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11. Saul Fights the Philistines (1 Samuel 14:15-52)


When the San Francisco earthquake rocked the city in 1865, Mark Twain was there, and he describes for us his first earthquake in the following words:

“It was just after noon, on a bright October day. I was coming down Third Street. The only objects in motion anywhere in sight in that thickly built and populous quarter were a man in a buggy behind me, and a streetcar winding slowly up the cross street. Otherwise, all was solitude and a Sabbath stillness.

As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar, and it occurred to me that here was an item! -- no doubt a fight in that house. Before I could turn and seek the door, there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. I knew what it was now. . . a third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke!

And here came the buggy – overboard went the man, and in less time than I can tell it the vehicle was distributed in small fragments along three hundred yards of street. . . . The streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends, . . . . Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and almost before one could execute a wink and begin another, there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. Never was a solemn solitude turned into teeming life quicker.48

Earthquakes are awesome experiences. I well remember the earthquake which struck while I was teaching a sixth grade class in Washington State. I doubt that the Philistines of Saul’s day who survived ever forgot the earthquake God brought upon them, which led to their defeat at the hand of God and His people, Israel. Israel’s victory was great, but it was not what it could have been. Our text contrasts the faith and courage of Jonathan with the foolishness of his father, Saul. Let us listen well to our passage to see what distinguishes this son from his father.

The Setting

In spite of being appointed king of Israel and his decisive victory over the Ammonites, Saul seems determined not to “trouble the waters” with the Philistines who occupy Israel. The Philistines’ domination of the people of God is evident in various ways. Philistine garrisons are stationed in the land (see 1 Samuel 10:5; 13:3), and the Israelites are heavily restricted in the possession and use of iron age technology. They can be blacksmiths, but they are prohibited from possessing iron age weapons (e.g. swords), and they must pay dearly for the use of iron farming tools (1 Samuel 13:19-23). In spite of the Philistines’ oppression of Israel, of Saul’s appointment as Israel’s king and in spite of Saul’s divine enablement (see chapters 9 and 10), Saul chooses to send home the 330,000 troops who assemble to deliver the citizens of Jabesh-gilead. He keeps only a bare bones standing army of 3,000 men. It seems this is intended to maintain the status quo with the Philistines.

Jonathan is not willing to let this situation stand. With his 1,000 men, he attacks the Philistine garrison at Geba (13:3), bringing about a massive Philistine counter-attack (13:5f.). Saul has no choice but to summon the Israelites to war though only a small number report for duty, and many of these desert when they realize the hopelessness (humanly speaking) of Israel’s situation. Some flee from Saul to find a place to hide themselves from the Philistines, while others become turncoats and join with the Philistines (13:6; 14:21-22). Saul summons the troops to Gilgal, seemingly as Samuel instructs (10:8). But when it appears that Samuel will not arrive within the appointed time, Saul goes ahead and offers the burnt offerings. Samuel arrives as soon as these offerings are made and rebukes Saul for his disobedience, indicating that this will cost him an enduring kingdom (13:11-14).

The war between the Israelites and the Philistines is not going well at all. Not only do the Philistines outnumber and outclass the Israelites in their weapons, the few Israelite soldiers who remain are frightened, and Saul seems paralyzed. At the same time, the Philistines camped at Michmash are sending out raiding parties which are creating destruction and havoc wherever they go (which seems to be almost anywhere they want – see 13:15-18).

If Saul is not inclined to take the initiative in fighting the Philistines, Jonathan is. He and his armor bearer secretly set out to engage the Philistines. They climb down one sharp crag and scale up the other side when the Philistine response to their presence indicates God will give Israel the victory. When the two gallant Israelites reach the top, they engage the Philistines in battle, killing 20 of them in the space of a half acre (14:1-14). At this stage of the fighting, God divinely intervenes with an awesome earthquake, one which melts the fortitude and numbers of the Philistines. Our lesson takes up at the onset of this earthquake.

Shaking Up the Enemy

15 And there was a trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. Even the garrison and the raiders trembled, and the earth quaked so that it became a great trembling. 16 Now Saul's watchmen in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and behold, the multitude melted away; and they went here and there. 17 And Saul said to the people who were with him, “Number now and see who has gone from us.” And when they had numbered, behold, Jonathan and his armor bearer were not there. 18 Then Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here.” For the ark of God was at that time with the sons of Israel. 19 And it happened while Saul talked to the priest, that the commotion in the camp of the Philistines continued and increased; so Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” 20 Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and came to the battle; and behold, every man's sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion. 21 Now the Hebrews who were with the Philistines previously, who went up with them all around in the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. 22 When all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines had fled, even they also pursued them closely in the battle. 23 So the LORD delivered Israel that day, and the battle spread beyond Beth-aven.

I well remember the time I acted inappropriately in gym class and my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Johnstone, picked me up and shook me against the wall. I got the message loud and clear. The Philistines get the message too, even more loudly and more emphatically. Even a “normal” earthquake (if there is such a thing) would have rattled the Philistines, but this one seems extraordinary. The timing is perfect, coming immediately after the limited victory of Jonathan and his servant. The earthquake seems limited to the places where the Philistines are stationed. Our text offers no indication that the Israelites feel, or are, terrified by this quake. In fact, it seems possible from our account that the Israelites are not even completely aware of what causes such panic among the Philistines. It is an earthquake from God, and its impact is terrifying.49

Since we have never experienced earthquakes like this in Dallas, Texas, it may be helpful to read some of the accounts of those who have been terrified by the effects of an earthquake.

On Friday last January 9th, this city [Santa Barbara] was visited by a succession of earthquake shocks, one of which was the most severe which has been experienced on this coast for a long series of years. . . .

In this city, the morning of the eventful day was ushered in by the same genial sun, the air was tranquil, and no unusual atmospheric phenomena indicated that any sudden danger was at hand. . . . At about half past 8, or at 22 minutes past 8 o’clock according to those who assert that they had the ‘correct time,’ the severest shock commenced, and which continued from 40 to 60 seconds. It was universally noticed throughout the city, and was so violent in its vibrations that all of the inhabitants fled from their dwellings, the majority of whom, on bended knees, and hearts throbbing with terror, made fervent supplications that the imminent and impending danger might be providentially averted.50

A California highway patrolman describes his earthquake experience this way:

“It was like being inside a paint shaker. With no warning, the house started shaking violently from side to side. I was lying on the living room floor reading the Sunday paper when the earthquake hit. My very first thought was that a car had run into my house or that an airplane had crashed. But then it kept going and I knew what it was.

My stereo equipment on a shelf tumbled to the floor as I tried to get on my feet to get outside. I just wanted to get out of there. But when I tried to get off the floor, I couldn’t do it. After a few seconds, the shaking eased up a bit and I was able to get up and get my wife and myself out to the front yard. . . .51

A golfer, out on the course early on the morning of the 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake, describes it this way:

“I was held spellbound by a roar, the like of which I have never heard, cannot intelligently explain, or ever expect to hear again, and was then picked up and shaken violently as if some monster had me by the shoulders with the sole intent of shaking my head from my shoulders. It was all that I could do to stay on my feet. The hills seemed to rise and fall – no, I was perfectly all right, no illusions you know – the rolling of the landscape being plainly visible on all sides of me. It was not the little jerks once in a while felt in many parts of the state, but a long drawn out roll that I believe would put many of our beach roller coasters into a class below it.

The roar which seemed to precede the actual shock by two or three seconds seemed to be coming from a long distance away and came with the rapidity of a bullet.”52

The immobilizing fear an earthquake produces is illustrated by this account of the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake given by a roundhouse foreman:

“It goes without saying that there were many narrow escapes from personal injury and I will here set down two instances which bring out the peculiar effect on two men, ordinarily normal in every way. One of these is a boilermaker who was at the east end of the roundhouse. The bricks were falling from the east wall, huge pieces of masonry were thrown a distance of twelve feet, that portion of the roof over him crashed downward and came to rest on a locomotive. This man is of a bold and fearless nature, yet in this crisis he was so badly frightened that he lost the use of his legs; after a severe attack of nausea he managed to crawl out unassisted and uninjured.…53

Imagine what it must have been like for a Philistine soldier. The quake may have been preceded with a thundering, which some describe as greater than the boom of 1,000 cannons. The earth may begin to shake up and down. In one quake, it is estimated that the ground moved vertically by as much as two inches and up to 240 times a minute. The ground may roll like waves on the ocean, causing the soldiers to reel about and fall. And then, worst of all perhaps, the ground moves horizontally, this movement being the greatest in distance and devastation.

Think of what might have happened that day. Word reaches the ears of the main camp that someone (Jonathan and his armor bearer) has attacked the outpost and caused numerous casualties. The “raiders,” or destroyers, sent out to kill and destroy, are terrified. These are the “special forces” of that day. The main camp is on full alert, and the troops are called into battle formation. With their dreaded swords drawn and facing outward (something like fixed bayonets), the army moves toward the battle sight. Just then, the roar of the earthquake terrifies the troops. As they march ahead, the ground shakes and rolls beneath them. Men begin to fall. And then, if the ground moves horizontally, the swords of those behind pierce the unprotected backs of the men ahead of them. The man ahead, in a panic and perhaps thinking it is the enemy behind, turns and attacks the person behind – so that many lay dead, all by “friendly fire.”

I may not have all the details correct, but the results are similar. The Philistines are disabled and terrified by the earthquake. In sheer panic, they turn on one another and kill each other with their swords. All these casualties are the result of in-fighting among the Philistines, before the Israelites engage them in battle. It is indeed a “panic sent by God” (1 Samuel 14:15, NIV). We should be awe-struck by this mighty intervention of God on Israel’s behalf. His watchmen look on as God brings chaos and defeat to the mighty Philistine army. They may not know this is caused by an earthquake, but they can see the soldiers moving this way and that, in waves. Is this by the ground moving? Is this by the ground opening up? We do not know, and I doubt the Israelite watchmen knew. But from what they see and hear, they know something marvelous is happening.

The reader wonders at Saul’s response. The first thing he does is number his troops, not in order to set out for battle, but to learn who is absent. I disagree with the way the translators of the New King James Version render verse 17:

17 Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Now call the roll and see who has gone from us.” And when they had called the roll, surprisingly, Jonathan and his armorbearer were not there (1 Samuel 14:17, NKJV).

The word “behold” in the New American Standard Version is by far the most common way of translating this Hebrew expression. The term can be an expression of surprise, which is the way the NKJV takes it. I see it quite the opposite. While I am most reticent to offer my own translations, I think the overall context and the Hebrew term itself bears out this rendering:

17 And so Saul said to those who were with him, “Please number the troops so we can see who has gone out from among us.” And they numbered them and sure enough Jonathan and his armor bearer were gone (my translation/paraphrase of 1 Samuel 14:17).

Saul is not surprised. When the troops are numbered, the results are exactly as he fears. Think about it. Everything is going well enough with the Philistines (by Saul’s standards), until Jonathan messes everything up by attacking the Philistine garrison at Geba (1 Samuel 13:3). This whole disaster (as Saul sees it) with the massive build up of Philistine soldiers at Michmash is Jonathan’s fault. He cannot leave well enough alone. Now, as the two armies are encamped and at war with each other, Saul manages to avoid further action (there he sits, under that pomegranate tree (14:2), and suddenly there is a major disturbance among the Philistines. Something has to cause this commotion. Saul does not think first of God, but of his trouble-making son, Jonathan. By numbering the troops, he is able to find out who is not among them, and thus deduce who has caused him all this trouble -- again.

At long last, Saul decides to consult God – now that he is “between a rock and a hard place,” as we say in Texas. There were various ways to discern the will of God in those days. Of course, a prophet could speak directly for God, but Samuel has left Saul at Gilgal due to his disobedience (see 13:8-14). And there is the ephod, worn and used by the priest, which is there with Ahijah the priest (14:3), but Saul does not call for its use. Instead, Saul calls for the Ark of God. In some way that involves the outstretched hand of Ahijah the priest, the will of God will be made known. It seems as though this process takes some time. If this were an electronic device (tube-type, of course), it would be “warming up.” We all know Saul is not big on patience (see chapter 13). The commotion in the Philistine camp becomes so great that even Saul concludes an attack against them means certain victory for Israel. So he instructs the priest to withdraw his hand, to “turn off the will of God machine.” Saul and his men then go after these panic-smitten Philistines, who are killing each other off. As the Israelite soldiers draw near, they can see even more clearly the victory God has wrought.

The reluctant warriors go to battle against the Philistines. Jonathan and his armor bearer lead the charge; Saul rather reluctantly follows, well after a victory is assured. Joining with Saul and his 600 men are those who deserted the ranks of Saul’s army and sold their services to the Philistines (14:21). When those who fled from Saul and hid themselves in the hills see the defeat and retreat of the Philistines, they too join with Saul so that his forces multiply that day.

Saul’s Foolish Oath

24 Now the men of Israel were hard-pressed54 on that day, for Saul had put the people under oath, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food before evening, and until I have avenged myself on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food. 25 And all the people of the land entered the forest, and there was honey on the ground. 26 When the people entered the forest, behold, there was a flow of honey; but no man put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard when his father put the people under oath; therefore, he put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened. 28 Then one of the people answered and said, “Your father strictly put the people under oath, saying, 'Cursed be the man who eats food today.'“ And the people were weary. 29 Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See now, how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 “How much more, if only the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great.”

It is a defeat for the Philistines and a victory for God, but it is not the victory it could have been; it could have been much more decisive. In verses 24-30, the author explains why the victory falls short of what it could and should have been. In short, the Israelite soldiers are “hard-pressed” that day, so that they cannot pursue and destroy more Philistines. The one responsible for Israel’s distress is none other than their king, Saul. It is his foolish oath which hinders the Israelite soldiers.

It seems that Saul’s image suffers greatly, ever since his impressive defeat of the Ammonites at Jabesh-gilead in chapter 11. Saul has been humiliated by the Philistines, not only by their occupation of Israel, but by the way they capitalize on their iron age technology (13:19-23). Much of Saul’s embarrassment is the direct result of Jonathan’s initiative in attacking the Philistines. Now that he sees the Philistines suffering defeat at the hand of the Israelites, Saul determines to make them pay for his humiliation. His fight with the Philistines becomes personal. It is not God’s battle, or even Israel’s battle; it is his battle and his victory. And so Saul puts his men under an oath: no one is to eat until evening. The men are to fight on an empty stomach. Saul appears to reason that this will avoid wasting valuable time (and daylight?) by stopping to prepare and then eat a meal. (Since Saul has not really planned this battle, neither he nor his men are really prepared for the day’s events.) There are no ready rations for the men to eat on the run, or so it appears to Saul. So he forbids his men to eat all day long and to fight the entire day without nourishment.

Saul is wrong on two counts. First, he is wrong in thinking his order will produce a greater victory for the Israelites over the Philistines. It seems to Saul that his orders will result in more time in pursuit during the precious daylight hours, and thus more Philistines will be killed. It doesn’t work out that way. As the Philistines seek to retreat toward their own land, the battle spreads eastward, first to Beth-aven (14:23) and then to Aijalon (14:31). The Israelites pursue the Philistines over 20 miles of mountainous territory, and this without food. The Israelites become weary and weak with hunger and are not able to pursue their enemies as vigorously as they might if properly nourished.

Saul is wrong on yet a second account. He is wrong to suppose that the only way for the Israelite warriors to be fed is by means of a “home-cooked meal,” which will take a long time. After all, this is not the day of “fast food,” and Saul does not think there is any hope of obtaining a quick boost of energy. He is wrong. God has the “fastest” food available. He has strategically placed a flow of honey in the forest, and it takes no time at all to eat this honey. The soldiers, like Jonathan, only need to thrust their staff in the midst of the honey, take it out and place it in their mouths. There is no faster or finer food around. This is the finest, most natural nutrition for which anyone could hope. It makes “Gatorade” look pathetic.

Jonathan does not hear of Saul’s order until it is too late. He is too busy attacking and fighting the Philistines to sit around the camp waiting for Saul to pass an edict. And so as he pursues the Philistines, he is joined by Saul’s forces. When Jonathan nourishes himself with some honey, one of Saul’s men informs him of Saul’s foolish order. Jonathan says what most of us should be thinking by now: “My father has troubled the land. See now, how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey” (14:29). His father is foolish and selfish to withhold nutrition from his men. Were the Israelites able to do as Jonathan has done, their victory would be much greater. Saul is not the source of Israel’s military successes, but a hindrance to them. Israel’s victories are more in spite of their king than a result of his leadership. All the Israelite soldiers must think this, and Jonathan simply has the courage to say it.

Saul, a Stumbling Block to Israel

31 And they struck among the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. And the people were very weary. 32 And the people rushed greedily upon the spoil, and took sheep and oxen and calves, and slew them on the ground; and the people ate them with the blood. 33 Then they told Saul, saying, “Behold, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have acted treacherously; roll a great stone to me today.” 34 And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, 'Each one of you bring me his ox or his sheep, and slaughter it here and eat; and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.'“ So all the people that night brought each one his ox with him, and slaughtered it there. 35 And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD.

It is bad enough when Saul’s foolishness keeps the Israelites from decisively winning, but it is inexcusable when his order results in sinning. Obediently, the Israelites comply with Saul’s senseless order not to eat until evening. And, due to fatigue, fewer Philistines are killed. But as the day comes to a close, the people are famished when they come upon the cattle left behind by their enemies. It is sad to say that the Israelite soldiers fear disobeying Saul’s commands more than they fear disobeying God’s commands. The famished soldiers devour the livestock without properly preparing them, and in so doing, they sin (Leviticus 17:10; 19:26).

Someone informs Saul that Israel is sinning in this fashion (14:33). One almost wonders if Saul would have even realized the seriousness of the situation had it not been pointed out to him. Rather than take responsibility for being a “stumbling block” to his fellow Israelites, Saul self-righteously points his accusing finger at his famished men: “You have acted treacherously; roll a great stone to me today” (14:33b). This is damage control with respect to the damage Saul himself precipitates by his foolish command. At least Saul is concerned about keeping his men from sinning further.

Two things are strangely ironic about the fact that Saul builds an altar of stone that night on which the Israelites sacrifice their offerings.” First, one can hardly call this sincere worship, either on the part of the Israelites or on the part of Saul. It is merely a way of sanctifying the satisfaction of the appetites of these soldiers so that they do not sin any more. And when we are told this is the first altar Saul has built, we are not impressed either. Does it take this kind of crisis for Saul to seek to worship his God? Does he only build altars in times of crisis? I would not call this a “holy moment” in Israel’s history. They are simply covering their bets, minimizing the damage caused by sin, sin predisposed by Saul and practiced by his soldiers.

Second, this is a most ironic “meal.” Saul forbids his soldiers to eat before evening, although the “fast food” God provides will not cause more than a minutes delay (as we see from the fact that Jonathan satisfies himself on the move). Saul feels that eating will be a waste of time and hinder Israel’s ability to win a decisive victory. Yet the Israelites have pursued their enemies into the night, except that they are so hungry and so tempted by the spoils of war that they sin in the way they eat it. To correct the situation, Saul has to build an altar and then be sure each man’s sacrifice is properly slain and prepared. How long do you think this “meal” took? This is inefficiency!

Saul is Quick to Kill – His Son

36 Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and take spoil among them until the morning light, and let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” So the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” 37 And Saul inquired of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Wilt Thou give them into the hand of Israel?” But He did not answer him on that day. 38 And Saul said, “Draw near here, all you chiefs of the people, and investigate and see how this sin has happened today. 39 “For as the LORD lives, who delivers Israel, though it is in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But not one of all the people answered him. 40 Then he said to all Israel, “You shall be on one side and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.” 41 Therefore, Saul said to the LORD, the God of Israel, “Give a perfect lot.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. 42 And Saul said, “Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son.” And Jonathan was taken. 43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” So Jonathan told him and said, “I indeed tasted a little honey with the end of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am, I must die!” 44 And Saul said, “May God do this to me and more also, for you shall surely die, Jonathan.” 45 But the people said to Saul, “Must Jonathan die, who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people rescued Jonathan and he did not die.

Finally, after a record wait for dinner, the meal is finished. Now Saul is ready to fight – but is God? Saul orders his men back to battle to do further damage to the Philistine army and obtain further spoils. The people are with Saul in this matter. They are ready to return to the war. But the priest is not quite as certain. He strongly urges that God’s will be sought first. When Saul inquires of God, he expects a “yes” or “no” answer to his question, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Wilt Thou give them into the hand of Israel?”

Saul jumps to a number of false conclusions. First, he concludes that since he has not been given an answer, it must be that someone has sinned. It does not seem to occur to him that the sin may be his own or that of his soldiers eating meat not properly drained of its blood. He assumes there has been sin, and that this sin is the violation of his foolish order (not God’s Law). Furthermore, he assumes that it may well be Jonathan who is guilty of this sin. And finally, Saul concludes that this “sin” is worthy of death. I do not think it is a coincidence that Saul says, “For as the Lord lives, who delivers Israel, though it is in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die” (verse 39). Why, of all the thousands of men with him, does Saul focus upon Jonathan, his son? I fear that I know why, and I don’t like it at all. I believe Saul’s son, Jonathan, is a man very much like David. In war, Saul concludes that Jonathan is a nuisance at best and a liability for sure. I believe Saul is looking for an excuse to do away with Jonathan, and this situation seems perfectly suited for the occasion. Before the lot is cast, Saul makes it clear that if Jonathan is selected, he will die. I think he knows Jonathan will be selected.

As far as the biblical record, Saul narrows this matter down very quickly and arbitrarily. He and his son Jonathan are set off against the rest of the soldiers. Not surprisingly, he and Jonathan are selected. Then Saul has the lot cast between Jonathan and himself, and Jonathan is indicated. The people acquiesce in this process, at least for the moment (see verse 40). Who will oppose Saul in his state of mind? When Jonathan is isolated by the casting of lots, his father asks him what he has done. (It is interesting, is it not, that Saul has already indicated the punishment before the crime is revealed.) Jonathan “confesses” that he has indeed tasted a little honey with the end of his staff. One small taste of honey, taken without any knowledge of his father’s command and without wasting any time, is the heinous crime Saul supposes is the reason for Israel’s inability to finish the battle which Jonathan started. Saul seems to feel it is better to kill his son than admit his own sin and foolishness.

Even here, Jonathan is a model son. He makes no excuses, nor does he make any indictments against his father, foolish though he is. Jonathan places his life in the hands of his father, the king. He is willing to die if that is his father’s will, if that is God’s will. With great flair, Saul once again pontificates about the certainty of Jonathan’s death. It is as though Saul could righteously do nothing less.

Finally, the people who have quietly put up with all the king’s dramatics have had enough. They are willing to let Saul put Jonathan and himself to the test (verse 40), but they are not willing to allow Saul to put his son to death. They see how foolish Saul’s actions are. Jonathan, not Saul, brought about such a great deliverance for them (verse 45). Should he be put to death for this? He has worked with God and not against Him, and because of this he will not be put to death as a sinner. Quite the contrary! Not one hair on his head shall fall to the ground. And so it is that Jonathan, working with God, rescues Israel, and Israel, standing up to Saul, rescues Jonathan. Saul, who rescues no one, is not allowed to destroy his own son. With this incident, the battle with the Philistines ends, sooner and less decisively than it should, all due to the foolishness of Saul, Israel’s “deliverer.”

Signing off with Saul’s “Success” and Successors

46 Then Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place. 47 Now when Saul had taken the kingdom over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, the sons of Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines; and wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment. 48 And he acted valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them. 49 Now the sons of Saul were Jonathan and Ishvi and Malchi-shua; and the names of his two daughters were these: the name of the first-born Merab and the name of the younger Michal. 50 And the name of Saul's wife was Ahinoam the daughter of Ahimaaz. And the name of the captain of his army was Abner the son of Ner, Saul's uncle. 51 And Kish was the father of Saul, and Ner the father of Abner was the son of Abiel. 52 Now the war against the Philistines was severe all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any mighty man or any valiant man, he attached him to his staff.

There is a sense in which this chapter is a kind of benediction with respect to Saul’s life and reign as king of Israel. There is a summing up of his apparent successes, a clear allusion to his failings, and a listing of his descendants. Chapter 15 describes the sin which spells the end of Saul’s reign (the earlier sin spelled the end of Saul’s dynasty – the reign of his descendants). Later chapters introduce David as Saul’s replacement and show Saul’s jealousy and opposition to him. The last chapter of 1 Samuel describes the death of Saul and his son. But this chapter seems to be the benediction on Saul and his reign.

The battle is over, but the war is not. The Philistines suffer a great loss, but not a total defeat. Each army – the Israelites and the Philistines – goes its own way. For the rest of Saul’s life, these two nations continue at war with each other. This is especially emphasized in verse 52:

52 Now the war against the Philistines was severe all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any mighty man or any valiant man, he attached him to his staff.

For the remainder of Saul’s life there will be conflict, and Saul’s respect for the Philistines can be seen by the fact that he seeks to attach any “valiant man” to his staff. The consequences for Saul’s folly follow him all the days of his reign. As we shall read in chapter 31, Saul and his son Jonathan both die at the hands of the Philistines. How sad that the victory over the Philistines is not complete in this battle which Jonathan began.

I have been speaking of Saul as a foolish man and as a failure. How can we explain the appraisal of Saul’s reign in verses 47 and 48, which seems to put Saul in a positive light? The answer is at least two-fold. First, it seems safe to say that a man can be a moral and spiritual failure, and yet be a great military leader. Look at the men whom God uses in the Book of Judges to deliver His people. Samson is no moral giant, but he is used of God to deliver Israel from the hand of her enemies. The same can be said for many of the other judges whom God raised up. God is not restricted to using godly people to accomplish His promises and purposes. Thus, military victory can be achieved through a man like Saul in spite of the kind of man he is. How many of us attribute God’s grace and mercy in our lives to our goodness and merit?

Second, the things said in these two verses are in fact true, and they represent the appraisal of Saul’s leadership from a secular historian’s point of view. Saul, as Israel’s king, does fight against all of the surrounding nations, and he does inflict punishment on these nations. With respect to his warfare with the Amalakites, Saul does act valiantly and delivers Israel from those who plunder them.

It seems that the battle between Israel and the Philistines, depicted in chapters 13 and 14, is typical of the whole of Saul’s life and reign as king of Israel. Saul does fight with the Philistines, and the Israelites win. The battle is fought under Saul’s leadership. But the victory was not what it could have been due to Saul’s foolishness. And the battle is not the result of Saul’s faith and initiative, but of Jonathan’s. Nevertheless, as we read in 13:4, the word is sent out that Saul “had smitten the garrison of the Philistines.” From a historian’s point of view, the victories of Israel under Saul’s watch are Saul’s victories. We know these victories were by the grace of God, often due to the actions of others like Jonathan, and often in spite of the inaction and foolishness of Saul.

In spite of the “victories” of Saul and Israel, the Philistines are never destroyed, never finally decisively defeated so that Saul and Israel contend with the Philistines throughout his reign. Depending on the “arm of the flesh,” it seems, Saul seeks heroes who will do warfare for him and for Israel. The stage is most certainly set for David and the role he will play in the battle with the Philistines and with Goliath, their champion.


First, it is not difficult at all to see why Jonathan and David will become devoted friends. They are indeed kindred spirits. Jonathan is a man of faith and spiritual insight. He is a man who acts boldly, out of his faith in God, while his father waits for the bad times to blow over. Jonathan would have made a great king, but he is a Benjamite and not a descendant of Judah; thus none of his descendants could be the Messiah. But when Jonathan sees that God’s hand is on David, he is one of the very first Israelites to embrace him as the next king of Israel, and this he does without jealousy or hesitation.

Second, this text sets the stage for the introduction of David in chapters 16 and 17. The character of Saul is already evident. His foolishness and jealousy, directed against David, comes as no surprise to us because these have already been displayed in his dealings with his own son, Jonathan. Saul has already attempted to put Jonathan to death; we will not be surprised to see him attempt to kill David and others as well. As Saul is reluctant to take on the Philistines in the early days, so he will be reticent to take them on when Goliath is their champion. There will be little that surprises us about Saul in the following chapters, because of what we have already read in these earlier chapters of 1 Samuel.

Third, we see that history’s view of a man may differ greatly from God’s. Man’s assessment of his fellow man is by no means accurate. It is by no means the true “measure of a man” so far as God is concerned, because when God judges a man, He looks on the heart. Secular history may judge Saul to be a success, but in biblical and spiritual terms, he is a miserable failure. Secular benchmarks of success are hardly an indication of God’s approval or blessing. The author of 1 Samuel wants us to see Saul as a man who is rejected by God. How sad it is to be esteemed by the world and despised by God. How much better, if need be, to be despised by the world, and esteemed by God (see 1 Peter 4).

Fourth, we see in this text that Christians can and do act in ways that apparently hinder the full or complete success of the work of God. In the ultimate sense, men cannot thwart that which God has purposed and promised to do. God uses men’s faith and obedience to accomplish His purposes, but He is not limited to this means. God’s sovereignty enables Him to also employ man’s unbelief and disobedience to achieve His purposes (see Genesis 50:20; Psalm 76:10). He even employs Satan to achieve His purposes (see 2 Corinthians 12:5-10). But having affirmed God’s sovereignty over all things, it must also be said that God sometimes allows the actions (or inactions) of men to hinder what could have been (see 2 Kings 13:14-19). God is sovereign over history, but in His sovereign control of all things, God has ordained that actions have consequences, and man’s disobedience and lack of faith may result in less than what could and should have been, had we acted in a godly way. Saul most certainly illustrates this by the way his folly in chapter 14 hinders a complete victory over the Philistines.

Fifth, Saul’s rule is the source of great trouble for Israel, but it is also the means to his own demise. We know from chapter 14 that Saul’s foolish rule prevents Israel from winning a crushing victory over the Philistines. Consequently, all the rest of Saul’s days, he and the nation are plagued by the Philistines (verse 52). The Philistine attack in chapter 17 launches David’s rise to prominence in Israel and the beginning of the end for Saul. Israel’s battle with the Philistines in chapter 31 results in the deaths of both Saul and Jonathan. As we read in the Song of Solomon, it is “the little foxes that spoil the vineyards” (2:15). This seemingly insignificant moment of folly has serious consequences for Israel and her king.

Finally, we see in our text an excellent illustration of legalism. Having a zeal to know and obey God’s commands is not legalism; it is discipleship. All too often I hear someone refer to the preaching of God’s commands (Old Testament or New) as “legalism.” While some may become legalistic in the way they seek to obey God’s commands, a zeal to know and do God’s commands is not legalism. Psalm 119 is an excellent example of a godly man’s zeal to know and to obey God’s commands. The love for God’s law is not legalism.

Legalism is a discontent with God’s commandments as they are. Legalism supposes that God’s commands and prohibitions do not go far enough. Legalism seeks to fix this “problem” by adding more rules and regulations. These added instructions are held as dearly as the commands of Scripture (sometimes more so). Those who fail to abide by these legalistic rules are judged severely by those who embrace them.

Let me illustrate legalism from the New Testament. The Law of Moses required men to keep the Sabbath, and this did mean that the Sabbath was to be a day of rest. It did not mean that it was sinful for Jesus’ disciples to reach down and pluck a few heads of grain and eat them. It did not mean that it was sinful for our Lord to heal a sick person on the Sabbath. The scribes and Pharisees could not indict our Lord for breaking any of God’s laws; they could only accuse Him for breaking the Old Testament Laws as they interpreted and applied them, and as they amended them with their own traditions. To seek to “improve” on God’s laws by adding to them was to set oneself above the Law as its judge:

11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12, NASB).

As I understand this text in James, those who wrongly “judge” their brothers usually do so on the basis of their own legalistic rules, and not according to God’s Word. James says that those who judge others by their own rules also judge God’s Law as inadequate.

King Saul is a legalist. As the king of Israel, Saul should have known the Law of God well, and carefully set out to obey it and to see that it was obeyed in his kingdom (see Deuteronomy 17:18-20). It almost seems as though Saul would not have recognized a breaking of God’s law unless someone else pointed it out to him (see 1 Samuel 14:33). Saul can easily justify his own neglect in carrying out the commands of God, and yet he is ready – almost eager – to put his own son to death for breaking one of his own foolish commands. Like all legalists, Saul finds it easy to strain gnats and swallow camels (see Matthew 23:23-24). Saul oozes with righteous indignation when others break his rules, but he is most tolerant of his own flagrant transgressions of God’s commands.

Contrary to what legalists assume, legalism does not hinder sin; it promotes it. The prohibitions which legalists heap upon themselves and others are not a cure for fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23). There were those in New Testament times who forbade marriage and the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3), but these were deceivers and liars who sought to turn God’s people from the truth. While Paul was single, he instructed husbands and wives not to abstain from sex, unless it was for an important reason and only for a limited time. Legalism sets men up to fall, as Saul's legalistic rule set the Israelites up to sin by eating meat that had not been properly slaughtered. Let us beware of legalism, in all of its most pious forms.

One final word. The contrast between Saul and Jonathan in our text can hardly be ignored. Jonathan is what Saul is not. Let us not forget that Jonathan is Saul’s son. It is not Saul’s “good parenting” which makes Jonathan what he is. Jonathan’s godliness is in spite of Saul, not because of him. Let those who would like to take credit for the way their children have turned out take note. And let us note also that many godly parents have borne ungodly children. I think, for example, of Samson and his parents (see Judges 13:1-23, especially verse 8).

Up until now, I have been inclined to look at Saul as an anomaly, as a kind of exceptional case. His sins are more public, more visible, and perhaps more dramatic than ours, but in the final analysis, his temptations and failures are really “common to man” (see 1 Corinthians 10:13; James 5:17). His failures are not recorded so that we can love to hate this man. I believe they are recorded as a warning to us, so that we need not repeat the sins which he so obviously commits. I would like to think that my life is reflected more in Jonathan than in his father, but this is often not the case. Let us listen and learn well from these two very different men, Saul and Jonathan. And let us endeavor to faithfully serve God by obeying His commands, so that we do not become negative examples of folly for future generations.

48 “Mark Twain and the October 8, 1865, San Francisco Earthquake”

49 Young’s Literal Translation renders verse 15 this way: “And there is a trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people, the station and the destroyers have trembled--even they, and the earth shaketh, and it becometh a trembling of God.” The NASB indicates the literal rendering of the original text in a marginal note, but the NIV properly (I believe) includes this in the translation: “Then panic struck the whole army – those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties – and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God.”

50 “The 1857 Fort Tejon Earthquake: Effects in Santa Barbara. From the Santa Barbara Gazette, January 15, 1857. Internet:

51 California Highway Patrolman Gene Hunt, quoted in the Santa Barbara News-Press of August 14, 1978. The Santa Barbara Earthquake: Pollock or Pocasso? Internet:

52 Unidentified golfer on the La Cumbre Golf Course, from the Santa Barbara News-Press, June 30, 1925. Internet:

53 W. H. Kirkbride, roundhouse foreman of the Southern Pacific Railroad, from the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, v. 17, 1927: Internet:

54 I am greatly indebted to Dale Ralph Davis for this observation: “The writer packs irony into his verb, for here in verse 24 he uses niggas (be hard pressed), which also appeared in 13:6. There Israel is ‘hard pressed’ because of massive Philistine pressure; here, the Philistines are defeated but Israel is still hard pressed because of Saul! Saul shows a strange ability to turn deliverance into distress.” Dale Ralph Davis, Looking on the Heart: Expositions of the Book of 1 Samuel, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), vol. 1, p. 140.

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