The foolishness of Saul
In some sort of awkward show of righteousness, Saul had called Ahiah the priest to enquire whether or not his army should fight against the Philistines. God had clearly intervened and He had clearly blessed Israel’s efforts, but the Israelite army waited, refraining from their attack while their king vainly sought to show his aptitude and faith.
Yet as Ahiah began to enquire of God, the noise in the camp of the Philistines became louder and louder. Eventually, it reached a point at which Saul recognized that the Philistine army was being obliterated and he and his army were doing nothing — still. Thus, he stopped the games that he was playing and told his army to advance upon the Philistines:
“And Saul and all the people that were with him assembled themselves, and they came to the battle: and, behold, every man’s sword was against his fellow, and there was a very great discomfiture” (1Sam 14:20).
Saul and his men came to aide Jonathan and his armor bearer in the fight against the Philistines. As they arrived, they saw a brutal sight — the Philistines had massacred each other, and the massacre continued before their eyes. It was a remarkable victory. Yet not only so, the victory was made even more glorious by the effect which it had upon the Israelite warriors:
“Moreover the Hebrews that were with the Philistines before that time, which went up with them into the camp from the country round about, even they also turned to be with the Israelites that were with Saul and Jonathan. Likewise all the men of Israel which had hid themselves in mount Ephraim, when they heard that the Philistines fled, even they also followed hard after them in the battle. So the Lord saved Israel that day: and the battle passed over unto Beth-aven” (1Sam 14:21-23).
What a remarkable sight it would have been for Saul and his army — and especially Jonathan and his armor bearer — as they fought in the battle. Not only were the Philistines fighting against one another, but all of the men of Israel who had once been so demoralized and terrified by the Philistine war machine had joined the fight against the enemy! The phrase “Hebrews that were with the Philistines before that time” (v. 21), seems to indicate that there were actually Israelites who had been so horrified by the Philistine invasion that they had surrendered to the Philistines and joined their side, becoming servants (cp. the LXX translation)! Yet at this time, when they saw the remarkable defeat of the Philistines, their faith was revitalized and they took up arms against their masters. They remembered the power of the Holy One of Israel and they stood again for their nation. The same was said of the men who had hidden in mount Ephraim — those who had been so afraid that they had hidden in “caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in high places, and in pits” (1Sam 13:6). As they saw the Philistines retreating, they too had their faith revitalized and they remembered the might of the God of Israel.
All of this happened through the faith and courage of one man who suggested to his armor bearer that they risk their lives to stand for their beliefs. As a result of their faith, God saved Israel on that day.
Everything would have seemed to have been better than Jonathan had ever expected. Not only had his courageous deed been able to push their Philistine masters out of the land of Israel, but it had even inspired many of those who had been filled with fear — it had reminded them of the power of their God and had given them strength to take up the sword and fight again for Israel. Yet there was only one defect that took away from this glorious assault on the Philistines, and this was something of which Jonathan was not yet aware. Before Saul had brought his troops into the battle, he had given them a charge:
“And the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies. So none of the people tasted any food” (1Sam 14:24).
In his zeal for his own name and in his desire to somehow make his mark upon this battle, Saul commanded the Israelites that they could not eat anything until the evening. It was a rash and foolish command — because of Saul’s words, none of the people ate anything all day, even while they chased the Philistines. After all of this pursuit, the men of Israel were exhausted and famished. The distance which these men ran — from Michmash to Aijalon (1Sam 14:31) — was about 15 miles. Imagine running and fighting for 15 miles, yet not being able to eat anything!
But the blemish in this victory was going to become even larger. Because of this curse, Saul’s own son was soon to be condemned. As the Israelite troops chased after the Philistines, they came to a forest in which honey could be found on the ground — and Jonathan, not knowing about his father’s oath, dipped his staff in the honey and tasted it. He broke the oath. Upon being told about what Saul had commanded — and realizing the curse’s impact upon his own life and the campaign against the Philistines, Jonathan spoke some of the only words that he would ever speak against his father:
“Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely to day of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been not a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?” (1Sam 14:29-30).
The chase after the Philistines had been inhibited by Saul’s arrogance and desire to have control over his men. Jonathan rightly recognized that if just the little bit of honey had revitalized him, how much more would the troops have been reinvigorated if they could have eaten of the spoil which they had taken from the Philistines? Yet they couldn’t, because the king could only think of his own reputation — and in doing so, he only again reduced his standing in the eyes of both the people, and his son.
Soon after this dialogue between Jonathan and the people, evening came and the time of the oath passed. The people were free to satisfy their hunger — and thus Saul’s oath led to an even greater problem than before:
“And the people flew upon the spoil, and took sheep, and oxen, and calves, and slew them on the ground: and the people did eat them with the blood” (1Sam 14:32).
Not only had Saul’s curse led to the people being faint and to a smaller slaughter of the Philistines, but it also resulted in the people sinning! Once the time of the oath had passed, the people flew upon the spoil and began to eat the animals without even cooking them. This was entirely contrary to God’s commands, which forbade the people from eating anything with the blood. The blood was to be poured out before the consumption of the animal. In fact, the punishment for eating the blood of an animal was quite severe — those who ate the blood were either to be cut off (Lev 7:26-27) or even killed (Gen 9:4-5).
Because of Saul’s rash oath, his army completely disregarded the commandment — they were famished, and they couldn’t restrain themselves any longer. They were all eating of the blood. One disaster had followed the other, simply because Saul wasn’t able to stop thinking about his reputation. He had first lost the kingdom and now he had just led his entire army into sin — and a dire sin. If only he could have refocused his mind and thought upon God’s honor and God’s glory! Then perhaps things could have been different.
Yet, for a brief moment, they were. Saul, in a quick flash of righteous indignation, saw the sins of the people, and commanded that a stone be rolled over to him so that he might drain the blood of the animals (1Sam 14:33-34). From then on, the people refrained from eating the blood. After that, Saul built an altar to God — the first altar which he had ever built. It was almost as though Saul had been able to take his mind off of his own name and set it on the Father’s name, if ever so briefly.
Tragically, the moment wouldn’t last.
Soon after building the altar, Saul was ready to continue pushing the people and keep pursuing the Philistines. At first, he hadn’t allowed his men to eat, and the result was terrible, but now he also wasn’t going to allow them to sleep — his name and his glory were too important! Once again, Saul had been blinded by his own ambition.
Though it be In Jonathan my son
“And Saul said, Let us go down after the Philistines by night, and spoil them until the morning light, and let us not leave a man of them. And they said, Do whatsoever seemeth good unto thee. Then said the priest, Let us draw near hither unto God” (1Sam 14:32).
It appears as though the men had wearily concluded that it was better not to put up a fight against their king. They agreed to go — but not wholeheartedly. Only if Saul forced them, then they would charge through the night. Nevertheless, this charge was not to take place. Just after the men had said their words, Ahiah the priest gave Saul a brief reminder — he had never finished enquiring of God, and now more than ever was a time when he needed to do so. If he was going to try to push his men past their limit, Saul needed to be certain that Yahweh was backing his efforts. Thus, Saul agreed and asked for God’s direction — but the result was far from what he expected.
“And Saul asked counsel of God, Shall I go down after the Philistines? wilt thou deliver them into the hand of Israel? But he answered him not that day” (1Sam 14:37).
Asking counsel of God, Saul would have expected either a “yes” or a “no.” It’s doubtful that he expected silence. Yet that was what he was given. He enquired of God, and he received no answer — hinting to him that something was wrong amidst the army of the Israelites. God had refused to answer them because of a sin that hung over the head of Israel. Saul recognized this and set himself the task of finding who had been the sinner — and as you read through Saul’s words, pay close attention to who he mentions and what he suggests:
“And Saul said, Draw ye near hither, all the chief of the people: and know and see wherein this sin hath been this day. For, as the Lord liveth, which saveth Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die. But there was not a man among all the people that answered him” (1Sam 14:38-39).
At the first indication that there was sin in the camp, Saul’s mind jumped to a particular person — his son Jonathan. This was probably what Saul had hoped for earlier on, when he was first going to enquire of God. He wanted the enquiry to show that Jonathan had sinned and had wrongly gone behind his back and attacked the Philistine garrison. Now that he knew that there was someone who was a sinner in the camp, Saul clung to that hope. This was his opportunity to take the glory back and to show his true greatness. Thus, the first name that came out of his mouth and the first thing that he offered to do was to find the sinner, and even if it was Jonathan, he would kill him.
Saul’s answer was just a little bit too quick to be natural and normal. What loving father would immediately offer up their son as a sinner so quickly and so willingly? There had to be something deeper going on in Saul’s mind — and it was likely the same thing that went on in his mind when he later tried to kill another one of his potential challengers. Saul was viciously jealous for his own name — and anyone who challenged that name would be crushed. Quite possibly, Saul saw Jonathan as that challenger — consider the evidence:
Jonathan had been the one who had originally slain the garrison of the Philistines (1Sam 13:3)
Saul had been told that his kingdom would not continue and that God had chosen a man after His own heart who would be captain over His people (1Sam 13:14)
Jonathan had gone behind his father’s back and (in the eyes of the people) had been their deliverer, or captain (1Sam 14:45)
Jonathan was a man after God’s own heart — he was a man of powerful faith (1Sam 14:6)
It seems quite possible that at this point in time, Saul — who must have wondered who would be the man that would take over his kingdom — saw in his son a person who fit all of the qualifications which had been given by Samuel. To make the connection even greater, Samuel had specifically said that God had commanded him to be captain over His people (1Sam 13:14) — meaning that it was something which God had already done, and the incidents with Jonathan had already begun to take place. Because of this, Jonathan would have likely known that he wasn’t the one, and he would have wondered what God planned for his life, but Saul wouldn’t have known.
Thus, perhaps this was why Saul was a little too willing to offer to execute his firstborn son. This was the way that Saul dealt with those who tried to take his position as king — he simply tried to kill them. He did that over and over with David (1Sam 18:11; 19:1; 23:8). As well, Samuel was afraid that the same type of thing would happen to him when he went on his mission to anoint the next king (1Sam 16:1-2). Saul was more than ready to kill those who opposed his reign — and here it appears that he sought to do it with his son as well. Jonathan had challenged his preeminence to the throne and seemed like an almost certain candidate for the man who was to end Saul’s kingdom. Therefore, Saul thought, perhaps there would be an opportunity now to put an end to that challenge.
Oh how far Saul had sunk! Through the repeated focus on his kingdom and his name, he had fallen over and over — to the point of losing that very kingdom and even turning upon his own son, his most faithful follower.
Yet isn’t that exactly what our own pride does to us? Pride has no loyalty — it only loves those who exalt it and who continue to exalt it. As soon as that changes, any of the affection given by someone swollen by their pride seems to change as well.
As we’ve seen Saul’s story, and as we continue to watch Saul’s story through this series, may we heed the lesson. Our pride can lead to our ruin. Only once we learn humility will our God truly exalt us (Prov 15:33).
Jason Hensley (Simi Hills, CA)