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JONATHAN’S EXPLOIT AT MICHMASH.
1 Samuel 14:1-23.
IT has sometimes been objected to the representation occurring at the end of the thirteenth chapter of the utter want of arms among the Hebrews at this time that it is inconsistent with the narrative of the eleventh. If it be true, as stated there, that the Israelites gained a great victory over the Ammonites, they must have had arms to accomplish that; and, moreover, the victory itself must have put them in possession of the arms of the Ammonites. The answer to this is, that the invasion of the Philistines subsequent to this in such overwhelming numbers seems to have been the cause of the miserable plight to which the Hebrews were reduced, and of the loss of their arms.
Whether we are to take the statement as quite literal that in the day of battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people save Saul or Jonathan, or whether we are to regard this as just an Oriental way of saying that these were the only two who had a thorough equipment of arms, it is plain enough that the condition of the Hebrew troops was very wretched. That in their circumstances a feeling of despondency should have fallen on all save the few who walked by faith, need not excite any surprise.
The position of the two armies is not difficult to understand. Several miles to the north of Jerusalem, a valley, now named Wady Suweinet, runs from west to east, from the central plateau of Palestine down towards the valley of the Jordan. The name Mûkmas, still preserved, shows the situation of the place which was then occupied by the garrison of the Philistines. Near to that place, Captain Conder* believes that he has found the very rocks where the exploit of Jonathan occurred. On either side of the valley there rises a perpendicular crag, the northern one, called in Scripture Bozez, being extremely steep and difficult of ascent. "It seems just possible that Jonathan, with immense labour, might have climbed up on his hands and his feet, and his armour-bearer after him." (*"Tent Work in Palestine.")
It is evident that Saul had no thought at this time of making any attack on the Philistines. How could he, with soldiers so poorly armed and so little to encourage them? Samuel does not appear to have been with him. But in his company was a priest, Ahiah, the son of Ahitub, grandson of Eli, perhaps the same as Ahimelech, afterwards introduced. Saul still adhered to the forms of religion; but he had too much resemblance to the Church of Sardis - "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."
The position of the army of Israel with reference to the Philistines seems to have been very similar to what it was afterwards when Goliath defied the army of the living God. The Israelites could only look on, in helpless inactivity. But just as the youthful spirit of David was afterwards roused in these circumstances to exertion, so on the present occasion was the youthful spirit of Jonathan. It was not the first time that he had attacked the garrison of the Philistines. (See 1 Samuel 13:3.) But what he did on the former occasion seems to have been under more equal conditions than the seemingly desperate enterprise to which he betook himself now. A project of unprecedented daring came into his mind. He took counsel with no one about it. He breathed nothing of it to his father. A single confidant and companion was all that he thought of- his armour-bearer, or aide-de-camp. And even him he did not so much consult as attach. ’’Come," said he, "and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will work for us; for there is no restraint by the Lord to save by many or by few." No words are needed to show the daring character of this project. The physical effort to climb on hands and feet up a precipitous rock was itself most difficult and perilous, possible only to boys, light and lithe of form, and well accustomed to it; and if the garrison observed them and chose to oppose them, a single stone hurled from above would stretch them, crushed and helpless, on the valley below. But suppose they succeeded, what were a couple of young men to do when confronted with a whole garrison? Or even if the garrison should be overpowered, how were they to deal with the Philistine host, that lay encamped at no great distance, or at most were scattered here and there over the country, and would soon assemble? In every point of view save one, the enterprise seemed utterly desperate. But that exception was a very important one. The one point of view in which there was the faintest possibility of success was, that the Lord God might favour the enterprise. The God of their fathers might work for them, and if He did so, there was no restraint with Him to work by many or by few. Had He not worked by Ehud alone to deliver their fathers from the Moabites? Had he not worked by Shamgar alone, when with his ox goad he slew six hundred Philistines? Had he not worked by Samson alone in all his wonderful exploits? Might he not work that day by Jonathan and his armour-bearer, and, after all, only produce a new chapter in that history which had already shown so many wonderful interpositions? Jonathan’s mind was possessed by the idea. After all, if he failed, he could but lose his life. And was not that worth risking when success, if it were vouchsafed, might rescue his country from degradation and destruction, and fill the despairing hearts of his countrymen with emotions of joy and triumph like those which animated their fathers when on the shores of Sinai they beheld the horse and his rider cast into the sea?
It is this working of faith that must be regarded as the most characteristic feature of the attempt of Jonathan. He showed himself one of the noble heroes of faith, not unworthy to be enrolled in the glorious record of the eleventh chapter of the Hebrews. He showed himself pre-eminent for the very quality in which his father had proved deficient. Though the earnest lessons of Samuel had been lost on the father, they had been blessed to the son. The seed that in the one case fell on stony places fell in the other on good ground. While Samuel was doubtless disconsolate at the failure of his work with Saul, he was succeeding right well, unknown perhaps to himself, with the youth that said little but thought much. While in spirit perhaps he was uttering words like Isaiah’s, "Then said I, I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nought and in vain," God was using him in a way that might well have led him to add, "Yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God." And what encouragement is here for every Christian worker! Don’t despond when you seem to fail in your first and most direct endeavour. In some quiet but thinking little boy or girl in that family circle, your words are greatly regarded. And just because that young mind sees, and seeing wonders, that father or mother is so little moved by what you say, it is the more impressed. If the father or the mother were manifestly to take the matter up, the child might dismiss it, as no concern of his. But just because father or mother is not taking it up, the child cannot get rid of it. ’’Yes, there is an eternity, and we ought all to be preparing for it. Sin is the soul’s ruin, and unless we get a Saviour, we are lost. Jesus did come into the world to save sinners; must we not go to Him? Yes, we must be born again. Lord Jesus, forgive us, help us, save us!" Thus it is that things hid from the wise and prudent are often revealed to babes; and thus it is that out of the mouth of babes and sucklings God perfects praise.
But Jonathan’s faith in God was called to manifest itself in a way very different from that in which the faith of most young persons has to be exercised now. Faith led Jonathan to seize sword and spear, and hurry out to an enterprise in which he could only succeed by risking his own life and destroying the lives of others. We are thus brought face to face with a strange but fascinating development of the religious spirit - military faith. The subject has received a new and wonderful illustration in our day in the character and career of that great Christian hero General Gordon. In the career of Gordon, we see faith contributing an element of power, an element of daring, and an element of security and success to a soldier, which can come from no other source. No one imagines that without his faith Gordon would have been what he was or could have done what he did. It is little to say that faith raised him high above all ordinary fears, or that it made him ready at any moment to risk, and if need be, to sacrifice his life. It did a great deal more. It gave him a conviction that he was an instrument in God’s hands, and that when he was moved to undertake anything as being God’s will, he would be carried through all difficulties, enabled to surmount all opposition, and to carry the point in face of the most tremendous odds. And to a great extent the result verified the belief. If Gordon could not be said to work miracles, he achieved results that even miracles could hardly have surpassed. If he failed in the last and greatest hazard of his life, he only showed that after much success one may come to believe too readily in one’s inspiration; one may mistake the voice of one’s own feeling for the unfailing assurance of God. But that there is a great amount of reality in that faith which hears God calling one as if with audible voice, and goes forth to the most difficult enterprises in the full trust of Divine protection and aid, is surely a lesson which lies on the very surface of the life of Gordon, and such other lives of the same kind as Scripture shows us, as well as the lives of those military heroes of whom we will speak afterwards, whose battle has been not with flesh and blood, but with the ignorance and the vice and the disorder of the world.
One is almost disposed to envy Jonathan, with his whole powers of mind and body knit up to the pitch of firmest and most dauntless resolution, under the inspiration that moved him to this apparently desperate enterprise. All the world would have rushed to stop him, insanely throwing away his life, without the faintest chance of escape. But a voice spoke firmly in his bosom, - I am not throwing away my life. And Jonathan did not want certain tokens of encouragement. It was something that his armour-bearer neither flinched nor remonstrated. But that was not all. To encourage himself and to encourage his companion, he fixed on what might be considered a token for them to persevere in one alternative, and desist in another. The token was, that if, on observing their attempt, the Philistines in the garrison should defy them, should bid them tarry till they came to them, that would be a sign that they ought to return. But if they should say, "Come up to us," that would be a proof that they ought to persevere. Was this a mere arbitrary token, without anything reasonable underlying it? It does not seem to have been so. In the one case, the words of the Philistines would bear a hostile meaning, denoting that violence would be used against them; in the other case they would denote that the Philistines were prepared to treat them peaceably, under the idea perhaps that they were tired of skulking and, like other Hebrews (1 Samuel 14:21), wishing to surrender to the enemy. In this latter case, they would be able to make good their position on the rock, and the enemy would not suspect their real errand till they were ready to begin their work. It turned out that their reception was in the latter fashion. Whether in the way of friendly banter or otherwise, the garrison, on perceiving them, invited them to come up, and they would "show them a thing." Greatly encouraged by the sign, they clambered up on hands and feet till they gained the top of the rock. Then, when nothing of the kind was expected, they fell or the garrison and began to kill. So sudden and unexpected an onslaught threw the garrison into a panic. Their arms perhaps were not at hand, and for anything they knew, a whole host of Hebrews might be hastening after their leaders to complete the work of slaughter. In this way, nearly twenty Philistines fell in half an acre of ground. The rest of the garrison taking to flight seems to have spread a panic among the host. Confusion and terror prevailed on every side. Every man’s sword was against his fellow. "There was trembling in the host, in the field, and among the people; the spoilers and the garrison, they also trembled, and the earth quaked; so it was a very great trembling. Whether this implies that the terror and discomfiture of the Philistines was increased by an earthquake, or whether it means that there was so much motion and commotion that the very earth seemed to quake, it is not very easy to decide; but it shows how complete was the discomfiture of the Philistines. Thus wonderfully was Jonathan’s faith rewarded, and thus wonderfully, too, was the unbelief of Saul rebuked.
Seen from the watch-tower at Gibeah, the affair was shrouded in mystery. It seemed as if the Philistine troops were retreating, while no force was there to make them retreat. When inquiry was made as to who were absent, Jonathan and his armour-bearer alone were missed. So perplexed was Saul, that, to understand the position of affairs, he had called for Ahiah, who had charge of the ark (the Septuagint reads, ’’the ephod"), to consult the oracle. But before this could be done, the condition of things became more plain. The noise in the host of the Philistines went on increasing, and when Saul and his soldiers came on the spot, they found the Philistines, in their confusion, slaughtering one another, amid all the signs of wild discomfiture. Nothing loath, they joined in harassing the retreating foe. And as the situation revealed itself others hastened to take part in the fray. Those Hebrews that had come for protection within the Philistine lines now turned against them, all the more heartily perhaps because, before that, they had had to place their feelings so much under restraint. And the Hebrews that lay hid in caves and thickets and pits, when they saw what was going on, rushed forth to join in the discomfiture of the Philistines. What a contrast to the state of things that very morning! - the Israelites in helpless feebleness, looking with despair on the Philistines as they lay in their strong- hold in all the pride of security, and scattered defiant looks and scornful words among their foes; now the Philistine garrison surprised, their camp forsaken, their army scattered, and the only desire or purpose animating the remnant being to escape at the top of their speed from the land of Israel, and find shelter and security in their native country. "So the Lord saved Israel that day; and the battle passed over unto Bethaven."
And thus the faith of Jonathan had a glorious reward. The inspiration of faith vindicated itself, and the noble self-devotion that had plunged into this otherwise desperate enterprise, because there was no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few, led thus to a triumph more speedy and more complete than even Jonathan could have ventured to dream of. None of the judges had wrought a more complete or satisfactory deliverance; and even the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses had not afforded a more glorious evidence than this achievement of Jonathan’s of the power of faith, or given more ample testimony to that principle of the kingdom of God, which our Lord afterwards enunciated, "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence unto yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."
This incident is full of lessons for modern times. First, it shows what wide and important results may come from individual conviction. When an individual heart is moved by a strong conviction of duty, it may be that God means through that one man’s conviction to move the world. Modesty might lead a man to say, I am but a unit; I have no influence; it will make very little difference what I do with my conviction, whether I cherish it or stifle it. Yet it may be of just world-wide importance that you be faithful to it, and stand by it steadfastly to the end. Did not the Reformation begin through the steadfastness of Luther, the miner’s son of Eisleben, to the voice that spoke out so loudly to himself? Did not Carey lay the foundation of the modern mission in India, because he could not get rid of that verse of Scripture, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature"? Did not Livingstone persevere in the most dangerous, the most desperate enterprise of our time, because he could not quench the voice that called him to open up Africa or perish? Or to go back to Scripture times. A Jewish maiden at the court of the great king of Persia becomes the saviour of her whole nation, because she feels that, at the risk of her life, she must speak a word for them to the king. Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion, becomes impressed with the conviction that he must preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and through his faithfulness to that conviction, he lays the foundation of the whole European Church. Learn, my friends, everyone, from this, never to be faithless to any conviction given to you, though, as far as you know, it is given to you alone. Make very sure that it comes from the God of truth. But don’t stifle it, under the notion that you are too weak to bring anything out of it. Don’t reason that if it were really from God, it would be given to others too. Test it in every way you can, to determine whether it be right. And if it stands these tests, manfully give effect to it, for it may bear seed that will spread over the globe.
Second, this narrative shows what large results may flow from individual effort. The idea may not have occurred for the first time to someone; it may have been derived by him from another; but it has commended itself to him, it has been taken up by him, and worked out by him to results of great magnitude and importance. Pay a visit to the massive buildings and well-ordered institutions of Kaiserswerth, learn its ramifications all over the globe, and see what has come of the individual efforts of Fliedner. Think how many children have been rescued by Dr. Barnardo, how many have been emigrated by Miss Macpherson, how many souls have been impressed by Mr. Moody, how many orphans have been cared for by Mr. Müller, how many stricken ones have been relieved in the institutions of John Bost. It is true, we are not promised that every instance of individual effort will bring any such harvest. It may be that we are to be content with very limited results, and with the encomium bestowed on the woman in the Gospel, ’’She hath done what she could." But it is also true that none of us can tell what possibilities there are in individual effort. We cannot tell but in our case the emblem of the seventy-second Psalm may be verified, "There shall be an handful of corn in the earth on the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon, and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth."
Lastly, we may learn from this narrative that the true secret of all spiritual success lies in our seeking to be instruments in God’s hands, and in our lending ourselves to Him, to do in us and by us whatever is good in His sight. Thus it was eminently with Jonathan. "It may be that the Lord will work for us; for there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few." It was not Jonathan that was to work with some help from God; it was the Lord that was to work by Jonathan. It was not Jonathan’s project that was to be carried out; it was the Lord’s cause that was to be advanced. Jonathan had no personal ends in this matter. He was willing to give up his life, if the Lord should require it. It is a like consecration in all spiritual service that brings most blessing and success. Men that have nothing of their own to gain are the men who gain most. Men who sacrifice all desire for personal honour are the men who are most highly honoured. Men who make themselves of no reputation are the men who gain the highest reputation. Because Christ emptied Himself, and took on Him the form of a servant, God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name above every name. And those who are like Christ in the mortifying of self become like Christ also in the enjoyment of the reward. Such are the rules of the kingdom of heaven. "He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal"
1 Samuel 14:24-51.
THAT Saul was now suffering in character under the influence of the high position and great power to which he had been raised, is only too apparent from what is recorded in these verses. No doubt he pays more respect than he has been used to pay to the forms of religion. He enjoins a fast on his people at a very inconvenient time, under the idea that fasting is a proper religious act. He is concerned for the trespass of the people in eating their food with the blood. He builds the first altar he ever built to God. He consults the oracle before he will commit himself to the enterprise of pursuing the retreating enemy by night. He is concerned to find the oracle dumb, and tries to discover through whose sin it is so. For a ceremonial offence, committed by Jonathan in ignorance, he fancies that God’s displeasure has come down on the people, and he not only insists that Jonathan shall die for this offence, but confirms his decision by a solemn oath, sworn in the name of God. All this shows Saul plunging and floundering from one mistake to another, and crowning his blunders by a proposal so outrageous that the indignation of the people arrests his purpose. The idea that the work of the day shall be wound up by the execution of the youth through whom all the wonderful deliverance has come, and that youth Saul’s own son, is one that could never have entered into any but a distempered brain. Reason seems to have begun to stagger on her throne; the sad process has begun which in a more advanced stage left Saul the prey of an evil spirit, and in its last and most humiliating stage drove him to consult with the witch of Endor.
But how are we to explain his increase of religiousness side by side with the advance of moral obliquity and recklessness? Why should he be more careful in the service of God while he becomes more imperious in temper, more stubborn in will, and more regardless of the obligations alike of king and father? The explanation is not difficult to find. The expostulation of Samuel had given him a fright. The announcement that the kingdom would not be continued in his line, and that God had found a worthier man to set over His people Israel, had moved him to the quick. There could be no doubt that Samuel was speaking the truth. Saul had begun to disregard God’s will in his public acts, and was now beginning to reap the penalty He felt that he must pay more attention to God’s will. If he was not to lose everything, he must try to be more religious. There is no sign of his feeling penitent in heart. He is not concerned in spirit for his unworthy behaviour toward God. He feels only that his own interests as king are imperiled. It is this selfish motive that makes him determine to be more religious. The fast, and the consultation of the oracle, and the altar, and the oath that Jonathan shall die, have all their origin in this frightened, selfish feeling. And hence, in their very nature and circumstances, his religious acts are unsuitable and unseemly. In place of making things better by such services, he makes them worse; no peace of God falls like dew on his soul; no joy is diffused throughout his army; discontent reaches a climax when the death of Jonathan is called for; and tranquility is restored only by the rebellion of the people, rescuing their youthful prince and hero.
Alas, how common has this spirit been in the history of the world 1 What awful tragedies has it led to, what slaughter of heretics, what frightful excesses disgraceful to kings, what outrages on the common feelings of humanity! Louis XIV. has led a most wicked and profligate life, and he has ever and anon qualms that threaten him with the wrath of God. To avert that wrath, he must be more attentive to his religious duties. He must show more favour to the Church, exalt her dignitaries to greater honour, endow her orders and foundations with greater wealth. But that is not all. He must use all the arms and resources of his kingdom for ridding the Church of her enemies. For twenty years he must harass the Protestants with every kind of vexatious interference, shutting up their churches on frivolous pretexts, compelling them to bury their dead by night, forbidding the singing of psalms in worship, subjecting them to great injustice in their civil rapacity, and at last, by the revocation of the edict that gave them toleration, sweeping them from the kingdom in hundreds of thousands, till hardly a Protestant is left behind. What the magnificent monarch did on a large scale, millions of obscurer men have done on a small. It is a sad truth that terror and selfishness have been at the foundation of a great deal of that which passes current as religion. Prayers and penances and vows and charities in cases without number have been little better than premiums of insurance, designed to save the soul from punishment and pain. Nor have these acts been confined to that Church which, more than any other, has encouraged men to lock for saving benefit to the merit of their own works. Many a Protestant, roused by his conscience into a state of fright, has resolved to be more attentive to the duties of religion. He will read his Bible more; he will pray more; he will give more; he will go to church more. Alas, the spring of all this is found in no humiliation for sin before God, no grief at having offended the Father, no humble desire to be renewed in heart and conformed to the image of the First-born! And the consequence is, as in the case of Saul, that things go, not from bad to better, but from bad to worse. There is no peace of God that passeth all understanding; there is no general rectification of the disordered faculties of the soul; there is no token of heavenly blessing, blessing to the man himself and blessing to those about him. A more fiery element seems to come into his temper; a more bitter tone pervades his life. To himself it feels as if there were no good in trying to be better; to the world it appears as if religion put more of the devil into him. But it is all because what he calls religion is no religion; it is the selfish bargain-making spirit, which aims no higher than deliverance from pain; it is not the noble exercise of the soul, prostrated by the sense of guilt, and helpless through consciousness of weakness, lifting up its eyes to the hills whence cometh its help, and rejoicing in the grace that freely pardons all its sin through the blood of Christ, and in the gift of the Holy Spirit that renews and sanctifies the soul.
The first thing that Saul does, in the exercise of this selfish spirit, is to impose on the people an obligation to fast until the day be over. Any one may see that to compel fasting under such circumstances was alike cruel and unwise. To fast in the solitude of one’s chamber, where there is no extra wear and tear of the bodily organs, and therefore no special need for recruiting them, is comparatively safe and easy. But to fast amid the struggles of battle or the hurry of a pursuit; to fast under the burning sun and that strain of the system which brings the keenest thirst; to fast under exertions that rapidly exhaust the thews and sinews, and call for a renewal of their tissues - to fast in circumstances like these involves an amount of suffering which it is not easy to estimate. It was cruel in Saul to impose a fast at such a time, all the more that, being commander-in-chief of the army, it was his duty to do his utmost for the comfort of his soldiers. But it was unwise as well as cruel; with energies impaired by fasting, they could not continue the pursuit nor make the victory so telling. Perhaps he was under the influence of the delusion that the more painful a religious service is, the more is it acceptable to God. That idea of penance does find a place in our natural notions of religion. Saul, as we have seen, grew up with little acquaintance with religious persons and little knowledge of Divine things; and now that perforce he is constrained to attend to them, it is no wonder if he falls into many a serious error. For he probably had no idea of that great rule of God’s kingdom, "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice."
The folly of Saul’s order became apparent when the army came to a wood, where, as is common enough in the country, a stream of wild honey poured out, probably from the trunk of a hollow tree. Stretching out his rod or spear, Jonathan fixed it in a piece of the comb, which he transferred with his hand to his mouth. Immediately "his eyes were enlightened;" the dull feeling which settles on the eyes amid fatigue and hunger disappeared; and with the return of clear vision to his eyes, there would come a restoration of vigour to his whole frame. When told for the first time of the order which his father had given, he showed no regret at having broken it, but openly expressed his displeasure at its having ever been imposed. "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 I for had there not been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?" We must bear in mind that Jonathan was a true man of God. He had set out that morning in his wonderful exploit in the true spirit of faith and full consecration to God. He was in far nearer fellowship with God than his father, and yet so far from approving of the religious order to fast which his father had given, he regards it with displeasure and distrust. Godly men will sometimes be found less outwardly religious than some other men, and will greatly shock them by being so. The godly man has an unction from the Holy One to understand His will; he goes straight to the Lord’s business; like our blessed Lord, he finishes the work given him to do while the merely religious man is often so occupied with his forms, that, like the Pharisees, he neglects the structure for which forms are but the scaffolding; in paying his tithes of mint, anise, and cumin, he omits the weightier matters - justice, mercy, and truth.
But the evil caused by Saul’s injudicious fast was not yet over. The obligation to fast lasted only till sunset, and when the day was ended, the people, faint and ravenous, flew upon the spoil - sheep, oxen, and calves - and devoured them on the spot, without taking time or pains to sever the blood from the flesh. To remedy this, Saul had a great stone placed beside him, and ordered the people to bring every man his ox or his sheep, and slay them on that stone, that he might see that the blood was properly drained from the flesh. Then we gather from the marginal reading of 1 Samuel 14:35 that he was proceeding to erect with the stone an altar to God, but that he did not carry this purpose completely into effect, because he determined to continue the pursuit of the Philistines. He saw how much recruited his troops were by their food, and he therefore determined to make a new assault. If it had not been for the unwise order to fast given early in the day, if the people had been at liberty to help themselves to the honey as they passed it, or to such other refreshments as they found in their way, they would have been some hours earlier in this pursuit, and it would have been so much the more effectual.
It would seem, however, that the priest who was in attendance on Saul was somewhat alarmed at the abrupt and rather reckless way in which the king was making his plans and giving his orders. "Let us draw near hither unto God," said he. Counsel was accordingly asked of God whether Saul should go down after the Philistines and whether God would deliver them into the hand of Israel. But to this inquiry no answer was given. It was natural to infer that some sin had separated between God and Saul, some iniquity had caused God to hide His face from him. Here was a State of things that might well make Saul pause and examine himself. Had he done so in an honest spirit, he could hardly have failed to find out what was wrong. God had given a wonderful deliverance that day through Jonathan. Jonathan was as remarkable for the power of faith as Saul for the want of it. Jonathan had been wonderfully blessed that day, but now that Saul, through the priest, sought to have a communication with God, none was given. Might he not have seen that the real cause of this was that Saul wanted what Jonathan possessed? Besides, was Saul doing justice to Jonathan in taking the enterprise out of his hands? If Jonathan began it, was he not entitled to finish it? Would not Saul have been doing a thing alike generous and just had he stood aside at this time, and called on Jonathan to complete the work of the day? If the king of England was justified in not going to the help of the Black Prince, serious though his danger was, but leaving him to extricate himself, and thus enjoy the whole credit of his valour, might not Saul have let his son end the enterprise which he had so auspiciously begun? In these two facts, in the difference between him and Jonathan as to the spirit of faith, and in the way in which Saul displaced the man whom God so signally’ countenanced in the morning, the king of Israel might have found the cause of the silence of the oracle. And the right thing for him would have been to confess his error, stand aside, and call on Jonathan to continue the pursuit and, if possible, exterminate the foe.
But Saul took a different course. He had recourse to the lot, to determine the guilty party. Now, it does not appear that even the king of Israel, with the priest at his side, was entitled to resort to the lot to ascertain the mind of God except in cases where all natural means of discovering it confessedly failed. But we have just seen that in this case the natural means had not failed. Therefore there was no obligation on God to order the lot supernaturally so as to bring out the truth. In point of fact, the process ended so as to point to the very last man in all the army to whom blame was due. It was, as mathematicians say, a reductio ad absurdum. It is a proof that an instrument is out of order if it brings out a result positively ludicrous. If near the equator an instrument gives the latitude of the polar circle, it is a proof that it is not working rightly. When the lot pointed to Jonathan, it was a proof that it was not working rightly. Any man might have seen this. And Saul ought to have seen it. And he ought to have confessed that he was entirely out of his reckoning. Frankly and cordially he should have taken the blame on himself, and at once exonerated his noble son.
But Saul was in no mood to take the blame on himself. Nor had he moral sagacity enough to see what an outrage it would be to lay the blame on Jonathan. Assuming that he was guilty, he asked him what he had done. He had done nothing but eat a little honey, not having heard the king’s order to abstain. The justification was complete. At worst, it was but a ceremonial offence, but to Jonathan it was not even that. But Saul was too obstinate to admit the plea. By a new oath, he devoted his son to death. Nothing could show more clearly the deplorable state of his mind. In the eye of reason and of justice, Jonathan had committed no offence. He had given signal evidence of the possession in a remarkable degree of the favour of God. He had laid the nation under inconceivable obligations. All these pleas were for him; and surely in the king’s breast a voice might have been heard pleading, Your son, your first-born, ’’the beginning of your strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power"! Is it possible that this voice was silenced by jealousy, jealousy of his own son, like his after-jealousy of David? What kind of heart could this Saul have had when in such circumstances he could deliberately say, "God do so, and more also, for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan"?
But "the Divine right of kings to govern wrong" is not altogether without check. A temporary revolution saved Jonathan. It was one good effect of excitement. In calmer circumstances, the people might have been too terrified to interfere. But now they were excited - excited by their victory, excited by their fast followed by their meal, and excited by the terror of harm befalling Jonathan. They had far clearer and more correct apprehension of the whole circumstances than the king had. It is especially to be noted that they laid great emphasis on the fact that that day God had worked by Jonathan, and Jonathan had worked with God. This made the great difference between him and Saul. "As the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not."
The opportunity of inflicting further damage on the Philistines at this time was thus lost through the moral obtuseness, recklessness, and obstinacy of Saul. But in many a future campaign Saul as a warrior rendered great service to the kingdom. He fought against all his enemies on every side. On the east, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites had to be dealt with; on the north, the kings of Zobah; on the south, the Amalekites; and on the west, the Philistines. These campaigns are briefly stated, but we may easily see how much of hard military work is implied in connection with each. We may understand, too, with what honesty David, in his elegy over Saul and Jonathan, might commemorate their warlike prowess: ’’From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty." Whether these military expeditions were conducted in a better spirit than Saul shows in this chapter we cannot tell. Whether further proofs were given of God’s presence with Jonathan as contrasted with his absence from Saul we do not know. It does not appear that there was any essential improvement in Saul. But when Jonathan again emerges from the obscurity of history, and is seen in a clear and definite light, his character is singularly attractive - one of the purest and brightest in the whole field of Scripture.
Evidently the military spirit ruled in Saul, but it did not bring peace nor blessing to the kingdom. ’’He gathered an host," surrounded himself with a standing army, so as to be ready and have an excuse for any expedition that he wished to undertake. After a brief notice of Saul’s family, the chapter ends by telling us that "there was sore war against the Philistines all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any strong man or any valiant man, he took him unto him.’’ The Philistines were far from being permanently subdued; there were not even intervals of peace between the two countries. There was bitter war, an open sore, perpetually bleeding, a terror on every side, never removed. How different it might have been had that one day been better spent! how different it would certainly have been had Saul been a man after God’s own heart! One day’s misdeeds may bring a whole generation of sorrow, for "one sinner destroyeth much good." Once off the right rail, Saul never got on it again; rash and restless, he doubtless involved his people in many a disaster, fulfilling all that Samuel had said about taking from the people, fulfilling but little that the people had hoped concerning deliverance from the hand of the Philistines.
Who does not see what a fearful thing it is to leave Cod and His ways, and give one’s self up to the impulses of one’s own heart? Fearful for even the humblest of us, but infinitely fearful for one of great resources and influence, with a whole people under him! How beautiful some prayers in the Psalms sound after we have been contemplating the wild career of Saul! "Show me Thy ways, O Lord; teach me in Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me, for Thou art the God of my salvation; on Thee do I wait all the day." "Oh that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes! Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all Thy commandments."
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 14". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany