagle whatever we want from a stingy God. Instead, she instructs us to pray to the One who “guards the steps of his faithful ones” (2:9) and to pour out our hearts to Him.
But He is never manipulated.