“You are poison. Everything you've ever done is worthless. Everyone is angry at you. You should stop doing anything, all of it--you're not helping anyone.”
Her words sank deeply into my soul and I went numb. Sitting in the over-crowded restaurant, her voice carried to the other tables. I could barely hold back my tears. I had no words, no response to the accusations.
The most difficult part of that conversation was hearing it play back in my mind for months afterward, and wondering...is it true?
Does God think of me that way?
Hannah felt that way. She was married to a Godly Israelite, an Ephraimite named Elkanah. But whereas I could get up from that table and walk out to my husband to be consoled, Hannah could not escape her rival. Peninnah was her husband's second wife, and all of their blended family's kids belonged to Peninnah.
Though Elkanah loved Hannah, her inability to conceive was a constant grief to her:
This man went up from his city yearly to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of hosts in Shiloh. Also the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the Lord, were there. And whenever the time came for Elkanah to make an offering, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, although the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat. Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” 1 Sam. 1:3-8
In our culture it can be difficult to identify with Hannah's need to have children. Many times children are seen as a hindrance to the pinterest-perfect lives we desire for ourselves. But in Hannah's culture, they were highly valued and represented lineage, perpetuation of inheritances, and the favor of God. This had some verification in the Judaic law: God had made it clear that there would be the blessing of children for their people if they obeyed the law, and the curse of barrenness if they didn't (Deut. 28:18).
Even though this was a general blessing or curse upon the nation in generalities, rather than for specific individuals and their individual obedience, it was still seen as an evidence of ungodliness in a woman.
Peninnah had the reputation and physical evidence, her children, of being blessed and favored by God. However, even with that, she most likely was subject to jealousy of Hannah's favor with Elkanah. Personally, I can't imagine having to live with a rival wife without the struggle of pain and jealousy. But in Peninnah's case, she allowed her pain to produce a bitterness that wanted to inflict more pain on the subject of her bitterness—Hannah.
Additionally, judging by Elkanah's response to Hannah's tears, I expect that Penninah's provocative words were always said in private. No one could know what kind of a woman Peninnah was in secret. To the outside world, she may well have looked like the perfect wife of a great God-fearing man, with the blessings of a home and many children. She looked successful.
And Peninnah was successful--physically. By using her words, and perhaps other means, to rise to her position, she temporarily obtained what she sought. It seems that Peninnah had learned to place her value on her status as a wife and mother. But because of her abusive and bitter response to her painful circumstances, her character was not what God was looking for in someone he could bless with even greater success than what was physical—spiritual blessings. By the world, and even the church's standards, she would have been valued and honored. But by God's standards, who sees the heart and the hidden actions, she would be held to account.
At that time period, Israel had slipped into sin, immorality and corruption. Even the priest's own family failed to honor God. Outwardly they still practiced tabernacle worship and sacrifice, but it was so coupled with blatant immorality that God could no longer hear their prayers (Psalm 66:18). Knowing this, God waited for the people to return to Him in repentance so that He could hear them and enter into true relationship with them again.
So often in these divisive times, Peninnahs abound. Gossip, slander, accusations, fighting, hostile or subversive takeovers, scheming, treachery, fear and suspicion are rampant, and these tactics we find even creeping into the Church.
You may have found yourself acting like a Peninnah, as an unhealthy response to your own pain and unchecked bitterness or jealousy. Or perhaps you are suffering the abusive pain intentionally inflicted by someone else.
We all have pain.
What we do with our pain is what determines how God can use us.
In Hannah's pain, we don't see her retaliate. We don't see that she validated herself by explaining the situation to her husband, which could have potentially further exacerbated the issue. Most critically, we don't see her abandon her faith.
Instead, we see her turn to the only One who could meet her hidden soul need:
So Hannah arose after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the Lord. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish. Then she made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” 1 Samuel 1:9-11
Hannah's soul need wasn't children. We see in this passage that she was vowing to give the boy back to the Lord if he were to give her one. Hannah's soul need wasn't a husband—Elkanah already loved her and wished for her happiness and satisfaction in him.
But Hannah was already learning the painful lesson that physical blessings—a community, a home, a husband, and even children, could not satisfy the inner longing for the favor and relationship of God Himself.
Hannah needed to know that Peninnah's words were untrue. She needed to know that God saw her heart and was pleased with her.
We each have a hidden soul need to know that God is pleased with us.
In her abandonment, Hannah gave everything she had and would have to God. She surrendered her plans to His Plan. God's Plan then and His Plan now is to call us back to Him in repentance so that He can hear our cries and hold a deep and all-satisfying relationship with us. He looks for those hearts who are willing to surrender all to Him so that He can use us to bring divine relationship and healing to the hurting around us.
When Hannah was praying, God heard her heart; but the priest, who was corrupt, couldn't. There will always be people who misunderstand our heart's intent, even other Believers. Hannah's response, however, was humble, honoring to the priest, and truthful:
And it happened, as she continued praying before the Lord, that Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you be drunk? Put your wine away from you!” But Hannah answered and said, “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord. Do not consider your maidservant a wicked woman, for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief I have spoken until now.” Then Eli answered and said, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have asked of Him.” And she said, “Let your maidservant find favor in your sight.” So the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad. 1 Samuel 1:12-18
Once Hannah had received the confirmation of her favor in God's sight, she got up and was happy. There was nothing more with which Peninnah could taunt her. Her heart was healed of the pain of accusation. The God of the universe, her God, was pleased with her.
In the subsequent days Hannah would find God's promise to her cries fulfilled: A pregnancy, a birth, a baby boy. Hannah named him “Samuel,” meaning “God has heard.”
Samuel would become the prophet God would use to lead His people back in repentance to Himself. Through Samuel's ministry and righteous judgment, God established righteousness in their hearts through repentance and faith in which God would again hear and have relationship with His people.
When we rejoice in God's favor and salvation, we can smile even at our enemies.
It took me a year to work with the Lord through the words that were spoken over my life in someone's bitter pain and jealousy. As King Solomon put it: “Jealousy [is] as cruel as the grave; Its flames are flames of fire, A most vehement flame” Song of Solomon 8:6. As I read through Hannah's story, I could begin to see the pain between the lines of someone who would spend so much effort to put me in such pain. It gave me a different perspective: one that could let go of bitterness and anger and seek my satisfaction in God alone.
It also gave me a perspective that enabled me to pray for her: to pray that God would bless her; to pray that He would bring healing and fulfillment to those parts of her soul that were insecure and needed satisfaction; to pray that He would show her how her own bitterness and jealousy were causing destruction to her relationships; and to pray that He would bless her with His favor and pleasure as she turned to Him for her security and satisfaction and began to build healthy relationships.
In that process, I found the pleasure of God. Now when I hear those words echoing from the past, they don't have a hold on me. I can “smile” at her, hoping for the very best for her and those she cares about, knowing that God can sort out all things good and bad in His own time.
As we see in Hannah's story, if we use the painful situations and people in our lives to push us to the feet of our Savior, He will use it to bring restoration in ever-widening circles to those whose lives we touch. While we may never see here on earth the full and final result how God uses these things, we can be assured that in eternity we will be glad that we gave those things to the Lord:
And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
With Hannah we can say, “I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.”
“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
My horn is exalted in the Lord.
I smile at my enemies,
Because I rejoice in Your salvation.
“No one is holy like the Lord,
For there is none besides You,
Nor is there any rock like our God.
“Talk no more so very proudly;
Let no arrogance come from your mouth,
For the Lord is the God of knowledge;
And by Him actions are weighed.
“The bows of the mighty men are broken,
And those who stumbled are girded with strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
And the hungry have ceased to hunger.
Even the barren has borne seven,
And she who has many children has become feeble.
“The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up.
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.
“For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
And He has set the world upon them.
He will guard the feet of His saints,
But the wicked shall be silent in darkness.
“For by strength no man shall prevail.
The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces;
From heaven He will thunder against them.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
“He will give strength to His king,
And exalted the horn of His anointed.”
2 Samuel 2
Halley Faville lives with her husband and children in their mountain home in Oregon.