Does God Really Answer Prayer? How? Why?

How many of you have ever experienced answered prayer? I have on several occasions. In my early teenage years, I had asthma and I remember my lower back constantly aching. Someone prayed for my asthma and back problems and I woke up the next day able to breathe and not aching and I haven’t had those problems since. More recently, I’ve been praying that God will provide for our church-planting efforts worldwide and He is answering those prayers through some generous people.

Over the past few weeks, we have begun walking through the first book of Samuel. The text has presented us with a theology of prayer. In the first passage of this chapter, we saw that everything is by God’s providence alone. God provides according to His will alone and He works things together to accomplish His purposes for the salvation and sanctification of those He has chosen. In the second passage, we saw that even our desperation works together to humble us and bring God’s people to Him. Today we are going to see another facet of prayer, a facet that the text hasn’t presented until now. It is the promise of answered prayer, which is possible only because of God’s sovereignty.

1 Samuel 1:19-28

Then they arose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord, and returned again to their house in Ramah. And Elkanah had relations with Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. It came about in due time, after Hannah had conceived, that she gave birth to a son; and she named him Samuel, saying, “Because I have asked him of the Lord.”

Then the man Elkanah went up with all his household to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice and pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “I will not go up until the child is weaned; then I will bring him, that he may appear before the Lord and stay there forever.”

Elkanah her husband said to her, “Do what seems best to you. Remain until you have weaned him; only may the Lord confirm His word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son until she weaned him.

Now when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with a three-year-old bull and one ephah of flour and a jug of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord in Shiloh, although the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and brought the boy to Eli.

She said, “Oh, my lord! As your soul lives, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you, praying to the Lord. For this boy I prayed, and the Lord has given me my petition which I asked of Him. So I have also dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord.” And he worshiped the Lord there.

The Lord remembered Hannah (v. 19-20)

In verses five and six, we read that it was God who was responsible for closing Hannah’s womb. He was working that together. In verses 19-20a, we read that the Lord remembered Hannah and Hannah gave birth to a son. The Hebrew word for remember, זכר, literally means to call to mind or recall. God thought of Hannah. He called to mind Hannah’s request. He called to mind Hannah’s oppression. He called to mind Hannah’s closed womb. He called to mind His own providence because it was He who closed her womb explicitly. God, by the same providence with which He closed Hannah’s womb, caused her to conceive and, in due time, give birth to a son. The same term for remember is used to refer to the Israelites while they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 2:24). God reflected on Israel’s slavery and oppression explicitly by recalling His own providence through the Abrahamic covenant, which depended only on Him (Genesis 15). The same term is used in Isaiah 43:25, when God states that He will ‘remember’ (call to mind) the sins of His people no more for His own sake and according to His own choosing (Isaiah 44:1).

Here, we catch a glimpse as to how God thinks about, or calls to mind, His people. We get a small taste as to how God thinks about our prayers, our oppression, and our forgiveness. He always has in mind His sovereign providence in every process. Paul would even write it this way,

  “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

This is exactly the point that the Scriptures made for us last week, and the text confirms its own claim again. He considers us according to His own providence as He works all things together.

Hannah recognizes this. The name Samuel literally translates to “Name of God” in English (סמ- name, reputation, or fame; אל- God or gods). Hannah says that she is naming her son “Name of God” because she asked him of the Lord. Hannah recognizes that her prayer is being answered for God’s purpose of His own glory. This was being worked out by God’s providence alone. She was blessed with a son because in some way according to God’s own consideration and reflection, this was about God’s own name- not the particular request that Hannah made. This isn’t selfish on God’s part. He alone has the right to all glory. Creation is His. It is from Him, through Him, and to Him. Even though we fall short of this glory, it works together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. It means that God answers prayer. If God did not have absolute and sovereign providence, there wouldn’t be any answered prayer at all. If God is not absolutely sovereign, He does not have the authority to answer prayer. If He is sovereign then He provides the circumstance, the prayer, and the answer. Any other claim is logically inconsistent and is contrary to the plain reading of Scripture in context.

The offering of atonement (v. 21-25)

After Hannah wanes her son, probably about three years, she goes to the temple to make a sacrifice. In verse four we read about Elkanah’s first offering on behalf of his household. It was a praise or thanksgiving offering. The sacrifice Hannah makes here in this passage is different and is described in contrast to Elkanah’s offering at the beginning of the chapter. Hannah was now presenting an offering of atonement. We read about this offering in Leviticus 1:1-5,

Then the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. He shall slay the young bull before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.

This sacrifice was a personal sacrifice that someone would offer. The person’s sin was symbolically passed to the bull and the bull was slaughtered to make atonement on the person’s behalf. To atone for something is to pay the price for wrongdoing. The wages of sin is death (Genesis 2:17). According to Leviticus 1:4, the bull was accepted by God in the place of the person’s life and the person was, in turn, accepted before the Lord (Lev. 1:3). Sin was imputed to the animal. This sacrificial system foreshadowed the coming of Jesus Christ as the perfect and everlasting atonement on behalf of God’s people.

Hannah is seeking forgiveness for herself and perhaps for her child. The text confirms its own claim again. In her distress, Hannah had sinned. The comfort for Hannah is not only that God was working everything together, but also that she would not be condemned because God is faithful to forgive. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Even for the sin that is impossible to avoid, God provides endurance and forgiveness and works that together for our good. This is the opposite of a works-based system. Paul would confirm this as he commented on the sins of Israel in the Old Testament in 1 Corinthians 10:11-14,

Now these things (punishments for Israel’s sins) happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

Some people will read Paul’s statement as if there we can always say no to sin or as if God never gives people more than they can handle. Look carefully. The Scriptures do not say that we will always be able to avoid sin. In fact, they state explicitly this temptation that is common to all people, upon whom the ends of the ages have come, actually overtakes (the Greek λαμβανω literally means to receive or take, meaning temptation takes us in wholly) us but that there is always a way of escape so that we will be able to endure it. God is faithful to work all things together in this way for the good of His people. So we flee from idolatry. Hannah had endured and God was faithful in providing all things, including a way of escape- atonement. This is the opposite of works-based righteousness! Our fleeing from sin is a response to God’s unmerited faithfulness. Brothers and sisters, temptation will overtake you. God is providing that you will not be overtaken beyond your ability. He has made atonement on your behalf. You will be able to endure if you are in Christ. God is producing endurance within you and bringing you closer to Himself.

Hannah didn’t deserve to have her prayer answered. None of us do. Our tendency is to begin questioning God when we don’t feel like He is answering our prayers. The reality is that we should be completely surprised and humbled when He does answer prayers according to His will. We don’t deserve that! When God answers prayers, I am brought to my knees in repentance because God actually worked that together for the good of a wretched person like me. It should surprise us when God answers prayer. It should catch us off guard. It should throw us off balance. How dare us expect that God, who is sovereign, be obligated to us in any way.

This is when we notice something about the advantages of walking through Scripture as opposed to coming to different parts of the text from week to week. Here are some things that you might notice as we continue through the Scriptures:

    1. Walking through the Scriptures guards our doctrine.
      1. We are already dedicated to accurately teaching the text of Scripture Alone. If we were to say anything wrong while teaching the text, the text itself will testify against us and its context will be brought out because we are not skipping a word.
    2. Walking through the Scriptures forces us to teach everything the Bible teaches.
      1. We cannot skip over difficult passages or doctrines and we cannot prepare a message and then simply go and find some Scriptures that seem to affirm what we are saying. We simply go where the text leads us to go in the teaching. Receiving the Bible as it is is scary. It cuts away at our misunderstanding about who God is. That’s not comfortable.
    3. It safeguards the preacher’s/teacher’s motives.
      1. We cannot preach or teach responsively and our agenda has to be the agenda of God’s word, not of our religion, denomination, personal theology, or methodology.
      2. I am not here to advance my personal theology or to convince anyone of the things I am convinced of. All I can do is tell you what God has said in context. God does a much better job of explaining Himself than do the words of Andrew Cannon. So, we walk through God’s word alone and we follow the text wherever it goes.
    4. It safeguards the hearer’s understanding of God.
      1. There may be reasons for other types of messages, but we are primarily to receive the whole counsel of Scripture, and it is the responsibility of the elders to teach the whole counsel of Scripture for the good of the body (Deuteronomy 33:10, Acts 6:2, 20:17-31). This means not skipping or leaving out a single thing so that the body is guarded from false doctrine (Acts 20:30).
      2. When we miss something, it matters because the text explains the text. When the message does not come out of the Scriptures (exegesis), then we might misunderstand who God is because we didn’t hear His word in context. It’s like a reporter who only quotes the parts of an interview that fit his own agenda. We just don’t get a full picture.

When God answers prayer (v. 26-28)

Though Hannah seeks forgiveness, she praises God for His mercy despite her sin. Through this whole process, God is working things together according to His own will and for His own purposes. Hannah tells Eli, “For this boy I prayed, and the Lord has given me my petition which I asked of Him.”

As God calls us to mind, he calls to mind His own providence, and God does answer prayer according to His own will and for His own good pleasure. When God answers prayer it always works out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Did you know that God actually promises to answer prayer?

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:10-15).

Notice Jesus’ words. Jesus did not speak or work on His own initiative, but the Father abiding in Him did His own works. The Father provides the words and the works. The one who believes in Jesus will do greater works, the Father’s words and works through the believer. In context the Father is the one who provides the words and works. Whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, which means explicitly that the Father initiates the prayer and they are His words, Jesus will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. The application of this truth is our obedience to Christ’s commandments. He works out that obedience in those who love Him. This is what He was doing with Hannah. God’s providence and our obedience is the focus, not the power of our prayers.

The text continues to present prayer, and our understanding of prayer increases as we receive this fuller picture. Prayer is not this one-dimensional concept. It is multifaceted. God is sovereign. Because He is sovereign, He works together our prayers and petitions in such a way that He answers them according to His mercy and will, not based on our merit or our petition! Answered prayers are possible because God is the one working all things together. His ways are greater than our ways. I am so thankful that God isn’t just considering requests as they come in. I am glad that it is not up to us that we must pray enough in order to bring about a desired result. I am glad that church growth doesn’t depend on our prayers. I am glad that health and security do not depend on our prayers. I am glad that God’s provision and forgiveness don’t depend explicitly on our prayers. The Scriptures even say that,

“In the same way (that God is redeeming His creation) the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:26-28).

The Scriptures say that we do not know how to pray as we should. This verse applies to all people. It’s humbling. The Spirit actually intercedes for us according to the will of God. God is the one who causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.

In verse 28, to close our current study of this passage, Samuel is dedicated to the Lord and “he” worshipped the Lord there. He, here, most likely refers to Eli because Eli is the one who had to offer the sacrifice on Hannah’s (and perhaps Samuel’s) behalf. How fitting is it that we end with a call to worship God for His providence in the forgiveness of our sin? Next week we will see Hannah’s song and discover what it means to worship in Spirit and in truth. Think upon these things.

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