Howard Wallace's home page

November 15, 2009
Psalm: 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Today our ‘psalm’ comes not from the Book of Psalms but from the text of Book of Samuel itself. In that sense it is fitting to set alongside the story of Hannah’s plight and the conception of Samuel, her son. It is also a fitting choice in that this prayer was the model for the song of thanksgiving by Mary, the mother of Jesus, Luke 1:46-55, called The Magnificat. The latter is used as the alternative psalm reading on Advent 4.

It is not unusual to find psalms, songs or other poems inserted into prose stories or other prose material in the Bible. Other examples include Exod. 15:1-18; Deut. 32:1-43; 33:2-29; Judges 5; 9:8-15; 2 Sam. 22:2-51; 23:1-7; and Jonah 2:1-9 to name a few. This is even done at the start of Luke’s Gospel, Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus) and Luke 2:29-32 (The Nunc Dimittis) besides the Magnificat. Many of these poems are collected in a group of psalms attached to the end of the Book of Psalms in the ancient Greek versions of the Psalter. Here they are called ‘The Odes’. The inclusion of such poems within narratives indicates in some cases that the poem did not belong to the story at the start but was thought to bring either some artistic or theological quality to the story. In some cases, such as in Exodus 15 and Judges 5, it may be that the poem was an older version of the story and the prose account has been added around it. Thus these poems can be either older or younger than the prose story they qualify. In many cases they add particular theological perspectives to the story giving some insight into a character or allowing the narrator to interpret what is happening for the reader.

This last reason may be behind the inclusion of 1 Sam. 2:1-10 into the narrative on Samuel’s birth. While the psalm is in many ways a fitting choice for this week in our liturgy, there is also something seemingly unfitting about it’s location in the story of Hannah. In the narrative, Hannah, an individual woman, prays the psalm. However, the words she prays are more fitting in a context of national thanksgiving. It is not the prayer of an individual woman giving thanks for the birth of a child. It is full of the language of the mighty and the feeble, the poor and the rich, the Lord killing and bringing to life, of princes and the king. This is not the sort of thing the mother of a new born child, especially one who has struggled with ‘barrenness’ as well as the scorn of others, utters in thanks to the Lord. However, having said that, we can see that the lines ‘The barren has born seven, but she who has many children is forlorn’ (v. 5b), could well be a trigger for inclusion of the prayer in the story. 1 Sam.2:21 will later report that in all Hannah ends up having six children.

While in places the prayer does not fit the circumstances of the story that well, it is, however, an ideal insertion for theological reasons. The story at the start of 1 Samuel is not just about one small family, an old priest, a barren woman and her joy. It has national significance for Israel. Samuel will be an important figure in the emergence of Israel as a nation under David. This is a time of transition from the old period of the judges and one way of life to that of the kingdom and another. While not everything about that transition was satisfactory, 1 Samuel still sees the hand of God acting behind the scene to bring about what was desired. Hannah, in her prayer of thanksgiving, prays not just for herself and from her own experience, but on behalf of the whole nation. Moreover, in the story she prays in anticipation of what Israel’s experience will be. The Lord will prove the people’s rock, their strength, their protection, the one who will judge all peoples and who will, in David to come, will give strength to his king.

A major theme of the prayer is the way Israel’s God works by overturning expectations and assumptions that arise from human experience and condition. The way of this Holy One, this rock, is to break the bows of the mighty, to deprive those who are full, to make forlorn those with many children etc. Some of this might sound harsh but the point of the poetry is not to take each clause literally but to appreciate that all in which humans see their strength, their security, their wealth, can be lost. Indeed, it is as nothing. The Lord is the one who brings to life, who gives children to the barren, who feeds the hungry, who makes the poor rich and exalts the lowly. Every sense of self-security, every human plan for salvation of one kind or another, is not life giving. Only the Lord, who judges all the earth, can grant life, and he does so in surprising ways and unlikely places. That is the story of Hannah’s prayer.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Verses from the psalm can be used in the prayer of adoration:

My heart exults in the LORD;
my strength is exalted in my God.
There is no Holy One like the LORD,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
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,
for not by might does one prevail.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.
Likewise verses can be used with the Kyrie as part of the confession and declaration of forgiveness:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
When we secure our nation with arms,
and enter alliances of war,
Lord have mercy

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
When we eat our fill while others starve,
And spend what we have on ourselves,
Christ have mercy.

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.
When we pass by the poor and the needy,
And seek places of honour for ourselves,
Lord have mercy.

The Lord judges the ends of the earth,
He guards the feet of his faithful ones,
He kills and brings to life.
Hear then God’s judgment in Jesus Christ,
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.

Old Testament Reading: 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Return to OT Lectionary Reading