v.1 The Ammonites lived in the Transjordan, the country east of the Jordan, and represented the other military danger that Israel faced in those days. The Ammonites to the east, the Philistines to the west.
Now, it is very interesting that the copy of Samuel that was unearthed with the Dead Sea Scrolls has additional text prior to our v. 1. It reads: “And Nahash, king of the Ammonites, oppressed the Gadites and the Reubenites mightily and gouged out the right eye of every one of them and imposed fear and terror on Israel, and there remained not a man of the Israelites beyond the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, did not gouge out. Only seven thousand men fled from the Ammonites and came to Jabesh-Gilead. And after about a month…” then the text follows as we have it in v. 1. There are reasons to doubt that we should regard this additional material as original and reasons to regard it as authentic. Hard to know. Jabesh-Gilead was itself in the Transjordan, so made a natural target.
The loose trial confederation that was Israel in those days is indicated by the fact that a single town proposed to make its own treaty arrangements with the Ammonites.
v.2 The Qumran text I cited above agrees with information given by Josephus that The Ammonites had been systematically enslaving the population of Israel in the Transjordan (remember, two and a half tribes had settled there) and reducing the population to make it less a threat. That would explain why Nahash had no interest in showing clemency to Jabesh-Gilead. According to Josephus the right eye was gouged out because – most men being left-handed – the shield being held in the left hand blocked the sight of the left eye and so, if a man were blind in his right eye, he was virtually useless in battle.
v.3 Nahash’s acquiescence to this proposal proceeded probably from his arrogant assumption that no deliverer would be found to challenge him and as a means further to humiliate the Israelites in his territory. These would have to surrender to him without a fight because they had no hope of defying him.
v.4 There was a natural tie, through inter-marriage, between Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe, if you remember the story in the last chapter of Judges. Gibeah would remain Saul’s capital throughout his reign. But, it is entirely possible, of course, that the messengers come straight to Gibeah because Saul is to be found there, and they know that Saul is Israel’s new king.
The farmer who saved the nation is a part of the history of many nations. “Cincinnatus at the plow” among the Romans, is another example.
v.6 This is what happened to Othniel, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson
v.7 The act of cutting up the animal was a form of curse well-known in the ANE. The Lord himself makes use of it in Gen. 15, if you remember. Cutting up the animals amounted to his saying to Abraham, “let this be done to me, may I be dismembered and exposed, if I do not keep the promise I have made to you.” Adding Samuel’s name to his own strengthens the authority of his appeal.
This is a kingly act. The Judges depended upon volunteers. Saul is, in effect, instituting conscription. As one commentator bluntly put it: “Kings, like Mafia capos, operate through coercion: Saul, in sending the hacked-up oxen parts to his fellow Israelites with the threat, ‘Whoever does not come out…thus will be done to his oxen,’ is presenting them with an offer they cannot refuse.” [Alter, Com., 62]
v.8 The most likely location of Bezek suggests that Saul mustered the Israelite army at a point just across the Jordan from Jabesh-Gilead. By the way, the totals for Israel and Judah indicate that the text as we have it hearkens from a time after the division of the kingdom into north and south.
v.10 This ploy is obviously intended to lull the Ammonites into a false sense of security and make them ill-prepared to sustain Saul’s attack the next morning. It is interesting that the Bible never condemns such deceit in the prosecution of a righteous war.
v.11 The sense that the Lord was with them didn’t mean that they shouldn’t employ the best military tactics. The attack in the early morning – the last watch of the night was from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. – was designed to catch the enemy off guard. This is akin to Oliver Cromwell’s instructions to his Puritan troops in the English civil war: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry!”
v.13 The LXX reads “Samuel” instead of Saul. Some scholars are inclined to read with the LXX rather than the Hebrew text, as we have said there are reasons for doing at other places in these chapters. It makes some difference in one’s view of Saul, for example, whether we find here an act of magnanimity on Saul’s part here or whether that leadership in doing good, once again, falls to Samuel. It is interesting, for example, that later Saul shows a ruthless streak in dealing with anyone whom he suspects of disloyalty. But that may be evidence of the disintegration of his personality from its earlier promise as demonstrated here.
v.15 There was first the clandestine anointing, then the tribal assembly at Mizpah where Saul was dragged from hiding among the baggage – but, after which he seemed to return to private life – and now, after the great victory, a public formal coronation, after which Saul’s reign begins to acquire the trappings of royalty and a court.
Now we pointed out last Lord’s Day evening, in our consideration of chapter 10, that Saul was reluctant to undertake the summons the Lord had issued him. He refused to take up the opportunity God gave him to set upon a small Philistine garrison, even though he had been equipped with the power of God. Interestingly, and obviously very importantly, Jonathan, Saul’s son will later do precisely what Saul failed to do – take on a small outpost of Philistines virtually single-handed.
But now, handed a battle by the Lord, against not the Philistines but the Ammonites, Saul finally acts decisively. To be sure, battle against the Ammonites was, in all probability, not nearly so fearful a prospect as attacking the Philistines.
In any case, Saul functions as a king, leads Israel in victory, and is recognized by the people with still greater and wider enthusiasm as the King of Israel. He has still done nothing in regard to the Philistines.
The significance of this chapter in the larger narrative of Saul’s accession to the throne is important in two respects: first it is the demonstration of the divine appointment of Saul to the royal office and second it sets the stage for what follows by, once more, providing the background against which a contrast can be drawn. For Saul is not nearly so brave and does not act nearly so decisively when he faces the Philistines in chapter 13 as he did here against the Ammonites. It shows us some promise and then, we must learn later, that this promise went unfulfilled. It makes Saul’s eventual failure to obey and to act still more inexcusable.
Of course, the reader of Samuel reads chapter 11 knowing full well how the story turns out. It increases his frustration that Saul behaved so badly so soon thereafter and proved the coward when God had shown him how ready he was to lead Saul to victory. But, for just this reason, along the way, this reminds us of something important. You remember that most solemn text in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” [Matt. 7:21-23]
The Bible never denies that bad men may, from time to time, and to some extent do good things, may even be the Lord’s instrument of blessing to his people or judgment in the world. These men, though they lacked saving faith, prophesied, drove out demons, and worked miracles. Perhaps it is not so difficult to imagine why they assumed that God must be pleased with them and would receive them. But, at some key point, in some critical ways, the Lord Jesus said, they did not do the will of his Father in heaven. And, for that reason, all the prophesying and miracle-working amounted to nothing. They were rejected.
And, if you remember you biblical history, this phenomenon is encountered frequently. It is not only Saul who does something quite noble or praiseworthy in the midst of a life that is fundamentally unfaithful.
Take the interesting case of Jehu, for example. The commander of Jehoram’s army – Jehoram remember was the son of the wicked King Ahab – Jehu was anointed king of Israel at the instruction first of Elijah and then Elisha. His mandate was to destroy the house of Ahab. And that he did with alacrity and enthusiasm. At his command Jezebel was killed. He massacred all seventy of Ahab’s descendants. He was supposed to exterminate the worship of Baal in Israel. This he did, by and large. But when the killing was done, Jehu tolerated the corrupt practices of the worship of Yahweh that was connected to the bull idols at Dan and Bethel (2 Kgs. 10:29-31). At the last, he did not bring Israel back to the living God and quite soon the nation was subjugated to Syria. Jehu’s case is not unlike that of Saul. He did some things that he was called upon to do, but at the key points he revealed a character that was not loyal to God and not formed by faith in the Lord and his promised faithfulness to his people.
There are a good many such figures in biblical history. For that matter, even Ahab, one of the most wicked of all the kings of Israel and Judah, did something right. When he heard of the impending judgment of the Lord for his wickedness, he “repented” – at least superficially he sorrowed for the wrong he had done, and for that God rewarded him by not bringing the judgment against Israel in Ahab’s own lifetime.
The point is, everyone has something to say in his behalf. Every professing Christian, however unfaithful his life may be at its core, can point to this or that that seems to place him in a better light. Nowadays, in our intensely subjective world of feelings, we often are told that such a person is sincere, even if they rarely do what they should. A very typical step we take is to compare ourselves to others and to point out that we are not as bad as that person. We have more to our credit than he or she. I have seen this many times now in the pastorate of this church. We will face someone with the fact that in some serious way he has betrayed his calling as a Christian. And he will reply, “But, I have done this and this. In fact, I do this other thing better than many of the people in this church!” But, you see, the worst devil but one in hell can still say, “I am not as bad as he.”
We must take care and heed the story of Saul and the other similar warnings in the Bible. It is not enough that at one time or another we did this or that, or that we always do this or that as Christians, when it is perfectly clear that at the key points of testing we are disloyal to God rather than loyal to him. This will be the lesson of Saul. And it is the point the Lord Jesus makes in the sermon on the mount.
Martin Luther wrote somewhere:
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the solder is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefields besides, is more flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
Saul could best the Ammonites until he was blue in the face. He had been summoned and commissioned and commanded and empowered to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines. Until he did that by faith he had not proved his faithfulness to God. And Saul never did that. No doubt he wanted credit for the battle against the Ammonites. He would have had it too, had he then gone in faith against the Philistines, but he never did and lost the credit of his Ammonite victory as well, for it made his failure against the Philistines only the more obvious, the more blameworthy, the more inexcusable.
Saul is like those people described in the NT who come into the circle of the gospel, embrace it, and actually experience some of its power, its joy, its glory. But they do not then continue through years to follow the Lord in faith and obedience. What they once experienced, what they once said, what they once confessed, what they once did, does not exonerate them for their failure to be the Lord’s true disciples, it makes their sin of infidelity still worse. That is the Lord’s point in the Sermon on the Mount and that is the effect of Saul’s victory at Jabesh Gilead.
No one can rest on past laurels in the Christian life. No one is free to choose which of God’s commands he will obey. No one is allowed to determine himself how he or she will serve the Lord. It is the Lord’s to command, it is ours to obey. And true and living faith will obey – not perfectly, of course, but really, over the entire range of God’s will.
There is a warning here for all of us, surely. We all wish to pick and choose. We will do this and this as Christians, but here the Lord asks too much of us. We see this in evangelicalism everywhere today. We will believe this and this that the Bible teaches, but for modern folk such as ourselves, this is too much to believe, this is more than we can believe. But we see it in ourselves as well: this tendency to pick and choose where we will serve the Lord, where we will obey, and where we will not. And when we do that, we may very well, seem to ourselves and to others to be very faithful folk. After all, we are doing so much for the Lord, we are so faithful at many things. But they are the things we have chosen.
That is why, by the way, I think the experience of besetting sins is so universal in Christian experience. There are always places in our lives where the battle rages, where our loyalty to Christ and his Word are being explicitly tested. These are the hard spots for us. Different people struggle at different places. Some struggle to be sober while others are never tempted to drink. Some are constantly staggered by sexual temptation, others by the love of money, others by anger, others by the desire for security, others by an invincible interest in oneself, and so on. And all of us want very much to minimize the havoc of our besetting sins, at least upon our own conscience and our own fears, by toting up all the obedience we can point to. We give faithfully to the church, we attend faithfully, perhaps we even share our faith, so the fact that we constantly yell at our wives, or the fact that we have spent ourselves into debts we cannot pay, or the fact that we give way to lust far too often, or the fact that we do not attend to our children, or our neighbor, or to prayer, or the fact that we play the coward before our unbelieving friends and workmates shouldn’t count so much against us.
That is a recipe, we are being told here, for disaster. It is where the battle is being waged that the loyalty of the soldier is being tested, and faithfulness elsewhere is nothing if at the point of testing one turns and runs over and over again.
Don’t you make Saul’s mistake and imagine that doing something right cancels out the wrong that lies far too much at the heart of our lives. No, nothing cancels that out but the constant effort to obey, to trust the Lord for the strength he promises by his grace, and then to obey, to obey at precisely that point where we know – and we do know – where our obedience will count the most.