In the last essay we studied 1 Sam. 12 in which Samuel handed over the reigns of power to Saul. The context was the gathering of Israel at Gilgal after Saul was once again proclaimed king. Samuel took the opportunity to speak a farewell address to the people in which he not only turned over the day-to-day ruling to Saul, but also justified his own long rule.
Then in the balance of the chapter, Samuel challenged the people. “Now therefore take your stand and see this great thing that the Lord will do” (v. 16). Then Samuel concluded by reassuring them that he would continue to pray for them and instruct them in moral matters during his retirement (v. 23). Thus did Samuel make the transition from leadership to adviser and prophet. Saul was now the ruler and king.
All right, in this essay we study chapter 13, in which we see Saul’s first failure. To begin, the Hebrew of the first verse is terribly corrupted. In form it consists of the standard formula used to give the record of kings in the books of Samuel and Kings. The formula gives the age of the king when he began to reign and the length of his reign.
For example, in 2 Samuel 5:4 we read, “David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.” That is typical. But here at 1 Sam. 13:1 the numbers are corrupted. The Hebrew text, as we have it today, literally reads, “Saul was one year old when he began to reign; and he reigned two years over Israel.” Everyone understands that this is a corruption. The Greek Old Testament is no help, because it omits the verse altogether.
Most scholars agree that crucial numbers have somehow been lost from the text. Both Saul’s age when he came to the throne and the number of years he reigned have dropped out. Since Saul’s son Jonathan was a grown man when Saul became king, we know that Saul had to be at least 40. And the evidence available from the rest of the book suggests that he was king for at least 20 years. So it is possible that the text in respect to his reign originally read 22 instead of two years.
Verse two tells us that Saul, following his initial victory over Nahash the Ammonite, and the gathering at Gilgal at which Samuel handed over the reigns of power, dismissed everyone to their homes except for a force of 3,000 men. Saul took 2,000 of them and set up camp at Micmash, which was located a few miles directly west of Jericho. Then he posted the other thousand at Gibeah with Jonathan in command. Gibeah was just a few miles north of Jerusalem.
Next, verse three tells us that Jonathan precipitated a war with the Philistines. Notice that no explanation is given. We don’t know who attacked whom first. We are only told that “Jonathan defeated the garrison of the Philistines that was at Geba.” Geba was about half way between Gibeah and Micmash.
It would seem that Saul had not planned a war, because of his dismissal of the people earlier. He probably didn’t think they were ready for an all-out war yet. But once this battle, which Jonathan won took place, there was no choice. So the trumpet was sounded throughout the land both to proclaim Jonathan’s victory and to call the people to arms (v. 4).
The last clause of verse four literally reads, “the people let themselves be called together after Saul to Gilgal.” We must not forget that in those days it was difficult to force people to gather for a fight. If they didn’t think a situation was worthy of risking their lives, they just wouldn’t answer the call. But in this case they came.
However, we see in verses 5-7 that once they were on the field and saw the Philistine force they were opposing, their hearts melted. Israel did not react well to the overwhelming size of the Philistine army. However we need to realize that it probably was not quite as overwhelming as the text says. There is no way that the Philistines would have had a force of 30,000 chariots. Much larger, stronger nations than the Philistines never had those kinds of numbers. This is, undoubtedly another textual corruption of a number. It was probably 3,000 instead of 30,000. Nevertheless the effect on Israel was the same. They were completely intimidated. Many of them began to desert the cause, and those who didn’t were very frightened.
This was the situation when Saul failed for the first time. Way back in chapter 10, verse eight, on the occasion when Samuel first anointed Saul as king, Samuel had warned Saul that in the future, when sacrifices were to be made, he must wait for seven days until Samuel would come to offer the sacrifices. That was because Saul was anointed as a king, not as a priest.
Now in chapter 13 the time of testing has come. It is easy to sympathize with Saul. Verses 8-9 indicate that Saul was under tremendous pressure. The enemy force he was facing was superior. He had waited the required seven days. And with each passing day, his army was melting away before his eyes. From a military perspective, he had to act immediately, or all would be lost. So yielding to that pressure, Saul ordered the proposed burnt offerings to be brought to him; and he made the offerings himself.
Now some argue that this did not mean that Saul actually offered the sacrifices by his own hand. They say that priests would have been on hand to do those duties. In any case, as soon as Saul had finished the sacrifices, Samuel arrived. And verses 10-15 record their conversation and its aftermath.
Saul reveals his weakness in his reply to Samuel in verses 11-12. When Samuel asked him what he had done, Saul replied with self-justification. First of all, he claimed to have no choice: “the people were slipping away;” and the Philistines were threatening. Then second, he blamed Samuel: “you did not come within the days appointed.” And third, Saul claimed that he was honoring the Lord by his actions. After all he had not yet “entreated the favor of the Lord;” that is, he had not yet prayed. And it was necessary to pray before the battle.
As we analyze this self-justification, it certainly was true that Saul’s army was slipping away; and the Philistines were threatening. It is even true that Samuel technically didn’t get there within the required seven days. But Saul showed the true condition of his heart when he claimed to be honoring God with his decision.
He certainly knew that one could pray without offering sacrifices. That was what Hannah, the mother of Samuel, had done; and the Lord had answered her. Furthermore the Lord had commanded distinctly that only priests could offer sacrifices. Moreover Saul had been instructed to wait for Samuel. The fact that Samuel didn’t get there strictly within seven days did not give Saul the right to make the sacrifices. So Saul’s action was not appropriate. Indeed it was a sinful rebellion against the sovereignty of the Lord. And his claim that he had to force himself to do it rings really hollow.
Samuel saw right through Saul; and he charged him with being a fool. Remember, in the Scriptures, being a fool means more than lacking in intellect. The fool is one who is morally and spiritually blameworthy. And that undoubtedly was true of Saul. And then Samuel announced Saul’s punishment, which was extremely severe: “the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever,” Samuel said to Saul; “but now your kingdom will not continue.” In other words, there will be no dynasty for Saul’s family. His own rule was not immediately being cut off; but his sons would not succeed him.
Verse 15 reports that Samuel, after his confrontation with Saul, went to Gibeah; and Saul counted the number of people who still were with him. There were only 600 of them.
For application I would focus on verses 8-15. Just as Saul was a good model for us, as he began his reign. He quickly became a negative model once the reign was underway.
I would point out three aspects of Saul’s action at Gilgal; and two consequences of that action. First Saul did the expedient thing. That is, he yielded to the pressure instead of waiting for Samuel. Second, Saul did a sinful thing. His offering of the sacrifices was a direct disobedience to God. And then, third, Saul denied that he had sinned. He interpreted his action as one forced upon him by the circumstances.
But Saul had sinned; and Samuel let him know it in no uncertain terms. Obviously, the lesson for us here is not to turn to expedient solutions to our problems rather than to God’s solutions. We must not arrogantly sin, as Saul did. And when we sin, we must not make excuses for it. Rather we must repent and seek forgiveness.
There were two major consequences of what Saul had done. First, Saul lost his long-term blessing. His own reign would be the end of his royal line. No son of his would follow him on the throne. Instead the Lord would choose another to be king in his place. And second, Saul didn’t attain even his short-term objective. When he left Gilgal and moved towards battle with the Philistines, he had only 600 men with him. Yes, this was Saul’s first failure. Let us not follow his example.