Let Earth Receive Her King: An Advent Meditation from the Song of Hannah

More than a thousand years before the Virgin Mary lifted up her Magnificat, that famous song of praise in Luke 1, another Israelite woman sang thanks to the Lord. Like Mary, Hannah was chosen by God to bear an important figure in redemptive history. Her son would not be the Savior of the world, but he would be a very important prophet in Israel. Her son Samuel would be the anointer of King David, and serve as the key leader between the dark era of the judges and the new era of the monarchy. And, like Mary, Hannah was not a likely candidate to bear a child. Although she did not become pregnant while a virgin, Hannah conceived Samuel after being barren for many years.

This, in part, is what gave rise to her song. The birth of Samuel marked the end of a long and difficult period for Hannah. In the ancient world, a barren wife was considered a failure and embarrassment. If she could not give birth to an heir to the family's name and inheritance, her husband would often take another wife who could. So it was in Hannah's case. And the other wife, a woman named Penninah, seemed to take great pleasure in reminding Hannah of her failure.

Samuel was God's answer to Hannah's prayer. He was not only Hannah's joy, he was her vindication and relief. Out of sheer gratitude, she dedicated her son to serve the Lord, and she lifted up this song in 1 Samuel 2.1-10. It is poem that exresses great confidence in the sovereignty of God, and wonder for his mighty acts of deliverance. She says, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD.”

The “horn” being exalted is a phrase often used in Hebrew poetry to describe one being lifted up and strengthened. The horn on an animal represented strength. Hannah praises God for strengthening her when she was weak, and delivering her from her distress: “My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. There is none holy like the LORD; for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.”

She then goes on to sing of this great reversal of roles: the mighty and proud being brought low, and the weak and humble being exalted: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength…The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

Some scholars believe that what Hannah sings in these verses was actually a hymn sung by Israelites in worship, since it gives thanks to God for his deliverance from enemies. It’s possible that Hannah had learned this song from many years of attending worship, although there is no conclusive evidence.

What we can be sure of, though, is that Hannah sang of far more than her own personal deliverance from Penninah's torment. She identifies herself with the people of God, with the great distress and barrenness of Israel. In those days, the people of God had lived through centuries of darkness – a period when there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own opinion. It was a time of idolatry and apostasy. Leadership was perverse, and people were wicked.

Like Hannah in her barrenness, the nation of Israel had a desperate need that only God could satisfy. The birth of Samuel was not only the end of Hannah’s painful distress, it signaled the end of Israel’s apostasy during the period of the judges. Samuel would be Israel’s last true judge, and the forerunner and anointer of God’s chosen king of Israel, David.

Notice what Hannah sings at the end of her song: v.10: “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

This is where the song takes an interesting turn. What king was she singing about? Israel had no king in those days. Israel had never had a king up to that point. So who is this person of whom she sings?

She was prophesying about the king whom God would send to his people. That promise goes all the way back to the garden, when God promised Adam and Eve that he would send a Champion who would crush the serpent’s head and bring his people to the kingdom of glory that God prepared for them. Adam had failed as a king, as God’s vice-ruler over creation. He failed to protect the holy garden, and forfeited the kingdom of glory. But in Adam and Eve’s distress, God promised deliverance through another King.

On one level, that deliverance came through King David, the king whom Samuel would anoint. He would be a protector of Israel, and lead them in the worship of the Lord. And from him would come the Messiah, the King of kings, who was promised from the beginning.

Ultimately, that is the King of whom Hannah sings and prophesies here in this song. Notice that she says the LORD will “exalt the horn of his anointed” – the word “anointed” is the title Messiah. This is the very first time it is used in Scripture. Hannah’s song looks beyond God’s chosen king David. Her song looks to David’s son and heir, who would build the house of the Lord and establish his kingdom forever.

For David’s reign, as great as it was, came and went. It rose, and eventually it fell. But God’s promise to send an heir to the throne remained, even through Israel’s long centuries of dark apostasy. God’s promise remained even though king after king rebelled and led Israel in idolatry. God’s promise remained through the fall of Jerusalem, and the 70 years of exile, and the 400 years of silence…until that silence was broken with another song, from another woman whom God used in his great plan of salvation.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Not long after that announcement, Mary lifted up her Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

It's not hard to see the similarities between Mary’s song and Hannah’s. Both sing of God’s deliverance of his people from their dire distress. Both sing of a great reversal of roles, as God exalted the humble and lowly, and brought low the proud and mighty. Hannah sang of the Lord’s King and Anointed at a critical period in redemptive history. Mary sang of that same King and Anointed, whom the Holy Spirit had conceived in her womb.

What's so amazing, though, is that through the finished work of this King, their songs of joy have become our songs of joy. For like Hannah, we too were hopeless and in distress. Our sin and rebellion against God made us totally incapable of delivering ourselves. Only God could reach down and remedy the situation. And he did so by sending the Anointed King and Deliverer.

Jesus Christ is the promised and anointed King who was perfectly obedient to all the Law of God. He is the King who laid aside his royal status and became a Servant for our sakes, obeying the will of His Father all the way to the cross, where he suffered the wrath of God against our sins.

Through Him, we inherit an eternal kingdom, in which we are granted the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And God has given concrete evidence of this fact by raising Christ from the dead in the presence of many eyewitnesses. As Hannah sang in her song, only God is the One who brings down to Sheol and raises up. And he did that in the King he sent: the Lord Jesus.

In Christ, God has given us a kingdom. In this dark and evil world, Christ's kingdom does yet look glorious. We still see a world where the proud are exalted and the humble are oppressed. We do not yet see the adversaries of the Lord being broken to pieces, or the wicked being cut off in darkness. But that day is coming, when the cosmic Ruler of the universe – who reigns right now in truth and grace – returns to this world which belongs to him, and the kingdoms of men will end, and the whole earth will be filled with righteousness, peace, and joy.

Until that day, we sing with Hannah and Mary and all the people of God. We take our place with them and joyfully sing of God’s great deliverance from our distress by sending his King and Anointed for our sakes. With Hannah, we say, “My heart exults in the Lord…He brings down to Sheol and raises up…He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

We sing “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.” And every small deliverance that we enjoy in this life – every answered prayer, every birth of a child, every good gift we receive – is an expression of God’s faithfulness and goodness, and is a small reminder of the great deliverance he bring to us in the end, when he raises us from the dead and we sit with princes in the presence of the King.