God’s Purpose in Prayer

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1 Samuel 1:1-20 (Samuel’s birth)

INTRODUCTION: Today we are starting a new series. For the next twelve weeks, we will be looking at the Life of Samuel together from the book of 1 Samuel. 1 Samuel is an amazing book. In fact, this was one of our favorite books of the Bible we have ever read together as a family. It is a book full of battles and heroes, romance and betrayal, deception and intrigue. There is plenty of action, and the story keeps moving forward. We even named our second son, Sam, after Samuel in the Bible.

The book of 1 Samuel has three major sections. The first part has to do with Samuel, the middle part with King Saul, and the final part with the rise of King David. In this series we will be looking at the first part of the book which focuses on the life of Samuel.

One of the main themes that shows up in all three sections of the book is the importance of the heart.

  • When Hannah prays to God for a son, she prays in her heart: “Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard.” (1 Samuel 1:13)
  • When Hannah sings a song of praise, she begins by saying, “My heart rejoices in the Lord.” (1 Samuel 2:1)
  • When God sends a prophet to judge the house of Eli, he says, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind.” (1 Samuel 2:35)
  • When Saul turns away from the Lord, Samuel tells him, “Now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” (1 Samuel 13:14)
  • And when God sends Samuel to anoint David as king, we come to what is really the central verse of the whole book: “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:7)

God looks at the heart. And that is something we will see again and again as we look at these various episodes from Samuel’s life. So, let’s begin this morning by asking God to look at our own hearts, and let us prepare our hearts to learn from God’s Word both this morning and throughout this series. (Pray.)


The book of Samuel begins at a critical time in Israel’s history. It was a time of transition between the judges and the kings. It was a period of disorganization and low moral state. In fact in the book of Judges, which immediately precedes 1 Samuel historically, the closing chapters end with some horrific stories of the moral state of Israel. And then the book ends with these prophetic words: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)

God was about to change all that. And he was going to use Samuel to bring about that change. But the book of Samuel doesn’t begin with Samuel. It begins Hannah. It begins with a woman in pain, a woman who was suffering, but a woman who brought her pain to God in prayer. And in the process it teaches us something valuable about prayer. It teaches us that God accomplishes his purposes through prayer. That is our theme this morning. God accomplishes his purposes through prayer. So let’s begin.

I. You can’t always “fix” other people’s problems (1-8)

The first thing I want us to understand about God’s purpose in prayer is that you cannot always “fix” other people’s problems. You might want to. You might try to. But you can’t always fix other people’s problems. We find this illustrated for us in the first section of chapter one.

    A. The people involved (1-3)

Verses 1-3 introduce us to the main people involved in the story. Let’s look first at verses 1-2:

There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. (1 Samuel 1:1-2)

So who are these people? First of all we have Elkanah. Elkanah was a Levite whose roots probably stretched back to Bethlehem, but now lived in Ramah, about six miles north of present day Jerusalem. He appears to have been from a well-to-do family, as suggested by his lineage and the fact that he had two wives. Hannah was probably his first wife. Her barrenness was likely the reason Elkanah took Peninnah as a second wife. You needed children to carry on the family name, and Peninnah provided Elkanah with both sons and daughters.

Verse three introduces us to the other main characters we will meet:

Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the LORD. (1 Samuel 1:3)

Each year Elkanah would take his family and go up to Shiloh to worship the Lord. The Ark of the Covenant was based in Shiloh at this time. The ark was tended to by Eli the priest and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who will become very important in the following chapters. There was no temple at Shiloh (the temple would be built in Jerusalem later on), but the structure at Shiloh was often called a temple because of the presence of the Ark. The name used for God in this verse is “The Lord Almighty,” or “the Lord of Hosts.” This is the first time we find this particular name for God in Scripture. It is a name which speaks of God’s sovereignty and power over all earthly and heavenly forces.

So here in verses 1-3 we have all the main characters: Elkanah the loving husband, Hannah the barren wife, Peninnah the fruitful wife, Eli the priest, his two sons, Hophni and Phineas, and of course, the Lord Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. So who’s missing? Samuel! And that brings us to verses 4-8.

    B. Hannah’s problem (4-8)

Verse 4-8 tell us more about Hannah’s problem and set the scene for Hannah’s prayer to follow.

Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. (1 Samuel 1:4-6)

Now it was bad enough that Hannah was barren. She already felt the pain of not being able to bear Elkanah any children. But then Elkanah went and took a second wife. Now Elkanah’s attention was divided between her and Peninnah. And then it must have been even harder for Hannah when Peninnah began to bear children for Elkanah when she could not.

The annual feast would have been particularly hard on Hannah. This was supposed to be a time for joyful worship, but part of the ceremony involved apportioning the meat out to the family. Elkanah would give multiple portions of meat to Peninnah with all her sons and daughters, but Hannah would normally only receive one portion for herself. Out of the goodness of his heart Elkanah tried to compensate by giving her a double portion. Perhaps this was his way of saying he hoped she might still have a child, but it didn’t really help. The annual feast was a bitter reminder to Hannah that Peninnah had many children while she had none.

And then to make matters even worse, Peninnah was pretty nasty about all this. Twice Peninnah is called Hannah’s “rival,” a word which can mean “enemy, or adversary.” Apparently Peninnah was jealous over Elkanah’s obvious affection for Hannah, and so she used this occasion to provoke Hannah.

Dale Davis in his commentary on 1 Samuel imagines the following conversation where Peninnah flaunts her children in front of Hannah. The dialogue begins with Peninnah speaking.

“Now do all you children have your food? Dear me, there are so many of you, it’s hard to keep track.”
“Mommy, Miss Hannah doesn’t have any children.”
“What did you say, dear?”
“I said, Miss Hannah doesn’t have any children.”
“Miss Hannah? Oh yes, that’s right – she doesn’t have any children.”
“Doesn’t she want children?”
“Oh yes, she wants children very, very much! Wouldn’t you say so, Hannah? [In a low aside] Don’t you wish you had children, too?”
“Doesn’t Daddy want Miss Hannah to have kids?”
“Oh, certainly he does – but Miss Hannah keeps disappointing him; she just can’t have kids.”
“Why not?”
“Why, because God won’t let her.”
“Does God not like Miss Hannah?”
“Well, I don’t know – what do you think? Oh, by the way, Hannah, did I tell you that I’m pregnant again?! You think you’ll ever be pregnant, Hannah?”

You can just imagine how deeply a conversation like that would have hurt Hannah. And verse 7 tells us that:

This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:7-8)

Elkanah tried to console her but to no avail. Sometimes you just cannot “fix” other people’s problems. It is bigger than you, and it is bigger than them. You can offer love, you can offer support, you can pray for them, but in the long run the person is going to have to find their answer in God. Part of God’s purpose in prayer is for us to pray for others, committing them to God’s care, understanding that we cannot fix their problems ourselves, and that ultimately they and we need the Lord.

The Bible is clear that God was at work in Hannah’s life, even though she was not aware of it. Twice in this passage we are told that it was the Lord who had closed Hannah’s womb. Even in our most desperate and painful situations, we must trust that God is in control, and we must learn to find comfort in prayer.

II. We must learn to find comfort in prayer (9-18)

    A. Hannah models prayer (9-18a)

And that is our next point. We must learn to find comfort in prayer. And that is exactly what Hannah does next. Hannah models prayer for us in some deeply meaningful ways.

        1) Honest prayer (9-10)

First of all, Hannah models for us honest prayer. Look at verses 9-10:

Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the LORD’s temple. In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. (1 Samuel 1:9-10)

The feast was over. Elkanah, Peninnah, and Peninnah’s children had all finished eating and drinking. Hannah was so upset she hadn’t eaten at all. She got up and went to the temple area where she wept and prayed to the Lord.

Did you know that you can be honest before the Lord in prayer? That you don’t have to come to God pretending to be someone you are not? That you can pour out your heart to him with all of your questions and suffering and pain? Hannah did, and God heard her prayer. Hannah models honest prayer for us.

        2) Earnest prayer (11)

Secondly, Hannah models for us earnest prayer. Look at verse 11:

And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” (1 Samuel 1:11)

As Hannah prayed for a son, she made a solemn vow to God. The book of Numbers in the Bible describes the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6) where a man or a woman would separate himself to the Lord for a period of time. During the time of his vow, no razor was to be used on his head. Here Hannah shows her earnestness in prayer by offering to dedicate her son to the Lord, not just for a season, but for all the days of his life.

        3) Fervent prayer (12-16)

Thirdly, Hannah models for us fervent prayer. Look at verses 12-14:

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.” (1 Samuel 1:12-14)

Hannah was praying so fervently in her heart, that her lips were moving, but no sound came out of her mouth.

Now Eli the priest was watching her. We were told back in verse nine that Eli was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the temple structure. Eli does not seem to be a very energetic man. We almost always read about him either sitting in a chair or lying down. His sluggishness stands in stark contrast to Hannah’s fervency in prayer. Eli was not only sluggish physically. Apparently he was sluggish spiritually, too. He was not able to discern that Hannah was a woman in deep, heartfelt prayer. When he saw Hannah’s lips moving but not speaking out loud, he thought she was drunk, and so he rebuked her.

Hannah protested:

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” (1 Samuel 1:15-16)

What Eli thought was drunkenness was simply Hannah praying fervently to the Lord. Remember, we said one of the themes of 1 Samuel is that God sees the heart. Hannah was praying in her heart, but Eli only saw the lips. God saw Hannah’s heart, and he knew the fervency of her prayer.

        4) Humble prayer (17-18a)

And fourthly, Hannah models for us humble prayer. Look at verses 17-18:

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” (1 Samuel 1:17-18a)

To Eli’s credit, he recognizes that Hannah is telling the truth, and he pronounces a blessing on her in keeping with his priestly office. He does not know what she was asking God, but he gives her his blessing of peace, and he prays that God will grant her request.

Hannah humbly identifies herself as his servant and asks to find favor in his eyes. There is a play on words here, for Hannah’s name actually means “favor, or grace.” Hannah knows that as priest, Eli represents God to the people. And so Hannah is really submitting herself to God and his will here. She is humbly seeking God’s favor and grace.

    B. Hannah is changed by prayer (18b)

Finally, not only does Hannah model for us honest, earnest, fervent and humble prayer, we also see that Hannah is changed by prayer. Look at the end of verse 18:

Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. (1 Samuel 1:18b)

Notice that God had not yet answered Hannah’s prayer. She didn’t know if God was going to give her a son. And yet her spirit was lifted. She went her way; she finally ate something; her face was no longer downcast.

Before prayer changes anything else, part of God’s purpose in prayer is for prayer to change us. When we come before the Lord in prayer, pouring out our hearts before him, we will be changed simply by spending time in God’s presence. God is working in your heart and life. He not only wants to change others through your prayers. He wants to change you. We must learn to find comfort in prayer. That is part of God’s purpose in prayer.

III. God’s plan is bigger than you (19-20)

And then the final lesson I want us to learn about prayer this morning is that God’s plan is bigger than you. Notice, I did not say that God’s plan does not include you. It does. But you are not the end-all of God’s plans. God’s plan is so much bigger than you or me.

    A. God answered Hannah’s prayer

Hannah was part of God’s plan. We read that God graciously answered Hannah’s prayer for a son. Look at verses 19-20:

Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the LORD and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the LORD for him.” (1 Samuel 1:19-20)

The name Samuel sounds similar to the Hebrew phrases “name of God,” or “heard by God,” or “requested by God.” The Lord remembered Hannah and gave her a son. Hannah remembered the Lord, and named her son accordingly.

    B. God fulfilled his greater purpose

But God not only answered Hannah’s prayer for a son, God also fulfilled his greater purpose. Samuel was an answer to Hannah’s prayer for a child, but he was also God’s answer for Israel. God’s plan was to raise up Samuel as a prophet to anoint first Saul and then David as king. David was a man after God’s own heart, and through David God would bring the promised Messiah, Jesus, to be a Savior for all people.

When Samuel was born, he joined a long line of key leaders in Israel who were miraculously born to barren mothers. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren before she bore Isaac. Isaac’s wife Rebecca was barren before she bore Jacob. Jacob’s wife Rachel was barren before she bore Joseph. And now Elkanah’s wife Hannah was barren before she gave birth to Samuel. The Lord Almighty – the Lord of Hosts – heard the prayer of a poor, barren, powerless woman, and brought forth a mighty prophet into the world at just the right time.

You see God’s plan is so much bigger than you or me. He includes us in his plans, but understand that God is building a kingdom. And God is working to fulfill his purposes even in the seemingly insignificant and sometimes painful details of our lives. Often it is those painful things in life that drive us to prayer, through which God will fulfill his greater purposes.

CONCLUSION: God accomplishes his purposes through prayer. He doesn’t have to. But he chooses to. He chooses to work in and through your prayers to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes that will mean miraculous answers to prayer on your behalf. Sometimes it won’t. It doesn’t matter. When you pray, you are participating with God to fulfill his purposes in your life and in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that. That’s how important prayer is: to you, to your loved ones, to God’s purposes in this world. We need to be a praying people.

If you have never been a praying person, let me encourage you to pray. Talk to God. Ask him to reveal himself to you. Confess your sin to him. Ask him for the faith to believe. Put your trust in Jesus, his Son, as your Savior.

If you have slipped in your prayer life, let me encourage you also to pray. Let me leave you with these three closing words of application.

  1. Pray for other people. Pray for your family, pray for your loved ones, pray for the world, pray for your neighbors and friends. You can’t always fix someone else’s problems, but you can pray for them.
  2. Learn to find comfort in prayer. Be honest with God, be earnest, be fervent, be humble in prayer. Pour out your heart before the Lord Almighty, and let God change you through your prayers. If you have pain in your life, don’t let it go to waste. Turn your pain into prayer, and find comfort in God.
  3. And finally, pray for God’s greater will to be done, no matter what happens to you. Isn’t that how Jesus instructed us to pray? “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

When you pray, something always changes. Always. Prayer always changes things, because that’s how God chooses to act. God accomplishes his purposes through prayer.

© Ray Fowler

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