The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,Saul's Early Efforts
1 Samuel 13, 1 Samuel 14
IN these two chapters we have an opportunity of seeing how Saul betook himself to his kingly work. He did not rush upon his office in indecent haste. We have seen that after his anointing he returned to pursue his usual avocations, and that only upon receiving a special summons from men in distress did he arise to vindicate his true position in Israel. Having overthrown Nahash the Ammonite and received a renewal of the kingdom at Gilgal, it appears that Saul rested one year, in the sense of quietly reigning over the people and carefully laying to heart the entire situation occupied by his rejoicing subjects. Who can describe the joys of the first year of assured honour and responsibility! During that period of anticipation what dreams delight the vision, what holy vows sanctify the heart, what splendid images of social and general beneficence gladden the mind! Why should not the first year be a type of all the years that are yet to come? Yet it is only a time of rest, preparation, and discipline. Saul's two years of quiet kingship saw him become at their close a most energetic and aggressive monarch. This is the danger of kingship as well as its occasional duty. Officers are bound to make work for themselves in order to justify their position. So kings may sometimes feel called upon to enter into military operations, merely to show that theirs is no nominal royalty, but a living dignity bound to demonstrate its strength and majesty. What is the use of being a king if one cannot dazzle the other nations of the earth by unimagined resources worthy of a supreme throne? Nothing is more likely to be misunderstood by rude heathenism than quietness. The undisciplined mind makes no distinction between tranquillity and cowardice. It believes in spirited policies, spectacular displays, floating banners, resounding trumpets, and flashing steel. Apart from this the uncultured mind can see no royalty worth recognising, and the danger is that even true kings may be tempted to answer such folly in its own way, and thus to incur peril and cost to the most disastrous degree. It must be remembered that Saul was a young king, that he was in very deed the first king in Israel, wholly without experience, yet a man of like passions with all that had ever been called to lofty social position. It is easy now to criticise Saul, and to say what he should have done under the various circumstances which constituted the atmosphere of his times; but we shall display a more magnanimous judgment if we regard him as an infant king, and make large allowances for his being the first monarch in Israel. How all first men have suffered for the race! Surely, it was an awful thing to have been the first man, and a scarcely less trying thing to have been the first sovereign of any people! It would indeed be a shame to kings nowadays, and to all men of lofty office and authority, if they attempted to justify themselves by the mistakes and follies of the pioneers of history. Men in these later days should show all the virtues of their predecessors, and none of their vices, and should show the virtues themselves in their noblest proportions.
We are now face to face with the first war which Saul in his completed kingship undertook. What if it should be a record of recklessness, ambition, usurpation, and no small amount of folly? The wonder would be were it otherwise. In many instances we ought to be more surprised by the wisdom of men than by their unwisdom; yet how prone we are to point out their mistakes and accumulate them into a heavy indictment rather than to stand in amazement before their sagacity and self-control, and praise those qualifications as unexpected but most honourable characteristics. The spiritual application of this incident teaches us that every man in the Church is a soldier acting under divine leadership, or human leadership divinely appointed, and that the solemn and unchangeable duty of the great army is to make daily aggression upon the whole camp of evil. The very existence of that camp should be regarded as a challenge. There need be no waiting for formal defiance; the Christian army is justified in regarding the existence of any form or colour of evil as a call to immediate onslaught. We fight not against men, but against their corruptions. We do not kill our brother men, we seek by divine instrumentalities to slay the evils which have debased their manhood. There must be war in the world until all evil is driven out of it. Physical carnage is incompatible with the Spirit of Christ, and is, therefore, ever to be regarded with horror and inexpressible detestation; but the grand spiritual war is never to cease until the last black spot of wickedness is taken away from the fair robe of the moral creation.
In contrast to the energetic and aggressive monarch, we have now to look at a panic-stricken people. "When the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait (for the people were distressed)... as for Saul he was yet in Gilgal; and all the people followed him trembling." It has been thought by some that the trembling refers to the Philistines; but of this we see no proof in the narrative. The Philistines were accustomed to war. Their chariots were thirty thousand; their horsemen were six thousand, and the people were as the sand which is on the sea shore in multitude (1Samuel 13:5); it was not likely, therefore, that a people so vast and so accustomed to war under their kings and princes should be immediately struck by panic. The picture presented by Israel is remarkable for its light and shade. Look at King Saul in the first flush of royal pride and ambition, responding to what he believed to be a divine vocation, and aboundingly confident of immediate and complete success; he was a man who regarded his own progress as the rush of a mighty wind, and looked upon his sword as the very lightning of God. But his people were unaccustomed to his leadership; many a stout battle had Israel fought, and not a few victories had Israel won, but in this case a new element enters into the calculation. It is true that Saul had overwhelmed Nahash; but compared with the Philistines gathered in their full strength Nahash was indeed a contemptible foe. On the other side, therefore, we have a misgiving people, faint-hearted, filled with the distracting fear which weakens all whom it agitates, and trembling with apprehension. If the case had to be argued from the condition of the people, no special sagacity would be required to predict the result. Is it not so also in the great moral conflict of the world? Judging by what is seen in the spirit and action of nominal Christians, who could justly regard them as men of intrepidity and invincible resoluteness? What trembling, what hesitation, what nightmare fancies, what ghostly noises in the night, what nameless spectres have combined to make the Church afraid! What a genius the Church has for creating fears! How afraid the Church is of sensationalism, offending the weak, annoying the sensitive, disturbing the slumbering! What wonder if amid all this unworthy hesitation the war should be going against the divine standard! But we must not look at the people: our eyes must be upon the Captain of our salvation. In his heart there is no misgiving; he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet; he never turns back from the war; his sword is always highest in the air, pointing the road to danger and to victory.
It is no injustice to say that today the Church is trembling in face of the scepticism, the selfishness, the cupidity, and the unspiritual philosophy, which signalise the times. Blessed are we, even in the midst of all this faint-heartedness, if we can get one glimpse of Christ as he himself presses on to the point where the fight is deadliest, and grows in strength as the battle grows in fierceness.
We now come upon one of the mistakes of Saul's first campaign. He had been ordered to go down to Gilgal before Samuel (1Samuel 10:8): "And behold, I will come down unto thee, to offer burnt offerings, and to sacrifice sacrifices of peace offerings." Saul was to wait in Gilgal seven days for the coming of the prophet. A remarkable point should be noted here, namely, that Samuel even after his valedictory address did not wholly abandon his supremacy in Israel. Saul waited as he supposed the seven days, and then in his impatience he commanded to have brought to him a burnt offering and peace offerings, and he then by his own hand, or by the hand of the priest who was with him, offered the burnt offering. Alas for Saul! No sooner had an end been made of offering the burnt offering than behold Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him that he might salute him. But Samuel was an earnest man, and as such he immediately questioned Saul as to the sacrifices. Saul justified himself on the ground that Samuel did not come within the appointed time, and as the case appeared to be urgent he ventured to command the offering of the sacrifices. Samuel was, however, within the time, for he came on the evening of the seventh day, thus testing the patience of Saul to the very extremity. But providences would be no tests did they not keep us waiting even to the last moment. Had Samuel come on the morning of the seventh day Saul's confidence would not have been subjected to a complete trial. Saul was now to be taught that to be really royal a man must first be really loyal. Obedience is the first condition of rulership. There was no need for this usurpation of the priestly office on the part of Saul. It is at this point that so many mistakes are made, that men will imagine that the cause of God is in necessity, and will rush in a spirit of usurpation to do the work which God himself has undertaken to be done by other hands. When will men learn to stand still, and in holy patience await the coming of the Lord? When will men give up the self-idolatry which supposes that unless they undertake to quicken the movements of Providence, the destinies of the universe will be imperilled? The worship of patience may be more accepted than the service of rashness. Though, however, the judgment of Heaven was pronounced against Saul, it was not intended to take immediate effect. This is a point to be often noticed in the reading of Scripture: that which we think to be imminent may be distantly perspective; but the one thing that is imminent beyond all question is the infinite displeasure of God in regard to every sinful and foolish deed. The judgment may be held back and long delayed in mercy and patience, but no evil can escape divine penalty. We are reaping every day harvests sprung from seed sown long years ago. We wonder that this or that judgment should have happened today, forgetting that no judgment arises, except out of a sequence which we ourselves began, the criminal misfortune being that we forget the seed-time in which we were so busy, and only see the black harvest which we are bound to cut down and appropriate.
In the fourteenth chapter we see on the part of Jonathan what may be described as a disorderly courage. Jonathan undertook to make a movement on his own part without seeking the advice or sanction of his father. We must not too hardly blame Jonathan, for if his father was a young king, he himself was a young man who had yet all his honours to win. Disorderly courage has often been crowned with successes, and has therefore presented a strong temptation to ill-controlled natures. Free lances have unquestionably done good service in many a man, physical and moral. At the same time there ought to be a great central authority in all well-conducted operations. Room should always be left for genius, and for those sudden impulses of the soul which it is sometimes impossible to distinguish from inspiration: but taking the rank and file, and looking upon the Church as a whole, it will be found that a quiet exercise of discipline and a steady pursuit of paths of order will answer best in the great issue. In the Church, let us repeat, room should be found for all sorts of men: for the great king and the young soldier, for the flashing genius and the slow-moving mind.
This action on the part of Jonathan brought him into trouble Saul knew that some one was missing, and after going through a process of inquiry and numbering it was found that Jonathan and his armour-bearer were not present. In his eager impetuosity Saul had adjured the people saying, "Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies" (1Samuel 14:24). Jonathan was unaware of the order, so in going through a wood where there was honey upon the ground, Jonathan put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in an honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes were enlightened. On being informed of the order of the king, Jonathan denounced the action of Saul, and in very deed it was irrational and intolerable. Afterwards when a lot was drawn between Saul and Jonathan, Jonathan was taken, and on being interrogated he confessed saying, "I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and lo, I must die." But the people would not have it so. The king was taught that day his first lesson as to the power of the democracy. Even kings must under some circumstances be the subjects of their people Israel was at that juncture a people to be found ready. Their appeal was nobly conceived and nobly expressed. "And the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day" (1Samuel 14:45). Trust the people. There are occasions on which the proverb is true: Vox populi, vox Dei. The instincts of a great people are never to be lightly treated. Saul might on this occasion indeed be secretly inclined to concur with the popular verdict, but whether he was or not, the popular verdict, in so far as it is right, must always overrule the arbitrary and oppressive decrees of kings.
We have reserved for a concluding paragraph a memorable incident recorded in the fourteenth chapter. Dealing as we now are with the early efforts of Saul, we must point out with especial vividness that in connection with this war Saul built his first altar: "And Saul built an altar unto the Lord: the same was the first altar that he built unto the Lord" (1Samuel 14:35). Some have regarded this as an act kindred to the service which Samuel condemned. Whether that may be so or not in a technical sense, the fact of the altar being the "first altar" is full of beautiful significance. We read in the Gospel of John of the first miracle that Jesus did. In Genesis we have read of Abraham returning to the altar which he built at the first. What a noble vision is opened up by the very words—first altar, first miracle, first war, first victory. Some of us have not yet begun to build an altar. Some of us have not sat down for the first time at the table of the Lord. Some of us have yet to make a real beginning in life! Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
And some of the Hebrews went over Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. As for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling."... all the people followed him trembling."—1Samuel 13:7.
We are reminded of the words—"Faint, yet pursuing."—The people were trembling, yet even in their trembling they were following their king and leader—"The men of Israel saw that they were in a strait, then the people did hide themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in the rocks, and in high places, and in pits."—It is in extremities that the quality of men is tested.—Saul was now overborne; yet he was called upon to take some definite action, and the people, though with great misgiving and trembling of heart, went after him.—There is a following that is the mere expression of despair; it is either attempting to follow, or it is dying in solitude and starvation; the very path seems to be but a choice of evils; no great credit therefore is due to the men who simply preferred one form of extinction to another.—Here is the press of military discipline, even in this state of disorganisation.—Saul was at the head, Saul was in his right place, and the people were following, though in great weakness and trepidation.—It must be so with the followers of Christ; he is the Captain of our salvation; he is not to be superseded, or overrun, or in any way displaced: even when he seems to be going forth to a fruitless war he is to be followed by stout hearts.—Trembling is permitted even in Christian experience. There is a trembling that is significant of reverence; there is also a trembling which means self-misgiving or self-distrust.—When we are weak, then are we strong.—If so be we renounce our own strength, and place absolute confidence in God, we may tremble so far as we are personally concerned, yet under all the trembling there is a rock of assurance, a complete and steadfast faith in the ultimate rule of God.—"Perfect love casteth out fear."—A man may either pray that the Philistines may be diminished in strength, or that his own courage may be stimulated to a higher degree: the latter is the nobler prayer: to conquer simply because our enemies have been decimated by fire or tempest or plague is a very poor victory: but to rise to the occasion by the inspiration of love, by the confidence of growing faith, and to smite sharply and heavily in the strength of God,—this is the victory which all Christians should seek to realise; this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.—Where faith is strong, one will chase a thousand, and two will put ten thousand to flight. Our prayer should not be that our enemies may be diminished, but that we may be the more perfectly qualified to encounter and overthrow them.—This is also a call to victory over our own passions: we are not to wait until old age has cooled the blood, or until many infirmities have taken away all desire for the delights of sin; in the very heyday of life, when the blood is at fullest heat, when temptations are a thousand strong, all plying the soul with continual importunity,—it is even then that we may rise to a sense of supreme strength, it is even then that we may live the noble and beneficent life.—The great Christian lesson is that we are to follow Christ, however extreme the danger, however improbable the success, however hopeless the issue so far as our own strength is concerned,—we go forward, we go to the battle in the name and strength of the Lord God, and though the Philistine be very strong, though bis tread seems to shake the earth, though his staff be as a weaver's beam, yet we shall, being nerved by the Holy One, strike him with a deadly stroke.—The battle is not ours, but God's.