Friday, July 18, 2008

A Promise Kept

Jane: "Mary Poppins, you won't ever leave us, will you?"
Michael: "Will you stay if we promise to be good?"
Mary Poppins: "That's a pie-crust promise; easily made, easily broken."

Most of us know the story of the prophet Samuel's birth.

In a sense, every human being owes his existence to his mother, but Samuel in particular owed his life to his mother Hannah's deep faith and heartbroken prayer.

We read the story in the first few chapters of I Samuel.

Hannah lives, as so many women of her era, in a polygamous relationship, with a husband who loves her dearly, but also has another wife. The other wife has borne children, but Hannah has not. In fact, the Scripture says, "the Lord had closed her womb". (1:5)

No explanation is given for this, but it is clear that Hannah's inability to conceive is a source of great pain for her. This fact is not lost on the other wife, who takes advantage of this sore spot to "provoke her severely, to make her miserable, because the Lord had closed her womb." (1:6)

"She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish." (1:10)

Out of this torment comes a request, and a promise.

"O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant, and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life." (1:11)

Hannah's prayer is granted, and she names her son "Heard by God".

As moving as this part of the story is, it alone does not provide the most compelling point for us today. That is yet to come.

God's intervention in this story is, like most of His deeds, beyond our grasp. How does God take a woman who cannot have children, and bring about whatever change is necessary to allow conception to occur? How or why had He prevented conception from occurring before? We'll never know; we accept that He can and does intervene in such ways, according to His will.

Not to suggest that God's work is not the most remarkable element of this story, but His intervention in this case is similar to innumerable miracles He has performed over the centuries, completely in keeping with who He is and what we have always known Him to do.

The most unusual element of this story is Hannah's promise. More specifically, the fact that she keeps it.

After all the years of torment and depression, after all the wishing and hoping, the son she wondered if she could ever have is finally in her arms. Any mother who has locked eyes with her newborn knows the instant and eternal bond. Everything else is reordered. Previous priorities fade. Nothing is ever the same.

Yet, in spite of all this, as God remembered her, so Hannah remembers her promise. She weans her son, and then takes him, at a very young age, to Eli the priest to begin his life of service to God. And, the course is set for a critical period of Israel's history.

Imagine it. Taking your small child to begin a life apart from your household, willingly giving him up to see him again only once a year thereafter. A tear-jerker of a passage is found in chapter 2, verses 18 - 19: "Samuel ministered before the Lord, even as a child, wearing a linen ephod. And his mother used to make him a little robe, and bring it to him year by year when she came up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice."

Can you see Hannah stitching her son a new robe, remembering what he looked like the last time she saw him, wondering what he would look like now? Wondering how much he might have grown? Hoping he'll like his new robe? Can you imagine the annual reunion, with Hannah helping Samuel try it on? Can you imagine how often Samuel thought of his mother throughout the year, every time he wore that robe?

Considering all this, it's truly amazing that Hannah kept this promise. Honestly, if she had failed to keep her promise, would we judge her for it today? Could we blame her? Could any of us keep a promise like this? Would any of us have made such a promise in the first place?

Hannah would have had at her disposal any and every rationalization she would have needed to break her promise to God, and make it all right in her mind. Imagine how the tempter might have worked on Hannah's mind in the few years she had Samuel at home. We're not given any indication that Hannah even struggled with this decision, but if she did, she would have had plenty of help.

While we might not have been inclined to judge Hannah harshly had she failed to keep this promise to God, Scripture indicates God Himself would indeed have taken it seriously. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5) And while Hannah's story is not entirely equivalent to the story of Jephthah (Judges 11), it serves to illustrate the same point: take seriously what you tell God you're going to do.

Buried beneath all this, lies an often-overlooked fact in Hannah's story.

"And Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, 'The Lord give you descendants from this woman for the loan that was given to the Lord.' Then they would go to their own home. And the Lord visited Hannah, so that she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile the child Samuel grew before the Lord." (I Samuel 2:20-21)

Who knew Hannah was going to have more children after she gave Samuel to the Lord?

There is no indication that anyone knew. Hannah's original prayer was for "a male child", not for the ability to have as many children as she and her husband might have wanted to have. It was on her heart to have a son, and once that prayer was granted, it is clear her heart was content. (2:1-10) In fact, we have to assume that Hannah thought she was handing over to the Lord her one and only child, and that she would live the rest of her years on the joy of her short time with her baby Samuel. There was no inkling of future children to numb the pain of giving Samuel up, or to make it any easier to keep that promise. The reward of having five more children must have overwhelmed her heart.

Promises, promises. We live in a world today in which promises don't seem to mean very much. It seems people vow first, and think later. The vow may even be sincere at the time, but changing circumstances provide the back door people use to abandon a promise they no longer wish to keep. Even marriage vows turn out to be pie-crust promises with disturbing regularity.

More than anything else, a Christian is supposed to be different from this world. How seriously do we take our promises to ourselves, let alone others, let alone God?

"This is the year I'm going to exercise again."

"Till death alone separates us."

"You are my God."

1 comment:

Mom said...

Beautiful David!