There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
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."
1 Samuel 1:1-20
The students chuckled as the professor walked into the room. Did he not notice what was happening with his shirt? As they watched him make his way to the podium, they had trouble containing their amusement. How could such a brilliant man fail to button his shirt correctly? As the professor addressed the class, he acknowledged the issue with the shirt. He had put the first button into the second button hole. “You see, if you don’t start in the right place, you’ll never end up in the right place.” A simple mistake at the beginning can result in great embarrassment by the end. Sometimes, the only way to fix the problem is to start all over again.
The beginning of 1 Samuel gives us an opportunity to ask, “What is our starting point?” We often start with something that feels like a strength in our lives. We have this or we’ve done that or we’re good at this or we know them. These things give us a sense of value and power. They combat our creeping sense of inadequacy. What we don’t usually realize—until it’s too late—is that starting with ourselves is like missing the first button on our shirt. We never genuinely start with God until we finish starting with ourselves. We don’t want to come to the end of ourselves because we fear there will be nothing there. We refuse to admit our inability because we think we can do this. Maybe we can. But in the most crucial areas, we can’t.
“God’s tendency is to make our total inability his starting point.” This statement from Dale Ralph Davis is evident when we zoom in on the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 and when we zoom out on the whole story of redemption. Here, a barren woman, devastated by her circumstances, has come to the end of herself. Her safety nets have been shredded. She has no fallback options. But here, in the place of utter desperation, the song of God’s rescue rings out. Our total inability is the prelude to the symphony of God’s sufficiency. In blessing barren Hannah with a child, the Lord again reveals the pattern of His redemption. In our hopelessness, the Lord gives birth to hope. In our despair, the Lord gives birth to joy. Salvation is nothing less than God doing the impossible, bringing life out of death. Who but God could turn a dead end into a fountain of life? If that’s the way the Lord works, why do we spend so much energy trying to avoid His starting point? Next time we button our shirt, we should remember: If we don’t start in the right place, we’ll never end up in the right place. Lord, help us to be honest about our inability and to be bold in crying out for Your grace!