Saul, Jonathan, and the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:15 --14:15)
I have a picture taken last year when I joined three friends on a fishing trip which beautifully captures my memories of the trip. The picture is taken downward, with my friend, Bart Johnson, standing at the very top of a mountain. First you see the tip of Bart’s boots -- then your eye catches the very sharp drop down what is virtually the face of a cliff -- to a lake below. I did not go with Bart and his brother, Randall, on that particular climb. But I too was at the top of a kind of cliff -- safely nestled under a tree -- and the drop was a mere 20 or 25 feet to the water below. Half-heartedly casting my lure, I watched the trout look at my lure and sometimes strike -- I even guided the lure close to some really interesting fish -- in my little spot under the tree.
My friends Bart and Randall did not play it safe and easy. When they asked the forest rangers about fishing in a particular lake, one ranger responded, “Oh, I would not try to fish in that lake. It’s a remote lake, and you have to climb 2,000 feet up one side of a mountain and then 2,000 back down the other side to even get there.” That was all Bart and Randall needed to hear; they were packed and on their way. The fishing was so good there, they tell me, that they caught something on nearly every cast. Perhaps so, but I saw the pictures of them standing on top of that ridge and the sheer cliff they descended, and then ascended, on their way back. I was not sorry I stayed back at my favorite fishing hole, only a few feet above the water.
Reading the account of Jonathan’s personal campaign against the Philistines in this text reminds me of the picture of Bart and Randall perched at the top of that cliff. Just as I did on the fishing trip, Saul safely rests in the shade of a tree, while Jonathan and his armor-bearer scale a substantial cliff on their way to do battle with a garrison of Philistines. Neither the climb nor the overwhelming odds in the Philistines’ favor keep Jonathan from doing battle with these enemies of Israel. But as we shall see, there is much more to the story than just a dangerous climb. As we give careful consideration to this passage, we will learn much about Saul and Jonathan -- and about trusting God.
Israel demands a king and God promises to grant their request (1 Samuel 8). Through a sequence of events, God designates Saul as Israel’s king (chapters 9 and 10). When Nahash and the Ammonites threaten Jabesh-gilead, Saul is overcome by the Spirit of God and slaughters a yoke of oxen, sending pieces throughout the land, and threatening to do the same to the oxen of anyone who refuses to defend their brethren. This results in 330,000 Israeli troops gathering for war with the Ammonites and a great Israelite victory (chapter 11). Samuel cautions the Israelites about becoming too optimistic about their new king, reminding them that it is God, not men, who throughout Israel’s history has delivered His people. If the Israelites rebel against God, failing to trust and obey Him, they, along with their king, will be handed over to their enemies. If Israel does fear God, then God will spare them and their king (chapter 12).
Now, in chapter 13, things quickly begin to sour for Israel, and for Saul, their king. Jonathan’s attack on a Philistine garrison greatly angers the Philistines and prompts a massive Philistine military build-up in Israel. As the chapter unfolds, things seem to go from bad to worse. Saul is forced to summon the Israelites to war after having recently sent them home. The volunteers are few and far between, and when the Israelites realize the size of the Philistine army, they begin to desert, hiding wherever they can. When Samuel delays his arrival, Saul takes charge, sacrificing the burnt offerings and intent on offering the peace offerings. Samuel arrives just after the burnt offerings, rejecting Saul’s weak excuses and rebuking him for his foolishness. Further, he announces to Saul that, because of his disobedience, his kingdom will not endure, because God has chosen a man to be king whose heart is in tune with His (13:1-14).
15 Then Samuel arose and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin. And Saul numbered the people who were present with him, about six hundred men. 16 Now Saul and his son Jonathan and the people who were present with them were staying in Geba of Benjamin while the Philistines camped at Michmash. 17 And the raiders came from the camp of the Philistines in three companies: one company turned toward Ophrah, to the land of Shual, 18 and another company turned toward Beth-horon, and another company turned toward the border which overlooks the valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness. 19 Now no blacksmith could be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears.” 20 So all Israel went down to the Philistines, each to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, and his hoe. 21 And the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to fix the hoes. 22 So it came about on the day of battle that neither sword nor spear was found in the hands of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan, but they were found with Saul and his son Jonathan. 23 And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.
We pick up the story with Samuel leaving Saul in Gilgal and going up to Gibeah, and so it appears, without “showing him what he should do” (10:8). Samuel gives Saul no guidance as to how he should deal with the massive Philistine invasion which results from Jonathan’s attack on the Philistine garrison at Geba (13:3; see also 10:5). In preparation for war, Saul numbers his troops, finding 600 men with him, ready for battle. Given the thousands of Philistine troops, the odds are stacked against Israel and her new king.
We may envision a kind of standoff between the Philistine army, stationed at Michmash, and the Israelite forces under Saul and Jonathan, stationed at Geba (13:16). But this is not quite the case. While the main army of the Philistines seems to be dug in at Michmash, three parties of “raiders” (13:17; 14:15) are sent out. One is sent to the north toward Ophrah, another to the west toward Beth-Horon, and the third to the east toward the wilderness (the Israelites are to the south). These raiders, or destroyers, appear to be “special forces” troops, whose task is to kill, burn, or in any other way destroy human life, cattle, buildings or crops. The longer these raiding parties are free to go about bringing destruction wherever they go, the more serious Israel’s situation becomes. If the Philistines are not defeated and driven out of the land, much trouble is ahead for Israel.
Grossly outnumbered, the Israelites are so desperately frightened they are deserting in droves. Saul has foolishly offered the burnt offerings and been rebuked by Samuel. Raiding parties are roaming about the land leaving destruction behind them wherever they go. And now the few remaining Israelite troops are poorly armed when compared to the Philistines. For the Philistines at least, the Iron Age has come. Their technology enables them to have swords and spears of iron and chariots with iron wheels. It enables farmers to have tools which stay sharp longer and are not as inclined to break. The Israelites are not given the Philistines’ technology. The Philistines sell iron farming implements to the Israelites, but they do not sell iron weapons to the Israelites nor allow them to make or possess such weapons.46 This gives the Philistines a decisive edge (pardon the pun) over the Israelites. The writer informs us of this “edge” and that only Saul and Jonathan possess swords (13:22). Things do not look good for Israel.
Agriculturally speaking, the Israelites are virtually dependent upon the Philistines. They must purchase their farming tools from them and then pay to have them sharpened. Every day of their lives the Israelites are reminded of their subjugation to the Philistines. Militarily speaking, things are hopeless for the Israelites. The Philistines have a massive well-equipped army and raiding parties which roam about Israel at will bringing death and destruction with them. Israel has a small army of very frightened men, many of whom are deserting, with some even defecting to the Philistines (see 14:21). Israel’s king is reluctant at best. With such vastly inferior technology, the Israelites are between a rock and a hard place.
I am reminded of the “six-day war” between Israel and her neighbors in June of 1967. I remember this war well because my wife and I were just getting ready to leave for Dallas, Texas, to attend seminary. We wondered if the Lord was going to come before we arrived. We heard the reports that Israel was out-manned, out-gunned, and thus vulnerable. How wrong were the estimates of Israel’s chances of success. How quickly the war was won and ended, all, I believe, due to God’s providential care for His people.
Saul’s Folly and Jonathan’s Faith
1 Now the day came that Jonathan, the son of Saul, said to the young man who was carrying his armor, “Come and let us cross over to the Philistines' garrison that is on yonder side.” But he did not tell his father. 2 And Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah under the pomegranate tree which is in Migron. And the people who were with him were about six hundred men, 3 and Ahijah, the son of Ahitub, Ichabod's brother, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eli, the priest of the LORD at Shiloh, was wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone. 4 And between the passes by which Jonathan sought to cross over to the Philistines' garrison, there was a sharp crag on the one side, and a sharp crag on the other side, and the name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. 5 The one crag rose on the north opposite Michmash, and the other on the south opposite Geba. 6 Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armor, “ Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the LORD will work for us, for the LORD is not restrained to save by many or by few. “ 7 And his armor bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart; turn yourself, and here I am with you according to your desire.” 8 Then Jonathan said, “Behold, we will cross over to the men and reveal ourselves to them. 9 “If they say to us, 'Wait until we come to you'; then we will stand in our place and not go up to them. 10 “But if they say, 'Come up to us,' then we will go up, for the LORD has given them into our hands; and this shall be the sign to us.” 11 And when both of them revealed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines, the Philistines said, “Behold, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden themselves.” 12 So the men of the garrison hailed Jonathan and his armor bearer and said, “Come up to us and we will tell you something.” And Jonathan said to his armor bearer, “Come up after me, for the LORD has given them into the hands of Israel.” 13 Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, with his armor bearer behind him; and they fell before Jonathan, and his armor bearer put some to death after him. 14 And that first slaughter which Jonathan and his armor bearer made was about twenty men within about half a furrow in an acre of land. 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.
When I was in Dr. Bruce Waltke’s seminary class, he made a comparison of Jacob and Isaac and described Jacob by saying: “If Isaac was a slow leak; Jacob was a blowout!” I must admit that the more I read of Saul, the less I like him. Let’s review what we have been told about Saul. In chapter 8, the people demand a king. In chapters 9 and 10, Saul is divinely designated as Israel’s king. Further, Saul is divinely enabled to serve as Israel’s king by the Spirit of God who comes upon him. I am especially interested in the Spirit’s coming upon Saul and the implications of that event as indicated by God through Samuel:
5 “Afterward you will come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is; and it shall be as soon as you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying. 6 “Then the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man. 7 “And it shall be when these signs come to you, do for yourself what the occasion requires; for God is with you. 8 “And you shall go down before me to Gilgal; and behold, I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice peace offerings. You shall wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you should do.” 9 Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; and all those signs came about on that day. 10 When they came to the hill there, behold, a group of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him mightily, so that he prophesied among them (1 Samuel 10:5-10).
The previous two signs are for Saul alone to convince him that Samuel’s words are from God. The Spirit’s coming upon Saul with power is a sign both to Saul and to the people who witness this event (10:11-12). Samuel’s words to Saul, as recorded in verse 7, are very significant. When these signs are fulfilled, Samuel instructs Saul that he is to “do for himself what the occasion requires,” assured that the Lord is with him in what he does. In verse 8, Samuel then gives specific instructions regarding Saul’s going to Gilgal and waiting there seven days, when he will offer up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and “show Saul what you should do.” Why do two years or more separate the Spirit’s coming upon Saul and Saul’s journey to Gilgal? Why do we hear of no action on Saul’s part in those intervening years between his enablement and his going to Gilgal?
We should acknowledge that Saul does summon the Israelites to battle with the Ammonites to protect their brethren in Jabesh-gilead (chapter 11). As I read the text, this is not so much a decision consciously reached by Saul as an immediate manifestation of the Spirit’s coming upon him in an unusual way -- Saul does not act as much as the Spirit acts. Ultimately, it is hardly Saul who initiates the war with the Ammonites; it is the Spirit of God.
In times past, God raised up judges to deliver the Israelites from their enemies:
10 “And they cried out to the LORD and said, 'We have sinned because we have forsaken the LORD and have served the Baals and the Ashtaroth; but now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve Thee.' 11 “Then the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Bedan and Jephthah and Samuel, and delivered you from the hands of your enemies all around, so that you lived in security” (1 Samuel 12:10-11).
It is quite clear that the Israelites want (demand) a king to lead them in battle (see 8:19-20). There is a very interesting addition to the text of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) in chapter 10, verse 1. The New King James Bible tells us what is added in its marginal note at verse 1:
LXX, Vg. add And you shall deliver His people from the hands of their enemies all around them. And this shall be a sign to you that God has anointed you to be a prince.
Later on, in chapter 14, Saul’s administration as Israel’s king is summed up in this way:
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 (1 Samuel 14:47-48).
If I understand the text correctly, Israel demands a king who will deliver them from their surrounding enemies as the judges have done before. God gives them Saul as their king, who is to deliver them from their enemies, as both Saul and the nation trust in Him and obey His commandments. The Spirit of God comes upon Saul, as He did upon Samson and others, to enable him to lead the Israelites victoriously against their enemies. Once the Spirit comes upon him, Samuel instructs, he is to take the appropriate action, trusting that God is with him in delivering Israel from the enemies about them.
It seems that Saul is not a spiritual man. Although Samuel is known to Saul’s uncle (10:14-16) and to his servant (10:5-10), he is apparently unknown to Saul, and this in a day when prophecy is extremely rare (3:1). The circuit Samuel travels (8:16-17), at its most distant point, is not much more than 15 miles from Saul’s home town, Gibeah. And Samuel’s home town of Ramah is approximately 3 miles from Gibeah, Saul’s home town. How can any spiritually sensitive man not know about Samuel?
The situation only worsens. We know that with the threat to Jabesh-gilead, Saul feels “forced” to act and that the army he summons consists of 330,000 Israelites. Once the Ammonites are defeated, why does Saul not continue on, driving out the Philistines as well? This, after all, is what he has been appointed to do. Instead, Saul sends these soldiers to their homes, keeping only a skeleton standing army, a small force of 3,000 men, and these troops are divided into two companies. It is just as though Saul does not want to take on the Philistines and that he is willing to live with the status quo. It is not Saul’s initiative, but that of his son, Jonathan, which brings about the confrontation with the Philistines, eventually leading to their defeat.
It is no wonder Samuel goes to such effort to remind the Israelites that it has always been their God who delivers them from their enemies. It is also no wonder that Samuel calls the nation to repentance for placing too much faith in their king rather than in their God. Chapter 13 focuses on the nation Israel and the threat of the Philistines, who have not only occupied Israel but are threatening to destroy it. Chapter 14 focuses on Saul and his son Jonathan in a way that takes up the author’s contrast of these two men, which began in chapter 13.
The Philistines finally manage to gain the upper hand in the hill country of Judah and Benjamin, establishing their primary base at Michmash (13:16), apparently at the summit of the mountains separating the plains of the Jordan Valley and the coastal plains where the Philistines live. About 600 soldiers remain with Saul and Jonathan while the rest desert, either hiding themselves from the Philistines or joining with them (13:6-7; 14:20-22). Saul and his “army” are stationed at Geba (13:16), and by chapter 14 at Gibeah, a little further south and a little further away from the Philistines who are still at Michmash to the north.
What a contrast our author brings out between Saul and his son, Jonathan. The nation Israel is at war, desperately outnumbered and miserably equipped. And yet Saul is found under “the pomegranate tree which is in Migron” (14:2). While Saul stays out of the sun and safely out of reach of the Philistines, his son Jonathan is about to take on some more Philistines, accompanied by his armor-bearer. This foray is a private one. Jonathan does not ask permission from his father nor inform him, and he does not let anyone else know of his departure either. I think he knows what his father will think of any aggressive action against the Philistines. Saul doesn’t want to cause trouble with the Philistines, and Jonathan no longer wants Israel to be troubled by the Philistines.
There sits Saul under the one shade tree in the area (so it seems). Saul has one of the only two swords in Israel. Along with Saul is Ahitub, brother of Ichabod, son of Phinehas, and grandson of Eli (14:3). Ahitub wears (or carries with him) the ephod, one of the means for discerning the will of God (see 1 Samuel 23:9-12; 30:6-8). Saul does not get instructions from Samuel at Gilgal because of his disobedience (13:1-14), and now he has the ephod and a priest with him, yet he never inquires of God as to what he should do.
Jonathan, however, has a definite sense of the will of God, which prompts him to take action. First, Jonathan knows much about the will of God from Israel’s history and from the nature of God Himself. Jonathan’s words to his armor-bearer are filled with a sense of faith and duty. They are words which explain his confidence and action and which undergird the loyalty of his armor-bearer:
6 “Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the LORD will work for us, for the LORD is not restrained to save by many or by few” (14:6).
The Philistines are “uncircumcised;” they do not have a covenant relationship with God as do the Israelites. The covenant God made with Israel assures them of God’s presence and protection from their enemies. God brings them out of Egyptian slavery and promises to give them the land of Canaan and freedom from the surrounding nations. Israel surely does not have this. Philistine garrisons occupy the land, and Israelites cannot even farm without buying tools and maintenance from the Philistines. Jonathan understands that God does not intend for His people to be enslaved by the surrounding nations. He understands that it is now the king’s responsibility to lead the people into battle against the enemies of Israel and their God. He also understands from God’s nature and from Israel’s history that Israel’s victory is not dependent upon the “arm of the flesh,” the number of troops or the kind of weapons they possess. God gave Israel victory over the Midianites under Gideon as he led his 300 men into battle (see Judges 7). If it is God’s will for Israel to prevail over her enemies, it doesn’t take 600 men -- it may take only two.
The question in Jonathan’s mind is not whether God can deliver the Philistines into the hands of the Israelites, but whether this is God’s will. Saul has the priest and the ephod, but he does not care to inquire of God. He prefers to sit under that shade tree! And so Jonathan determines another way to discern the will of God with regard to his intended foray against the Philistine garrison.
Jonathan seeks a sign from God which will indicate whether he and his armor-bearer should attack the Philistines. Michmash and Gibeah are two high points in the area. Access to Michmash is through the Michmash pass, a very narrow pass, apparently the course of a small stream. The Philistines seem to have a small company of soldiers stationed at the top of this pass where they can spot anyone who tries to pass through to Michmash and stop them. Jonathan’s plan is to scale down the rocky face of one crag and make his presence known to the Philistines stationed atop the crag on the other side of the narrow pass. If the soldiers indicate they are coming down to attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer, they will not attempt to go up the crag to the Philistines on the other side. If, however, the Philistines challenge them to come up, this will be the sign that God wants them to make the dangerous climb up to the Philistine outpost and that He will give Israel47 victory over them.
With his armor-bearer’s full support, these two valiant Israelites make themselves visible, apparently by scaling down the face of the one crag to the pass below. The Philistine lookouts spot them and suppose they have come out of hiding in the rocks. The Philistines then invite these two men up, and Jonathan and his armor-bearer receive this as God’s sign that He will give them a victory.
I could never imagine how the Philistines could say such a thing. Why do they not send boulders and rocks down upon Jonathan and his helper? Why do they not dispatch troops down to them in the pass below to kill them? Why, when these two men are the most vulnerable as they scale up the rocky crag, do the Philistines not take advantage of their vulnerability and kill them quickly and easily? I think the answer is in the text. The Philistines invite the two Israelites up to “tell them something.” At first, I thought this was a challenge, and I guess it could be. Maybe things are dull and boring, and the Philistines want a little contest, so they intend to let the two come to the top where they can engage them.
I am now inclined to a different explanation. I believe the Philistines let Jonathan and his armor bearer come up to them to surrender to them and join with them against Israel. The Philistines have to know they have the upper hand. They know they have superior weapons and vastly outnumber the 600 soldiers who follow Saul. They know they can send raiders about the country with very little resistance from the Israelites. And they have already added a number of Israelites to their own troops (14:21). Why not allow these two frightened Israelites, who are crawling out of their holes, to give themselves up and join with the winning army? For the Philistines to take this position is certainly not a sure thing, but it does make for a convincing sign, at least in Jonathan’s mind. And so they climb up that steep, rocky crag to the awaiting Philistines.
The Philistines did not bargain for what occurred. Jonathan begins to wield his sword, and those left alive behind him, his armor bearer dispatches. Within a short distance and a short time, this lookout squad is dead, making it possible for the Israelites to come through the pass to Michmash and pursue the Philistines.
But wait -- as the $19.95 television commercials say -- there’s more! If God is with Jonathan in his attack on this Philistine outpost, He is now about to reveal His mighty arm by giving Israel a victory over the Philistine garrison at Michmash. I love the play on words found in chapters 13 and 14:
7 Also some of the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into the land of Gad and Gilead. But as for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling (1 Samuel 13:7).
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 (1 Samuel 14:15).
Was it not Elvis Presley who sang, “I’m all shook up, uh uh uh. . .”? Well, God “shook up” the Philistines. It all starts with the Israelite troops who follow Saul. They see how desperately weak their position is against the Philistines. They also must sense the weakness of Saul’s leadership. They are in serious trouble -- as our author informs us, they are “all shook up” (13:7). Does this keep God from giving Israel the victory? Certainly not! God proceeds to “shake up” the Philistines.
Imagine, if you can, the smug sense of security the Philistines must feel as they are safely hidden away at Michmash. In order for the puny Israelite army to get to them, they have to pass through the Michmash pass, and a mere 20 men can easily hold off such a force. The Philistines find their security in a narrow pass, at the high point of the mountains, protected by massive rock, which is all well and good until an earthquake occurs. Now this former place of safety becomes the most dangerous place in the world. Saul and his watchmen look on as the Philistine army surges in one direction and then another, probably in synchronous motion with the ground which is rolling about like sea billows in a storm. All of the things which once seemed to assure them of having the edge over the Israelites turn into liabilities. In the panic and motion, their swords kill one another, not the Israelites. Their horses and chariots are useless as in their terror the animals refuse to obey, gaping cracks appear in the ground, and rock falls from the sides of the pass above. Absolute panic prevails everywhere preventing any attack and hindering any retreat. The Philistines become their own worst enemies, killing one another in the insanity of these moments.
What an incredible passage from which to draw several principles and their implications for us as Christians today.
The first area of instruction and application which leaps from this passage is the subject of leadership. In Christian circles today, the subject of leadership is a major area of thought, writing, and discussion. Sadly, much of the teaching on leadership in those Christian circles is simply sanctified, warmed-over secular theory on leadership. Since there is no end to such material, we need not restate the secular wisdom on leadership. Saul and Jonathan provide us with both negative and positive examples of spiritual leadership. The words trust and obey may not sum up all there is to say about the Christian life, but they certainly describe two vitally important dimensions. Saul is a man of little faith. The word “fear” seems to better characterize this man. He is afraid to tell his uncle that Samuel has anointed him as king of Israel. He hides in the luggage when he knows he will be publicly selected as the king. He is afraid he will lose all of his troops, and so he forces himself to offer the burnt offerings. And it seems that he is so afraid to take on the Philistines that he does as little as possible to attack or provoke them.
The “Saul” we see in chapter 11 is the “new Saul” which God brings to pass as the Spirit comes mightily upon him. But this Saul does not seem to last beyond chapter 11. It is the “old Saul” we find elsewhere. It is the “old Saul” we see described in chapters 13 and 14. When the “new Saul” summons the Israelites to war, 330,000 report for duty. When the “old Saul” summons Israel to Gilgal, only a small fraction of this number report, and many of those who do report desert out of fear. Saul’s fear is contagious. Since he does not trust and obey God, his followers do not trust or obey him.
How different Jonathan is -- here is a man of faith. He trusts God to give him the victory over the Philistine garrison in chapter 13. He is willing to take on the Philistines in the Michmash pass, even when it involves scaling a rocky crag with his armor, accompanied only by his one servant. This is a man who trusts God regardless of what the odds appear to be. And here is a man whom his armor bearer is willing to follow into battle, even when it looks like suicide. Why? I believe it is because Jonathan is not only a man of personal faith, but a man whose faith is contagious. Those around Saul tremble because he trembles. Those close to Jonathan trust God because he trusts God.
This leads to a very simple definition of spiritual leadership:
Spiritual leadership begins with a man’s faith in God, which compels him to obediently take action in the face of obstacles and opposition, and motivates others to follow him in his obedience.
Ultimately spiritual leadership is not about looks, charm, or motivational and management techniques. Spiritual leadership is about men and women who trust God and obey His word, and in so doing, attract others to trust and obey with them. Saul is not a spiritual leader; Jonathan is.
A second application pertains to our appraisal of the success of leaders. Let me try to state this as a principle:
When leaders succeed, it is ultimately due to the grace of God, and often may be the result of the faithfulness of others whose supportive ministry is not nearly so evident.
Consider these verses which speak of the success of Saul’s leadership:
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 (1 Samuel 14:47-48).
I do not want to take away all credit from Saul, but I do believe our text makes it very clear that Saul is successful because of the grace of God, not because of his skill, courage, or greatness. And the victory Israel wins over the Philistines is not due to Saul’s initiative, but the initiative of his son. How many times are those heralded as great leaders the recipients of praise which belongs to those who, behind the scenes, make them great? Many are those who seek the spotlight. Blessed are those who make those in authority over them look good, while standing clear of the spotlight.
A third area of application is the relationship between faith and action. By contrast, Jonathan and Saul illustrate the way faith should behave. Faith is sometimes evident by our waiting, rather than by our working. Faith waits when our work would be disobedience. Abraham should have waited for his promised son, rather than working to obtain one through Hagar. Saul should have waited, rather than work at offering the burnt offerings. When there is no way for us to work in faith and obedience, we should wait for God to work in a way that provides for our needs.
At other times, we are inclined to wait when faith should be evidenced by our works. Saul, who could not wait for Samuel (even though commanded to do so), is more than willing to wait to rid Israel of their bondage to the Philistines, who not only occupy their land (their garrisons) but economically oppress the Israelites by their monopoly on iron working. A farmer could not go even make a living without paying too much for his iron implements, and then paying over and over for maintaining them (sharpening). Saul seems very intent on maintaining the status quo with the Philistines. He can (and apparently does) wait indefinitely to drive out the Philistines. Here is needed action which requires faith, but Saul wants to wait. His attacks on the Philistine garrisons provoke the military confrontation which results in the defeat of the Philistines -- and in the glory of God. How often we wait when we should be working and work when we should be waiting. How do we know when to work? When God’s Word instructs us to do so. When do we wait? When God’s Word instructs us to do so, and when working evidences our lack of faith and disobedience.
Fourth, along with many others in the Bible, our text gives us a whole new perspective on situations which appear to be impossible. Here, as elsewhere, God brings His people into circumstances which seem impossible. Again, we find a very important principle illustrated in our text:
God purposely brings men into “impossible” situations to make it perfectly clear that we cannot save ourselves, and He delivers us in a way that brings Him all the glory for doing so.
Elsewhere in the Bible we read:
8 “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8).
So many times in the Bible God places men in impossible situations so that He can save them in such a way that He receives the glory for having done so. He promised a child to Abram and Sarai, who, humanly speaking, were “dead” with respect to their ability to have children (see Romans 4:19), and they had a child. Jesus knew that Lazarus was sick, but He deliberately waited until he was dead to go to his grave (see John 11), so that He might show His power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead.
God loves to show His strength through our weaknesses. Chapter 13 of 1 Samuel shows Israel and Saul in all their weakness. The Israelite soldiers are vastly outnumbered by the Philistines and desperately outclassed in terms of their weapons. In spite of what appears to be a hopeless situation, God brings about a significant victory over the Philistines. And this happens because two men (one without a sword) trust God enough to take on the Philistines. God turns the trembling of the Israelites into the trembling of an earthquake, so powerful that it brings confusion and chaos into the ranks of the Philistines, and most of those who die at the edge of the sword die at the hand of their Philistine brethren.
Many Christians seem to have faith when victory appears possible through merely human effort, but they collapse when circumstances appear impossible. We should learn from Jonathan that God’s victory is not contingent upon our strength, and from the apostle Paul that His strength is manifested through our weaknesses (see 1 Samuel 14:6; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The emphasis in secular circles (and unfortunately evangelical circles as well) is upon the “power of positive thinking.” Perhaps there is an element of truth in all of this, but there is also a significant error. God is not limited by our abilities as the deliverance of Saul, Jonathan, and Israel from the Philistines demonstrates. And God is not limited by our imagination or our thoughts either.
9 But just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
20 Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).
God brings sinners to the point of despair and hopelessness (in their circumstances, in their “self- righteousness” and in their sin) so that they will cease trusting in themselves and turn to Him for salvation. What no man has ever been able to do to save himself, Jesus Christ has done on the cross of Calvary. He lived a perfect life of obedience to God. He died, not for His own sins, but for the sins of men. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, and He offers to sinful and unworthy men the gift of His righteousness and eternal life. Jesus paid it all. All we need do is to admit our sin, our unworthiness, and our utter inability to save ourselves. What is impossible for men is possible for God:
27 But He said, “The things impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Have you come to the end of yourself? Have you seen that earning God’s favor and getting to heaven are humanly impossible? If so, this is a blessing, if you then trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation.
Let us conclude our study by praising God with the apostle Paul for His wisdom in accomplishing things we thought impossible, through means we could never imagine:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).1