Saul has been officially crowned a king of Israel before the Lord and the kingdom has been renewed (11:13). Samuel has given his farewell address and the expectation is for Saul to rule as God’s representative over Israel, restraining the wickedness of the people and turning their hearts toward God. The attention of the account is going to focus on Saul. But we are not just looking at the life of Saul as if this is a history lesson. Rather, God is going to teach us about faith. God is going to show us the kind of faith he wants and what failing faith looks like through the life of Saul. We should not be surprised by this at this point because the book of 1 Samuel has been completely about faith. We have seen the faith of Hannah. We have seen the lack of faith of Israel when fighting the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant is captured. We have seen the faith of Samuel who believes the Lord to be the king while we have seen the lack of faith of Israel who want a human to be their king. We have seen the humility of Saul and his faith in God who gave Israel salvation against the Ammonites at Jabesh-gilead. So our focus is on Saul and God is going to show us faith is supposed to look like and what faith is not supposed to look like.
Faith Tested (13:1-23)
As we have seen many times in the book of 1 Samuel, just as things start looking good, faith is going to be tested. We need to be used to this in life because it is a common way that God works. When things are going well, faith needs to be tested. So it is time to test faith. Saul has been king for two years (13:1, ESV) and there is another conflict with the Philistines. The Philistines gather to fight Israel with 30,000 chariots, 6000 horsemen, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore (13:5). Saul has 3000 soldiers (13:2). Israel is severely outnumbered and Saul calls for the people of Israel to come to Gilgal to prepare for battle. But when the people of Israel come, they are terrified and begin to hide themselves in caves, holes, rocks, tombs, and cisterns. Some even cross the Jordan River to get away (13:6-7). The people that remained are trembling.
Saul is waiting seven days for Samuel to arrive, which was what Samuel said to do (10:8). But Samuel has not come and the people are scattering. Saul has a big problem as he is drastically outnumbered. He cannot afford to lose people. When you look at the opposition, things look bad. When you look at the physical, there is reason to be afraid. So Saul says to bring him the burnt offering and the peace offerings and he starts the sacrifices himself (13:9). He says that he cannot wait for Samuel any longer. Of course, as soon as he finishes the burnt offering, Samuel arrives. Samuel asks what Saul has done and Saul explains that the people were scattering, you weren’t here like you said you would be, and he had not sought the Lord’s favor yet, “so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (13:12). Saul sounds justified. Saul sounds like he did the right thing. Saul says that he was panicking and it seemed like the right thing to do. Saul says that he did not want to do this, but he just had to do it. It was the right decision, right? Listen to what Samuel says in verse 13.
“You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you.” (1 Samuel 13:13 ESV)
What Saul has done is very clear. God speaks through Samuel at this point in Israel’s history. Yet Saul did not do what Samuel said to do. The word of God was just as clear. Saul was to wait for Samuel but he did not. He caved into his fear and acted by what he saw happening around him. The result of this disobedience is devastating. The Lord would have continued the kingdom through Saul, but now it will not. This is pictured as a terrible failure. Saul used human logic rather than simply listening to the word of the Lord. Human logic is not what we are asked to apply against the word of the Lord. The condemnation was simple: you did not do what you were told to do.
The rest of chapter 13 shows how Israel has no hope when you look at this from physical eyes. We have already seen that the people of Israel are completely outnumbered by an overwhelming amount. Not only this, but verse 19 shows that the Philistines have shut down the blacksmiths in Israel so that the only people who have a sword or spear are Saul and his son Jonathan (13:22). The people had to go the Philistines to have even their farming tools sharpened. God wants us see that that this looks like a hopeless situation.
Contrast of Faith (14:1-46)
Chapter 14 turns our attention to Saul’s son, Jonathan. Jonathan grabs young man who carries his armor to attack the Philistines from the other side. The thinking of Jonathan is stated in 14:6.
“Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:6 ESV)
I hope we hear the amazing faith on display in Jonathan. Jonathan does not care about the numbers. He does not care that Israel is completely outnumbered. He does not even care that it is only going to be two of them, himself and his armor bearer. Listen to what he cares about: “It may be that the Lord will work for us.” Victory depends on the Lord and he can win this battle if he has a few people or a lot of people. So Jonathan puts this effort in God’s hands. If the Philistines call for them to come up to them then they will know that the Lord has given the Philistines into their hands. So when the Philistines see them, they tell Jonathan and his armor bearer to come up here so we can teach you a lesson (14:12). Jonathan says to his armor bearer that God is with them. They go up against the Philistines from the other side and are killing Philistines. The attack is so significant and successful that a panic goes through the Philistine camp. God is sending fear throughout the army. This is so significant that Saul is able to watch the Philistine armies dispersing in front of him (14:16).
Saul wants to know what is happening. He did not know that Jonathan had gone to the other side of the Philistine army and started to attack. So Saul starts counting his men to figure out who is missing and they determine that Jonathan and his armor bearer are not there. Saul calls for the ark of the covenant so that he can ask of the Lord what is happening (14:18). But the commotion among the Philistines keeps increasing with intensity that Saul tells the priest to withdraw his hand. Saul is not going to wait for God’s response. He does not think he has time to wait. But look at what God is doing. The Philistines are killing each other and there is great confusion in the Philistine camp (14:20). The Israelites who were traitors and had joined with the Philistines now even join in with the attack. The men of Israel who were hiding in the caves, rocks, and tombs all rise up and join the battle. Notice the important message in verse 23. “So the Lord saved Israel that day.”
Israel is winning the battle because God was with Jonathan who had the faith to trust in the Lord to give them the victory. But Saul makes a foolish vow when in the midst of war. Saul makes an oath that anyone who eats food before the end of the day and before he avenges himself on his enemies will be cursed (14:24). It is a very selfish vow and it caused for Israel to be worn out and distressed because they cannot eat while fighting in battle. Jonathan did not hear this oath as he had gone around to the other side of the Philistines and started the attack. So Jonathan sees honey and eats it, renewing his strength. One of the soldiers tells Jonathan that Saul put them under oath to not eat and that is why everyone is faint. Listen to what Jonathan says in verse 29 because it is telling. “My father has troubled the land.” This is not what the king of Israel was to do. He was supposed to be the rescuer of the people, not the troubler of the people. Jonathan continues by saying that the victory would have been greater if it had not been for Saul’s interference (14:30). Further, Saul has caused the people to sin by his oath because they are eating spoil of animals with the blood still in it (14:33). But they did it because they were faint from Saul’s vow.
The failure of Saul is further depicted beginning in verse 36. Saul says we need to go finish off the Philistines. The people tell Saul that it sounds good to them. But the priest stands up and says that we need to ask the Lord first. So Saul inquires of the Lord but the Lord will not respond (14:37). Saul perceives this to mean that there is sin in the camp. Through the use of the Urim and Thummim and the casting of lots it is determined that Jonathan is the issue. Jonathan confesses that he ate even though he did not know his father’s oath. Saul is ready to put Jonathan to death but the people stop Saul. Listen to what they say in verse 45. “Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it!” They understand that God gave victory through Jonathan. So how can Saul’s words be right? So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die (14:45).
We see a dramatic contrast between the faith of Saul and the faith of Jonathan. Saul is pictured as one who loses faith in God when the odds are stacked against him. Saul sees that it is acceptable to break the command of the Lord when it looks like hope is lost. Saul thinks that he can act differently when times are difficult. Faith does not disobey God. Disobedience means that we do not trust what God has said for us.
Meanwhile, Jonathan knows that if the Lord is with him then he does not need an army with swords. It can just be two people and we can win because God is on our side. Please think about what Jonathan is doing. We were told the numbers that the Philistines have 30,000 chariots, 6000 horsemen, and countless soldiers. Yet Jonathan knows he can win if God is with him.
What makes the difference in the faith of Saul and Jonathan? The account makes clear the differences. Saul is operating by what he sees and is not asking God. Faith falters when it makes decision by sight. Faith falters when it fails to ask God. Saul does not look for the command of the Lord. Saul does not ask what the Lord wills. A priest has to remind him that we need to ask God first. But then Saul does not even wait for the answer and reacts.
Jonathan is completely different. Jonathan does not operate by what he sees and that is truly seen when he takes his armor bearer to go up against the Philistines. Why does he think he can do this? He says that it may be that the Lord will work for us (14:6). Not only this, but when Jonathan and his armor bearer get in position, they again seek the will of the Lord before proceeding. Jonathan depends on prayer and waits for the Lord’s answer. Saul does not wait for the Lord but acts by what he sees.
We need to think about what this is teaching. In crisis, what is our default: depend on what we see or depend on faith, praying to God who can be with us and help us? It is so easy to depend on what we see when the crisis strikes. But our hopelessness and helplessness are when we are to look to God to rise up and deliver. Israel failed because they would not do this. They would not look to God but looked to their own weaknesses. We need to be brought low so that we will look to God to save us. Do not look at your obstacle or your crisis. Look to God who is greater than your obstacle and your crisis. Look to him in faith. Look to him in prayer. “It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few” (14:6).