And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” (1 Sam. 1:11).
Although Hannah was vexed by her adversary’s constant provocations (1:6–7, 10), we must not get the impression that she was a downtrodden and timid woman in general. Quite the opposite. From what we learn from the content of her prayers, her dutiful obedience to keep her vow and give up her son, and the nature of her public prophetic announcements later, we can judge that she was a woman who was intensely faithful to God on a personal level, and that her personal faith flowed into every area of life. She was a bold woman who was not afraid to confront the wicked rulers of her day in public, albeit with grace and respect, nor was she afraid to take large steps of faith.
We can discern that her deep faithfulness flowed into a deep love of church and of country as well. Particularly we learn that she was willing to sacrifice of her own in order to see God turn around her nation. To this end she had a plan: that if God would visit her womb with a male child, she would dedicate that child to God by the special vow of the Nazirite, a national holy warrior for God. In short, her faith was intensely personal and it was intensely political. Her plan was to bring into this sinful scene a holy warrior for God who would return the nation to faithfulness. She looked, as it were, upon her failing nation and said, “This calls for war.” So, she began with spiritual warfare, proceeded with the warfare of commitment and obedience, and ended (as we shall see in the next lesson) by calling down God’s judgment first upon the house of God (1 Sam. 2:1–11).
While wickedness abounded all around her, Hannah was privately planning revival and restoration for her nation. She had a plan that began with prayer, proceeded with self-sacrifice, and required bold public truth-telling: three jobs no one really wants in any age. But Hannah’s actions were filled with grace—the meaning of her name, after all. What looks at first like a story of a personal rivalry ends up illustrating the tremendous self-sacrificial character of Hannah. Those personal taunts were nothing in the big picture. Far from praying to vindicate herself over against Penninah, Hannah’s eye was upon a much larger vindication. She did not seek a personal victory. Rather, she made a personal sacrifice toward a victory for God. Most importantly, when the time came, she faithfully prayed, she faithfully sacrificed, she faithfully spoke, and God blessed her at every turn.
This Calls for War
Hannah’s prayer is specifically a call for holy war. We see this particularly in two ways. First, her addressing God as “the Lord of hosts.” Secondly, in her specific request for a male child who would be a Nazirite. Let us consider these two in order.
The Lord of Hosts
Hannah begins her prayer by addressing God as “the Lord of hosts.” The word “hosts” here is sabaoth (not to be confused with sabbath), from the root saba. It is a military term. “Hosts” in most instances in Scripture refers to armies.1 This shows that Hannah’s primary concern was with Israel’s mission—that incomplete mission in the land and really to the whole world. She knew the God who had called them, who could be trusted to keep them accountable to the mission, who would judge them if they rebelled, and who could provide the needed revival.
This is the first time in Scripture God is given this title, but the concept was introduced from the earliest days of Israel in the wilderness. The word saba appears when God commands Moses to number the people in the wilderness. This was no mere political census:
Take the sum of all the congregation of Israel according to their kindreds, according to the houses of their fathers’ families, according to their number by their names, according to their heads: every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. (Num. 1:3 NAU)
This was specifically a military census for the purpose of preparing an army to conquer and possess the land of Canaan. After all, the children had just been freed from Egypt, given the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and given most of the Levitical law. They had set up the portable tabernacle. It was now time to cross into Canaan and carry out God’s plan.
But as we know, the children rebelled and were left wandering in the wilderness for the next 39 years.2 Once that rebellious generation died off, the next was then renumbered to go fulfill the mission (Num. 26:1–2, 63–65). This story actually represents Israel’s behavior all through her history. Faithfulness turns to unfaithfulness; success is abused and God is forgotten. God then responds in judgment and renewal. From Numbers 26 forward, the nation was eager to serve God and go fight His battles. This was the generation of Joshua and Caleb.
The Israelites experienced many successes, but the land was never truly rid of God’s enemies. Even though Joshua 21:43–44 says the land and all her enemies were subdued, this can only be speaking generally. Even under the faithful generation of Joshua the Israelites never completely finished the purge of the enemies (Josh. 13:1–7). The book of Judges records the exploits of Israel during “another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Jdg. 2:10). Thus began the slide into moral, familial, and social anarchy and defeat. This era was punctuated by God-sent judges who called the nation back to faithfulness and triumph for certain periods.
As 1 Samuel begins, the Israelites were several generations further down the same line. The period of the judges covers some four hundred or so years and ends with the death of Samuel, the last judge. During this long period, despite temporary successes under the various judges, Israel slid further away from faithfulness. But all of this takes place in the context of the need for continuing conquest of the land. What should have been a quick mopping-up mission in the generation after Joshua became a drawn-out episode of failures on Israel’s part.
The judges entered this scene not merely in the sense of modern judges, holding court, deciding interpersonal disputes, but as prosecutors in behalf of God. This occurred on two related fronts: first, they brought covenant lawsuits against the people of Israel, judging them for their unfaithfulness and driving them back to faithfulness to God’s law. Then, second, they continued God’s holy war against God’s enemies within the land. Thus the judges are often seen as leading such battles. As such we can say that God’s judges are specially-anointed and gifted holy warriors.
The most relevant of these judges for this particular passage is Samson. Samson was not only a judge but also one of the specially-designated men in the Bible under the Nazirite vow (Num. 6). As we shall see, this vow is the vow of a holy warrior: a man specially separated for unfinished works of physical and spiritual warfare.
Samson arrives late in the period of the judges. It is not entirely certain when, exactly, he appears, but his particular fight is with the Philistines, the same foe that plagues Israel through much of the books of Samuel. This is the latter of the enemies dealt with in Judges, and thus Samson would have been in this period as well. Recent work on the chronology of this period suggests that Samson and Samuel are actually the same age. Indeed, if the “house” full of Philistine lords and princes was actually the temple of Dagon (Jdg. 16), as many commentators suggest, then this would had to have happened after the capture of the ark in 1 Samuel 4–5 when it was placed in the temple of Dagon. Samson would have been around during this time, then. The narrative of Samson begins by noting that the Israelites had rebelled and God had delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for 40 years. This period appears to have ended at the battle of Ebenezer (1 Sam. 7) which concludes saying that the Philistines were defeated and never entered within the borders of the land of Israel again.3
Also, the near proximity of the two Nazirites Samson and Samuel foreshadows another pair: John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus was not a life-long Nazirite like the others here, but He did take the vow briefly during the night of His passion (as we shall see), and of course this was the ultimate waging of God’s holy war. So this brings us to examine the second aspect that reveals the martial nature of Hannah’s prayer.
The Nazirite Vow
Spelled “Nazarite” in the King James version, the Nazirite vow is, generally speaking, a solemn and serious vow of separation for the performance of some special work unto God. Let us discuss this in general and in specific relation to Samuel.
First, the vow is fundamentally about separateness. As we discussed concerning Joseph in the Introduction, the word nazir itself simply means “separate.” But separate from what and for what? The Nazirite was separated not so much from something (other than the prohibitions listed, as we shall see) but “unto the Lord” (Num. 6:5). Thus the Nazirite is called “holy” during the period of the vow. Of course, the entire nation was considered priestly and was holy unto the Lord (Ex. 19:6), so this vow involved dedication to some holy works above and beyond the normal calling of the Israelite. Thus, the Nazirite can be seen as a person dedicated for the purpose of some special work of advancing the kingdom of God.
Second, we must also realize that the Nazirite vow has direct connections to God’s holy war. It is no irony that the definition and regulation of this vow was revealed early in the book of Numbers (chapter 6) as part of the fundamental and original preparations for Israel to go to war. It was therefore part and parcel of that mission. When we think of the Nazirite, we should primarily think of holy war. Although it could certainly be taken applied in other ways, because women were allowed to take it as well (Num. 6:1), but were not numbered for war. We should also consider holy warfare not only in the physical and immediate sense (Canaan), but also in the broadest possible application of the term: spiritual warfare, God’s war against sin and death, and the struggle to subdue the earth and exercise dominion in general beneath the authority of Christ (cp. Matt. 28:18). In essence, until the full effects of sin and the curse are removed from creation and the grand reality of the new heavens and new earth appear in their glorious fullness, we are to assume that warfare of this nature continues. In Hannah’s and Samuel’s setting, this of course meant physical warfare in the land, as well as the judgment upon the house of God, but all of this foreshadowed the larger reality.
The marks of the Nazirite were essentially four: 1) abstinence from alcohol, 2) abstinence from any product of the grape vine, 3) abstinence from cutting hair, and 4) abstinence from touching dead bodies (See Numbers 6:1–5). Why such odd and apparently random prohibitions?
While we do not have the space for anything like a full exegesis of Numbers 6, a brief paragraph or two will suffice to show the importance and meaning of these features.4 It will also reveal that they are not so random after all. The first three are closely related, and have reference to Sabbath rest in the fullness of the kingdom. Alcohol is for relaxation and enjoyment. Wine throughout Scripture is a symbol of having entered the kingdom, or a new heavens and new earth, so to speak. Noah’s first action after landing the ark upon the new dry ground was to become a farmer and plant a vineyard. He drank the wine and became relaxed (Gen. 9:20–21). This symbol appears throughout Scripture anytime a new kingdom or a kingdom renewal comes in view: Abraham and Melchizedek (Gen. 14), young King David (1 Sam. 16:20), later King David (2 Sam. 16:1–5), Nehemiah (Neh. 2:1ff), and of course Jesus at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14–20; see also Matt. 26:17–29; Mark 14:12–25). In fact, Jesus went so far as to say, “This cup is the New Covenant. . . .”
At the great full-harvest festival every year, Israelites were encouraged to spend their tithe money upon “whatever you desire– oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (Deut. 14:26). Again, this was a celebration of the full harvest festival, which ultimately symbolizes the full harvest of God’s people.
Yet the priests and Levites were forbidden to partake of it while doing their duty in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:9). Likewise, it was not for Kings to drink wine lest they pervert judgment (Prov. 31:4–5). In other words, when the Lord’s anointed servants had work to do, they were not allowed to partake of the relaxing wine or spirits. When doing the special work of the Lord, it was not time to have rest until the work was done.
This is why we see this prohibition in the Nazirite vow. It is implicitly saying, “There is a special task that needs to be done, a work of the Lord that needs to be accomplished, and I shall not rest until it is done. The same idea extends to all fruit of the vine. The vineyard itself is a symbol of these blessings of the Lord. As long as there was work to be done, it was not time to partake. This was upheld in the Nazirite vow by a strict prohibition on any product of the vineyard, even seeds and skins. Indeed, this gets even more interesting during the special Sabbath of the Jubilee, when Israelites were not allowed to harvest their fields and vineyards, but had to let them grow of themselves. Specifically, they were not allowed even to eat from the untrimmed vines that grew of themselves (Lev. 25: 5, 11). The word “untrimmed” (or “undressed” ESV) here is nazir—the same word used for the Nazirite vow as well as the untrimmed hair of the Nazirite. Thus the Israelites were reminded that they had not fully arrived in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
The prohibition on cutting the hair, therefore, is one more symbol that God’s work was not done. It was a symbol of refusal to rest and enjoy God’s blessings until it gets done.
Just as importantly, it is a symbol that while God’s work is being performed throughout history, it shall not be corrupted by the tools of man’s hands. This was true of God’s original design for an altar of sacrifice: “for if you wield your tool on it you profane it” (Ex. 20:25). God’s kingdom shall not arrive by the strength of man’s hands or by human works, although God’s will use these as His tools. Rather, man is to keep his hands off, and let the power of God bring His will to pass.
We see these qualities in both Samson and Samuel (and David as well, who was anointed by Samuel). We will see just the opposite in Saul, who is the poster boy of failure by trusting in man, self, and man’s works. In our Nazirites, however, we see men who were specially empowered and gifted by the Spirit of the Lord. Samson of course was endued with supernatural strength in the midst of holy warfare. His works were certainly not his own. The same is true with Samuel on the prophetic front. He also gets in on the literal holy war when he hacks Agag to pieces (1 Sam. 15:33). This of course raises the question in each instance of whether these men had profaned their vows, for the fourth prohibition was upon touching dead bodies. We simply are not told how exactly they handled these situations. Being life-long Nazirites seems to have been a bit different that those with temporary vows. They may have shaved their heads and started their vows over, we simply are not told. What is important, however, is to see these guys as specially separated for works of advancing God’s kingdom in the midst of a hostile environment—both enemies and friends.
With all this in mind, we can rest assured that Hannah had national revival and renewal in mind as she knelt and prayed to the Lord of hosts for a male, lifetime-Nazirite. She was not asking for a monk who would live in solitude and contemplate butterflies and philosophical quiddities. She was asking God to intervene in society with a powerful holy warrior. Her example provides us with a few lessons that challenge us yet today.
1. Reconstruction begins with prayer
Hannah’s simple act of prayer stands as a symbol of all else we’ve been discussing. Sincere prayer signifies that we have given up on our own works. We must kneel before God and ask His grace and power else nothing of His shall be accomplished. Even the best of the works of man will result only in further decline of society. Just as the symbolism of the Nazirite was primary of ceasing from the works of man and trusting in the work of God, so must we begin with such an attitude. But such an attitude must necessarily then fall at the feet of God in request that He act to advance His kingdom. Don’t expect any political, social, or even ecclesiastical or family program to be blessed of Him if it does not first originate with humble supplication to Him.
Being that sincere prayer can only be a self-sacrificial act, we can understand that its goals also focus upon others, not self. As we noted, she was not aiming for self-vindication against the second wife, she had something greater in mind. The primary implication in Hannah’s request was a request that God Himself be vindicated against His enemies. Secondarily, we see her concerned for the whole people of Israel as they lay subject to Philistine occupation and subjugation. We, too, must have these goals. Far before personal wealth or prosperity, we must desire that God and our Lord Christ be vindicated against their enemies in this earth, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). Likewise, we must desire the restoration and reconstruction of society according to godly law and morals.
2. There is much work yet to do
The content of Hannah’s prayer shows us that she recognized there was much work yet to be done. Of course, this was not hard to figure out living under Philistine occupation, just as it is not hard to discern our far slide into decadence and immorality today. But in light of the promises of God then and now, our reaction should not be one of lament or depression, but rather of dedication to the work of God. Thus our prayer is not for escape or resignation in the face of evil; our prayer is that God would raise up powerful holy warriors of God in this land. We need prayer warriors like Hannah who are praying for holy warriors like Samuel.
While the Nazirite vow does not exist in New Testament times, the principle of it is still with us. Each of us is called to serve Christ in such a way that we are super-dedicated to Him until the work is done—whatever the work of our particular callings may be. And there is no reason that each of us could not be engaged further in some special work, specially separated unto God apart from our daily works, aimed at advancing the kingdom of God. Even if it is the proverbial cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, it will not lose its reward, nor will its smallness mean it will have no effect for the kingdom.
3. Big problems require big prayers
The content of Hannah’s prayer also shows that she had big faith. She was not afraid to approach God for a solution to the nation’s biggest problems, on the national level. This has two facets. First, she was not afraid to pray a prayer that had direct political implications. She wanted revival in the land, and that mean political and social revival. As we shall see in 1 Samuel 2:1–11, she had in mind a massive judgment of the house of God, beginning with the corrupt priesthood, and she told them so. She also envisions a Lord who kills his enemies and levels them to the dust. Her prayer for a Nazirite son was a prayer to bring about such national social change.
Yes, there was a lot of work left to do—a lot of hard work. Hannah was not afraid to confront the enormity of the problem for what it was, and then to pray for a solution on that magnitude.
We have noted more than once now that Hannah transcended the personal rivalry into which Peninnah worked to drag her. Instead of entering another series of self-justifying bouts like Rachel and Leah, Hannah bypassed the personal pride involved and had an eye to the vindication of God in society. In doing so, she restored her family to its God-given purpose of dominion in the earth (Gen. 1:26–28). For Hannah, children were not for personal vindication or some selfish legacy—a common problem with parents. Rather, she had in mind a special dedication to God for her child. She was even willing to give Him up essentially for adoption to the priesthood into which we would be trained. Thus, she not only remained faithful to her own difficult promise, but she did so in a way to provide for the theological education and later influence of her progeny. Far from being about Hannah, Samuel becomes established as God’s legacy in the land, as we shall see later. Hannah complete drops out of the story after she turns Samuel over (1 Sam. 2:21), and she is never heard of again.
We must be of a similar mindset in raising children. First, we must in fact desire children, but second, we must more importantly desire to have them for the work of the Lord, for the advancement of His kingdom and His dominion in the earth. To this end, we must train them theologically and prepare them for spiritual warfare in our day. All personal agendas, vicarious attachments of self-justification, and over-romanticized productions of Victorian pseudo-piety must be set aside as trivial at best, if not idolatrous in some cases. The child exists for the advancement of the kingdom of God and for His dominion in the earth, not for your personal satisfactions, although these come as a byproduct of faithfulness and grace. And it is only the dedication of our children to the work of God that will redound to ultimate joy at the end of this holy war.
- It also frequently can refer to the “host of heaven”—the stars—but even these were considered symbolic of an army (see for example Revelation 12:4, 9).(↩)
- Numbers 1:1 says this took place in the second month in the second year. Thus they were very early in the second year out of 40 that they would be in the wilderness. This year plus the thirty eight to come would mean almost 39 to go.(↩)
- See Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 and 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2033), 34–37.(↩)
- A fuller explanation is found in James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), 221–228.(↩)