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Winning the Battle and Losing the Kingdom

By Dan Claire. This is part of a series of posts on 1 Samuel, supplementing messages in our preaching series this fall. Today we consider 1 Samuel 13-14.

Here’s a quick review of the story so far. Despite Samuel’s good leadership over Israel, God’s people rebelled and demanded a king like those of their (pagan) neighbors (1 Sam 8:19-20). Samuel warned them of the danger of kings like these. He said they were always “takers:” they would take their subject’s sons and daughters, their goods and their wealth (8:11-18). But the Israelites wouldn’t listen. So Samuel reluctantly complied, with the result being that Saul was crowned as Israel’s first king. When Samuel handed the government over to Saul, he challenged the king and his subjects to follow in his footsteps by actively listening to the Lord and obeying his word (12:14-15). Regardless of the sins committed in putting Saul in office, what mattered at that point was their fidelity to the Lord.

In today’s lesson, Saul stops listening to the Lord, and the consequences are catastrophic. Saul wins the battle against the Philistines, but in so doing, he loses the kingdom.

Chapter 13 opens with a simple note that speaks volumes about how things have changed under Saul’s kingship. He had taken 3,000 of Israel’s best sons into his standing army (13:2). Like all the other neighboring kings, Saul also had become a “taker”.

Jonathan’s successful skirmish with a Philistine garrison (13:3) stirred up a hornet’s nest. In retaliation, 36,000 Philistine soldiers gathered for war (13:5). Prior to drafting Israel’s finest sons, Saul had been able to muster 330,000 volunteers in his campaign against the Ammonites (11:8). But now Saul’s standing army was outnumbered 12:1, and his subjects were terrified (13:7).

Saul knew what he was supposed to do: wait for the Lord. But waiting wasn’t easy, especially when time appeared to be running out. The people were scattering (13:8). Even Saul’s standing army began deserting him. And so Saul gave up waiting on the Lord, and took matters into his own hands.

When is the right time to give up on God? When should we stop waiting on him, in order to take action before it’s too late? Never! One would think after all the lessons on waiting (e.g. Gen 16), God’s people would have learned patience by now. We think we know better than God. We think our timing is better than God’s. Sadly, most of us have had to learn this lesson the hard way.

Saul’s impatience drove him to take even more. He took Samuel’s place. He needed to hear from the Lord how to respond to the Philistines, so he initiated a discernment-oriented worship service (13:9). But halfway through the service, Samuel came as promised (13:10). Saul offered lame excuses (13:11-12), though he was clearly at fault. Then God spoke through Samuel, though not in answer to the Philistine threat. Rather, God spoke in judgment against Saul. Israel’s first king would suffer the same fate as Eli, because Saul chose rebellion instead of listening and obedience. Saul’s kingdom would be stripped away and given to a man after God’s own heart (13:14), i.e. a God-listener like Samuel.

After Samuel’s departure, Saul was left with an army of only 600 men (13:15). On the face of it, they were no match for the Philistines, with their size and superior technology (13:19-22). Yet Saul knew the stories of Gideon (Judges 7), who had faced similar odds a century earlier and with an army of only 300 had routed Israel’s enemies. It still wasn’t too late for Saul. Like Gideon, he could have trusted in the strength of the Lord rather than his own. But he didn’t. As a result, Philistine raiders were ravishing Saul’s kingdom (13:17-18).

Saul’s son Jonathan, on the other hand, was a man of faith. He and his armor bearer ignored the odds and went out to face the Philistine garrison, trusting that the Lord had delivered them into their hands (14:12). After they had defeated about 20 of the Philistines, the Lord spoke again (14:15), as he had done in Samuel’s farewell address (12:18) and in the Battle of Ebenezer (7:10). As God thundered, the Philistines were thrown into confusion, so that Saul’s forces were able to pursue and defeat them (14:16-23).

Sadly, in the midst of the victory God had given them, Saul nevertheless kept on taking. He swore an oath to take vengeance on his enemies (14:24), and in so doing took God’s provision of food away from the soldiers under his care. Jonathan, unaware of Saul’s stupid oath, ate the honey/manna God provided and it strengthened him (14:27). Meanwhile, the rest of Saul’s subjects suffered, and eventually they wrongly chose to break God’s law rather than transgress Saul’s illicit commandment (14:32).

Still not satisfied, Saul was determined to keep on taking through the night, by plundering the remaining Philistines (14:36). Once again he sought a word from the Lord, but God did not answer (14:37). So Saul rightly concluded that sin must’ve been interfering with his hearing. Instead of taking full responsibility, Saul tragically pinned everything on Jonathan his son (14:43), who had been the only faithful God-listener in the entire battle. Now it was clear what kind of monster Saul had become. He was a full-blown taker, who swore even to take the life of his valiant son. He was a king like all the pagan nations.

These two chapters in 1 Samuel are a wonderful juxtaposition of God’s justice and mercy. As Saul continued to rebel against the Lord, God in his justice did not allow him to keep on taking indefinitely. At the same time, God would not forsake his people (12:22). Jonathan was a bright ray of hope in the midst of the darkness. While Saul continued to take, God continued to give, particularly through Saul’s son. Jonathan, whose name means “the Lord has given,” was a conduit of God’s grace for his people, and led to victory over their oppressors.

In this story, Jonathan’s self-sacrificing valor foreshadows the future Son of God, who on the cross would lead God’s people to victory over sin, the flesh and the devil. Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God not by taking, but by giving his body and blood for the renewal of the world. Now he sends us out as ambassadors of his kingdom, giving instead of taking. Today, let’s follow in the tradition of Jonathan, as faithful conduits of God’s amazing grace.

A Prayer for Today

God of might and power, you support us in danger and carry us through temptation. Give us grace to trust in you so that, though by nature we are frail and weak, we may stand upright in any time of trial; through the strength of him who makes us more than conquerors, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Our Modern Services, The Anglican Church of Kenya, Nairobi: Uzima Press, 2002)