What follows in these verses is a kind of odd story. But in the context as we are understanding it, its purpose is clear enough. Saul acts foolishly, creates a situation in which the true hero of the day unwittingly becomes a criminal and has to be rescued by the devotion of the army. Saul is not only not leading the army against the Philistines as he should, he is creating havoc by his foolishness.
v.24 “distress”: the same word is used in 13:6 to describe the misfortune of the Israelites when the Philistine army approached. Now Israel’s “distress” is caused by the foolishness of her own king. The distress is apparently the hunger of the men which they could not satisfy because of Saul’s oath. Saul was a latecomer to the battle and his main contribution, we will now see, is to make a proper mess of Jonathan’s triumph.
v.26 Everyone was hungry, but no one took any honey for fear of the oath. Oaths were taken seriously in the ANE.
v.27 “his eyes brightened”, an “idiom used for the refreshing effect of a taste of food” [Alter, Com, 80] shows the folly of Saul’s oath. He was refreshed as all the men could have been.
v.29 The evaluative viewpoint.
v.30 Once again, Jonathan is wiser and has a better military sense. The men were weak from hunger and couldn’t capitalize on the rout of the enemy.
v.33 Now it is the men of the ranks who violate, this time by a cultic transgression, eating meat with the blood still in it. They waited until evening fell, so as not to violate Saul’s oath, but were so famished they didn’t wait to drain the meat. Slaughtering it on the ground, of course, made draining it more difficult. But, clearly the narrator thinks that this too was the result of Saul’s foolish oath. The blood was ritually sacred, you remember, because it represented life given up, death, and so, in the sacrifices, substitute death to effect redemption.
v.35 So the sacrifice ends up being offered not in thanks for the great victory but to make amends for the wrong that had been done.
v.36 As one commentator puts it, when there was the prospect of Philistine scalps, Saul was less interested in consulting God’s will.
v.37 A sure indication of God’s displeasure.
v.39 Some commentators have thought that Saul already knew that Jonathan was guilty and was manipulating the oracle precisely to dispose of a son who had already demonstrated both an independent streak and a dangerous knack for being a better king than his father. Why otherwise would he specifically mention Jonathan as a possibility? In other words, they think that Saul was prepared to kill Jonathan to protect his throne as he would later be prepared to kill David. I’m not sure about that. I wouldn’t put it past Saul, however.
v.41 It appears that the Urim and the Thummim could provide only binary answers, select a choice between two possibilities. It thus required a procedure to reach a conclusion by the process of elimination. So here: between two possibilities…then between two more…
v.43 A trivial act and a punishment out of all proportion to the crime. The NIV has the last words from Jonathan a question. Most commentators take them as a statement: “Here I am, ready to die!”
v.44 It certainly seems revealing that Saul does not show more emotion, more grief that he should have been the cause of his son’s death. There seems already to be the hardness of heart in Saul that we are going to meet in the David episodes.
v.45 The army finds the idea of Jonathan’s execution too preposterous to contemplate. They are not blind. They can see upon which man the favor of the Lord rests.
v.47 As events would prove, Saul had much greater success on the eastern front than on the west. Both he and Jonathan would eventually die in battle with the Philistines. Indeed, at the end of his life and reign the Philistines pose largely the same threat as they did at the beginning.
v.52 The final note indicates the institutionalizing of the monarchy. Saul took Israel’s sons into the army as Samuel said he would (8:10-12). This whole last section is a characteristic ending for the account of Saul’s reign, a formal marker to the conclusion of the Saul story. That, of course, is highly significant insofar as Saul is still the King!
We have in this account, part of the three-chapter-long account of Saul’s reign and part of the explanation for the Lord’s rejection of Saul as King of Israel, some further strokes on the portrait the author is painting for us of a man who does not really believe in God and whose sins always prevail at the key moments. We began this section some weeks ago by pointing out that many sympathetic readers of the Bible have wondered through the ages why Saul was rejected as King for what seem to be, at first glance, rather minor lapses. Nothing as serious, for example, as what David himself would later do in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah.
But, we have argued that a closer and more careful reading of the text has shown us that Saul’s spiritual failure is far more grave than may appear from a more superficial reading and that, in particular, at point after point he is revealed to be without a true faith and a living confidence in God. We have the further demonstration of this same judgment about Saul in this second section of chapter 14.
But that fact enables us to treat this episode as a study in human sin and unbelief. After all, many Christians have read this part of the Bible and wondered what was the big deal, what had Saul done that was so bad that he should have been condemned so severely. Obviously they have not seen what is here to be seen about Saul. And, I suspect, we often fail to observe the same things even in people that we know personally. Here then is a more searching, a more profound, a more accurate, a more useful anatomy of sin, a more sophisticated depiction of its presence in a human life.
We learn, for example, that killing sin, sin that reveals an underlying unbelief, can be and often is mixed together in a life with a great deal that appears to a person’s credit.
You may have noticed that in our reading. It is not that Saul is depicted as all bad, as if there is nothing that he ever does right, nothing for which he could be commended. Not at all. It is Saul, after all, who rebukes the men for their ritual violation, eating meat with the blood still in it, and Saul who provides a remedy, the large stone on which the animals are to be killed and from which the blood can be drained.
And even this narrator, who clearly does not have a positive view of Saul and who has made a point of comparing him very unfavorably with his son, Jonathan, nevertheless is willing to say, in v. 48, that Saul fought valiantly, defeated some of Israel’s enemies, and delivered his country from the oppression those nations had inflicted upon Israel.
The Bible reminds us of this at many points. The Lord has some good things to say about his arch-enemies, the Pharisees. They had much better doctrine at many points than the Sadducees did. They had a zeal for religion that was worthy of emulation. They often were accurate interpreters of the law of Moses, and so on. The Lord could even say of them, on one occasion, “Do what they say but not what they do.”
This is the ambiguity of life that serious Christians must come to terms with sooner or later. We want all unbelievers to be dark and mean and corrupt to a degree obvious to everyone. And we want believers to be clean and kind and pure to a degree obvious to everyone. But it is not so. It has never been so. This has been the typical Christian problem with the Saul history in 1 Samuel. We find enough that seems to be good in Saul and the bad doesn’t appear to us to be so grave. We are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The Scripture, however, does not give him the benefit of the doubt. For, this narrator obviously does not think that the fact that Saul does some things he should have done in any way offsets the behavior that demonstrates his fundamental, basic unbelief in God.
And so it has always been. Barbara Tuchman, in her great book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, gives us an account of one Charles de Blois, a ruler in Brittany. Charles was devoted to piety as it was understood in the medieval church. He wore unwashed clothes crawling with lice; he put pebbles in his shoes, slept on straw on the floor next to his bed, and, after his death, was found to have worn a coarse shirt of horsehair under his armor, and cords wound so tightly around his body that the knots dug into his flesh. By these practices he sought to express contempt for the world, self-abasement, and humility. He confessed his sins every night so that he might not go to sleep in a state of sin. As a ruler he refrained from taxing his people too heavily. Such was his reputation for saintliness that when he undertook to walk barefoot in the snow to a Breton shrine, the people covered his path with straw and blankets, but he took another way at a cost of bleeding and frozen feet, so that for weeks afterward he was unable to walk. That is Charles.
But so is this. He fathered a bastard child. The sins of the flesh did not have to be done without, only repented of afterward. And he was ferocious in pursuit of a dukedom he believed should have been his. He stated his claim to rule below the walls of Nantes by having his siege engines hurl into the city the heads of thirty captured partisans of his rival. He followed the successful siege of another town by the ruthless massacre of 2,000 civilians, men, women, and children.
But is that not simply a more than life-sized portrait of a great many people, including multitudes in the church, whose lives are a mixture of what can be see as good and what is indubitably bad? A family man who is not really honest in his business affairs. A woman who works hard in church ministries but is forever cutting others with her tongue. An evangelist who neglects his own family. A person who gets red in the face talking about right worship in the contemporary church and spends hours in front of a television set entertaining himself watching people sin. An avid Sunday School teacher who runs up bills he cannot pay. A faithful church attendee who drinks himself into a stupor at home twice a week. And on and on.
I do not say that we can infallibly interpret the state of a man’s or a woman’s soul who is such a mixture. I only say that the presence of that which may be commended in a man or woman – even that which may be commended as the behavior of a believer, a Christian – is no proof that the evil in his or her life does not disqualify him or her as a true Christian, does not prove the absence of true faith. There are plenty of souls now in hell that could say they did as much good as Saul!
I should say, as an aside, that very often the good that is done by such “faith weather” Christians doesn’t amount to much. Saul’s victories left his nation in pretty much the same situation it was in before, even though God had shown himself willing to destroy Israel’s enemies with very little help from her! Saul’s altar was another instance of “too little, too late” to make any spiritual difference.
We learn here also that there are characteristic signs of a reigning evil in the heart of a man who professes to be a believer.
Again, I don’t say that we can always detect these signs or interpret them infallibly. I am not interested in teaching you what to look for in others, in any case; I am interested in teaching us all what to look for in ourselves!
- One such sign is a lack of wisdom. A man in whom sin and unbelief are the dominant traits, will in various ways reveal over time that he simply doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand life or how it is to be lived.
That is the picture we are given of Saul from the beginning. And it is confirmed here. He imposes a fast on already famished men and the result is that, being so weakened by their hunger, they are unable fully to capitalize on the rout of the Philistines.
Unable to see the foolishness of what he had done, he actually proposes to execute his own son on the day that Jonathan had led Israel in a great victory over her arch-enemies. His soldiers have to reign him in, virtually rebuking their king in public – an event that has implications for what happens next as we will see next week.
He attempts to consult the will of God and the results are negative, but he fails to gather from this that the rightfulness of his own actions have been brought into doubt. Throughout the entire history of his reign Saul seems to be walking in a moral, spiritual fog. At the crucial points he does not understand what is going on, does not see his own calling, cannot apply the Word of God to his own situation.
How often we see this in people, people in the church! They just don’t get it. Younger Christians and older who cannot see that their dallying with the world is disloyalty to Christ, cannot see that they are reaping what they will not want to sow. Christian parents who just cannot see the rebellion in the behavior of their children, or the need to drive it out of them with consistent discipline. Or, contrarily, parents who cannot see how little they are really loving their children and in what ways their kids betray a craving for that love. Christians who know they should stop sinning in some way, but cannot be made to see that they must, therefore, take certain steps, steps that are entirely within their power to take and would make a vast difference in the strength and force of the temptations they face. They look out on their world and they do not see the landscape “standing out in sunny outline brave and clear,” they do not see the way they should take lying clear before them. Saul was like that and a great many people in the church are as well. And you and I are too often and in too many ways.
Your elders deal with this from time to time. People who cannot be made to see what should be perfectly obvious to any believing man or woman who reads and believes the Bible. And as the culture shifts further and further away from God and his Word there are more and more people in the church who seem completely clueless as to the principles and practices and conduct of true and living faith in Christ, of genuine repentance, and sincere obedience.
Saul was not a wise man. He could not successfully navigate the shoals and reefs of life. That lack of wisdom finally sunk him. Wisdom comes from faith and the fear of God. Saul had far too little of both.
- Another sign of a prevailing principle of unbelief and sin in a heart is the impurity and corruption of motives.
You see it clearly enough in Saul’s case. You see it in the “my” in v. 24. Saul is thinking of the Philistines as his enemies more than God’s enemies, if he is thinking of them at all as God’s enemies. And how much “my” and how little “God’s” there is in our hearts far too much of the time! And how wonderfully a God-ward orientation would clarify things in our minds and hearts. It certainly would have in Saul’s.
And, then, later, his notorious willingness to execute his own son to fulfill the vow he made that was obviously positively sinful in the first place and would be fulfilled only to satisfy a wounded pride – unless, as some have suggested, he intended by executing Jonathan, to rid himself of an important rival to the throne.
Is it not here that we give ourselves away as sinners: in our motives? How little we do first and foremost because we love God, and because we believe in Jesus Christ his Son, and because we do not wish in any way, to any degree to grieve the Holy Spirit! One can fake for a time a Christian life by doing many things that Christians do. But it is very hard to fake Christian motives, because motives lie down deep but effect everything at the surface. I know people who protest their faith in Christ but who never betray any interest in him in their conversation, never seem to care about the things that are truly important to Christians, never respond in the ways that Christians respond. They don’t know how to because the principle of the Christian is not fixed down in their hearts, where the motives are.
This is why the Lord Jesus, in his teaching, always went down to the bottom of things, to our motives. Because that is where the life comes from. “Make the tree good and the fruit will be good.” “Out of the heart flow the issues of life.”
We know, because the Bible tells us, that Saul’s motives were such as to betray the lack of true goodness and true faith in his heart. That is a warning for us. We are never to be content with outward conformity but are to be always searching our motives. “Search me, O Lord, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” [Psalm 139:23-24]
The problem with Saul was not sins. Even David committed some sins that were in themselves worse than Saul’s. Saul’s problem was SIN. The fundamentally selfish and perverted constitution of his heart out of which his behavior flowed and from which his individual acts of sin originated. It is there that true faith works first and foremost to cleanse and renew and make holy; and if there is not true faith and holiness there, there will not be in one’s behavior, no matter that in some ways, usually rather superficial ways, one’s behavior may conform outwardly to Christian expectations.
So we have a man who was scrupulous at some points and utterly worthless at others, but the worthlessness was the key note, the real principle of his life, only somewhat masked by the better things he did, for whatever wrong motives. And that is the issue. The problem is to discover whether true faith, true loyalty to God, true love for his Word and Law can be found and are found in the heart, in the conscience. If so, the sins we still commit will not be the true measure of our lives. If not, the good works we do won’t be either.
Here is the ambiguity of life. Here is the need for serious consideration and examination of our motives, our attitudes, as well as our behavior. Here is the true measure of a Christian – he cares to be right with God all the way down! And, unlike Saul, when he has reason to believe that he has not done God’s will, he repents, he grieves, he turns away from sin to new obedience, absolutely determined that Christ will have his heart and life or no one shall. That will be David. That was not Saul. Is it you? Sometimes others can tell, many times they cannot. But if you will be honest, you can always tell about yourself.
C.S. Lewis, the The Screwtape Letters, has senior devil Screwtape say, in a speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils,”
“It will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by ‘religion’ ever vanishes from the earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”
Here we have an altar builder, a man of scrupulous attention to the ritual law, who was dead in his heart. A text like this is written first to tell us that our true King, the King of Kings, will not be like Saul. It is written in the second place to warn us not to be like him either!