Many women have had the experience of praying for a child. If the request is not granted, it can be a source of immense pain and sorrow. If it is granted, it often results in joyful celebration and thanksgiving.
Scripture gives us a number of examples: Eve highlighting the promise of God, Sarah laughing, Leah hoping that her fertility will make her husband love her, Rachel exclaiming that her shame has been taken away, Elizabeth keeping quiet for the first 20 weeks (Luke 1:24), and a young woman who (famously) rejoices in her pregnancy despite not having prayed for a child or even having had sex in the first place.
Those of us who have prayed for children may be able to relate to each of these responses and perhaps imagine ourselves reacting in a similar way if our prayers were answered. But one thing that none of us would do, I suspect, is to do what Hannah did and sing a song about horns.
Strength and plenty
“My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:1, ESV throughout). Hannah has just had a miracle baby; what have horns got to do with it? Are we talking about musical instruments, animal headgear, or something else entirely? And why?
Then, as Hannah finishes her prayer, she returns to the horn theme. “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (2:10). The word appears in the first and last lines of her thanksgiving prayer for Samuel, and it pops up again when Zechariah gives thanks for the birth of John the Baptist (Luke:1:69), as well as in numerous psalms. Seriously, what have horns got to do with babies?
In most cases, not much. We named our son Samuel because of this very story and give thanks to God for him every day, but to my knowledge we have never talked about horns in doing so. But Hannah’s boy Samuel, and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s boy John, are not like most other children. They both grow up to be prophets: prophets who prepare the way for, preach about, and then anoint the long-awaited king of Israel.
Samuel is the forerunner of David, the chosen and beloved king who will rule in place of the corrupt ruler (Saul), save God’s people from her enemies (the Philistines), and slay the giant who is taunting her (Goliath). John is the forerunner of Jesus, the chosen and beloved King who will rule in place of the corrupt ruler (Herod), save God’s people from her enemy (sin), and slay the giant who is taunting her (death).
So Hannah’s song is not a personal meditation in the delivery room, a sort of Bronze Age “Isn’t She Lovely.” It’s more like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is a shout for joy on the battlefield, celebrating the fact that “the bows of the mighty are broken … the feeble bind on strength … [and] the adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces” (1 Sam. 2:4, 10). That’s why she sings about horns.
The horns of an animal, first and foremost, are a sign of strength. They are fundamentally weapons, used for fighting off predators, defending offspring, or competing with other members of the same species for land, supremacy in the hierarchy, or the right to mate with a particular female. Battles between horned animals can be fierce, the stuff of nature documentaries and viral YouTube videos. A pair of male impalas can fight to the death. When two bison face off, the impact shakes the ground. A buffalo, armed with nothing but a pair of horns, can gore and defeat the most powerful predator in the world (google “lion vs. buffalo”; some of the footage is sensational).
So horns represent strength, power, and victory in battle. We still use the symbolism today in the names and logos of our sports teams: Rams, Buffaloes, Bulls, even Vikings. (Having said that, I should note that teams represented by horns or horned animals have a dismal Super Bowl record of 1-10, so it may not be such a good strategy).
This is what the psalmists are getting at when they say that “the Lord is … the horn of my salvation” (Ps. 18:2) or “the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up” (75:10) or “[God] has raised up a horn for his people” (148:14) or “his horn is exalted in honor” (112:9). A fight between two horned animals often begins with both males lifting up their horns as high as possible in preparation for battle, much as warriors might draw their swords or cock their rifles. To describe God as raising a horn for his people, in that context, is to say that God is the one who fights for us. The power to overcome is his, not ours.
In many cases, biblical characters said this from personal experience, having just seen God rout his enemies with a flood, an ambush, a stick, or an orchestra or give his people supernatural powers to prevail against a vastly superior opponent. “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” (Ps. 18:34).
In the ancient Mediterranean world, the horn also represented plenty. There is debate as to why—it is probably a combination of the horn’s strength, the use of the image in Greek mythology, and the way a horn resembles a strange fusion of the human reproductive organs—but it was frequently used to represent fertility and abundance.
This found its most famous expression in the image of the cornucopia, a giant horn-shaped container full of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and nuts. Although there is no explicit reference to the horn of plenty in Scripture, there may be an equivalent in the basket of firstfruits that Israel presented as an offering (Deut. 26:2), or the basket of summer fruits that Amos saw centuries later (Amos 8:1–2).
Mr. Royal Oil
Now combine those two symbolic meanings into a third. Imagine a horn filled with victorious strength and abundant plenty on the head of a mighty beast about to prevail in battle, and then imagine the horn being broken off, turned upside down, filled with oil, and poured all over the head of Israel’s king. Picture the horn of anointing, which covers the individual with a sticky liquid representing power and strength, blessing and fullness, and marking him off from his peers as Mr. Royal Oil (in the inimitable phrasing of the writer Francis Spufford).
This is not a dab on the forehead. It is not the sort of thing you could apply respectably and secretly, as they did at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. It would be incredibly obvious, cascading off the king’s head onto his shoulders, staining his clothes, and making his face shine. It would leave no doubt that this person has been smeared, anointed, with the power and abundance of Israel’s God and indeed with his very Spirit. And indeed, such is the picture of David’s anointing: “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13).
That is the image we draw on whenever we refer to Jesus as the Messiah. (The Hebrew word mashach means to “smear” or “anoint.”) It’s the picture we evoke when we use the word Christ or when we refer to ourselves as Christians. This can be easy to forget in a world where many people think Christ is simply Jesus’ surname, but it is a claim we are making nonetheless: that Jesus is the one over whom the horn of God’s strength has been lifted high, in whom the riches of God’s fullness are found, and upon whom the oil of God’s Spirit has been poured.
In him we find the power, plenty, and person of God himself, fighting our battles, providing for our needs, and shining with the Holy Spirit’s presence. In him we find the victory of God in human form, the most potent weapon anywhere and the only one we need to save us from our enemies. Zechariah was right: “[The Lord] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69).
Horns represent victorious strength and fertile abundance and the royal oil of God’s Spirit. Like so many biblical symbols, they point us to Jesus, God’s perfect expression of each, which is ultimately what Hannah was rejoicing about that day, and why a thousand years later both Mary and Zechariah riffed off her song when they had babies of their own.
Horns and thorns
But now that we’ve seen Jesus in that light, it is tempting to go right back to the beginning of Scripture, to the first time horns are mentioned, and wonder whether Jesus is there too. Abraham, on the verge of killing Isaac, looks around and sees a ram “caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took and ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13).
Like Jesus, the horn of our salvation, this ram has been imbued with great power. But his strength is precisely what leads him to be caught, to be crowned with thorns from a thicket, and to be set forth by God on Mount Moriah as a substitutionary sacrifice for others.
The first few times I read Hannah’s prayer, I couldn’t understand why she was singing about horns. But now, praise God, her song has become mine: “My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. … The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London. This article is taken from his book, God of All Things: Rediscovering the Sacred in an Everyday World. Copyright © 2021 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
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