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God is the Lord of all things—and this means that He is Lord of both the inside and the outside of a man. Sin loves to divide them in two, and yet God does not permit it. True faith begins on the inside, but does not rest content until the outside is brought under. If you start with the outside of the cup, what you almost always wind up with is a clean outside and putrid contents. As we seek to live as consistent Christians, we must take into account the example of King Saul.
“Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, Saul chose him three thousand men of Israel; whereof two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in mount Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin: and the rest of the people he sent every man to his tent. And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, Let the Hebrews hear . . .” (1 Sam. 13:1-23).
Summary of the Text
Saul has been established as a king over Israel, with favorable portents. Samuel knew how it would turn out eventually, but he doesn’t try to trip Saul up. Quite the reverse. Saul was apparently crowned one year after his anointing, and this happens several years after that (v. 1). He selected a small standing army of 3000, two thirds of whom were with him, and one third with Jonathan (v. 2). Jonathan takes the battle to the enemy (v. 3), and the Philistines are roused. Saul musters the army. Everybody had heard about the attack on the Philistines and that the Israelites were obnoxious to them (v. 4). They muster at Gilgal. The Philistines then turn out—an enormous number of them (v. 5). The Israelites saw they were in a bad jam and went underground (v. 6). Some fled across Jordan. Those who stayed with Saul were all quivering (v. 7).
Before Saul had become king, Samuel had told him to wait for seven days at Gilgal (when the time came. 1 Sam. 10:8). Saul almost did this, but fell just short. The people were scattering, and so Saul called for the burnt (ascension) offering and the peace offering (v. 9). When he was only half done, Samuel arrives and Saul tries to brazen it out with some excuse-making (v. 10). Samuel asked what he had done, and Saul made excuses (v. 11). Saul said that he forced himself to offer the sacrifices (v. 12). Samuel identifies this rightly . . . as a foolish act (v. 13). This meant that Saul would have no dynasty. God would seek out a man after His own heart (v. 14). With that, Samuel departed and Saul was left with 600 men (v. 15). Saul and his handful were camped across a deep ravine from the Philistines (v. 16). The Philistines came out of their camp in three divisions (vv. 17-18).
The writer backs up for a moment. The Philistines believed in gun control, and controlled the number of smiths (v. 19). The Israelites had to go to the Philistines to have their major equipment furbished (vv. 20-21). This meant that on the verge of battle they had 600 men, 598 of them without arms (v. 22). And so the Philistines came out (v. 23).
The Philistines here had great advantages, both with arms and men. They outnumbered the Israelites, and they were well-equipped. They were as sand on the sea shore in multitude—a promise which had been given to Abraham, and yet which appeared to have been fulfilled in the enemies of God. Things looked grim. Saul is left with only 600 men—the same number that Benjamin had after their great apostasy at Gibeah, Saul’s hometown, when they were on the edge of utter destruction.
We should mention that it is in this chapter that we are introduced to Jonathan, one of the noblest characters in all Scripture. He has command of a third of Saul’s army (v. 2), but we don’t even learn that he is Saul’s son until later (v. 16). Moreover, we see Jonathan as an aggressive warrior (v. 3).
We don’t want to play woulda, coulda, shoulda on our own, as part of a self-condemning logic game. “If only . . .” But we should calculate this way on the basis of how Scripture tells stories. We know that God loves cliffhangers. He stops Abraham when the knife is raised above Isaac. He delivers Israel when the Red Sea water is lapping at their toes, and the armies of Pharaoh are closing in at their backs. He saves Hezekiah when Jerusalem was entirely surrounded. And what does this mean? It means that many have collapsed and given way to temptation when deliverance was right around the corner. Saul calls for the ascension offering and the peace offering. He gets enough of it done to be disobedient (kings were not permitted to be sacrificing priests), but he never even gets to the peace offering. Samuel arrives just then.
And he offered the ascension offering, an offering of entire consecration, because he was not entirely consecrated, and was therefore resting upon external ritual alone. Saul was a mere ritualist, and not someone who performed the prescribed ritual with living faith.
Saul had passed his first test in his battle with the Ammonites in chapter 11. But once established as a warrior king, he fails the next three tests. This chapter contains the first failure, an exercise in sacrificial will-worship. The second is his rash vow in the midst of battle (1 Sam. 14:24). The third and final one was his failure to obey with regard to the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:9). Note that these failures occur in the context of military victories. God does not reckon failures and victories the same way we do. Men often lose their souls while gaining the world, and they often gain their souls while apparently losing everything.
When God asked Adam what he had done, he started in with blame-shifting. “The woman You gave me, she gave me . . .” Fingers love to point outward. Saul does the same thing here, behaving like a new Adam. He blames the people for scattering, and he blames the prophet for being late. Everybody’s problem but mine. He did not respond in repentance. Had he done so, his dynasty might well have been salvaged. But he did not, and it was not.