Expositor's Bible Commentary
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,CHAPTER XVIII
SAUL AND SAMUEL AT GILGAL
1 Samuel 13:1-23.
THE first thing that claims our attention in connection with this chapter is the question of dates involved in the first verse. In the Authorized Version we read, "Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, Saul chose him three thousand men." This rendering of the original is now quite given up. The form of expression is the same as that which so often tells us the age of a king at the beginning of his reign and the length of his reign. The Revised Version is in close, but not in strict, accord with the Hebrew. It runs, "Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel." A marginal note of the Revised Version says, "The Hebrew text has, ‘Saul was a year old,’ The whole verse is omitted in the unrevised Septuagint, but in a later recension the number thirty is inserted." There can be no doubt that something has been dropped out of the Hebrew text. Literally translated, it would run, "Saul was a year old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel." A figure seems to have dropped out after "Saul was" and another after "he reigned." A blot of some kind may have effaced these figures in the original manuscript, and the copyist not knowing what they were, may have left them blank. The Septuagint conjecture of "thirty" as Saul's age is not very felicitous, for at the beginning of Saul's reign his son Jonathan was old enough to distinguish himself in the war. Judging from probabilities, we should say that the original may have run thus: "Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty and two years over Israel." This would make the length of Saul's reign to correspond with the duration of Saul's dynasty as given in Acts 13:21. There it is said that God gave to the people Saul "by the space of forty years." If to the thirty-two years which we suppose to have been the actual length of Saul's reign we add seven and a half, during which his son Ishbosheth reigned, we get in round numbers as the duration of his dynasty forty years. This would make Saul about seventy-two at the time of his death.
The narrative in this chapter appears to be in immediate connection with that of the last. The bulk of the army had gone from Jabesh-Gilead to Gilgal, and there, under Samuel, they had renewed the kingdom. There they had listened to Samuel's appeal, and there the thunderstorm had taken place that helped so well to rivet the prophet's lessons. Therefore the bulk of the army was disbanded, but two thousand men were kept with Saul at Michmash and near Bethel, and one thousand with Jonathan at Gibeah. These were necessary to be some restraint on the Philistines, who were strong in the neighbourhood and eager to inflict every possible annoyance on the Israelites. Saul, however, does not seem to have felt himself in a position to take any active steps against them.
But though Saul was inactive, Jonathan did not slumber. Though very young, probably under twenty, he had already been considered worthy of an important command, and now, by successfully attacking a garrison of the Philistines in Geba, he showed that he was worthy of the confidence that had been placed in him. It is interesting to mark in Jonathan that dash and daring which was afterwards so conspicuous in David, and the display of which on the part of David drew Jonathan's heart to him so warmly. The news of the exploit of Jonathan soon circulated among the Philistines, and would naturally kindle the desire to retaliate. Saul would see at once that, as the result of this, the Philistines would come upon them in greater force than ever; and it was to meet this expected attack that he called for a muster of his people. Gilgal was the place of rendezvous, deep down in the Jordan valley; for the higher part of the country was so dominated by the enemy that no muster could take place there.
So it seemed as if the brilliant achievement of Jonathan was going to prove a curse rather than a blessing. In all kinds of warfare, we must be prepared for such turns in the order of events. When one side shows a great increase of activity, the other does the same. When one achieves an advantage, the other rouses itself to restore the balance. It has often happened in times of religious darkness that the bold attitude of some fearless reformer has roused the enemy to activity and ferocity, and thus brought to his brethren worse treatment than before. But such reverses are only temporary, and the cause of truth gains on the whole by the successful skirmishes of its pioneers. Many persons, when they see the activity and boldness which the forces of evil manifest in our day, are led to conclude that our times are sadly degenerate; they forget that the activity of evil is the proof and the result of the vitality and activity of good. No doubt there were faint-hearted persons in the host of Israel who would bring hard accusations against Jonathan for disturbing the equilibrium between Israel and the Philistines. They would shake their heads and utter solemn truisms on the rashness of youth, and would ask if it was not a shame to entrust a stripling with such power and responsibility. But Jonathan's stroke was the beginning of a movement which might have ended in the final expulsion of the Philistines from the territories of Israel if Saul had not acted foolishly at Gilgal. In this case, it was not the young man, but the old, that was rash and reckless. Jonathan had acted with courage and vigour, probably also with faith; it was Saul that brought disturbance and disaster to the host.
The dreaded invasion of the Philistines was not long of taking place. The force which they brought together is stated so high, that in the number of the chariots some commentators have suspected an error of the copyist, 30,000 for 3,000, an error easily accounted for, as the extra cipher would be represented by a slight mark over the Hebrew letter. But, be this as it may, the invading host was of prodigiously large dimensions. It was so large as to spread a thorough panic through the whole community of Israel, for the people "hid themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in high places, and in pits." Not content with such protection, some of them, crossed the Jordan, and took refuge in Gilead and in Dan, not far from Jabesh-Gilead, where another enemy had been so signally defeated. Saul had remained in Gilgal, where he was followed by a host of people, not in any degree impressed by what God had done for them at Jabesh-Gilead, not trying to rally their courage by the thought that God was still their King and Defender, but full of that abject fear which utterly unnerves both mind and body, and prepares the way for complete disaster. How utterly prostrated and helpless the people were is apparent from that very graphic picture of their condition which we find towards the end of the chapter: "There was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make to themselves swords or spears; but all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock." It requires little effort of imagination to see that the condition of the Israelites was, humanly speaking, utterly desperate. An enormous array of warriors like the Philistines, equipped with all the weapons of war, and confident in their prowess and their power, pouring upon a land where the defenders had not even swords nor spears, but only clubs and stones and such-like rude resources for the purposes of conflict, presented a scene the issue of which could not have been doubtful on all human calculations.
But surely the case was not a whit more desperate than that of their forefathers had been, with the sea before them, the mountains on either side, and the Egyptian army, in all its completeness of equipment, hastening to fall upon their rear. Yet out of that terrible situation their Divine King had delivered them, and a few hours after, they were all jubilant and triumphant, singing to the Lord who had triumphed gloriously, and had cast the horse and his rider into the sea. And no one can fail to see that the very gravity of the situation at the present time ought to have given birth to a repetition of that spirit of faith and prayer which had animated Moses, as it afterwards animated Deborah, and Gideon, and many more, and through which deliverance had come. On every ground the duty incumbent on Saul at this time was to show the most complete deference to the will of God and the most unreserved desire to enjoy His countenance and guidance. First, the magnitude of the danger, the utter disproportion between the strength of the defending people and that of the invading host, was fitted to throw him on God. Second, the fact, so solemnly and earnestly urged by Samuel, that, notwithstanding the sin committed by the people in demanding a king, God was willing to defend and rule His people as of old, if only they had due regard to Him and His covenant, should have made Saul doubly careful to act at this crisis in every particular in the most rigid compliance with God's will. Thirdly, the circumstance, which he himself had so well emphasized, that the recent victory at Jabesh-Gilead was a victory obtained from God, should have led him direct to God, to implore a similar interposition of His power in this new and still more overwhelming danger. If only Saul had been a true man, a man of faith and prayer, he would have risen to the height of the occasion at this terrible crisis, and a deliverance as glorious as that which Gideon obtained over the Midianites would have signalized his efforts. It was a most testing moment in his history. The whole fortunes of his kingdom seemed to depend on his choice. There was God, ready to come to his help if His help had been properly asked. There were the Philistines, ready to swallow them up if no sufficient force could be mustered against them. But weighed in the balances, Saul was found wanting. He did not honour God; he did not act as knowing that all depended on Him. And this want of his would have involved the terrible humiliation and even ruin of the nation if Jonathan had not been of a different temper from his father, if Jonathan had not achieved the deliverance which would not have come by Saul.
Let us now examine carefully how Saul acted on the occasion, all the more carefully because, at first sight, many have the impression that he was justified in what he did, and consequently that the punishment announced by Samuel was far too severe.
It appears that Samuel had instructed Saul to wait seven days for him at Gilgal, in order that steps might be properly taken for securing the guidance and help of God. There is some obscurity in the narrative here, arising from the fact that it was on the first occasion of their meeting that we read how Samuel directed Saul to wait seven days for him at Gilgal, till he should come to offer burnt-offerings and to show him what he was to do (1 Samuel 10:8). We can hardly suppose, however, that this first direction, given by Samuel, was not implemented at an earlier time. It looks as if Samuel had repeated the instruction to Saul with reference to the circumstances of the Philistine invasion. But, be this as it may, it is perfectly clear from the narrative that Saul was under instructions to wait seven days at Gilgal, at the end, if not before the end, of which time Samuel promised to come to him. This was a distinct instruction from Samuel, God's known and recognized prophet, acting in God's name and with a view to the obtaining of God's countenance and guidance in the awful crisis of the nation. The seven days had come to an end, and Samuel had not appeared. Saul determined that he would wait no longer. "Saul said, Bring hither a burnt-offering to me, and peace-offerings. And he offered the burnt-offering."
Now, it has been supposed by some that Saul's offence lay in his taking on him the functions of priest, and doing that which it was not lawful for any but priests to do. But it does not appear that this was his offence. A king is often said to do things which in reality are done by his ministers and others. All that is necessarily involved in the narrative is, that the king caused the priests to offer the burnt-offering. For even Samuel had no authority personally to offer sacrifices, and had he been present, the priests would have officiated all the same.
The real offence of Saul was that he disregarded the absence of God's prophet and representative, of the man who had all along been the mediator between God and the king and between God and the people. And this was no secondary matter. If Saul had had a real conviction that all depended at this moment on his getting God's help, he would not have disregarded an instruction received from God's servant, and he would not have acted as if Samuel's presence was of no moment. The significant thing in Saul's state of mind, as disclosed by his act, was that he was not really bent on complying with the will of God. God was not a reality to Saul. The thought of God just loomed vaguely before his mind as a power to be considered, but not as the power on whom everything depended. What he thought about God was, that a burnt-offering must be offered up to propitiate Him, to prevent Him from obstructing the enterprise, but he did not think of Him as the Being who alone could give it success. It was substantially the carnal mind's view of God. It says, no doubt there is a God, and He has an influence on things here below; and to keep Him from thwarting us, we must perform certain services which seem to please Him. But what a pitiful view it is of God! As if the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity could be induced to bestow or to withhold His favour simply by the slaughter of an animal, or by some similar rite!
But this was Saul's idea. "The sacrifice must be offered; the rite must be gone through. This piece of outward homage must be paid to the power above, but the way of doing it is of little moment. It is a sacred form, no more. I am sorry not to have Samuel present, but the fault is not mine. He was to be here, and he has not come. And now these frightened people are stealing away from me, and if I wait longer, I may be left without followers. Priests, bring the animal and offer the sacrifice, and let us away to the war!"
How different would have been the acting of a man that honoured God and felt that in His favour was life! How solemnized he would have been, how concerned for his own past neglect of God, and the neglect of his people! The presence of God's prophet would have been counted at once a necessity and a privilege. How deeply, in his sense of sin, would he have entered into the meaning of the burnt-offering! How earnestly he would have pleaded for God's favour, countenance, and blessing! If Jacob could not let the angel go at Peniel unless he blessed him, neither would Saul have parted from God at Gilgal without some assurance of help. "If Thy presence go not with me," he would have said, "carry us not up hence." Alas, we find nothing of all this! The servant of God is not waited for; the form is gone through, and Saul is off to his work. And this is the doing of the man who has been called to be king of Israel, and who has been solemnly warned that God alone is Israel's defense, and that to offend God is to court ruin!
When Samuel came, Saul was ready with a plausible excuse. On the ground of expediency, he vindicated his procedure. He could not deny that he had broken his promise (it was a virtual promise) to wait for Samuel, but there were reasons exceedingly strong to justify him in doing so. Samuel had not come. The people were scattered from him. The Philistines were concentrating at Michmash, and might have come down and fallen upon him at Gilgal. All very true, but not one of them by itself, nor all of them together, a real vindication of what he had done. Samuel, he might be sure, would not be an hour longer than he could help. There were far more people left to him than Gideon's band, and the God that gave the victory to the three hundred would not have let him suffer for want of men. The Philistines might have been discomfited by God's tempest on the way to Gilgal, as they were discomfited before, on the way to Mizpeh. O Saul, distrust of God has been at the bottom of your mind! The faith that animated the heroes of former days has had no control of you. You have walked by sight, not by faith. Had you been faithful now, and honoured God, and waited till His servant sent you off with his benediction, prosperity would have attended you, and your family would have been permanently settled in the throne. But now your kingdom shall not continue. Personally, you may continue to be king for many years to come; but the penalty which God affixes to this act of unbelief, formality, and presumption is, that no line of kings shall spring from your loins. The Lord hath sought Him a man after His own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over His people.
What a solemn and impressive condemnation have we here, my friends, of that far too common practice - deserting principle to serve expediency. I don't like to tell a lie, someone may say, but if I had not done so, I should have lost my situation. I dislike common work on the Sabbath day, but if I did not do it, I could not live. I don't think it right to go to Sunday parties or to play games on Sunday, but I was invited by this or that great person to do it, and I could not refuse him. I ought not to adulterate my goods, and I ought not to give false statements of their value, but everyone in my business does it, and I cannot be singular. What do these vindications amount to, but just a confession that from motives of expediency God's commandment may be set aside? These excuses just come to this: It was better for me to offend God and gain a slight benefit, than it would have been to lose the benefit and please God. It is a great deal to lose a small profit in business, or a small pleasure in social life, or a small honour from a fellow-man; but it is little or nothing to displease God, it is little or nothing to treasure up wrath against the day of wrath. Alas for the practical unbelief that lies at the bottom of all this! It is the doing of the fool who hath said in his heart. There is no God. Look at this history of Saul. See what befell him for preferring expediency to principle. Know that the same condemnation awaits all who walk in his footsteps - all who are not solemnized by that awful, that un- answerable, question, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
Great offence has often been taken at the character here ascribed to the man who was to fill the throne after Saul - "The Lord hath sought Him a man after His own heart." Was David, the adulterer, the traitor, the murderer, a man after God's own heart? But surely it is not meant to be affirmed that David was such a man in every aspect, in every particular. The point on which the emphasis should rest must surely be that David was such a man in that feature in which Saul was so wanting. And undoubtedly this was eminently true of him. That which stood out most fully in the public character of David was the honour which he paid to God, the constancy with which he consulted His will, the prevailing desire he had to rule the kingdom in His fear and for His glory. If God was but a form to Saul, He was an intense reality to David. If Saul could not get it into his mind that he ought to rule for God, David could not have got it out of his mind if he had tried. That David's character was deformed in many ways cannot be denied; he had not only infirmities, but tumours, blotches, defilements, most distressing to behold; but in this one thing he left an example to all of us, and especially to rulers, which it would be well for all of us to ponder deeply: that the whole business of government is to be carried on in the spirit of regard to the will of God; that the welfare of the people is ever to be consulted in preference to the interests of the prince; that for nations, as for individuals, God's favour is life, and His frown ruin.