The destruction of the Amalekites (& the Canaanites. 1 Samuel 14:47-15:9

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 14:47-15:9

Our topic today, the destruction of the Amalekites, is really just background in terms of what is focused on in the broader story of 1 Samuel 15, which is Saul’s disobedience. We will come back to this theme.

Background

The events of Exodus 17:8-16 set up our story. This tells how the Amalekites attacked Israel, when they were leaving Egypt. And God promised there that because of this “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (v. 14).

And then Deuteronomy 25:17-19 says, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” These verses establish Amalek’s guilt. They sought to destroy Israel, killing the weak among them. And so God will use Israel to destroy them.

If you’re wondering why the material on Saul’s family and military pursuits comes here, it shows that the right conditions have been met, according to Deuteronomy 25, “when God has given you rest.” Israel had rest under Saul and so now is the time to deal with Amalek. (V. Philips Long)

Questions

Now as Christians we rightly have questions about the destruction of whole peoples. If this was merely background in their day because this kind of warfare was known and practiced around them (and so we see no reaction to it recorded in Scripture) for many today this is the focus (even the only focus) of reading this passage.

We know that God loves and cares for all people. So, why would God command this, and previous to this the destruction of the Canaanite nations? These are the two, and only two places where this command is given.

Devotion to destruction

Referring to the Canaanites Deuteronomy 7:2 says, “you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” And Joshua 6:21 records the fulfillment of this in relation to Jericho – “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.”

And these are Samuel’s words to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 – “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

These verses speak of the practice of Herem, a Hebrew word which refers to something beyond normal warfare – protecting land or invading but making treaties and intermarrying. It is translated here as “devote to destruction,” something more brutal and bloody than the already brutal and bloody warfare of the day in which they lived.

So this is our topic.

What should we say about this?

First, we need to see what actually took place, which is to say that 1. not everyone was killed. Scripture itself makes this clear.

In the case of the Canaanites, Joshua 10:40 says, “So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (This refers to the conquest of southern Canaan. See also Joshua 11:12 for his conquest of northern Canaan.) So Joshua was successful and fulfilled the command of the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:2).

But . . . later Joshua 23:12 talks about “the remnant of these nations remaining among you” and gives instructions for how to relate to them. (See also Joshua 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:13. Also Judges 1:1-4. And note the contrast regarding Hebron between Joshua 10:36-37 and Judges 1:10.) Many Canaanites remained.

So there’s some hyperbole going on here. You can actually see this in the space of one verse in Joshua 10:20 – “When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities . . .” it goes on to say that Joshua’s army came back to him. So they are “wiped out,” but in the same sentence, it acknowledges that a “remnant” remains.

In the case of the Amalekites, Saul was faithful to the command. As 1 Samuel 15:8 says he, “devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.” Except, of course, he left king Agag alive and as well, the good livestock. There’s no criticism of him other than these two things. So a straightforward reading of the story seems to tell us that all the rest of the Amalekites are dead.

But . . . later 1 Samuel 27:8 says, “Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt.” Many Amalekites remained. Even in the same geographical area. And later in chapter 30 they attack David. (See also 1 Chronicles 4:43. In the book of Esther, Haman was an Agagite.)

So there’s some hyperbole going on here too. Just as Joshua destroyed the Canaanites, and is praised for being faithful – but many remained, so Saul destroyed the Amalekites, and carried out the instructions in this regard – but many remained.

In both of these cases a Herem war can come across as the complete destruction of a people. Now, this was, no doubt, a bloody affair, but it was not this. In the first, Joshua dealt a crippling blow to the Canaanites to establish Israel in the land. In the second, Saul dealt a crippling blow to the Amalekites who were mortal enemies of Israel.

Judging from all this, it seems that the commands to “devote to destruction” (Herem) were never meant to accomplish complete destruction.

Now, in all of this, we need to understand that 2. God is the sovereign judge of all peoples and nations. As our creator, God has the right and even the obligation to judge evil. Do we not get frustrated when God doesn’t deal with evil as quickly as we want?

And all nations and peoples deserve judgment because of human sin and evil. This is not the world God intended. And it is this way because God allows us to make our own choices. And we are accountable to our creator for these choices.

And God can choose how and when judgment will happen. That’s what it means to be sovereign. The timing and severity of God’s judgments are set by God. Some things are more fully judged in this life, and some will be more fully judged in the age to come. So yes, God can bring about a severe judgment on the Canaanites and the Amalekites for their evil, and others experience less intense expressions of this. Just as God brought a more severe judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah – fire from heaven – than on other sinful peoples.

And God still raises up nations to judge other nations in various ways – just as God used Babylon to judge his sinful people, Judah and then in turn judged Babylon for their sin and evil at the hand of the Persians. And God continues to use the governments of nations to punish evil among their citizens.

The bottom line is that this is not Israel acting on its own. This is God the rightful judge of he universe, sovereignly choosing to judge the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

And judgment, whether in this life or the next is never a pleasant thing. It involves suffering and death. As Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31.

We know that none of this was God’s original plan. And given who God is, as Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?  . . . and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” – given this, we know that God judges with a heavy heart.

Now, if we accept the message of the book of Job, that we as humans are not in a place to assess the full moral calculus of God’s administration of this sinful world, we should still note that 3. God is working here in the context of a moral framework.

In both cases we are looking at, the Canaanites and the Amalekites, there are reasons for judgment.

  • Amalek’s attempt to wipe out Israel, which we have seen. (In 1 Samuel 15:18 God call them “the sinners.”)
  • And the religious and moral depravity of the Canaanites. This is noted in numerous passages – things like idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution, incest and more. (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-25; 20:22-24; Deuteronomy 9:5; 12:29-31; Hebrews 11:31.)

But also in both cases there is amazing patience on God’s part.

  • He gave the Canaanites 400 years to change according to Genesis 15:16. And no doubt God was working among them, seeking their change. But they didn’t. They got worse.
  • And likewise there is a similar span of centuries between Amalek’s attack and the judgment for this. And no doubt God was working among them. But they continued to be hostile to Israel.

Also, we need to remember that non-Israelites could escape by becoming a part of Israel, just as Rahab and her family escaped Jericho. They were to show no mercy, but there was mercy for those who turned to the true God. No doubt many of the remnant of the Canaanites that remained in Israel eventually became a part of Israel.

God also severely judged his people when they practiced what the Canaanites did. God doesn’t play favorites. The northern kingdom of Israel was judged and passed from the annals of history. The southern kingdom of Judah was judged and spent 70 years in exile, vomited out of the land for their sins, just as the Canaanites were. (Leviticus 18:28; Jeremiah 25:9; Amos 3:2)

We also need to take into account 4. the context of God’s larger purpose. These severe judgments were a part of a bigger process of movement forward meant to bless all peoples and nations. This was God’s purpose for Israel. He said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 – “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Israel had to be established, and protected from the influence of idolatry to accomplish its mission to the world (Deuteronomy 7:4; 12:29-31). And as the prophets foresaw, this mission comes to include even Israel’s foremost enemies (Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 9:7; Isaiah 19:23-25) including for sure the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

Finally, 5. God’s highest revelation in Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. One of the most difficult parts in all of this , is that God used his own people as the instrument of his judgment. So could God come to us today and command us to do this? The answer is clearly no.

In certain situations, God allowed and even commanded his people to hate (Deuteronomy 23:6) and kill their enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) in the Old Testament. Jesus notes this and then raises the standard in Matthew 5:43-44. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

And whatever love means, it certainly does not include killing the person. So not only are Christians forbidden to even entertain the thought of devoting people to destruction, we are not to be involved in any situation that would lead us to kill someone.

Things have indeed changed. We are living under the New Covenant, not the Old. Yes, there is still judgment and the final judgment is coming. But God’s people are not to be his instrument of destruction, but his instrument of grace to the world.

(I am indebted to Christopher J.H. Wright, Paul Copan and Stephen N. Williams)

Saul’s foolishness (pt 2). 1 Samuel 14:36-46

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 14:36-46

Well, it has taken us a number of weeks but we’re finally to the conclusion of the story that started in chapter 13. Jonathan started a revolt against the Philistine overlords. Saul then went to Gilgal, but disobeyed the Lord by not waiting for Samuel to come and give him instructions. Then, while facing a massive Philistine army, Jonathan once again, in faith, took the initiative to bring about a great victory.

But as they were chasing the retreating Philistines, Saul made an oath that his men couldn’t eat that day. This caused Jonathan to stumble, because he didn’t hear the oath and ate a bit of honey. And it caused the army to stumble. They were starving and when they could eat they ate meat with the blood in it. And the victory was diminished because of the army’s weakness.

We saw how Saul’s relationship with God was broken due to his unrepentant sin, and so he’s just making decisions based on what he thinks is right; that is he’s not following God; he’s making foolish choices.

Our story today picks right up where we left off with Saul’s continued foolishness. Let’s see what God has to teach us in this.

1 Samuel 14:36-46

36Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.”

His army has now eaten and is refreshed. So he makes a proposal to continue to pursue the retreating Philistines. He wants to fix what he messed up with his oath; he wants to bring about a total victory.

But he doesn’t seek God about this. He’s all ready to go –

But the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” 37And Saul inquired of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?” But he did not answer him that day.

The priest has to stop him to seek God’s guidance. But, then no answer is given.

38And Saul said, “Come here, all you leaders of the people, and know and see how this sin has arisen today.

Saul interprets God’s silence as a sign of judgment. There are grounds for this in Scripture (e. g. 1 Samuel 8:18). But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes it can just mean keep doing what you’re doing, or you don’t need further instructions, or you are in a time of testing when God chooses to be silent. In any case, here it does mean that something is wrong.

When he says, “this sin” he specifically means who broke the oath and ate food when they weren’t supposed to. Remember, an oath means that you call on God to curse you if you don’t fulfill the terms of the oath. And here Saul put this oath of not eating on his men. And we saw last time how Jonathan unknowingly broke this oath.

Saul then swears another oath –

39For as the LORD lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.”

He doubles down on his previous oath, even though he saw how it backfired and caused trouble for his people. He now swears to kill the person who broke it, even if it’s his own son. It would have been wise to just move on.

One has to ask, ‘Why so extreme?’ ‘Why death?’ Especially since we know that in Jonathan’s case it was inadvertent.

This is not a good decision. This is foolishness on top of foolishness.

But there was not a man among all the people who answered him.

Many, if not all of the army knew what happened with Jonathan. But no one said anything. They are protecting him.

40Then he said to all Israel, “You shall be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.”

41Therefore Saul said, “O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.

Urim and Thummin were most likely dice-like objects, perhaps different colors that were cast to discern answers. It’s possible that you had to get the same answer several times in a row for it to be clear. And perhaps when God didn’t answer Saul that’s what happened.

Here he asks a simple question, ‘Is the guilt with this group or that group?’ Urim likely means accursed and Thummin acquitted.

Jonathan and Saul are taken. One of them has sinned. The rest are acquitted.

42Then Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.” And Jonathan was taken.

So this process accurately picks Jonathan. He is, in fact guilty of breaking the oath, even though he didn’t know anything about it. Frustratingly none of this process addresses Saul’s own knowing sin. And how it was his foolishness that led to Jonathan’s unknowing sin. He keeps the focus on the failures of others, not his own – a sin with no technicalities involved.

43Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.”

Jonathan’s response highlights Saul’s continued foolishness. He says, “I tasted a little honey . . . I will die.” This last phrase may well be a question, “I tasted a little honey . . . I will die?” It points out the harshness of the situation. The sentence is way out of proportion to the offense.

And it certainly contrasts with Saul’s decision when he was walking in God’s ways. In 1 Samuel 11:3 when some men had questioned his role as king and the crowd said they should be killed, he said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel.” Like in our story, they had just won a battle. But here Saul is ready to kill his own son.

And then, as if Saul is unable to learn, he again swears an oath, tripling down on his first oath.

44And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.”

Notice Saul’s complete lack of empathy or concern about his son. He should have commended Jonathan for his faith and bravery.

Is he jealous of him and his faith and boldness and how he was the one God used to deliver Israel? Clearly Saul is being out-shined. Is he trying to secure his son’s death? This certainly foreshadows how Saul will later treat David (his son in law) in similar circumstances.

But then our story, thankfully, takes an unexpected turn –

45Then the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die.

The army has some wisdom and courage to challenge the king. If the priest stops him before to seek guidance, the army stops him here from killing his own son. They counter Saul’s oath with an oath of their own.

They point out that God’s use of Jonathan to bring the victory is much more important than his unknowing breaking of a foolish oath. Clearly they respect Jonathan more than Saul.

46Then Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place.

Our story began with pursuit and here the pursuit ends once and for all.

All you can say after reading this is –

What a mess!

Because of Saul’s oath the victory over the Philistines is diminished. And Jonathan and the army are led to stumble into sin.

And then, because of his refusal to back away from it, he makes an oath to kill whoever broke his first oath and Jonathan is almost killed.

The story ends with him being alienated from his son and the army. And with him under the condemnation of his two oaths in this story. He said in v. 44 – “God do so to me and more also” that is, if he didn’t kill Jonathan. And he didn’t kill him.

How much better if he had sought the Lord in the first place. How much better if after his foolish oath he had acknowledged this and let it go. How much better if when God was silent, he took responsibility for causing the army and Jonathan to stumble and sought forgiveness. What a different story this would have been!

What do we learn from this?

Did you know that we are not to swear promises? Oaths are certainly allowed in the Old Testament, but Jesus raises the bar when he says in Matthew 5:34, “Do not take an oath at all”; and James 5:12 says, “But above all, brothers and sisters, do not swear . . ..” If you haven’t looked at this before, I invite you to study it for yourself.

The key lesson however is that if you are walking in foolishness, stop! Foolishness is not following God, but making our own choices based on what we think is right. This is what Saul was doing.

And today we learn that if you are walking in foolishness, don’t cling to it. When you see if for what it is, stop. Don’t be too proud to admit it and then move forward. Don’t double and triple down like Saul here. When you are in a hole of your own making stop digging – as the saying goes. You just go further and further down. You have to put the shovel down and crawl out of the hole.

Take responsibility for your foolish choices. Don’t put the focus on others or make excuses. Set aside your bad choices, and begin to follow God and walk in his wisdom.

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.

Jonathan & God’s great victory. 1 Samuel 13:19-14:23

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 13:19-14:23a

Our story today is a continuation of what we looked at last week. Jonathan, Saul’s son, began a revolt by defeating a Philistine garrison. Saul then went to Gilgal according to the instructions of Samuel the prophet, given all the way back in chapter 10:8. But Saul went on to disobey God’s command by not waiting for Samuel to come. As a result, he is judged. He will no longer have a dynasty. And he is left without instructions as a massive Philistine army is poised to attack. Today, we look at what happens next.

battle scene 1

Just to get you oriented, this is a close up of the battle scene.

Michmash and Geba are about a mile apart. The wadi is a seasonal river/creek bed. On either side of the wadi in the East there are steep canyon walls, but at the pass there is flat land.

 

Our verses today begin with some important background.

1 Samuel 13:19-14:23

Israel’s difficult situation.

19Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.” 20But every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle, 21and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads.

So Israel’s Philistine overlords, as a part of their strategy to keep them subservient, forbade all metal working. And then they charged the Israelites exorbitant rates to sharpen their farming implements, which kept them economically disadvantaged.

The result shows up in v. 22.

22So on the day of the battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them.

We already saw how Israel was outnumbered. Saul had 600 soldiers and the Philistines had “troops like the sand on the seashore” (13:5) along with 6,000 horsemen and 3,000 chariots.

This brings us to the beginning of the conflict.

23And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.

 They are positioning themselves to come to Geba and fight.

 14:1One day (that is, that day) Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not tell his father.

Remember it was Jonathan who took the initiative in the first battle with the Philistines, not Saul. And so it is here.

The fact that he didn’t tell his father may mean that he doesn’t trust him, or perhaps he thought Saul would forbid him from going.

2Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave at Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men, 3including Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh, wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone.

Here we have a reappearance of the line of Eli – his great grandson, Ahijah is Saul’s priest.

Jonathan’s attack.

4Within the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison, there was a rocky crag on the one side and a rocky crag on the other side. The name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. 5The one crag rose on the north in front of Michmash, and the other on the south in front of Geba.

battle scene 2

Here we see the Philistine advance to the pass and Jonathan’s attack to the East on an outpost. Bozez appears to be (a past of?) the northern canyon wall and Seneh the southern canyon wall.  Bozez means “the shining one” and Seneh “thorny one,” perhaps because there thorn bushes on it.

 

Michmash terrainPicture of the scene from Bibleplaces.com.

Michmash cliffs

Picture of the canyon walls that Jonathan climbs down and back up on the other side, which would have been no easy feat. Bibleplaces.com.

6Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “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.” 7 And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.”

Now, according to natural thinking this is a suicide mission. But Jonathan is acting in great faith. He believes in God and hopes that God will work through him.

Although his father is very focused on counting his soldiers, Jonathan is very clear that what matters is that God is with him, not how many people he has. God can save “by many or by few.”

Now, Jonathan doesn’t know for sure what God will do, as he said, “it may be that the Lord will work for us.” So he suggests a sign.

8Then Jonathan said, “Behold, we will cross over to the men, and we will show ourselves to them. 9If they say to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place, and we will not go up to them. 10But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the LORD has given them into our hand. And this shall be the sign to us.”

“The Lord has given” is what Jonathan’s name means in Hebrew.

11So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines. And the Philistines said, “Look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden themselves.” 12And the men of the garrison hailed Jonathan and his armor-bearer and said, “Come up to us, and we will show you a thing.”

Notice how Jonathan’s sign puts them in a more difficult scenario. They give up the element of surprise and the Philistines are left with the superior position. They have to climb up the steep rocks to get to them.

And Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Come up after me, for the LORD has given them into the hand of Israel.” 13Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him. 14And that first strike, which Jonathan and his armor-bearer made, killed about twenty men within as it were half a furrow’s length in an acre of land.

And then God intervenes in a powerful way.

15And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a panic from God. (ESV note)

This is God working, causing an earthquake and putting fear into the hearts of the Philistines.

16And the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and behold, the multitude was dispersing here and there. 17Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Count and see who has gone from us.” And when they had counted, behold, Jonathan and his armor-bearer were not there.

18So Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here.” For the ark of God went at that time with the people of Israel. 19Now while Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.”

Saul is seeking to discern God’s will. But circumstances were moving too fast.

He says to the priest, “withdraw your hand” because the previously mentioned ephod had a pocket in it that contained the Urim and Thummin, which were like dice, and used to cast lots to discern God’s will (Exodus 28:30; 1 Samuel 14:41). He’s saying stop, take your hand out of the compartment to get the Urim and Thummin.

20Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle.

So it took a while. He counted the people to see who was missing, and he tried to discern God’s will. But finally Saul gets into the battle, although really after God has defeated the Philistine army himself.

And behold, every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion.

So the Israelites have no swords? That is not a problem for God. Confusion and fighting against one another are common ways that God defeats an army.

battle scene 3

 

In this map, we see how Jonathan’s attack caused a panic that spread to the main body of the Philistine army which made them begin to retreat.  And then Saul comes into the battle.

 

 

Reinforcements.

21Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan.

So here we learn that that some in Israel were fighting on the Philistine side, but turn against them as the battle went on.

22Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle.

These were those who previously “hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns” (13:6).

23So the LORD saved Israel that day.

What do we learn from this?

We learn what faith looks like. There is a contrast in these verses between Saul and Jonathan. And it is Jonathan that is the example of faith for us.

The Philistine raiders are out and their army has assembled for battle, but Saul is not acting. So Jonathan takes the initiative in the moment of crisis.

And he does so against overwhelming obstacles as we saw. The Philistines had swords and chariots and horsemen and a vast army. But he takes the initiative. And when God gives him guidance through his sign he acts boldly. He climbed treacherous rocks, fought the enemy and God used him to defeat the entire Philistine army. This is an amazing portrait of faith in action, risking it all for God.

We also learn that nothing is too difficult for the Lord. Are you facing a massive army? No problem! In 14:15 God caused the huge army of the Philistines to be terrified. In 14:20 God confused them and they turned on one another.

The battle wasn’t won because of Saul, who came late. And it wasn’t won by the reinforcements who came even later. As 14:23 says, “the Lord saved Israel that day.”

To put this all together, if you are here today and you are facing difficult obstacles, even really difficult ones, step out in faith like Jonathan and God will fight for you and save you as well. For no situation is too hard for God.