The Heart of the Matter
I grew up on the Home Alone movies. Kevin McAllister is 8 years old when his family accidentally leaves him behind when they leave for Christmas vacation. Then in Home Alone 2 they do it again. I’ll never forget the scene in the second movie of Kevin praying all alone in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City.
I know I don't deserve a Christmas.… I don't want any presents. Instead, I want to take back every mean thing I ever said to my family. Even if they don't take back the things they said to me. I don't care. I love all of them.... Including Buzz. I know it isn't possible to see them all. Could I just see my mother? I'll never want another thing as long as I live if I can just see my mother. I know I won't see her tonight, but promise me I can see her again. Sometime. Any time. Even if it's just once and only for a couple minutes. I just need to tell her I'm sorry.
Then, just like that, his mom shows up!
If only prayer always worked that way.
Hannah can tell you it doesn’t. We tend to remember Hannah for her prayer in 1 Samuel 2 following Samuel’s birth and his return to the temple. But her prayer in chapter 1 contains none of the “delight” (2:1) her second prayer does.
Elknah’s other wife Peninnah, had children, “But Hannah had none” (1 Sam 1:2). Not for want of trying. “Year after year” (1:3) Elknah would make his way up to Shiloh, taking an animal to sacrifice for Hannah. The day would come, the sacrifice would be made, and then nothing. “This went on year after year” (1:7). Elknah would look at Hannah, pity in his eyes, and say, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted?” (1:8).
I think every mother—and every woman who has longed to be one—could answer him. But what would it matter, Elknah. How can you possibly understand the storm in her heart?
And yet somehow, in the middle of that storm, “Hannah stood up” (1:9). The image is arresting. Her heart is broken, swept away in a never-ending flood of despair, and yet somehow she finds within that same heart the courage to stand and face this unanswering God one more time.
She cries out, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on 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” (1:11b).
The bargain is on the table: What we are doing isn’t working and my heart can’t take it anymore. So, here is the deal, God.
When you recognize she is bartering, you might recoil at her prayer. That’s certainly not the way most of us were taught to pray. We think of Jesus standing atop the temple, with the devil whispering into his ear that he should jump and let the angels catch him. Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
Apparently no one told Hannah this. Someone ought to, we think.
But remember, “This went on year after year.” Her desperation is palpable, and even the author admits that this prayer comes from the deepest places of her “heart” (1 Sam 1:13).
In a book where the most remembered hero is said to be a man after God’s “own heart” (13:14), and where God “look[s] at the heart” (16:7), we should pay attention to the heart behind Hannah’s bartering prayer.
It’s her heart that is sad (1:8). It’s her heart that bursts forth in agonizing prayer (1:13). And finally, after God gives her a son, it is her heart that “rejoices in the Lord” (2:1).
If all of 1 Samuel is an exploration into the human and divine hearts, and the story’s major crisis is created by Israel’s rejection of God’s kingship, then in these early chapters Hannah is raising the fundamental question of the entire book:
When your heart hurts, to whom will you turn? When this isn’t working anymore (whatever this is), to whom will your heart lead you?
I remember taking a college class on the Psalms with Dr. Glenn Pemberton (who writes a great blog for Mosaic). One day he sat us down and had us open our Bibles to Psalm 88. He said, “Now this is a lament psalm. You know by now that a lament psalm typically has a complaint to God, a confession, and then some kind of affirmation or praise of God. But take a moment and look through Psalm 88. Seems to be missing the praise, don’t you think?”
We did think so. We didn’t get it. How was this in the Bible, we asked (undergraduate Bible majors tend to think they are qualified to determine what should be in the Bible, and I was one of them).
Dr. Pemberton smirked. “At least he’s still praying to God, isn’t he?”
Maybe this is what separates Hannah from the people around her. This is what separates her from much of our world. Maybe truthfully, this is what separated her from us: When her heart is most broken, it still leads her back to God.
Apparently bartering does not disqualify a heart.