By Many or by Few (1 Samuel 13-14)Series: 1 Samuel
God had given Israel victory over the cruel Ammonites, Saul had been established as king, and the people had committed to return to the Lord. The future was finally starting to look bright for Israel. But sin and foolishness ruined it all.
The Story (1 Samuel 13)
- Two years later, the armies of Israel had lost the confidence they had earlier. They were in an all-out panic. Men were hiding in caves and holes. They were opening tombs and jumping in wells and cisterns. Some even jumped in the Jordan River to swim to the other side. Israel’s men were scared speechless. Why?
- When Saul was anointed king, it was the Philistines that God especially wanted him to conquer. But Saul wasn’t going out against them, so Jonathan attacked and defeated an outpost with his men. Israel was excited. They gathered to Saul and were ready to deal the fatal blow to the Philistines. But when the Philistines heard what happened, they were mad. They gathered an army ready for an end times battle — 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore. Can you imagine an army like this? So when Israel saw them, they ran for the hills, holes, cisterns, and rivers.
- Anyone left with Saul was trembling. But Saul waited as he was supposed to. See, Samuel had told him to wait 7 days at Gilgal — Samuel would come, offer sacrifices to Yahweh, and tell Saul the game plan for this battle. So Saul waited. And waited. Seven days passed and there was still no sign of Samuel. Meanwhile, the troops with Saul kept scattering so that he was left with only 600 men against an innumerable host. Finally, Saul felt he couldn’t wait any longer. God and Samuel had their way, but if Saul didn’t do something soon, there wouldn’t be anyone left to fight the Philistines! So, Saul offered the burnt offering on his own (only priests were supposed to do this).
- No sooner than Saul finished, Samuel showed up. “What have you done?” Samuel asked. Saul excused himself, “What did you expect me to do? The people were leaving, the Philistines were on the verge of attacking, and you didn’t show up when you said you would, so I forced myself and offered the sacrifice.”
- Can you see the disappointment on Samuel’s face? “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of God. Don’t you realize he would have established your kingdom forever? But not anymore. God sought out a man after his own heart to lead his people—” and then Samuel turned around and left. Just like that, Saul lost his right to be king. Kids, God is gracious, but that is how fast you can ruin your life. Samuel and God had left Saul, and now he had to face the biggest army anyone had ever seen on his own with 600 men. And the 600 men didn’t even have swords or spears —just sharpened farm tools. Raiders from the Philistines started ravaging the land uncontested. No weapons, no prophet, no God.
The Story (1 Samuel 14)
- And so, Saul went back home to sit underneath a pomegranate tree. And, whether this was ignorance or intention, when God rejected Saul, he sought out a priest rejected by God (grandson of Eli, son of Phinehas), grabbed the ark of the covenant, and together they playacted like God was with them. There’s a lesson here - when we mess up bad and sin, there’s a temptation roll around in the mud: surround ourselves with more rejects, act like God is with us, and call those who are actually righteous a bunch of posers.
- But Jonathan couldn’t sit under a pomegranate tree and watch God’s people suffer any longer. He grabbed his armor-bearer and sneaked over to the Philistine outpost nearby without Saul’s knowledge. I love Jonathan’s words. “It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” “Here’s how we will know the Lord is with us: if the Philistines say, “come here” - then the Lord has given us victory! But if they say, “wait there” then we will hold back.”
- When the Philistines saw Jonathan, they started joking. “Hey, look! The Hebrews are starting to come up out of their holes! Hey, you! Come here - we wanna show you something!” Come Jonathan and his armor-bearer did. And when they attacked, they killed 20 men in their first strike. The Philistines panicked. They had no clue what hit them. Imagine what it would be like to see, feel, and hear tens and tens of thousands of troops and their horses panicking. The earth started trembling.
- When Saul heard the Philistines panicking and realized Jonathan was the cause, he rallied the troops and charged into battle. Even the men who were hiding rallied. The Lord rescued Israel that day.
- And yet, though, God was ready to wipe out their enemies, the defeat of the Philistines was small. See, Saul got excited a made a rash vow, “Cursed be the man who eats food until evening comes and I am avenged on my enemies.” Well, naturally, the men grew exhausted and were unable to continue fighting. Three things resulted from this foolish curse.
- Jonathan didn’t know about the vow. So when he saw honey on the ground, he ate it and unknowingly cursed himself and brought sin on Israel.
- When the men told Jonathan about his father’s curse, Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land with his vow - we would have had a great defeat today if the men could have eaten!”
- When evening did come, the men were famished. They pounced on the animals and started eating the meat with the blood in it — which was a big sin in the Law (God said in Leviticus he would “cut off”/kill people who did this).
- So how would Saul deal with the chaos his vow caused?
- First, it seems he did the right thing with the men’s blood eating. He built an altar and told the men to stop sinning. “Bring your animal here and drain the blood.”
- Second, when he discovered that there was more sin in the camp, he vowed again, “Wherever the sin is - even if it is in Jonathan - the sinner will die!” Well, it turned out to be Jonathan. When Jonathan explained how he ate honey without knowing about his father’s curse, Saul replied, “May the Lord do to me even more, you will surely die, Jonathan.”
- But the army rescued Jonathan from Saul. “He has worked with God to bring salvation today!” And thus, when Israel had the Philistines in their most vulnerable position and could have destroyed them, this is how it all ended - with sin and foolishness. And there continued to be hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul.
There is such a mixture of good and bad here. What are we meant to learn from this chaos?
1. The faithless are concerned about numbers and appearances; the faithful are concerned with whether or not God is with them.
- What would you do if there were tens of thousands of trained warriors on the other side and you have an army, but they are quickly dwindling? Do you trust numbers, or do you trust God? I think we can tend to sympathize with Saul. Saul obeyed for seven days, then he panicked and disobeyed. But what did Samuel expect? Saul couldn’t sit around looking like a weak leader. What Saul did was natural. It is natural to say with Saul, “God’s law is good until real life happens — then you need to start getting creative.” How easily we can forget - how easily leaders forget - that there is a crown more powerful than them.
- Yet, when Jonathan had only one person with him, he said, “It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” Jonathan’s imaginative faith is so inspiring. He put himself in a tough situation trying to do what was right, not knowing if God would work for them but knowing God could work for them.
- Once he knew, he charged with his armor-bearer… while Saul sat under a tree with a rejected priest. Jonathan did this because God’s power spoke louder than the numbers.
- We may sympathize with Saul, but God didn’t sympathize with him. Why is faith is so hard here?
- 13:8-9 — Saul saw and acted based on what he saw rather than on what God said. Sometimes we can get way too connected to the facts and the numbers before us and forget that God can work with or outside of the facts. If the 12 apostles would have obsessed over the math, we wouldn’t know Jesus today. 2nd Corinthians 4:18, “Look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
- 13:13 — Saul thought more about how he could affect the outcome of this one battle right now more than about how - if he would obey - God could establish him and his family forever.
- Can’t we do that too? In the heat of the trial or test, we only think about the outcome we want right now, but we forget that if we will slow down, trust, and obey God’s ways, he will bring us and our families safely through every trial that could ever come against us.
- Let’s take a cue from Jonathan. We don’t have to know what God will do or how everything will play out — we just need to do God’s will and have the courage to say with Jonathan, “God can save by many or by few.” This isn’t blind optimism, it’s love for God’s people and faith. Who knows what God could do with our courageous acts of love, with scary attempts to use our gifts, with uncomfortable words with our neighbor about Jesus, with this difficult work or project to help God’s people. Let’s not be defined by our sensitivity to how things look, but our awareness of God’s awesome power to work through us if we will let him. We simply don’t know what good God could bring. “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.”
2. Fools act rashly and give more attention to their own instructions than to God’s law.
- Why did Saul make this rash vow? It seems like the best explanation is that he is trying to force God’s hand to be with them. What do you do when God’s prophet has left you and you know nothing you are doing is pleasing to God? Call for a fast. And pronounce a curse on anyone who disobeys your pious orders. Then, when your harsh rules are broken, condemn those who were not as righteous as you in keeping your made-up rules.
- Aside from Saul’s reasoning, there’s something not right here. When the men pounced on the meat and ate it with blood, Saul rectified this sin against God. When Jonathan unknowingly ate before the fast was over, he called for the death penalty. If the sin of eating blood that Saul led the men into can be rectified by repentance, how much more should Jonathan’s unintentional breaking of Saul’s rash vow and curse be able to be rectified with repentance!
- This is a mess. This reminds me of how Jephthah’s rash vow led to the death penalty on his own daughter. This sounds like the days of the judges - except that there is finally a king in Israel, but everyone is still doing what is right in their own eyes.
- There isn’t much to say here except this: this sort of chaos is exactly what happens when God’s word becomes small in our eyes and we start trying to forge out own path with our own ideas and rules. The confusing thing is this: Saul sounds super religious/pious when he calls for Jonathan’s execution over breaking Saul’s made up law. Notice verse 44, “May God do so to me and even more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.”
- Brothers, sisters: if we want to be right with God and we want him to give us success, we need to see God and his word as massive. We need to know him, his word, trust him, and obey him. We don’t need to make up pious rules or philosophies and then strictly enforce them upon others. This looks super pious, but it only harms God’s people.
Finally, there’s this curious tension throughout the text: Saul sinned, God will no longer be with Saul to perpetuate his kingship, and yet God still saves Israel on this day. Furthermore, the end of chapter 14 tell us that Saul continued fighting Israel's enemies successfully. This shows us two things:
3. Historical success is not a good gauge for covenantal status with God. Saul’s men ran from him, so it looked like God wasn’t with him when he was; then Saul had victory later, so it looked like God was with him when he wasn’t. We can and should learn from both challenging and successful times, but appearances and historical success is not a good gauge of our relationship status with God. It’s tough though - because if we do use our success as a relationship gauge, it makes us feel like we have a measure of control over God.
4. God can abandon a person or leader without abandoning everyone. If you ever feel like you are surrounded by faithless people and led by faithless fools, take courage: God can still work his purposes. He can still be with the congregation. I love Jonathan’s courage to see that. He doesn’t stop trusting the Lord despite his father’s lack of faith. It’s tough to work for God’s kingdom when you have no way to talk to God, no prophets to help, and no leaders with faith. And yet, no matter how foolishly or faithlessly everyone else is around you, God can still do great things through people who have faith to make Jonathan’s words their own. “Come, let us go over 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.”