The Effectual Prayer
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, July 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001, P. G. Mathew
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. 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."
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."
"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."
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." Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
Early the next morning they arose and worshipped 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 1:9-20
The first chapter of 1 Samuel speaks about the birth of Samuel and the prayer of Hannah, Samuel's mother. In the first part of the chapter we read that Hannah was a needy, depressed woman, but after she came to God and prayed, her face was lifted up and God answered her prayer. In this study we want to examine the prayer of Hannah.
Robert Murray M'Cheyne, a great man of prayer who lived in the nineteenth century, said, "What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more." Bishop J. C. Ryle, a great bishop of the Anglican church who also lived in the nineteenth century, said, "I have come to the conclusion that the great majority of professing Christians do not pray at all." Bishop Ryle also said, "Prayer will either consume sin or sin will choke prayer." From my own observation I say, "The spiritual exercise of prayer is more difficult than rigorous physical exercise."
As Christians, we are living in dangerous times in this country-times that lull us into a sense of complacency and false security. There is no war or plague; we have a vibrant economy, with a tax surplus of over two hundred billion dollars; and there is adequate health care for all people. Why should anyone pray when there is no perceived need? Like the church of Laodicea, we tell ourselves, "We are rich; we have acquired wealth, and we do not need a thing." Self-sufficient people do not pray. But according to Psalm 14:4, those who do not call upon the Lord are evildoers.
Prayer is the spiritual breathing of God's children. Bishop Ryle also tells us, "God has no dumb children." Everyone who is a child of God will cry, "Abba, Father," by the Holy Spirit. Such people will especially pray fervently when they find themselves in need.
The truth is, we are a needy people. To the church of Laodicea the Lord Jesus said, "You are blind, you are wretched, you are naked, you are poor, you are miserable." It is our lack of perception of reality that gives us this idea that we are self-sufficient. But Jesus Christ himself told us, "Without me you can do nothing," and James counsels us, "Is anyone of you in trouble? He should pray." David says in Psalm 18, "In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help."
Friends, prayer is power. That is why we want to look at the first chapter of 1 Samuel and learn something about effectual prayer. This chapter speaks of the effectual and fervent prayer of Hannah, the childless wife of a prominent Levite named Elkanah. The first point we want to examine is the background of Hannah's effectual prayer.
Context of Prayer
In those days a husband's hopes and dreams depended on his wife's ability to provide him with sons. Like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel of old, Hannah was a woman whose womb had been closed by the Lord. Hannah was barren, not by chance or because God was punishing her, but by the sovereign will of God. She was barren, ultimately, for her good and for the glory of God.
In Genesis 25:21 we read that when Rebekah was barren, Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, and the Lord answered his prayer and enabled Rebekah to conceive. But we do not read that Elkanah prayed on behalf of Hannah. He did not solve the problem spiritually, even though the Bible had already spoken about this type of situation. Elkanah leaned onto his own understanding and brought about a human solution to his problem through bigamy. To produce children, he took another wife, though it was not God's ideal plan.
Elkanah's second wife, Peninnah, which means pearl, did bear sons and daughters for Elkanah. But this human solution brought great trouble and we are told there was no peace in the home. Even when this family went to worship in the presence of the Lord, there was no peace. Hannah's life was a life of great misery.
Elkanah regularly took his whole family to Shiloh to worship, probably to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, the festival celebrating God's care over Israel and God's blessings upon a man's crops, cattle, and family. Hannah, being barren, did not have much to celebrate, and the prolific Peninnah, who considered Hannah as a cursed woman, would mock her to her face about her wretched condition. In Deuteronomy 7:13 we read something that helps us understand the trouble of Hannah. There we read, "He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb. . . ." So Peninnah, as a symbol of the world, persecuted Hannah, the godly one, because of her conclusion that Hannah was not blessed but cursed.
Hannah's distress was so great that, no matter what he did, Elkanah could not comfort her. We are told he would give her a double portion of meat, but what can steak do for a deeply troubled soul? He would try to comfort her by words, asking, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?" (v. 8). But only a double portion of the Spirit and faith in God's promises could cause Hannah's face to be uplifted.
The more meat Elkanah gave to Hannah, the more she refused to eat. Who could help her in her deep trouble? Her trouble was equal to that of the Shunammite woman in of 2 Kings 4, who also did not have any children. Through prayer she received a son, yet later on her son died in her lap. We find the same word in verse 15 used to describe Hannah's sorrow that is used to describe the "bitter distress" of the Shunammite. Hannah's own confession was, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled."
But one year, while the family was at Shiloh for worship, Hannah was guided by the Holy Spirit to get up and go to the tabernacle, which represented the presence of God. In a flash she was guided to pour out her heart in prayer to the living God of Israel. She began to realize what even her husband did not realize, that prayer is power, that prayer prevails, and that prayer is effectual. She told herself, "I know God will hear my prayer and help me when no human being can do so." So we read in 1 Samuel 1:10, "In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord."
What about you? Are you needy? Are you in trouble? Are you in deep distress? Have you discovered that human answers do not work? Have you sought answers from God? Have you poured out your soul in earnest and fervent prayer to God? Are you downcast as Hannah was? I counsel you: Follow her example of prayer and your face will be lifted up.
In Psalm 42:5 the psalmist writes, "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore, I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon-from Mount Mizar."
The name Hannah means grace, and certainly this miserable Hannah needed an abundance of grace. Through prayer she received it from the God of all grace who gives grace to the humble.
The Content of Prayer
Second, we want to examine the content and form of Hannah's prayer.
1. First, we notice that Hannah addressed her prayer to the Lord Almighty.
In verse 11 we read, "And she made a vow, saying, 'O Lord Almighty. . . .'" This is the first time in the Bible this title, the Lord of Sabaoth, appears. It is translated here as "the Lord Almighty." It means the Lord of the armies, meaning human armies, as well as the Lord of the cosmic armies-the sun, moon, and stars--as well as the Lord of the armies of heavenly angels. In other words, it is a term describing the God of infinite resources, the God beyond compare, the God who asked Abraham and Sarah, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
Knowing that he was also able to open her womb, Hannah prayed to the Lord of hosts, who had closed her womb for his own sovereign reason. Hannah was not praying to herself as the Pharisee of Luke 18 did. Hannah prayed to the God of Israel, the God of infinite resources, the God who is beyond compare, the God who is almighty. It is this God who alone is able to help us. How foolish we are when we speak to everybody else about our troubles, yet do not speak to the Lord of Sabaoth, the Lord Almighty!
2. Hannah prayed with fasting.
In the midst of her deep trouble, Hannah earnestly sought God, refusing to eat until she had prayed. She was single-minded, focusing on God and God alone, at the exclusion of everything else.
What about our prayer lives? Are we so earnest, so focused, so single-minded that we sometimes forego eating so that we may pray earnestly and fervently?
3. Hannah prayed in faith.
In verse 11 we read, "And she made a vow: 'O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me and not forget your servant. . . .'" Faith is the heart of Christianity. In Romans 10:9,10 we read,"If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Hannah was telling God, "Lord, I am your servant, one who hears and does your will.
Hannah believed that God alone was able to help her. She addressed him as God Almighty, believing in his mighty power. I suspect she was reflecting on the experiences of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel while she prayed. The word of God declared that they were barren, and yet God caused them to bear children. It is possible she remembered God's word to Sarah: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Such an idea was repeated later on when the Lord Jesus Christ himself told his disciples, "Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours." So Hannah prayed in faith to the Lord Almighty, knowing that he alone could help her.
Hannah knew that her husband, Elkanah, could not help her; he only offered her steak. Her rival Peninnah did not help her; in fact, she persecuted Hannah daily. Hannah could not help herself; she had been barren for years. The doctors could not help her; what could they do? So Hannah trusted in God and prayed in faith. In 1 Peter 5:7 we read, "Cast all your anxiety on him," meaning roll your problems over to the shoulders of God, "because he cares for you."
4. Hannah prayed with tears.
She prayed, not a dry prayer, but a prayer saturated with tears, a prayer flowing from the depths of her heart. In verse 10 we read, "In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord." Hers was not a ritualistic, formal prayer, nor was it a prayer for more material possessions. While others were pouring out their dreams, we are told that she was pouring out her soul to the Lord, as we read in verse 15.
When we are in such deep trouble that no one can help us but God, we will not pray dry, heartless prayers. Read about the prayer of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 5:7 tells us even he "offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears."
5. Hannah prayed with perseverance.
Hers was not a two-minute prayer. In verse 12 we read, "As she kept on praying to the Lord. . . ." Hannah was not in a hurry to leave the presence of God. Her heart was full, and she was pouring it out before the Lord. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Let others eat and drink and celebrate; she would pray more and more. Hannah needed more time to spend with God.
In Genesis 32 we read about Jacob spending the night wrestling with the Lord. In the middle of the night, the Lord came down and was wrestling with him. When daybreak came, God was ready to go. Realizing who this man was, Jacob told him, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
Hosea speaks of this prayer of Jacob in Hosea chapter 12:4-5. There we read, "He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there-the Lord Almighty, the Lord, is his name of renown!"
The Bible tells us Jesus Christ himself prayed for long periods of time. In Luke 6:12 we read, "One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God." The Lord Jesus Christ gave God much of his time. Oh, that we would be ashamed of how we treat God with disrespect by giving him the leftovers of our time!
We must persevere in prayer, no matter whatever else is going on in our lives. The night before he was crucified, Jesus was encountering stress. PGM In fact, in Luke 22:44 we read that he was in anguish. But did he stop praying, or pray a short, formalistic prayer? No. Luke writes, "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground."
Do you have troubles and difficulties? If so, I counsel you to pray more earnestly and perseveringly. Prayer is conversing with the Lover of our souls. We have a lot to tell him, and he has a lot to tell us, especially when we are in trouble.
In the epistle of James we read that Elijah was a person like unto us. James says he prayed earnestly, but he uses a Hebrew-style expression, saying "he prayed with prayer." That is how the Hebrew expresses intensity of action.
Jesus taught his disciples about persevering prayer in Luke 18:1, where we read, "And Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." Then in verse 7 he concluded, "And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?"
6. Hannah prayed boldly.
The Bible doesn't tell us about anyone else praying at this festive time. Oh, others were eating and drinking and getting drunk and celebrating. But Hannah boldly got up from the place of feasting and went to the place of prayer, where she stood and prayed before the Lord. She approached the throne of grace boldly, and stood before the high priest Eli, who was seated on his chair. What great boldness and confidence she displayed!
Brothers and sisters, we have a greater high priest than Eli-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. In Hebrews 4:14 we read, "Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess." In Hebrews 4:16 we read, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." As we live in this world, we will all experience times of need. What is the solution for our problems? Bold, confident prayer.
7. Hannah prayed secretly.
We are told Hannah's mouth was moving but her voice was not heard. She prayed silently, yet she was praying the loudest prayer she could pray, and God heard it. Jesus Christ himself taught us in Matthew 6:6,saying, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
8. Hannah prayed specifically.
Praying in generalities is praying in unbelief. Such prayers are the prayers of people who have no need. We don't go to the doctor and speak about non-specific problems, do we? We don't go to a grocery store and speak in generalities. Everything is specific; we want certain items.
The prayer of generalities is the prayer of a self-sufficient person, a mere formalism. But Hannah had a real need, so she prayed specifically. In 1 Samuel 1:11 we read, "O Lord Almighty, if you would only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son. . . ." Notice, Hannah did not even say "give her a child." She knew her husband's hopes depended on a son. That is why she prayed: "Give me a son."
God is not interested in general prayers. In Matthew 8:2 we read, "A man with leprosy came and knelt before [Jesus]." This man spoke very specifically. "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean," he said, and Jesus healed him. Throughout the gospels we find instances of people coming to Jesus, and Jesus asking them, "What do you want?" even though he knew their needs. The people would clearly articulate their specific needs, and Jesus Christ would meet them. So Hannah's prayer was not, "O Lord Almighty, look upon your servant's misery: give me a child." No! It was "Give me a son."
9. Hannah prayed unselfishly.
Not only did she pray from the depths of her heart specifically for a son, but Hannah also made a vow that if God gave her a son, she would give that son back to God to serve God all of his life. Like Samson, Samuel was a Nazarite, specially dedicated to God, all his life.
The Comfort of Prayer
Third, we want to look at the comfort, the uplift, that comes because of prayer. James says the prayer of a righteous man is very powerful in its effects. God heard the cry of Hannah's heart and caused an undiscerning, backslidden high priest, Eli, to pronounce a blessing upon this woman who was praying.
In verse 17 we read, "Eli answered, 'Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.'" That is the benediction a high priest was supposed to pronounce, as we read in Numbers 6:24, "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace." When that benediction came, it meant that God had heard your prayer and God's blessing would come and rest upon you.
The God who closed Hannah's womb was now about to open it. The Lord Almighty did the humanly impossible and gave Hannah peace. Just as Jesus rebuked the storm and wind and there was great calm, so now God through Eli spoke peace and great calm came to the heart of Hannah.
Hannah had been depressed, she prayed, and God gave her peace. In verse 18 we read Hannah's words, "May your servant find favor in your eyes." The word of peace spoken by God through Eli went into her heart like a seed falling on prepared soil. She received the word, believed it, and went her way. The Bible tells us she ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. That is another way of saying she was extremely joyful. Now Hannah could rejoice and eat, for God had heard her prayer.
What about you? Are you depressed? Do your troubles bring you down? What have you done about it? Oh, you may have consulted many people about your problems, but have you prayed to God Almighty? If not, you will continue to be depressed. Only when you pray as Hannah did will you hear the benediction from God himself, "Peace be unto you," and your face will be lifted up.
The comfort of prayer is true because it comes from God. Paul speaks of this God-given comfort in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comforts we ourselves have received from God." And in Romans 15:13 Paul writes, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."
After Hannah left the house of the Lord, she lived all her life in the great comfort of the divine benediction she had received. She went home with Elkanah, soon became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She called the boy Samuel, which means "answered prayer," and when Samuel was three years old, she brought him to Eli in fulfillment of the vow she had made to the Lord.
According to Numbers 15:8-10, Hannah's vow required her to bring one young bull, three-tenths of an ephah of flour, and half a hin of wine. But according to the Hebrew text, Hannah brought three bulls, one ephah of flour, and one skin of wine. In other words, after three years, her heart was still full of gratitude to God. Hannah was extravagant and generous as she came to thank God and worship him. A cheerful giver whose heart was overflowing with gratitude, Hannah gave not just one bull, but three of them, for God has blessed her much.
God continued to bless Hannah exceeding abundantly above all she asked or she could imagine. In 1 Samuel 2:21 we read that instead of one son, Hannah received a total of four sons and two daughters from the Lord. That verse also says the Lord was gracious to Hannah. Her prayer had been effectual.
But the comfort of prayer does not come from the gifts God gives us in response to our prayers. The true comfort came to Hannah from her increased knowledge of God himself, the Giver of all gifts. So in 1 Samuel 2 we find another prayer of Hannah, and the first line gives us an understanding of the growth in grace Hannah had experienced. Hannah did not begin her prayer, "My heart rejoices in Samuel." No, she said "My heart rejoices in the Lord." Surely in his presence there is fullness of joy and on his right hand pleasures forevermore, as the psalmist says. In the same way, we should also rejoice, not in all the gifts, but in the great Gift God has given to us in Jesus Christ: "Unto us a child is born and unto us a Son is given." This Son who died for our sins alone is the Savior, and he alone is able to cheer our hearts by giving us full forgiveness of all our sins and clothing us with his perfect righteousness.
What About You?
Are you troubled? Are you heavy-hearted? Are you confused? Are you depressed? Are you cast down? Then pray-pray to the Lord Almighty. Pray to the Lord who gave us his Son, who told us, "Come unto me and I will give you rest." Pray with fasting, pray in faith, pray with passion, pray with perseverance, pray with boldness because Christ's blood has cleansed your conscience, pray in secret, pray specifically, pray unselfishly, and pray with thanksgiving, as Hannah did, saying, "My heart rejoices in the Lord." Above all, pray to know God that you may rejoice in him alone.
Christians need to pray! James tells us in James 4:2, "You do not have, because you do not ask God." Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Keep in mind what Hezekiah did when he received a letter from the king of Assyria saying he was going to destroy Hezekiah. Hezekiah went to the temple, and in the presence of God, he opened up the letter to God and prayed, "O God, you have to answer. We are finished. You have to act." And as we read in Isaiah 37 and 2 Kings 19, God acted, and the Assyrian army was destroyed by the angel of the Lord.
What do we do when we are deeply troubled? Do we complain and murmur and shift the blame and get angry? God is asking us to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do so, our prayer will come into his ears and he will give us peace.
May God help us to cry out to him! Oh, we have tried everything else, but nothing worked. We thought we needed all sorts of monies, physical comforts, and things, but all the prosperity we experienced meant nothing. We have a false sense of complacency and are in serious danger if we don't pray. The truth is, we are a wretched, miserable, naked, blind, poor people. This is the nature of the church all over the world.
God created us to have fellowship with him. As Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they find rest in him. May we learn, therefore, to pray as Hannah did, so that we can say with Hannah, "My heart rejoices in the Lord" as we experience his grace in our lives. Amen.
Copyright © 2001, P. G. Mathew
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