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She was an otherwise unknown Middle-Eastern woman. Because of her inability to bear children, her husband took a second wife, who bore him several children. She was publicly shamed for her infertility.

Hannah had few resources, no agency, diminished status. She lived in a time of great distress for God’s people. The end of the book of Judges describes a period of great moral decline, of anarchy, of a lawless and violent culture. The spiritual state of Israel was so corrupt that Hannah’s fervent prayer in the temple invited shock and surprise from Levi, the priest. The priesthood itself was corrupt, as Levi’s sons would be rebuked by God for their debauchery and disobedience.

The world, Hannah’s world, was hopeless on every level. She could not bear children, bringing sorrow on her and her husband. There was no good leadership at any level in her country. God’s people were compromised and drifting from the truth.

If you were looking at this situation from the outside, you’d have many reasons to lament. How will God’s promises to establish a people forever be fulfilled when those people are intransigent and clamoring for a king other than Yahweh? Who will rule the next generation of Israel? And what good could come from the barren womb of this faithful daughter of God?

Of course the answer is in Hannah’s powerful prayer, after God granted her request to bear children. God works and is working when we least expect Him to, when the signs around us point only to despair.

And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Samuel 2:1-10 ESV)

What a powerful promise from a sovereign God. A nation in trouble. A fearful people. A powerful God. From this faithful, powerless women could come Israel’s next great leader, Samuel. And from similarly unlikely circumstances in an even more troubled Israel would rise another deliverer for God’s people. Hannah’s prayer is so strikingly similar to Mary’s prayer, recorded by Luke in Luke 1:46-55.

Mary, an unmarried, unremarkable, unknown Middle-Eastern women in a poor family would be the unlikely bearer of the Messiah. This deliverer would be better than Samuel and would the the true prophet, priest, and king, not only for Israel, but for a people from every nation, tribe and tongue.

He raises up the poor from the dust. He lifts the need from the ash heep. He makes them to sit with princes. 

I’m reading this prayer today as a prayer of hope for 2016. As I write this, news comes scrolling across my social media timeline in a nonstop barrage of horror. Hundreds killed in a car bomb in Baghdad. A rabbi’s family gunned down in their car in the West Bank. Heroes from International Justice Mission murdered for fighting against the trafficking of people for sex and profit. There seems no end to our weeping.

I’m also distressed by a leadership void in the culture. Where are the heroes, the leaders, the good men and women to step up and lead our communities? What’s more, it seems that even God’s people are often willing to bend their theology to popular sentiment, to baptize sin as virtue and vulgarity as leadership.

But reading Hannah’s prayer keeps me from despair. It reminds me that the next great leader in the culture and perhaps in the church could arise from the least likely of places: the home of undocumented immigrants, and orphanage in Russia, or the gritty housing projects in an American inner city. We should despair only if less sovereign than he was in Hannah’s day. We should despair only if our faith is in the princes and powers and structures of this world. We should despair only if Jesus Christ, who promised to build his church and return as reigning King, is still buried in a rich man’s tomb outside Jerusalem.

Otherwise, in the midst of despair and hopelessness, of failed promises and crumbling institutions, when all of our resources and agency leave us powerless, we can say, with Hannah, with Mary, and with countless saints of old, “There is no rock like our God.” We, who have been made, by Jesus, to “sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” should be, of all people, most joyful.

Long Thien