The story of King Saul continues as he and his son Jonathan fight against the Philistines. Their respective approaches are very different. King Saul is fighting for himself, while Jonathan is fighting for the Lord.
Verses 1-23: Jonathan and his armorbearer
In the midst of the Philistine threat, King Saul’s son Jonathan is inspired to defeat the Philistine garrison. Saul was not very far away with a detachment of approximately six hundred men. But Jonathan did not seek help from his father, probably because his father would have rejected the plan. Reckless as it seems, Jonathan’s plan to trick and then sneak up on the Philistines was successful, resulting in Jonathan and his armorbearer defeating twenty men by themselves. Jonathan was bold and acted in faith. His actions were sincere and courageous and God rewarded him with victory.
King Saul, on the other hand, made an attempt to be virtuous and godly in his approach, but we can see in his actions that his sense of self was caught up in the fight and that he would rather make the decisions for himself than following the guidance of the Lord. We can see from verses 18 and 19 how King Saul allowed himself to get distracted from consulting with the priest and he instead went directly to battle in the following verses.
Despite Saul’s independent thinking, God still handed the Israelites a victory that day. This can be seen as grace and the will of the Lord.
Verses 24-52: Saul’s faulty leadership
In more evidence that Saul is taking this Philistine fight personally, he places his people under an oath that they would not eat until the Philistines are defeated: “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.” This was a very unwise order because the people need sustenance to give their bodies strength to defeat the Philistines.
Jonathan was away when his father placed the people under the oath. Because of this, he freely ate some honey in the forest when the Israelites came across it. The people told Jonathan of the oath. But when he heard it, Jonathan reacted in a way to convince them that his father had “troubled the land” by putting them under such an oath. The people, encouraged by Jonathan and his win over the Philistine garrison earlier, began eating. But Israel sinned against God in this because they ate the livestock without draining the blood, which was in violation of God’s law (Leviticus 17:10-14).
Saul, trying still to do what is right and please the Lord, hears of this. He allows the eating and has a great stone set up so that the people can properly drain the blood of the animals that they are eating. Saul then seeks the counsel of God in what to do next, whether to attack the Philistines or not. But he hears no answer, so he deduces that there must be some sin in the camp. In order to divine who is responsible for this, lots will be cast and he says that whomever is at fault will be put to death, even if it is his son Jonathan.
When Saul finds that his son Jonathan is responsible of breaking the oath by eating, he sticks to his word. But the people stood in the breach for Jonathan in I Samuel 14:45: “But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.”
Saul’s relenting to the word of the people was wise. This and his acts of war helped to protect the nation against surrounding belligerent nations and established his status as king.
The lessons for us today are few but not hard to find:
- We can get along without God for so long, devoted to Him in half-measures, but this is temporary
- King Saul is trying to serve both himself and God simultaneously; the result is that his service to God is empty and insincere
- “Blind” faith in God and courage to act can be rewarded with great blessings
- Jonathan may have acted surprisingly, but because he did so in belief and faith that God would see him through, he was blessed with victory and mercy
It is important to recognize that not everything Saul did was wrong or bad. He tried to serve the Lord, but unfortunately his focus was not always on God, but instead was often was on what he wanted. Each morning and night when we pray, we should examine our priorities, intents, and motivators. A pure and honest heart that wants to serve God and God alone is precious in His sight.