WRONG CHOICES ARE DESTRUCTIVE
In this and the next but one chapter, we are about to negotiate the narrative of two incidents in the life of Saul and its bearing on what God had said through Samuel to Saul. It is a sad tragedy. If I knew Saul personally, instead of simply reading it in the bible, I would cry. I would shake him and plead with him. I would shout and stop him at crucial moments of his life. And in this chapter we have the first moment of madness that was to start his plummeting downwards. Not of fate, mark me, but of his own personal choice. It is that matter of choice that makes the story so upsetting. It wasn’t that Saul accidentally fell into disobedience, he chose his direction and jumped. None of us sin accidentally. He did not fall into a pit he didn’t see. He saw the pit, examined the pit, and jumped into the pit willfully. The repercussions are simply horrific. Sin is not accidental – it is deliberate. We are not responsible for true “accidents.” The world is full of many people who shake a fist at “accidents” that were actually their own fully thought out and chosen route of action. We are all fully responsible for our choices. These two stories that we are about to negotiate are all about Saul willfully and intelligently making horrific choices and reaping the results for those choices. Rest assured that nobody mocks God and gets away with evil, no matter what or how it seems to our sight and information received. We live amongst a generation that thinks with their eyes and believes with their emotions. That, in itself, precipitates all kinds of wrong beliefs and actions. Whatsoever a man sows that is what he shall reap. When we make sinful choices, we sow to the wind, but, what we reap is the whirlwind. God give us mercy in this process. Saul reached for the gnot, but finished up swallowing the camel of destruction.
Saul! Saul! Oh if I could only have been there to speak to you. If Saul had conducted himself differently than he did on these two instances, Saul’s dynasty would have been as celebrated today as is David’s now. In fact, had Saul walked circumspectly in these two issues that we are about to see, none of us would know who David was, or is. Saul would be the heroic definitive essence of Jewish history and religious culture.
So let’s go and catch up with Samuel in the next instance that we see him in. In following the prophet we are now walking with him, howbeit possibly through the Philistine battle lines. The whole story is a strange one, and no full explanation of it all is given in the scriptures.
REMEMBER AND ACT ON PROPHECY RECEIVED THOUGH IT TAKES YEARS TO FULFILLMENT
So where do we start to explain this complex context? Well! Let’s go back to where we just left him in the last sound byte of our story. Samuel has seemingly attempted to step down out of the limelight as far as governmental leadership is concerned, but there is one prophetic word he has spoken to Saul that has not yet been fulfilled.
To see this we need to go back to that moment when Samuel poured oil on Saul’s head and told him he was to be king. It was the day after Saul was told that his father’s donkeys had been found. The prophet told him about all the things that would happen on Saul’s route home, signifying that what Samuel was saying was the word of the Lord to Saul. In the same breath, having explained all that would happen on that very day, Samuel suddenly takes a telescopic leap with his prophetic word to an undefined moment of time and said, “You will go down before me to Gilgal, and behold, I will come down to you, to offer burnt sacrifices, sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days shall you wait for me till I come, and I will show you what you shall do.” When, how and what was that all about?
This is truly amazing.
The importance of those words must surely have been stressed and even repeated whenever Saul and Samuel met after that day. This is not actually stated, but that must have happened, or when Samuel spoke the words there was some heavy duty anointing of the Spirit that made the words unforgettable. In plain terms, imagine being present when somebody is telling you what is about to happen to you throughout your working day. You would listen and remember, and then when everything happens as per the prediction you would be in a state of amazement and conclude that God had spoken to you, and the man that spoke was speaking prophetically. But there is a little more to the account. Without a pause, however, I suspect with a sudden change of tone in Samuel’s voice, the prophet talks to the same person about waiting for him at Gilgal and not to be tempted to make a sacrifice, but to wait for Samuel to arrive to make the afore mentioned sacrifice. Without any comment as to the time and the context of history. Three years later, at least, Saul found himself at Gilgal, and thus remembered and waited for Samuel’s arrival. Even if my conjecture is in error here, Saul had this word in his mind so strongly, that when he was in Gilgal, under great stress, he simply knew he was waiting for the prophet, as predicted such a long time previous.
There is a good chance that in the midst of any gathering of Israel to go to battle, there was an unwritten law in the psyche of the people that they must all meet at Gilgal. So with this prophetic word having been discussed, meditated on and thought about for something like thirty six months at the very least, Samuel knew either by discussion with Saul, the “grapevine,” or by supernatural means, he had to be at Gilgal on a certain day.
So! What we will do now is recount briefly the story that brought about this scenario. In the build up to this fateful moment in Israel’s history, we are not told of Samuel’s involvement at all.
THE BUILD UP TO CATASTROPHE
First Samuel 13 starts: Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel. This is one of those sections of the bible where the scrolls are vague on the subject of numbers. Ellicott’s commentary gives what I accept as the best solution. He says that the usually accepted meaning is that Saul had reigned one year when the events related in chapter twelve took place. Then, after he had reigned two years he had chosen out his personal guard, and then did what is thus related in this chapter. This is a legitimate preface to the story. It lets us know that no matter how distant the promises of God might be, when believed on and walked in they will come to pass. You might forget what God says, but He will not.
Saul chose him three thousand men of Israel. This statement gives us a key to this piece of history. Why did Saul do this?
If it was for no other reason than to create a personal bodyguard it was a crass error. The expense of such recruitment was truly disproportionate to the need. It was an affront to the masses (330,000) who aided with the defeat of the Ammonites, so recently celebrated at Jabesh Gilead. Why train such a small crack battalion of troops? Why not send teachers to train the whole nation?
One of the answers to this question is the lack of arms among the Israeli’s. But we go ahead of ourselves. These three thousand men were both body guard and “national SAS troops.” With such a number of finely honed commandos they could inflict considerable damage on the Philistine infrastructure as well as create the new “image” of monarchical power and splendour that it would seem Saul wanted to portray.
Trouble would have come, however, if and when, the Philistines instigated a total war effort to rid the world of “Nasty Israel.” The “Sea peoples” were undoubtedly still living with memories of Samson, and Samuel’s earlier success when Israel gave the Philistines a “whipping” at Aphek. In such a situation of a Philistine attack the body mass of the twelve tribes would be beckoned, and the whole “jealousy and pride”, “superiority and inferiority,” dynamics of human relationships would impact the morale of the nation escalating any confrontation on the battlefield to apocalyptic importance. There would be three thousand trained troops who considered themselves, ”The Business,” and masses of fighting farmers who considered themselves, “green,” and surplus to needs. This was overall, I believe, not a good idea of the king. It may have been a decision made on financial lack for a defence policy.
In any case, the fact was that Israel now had a personally conscripted standing army of three thousand. Saul started something here that David and Solomon developed to perfection. In the days of Saul’s immediate successors it ultimately made Israel one of the greatest powers in the Middle East. They might have learned their trade on nobody but Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites and Edomite (read 1 Samuel 13 &14) but Saul left a seriously trained fighting machine, trained wonderfully well for war, deficient only in numbers and arms.
In the context of the story, this first verse is inserted to let us know that this 3000 elite soldiers had a negative effect on what we are about to be told.
“Whereof two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in mount Bethel …” Michmash was a strategically placed site about nine miles north-east of Jerusalem. It would seem Saul was holding back the Philistine hordes from this camp.
“… And a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin.” This is the first biblical mention of the great man Jonathan. Jonathan was based by his father King at his home town “Gibeah of Benjamin.” This was undoubtedly because the philistines were permeating the land of Canaan round about Benjamin’s territory, and the King’s home town needed to be held for the sake of the morale of the nation, i.e. “if the king lost his home to the enemy, what hope do the rest of the nation have?”
“And the rest of the people he sent every man to his tent.” Here’s another crucial question that can be answered by nothing but conjecture! Why did he send folks home? If they had war with the Philistines all the years of Saul’s reign, why group three thousand only and ditch the rest? In defence of Saul, it has to be conceded that it is hard to keep a nation in “war mode” for over long. Joshua had the same problem. But the people must have turned out ready to fight or they could not have been sent home. It is possible that Saul could see that they had no skills or arms to match the other war machines of the neighbouring nations, especially the philistines.
“And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba.” So the first falling domino of our story starts here. While all this basis of the three thousand and their respective camps was established, the Philistines were astride the vital pass that led to the Hebrew dominated highlands, namely Geba.
Jonathan never puts a foot wrong in the whole of scripture. He seems to be the perfect warrior. And this attack must have been extremely effective in breaking the minds of the five Philistine kings, for they determined to respond in the most dreadful of warlike attacks. Matthew Henry wrote, centuries ago, in quite the opposite perspective. He thought that this attack by Jonathan and his thousand men was a total mistake, and one that brought about the attack from the Philistines, and hence the downfall of his father. I think not! War was the normal, “name of the game,” in the days of which we are talking! Who struck the first blow is not really an issue. As per the political scene of today, the Philistines did not consider the right of Israel to exist a legitimate or legal concept. Israel’s attitude to the Philistines (or Palestinians) was not the same. Israel did not deny the other nations the right to exist, but they did deny them the right to any of the land promised to them by God Himself. This same story is being played out in the state of Israel even as I write.
The Philistines reacted strongly. “And the Philistines heard of it.” Then the king realised the dynamics of a scenario that had been created by Jonathan, and realised he needed more troops. “Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land.” The trumpet would seem to be more than a declaration of good news and the triumph of Jonathan’s action. It was meant as a rallying call for all fighting men to come to the king’s aid … at Gilgal. He wanted the men he had sent home, now to leave their homes again and to fight. Saul sent saying, “Let the Hebrews hear,” and all Israel heard say that “Saul had smitten a garrison of the Philistines…” Even though we are just told that the victory was activated by Jonathan, still, typical of Jonathan’s spirit as presented in the rest of scripture, he credited his father with the victory as Commander–in–Chief. Either that, or Saul willfully stole the glory. “… and that Israel also was had in abomination with the Philistines.”
The hatred that the Philistines held towards the Israeli’s is often highlighted throughout the book of Samuel. This would, at moments of weakness, dominate and ravage the morale of Israel. Not only did the Philistines respond in hatred and a quest for vengeance, but they came in great force and magnitude.
And so, “the people were called together after Saul to Gilgal.” Saul withdrew from Michmash, and probably out of deference, to the long standing holy place at Gilgal. This was far removed from the front line near to Philistine fortresses. The gathering of the people to their king was as quickly activated as with the earlier call, as well as the later dispersal.
On the south West bank of the Jordan River, slightly north-east of Jericho was the city of Gilgal. Gilgal seems to have been the very first settlement of Israel on the West bank of the Jordan. All through Joshua’s day it was the assembly spot, the HQ of Israel, if you will. Its practical importance dissipated when government was transferred to Jerusalem, but Amos 5 :5, and Hosea 4:15 and 9:15 suggest it was still considered holy to the Jews in Samuel’s time. Gilgal was a large flat plain and easily attacked. It was a piece of land defended with great difficulty.
No matter how expert or otherwise Saul was in his war strategy, Samuel’s well remembered prophetic word, some three years earlier, stopped him from moving. The word was that he would have to wait seven days before Samuel came to tell him how to meet the situation. The silent wait was on.
“LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE … BUT HURRY!”
“And the Philistines gathered themselves together to fight Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand on the sea shore: and they came up, and pitched in Michmash, eastward from Bethaven.” The Philistines were pitched where Saul was at the start of our narrative. Of all the accounts in scripture of the Philistines gathering for war, never did they come more numerous, ominous, and ruminous as at this moment. Israel were terrified to put it mildly.
The scene is set for battle, and the Philistines were grouped for a veritable holocaust to be inflicted on Israel. But no battle was forthcoming from Saul, neither could there be. He had been ordered, by the word of the Lord to wait for Samuel. He is ready to fight. willing to fight, and had the troops ready for battle, but until Samuel was present nothing would be allowed. The prophetic word had said so, years before. Can you feel the tension?
“When the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait, (for the people were distressed,) then the people hid themselves in caves, and thickets, in rocks, high places, and in pits. And some of the Hebrews went over Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead.” Oh dear! To saul’s physical eyes, this was sheer catastrophe. The national resolve, faith, hope and positive expectancy dissipated and disappeared into the atmosphere in silent cowardice and retreat. Faith needs feeding, folks! Fear is a horrible thing. It gripped all and a sundry in the camp of Israel. Saul also was beginning to tremble. The nation caught the disease of fear from their king.
The sight of the awesome size of the Philistine force, the knowledge of their hatred for Israel, the inability of Israel to have weapons, and sharp ones at that (see verse 19 of the same chapter), the inner national conflicts between the masses and the standing army of 3000 all started to play on people’s minds. Not only was the tension and the pressure too much for the masses to hold (they all fled – and so fearful were they of what was to happen, that they did not even go home) but ultimately Saul was left with a mere 600 troops. Yes indeed, we are talking of potentially 333,000 fighting men, reduced to 600. This meant that at least 2400 of the standing army had fled too. This must have shaken Saul to the foundation of his roots of faith and confidence. Personal self confidence of the king must have gone. People drop dead with this kind of fear. The word picture of grown men hiding in caves and holes out of terror suggests that the fear of what the Philistines would do to them was monstrous in size and imaginative in breadth.
This was the severest of tests for Saul. It would have been the severest test for any king. The panic that ran rampant through the hearts of the Israeli soldiers was thinning the troops as every hour passed. Surely he had heard of Gideon and his few hundred. Surely he knew of Abraham slaying four kings and their armies with 318 men. The point was, that he should have held tight Samuel’s prophetic word, and thus was divinely challenged to believe that the same was about to happen in his day and generation. No matter what his thought processes were, the Word of God had told him to wait seven days for Samuel, and that is exactly what he had initially set out to do – I think. The anxious wait was full of artery busting tension and negative expectancy throughout the entire army of Israel. His resolve was seeping away.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH AND DETERMINATION
“As for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.” The Kings’ courage should have inspired the people. Instead, the people’s fear gripped the King. “He tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed.” Here we have the prophecy of Samuel referred to without explanation as to how it was kept so high in Saul’s consciousness. “But Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him.” There are two questions testing and pressurising Saul.
Number One: Is the King the autocratic ruler of Israel, or is he simply the servant and agent of Yahweh putting His plans and orders into being?
Number two: Could Saul control his impetuous nature?
From the text, it would suggest, that even if they all had stayed, the Israeli army was wildly outnumbered by the Philistines. The point was that the Philistines were quite near and ready for battle. Saul’s army was rapidly depleting, and battle engagement seemed imminent over a horribly tense seven days. The Philistines, obviously, did not know what Samuel had prophesied. Was it reasonable to expect God to restrain the Philistines from attack? Why not? Saul obviously did not think so. For at the point of the seventh day of waiting, with only a short period before the end of the day, Samuel had not arrived. The elastic band of the king’s nerves was stretched beyond its limit. His peace was gone, his faith was gone. He was seeing the situation in terms of mathematics and from a human point of view, instead of from the divine perspective. That is how his decision was made. We will all have to answer for decisions we make from a human point of view. Saul’s nerve snapped.
“And Saul said, “Bring a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering.” Oh dear! Get into the story. Feel the passionate fear of the whole graphic. Thousands upon thousands of well armed tall fighting Philistines were creeping up on the Israeli’s. Saul’s force was reducing and reducing till they only had 600 men who did not have arms, chariots, or armour. The fear is dark and dismal. Saul has waited seven days. The seventh day had not ended, but Saul’s patience and faith had. Perhaps he thought, “If I wait any longer I will be facing the Philistines on my own.” Possibly he reasoned, “If the three thousand hand picked army had crumbled to six hundred, what chance do we have at all?” Frankly stated: Fear was larger than faith in Saul’s heart. His fear knotted thoughts contagiously gripped the fighting men that were still there. The murmuring cowardice of the people spoke louder than the prophetic word of God spoken by Samuel. In an action that could not have taken more than 5-10 minutes, Saul called for the animal and offered the sacrifice.