An answer to prayer

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount included many practical teachings about spiritual life. One of the important topics that Jesus addressed was prayer. Jesus told his followers:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:5-15)

Jesus contrasted public prayer with private prayer and referred to those who were fond of praying in the sight of others as hypocrites. The Greek word that is translated hypocrites, hupokrites (hoop-ok-ree-taceˊ) means “an actor under an assumed character (stage-player)” (G5273). Instead, Jesus said that believers should, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). The Greek term that is translated secret, kruptos (kroop-tosˊ) has to do with that which is hidden in the human heart. Jesus concluded that forgiveness, or the lack thereof, was the deciding factor when it came to God answering our prayers.

Jesus used the parable of the unforgiving servant to illustrate his point about God’s attitude toward forgiveness. When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus said to him:

“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:22-35)

Jesus indicated that we must forgive our brother from our heart. The phrase from your heart denotes a change in attitude toward something or someone. In Jesus’ parable, mercy was the key to being able to forgive others (Matthew 18:33). The Greek word eleeo (el-eh-ehˊ-o), which is translated mercy in the English Standard Version of the Bible and compassion in the King James Version of the Bible, is “spoken of the mercy of God through Christ or salvation in Christ: to bestow salvation on…The general meaning is to have compassion or mercy on a person in unhappy circumstances. Used transitively in the passive, to be pitied, obtain mercy, implying not merely a feeling for the misfortunes of others involving sympathy (oiktirmos [3628], pity), but also an active desire to remove those miseries” (G1653).

“The book of 1 Samuel presents in detail the transitional phase between the period of the judges and the period of the kings…Samuel bridged the gap between the periods of the judges and kings in that he was the last one to serve as a judge in all Israel and that he anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David” (Introduction 1 Samuel). The book of 1 Samuel opens with the birth of Samuel which was the result of God answering his mother Hannah’s prayer. 1 Samuel 1:9-20 states:

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

Hannah’s emotional plea for a child was witnessed by Eli the priest, but 1 Samuel 1:13 tells us, “Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard.” Hannah described herself as “a woman troubled in spirit” and she told Eli, “I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:15). The Hebrew word qasheh (kaw-sheh), which is translated troubled, indicates that Hannah was in a painful situation (H7186). Hannah’s complaint was that her rival’s constant provocation had made her bitter and her misery was beyond what she could bear. It says in 1 Samuel 1:6, “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.”

Hannah’s situation was attributed to the LORD’s sovereign control of her ability to have children. The Hebrew word that is translated closed in 1 Samuel 1:6, çagar (saw-garˊ) means “to shut up” and is used figuratively as “to surrender.” “In the books of Samuel, cagar is used in the special sense of ‘to deliver up,’ implying that all avenues of escape ‘are closed’” (H5462). It seems likely that the LORD had intentionally kept Hannah from having children so that she would surrender this aspect of her life to him. When Hannah got to the point where she was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, “the LORD remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the LORD’” (1 Samuel 1:19-20). The Hebrew word that is translated remembered, zakar (zaw-karˊ) is properly translated as “to mark (so as to be recognized), i.e. to remember; (by implication) to mention…Remembering in ancient Israel was a major aspect of proper worship, as it is today” (H2142).

First Samuel 1:11 tells us that Hannah vowed a vow and said that, if the LORD would remember her and give her a son, “then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” A vow is a “voluntary promise to give or do something as an expression of consecration or devotion to the service of God” (H5087). After Samuel was born, Hannah told her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the LORD and dwell there forever” (1 Samuel 1:22). Hannah’s understanding of the temple of God’s purpose was that it functioned in a similar way to what heaven does now that Jesus is seated at the right hand of his Father. In order for Samuel to appear in the presence of the LORD, he would have to have access to the holy of holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Leviticus 16 indicates that only Aaron, the high priest, was allowed to go inside the veil, before the mercy seat that was on the ark once per year on the Day of Atonement. The book of Hebrews explains that Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf into the inner place behind the curtain, “having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20). The earthly holy place was a temporary structure that provided a way for sacrifices to be made to God, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). Thus, Samuel’s dedication to the LORD was meant to be a type of spiritual rebirth, similar to what Christians experience when they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit (G3824). Hebrews chapter 10 tells us that Christ’s sacrifice was once for all and states specifically, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12-14).

Samuel’s sanctification was attained through Hannah’s Nazarite vow on her son’s behalf. Hannah said, “then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” (1 Samuel 1:11). “The term Nazarite means one who is consecrated to God” (H5139). The Hebrew word naziyr (naw-zeerˊ) is derived from the word nezer (nehˊ-zer). “A masculine noun meaning consecration, an ordination. This could be the consecration of the high priest (Leviticus 21:12); or of a person taking a vow as a Nazarite (Numbers 6:5, 7, 9, 12)” (H5145). It says of the person who has taken the Nazarite vow, “All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD” (Numbers 6:8). The Hebrew word qadosh (kaw-dosheˊ), which is translated holy in Numbers 6:8, is also translated saint (Psalm 106:16) and is derived from the word qadash (kaw-dashˊ) which means “to be holy, to sanctify” (H6942).

When Hannah brought Samuel to the temple to give him to the LORD, she told Eli the priest, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted my petition that I made to him” (1 Samuel 1:26-27). The fact that the LORD granted Hannah’s petition was a remarkable feat in and of itself, but the important thing to note about Hannah’s situation was that she had the kind of faith that prompted her to go to God for help. There are very few instances recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible where an individual prayed to God and only once do we see a situation like Hannah’s where a woman prayed for her individual need and received an answer from God. Jesus said that when we pray to our Father in secret, or as Hannah did, from our heart, he will reward us. The idea behind the Greek word that is translated reward is that of repayment or of giving something back (G591). Hannah’s reward is mentioned in the context of Eli’s negligence as a parent. It says in 1 Samuel 2:12, “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD.” The text goes on to state, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt” (1 Samuel 2:17). Then, 1 Samuel 2:18-21 tells us:

Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy clothed with a linen ephod. And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord give you children by this woman for the petition she asked of the Lord.” So then they would return to their home.

Indeed the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord.

One way of looking at Hannah’s reward was that the LORD gave her back what she gave to him, but even more so, because she had three additional sons, as well as two daughters.

When Hannah gave Samuel to the LORD, she prayed a second prayer that is recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Hannah’s prayer was similar to Mary’s song of praise, also known as The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Hannah’s prayer opened with the statement:

“My heart exults in the Lord;
    my horn is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in your salvation. (1 Samuel 2:1)

The Hebrew word that is translated salvation in this verse, yᵉshuwʿah (yesh-ooˊ-ah) means “something saved” (H3444). Jesus is a Greek form of yeshu’ah. In the final verse Hannah’s prayer, there is a reference to Israel’s Messiah (1 Samuel 2:10), suggesting that Hannah knew about and had personally received salvation through Jesus Christ. Whether Hannah was already saved when she asked God to give her a son or her salvation was the result of her receiving an answer to prayer isn’t clear in her story, but it can be assumed that she believed God was listening when she spoke to him in her heart (1 Samuel 1:13). After a fig tree quickly withered that Jesus had cursed earlier in the day, his disciples were amazed and asked him, “’How did the fig tree wither away so soon?’ So Jesus answered and said to them,  ‘Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, “Be removed and be cast into the sea,” it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive’” (Matthew 21:20-22, NKJV)

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