Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 11:1-15) King Saul shows himself worthy of the Kingdom by his prompt action in the case of the Siege of Jabesh-gilead by the Ammonites. He is universally acknowledged Sovereign.
Then Nahash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against Jabeshgilead: and all the men of Jabesh said unto Nahash, Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.(1) Nahash the Ammonite.—Nahash was king of the children of Ammon (see 1Samuel 12:12). This royal family was in some way related to David (see 2Samuel 17:25; 1Chronicles 2:16-17). At the time of David’s exile owing to the rebellion of Absalom, a son of Nahash the Ammonite is specially mentioned as showing kindness to the fugitive king. Jabesh-gilead was a city situated in Northern Gilead, in the territory assigned to Manasseh. Josephus states that it was the capital of the country of Gilead. The Ammonites were a kindred race to the Moabites, being descended from the same ancestor, the patriarch Lot. They asserted that a portion of their territory had been taken from them by Israel, and in the days of the judges sorely harassed the people. The Judge Jephthah attacked and defeated them with great slaughter.
It was, no doubt, to avenge the disgrace they had suffered at the hands of Jephthah that their warlike monarch, Nahash,—deeming the opportunity a favourable one, owing to the old age of the reigning judge, Samuel,—invaded the Israelitic country bordering upon his kingdom, and besieged the city of Jabesh-gilead.
Make a covenant with us.—The citizens of Jabesh-gilead, feeling their isolation and comparative remoteness from the chief centre of the people, were willing to pay a tribute to the Ammonite king, and made him overtures to this effect.
And Nahash the Ammonite answered them, On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that I may thrust out all your right eyes, and lay it for a reproach upon all Israel.(2) On this condition.—The horrible cruelty of this scornful proposal gives us an insight into the barbarous customs of this imperfectly civilised age. Indeed, many of the crimes we read of in these books—crimes which, to modern ears, justly sound shocking and scarcely credible—are referable to the fact that civilisation and its humanizing influences had made but little way as yet among the nations of the world.
The object of Nahash’s cruelty was to incapacitate the inhabitants of Jabesh from ever further assisting his enemies in war; they would henceforth be blinded in the right eye, while the left eye would be concealed by the shield which fighting-men were in the habit of holding before them.
And the elders of Jabesh said unto him, Give us seven days' respite, that we may send messengers unto all the coasts of Israel: and then, if there be no man to save us, we will come out to thee.(3) Give us seven days’ respite.—This kind of proposal has always in time of war been a common one; such a request from a beleaguered fortress we meet with constantly, especially in mediæval chronicles. It was, no doubt, made by the citizens in the hope that Saul the Benjamite, in whose election as king they had recently taken a part, would devise some means for their rescue. Between Benjamin and the city of Jabesh-gilead there had long existed the closest ties of friendship. How far back this strange link between the southern tribe and the distant frontier town dated, we know not. When Israel was summoned “as one man” (Judges 21), probably under the direction of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, to avenge on Benjamin the crime committed by the men of Gibeah, Jabesh-gilead alone, among the cities of Israel—no doubt, out of its friendship for the sinning tribe—declined to obey the imperious summons, and for this act of disobedience was rased to the ground, and its inhabitants put to the sword. The tribes, however, subsequently regretted their remorseless cruelty in their punishment of Benjamin, and feared lest their brother’s name might perish out of the land; mindful, then, of the old loving feeling which existed between the city of Jabesh-gilead and the tribe of Benjamin, they gave the maidens of the ruined city spared in the judicial massacre perpetrated on the citizens, to the fighting remnant of Benjamin, still defending themselves on the impregnable Rock of the Pomegranate, “Rimmon,” and did what was in their power to restore the ruined and broken tribe. Jabesh-gilead seems to have risen again from its ashes, and Benjamin once more held up its head among the tribes of Israel, and just now had given the first king to the people. No wonder, then, that the city in the hour of its sore need and deadly peril should send for succour to Gibeah in Benjamin, and to Saul, the Benjamite king. Neither the tribe nor the king failed them in their distress.
Then came the messengers to Gibeah of Saul, and told the tidings in the ears of the people: and all the people lifted up their voices, and wept.(4) Then came the messengers to Gibeah.—In the preceding verse we read that it was resolved by the beleaguered city to send messengers to all the coasts of Israel, but we only hear of the action taken by Saul in Gibeah. It therefore may be assumed that this was the first city they sent to, not only on account of their ancient friendship with Benjamin, but because Gibeah was the residence of the newly-elected sovereign, Saul.
And all the people lifted up their voices, and wept.—This is exactly what might have been expected from Benjamites hearing of the terrible straits into which the city they all loved so well, and which was united to them by such close bonds of friendship and alliance, was reduced; but though they grieved so deeply, they do not seem of themselves to have been able to devise any plan for its relief, until their great fellow-citizen took the matter in hand.
And, behold, Saul came after the herd out of the field; and Saul said, What aileth the people that they weep? And they told him the tidings of the men of Jabesh.(5) And, behold, Saul came after the herd out of the field.—Saul was still busied with his old pursuits. At first this would seem strange, but it must be remembered that the regal authority was something quite new in republican Israel, and that the new king’s duties and privileges at first were vague, and but little understood; besides which, jealousies, such as have already been noticed (1Samuel 10:27), no doubt induced Saul and his advisers to keep the royalty in the background till some opportunity for bringing it to the front should present itself. It is, therefore, quite to be understood that the newly-elected king should be spending at least a portion of his time in pursuits which hitherto had occupied his whole life. He was not the first hero summoned from agricultural labours to assume, in a national emergency, the command of an army. Gideon, we read, was called from the threshing-floor to do his great deeds; and to quote from profane history, one of the noblest of the sons of Rome, like Saul, was ploughing when the Senate fetched him to be the dictator and the general of their armies; and to the plough we know that that great man returned when his work was successfully accomplished and his country saved.
And the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly.(6) And the Spirit of God came upon Saul.—Nothing, perhaps, could have moved Saul so deeply as this news respecting the distress of Jabesh-gilead; he was affected not merely by the disgrace to Israel over which the Eternal had so lately directed him to be anointed king, but by the sore peril which menaced the ancient friend and ally of his tribe. On Saul’s heart, thus prepared for action, the Holy Spirit fell, and endued him with extraordinary wisdom, valour, and power for the great and difficult work which lay before him.
We read of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon men like Othniel (Judges 3:10) and the other great Israelitic judges, who were raised up to be in their day the deliverers of the people; and the immediate result of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon them was to impart new and unusual power to their spirit, power which enabled them successfully to surmount every danger and difficulty which barred the progress of the great work they were specially called upon to do.
And he took a yoke of oxen, and hewed them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the coasts of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen. And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.(7) A yoke of oxen.—In a moment all the great powers of Saul, hitherto dormant, woke up, and he issued his swift commands in a way which at once showed Israel that they had got a hero-king who would brook no trifling. In that self-same hour, striking dead the oxen standing before his plough, he hews them in pieces, and handing a bloody strip to certain of the men standing around him, weeping for grief and shame and the wrong done to Israel, bade them swiftly bear these terrible war-signals throughout the length and breadth of the land, and by these means to rouse the nation to prompt action.
On this strange war-signal of king Saul, Ewald, in his History of Israel, Book II., section iii. 1 (note), remarks, “how in like manner it was formerly the custom in Norway to send on the war-arrow; and in Scotland a fire-brand, with both ends dipped in blood, was dispatched as a war-token.”
Not improbably Saul cut the oxen into eleven pieces, and sent one to each of the other tribes.
And the fear of the Lord fell on the people.—It was some such mighty awakening under the influence of the Spirit of the Eternal, as is here related of King Saul, which suggested to the poet Asaph the bold but splendid image of the seventy-eighth Psalm, when, after describing in moving language the degradation and bitter woe of fallen Israel, the singer, struck with a new inspiration, bursts forth with “Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine. And he smote his enemies,” &c. (Psalm 78:65). “The people rose as one man” (see margin) against the enemies of their national freedom. It was the same Spirit of the Lord which inspired Saul to put himself at the head of the children of Israel which now laid hold of all the people, lifting them up, and giving them new strength and resistless courage, and the mighty feeling that God was with them.
It was owing to some influence of a similar nature that with scanty numbers, ill-armed and ill-trained, the Swiss won for their land centuries of freedom on memorable fields like Laupen and Morat, though the proudest chivalry of Europe was arrayed against them. it was the same Spirit which impelled the peace-loving traders of the marshes of Holland to rise as one man, and to drive out for ever from their loved strip of fen land the hitherto invincible armies of Spain. No oppressor, though backed by the wealth and power of an empire, has ever been able to resist the smallest people in whose heart has burned the flame of the Divine fire of the “fear of the Lord.”
And when he numbered them in Bezek, the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.(8) Bezek.—Bezek was in the tribe of Issachar, in the plain of Jezreel, an open district, well adapted for the assembling of the great host which so promptly obeyed the peremptory summons of the war-signal of King Saul.
The children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.—It has been suggested that this verse was the addition of some late reviser of the book, who lived in the northern kingdom after the final separation of Israel and Judah, but such a supposition is not necessary to account for the separate mention of Judah and Israel, or for the apparently great disproportion in the numbers supplied by the great southern tribe. The chronicler, with pardonable exultation, specially mentions the splendid result of the young hero’s first summons to the tribes, adding, with perhaps an undertone of sadness, that the rich and populous Judah to that great host only contributed 30,000. There is no doubt, as Dean Payne Smith well observes, that “as a matter of fact Judah always stood apart until there was a king who belonged to itself. Then, in David’s time, it first took an active interest in the national welfare, and it was its vast power and numbers which made the shepherd-king, who sprang from Judah, so powerful.” In the reign of King Asa of Judah, the numbers of the men of war of that proud tribe amounted to 300,000. It is, however, to be remembered that in the Old Testament Books, owing to the mistakes of copyists, numbers are not always to be strictly relied upon.
And they said unto the messengers that came, Thus shall ye say unto the men of Jabeshgilead, To morrow, by that time the sun be hot, ye shall have help. And the messengers came and shewed it to the men of Jabesh; and they were glad.(9) To morrow, by that time the sun be hot.—That is, about noon the army of rescue will be at hand. The distance from Bezek to Jabesh was not much over twenty miles.
And it was so on the morrow, that Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the host in the morning watch, and slew the Ammonites until the heat of the day: and it came to pass, that they which remained were scattered, so that two of them were not left together.(11) The morning watch.—The morning watch was the last of the three watches, each lasting for four hours; this was the old Hebrew division of the night. Thus the first onslaught of the men of Israel under Saul would have taken place some time between two and six a.m. The battle, and subsequent rout of Ammon, continued evidently for many hours.
And the people said unto Samuel, Who is he that said, Shall Saul reign over us? bring the men, that we may put them to death.(12) And the people said unto Samuel.—The great weight and influence of the seer among the people is strikingly shown by this record of their turning to him, even in the first flush of this great victory of Saul’s. It was Samuel to whom the people looked to bring to punishment the men who had dared to question the wisdom of electing Saul as king. It should be remembered, too, that the royal summons to Israel which accompanied the bloody war-signal of King Saul, ran in the joint names of Saul and Samuel. (See 1Samuel 11:7.)
And Saul said, There shall not a man be put to death this day: for to day the LORD hath wrought salvation in Israel.(13) And Saul said, There shall not a man be put to death this day.—A wise, as well as a generous, decision; anything like a bloody vengeance would have been the commencement of future feuds and bitter heart-burnings between the new king and the powerful families of the other tribes, who misliked and opposed his election. Saul began his reign with wise discretion, as well as with heroic valour. By this determined refusal to avenge the cruel affront showed to him, he taught “kings to be” how truly a royal virtue was forgiveness of all past wrongs.
For to day the Lord hath wrought salvation in Israel.—And as yet unspoiled, the king’s heart was full of humble reverent piety. By this first public act of pardon, he “not only signified that the public rejoicing should not be interrupted, but reminded them of the clemency of God, and urged that since Jehovah had shown such clemency upon that day, that He overlooked their sins, and had given them a glorious victory. it was only right they should follow His example, and forgive their neighbours’ sins without bloodshed.” (Seb. Schmidt, quoted by Keil and Delitsch.)
Then said Samuel to the people, Come, and let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there.(14) Then said Samuel to the people, Come, and let us go to Gilgal.—This was the well-known sanctuary of that name, and was selected as the place of solemn assembly, no doubt, because it was in the now royal tribe of Benjamin. It is situated in the Jordan Valley, not far from Jericho, and has been the scene of many of the most striking events in Israelitic history.
And renew the kingdom there.—There had been, as Samuel and Saul well remembered, many murmurings on the occasion of the original royal election at Mizpeh. Then the people had by no means unanimously accepted as sovereign the Benjamite who was now crowned with the glory of a splendid success. The seer, with striking generosity to one who superseded him in his position as judge, again presented the hero Saul to Israel as their anointed king.
And all the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal; and there they sacrificed sacrifices of peace offerings before the LORD; and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.(15) And there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.—We must not understand with the LXX. Version that Saul was anointed afresh at Gilgal. The Greek Version reads, “and Samuel anointed Saul king there.” The Gilgal convention was nothing more than a solemn national confirmation of the popular election at Mizpeh. The words “before the Lord,” imply the presence of the Ark, or of the high priest with the mystic Urim and Thummim. Bishop Wordsworth understands the words “they made Saul king” to signify that after this “the people would not allow him any longer to lead a private life, but they made him to assume the royal state and authority to which he had been appointed by God.”