After many years of autonomy the 12 tribes of Israel united to form a distinct nation. The original founding of Israel took place sometime around 1050 BC. While God blessed the new nation, and continues to do so even to this day, He also warned them of potential dangers. Strong centralized governments may offer some benefits, but they are also a threat to individual freedom and independence. Whatsmore, many of the citizens in such places erroneously trust the state rather than God to be their protector and provider.
Saul was chosen to be the first king of Israel. He effectively replaced Samuel, who had served as a judge over the people. Saul lived with his family in Gibeah, a town in the land of Benjamin. When he was informed that the Ammonites were besieging the city of Jabesh-gilead, Saul quickly amassed an army to confront them. Under his leadership Israel attacked, and God gave them an overwhelming victory over the enemy. Saul had achieved great success in his first recorded act as king and the people cheered.
This morning’s message is the fourth in our current series titled “The United Church - A Study of Ancient Israel”. King Saul had recently routed the Ammonites in Gilead, and now felt emboldened as a military leader. Perhaps he could defeat another adversary and drive them out of Israel too. It seems that Saul was intentionally looking for another fight, and the Philistines were a fitting opponent.
I. SAMUEL’S BOLDNESS (1 Samuel 13:1-23)
After his victory over the Ammonites, King Saul released most of his army’s troops. However, he did retain a smaller force of 3,000 select men. Saul stationed himself and 2,000 soldiers in Michmash and his son Jonathan led the remaining 1,000 in Gibeah. In the nearby town of Geba, there was a garrison of Philistines. Their presence so deep into Israelite territory was troubling. Likely following the orders of his father, Jonathan and his men struck the Philistine garrison. This provocative action infuriated the Philistines at large, who responded by sending their entire army to Michmash to fight against Israel. Saul retreated to Gilgal where he summoned the Israelites to battle once again.
Samuel, the priest, had instructed the king to wait there for 7 days until his arrival. He intended to offer sacrifices and petition the LORD for His divine favor during the impending conflict. But as the week passed, the people were beginning to defect, and King Saul was growing impatient. Finally, Saul foolishly chose to offer the sacrifices himself. After he’d finished, Samuel arrived and discovered what the king had done. He told Saul that making such offerings was a task reserved only for the priests, and that because he’d broken God’s command so egregiously his kingdom would not endure.
King Saul, along with only 600 men, came to Geba and joined forces with his son Jonathan and his detachment of troops. They had very few weapons with them. The Philistine army, consisting of 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and an untold myriad of foot soldiers, was camped to the north at Michmash. Between the 2 armies was a deep ravine, or canyon, that ran east to west across the region. The only traversable crossing was a narrow natural land bridge known simply as “the pass”. Unfortunately, it was being guarded by a Philistine patrol.
II. JONATHAN’S BRAVERY (1 Samuel 14:1-23)
Unable to cross the ravine, Saul and his troops remained camped at Gibeah. Jonathan, unbeknownst to his father, decided to attempt a daring maneuver on his own. He trusted that God could deliver the Philistines into Israel’s hands even though they were overpowered and outnumbered. He planned to climb down into the ravine and back up the opposite side, thereby flanking the Philistine garrison. Then, if God approved, he intended to attack them by surprise.
Along with only one other person, his armor bearer, Jonathan quietly and carefully descended into the deep canyon and scaled back up the rocky slope on the other side. When the Philistine garrison saw the pair God signaled Jonathan to approach. He and his armor bearer bravely charged into the fray, and quickly slaughtered 20 Philistine soldiers. Moments later a violent earthquake shook the ground, and the Philistine army was thrown into disarray.
Saul’s watchmen reported that the guards at the pass were no longer there and that the Philistines were scattering. He ordered Israel’s army to attack. At the same type, those Israelites who’d joined the Philistines for fear they’d be killed began to rebel against them. Whatsmore, those Israelites who had hidden themselves in the surrounding hills and caves came out to confront the enemy as well. In great confusion, the Philistines even began fighting against each other. The LORD had saved Israel yet again, and the Philistines were now in full retreat.
III. SAUL’S FOOLISHNESS (1 Samuel 12:24-52)
In his zeal to pursue and kill all of the fleeing Philistines, Saul ordered his troops not to stop and eat anything until the victory was complete. He promised to kill anyone who broke this decree. However, Jonathan was not with Saul and his army at the time and did not hear his father’s command. As the day progressed Israel relentlessly chased the Philistines into the forest, and came across a comb filled with delicious honey. Jonathan paused for a moment to refresh himself and ate some of the honey. The weary and hungry Israelites were unable to stop Jonathan before he took a bite. When they told him about his father’s orders, Jonathan reasoned that if they’d all been allowed to eat something they would have caught more of the retreating Philistines. Instead, they were completely famished.
When the Israelite army finally stopped for the night, the people hastily ate from the spoil of the Philistines. King Saul constructed an altar and asked the LORD if he should continue his pursuit in the morning. To his surprise, God did not answer. The king sensed that something was wrong, and so he gathered all of the people together to investigate. After casting lots, Saul determined that Jonathan had defied his order not to eat any food during the chase. Though he’d promised to kill any offender, the people stepped up on Jonathan’s behalf and the king spared his son’s life. Nevertheless, Saul ended his pursuit. The remaining Philistines escaped and lived to fight another day.
Saul was king over Israel for 42 years. His reign was characterized by constant warfare. Saul battled against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, the Philistines, and the Amalekites. He enjoyed tremendous success during these campaigns, inflicting great punishment upon the enemies of Israel. Saul’s cousin Abner served as the captain of his army. Due to the severity and the ongoing nature of conflict, Saul constantly and continuously drafted the men of Israel into military service.
Last week, we read that King Saul had amassed an army by threatening harm to his own people if they did not comply with his command to join. This week we read that he apparently picked a fight with the Philistines. He also proved to be both impatient and arrogant, believing himself to be qualified to offer sacrifices in lieu of the priest. In addition, he was foolish to order that his own troops not take care of themselves during their pursuit of the enemy. He was so blinded by his desire to win that he again neglected the needs of his own people. Saul was a very flawed person who had a highly inflated ego. His success went to his head, and he was deeply intimidated by anyone who stole any of his spotlight.
There are several takeaways from today’s message that are worth highlighting. First, we must always wait patiently upon the LORD. When we get ahead of God, bad things almost always happen. Second, we must not presume ourselves to be more worthy than we are. Such arrogance will certainly lead to trouble. Third, we should not elevate our own desires over the needs of others. Selfishness is never the proper approach. The consequences of these misbehaviors are not always immediate, but they do come in time - just as they would for King Saul. We will see this unfold in the coming weeks...
Another observation. Saul had a priest by his side during the battle, but it wasn’t Samuel. Why not? Could it be that Saul was angry at Samuel for confronting him at Gilgal? Perhaps Samuel had embarrassed or angered him by calling out his sinful conduct. If so, maybe Saul didn’t want Samuel there. Conceited people often surround themselves with only those who will stroke their egos. Saul wanted a spiritual leader who would make him feel good about himself and affirm his every deed, rather than one who’d point out his sinful and reckless behavior. I’m so glad that people today don’t follow this methodology when choosing their pastors… (Sorry for the sarcasm here; I just couldn’t help myself.)
Finally, this story describes 2 armies separated by a large canyon. Jonathan passed through it, defeated the enemy, and enabled Israel to cross over the divide. This picture is comparable to the great gulf of sin that separates unrighteous people from God. Only Jesus was able to span this gap through His death and resurrection. In so doing, the Lord forever conquered death and the grave and opened the pathway to salvation. Now everyone has access to God and can cross over to Him if they so choose simply by placing their faith in Jesus.
Next week, we will discuss the beginning of Saul’s demise. What caused it and what would be the result? Until then, may God’s glorious countenance shine upon you.