Saul’s foolishness (pt 1). 1 Samuel 14:23b-35

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 14:23b-35

Our story today is a continuation of what we have looked at over the last two Sundays. Starting in chapter 13, Jonathan started a revolt against the Philistine overlords. Saul went to Gilgal as Samuel instructed in chapter 10:8, but then disobeyed the Lord by not waiting for Samuel to come. Then Jonathan took the initiative again and attacked a Philistine outpost, which led to a great defeat of the massive Philistine army. Our story today has to do with the Israelites chasing the remnants of the Philistine army as they retreat.

Before we jump into our story, let’s take note of –

Saul’s spiritual state

 –  at this time. And I’ll just say that it isn’t good! He disobeyed the Lord’s specific command to wait for Samuel and Samuel responded to him in 13:13, “you have done foolishly.” He acted on his own and not based on God’s command, which is a good definition of foolishness.

And on top of this, he was unrepentant about what he did. So you can see that there’s a break in his relationship with God. And as a result he is disconnected from God’s guidance. Samuel left without giving him instructions for how to fight the Philistines. And when Jonathan acted in faith and was bringing about a great victory Saul was so caught off guard that although he asked the priest to seek God’s will, he stopped him so that he could go into the battle.

And this theme will continue. Saul doesn’t look to God for guidance as the leader of God’s people, but makes his own choices. That is, he acts foolishly.

1 Samuel 14:23b-35

14:23bAnd the battle passed beyond Beth-aven.

This would be west of Michmash along the path of the retreating Philistine army.

So the Israelites are chasing them, when Saul puts his army under an oath.

24And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.”

An oath is when you invoke God to curse you if you don’t fulfill the terms of the oath. Here Saul invokes a curse on his men, God’s judgment, if they eat food before evening.

Why the oath? Well, the men had already been through a lot and they are getting spread out over a large terrain chasing a scattering Philistine army. And so he does this to keep them focused and to push them further.

Remember, he doesn’t have any explicit instructions from God, since Samuel left, and he told the priest to stop seeking guidance. The oath seems to be a way of putting the fear of God in his soldiers, short of  instructions from God.

There is a word play going on here in Hebrew. The word for “laid an oath” looks very similar to the root word for “foolishness.” As we will see, Saul’s oath is very misguided.

So none of the people had tasted food.

25Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground. 26And when the people entered the forest, behold, the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath.

What a temptation! Huh? They’re exhausted and hungry and here’s an easy fix. But it says, “no one” ate of it. Now our culture doesn’t take oaths seriously. But in the ancient world, if you broke your oath you fully expected God’s judgment. That’s why it says, “they feared the oath.”

Jonathan is caused to stumble

27But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright.

So here is Jonathan, who has been fighting longer than anyone else and who wasn’t with Saul and the troops when the oath was given, because he took the initiative to start the battle, here he has a taste of honey and is strengthened. “Bright eyes” speaks to life and vigor. Even today we talk about whether some has a light in their eyes, when they are full of energy.

28Then one of the people said, “Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food this day.’”

Jonathan finds out after it’s too late. He ate without knowing, but he’s now technically broken the oath and is cursed. Saul’s oath has caused him, the hero of the day and his own son, to stumble.

The oath’s effect on the people is noted –

And the people were faint.

Jonathan then expresses his criticism of his father and the oath.

29Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. 30How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great.”

We’ve already seen tension between Saul and Jonathan, in that Jonathan didn’t tell his father that he was going to attack the Philistine outpost. Here he is outright critical.

If the soldiers could have eaten, just a little – the defeat of the Philistines would have been greater. Perhaps they would have broken the back of their rule once and for all. But since the soldiers are faint from hunger this can’t happen.

Not that they didn’t have success –

31They struck down the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon.

They chased them all the way back to Philistine territory. Aijalon is over 12 miles from Michmash, along the Philistine border. But it’s not what it could have been.

We are reminded again of the effect of the oath –

And the people were very faint.

Notice the progression – they had no food, they were faint, and now they are very faint. What’s the result?

The army is caused to stumble by Saul’s oath. It’s evening and so the oath is over.

32The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood.

Eating with the blood in the meat is strictly forbidden. This command was given to Noah in Genesis 9:4 and it is repeated in the Law of Moses several times (Leviticus 17:10ff; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23-25).

They are so famished after a day of hand to hand combat and chasing the Philistines for miles they can’t wait to go through the proper procedure of draining the blood.

Our story ends –

33Then they told Saul, “Behold, the people are sinning against the Lord by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.” 34And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, ‘Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the Lord by eating with the blood.’” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. 35And Saul built an altar to the Lord; it was the first altar that he built to the Lord.

So Saul steps up to stop the men from sinning and provides a solution, a stone that can be used to drain the blood. This is also referred to as an altar in v. 35.

But of course, it was his foolish oath that caused them to stumble; it made them susceptible to sin. But he takes no responsibility.

Notice also the hypocrisy here. He is furious about their sin, “you have dealt treacherously.” But he himself has not obeyed God or sought God’s guidance for the battle. 

What do we learn from this?

First of all, did you know that we are forbidden to eat blood? Acts 15:28-29

The Apostles and the Jerusalem council taught that Gentile Christians (us) are not to ingest blood. This is found in what is called the Apostolic Decree. This forbids eating blood, along with eating food sacrificed to idols, both spoken of in Leviticus 17. And it forbids us to be involved in any of the sexual activities that are spoken of in Leviticus 18.

Now, this isn’t a common thing, because our meat is butchered to drain the blood, but there are some dishes that contain blood. And we should not eat them! (If this is something new to you I invite you to study Acts 15 for yourself.)

But the key lesson of our story today is simple, don’t be foolish!

Saul here is a portrait of what it looks like to be foolish. He doesn’t obey God, but makes his own choices based on what he thinks is good and right.

And we see the results. Things don’t go well. He ends up undercutting his own goal of having a great victory over the Philistines. Instead it is lessened because his troops are starving. And he leads his son and the army to stumble. He takes a miracle victory connected to the faith of Jonathan and messes it all up. He makes trouble for Israel. And as we will see next time, as his foolishness continues, things get much worse.

Well what about us? What’s your spiritual state? Are you walking in fellowship with God? Or are you cut off from God because of your unrepentant sin? And so you are making decisions based solely on what you think is right and good.

The result is the same as with Saul. Things don’t go well for us. We wander around in darkness and futility. Even if we have outward success it is empty and meaningless. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” And as we’ll see next time Jonathan is almost killed!

Learn from Saul! That’s the message today. Learn from Saul. If we want God’s blessing in our life; if we want God’s purposes to be fulfilled, then we need to obey God’s commandments and seek out his guidance, even if what God says seems hard or risky. This is the path of wisdom.

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