Why God Makes People Cry
I was recently reading the Roald Dahl novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to my young children. If you’ve never read it, it’s the story of an eccentric chocolate manufacturer who invites five lucky children to visit his factory with a view to installing one of them as his heir. Whilst Charlie is polite and instantly loveable, the other four children are definitely not. The greedy Augustus Gloop gets swept away by a chocolate river, the spoilt Veruca Salt gets thrown out with the garbage, and the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde comes to an appropriately sticky end. At this point one of my children turned to me and said, “I really hope that Charlie is the one left at the end and not Mike Teavee.” It suddenly dawned on me that my children didn’t know the unwritten storybook rule: bad things only happen to bad people, and good things only happen to good people.
I know the rule. You know the rule. But that makes the first chapter of 1 Samuel all the more surprising. It appears that, like my children, God doesn’t know this unwritten rule, or if he does know then he decides to break it in this chapter and very often in our own lives too. If God is good then why does he make so many good people cry?
Think about it. Peninnah means Pearl or Ruby, but there was nothing beautiful about the second wife of Elkanah. She taunted Hannah for her infertility and made her life a misery, yet God blessed her with many sons and daughters. Hannah means Grace, and she lived up to her name, yet God rewarded her with trouble and a monthly cycle of disappointment. She thought she had married a godly man1 – one of the few men in backslidden Israel who still came to worship at the Lord’s Tabernacle in Shiloh2 – yet after their wedding he embraced the same polygamy as his neighbours3 and proved crassly insensitive towards her pain in verse 8. Even Eli, Israel’s high priest and thirteenth judge,4 accused Hannah of drunkenness and tried to throw her out of the Tabernacle. The writer wants us to react against this apparent injustice, so he shocks us twice in verses 5 and 6 by telling us that “the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb.” It wasn’t chance and it wasn’t the Devil. It was the Lord, and he did it for a reason.
Hannah wasn’t the first woman in the Old Testament whom the Lord had made infertile. He had done the same thing to the wives of the three great patriarchs – Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel – as well as to the mother of Samson and the great-grandmother of David.5 In fact, a straight reading of the Old Testament so far suggests that anguish and infertility are often part of the training programme God devises to create the kind of women he can use.
You see, unlike Peninnah or Elkanah, Hannah was delivered from her backslidden culture through the abject misery which she endured. It turned her into one of the great praying women of the Old Testament, as she poured out her soul to the Lord in verse 15. She came to know God in verse 11 as Yahweh Tsabâôth – the Lord of Armies, or Lord Almighty – despite the fact that Israel had been overrun by the Philistines and the rest of her fellow Hebrews disregarded him as the weak and outdated deity of yesteryear. It caused her to pray such gritty, persistent, anguished prayers of faith that she became the perfect filament God could use to display his glory to the whole of Israel.
The chronology of the book of Judges suggests that the events described in this chapter took place at roughly the same time that Samson died as a prisoner of the Philistines. The writer wants us to notice the deliberate parallels between the baby Hannah was to conceive and the judge who had just failed. Samson had been born to a barren woman, had been called to be a Nazirite from his mother’s womb6 and had been called to lead Israel to freedom from the Philistines, but had failed. Samuel would be born to another barren woman, would be a true Nazirite, and would succeed in delivering Israel from the Philistines in chapter 7. Even their names sounded similar, except that Samuel meant Heard By God and spoke of gratitude for prayers answered in the past and prophesied more answers to prayer in the future.7 If Hannah had not graduated from the Lord’s school of humility by learning lessons through her suffering, she would never have handed her little boy over to Eli to grow up in the Tabernacle without her.8 Because she did so, she became the kind of person God could use.9
Nobody except you fully knows the sorrows in your own life, but if God has made you cry like Hannah then I hope you find comfort in the promises of this chapter. I hope it helps you trust that God’s delays today are a sign that he has something far better in store for you tomorrow. I hope you notice that the writer doesn’t bother to name Peninnah’s sons and daughters, or the five children who were born to Hannah after she handed over Samuel in 2:21. Those children born out of ease and comfort had not been prayed for and blessed through the Lord making their mother cry. They were not like Samuel, who would become the greatest judge of Israel, the deliverer of God’s People, the Lord’s prophet, and the kingmaker who would transition Israel from a loose confederation of tribes led by judges into a centralised monarchy. I hope this chapter helps you understand that God has made you cry because your tears are watering the earth of your life to produce a harvest of grace beyond your wildest dreams. After all, if God is big enough for you to blame in your troubles, then he is also big enough for you to trust him in the midst of them too.
If God grants you encouragement through this chapter, then follow Hannah’s lead in verse 18 when she responds to Eli’s blessing with faith and joy. Although nothing has changed visibly and she has only the word of God’s priest to suggest that her prayer has been heard at all,10 she dries her eyes and breaks her fast and starts worshipping the Lord.
As you worship alongside her, you will become the kind of person God can use.
This is one of a series of extracts from Phil Moore’s book Straight to the Heart of 1&2 Samuel. This and other books in the series can be purchased through his website.
- 1 Elkanah means Purchased By God, and 1 Chronicles 6:25-38 clarifies that he merely lived in Ephraim and was actually from the godly tribe of Levi.
- 2 Moses’ Tabernacle had been turned into a semi-permanent building at Shiloh after Joshua 18:1, which is why it is called a temple for the first time in 1:9 & 3:3.
- 3 Even though the patriarchs took multiple wives, Genesis 2:24 declared it sinful and one of the great themes of 1 & 2 Samuel is that polygamy always leads to trouble.
- 4 1 Samuel 4:18 makes it clear that Eli was Israel’s judge as well as high priest. It says literally that he judged Israel, just as in Judges 4:4, 10:2-3, 12:7-14, 15:20 & 16:31.
- 5 Genesis 11:30, 25:21 & 29:31, Judges 13:2, and Ruth 1:4-5 & 4:13.
- 6 Compare Numbers 6:1-21, Judges 13:7&12-14 and 1 Samuel 1:11,22&28.
- 7 There is also another play on words here in Hebrew, since Hannah uses the verb which is at the root of the name Saul to describe her asking God for Samuel in verse 27 and for her lending him back to God in verse 28.
- 8 In the Masoretic Hebrew text of verse 23, Elkanah wants the Lord to stick to his promise, but in the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint he wants the Lord to make Hannah stick to her promise. Elkanah knew how difficult it would be for Hannah to hand over little Samuel.
- 9 We are meant to understand the reference to a three-year-old bull in verse 24 to mean that Hannah weaned Samuel and handed him over to Eli at Shiloh when he was three years old.
- 10 Eli’s words in Hebrew in verse 17 can be translated in two ways. They can be a prayer, “May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him”, or they can be a priestly blessing that “The God of Israel has granted you what you have asked of him.”