Episode 1. It Starts in a Storm
When the storms in life inevitably come, what we really need is some solid ground beneath our feet. And fortunately, God knows that. Why don’t you join Berni Dymet, this week on Christianityworks …
When the storms in life strike, as they inevitably do, it feels as though we’re caught in a small bout out on a stormy ocean. At that point, what we really need is some solid ground beneath our feet. And fortunately, God knows that only too well.
Dealt a Cruel Blow
You know you can always tell when we are starting a new series – I am excited. I love to get onto a new series in God’s Word and that’s what we are doing today. We are starting a series called “On Solid Ground” to listen to what God has to say into one of the central dilemmas of our lives and that dilemma is this: dealing with the storms of life.
I remember when I was a young boy – I was about four or five years old. My mother and my sister and I sailed in a ship from Australia to Europe. Now that was a four week sail through the Suez Canal and back again. It’s a long way and I remember, even to this day, there were some huge storms along the way. I remember they had ropes in the corridors on the ship to hang onto.
I have never forgotten those storms and remember, this was a large cruise ship and yet it seemed to get tossed around in those storms. I was sea sick; I was very afraid as a young kid, even though I was on this big cruise liner. I remember going out onto the deck and seeing the huge waves and the winds and the ship was pitching around in this fearsome ocean and for me, there is nothing as frightening as an angry sea and a violent storm – the ground as it were, moving under your feet.
For some people life seems to be a constant storm. The ground under their feet is never solid – there is always some fear and some uncertainty and they can never quite figure out why. What is going on – why is my life always like this? Now many of these people believe in God and yet life seems to be one endless storm. What we really want to have is solid ground under our feet.
When you are in a storm the question is – how? That’s what we are going to be exploring in this series called “On Solid Ground” starting right here and right now. Now if you have a Bible, I’d like you to grab it because we are going to be spending most of our time in the first eight chapters in a Book called First Samuel, in the Old Testament. We are going to discover the truth that we kind of know or we should know and yet it gets lost in the world that we live in.
See this is a ‘me’ centred world where so often we find ourselves going to God asking Him for things for me, for me, for me and little by little, instead of God being God we expect Him to start being like a performing dog – to do tricks on our command. It may seem harsh but you get God the wrong way around and it spells dog.
Am I expecting God to start dancing to my tune or am I dancing to His? It’s a good question. That’s what we are going to be exploring in this story and it begins in the storm. It’s a story about a woman called Hannah and it turns out that she is going through some incredibly tough times in her life but she has the Creator/creature relationship the right was up.
Open you Bible – let’s go to First Samuel – it’s the ninth book of the Old Testament. It’s kind of just over a third; between a third and a half way in. We are going to start at the first verse of the first chapter of First Samuel.
There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah, son of Jeroham the son of Elihu the son of Tohu the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah, the other Peninnah. And Peninnah had children but Hannah had none.
Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh where Hophni and Phinehas the two sons of Eli, were the priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters but to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her and the Lord had closed her womb. And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.
This went on year after year – whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord her rival provoked her until she wept and wouldn’t eat. Elkanah, her husband would say “Hannah why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you down hearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
Pretty tough! Anybody who has ever gone childless or had someone in their family who has gone childless will know the incredible pain of a couple who would like to have a child and yet they can’t conceive. Can you imagine this going on year after year after year and in between these annual trips, as well? And of course, there were two wives – now the Bible doesn’t talk about the fact that there were two wives – obviously the author doesn’t feel a need to comment – praise God that has gone away.
But never the less, poor old Hannah had a pretty tough time – a real storm, year after year, the pain of being childless and she had lots of choices in that space. She could have been angry; she could have lashed out; she could have withdrawn. And her husband is pretty useless; typical male – “What’s the matter, why are you crying? You’ve got me!”
So what does Hannah do? Let’s look at First Samuel chapter 1, beginning at verse 9:
Once they had finished eating and drinking at Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the door post of the Lord’s temple. In the bitterness of her 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 servants misery and remember me and don’t 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’m a woman whose deeply troubled. I haven’t been drinking wine or beer. I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Don’t take your servant for a weak woman – I have been praying here about the great anguish and grief that I have.” And Eli answered “Go in peace. May God of Israel grant you what you have asked Him.” She said, “May your servant find favour in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something and her face was no longer downcast.
Turns out she does have a son, calls him Samuel, gives him over to God as soon as he is weaned and he comes and serves as a priest in this temple under Eli, whom we discover later is one bad dude. He is the priest; he is supposed to be the go between, between God and His people and yet he and his sons have no respect for God. We will look at them later and also we will see Samuel’s fate.
At the start of the programme I talked about this “me, me, me” thing – always asking God for stuff; kind of turning things the wrong way round, instead of us being made in God’s image, we try to remake Him in ours. And yet here is this story – this story that begins in a storm – this story that begins with Hannah in a storm and she is asking God for something. Did you notice she doesn’t lash out or whine or complain? She humbles herself before God and asks her sovereign God; pours her heart out to Him.
Eli, this scoundrel, with as much spiritual insight as my pet cat, thinks she is drunk and feeds her with platitudes – “May the Lord give you what you ask for.” Yet here is a simple woman at the bottom of the heap, pouring her heart out to her God. And notice what it says after she does that, in verse 18 of chapter 1: “Then she went her way and ate something and her face was no longer downcast.” See Hannah’s feet were on solid ground – even before her prayer is answered – a seemingly impossible prayer.
You know what that tells me? She trusted her God – no matter what His answer would be – she trusted Him; she let it go; she stopped worrying and God answered her prayer. I’m not saying “Let’s all be like Hannah” – we are clearly not, our storms are different to hers but what we discover in this story is that when we put God in His rightful place – God – He honours that.
We are going to have a look at her understanding of her God again next.
Chalk and Cheese
What comes next in this story is Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving. She is in this storm; she asks God for the impossible; she has got the taunts of the other wife and she comes to God in a prayer of humility; pouring out her soul and God answers her with a son and she gives that son back to God for the rest of his life. Now listen to what she prays and how she rejoices.
We are now at chapter 2 of First Samuel, beginning at verse 1:
Then Hannah prayed and said ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, in the Lord my horn is lifted high, my mouth boasts over my enemies for I delight in Your deliverance. There is no one holy like the Lord. There is no one besides You. There is no rock like our God. Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance for the Lord is a God who knows and by Him deeds are weighed. The bows of warriors are broken but those who stumble are armed with strength.’
And this prayer goes on and on … read it for yourself in First Samuel chapter 2. And you know what it’s all about? The power and the sovereignty of God! It’s about a Hannah who went to God with this in her heart – God is above all things. Not this attitude of “Let’s reform God in my image. Let’s turn Him into a performing poodle.”
You know how I know that? Because when she poured out her heart to God she offered her son back to Him and she honoured that promise when God delivered her son. There is a challenge there for each one of us about how we go to God – how we see Him – as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords or some puppy dog that performs tricks on our command? Come on!
And how can we tell the difference? See, this is a very hard thing to discern sometimes. How can we tell the difference between a right and a wrong attitude towards God? Let’s go back to His Word and we will see what a wrong attitude looks like when we look at the priest Eli and his sons. Join me is First Samuel chapter 2 verse 11. Remember Eli was the priest that was at the temple when Hannah went to pray.
Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord. Now it was the practice of the priests with the people, that whenever anyone offered a sacrifice and while the meat was being boiled, the servant of the priest would come with a three pronged fork in his hand, he would plunge it into the pan or the kettle or the cauldron or the pot and the priest would take for himself whatever the fork brought up. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh.
But even before the fat was burned, the servants of the priest would come and say to the man who was sacrificing “Give the priest some meat to roast – he won’t accept boiled meat from you but only raw.” If the man said to him “Let the fat be burned up first and then take whatever you want, the servant would answer “No, hand it over now, if you don’t I’ll take it by force.” So this sin of the young men; the young priests was very great in the Lord’s sight for they were treating the Lord’s offerings with contempt.
You see the way we tell the difference about our heart attitude towards God is through how we behave. Hannah could have complained; Hannah could have fought back; Hannah could have acted up badly; she could have lashed out at her husband; she could have grumbled at the other wife and yet, in her pain, who could have blamed her? She could have shaken her fists at God and instead she went to Him with her mission impossible and poured out her heart to God and trusted Him because He is God and then she had peace. He honoured that!
Here’s an amazing truth – it’s one of those pivotal passages in the Bible that tells us a huge amount about why, when we have a wrong heart toward God, things go badly in our lives. Listen to First Samuel chapter 2, verse 30; this is a verse that’s worth writing down. God says:
For those who honour Me, I will honour. And those who despise Me shall be treated with contempt.
And what we read in the remainder of chapter 2 of First Samuel, starting at verse 27, is that God deals with Eli and his two sons and He sends a prophet to Eli and this is what happens. First Samuel chapter 2, verse 27:
Now, a man of God came to Eli and said to him “This is what the Lord says” “Did I not clearly reveal Myself to your father’s house when they were in Egypt, under Pharaoh? I chose your father out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to go up to My alter to burn My incense, to wear an ephod in My presence. I also gave your father’s house all the offerings made with fire by the Israelites.
“So why do you scorn My sacrifice and offering that I prescribed from My dwelling? Why do you honour your sons more than Me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by My people Israel?” Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel declares “I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before Me forever,” but now the Lord declares “Far be it from Me; those who honour Me, I will honour but those who despise Me I will disdain.
The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house so that there will not be an old man in your family and you will see distress in the dwelling and good will be done to Israel. In your family line there will never be an old man. Every one of you that I do not cut off from My alter, will be spared only to blind your eyes with tears and grieve you heart and all your descendants will die in the prime of their lives.
And what happens to your sons Hophni and Phinehas will be a sign to you – they will both die on the same day. And I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will firmly establish his house and he will minister before My anointed one always. Then everyone left in the family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a crust of bread and plead “Appoint me to some priestly office so I can have food to eat.”
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the Word of the Lord was rare – there were not many visions.
There it is – these priests were in a position of power and authority and responsibility and they … they didn’t honour God, in their words and in their deeds, they rejected Him. And God dealt with them. Hannah on the other hand – well, she was like chalk and cheese compared to Eli, Hophni and Phinehas. Hannah was the lowly of the lowly – these priests were on the top of the social religious register but that made no difference to God. “I will honour those who honour Me and those who despise Me shall be treated with contempt.”
The priests failed! The Word of the Lord was rare – their job was to tell people what the Word of the Lord was and yet, in those days it was rare. You know, if you can’t change the people, sometimes you have to change the people and that’s exactly what God does here. Ultimately, young Samuel becomes the priest and the prophet of Israel – he is the one that grows in favour and we are going to look at his story next week.
It’s About Honour
Let me ask you something. Who was on solid ground, Hannah who honoured God or the priests Eli, Hophni and Phinehas who pleased themselves? See, it’s so easy to be like Eli, Hophni and Phinehas but it’s hard to be like Hannah. You know why? Because we can’t really see God – not like we can see the physical reality that we are in – not like we can see our circumstances – not like we can see the storm and feel the fear.
All those things seem so much more real than this notion of a God that we can’t see – a God that we have to put our faith in instead of being able to touch and hear physically. And so this present reality takes over and God has to fit into our present reality. Absolutely, it is easy to be like Eli, Hophni and Phinehas! It’s easy to relegate God to one of the things that has to fit into our present daily agenda.
But God is no less real for the fact that we physically can’t see Him. He is no less powerful for the fact that we interact with Him in faith. God is God and solid ground is the place that Hannah knew – she stood before God.
I once heard someone say that peace is trusting in the sovereignty of God. Hannah had that peace. For that very reason – in the eye of her perfect storm, in that place of taunts and disappointments and hurts that she couldn’t even utter when she poured out her heart to God – Hannah discovered God’s peace through a simple, simple act of faith.
So many times over these recent years for me, when the storms have blown in – so many times and you know, in a sense – each time I feel so inadequate to deal with those storms. Isn’t that the point? When we are on that ship in the ocean, doesn’t matter how big the ship is; doesn’t matter how strong we are, we are nothing compared to those storms.
People come against you – circumstances, finances, things that really hurt, things of real fear, horrible things that people do – and we feel so inadequate just going and praying about them, well, “What good is that?” But you know what that prayer of faith is? That prayer of anguish and pouring out our hearts before the Lord, like Hannah did, it’s honouring Him as the sovereign God. It’s saying “God I may be smaller than this storm but this storm is nothing more than a pin prick for You. You are above all things, above all powers, above all dominions and circumstances and storms.”
And listen again to God’s Word. First Samuel chapter 2 and verse 30. God says:
I will honour those who honour Me and those who despise Me will be treated with contempt.
Who had solid ground under their feet – Hannah or Eli, Hophni and Phinehas?
Now next week we are going to see how God’s contempt was poured out on Eli, Hophni and Phinehas. Remember that prophesy from the man of God, saying to Eli, “Your two sons Hophni and Phinehas are going to die on the same day as a sign to you that there will never be another old man in your line.” We are going to see that happen next week and we are also going to see how God’s honour was carried forth for Hannah through Samuel her son.
We haven’t talked a whole lot about him today but this Book is named after him – First Samuel. We will see that next week on the programme. God blesses Samuel – God sets him up as the priest and the prophet and the judge over the whole of the nation of Israel. This nobody woman, this Hannah, who couldn’t have a son, honours her God and God takes that and changes the course of history.
God’s blessing to Hannah flowed on, down the generations through her son. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: when I look at my life, when you look at your life, do we look like Hannah or Eli? Because that’s how I figure out whether I’m someone who honours God as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, as the sovereign of all things.
Is this the God I go to, to pour my heart out to? Or do I steal His stuff? Is He the God I rejoice in when He answers me or the God who I try to kind of fit into my schedule when I can be bothered? That God who I manipulate and massage and mould into whatever I want Him to be.
Make no mistake – God takes His honour and His glory very, very seriously. He gives them away to no man and to no woman. And as we will find out in the lives of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, it’s a matter of life and death.