In the last essay we studied 13:1-15, in which we saw Saul’s first failure. The first passage with which we must deal in this essay is 13:16-22. It is a difficult passage, because it places Israel in such a weak position over against the Philistines, it hardly seems possible that they could have given a thought to rebelling against the Philistines, let alone defeating them in battle.
Verses 16-18 are not a problem. They simply tell us that the Philistines sent out three companies of raiders in three directions; namely, north, west and probably east. But verses 19-22 are a problem to my mind. According to those verses the Philistines had disarmed Israel so completely that only Saul and Jonathan had swords. And they also had removed all of the blacksmiths, so that the opportunity of making more arms was no longer there. The Israelites couldn’t even sharpen an ax or a plow themselves. They had to go to the Philistines for that service.
The obvious positive in this matter is that it clearly demonstrates the power of the Lord. Israel’s victory was strictly the Lord’s doing, because Israel had no ability to do anything for herself. But still there are questions. For example, when exactly did this disarming take place? Israel certainly seemed to have arms when they fought Nahash the Ammonite (ch. 11). And they would have captured more during that campaign.
It has been suggested that the disarming took place during the raids mentioned in verses 17 and 18. But those raids were quite limited in scope; and they occurred after the war had begun. That just was not possible. Moreover, why would the Philistines have avoided the south where Israel’s little army was located when they sent out the raiding parties? Why not send their superior forces against Israel’s weak army and wipe them out before the rebellion got off the ground?
There is no apparent answer to this question of when the disarming happened, or why the Philistines didn’t act as if Israel was unarmed. At any rate, verse 22 says, “on the day of the battle, neither sword nor spear was to be found in the possession of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan; but Saul and his son Jonathan had them.”
Verse 23 goes with chapter 14. So the next section is 13:23-14:7. In it we are told that Jonathan one day decided on an initiative against the Philistines on his own without telling his father. Saul was at Gibeah with his 600 men and a great grandson of Eli was serving there as his priest. Verse six tells us that Jonathan suggested to his armor-bearer that they go to the Philistine garrison. It also indicates that Jonathan was motivated by faith. The armor-bearer agreed, and Jonathan revealed his plan, which is seen in verses 8-15.
The plan was to show themselves to the Philistines; and if the Philistines told them to wait where they were, they would not attack. But if the Philistines told them to come up to them, that was what they would do, because it would be a sign that the Lord was with them (vv. 8-10).
Once again there are unanswered questions, because of the sketchy account. First, how could the armor-bearer participate in the killing of the Philistines when earlier we were told that Saul was the only person, in addition to Jonathan, who had a sword? No one knows the answer to that question.
Second, why were they able to have such success? One scholar suggested that it was the element of surprise. But that seems unlikely since Jonathan and the armor-bearer showed themselves to the Philistines. On the other hand, the terrain may have been so rugged that the original invitation to come up may have been more of a taunt than a real invitation. The Philistines may have thought it impossible for the Jews to attack them from that side.
At any rate, Jonathan and the armor-bearer climbed up and attacked the Philistines. They killed about 20 men, and the result was panic in the Philistine camp. Verses 16-23 tell us that Saul heard the commotion; and assuming that someone on his side caused it, Saul had a quick check of his troops made and discovered that it was Jonathan who was missing. He was going to have the priest consult God on what to do, but didn’t wait for that when he grasped the situation. He attacked with his full force.
Then the “Hebrews,” who were men of Israel, who had hired themselves out to the Philistines, turned on their employers creating further confusion. Other men of Israel who fearfully had hidden in caves and the like came out of hiding and joined the battle. And as verse 23 tells us, by the end of the day Saul’s forces numbered 10,000. And “so the Lord gave Israel the victory that day.”
Next, in verses 24-46, we find an interesting story of a stupid command by Saul that was followed later by a rash vow. Apparently before the battle, Saul had commanded his army, under threat of a curse, to fast throughout the day of the battle (v.24). That meant that they could not eat until after sundown. This was a foolish thing to do, because fighting is arduous; and soldiers need their full strength to fight and to pursue the enemy if victory is won.
But Saul’s troops accepted the vow. And they kept it, even though wild honey was plentiful; and they could have strengthened themselves with it (vv. 25-26). However Jonathan was ignorant of the command; and he ate some of the honey (v. 27). Jonathan immediately was told about the ban; but it was too late. He already had eaten (v. 28). Notice that Jonathan expressed disagreement with his father at once. Indeed he condemned the fast as having harmed Israel’s mop-up effort (vv. 29-30).
Next we see the consequences of the stupid command and the rash vow that followed. First, when sundown finally came, the troops were so hungry they slaughtered captured animals right on the ground and ate the meat without letting the blood drain out of it properly (vv. 31-32). And of course that is forbidden in the Law. Saul tried to get the mess straightened out by commanding the people to kill the animals on a large stone he provided, but many of them already had had sinned (vv. 33-34).
Then second, when Saul consulted the Lord about whether or not to pursue the Philistines during the night, the Lord didn’t answer (vv. 36-37). Therefore Saul knew something was wrong, that someone had sinned. It was at this point that Saul made the rash vow. In the frustration of the moment he rashly declared, “Come hither, all you leaders of the people; and know and see how this sin has arisen today. For as the Lord lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” Of course it never occurred to him that it might actually be Jonathan (vv. 38-39a). The lots were cast first between Saul and Jonathan on the one hand and the rest of the people on the other. Saul probably was shocked when the lot fell on he and Jonathan rather than on the people (vv. 40-41). And then it fell on Jonathan (v. 42).
Saul was ready to kill Jonathan to fulfill his own foolish vow (vv. 43-44). But the people wouldn’t let him do it (v. 45). But even though Jonathan was saved, the pursuit of the Philistines was canceled. And so Saul not only caused many of his people to sin, he didn’t take full advantage of his victory over the Philistines (v. 46).
The chapter ends, in verses 47-52, with a summary of Saul’s other wars and the naming of some of Saul’s family and the commander of his army. And we see that Saul was quite successful in defending Israel against enemies all around.
Turning to application, we have a father and son, Saul and Jonathan, who are quite different. Saul once again proves himself to be a poor model, but Jonathan proves to be a good model.
Beginning with Jonathan, his original attack seemed foolish on the surface; and under some circumstances, it would have been foolish. But in this case, he was responding to the Lord’s inspiration. Therefore he acted not out of vanity or out of a sense of his own power. Rather he acted out of love for his people and in total dependence on God.
Jonathan also acted in faith and hope, because he had no absolute certainty that his conviction that the Lord was motivating him was in fact the case. Notice what he said to the armor-bearer, “it may be that the Lord will act for us.” And Jonathan knew that they would need the Lord’s help to be successful. And finally, Jonathan acted prudently by looking for a sign that made military sense. The suggestion by the Philistines to climb up to the Philistine defensive line meant that they did not think Jonathan and his armor-bearer could do it. And that meant surprise was possible.
It seems to me that we must be willing to follow the prompting of God, in total dependence on God, as Jonathan was. But like Jonathan, we must exercise our faith and hope prudently, rather than recklessly.
Saul, in contrast to Jonathan, as a leader imposed a needless burden on his army when he declared that they fast, without regard to the possible consequences. Thus Saul acted proudly and imprudently. Saul also caused his soldiers to sin when they, due to their great hunger, sinned by eating meat without properly draining away the blood.
In addition, Saul also was ready to kill his innocent son to satisfy his rash vow rather than consider his own error. And that brought deep humiliation on him, because the people would not let him do it. Of course the lesson for us is never to act imprudently out of pride; or to speak rashly out of frustration, especially when we have responsibility over others as a leader.
I once heard John Oswalt, former President of Asbury College, gave the following outstanding points about Saul in a sermon. Saul lost the confidence of God when he offered the sacrifices himself (back in chapter 13). Ponder the significance of that for a while. He lost the confidence of Samuel, his principle government ally, at the same time. And he lost the confidence of the people when he wanted to kill Jonathan to satisfy his vow. Lord, deliver us from making similar mistakes. Amen.