All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Saul’s Foolish Errors
Based on I Samuel 13–14

After Saul’s great victory over the Ammonites, he diminishes his mustered army to three thousand men. Two thousand are under his command and stationed at Michmash, about four-and-a-half miles from Bethel. His son Jonathan is stationed with the other thousand about three or four miles north of Jerusalem at Gibeah. Saul’s drastic army size reduction is his first foolish error, since it stops the army’s momentum of defeating various other enemies of Israel.

Jonathan attacks and overcomes the Philistine garrison at Geba, located about five miles from Jerusalem. Because of this, Saul immediately tries to muster a larger army at Gilgal because he knows the Philistines will retaliate.

His fears are well founded, since the Philistines gather an immense force which the Bible says are “as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude,” at Micmash. They are greatly feared not only because of their numbers, but also for their famed wooden chariots that are armed with damaging iron fittings at strategic points.

Fear-Driven Decisions

There is great fear and distress among the Israelites, resulting in mass defections. They hide in whatever out-of-the-way place they can find, whether in caves, thickets, rocks, holes, or pits. Others flee east across the Jordan to Gad and Gilead. Saul is still in Gilgal but the ones that stay with him follow with trembling. He ends up with only 600 scared soldiers that have to face an immense army. In addition, they are poorly equipped because the Philistines do not allow them to have blacksmiths to make swords or spears. Only Saul and Jonathan have these two weapons, while the rest of the army have only bows and slings.

Saul remembers Samuel’s earlier command, “You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.” I Samuel 10:8. Saul waits seven days for Samuel’s arrival, however, when the prophet fails to appear, more soldiers defect, and Saul becomes even more anxious. He decides to act on his own and seek the Lord’s favor by offering the sacrifices Samuel was to offer—and Samuel arrives just as he finishes offering the burnt offering.

Saul immediately goes out to meet and greet the prophet, as if nothing is wrong. However, his foolish sin is not that he is forbidden to sacrifice burnt and fellowship offerings as king, but that he has disobeyed the Lord’s word through His prophet—a foolish error he will commit again!

There appears to be more to this incident than just ignoring the Lord’s word through His prophet, however. It appears that in ancient Israel, ritual sacrifices associated with the Lord fighting a war are not to be performed by the king, unless a prophet is present. As the result, Samuel rebukes him and informs him that the Lord has rejected him and will replace him with another man. We can only imagine how Saul must have felt.

Jonathan’s Courage

The combined forces of Saul and Jonathan pale in comparison to their Philistine enemies who are camped scarcely four miles apart, suggesting eminent war. The Philistines send out raiders in three detachments that go in three different directions. One group goes towards Ophrah, in Benjamin, north of Micmash. A second detachment goes to Beth Horom, west of Micmash, and a third group goes east toward the valley of Zeboim.

One day, Jonathan says to his armorbearer, “Come, let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison that is on the other side.” He leaves camp without telling anyone, not even his father, who is sitting under a pomegranate tree. Between the army of Israel and the army of the Philistines is a very deep gorge with a steep rocky cliff on each side with the names of Bezez and Seneh. Both cliffs are considered inaccessible.

Again, Jonathan boldly says to his armorbearer, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will work for us. For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few.”

After the armorbearer agrees to go with him, Jonathan says, “Very well, let us cross over to these men, and we will show ourselves to them. If they say thus to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place and not go up to them. But if they say thus, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up. For the Lord has delivered them into our hand, and this will be a sign to us.”

Jonathan and his armorbearer thread their way through the gorge under the overhanging cliffs, partially concealed from sight by the rocks and ridges of the valley. As they approach the Philistine fortress, they are seen by the defenders who say, “Look, the Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden.” Then the men of the garrison call to Jonathan and his armorbearer, saying, “Come up to us, and we will show you something.” Then Jonathan says to his armorbearer, “Come up after me, for the Lord has delivered them into the hand of Israel.”

Both climb up the steep cliff to the summit and see that they are outnumbered ten to one. However, they have totally surprised their enemy, and kill all twenty of them in this small half-acre area. This attack totally confuses the whole Philistine army to the point that they all tremble, just as the earth begins to shake under them in an earthquake.

The panic of the Philistines is so great that Saul’s watchmen on the walls of the city can see the enemy soldiers scattering in all directions. Saul is curious about what is causing the rout of the Philistines and decides to count his soldiers to see if any of them have left the camp and are responsible for the rout. Once the census is complete, he discovers that all a present—except for his son Jonathan and his armorbearer.

A Foolish Decision

Still reticent to enter the battle, Saul foolishly calls Ahijah the priest to bring the ark of God before him in, an apparent superstitious attempt to guarantee victory. As he talks to the priest, the noise in the camp of the Philistines grows louder, causing him to reverse his decision. Instead, he marches with his men into battle.

Meanwhile, the Philistine soldiers in their great confusion fight and kill each other, even as two reinforcement groups join Saul, Jonathan, and the Israelite army. One group is Israelites who had previously gone to the Philistine camp, perhaps to have their agricultural instruments sharpened. The second group consists of Israelite deserters who have been hiding in the hill country of Ephraim. The outcome is that “the Lord saved Israel that day.”

Saul’s Curse

Saul, in an attempt to take advantage of this opportune situation, foolishly commands his soldiers not to eat any food until evening. He says, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies,” apparently believing his curse will energize his men and fill them with fighting zeal.

It seems that Saul is trying to save face because he no longer thinks the victory is the Lord’s, but believes it is his responsibility to take vengeance on his enemies. However, his plan has a negative on his soldiers, as they become faint and exhausted for lack of food.

Saul’s soldiers enter a forest and observe a honeycomb on the ground. Honey is considered a great delicacy, but no one dares to as much as taste it for fear of Saul’s curse. However, Jonathan, unaware of his father’s curse, uses the end of his staff to dip some honey from the comb. As he tastes it, his countenance brightens, implying renewed vigor and strength.

One of his accompanying soldiers warns him of his father’s curse, adding that it has caused the soldiers to become faint. Jonathan, responding on the basis of what the honey has done for him, says his father has made trouble for the land. Then he adds, “How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now would there not have been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”

This story is an interesting parallel to the story of Samson eating honey in a Philistine context. In both cases, this gets them in very serious trouble.

From Bad to Worse

The battle proceeds, and by evening, the Philistines are totally routed and driven westward to Aijalon, about 16 miles from Micmash. Since the curse is no longer in effect, the famished soldiers seize the spoil of sheep, oxen, and calves, butchering them and quickly eating the meat without waiting for the blood to drain out—something God has strictly forbidden.

When Saul hears of this, he immediately sets out to absolve their guilt. First, he accuses them of dealing treacherously, essentially saying they have betrayed the Lord through treachery.

Next, he calls for a large stone to be rolled to him so that the animals can be killed on it, not on the ground, as they did before. Then he demands that each man bring his animal for proper slaughtering—in an attempt to right the wrongful deed done by his men—and builds an altar to the Lord.

Now Saul proposes, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night, and plunder them until the morning light; and let us not leave a man of them.” The idea of attacking by night and plundering until morning reflects the common practice of conducting military operations at night, when the number of attackers is small and the element of surprise is significant. The soldiers answer him, “Do whatever seems good to you.”

Jonathan’s Lot

Meanwhile, Ahijah the priest senses the need to inquire of God, so Saul asks Him if He will deliver the Philistines into the hand of Israel. When God does not answer him, he senses something is wrong in the army, so he calls for the army chiefs to appear before him to determine what sin has been committed. He states that whoever has sinned shall surely die, even if it is Jonathan his son. None of his men answers him a word during these dramatic minutes.

Lots are then cast to determine who the guilty one is. Saul has the first casting of lots to determine if it is one of his soldiers, or if the blame is on Jonathan and him. The men stare in silence as lot falls on Saul and Jonathan. Next, lots are cast to decide between Saul and Jonathan, when the lot falls, Saul is cleared and Jonathan is determined to be the guilty one.

Saul asks his son, “What have you done?” and Jonathan answers, “I only tasted a little honey with the end of the rod that was in my hand. So now I must die!” It is important to note that Jonathan has justification for his deeds as he speaks the truth, but willingly submits himself to the decree of his father, the king.

Saul answers, “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan.”

But the people can no longer be silent, and say to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great deliverance in Israel? Certainly not! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people boldly defend Jonathan and rescue him from his own father’s death decree.

As we reflect on this story, we see the sad foolish errors of Saul as he begins his decline as Israel’s first king. He begins his kingship with humility by trusting in the Lord to lead Israel as their King, while he rues Israel under God. Then he foolishly begins to make terrible and stupid errors by trusting his own wisdom and making decisions without consulting the Lord.

The Lord does not reject Saul until he rejects Him by committing the unpardonable sin. One needs not conjecture what his fate will be.

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