(1 Samuel 2:1-10) The Song of Hannah.
EXCURSUS A: ON THE SONG OF HANNAH (1 Samuel 2).
The song of Hannah belongs to that group of inspired hymns of which examples have been preserved in most of the earlier books. Genesis, for instance, contains the prophetic song of the dying Jacob, Exodus the triumph hymn of Miriam, Numbers the glorious prophet song of Balaam, Deuteronomy the dying prayer and prophecy of Moses; Judges preserves for us the war song of Deborah.
The Book of the Psalms was a later collection of the favourite sacred hymns and songs of the people, written mostly in what may be termed the golden age of Israel, when David and Solomon had consolidated the monarchy.
Each of the greater songs embedded in the earlier books seems to have marked a new departure in the life of the chosen people.
This is especially noticeable in the prophetic song of Jacob, which heralded the period of the Egyptian slavery, and pointed to a glorious future lying beyond the days of bitter oppression. Miriam sung of the triumphs of the Lord; her impassioned words introduced the free desert life which succeeded the slavery days of Egypt. Moses’ grand words were the preparation for the settlement of the tribes in Canaan.
Hannah was impelled by the Spirit of the Lord to make a strange announcement respecting her boy Samuel. She had learned by Divine revelation that he was to be God’s chosen instrument in the future: first, as the restorer of the true life in Israel—which was then beginning to forget its God-Friend; and afterwards, as the founder of a new and kingly order of governors, who should unite the divided tribes, and weld into one great nation the scattered families of Israel.
It is probable that these “poems,” which we find embedded in the oldest Hebrew records, were preserved in the nation, some as popular songs, sung and said among the people in their public and private gatherings as the best and noblest expression of their ideal national life; some as even forming part of the primitive liturgical service of those sacred gatherings of the chosen people which subsequently developed into the synagogue, the well-known sacred assemblies of Israel.
The various compilers or redactors of the several Old Testament Books, according to this theory, gathered these poems, hymns, and songs from the lips of the people as they repeated and chanted them in their sacred festal gatherings.
EXCURSUS B: ALLEGED DIFFICULTIES IN THE ASCRIPTION OF SONG TO HANNAH (1 Samuel 2).
The advocates of a later date for the song of Hannah, with some force allege two points in the composition, which they say forbids their ascribing the “song” to the mother of Samuel, or even to the period in which she lived. It will be well briefly to examine these. First, the “song,” they say, is a triumph song, celebrating a victory over some foreign enemies. Such a theory, however, completely misinterprets the whole hymn. Nowhere is a victory spoken of, and the song contains only one allusion (1 Samuel 2:4 : “The bows of the mighty men”) which has anything to do with war; and this solitary passage contrasts the mighty bowmen with the stumbling or weak ones, and shows how, under the rule of God, the warrior is often confounded, and the weak unarmed one strengthened. It is, in fact, only one of several vivid pictures painting the marvellous vicissitudes which, under God’s providence, so often happen to mortals. The strong often are proved weak, and the weak strong. The foes alluded to in the hymn of Hannah are not the enemies of Israel, but the unrighteous of the chosen people contrasted with the pious and devoted.
Secondly, the “song” in 1 Samuel 2:10 assumes the existence of an earthly king in Israel, whereas when Hannah sung no king but Jehovah was acknowledged by any of the tribes. Erdmann, in Lange’s Commentary, well observes, in explanation of this, that “at the period when Hannah gave birth to Samuel it was incontestable that in the consciousness of the people, and the noblest part of them too, the idea of a monarchy had then become a power which quickened more and more the hope of a realisation of the old promises that there should be a royal dominion in Israel, till it took shape in an express demand which the people made of Samuel. The Divine promise that this people should be a kingdom is given as early as the patriarchal period (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16. See too Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:17; Numbers 24:19; Deuteronomy 17:14 to end of chapter). At the close of the period of the judges, when Hannah lived, the need of such a kingdom was felt the more strongly because the office which was entrusted with the duty of forming and guiding the theocratic life of the nation, namely, the high priestly office, was involved in the deepest degradation.”
EXCURSUS C: THE HIGH PRIESTHOOD, AND THE FAMILY WHICH HELD IT (1 Samuel 2).
The supreme dignity in Israel was held by the family of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, until the death of the high priest Ozi. We are not in possession of the circumstances which led to the transference of the office to Eli, the descendant of Ithamar, the younger son of Aaron; probably the surviving son of the high priest Ozi, of the house of Eleazar, was an infant, or at all events very young, when his father died, and Eli—his kinsman, no doubt—had probably distinguished himself in some of the ceaseless wars in which the people during the stormy period of the judges were continually involved, and was in consequence chosen by the popular voice to the vacant dignity. After the death of Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, the high priestly dignity never seems to have recovered its ancient power and dignity. The eyes of Israel were turned first to Samuel, and then to Saul and his royal successors, David and Solomon.
During the lifetime of Samuel, Saul, and David, though shorn of its old proportions and exposed to many vicissitudes, the high priesthood continued in the family of Eli, who was succeeded by his grandson, Ahitub, the son of Phinehas. In the days of Saul, Ahijah, or Ahimelech, the son of Ahitub, gave David the shewbread to eat at Nob, and was for this act murdered by King Saul, together with all the priests then doing duty at the national sanctuary. His son, Abiathar, escaped the massacre, and was allowed to assume his father’s office. During the reign of David this Abiathar continued to be high priest, but was arbitrarily deposed by Solomon, who restored Zadok, of the old high priestly line of Eleazar. The descendants of Zadok continued to hold the office as long as the monarchy lasted.
The annexed table shows the double line of high priests to the reign of Solomon:—
These true, beautiful thoughts the Spirit of the Lord first planted in Hannah’s heart, and then gave her lips grace and power to utter them in the sublime language of her hymn, which became one of the loved songs of the people, and as such was handed down from father to son, from generation to generation, in Israel, in the very words which first fell from the blessed mother of the child-prophet in her quiet home of “Ramah of the Watchers.”
My heart rejoiceth.—The first verse of four lines is the introduction to the Divine song. She would give utterance to her holy joy. Had she not received the blessing at last which all mothers in Israel so longed for?
Mine horn is exalted.—She does not mean by this, “I am proud,” but “I am strong”—mighty now in the gift I have received from the Lord: glorious in the consciousness “I have a God-Friend who hears me.” The image “horn” is taken from oxen and those animals whose strength lies in their horns. It is a favourite Hebrew symbol, and one that had become familiar to them from their long experience—dating from far-back patriarchal times—as a shepherd-people.
That the term was commonly applied to God so early as the time of Moses we may conclude from the name Zurishaddai: “My rock is the Almighty” (Numbers 1:6); and Zuriel: “My rock is God” (Numbers 3:35).—Speaker’s Commentary.
And by him actions are weighed.—This is one of the fifteen places reckoned by the Masorites where in the original Hebrew text, instead of “lo” with an aleph, signifying not, “lo” with a vaw, signifying to, or by him, must be substituted. The amended reading has been followed by the English Version. The meaning is that all men’s actions are weighed by God according to their essential worth, all the motives which led to them are by Him, the All-knowing, taken into account before He weighs them.
Von Gerlach writes of these verses that “Every power which will be something in itself is destroyed by the Lord: every weakness which despairs of itself is transformed into power.” “The bows of the heroes,” that is to say, the heroes of the bow, the symbol of human power being poetically put first instead of the bearer of the symbol. The next line contains the antithesis: while the heroes rejoicing in their strength are shattered, the tottering, powerless ones are by Him made strong for battle.
The barren hath born seven.—Here the thought of the inspired singer reverts to herself, and the imagery is drawn from the story of her own life. Seven children are mentioned as the full number of the Divine blessing in children (see Ruth 4:15; Jeremiah 15:9). There is a curious Jewish legend which relates how for each boy child that was born to Hannah, two of Peninnah’s died.
The Babylonian Talmud on these words has a curious and interesting tradition:—“Three classes appear on the day of judgment: the perfectly righteous, who are at once written and sealed for eternal life; the thoroughly bad, who are at once written and sealed for hell: as it is written (Daniel 12:2), ‘And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt;’ and those in the intermediate state, who go down into hell, where they cry and howl for a time, whence they ascend again: as it is written (Zechariah 13:9), ‘And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried; they shall call on my name, and I will hear them.’ It is of them Hannah said (1 Samuel 2:6), ‘The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to hell, and bringeth up.’”—Treatise Bosh Hashanah, fol. 16, Colossians 2.
The pillars.—Or columns—Jerome, in the Vulgate, translates this unusual word by “hinges”—cardines terrœ.
Gesenius prefers the rendering “foundations.” On the whole, the word used in the English Version, “pillars,” is the best.
By strength shall no man prevail.—The same thought is expressed very grandly by the prophet, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The Holy Ghost, in one of the sublime visions of St. Paul, taught the suffering apostle the same great truth, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This is the first passage in the Old Testament which speaks of “His Anointed,” or “His Messiah.” The LXX. render the words “Christou autou.”
This song was soon evidently well known in Israel. The imagery, and in several passages the very words, are reproduced in the Psalms. See Excursus A and B at the end of this Book.
(11) Elkanah went to Ramah.—These simple words just sketch out what took place after Hannah left her boy in Shiloh. Elkanah went home, and the old family life, with its calm religious trustfulness, flowed on in the quiet town of “Ramah of the Watchers” as it did aforetime; the only disturbing sorrowful element was removed in answer to the mother’s prayers, and little children grew up (1 Samuel 2:21) round Hannah and Elkanah. But the life of the dedicated child Samuel was a different one; he lived under the shadow of the sanctuary, ministering with his child powers before the altar of the Invisible, and trained, we may well assume, in all the traditions and learning of Israel by the old high priest. The word “minister is the official term used to signify the duties performed by priests and Levites in connection with the service of God.
They knew not the Lord.—The whole conduct of these high priestly officials showed they were utter unbelievers. They used their sacred position merely as affording an opportunity for their selfish extortions; and, as is so often the case now, as it was then, their unbelief was the source of their moral worthlessness (see 1 Samuel 2:22). “Hophni and Phinehas (the two sons of Eli) are, for students of ecclesiastical history, eminently suggestive characters. They are true exemplars of the grasping and worldly clergy of all ages.
“It was the sacrificial feasts that gave occasion for their rapacity. It was the dances and assemblies of the women in the vineyards and before the sacred feast that gave occasion for their debaucheries. They were the worst development of the lawlessness of the age, penetrating, as in the case of the wandering Levite of the Book of Judges, into the most sacred offices.
“But the coarseness of these vices does not make the moral less pointed for all times. The three-pronged fork which fishes up the seething flesh is the earliest type of grasping at pluralities and Church preferments by base means, the open profligacy at the door of the Tabernacle is the type of many a scandal brought on the Christian Church by the selfishness or sensuality of the ministers.”—Dean Stanley, On the Jewish Churchy Lecture 17, Part I.
In all these strange rites and ceremonies there was a higher symbolism involved. This was ruthlessly set at nought and trampled on by these reckless, covetous guardians of the worship of Israel.
Portions of the sacrifice fell legally to the ministering priests in lieu of fee. It was fair “that they which ministered at the altar should live of the altar.” The “heave leg” and the “wave breast” of the slaughtered victim were theirs by right, and these the sacrificing priest was to receive after the fat portion of the sacrifice had been burnt upon the altar. But to take the flesh of the victim, and roast it before the symbolic offering had been made, was a crime which was equivalent to robbing God. It dishonoured the whole ceremony.
He will not have sodden flesh.—The meaning of this is, these priests and their attendants insisted on having the best part of the sacrificed victim raw, not boiled—that is, fresh, full of juice and strength—before the offering had been made.
Girded with a linen ephod.—The ephod was a priestly dress, which Samuel received in very early youth, because he had, with the high priest’s formal sanction, been set apart for a life-long service before the Lord. This ephod was an official garment, and consisted of two pieces, which rested on the shoulders in front and behind, and were joined at the top, and fastened about the body with a girdle.
This strange, unusual dress was, no doubt, arranged for the boy by his protector and guardian, Eli, who looked on the child as destined for some great work in connection with the life of the chosen people. Not improbably the old man, too, well aware of the character of his own sons, hoped to train up the favoured child—whose connection with himself and the sanctuary had begun in so remarkable a manner—as his successor in the chief sacred and civil office in Israel.
The women that assembled.—These women were evidently in some way connected with the service of the Tabernacle; possibly they assisted in the liturgical portion of the sanctuary worship. (Compare Psalm 68:11 : “The Lord gave the word, great was the company of female singers.”) Here, as so often in the world’s story, immorality follows on unbelief.
In Psalm 78:60-64, the punishment of the guilty priests and the forsaking of the defiled sanctuary is recorded. The psalmist Asaph relates how, in His anger at the people’s sin, God greatly abhorred Israel, so that He “forsook the Tabernacle at Shiloh—even the tent that He had pitched among men. He delivered their power into captivity, and their beauty into the enemy’s hand. The fire consumed their young men, and their maidens were not given to marriage. Their priests were slain with the sword, and there were no widows to make lamentation.”
They hearkened not . . . because the Lord would slay them.—Here the mysteries connected with God’s foreknowledge and man’s free-will are touched upon. The Lord’s resolution to slay them was founded on the eternal foreknowledge of their persistence in wrong-doing.
There seems to be a period in the sinner’s life when the Spirit of the Eternal ceases to plead; then the man is left to himself, and he feels no longer any remorse for evil done; this is spoken of in Exodus 4:21 as “hardening the heart.” This period in the life of Hophni and Phinehas apparently had been reached when the Lord resolved to slay them.
The term “man of God” we find applied to Moses and to different prophets some forty or more times in the Books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings. It occurs, though but rarely, in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and in the prophetical books only once.
Until the sudden appearance of this “man of God,” no mention of a prophet in the story of Israel had been made since the days of Deborah.
Did I plainly appear . . .—The interrogations in this Divine message do not ask a question with a view to a reply, but simply emphatically appeal to Eli’s conscience. To these questions respecting well-known facts the old man would reply with a silent “Yes.” The “house of thy father” refers to the house of Aaron, the first high priest, from whom, through Ithamar, the fourth son of Aaron, Eli was descended.
The Talmud has a beautiful note on this passage:—Rabbi Shimon ben Yochi said, “Come and see how beloved Israel is by the Holy One! Blessed be He! Wherever they are banished, there the Shekinah is with them; as it is said (1 Samuel 2:27): ‘Did I (God) plainly appear unto the house of thy fathers when they were in Egypt?’ &c. When they were banished to Babylon, the Shekinah was with them; as it is said (Isaiah 43:14): ‘For your sakes was I sent to Babylon.’ And when they will be redeemed the Shekinah will be with them; as it is said (Deuteronomy 30:3): ‘Then the Lord thy God will return with thy captivity;’ it is not said, He will cause to return (transitively), but He will return (intransitively).”—Treatise Meguillah, fol. 29, Colossians 1.
To wear an ephod before me.—This included the privilege, which belonged to the head of the house of Aaron, the reigning high priest, of entering the Holy of Holies—that lightless inner sanctuary where the visible presence of the Eternal was ever and anon pleased to dwell—and also the possession of the mysterious Urim and Thummim, by which enquiry could be made of the will of the invisible King of Israel.
And honourest thy sons above me.—Although Eli knew well what was right, yet foolish fondness for his sons seems in part to have blinded his eyes to the enormity of their wickedness. It is also probable that he was influenced not by feelings of weak affection, but also by unwillingness to divert from his own family the rich source of wealth which proceeded from the offerings of the pilgrims from all parts of the land. These considerations induced him to maintain these bad and covetous men as his acknowledged representatives in the national sanctuary of Shiloh. Eli then allowed things, which gradually grew worse and worse, to drift, and merely interfered with a weak rebuke; but the day of reckoning was at hand.
And there shall not be an old man in thine house.—No one more in thy house, O High Priest, who hast so signally failed in thy solemn duty, shall attain to old age; sickness or the sword shall ever early consume its members. This strange denunciation of the “man of God” is emphasised by being repeated in the next (32) verse, and in different words again in 1 Samuel 2:33.
In all the wealth which God shall give Israel.—“The affliction of God’s house from the loss of the ark remained while under the lead of Samuel there came blessing to the people.”—Erdmann.
There is another explanation which refers the fulfilment of this part of the prophecy to the period of Solomon’s reign, when Abiathar, of the house of Eli, was deposed from the High Priestly dignity to make room for Zadok, but the reference to the capture of the ark is by far more probable.
And all the increase of thine house shall die.—In the Babylonian Talmud the Rabbis have related that there was once a family in Jerusalem the members of which died off regularly at eighteen years of age. Rabbi Jochanan ben Zacchai shrewdly guessed that they were descendants of Eli, regarding whom it is said (1 Samuel 2:33), “And all the increase of thine house shall die in the flower of their age; “and he accordingly advised them to devote themselves to the study of the Law, as the certain and only means of neutralising the curse. They acted upon the advice of the Rabbi; their lives were in consequence prolonged; and they thenceforth went by the name of their spiritual father.—Rosh Hashanah, fol. 18, Colossians 1.
The prediction “I will build him a sure house” is satisfied in the strong house and numerous posterity given to Samuel by God. His grandson Heman was “the king’s seer in the words of God,” and was placed by King David over the choir in the house of God. This eminent personage, Heman, had fourteen sons and three daughters (1 Chronicles 6:33; 1 Chronicles 25:4-5).
Samuel also fulfilled the prophecy “He shall walk before mine anointed for ever” in his close and intimate relation with King Saul, who we find, even after the faithful prophet’s death—although the later acts of Saul had alienated the prophet from his sovereign—summoning the spirit of Samuel as the only one who was able to counsel and strengthen him (1 Samuel 28:15).
Of the other interpretations, that of Rashi and Abarbanel, and many of the moderns, which supposes the reference to be Zadok, of the house of Eleazar, who, in the reign of Solomon, superseded Abiathar, of the house of Ithamar (the ancestor of Eli), alone fairly satisfies most of the different predictions, but we are met with this insurmountable difficulty at the outset—Can we assume that the comparatively unknown Zadok, after the lapse of so many years, was pointed out by the magnificent promises contained in the words of the “man of God” to Eli? The words of the “man of God” surely indicate a far greater one than any high priest of the time of Solomon. In the golden days of this magnificent king, the high priest, overshadowed by the splendour and power of the sovereign, was a very subordinate figure indeed in Israel; but the subject of this prophecy was one evidently destined to hold no secondary and inferior position.
Some commentators, with a singular confusion of ideas, see a reference to Christ in the “faithful priest,” forgetting that this “faithful priest” who was to arise in Eli’s place was to walk before the Lord’s Christ, or Anointed One.
On the whole, the reference to Samuel is the most satisfactory, and seems in all points—without in any way unfairly pressing the historical references—to fulfil that portion of the prediction of the “man of God” to Eli respecting the one chosen to replace him in his position of judge and guide of Israel.