A. The Philistine threat.
1. (1-2) Saul assembles Israel’s first standing army.
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, Saul chose for himself three thousand men of Israel. Two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in the mountains of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin. The rest of the people he sent away, every man to his tent.
a. Saul chose for himself three thousand men of Israel: This was the first “regular” army for Israel. Previously Israel only had a militia that assembled in times of national threat. Now for the first time Israel had a professional army.
b. A thousand were with Jonathan: This is the first mention of Saul’s son Jonathan. He will be a prominent and wonderful part of 1 Samuel.
i. “This is the first place in which this brave and excellent man appears; a man who bears one of the most amiable characters in the Bible.” (Clarke)
2. (3-4) Jonathan initiates conflict with the Philistines.
And Jonathan attacked the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. Then Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear!” Now all Israel heard it said that Saul had attacked a garrison of the Philistines, and that Israel had also become an abomination to the Philistines. And the people were called together to Saul at Gilgal.
a. Jonathan attacked the garrison of the Philistines: Jonathan was a remarkable military leader. He repeatedly demonstrated the ability to lead a successful attack. Yet this attack merely wakened the Philistines. Israel had enjoyed the “peace” of subjected people: everything will be fine as long as you take your place of subjugation. Through this attack Jonathan proclaimed, “We won’t meekly surrender to the Philistines any longer.”
i. It clearly says, Israel had also become an abomination to the Philistines. As long as the Israelites stayed in their weak, defeated place, the Philistines thought they were good people. As soon as the Israelites showed boldness and courage against the LORD’s enemies, the Philistines considered the Israelites an abomination.
ii. The same principle is true spiritually in our lives. We don’t war against armies of Philistines; our enemies are principalities…powers…the rulers of the darkness of this age…spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). But our spiritual enemies have the same attitude as the Philistines. As long as we are weak and subjected to our spiritual enemies, they don’t mind us at all. They may even see us positively. But as soon as we show some boldness and courage against the LORD’s enemies, our spiritual foes consider us an abomination. If peace with the devil is more important to you than victory in the LORD, you will often be defeated and subjected.
b. In Geba: Archaeologists have found this Philistine fortress at Geba (also known as Gibeah). The archaeological evidence shows that it was destroyed but later rebuilt by Saul and became his palace and fortress.
c. All Israel heard it said that Saul had attacked a garrison of the Philistines: Saul plainly took credit for Jonathan’s bold attack on the garrison of the Philistines. This was a bad flaw in the heart and character of Saul. His own sense of insecurity would not allow any of his associates (even his own son) to receive credit. He needed to drink in praise like thirsty men drink water.
3. (5-7) The Philistines prepare their army.
Then the Philistines gathered together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude. And they came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth Aven. When the men of Israel saw that they were in danger (for the people were distressed), then the people hid in caves, in thickets, in rocks, in holes, and in pits. And some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. As for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
a. Thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude: The Philistines, angered by the Israelites, gathered a huge army to crush Israel.
i. Thirty thousand chariots is a massive number, and some doubt the accuracy of this number. “This number seems incredible to infidels; to whom it may be sufficient to reply, that it is far more rational to acknowledge a mistake in him that copied out the sacred text in such numeral or historical passages, wherein the doctrine of faith and good life in not directly concerned, than upon such a pretense to question the truth and divinity of the Holy Scriptures, which are so fully attested, and evidently demonstrated. And the mistake is not great in the Hebrew, schalosh for shelishim; and so indeed those two ancient translators, the Syriac and Arabic, translate it, and are supposed to have read in their Hebrew copies, three thousand.” (Poole)
b. When the men of Israel saw that they were in danger: Jonathan was bold enough to launch the initial attack against the Philistines, but the men of Israel were not bold enough to now stand strong against their enemy. In great fear (the people were distressed) they hid anywhere they could (in caves, in thickets, in rocks, in holes, and in pits) or they fled across the Jordan River (to the land of Gad and Gilead). This was a low point for Israel.
i. Probably many of them thought, “What we really need is a king. A king would solve our problems.” Now they have a king and the problems are still there. We often think things will “fix” problems when they won’t at all. “And hereby God intended to teach them the vanity of all carnal confidence in men; and that they did not one jot less need the help and favour of God now than they did before, when they had no king.” (Poole)
c. As for Saul, he was still in Gilgal: Saul’s position as king was confirmed at Gilgal (1 Samuel 11:15). He was still there many months later (1 Samuel 13:1). It may be that Saul wanted to keep re-living the glorious day when Samuel recognized and confirmed him as king before the entire nation. Now that he was king, the men of Israel expected greater things from him.
d. The people followed him trembling: They still honored Saul as king, but they were really frightened. It must be better to have trembling followers than no followers at all, but how much better if Israel would have really trusted the LORD here.
B. Saul’s unlawful sacrifice.
1. (8-9) Saul offers the burnt offering.
Then he waited seven days, according to the time set by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. So Saul said, “Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me.” And he offered the burnt offering.
a. He waited seven days: Saul was in Gilgal for many months. In the press of the current crisis, every day now seemed much more important. He knew the Philistines were assembling a huge army against him, and that once they were organized they would be much harder to beat. Saul probably felt that a quick response gave them the best chance to win the battle.
b. According to the time set by Samuel: Samuel told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal. Then Samuel would preside over sacrifices and Israel would be spiritually ready for battle.
c. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him: This added to Saul’s anxiety. First, the waiting for Samuel was stressful because he felt time was his enemy. Second, the people were scattered from him and he felt that the battle wouldn’t be fought and that the plan wasn’t working out.
i. We may imagine that in the early part of the week, Saul explained his thinking in a pep talk to the troops: “Men, we’re going into battle against the Philistines. They have more men, more chariots, more horses, and better swords and spears than we have. So, we have to trust God and make a quick attack before they can get organized. Soon Samuel will come and lead us in sacrifice before God. Then we’ll go out and whip the Philistines!” But it didn’t happen like that. The days dragged on and Samuel didn’t come. The troops were losing confidence in Saul as a leader and beginning to scatter. Saul felt he was in a lot of trouble.
d. And he offered the burnt offering: This was plainly sinful. First, Saul disobeyed Samuel. Second, Saul was a king, not a priest, and only priests were to offer sacrifices. Saul had no business doing what only a priest should do.
i. History shows how dangerous it is to combine religious and civic authority and God would not allow the kings of Israel to be priests or the priests to be kings. In 2 Chronicles 26 King Uzziah tried to do the work of a priest and God struck him with leprosy.
ii. Out of fear, out of panic, out of not knowing what else to do, Saul did something clearly sinful. “If Saul was among the prophets before, will he now be among the priests? Can there be any devotion in disobedience? O vain man! What can it avail to sacrifice to God, against God?” (Trapp)
2. (10-12) Samuel arrives and Saul tries to explain what he did.
Now it happened, as soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, that Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might greet him. And Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.”
a. As soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering: Saul decided to perform the sacrifice not more than an hour before Samuel arrived. If he had trusted God and waited one more hour, how different things could have been! The last moments of waiting are usually the most difficult and they powerfully tempt us to take matters into our own hands.
b. Saul went out to meet him, that he might greet him: Now, Saul really overstepped his bounds. Literally, the Hebrew says that Saul wanted to bless Samuel – perhaps as a priest blesses the people. Now Saul really saw himself as a priest, first offering sacrifice and then giving a blessing.
i. In wanting to bless Samuel, Saul may also be trying to show Samuel how spiritual he is. He is like a child who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and then says to his mother, “Let’s pray!”
c. Samuel said, “What have you done?” Samuel knew Saul had done something wrong. He could probably smell the sacrifice in the air. But Samuel did not look for reasons or excuses because there were no valid reasons or excuses. All Samuel wanted to hear was confession and repentance.
d. And Saul said: Saul’s response is a classic example of excuse-making and failure to trust God. Line upon line, Saul made his sin worse with excuses.
i. I saw that the people were scattered from me: “I had to do something to impress the people and gain back their support.” But if Saul had obeyed and trusted God, God would have seen him to victory over the Philistines with or without the people. Perhaps many Israelites admired Saul for offering the sacrifice. “My, there’s a man of action! He gets things done. I never understood why the priests were so special anyway.” Saul could have positive responses in the polling data but if God were not with him, it would all crumble. He should have been concerned with pleasing God instead of the people.
ii. You did not come within the days appointed: “You see Samuel, it was really your fault. If you had come earlier, I wouldn’t have done this.” But if Saul had obeyed and trusted God, God would have taken care of Samuel and the timing. Even if Samuel was totally in the wrong, it didn’t justify Saul’s sin. We often try to blame our sin on someone else.
iii. The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD: “We really needed God’s help against the Philistines, and we needed it now, so I had to do it.” But if Saul would have obeyed and trusted God, the LORD would have taken care of the Philistines. Saul could have made supplication to the LORD in any number of ways. He could have cried out the LORD for the whole nation with a humble heart, but instead he did the one thing he must not do: offer a sacrifice.
iv. Therefore I felt compelled: “I had to. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I couldn’t wait any longer.” Even though Saul felt compelled, he was not supposed to be ruled by his feelings. He didn’t have to sin – though he felt like sinning.
v. The whole manner of Saul’s explanation makes it clear this was no misunderstanding. He didn’t say to Samuel, “Did I do something wrong?” He knew exactly what he did and probably thought of the excuses ahead of time.
3. (13-14) Samuel proclaims God’s judgment upon Saul’s household.
And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”
a. You have done foolishly: This is a stronger phrase than we might think. Samuel did not mean Saul was unintelligent or silly. The Bible speaks of the fool as someone morally and spiritually lacking.
b. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you: Despite all the excuses, all the reasons, all the blaming of someone else, the bottom line was still the bottom line. Samuel put it plainly: you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God. God commanded him to do something, and he did the opposite.
c. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever: The whole point in being a king was to establish a dynasty, where one’s sons sat on the throne afterwards. God told Saul that his descendants would not reign after him. Though he was a king, he would not establish the monarchy in Israel.
d. But now your kingdom shall not continue: From these words we might expect Saul to be removed as king at that moment. But Saul would reign for another 20 years. He would still be on the throne as a king, but it would never be the same because the end of his kingdom and his dynasty was now certain.
i. This was no small sin. “To disobey God in the smallest matter is sin enough: there can be no sin little, because there is no little God to sin against.” (Trapp)
ii. Because the actual judgment for this sin was so far off we should regard Samuel’s pronouncement of judgment as an invitation to repentance. Many times, when God announces judgment, He will relent if His people repent. “Though God threaten Saul with the loss of his kingdom for this sin, yet it is not improbable that there was a tacit condition implied, as is usual in such cases.” (Poole)
e. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people: Though God rejected Saul He did not reject Israel. Because God loved Israel He would raise up a king, a man after His own heart.
i. Saul was a man after Israel’s heart. He was all about image, prestige, and the things men look at. But God will now give Israel a man after His own heart and raise that man up to be the next king.
ii. It would be easy to say that the kingdom was taken from Saul because he sinned and on one level, that was true; but it was more than that. David also sinned yet God never took the kingdom from David and his descendants. The issue was bigger than an incident of sin; the issue was being a man after God’s own heart.
f. A man after His own heart: What does this mean? We can discover this by looking at the man who was not a man after His own heart (Saul) and comparing him to the man who was a man after His own heart (David).
i. A man after God’s heart honors the LORD. Saul was more concerned with his will than God’s will. David knew God’s will was most important. Even when David didn’t do God’s will, he still knew God’s will was more important. All sin is a disregard of God, but David sinned more out of weakness and Saul more out of a disregard for God.
ii. A man after God’s heart enthrones God as king. For Saul, Saul was king. For David, the LORD God was king. Both David and Saul knew sacrifice before a battle was important. But David thought it was important because it pleased and honored God. Saul thought it was important because it might help him win the battle. Saul thought God would help him achieve his goals. David thought that God was the goal.
iii. A man after God’s heart has a soft, repentant heart. When Saul was confronted with his sin he offered excuses. When David was confronted with his sin he confessed his sin and repented (2 Samuel 12:13).
iv. A man after God’s heart loves other people. Saul became increasingly bitter against people and lived more and more for himself, but David loved people. When David was down and out he still loved and served those who were even more down and out (1 Samuel 22:1-2).
g. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart: God was looking for this kind of man and God found this man in an unlikely place. In fact at this time, he wasn’t a man at all! God is still looking for men and women after His own heart.
i. If David had some of our sins then we can have his heart. We can love and pursue God with the kind of focus and passion David had.
C. The Philistine threat.
1. (15-18) The Philistines begin their raids.
Then Samuel arose and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin. And Saul numbered the people present with him, about six hundred men. Saul, Jonathan his son, and the people present with them remained in Gibeah of Benjamin. But the Philistines encamped in Michmash. Then raiders came out of the camp of the Philistines in three companies. One company turned onto the road to Ophrah, to the land of Shual, another company turned to the road to Beth Horon, and another company turned to the road of the border that overlooks the Valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness.
a. Then Samuel arose: Samuel left probably knowing that the announcement of judgment was an invitation to repentance, and probably also knowing that Saul would not repent.
b. About six hundred men: Earlier, Saul had about 3,000 in his regular army (1 Samuel 13:2). Now he is down to 600 because many soldiers scattered while Saul waited for Samuel (1 Samuel 13:8). The loss of so many men was probably the reason why Saul offered the sacrifice without Samuel, and it displayed a heart of distrust and disobedience to God.
i. According to 1 Samuel 13:5 the Philistines already had a huge army, easily outmatching Saul’s 3,000 men. Saul saw his already mismatched force shrink to one-fifth of its previous size (from 3,000 to 600). God allowed this to test Saul’s faith, to see if he believed God was great enough to deliver from so many with so few.
c. Then raiders came out of the camp of the Philistines: With so many troops the Philistines could raid at will. They were a fearless and fearsome army against Saul and Israel.
2. (19-23) The technological superiority of the Philistines.
Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears.” But all the Israelites would go down to the Philistines to sharpen each man’s plowshare, his mattock, his ax, and his sickle; and the charge for a sharpening was a pim for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to set the points of the goads. So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan. But they were found with Saul and Jonathan his son. And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.
a. There was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel: The Philistines had superior military technology and they wanted to keep it that way. Since they were a seafaring people, the Philistines traded with the technologically sophisticated cultures to the west, especially the Greeks. They imported weapons and acquired know-how from those distant lands.
i. “For decades archaeologists working at many different sites have unearthed iron artifacts in bewildering number and variety dating from the period of greatest Philistine power and leading to the general consensus that the metal was introduced into Canaan – at least for weapons, agricultural tools, and jewelry – by the Philistines.” (Youngblood)
b. All the Israelites would go down to the Philistines to sharpen each man’s plowshare: By carefully guarding their military technology, the Philistines kept the Israelites in a subservient place.
i. We might imagine that the Philistine blacksmiths, even though they charged each Israelite a pim for sharpening, would never put too fine an edge on anything. First, this was because these farm tools were the only weapons the Israelites had, so why make them so sharp? Second, if you make it really sharp, it will be longer before they come back with another pim to get their ax sharpened.
c. There was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people…. they were found with Saul and Jonathan: There were so few iron weapons available that only the royal family could be properly equipped. The rest of Israel fought with whatever they could.
i. It was bad enough to be outnumbered so badly. Now, we see God allowed the Philistines to have a huge technological advantage over the Israelites. The only way the Israelites could ever win was to trust in God for everything.