Israel: A Nation Haunted by Failures in Leadership (1 Samuel 14)

Scripture reading – 1 Samuel 14

Our last scripture reading in 1 Samuel concluded with the king usurping Samuel’s role as priest and judge in Israel. I summarized that study with a brief, but pertinent observation: “Character flaws in leaders breed insecurity in the lives of their followers.”

The weaknesses manifested in Saul’s character took a significant toll on the people’s trust in him as their king. Saul’s standing army of three thousand fighting men (13:2), had been reduced to six hundred men who trembled at the thought of following him into battle (13:5-6). The nation was terrorized by Philistine raiders who rode unchallenged through the countryside, leaving the people impoverished (13:17-18). History records that the Philistines controlled large parts of Israel, and the people were not allowed to possess weapons of war. Literally, there were no blacksmiths in Israel that could fashion swords, spears, or even sharpen farm implements (13:20).

1 Samuel 14

Once again, it was Jonathan, Saul’s son who took the initiative, and he “said unto the young man that bare his armour, Come, and let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison, that is on the other side. But he told not his father” (14:1). It is revealing that Jonathan said nothing to his father, for surely the king would have crushed his son’s courage with his own fears and apprehensions. Saul, with his army decimated and scattered, pined away his time in Gibeah, “under a pomegranate tree…and the people that were with him were about six hundred men” (14:2).

With no one watching, Jonathan and his armorbearer, made their way through the rock ledges, and neared the Philistine garrison. Jonathan encouraged his servant, “it may be that the Lord will work for us: for there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few” (14:6). Unlike the men who followed his father, Jonathan’s servant encouraged him saying, “Do all that is in thine heart: turn thee; behold, I am with thee according to thy heart” (14:7).

Agreeing on a sign, and believing the LORD would bless them, Jonathan revealed himself to the Philistines who said, “Come up unto us” (14:10). With those words, Jonathan and his servant assailed the garrison, slaying twenty men in their pursuit (14:13-14). The noise of the clash, accompanied by the LORD sending a timely earthquake, aroused the Philistines who in the darkness, took up swords against one another in a terrified frenzy (14:15).

What followed in King Saul’s camp was incomprehensible. Israel’s watchmen, alerted their “do nothing” king that the Philistines had turned on each other, and their army was scattered. Rather than commanding his soldiers to go to arms, Saul ordered a roll call to find who was missing, and it was discovered that “Jonathan and his armorbearer were not there” (14:17). The roll call being ended, Saul commended his men to battle, and when they came upon the Philistines they found “every man’s sword was against his fellow, and there was a very great discomfiture [confusion]” (14:20). Incredibly, we learn some Hebrews had deserted Israel, and were in the midst of the Philistines; they turned and began to fight for Israel (14:21). Hearing the Philistine army was in disarray, men of Israel who had fled to the mountains, emerged to fight (14:22). So it was that “the Lord saved Israel that day” (14:23).

Tragically, the great victory over the Philistines was nearly eclipsed by a foolish, rash oath spoken by Saul who had said, “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies”(14:24). With no nourishment during the battle, the people had become faint, though they passed through woods where there was honey; and yet, “no man put his hand to his mouth: for the people feared the oath” of the king (14:25-26).

“Jonathan heard not when his father charged the people with the oath: wherefore he put forth the end of the rod [staff; sceptre] that was in his hand, and dipped it in an honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened” (14:27). Remembering Jonathan was much-loved by the people, we can imagine their concern when they informed him how his father had “charged the people with an oath, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food this day” (14:28).

Jonathan, minced no words in expressing his disdain for his father’s oath, and wondered aloud if there might have been an even greater victory, had the people been sustained, and energized by eating the spoils of their enemies (14:29-30). Indeed, the men of Israel were so famished at the close of the day, they slew the livestock of their enemies, and “the people did eat them with the blood” (14:31-32). When Saul learned how the people had eaten meat with the blood, he rebuked them saying, “sin not against the Lord in eating with the blood” (14:34). In a pretense of dedication to the LORD, “Saul built an altar unto the LORD,” though it is revealed that it was “the first altar that he built unto the Lord” (14:35).

When Saul discovered that someone had violated his oath (14:24), and had eaten food during the battle, he added to his impetuousness with another vow saying, 39For, as the Lord liveth, which saveth Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die” (14:39a). It is telling to see where the men of Israel stood in the matter, for “there was not a man among all the people that answered him” (14:39b). Many no doubt knew that Jonathan had eaten honey in the battle, but none were willing to expose him to their foolish king.

Undeterred by the silence of the people, Saul cast lots to determine the man who had disobeyed his oath, and it fell upon Jonathan (14:40-42). Jonathan confessed, “I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand” (14:43). Unwilling to realize his own carelessness, Saul declared to his son, “thou shalt surely die” (14:44).

The people, however, were no longer silent, and would not observe another injustice. They withstood the king saying, “Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the Lordliveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not” (14:45).

The immediate crisis of leadership being ended, Saul’s army increased, and Israel experienced victories over the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites (14:46-48). God blessed Saul’s home with sons, and daughters (14:49-50); however, his reign was forever shadowed by his failings, and perpetual wars with the Philistines (14:51-52).

Copyright 2021 – Travis D. Smith