1 Samuel 14 – Victory Over the Philistines
A. Jonathan’s adventure in faith.
1. (1-3) Jonathan’s proposal.
Now it happened one day that Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who bore his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison that is on the other side.” But he did not tell his father. And Saul was sitting in the outskirts of Gibeah under a pomegranate tree which is in Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men. Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eli, the LORD’s priest in Shiloh, was wearing an ephod. But the people did not know that Jonathan had gone.
a. It happened one day: At the beginning, there was nothing in this day to indicate it would be remarkable. But on this day, God would win a great victory through the bold trust of Jonathan.
i. “God is ever on the outlook for believing souls, who will receive His power and grace on the one hand, and transmit them on the other. He chooses them, that by them He should make His mighty power known.” (Meyer)
b. Said to the young man who bore his armor: Every “officer” in the Israelite army had an “assistant” known as an armor bearer. The armor bearer helped the officer in battle and in the administration of the army. They often carried the armor and weapons of the officer, so they were known as armor bearers.
i. “Armor-bearers in ancient times had to be unusually brave and loyal, since the lives of their masters often depended on them.” (Youngblood)
c. Come, let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison: The Israelites were in a military conflict where victory seemed impossible. They were vastly outnumbered and greatly surpassed in military technology. Yet Jonathan was bold enough to go over to the Philistines’ garrison just to see what the LORD might do.
i. Maybe Jonathan remembered Shamgar and how Judges 3:31 described Shamgar’s victory over 600 Philistines with a sharp stick. Jonathan perhaps thought, “Well, if God could do it through Shamgar, He could do it through me.”
ii. Jonathan could strengthen himself in promises such as Leviticus 26:8: Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you.
d. He did not tell his father: Perhaps this was just an oversight, or something easily and properly explained. Or, it may be that Jonathan deliberately did not tell his father, because he believed his father would have simply said “no.”
e. Saul was sitting: This was a big contrast to Jonathan. The bold, brave, king was simply sitting…under a pomegranate tree while his son boldly went over to the Philistines’ garrison. Saul and the priest with the ephod sat back while Jonathan bravely trusted God.
f. Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother: The mention of Ichabod seems almost unnecessary. Why would we need to know that the priest with Saul, Ahijah, was the nephew of Ichabod? Probably, God wants us to associate the meaning of Ichabod’s name with Saul’s spiritual condition. Saul’s royal glory was almost gone, and it was appropriate that he associated with a relative of the man named “The Glory Has Departed.”
g. The people did not know that Jonathan was gone: This indicates that Jonathan did not go over to the Philistines’ garrison out of a desire for personal glory. If that were his motive, he would have told at least a few people that he went.
2. (4-5) Jonathan finds a strategic position.
Between the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistines’ garrison, there was a sharp rock on one side and a sharp rock on the other side. And the name of one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. The front of one faced northward opposite Michmash, and the other southward opposite Gibeah.
a. Between the passes…there was a sharp rock on one side and a sharp rock on the other side: On his way to the Philistine garrison, Jonathan saw a strategic position – a narrow path through a pass with large, sharp rocks on either side. A few men could easily fight against a much larger number at this strategic place.
b. Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistines’ garrison: If Jonathan never decided, Come, let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison that is on the other side (1 Samuel 14:1) he would have never found this strategic place. God guided Jonathan as he boldly trusted God and acted on that bold trust.
3. (6-7) Jonathan’s bold proposal.
Then Jonathan said to the young man who bore his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the LORD will work for us. For nothing restrains the LORD from saving by many or by few.” So his armor bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Go then; here I am with you, according to your heart.”
a. It may be that the LORD will work for us: For Jonathan, this was more than a reconnaissance expedition. He wanted to see what God might do through two men who trusted Him and stepped out boldly.
i. Jonathan knew the need was great. Israel was hopelessly outnumbered and demoralized.
ii. Jonathan knew God wanted to use someone. King Saul just wanted to sit under a pomegranate tree. Something had to be done, and Jonathan was willing to let God use him.
iii. Jonathan knew God wanted to work with someone. Jonathan could have just prayed that God would rain down fire from heaven on the Philistines. But Jonathan knew that God uses the bold action and fighting spirit of His people. “It was not Jonathan that was to work with some help from God; it was the Lord that was to work by Jonathan.” (Blaikie)
b. For nothing restrains the LORD from saving by many or by few: This is wise courage in God. Many in Israel probably believed this as theological truth but few believed it enough to do something. Jonathan’s faith was demonstrated by his works.
i. Nothing restrains the LORD: The only thing that can be said to restrain God is our unbelief (Matthew 13:58). God’s power is never restrained but His will may be restrained by our unbelief. He may choose not to act until we partner with Him in trust. God had a trusting partner in Jonathan.
ii. By many or few: The odds were already against Israel. Did it matter if it was a million-to-one or a thousand-to-one? Numbers or odds did not restrain God, but unbelief could. Jonathan never read the New Testament, but he had a Romans 8:31 heart: If God be for us, who can be against us?
iii. Jonathan had little faith in himself but great faith in God. It wasn’t “I can win a great victory with God’s help.” It was “God can win a great victory through even me.”
c. Go then; here I am with you: These words from Jonathan’s armor bearer must have cheered Jonathan greatly. When we step out in faith, encouragement can make all the difference for good and discouragement can make all the difference for evil.
i. God was going to use Jonathan, but He wasn’t going to use Jonathan alone. When God uses a man He almost always calls others around the man to support and help him. They are just as important in getting God’s work done as the man God uses.
4. (8-10) Jonathan proposes a test.
Then Jonathan said, “Very well, let us cross over to these men, and we will show ourselves to them. If they say thus to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place and not go up to them. But if they say thus, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up. For the LORD has delivered them into our hand, and this will be a sign to us.”
a. Very well: This indicates that Jonathan took the support of his armor bearer as confirmation.
b. This will be a sign to us: In his step of faith, Jonathan wanted to know if God was really leading. He proposed a test based on the response of the Philistine guards.
i. Jonathan showed wisdom and not unbelief. To this point, he does not act on a specific, confirmed word from God. Instead, he followed the bold hope and impression of his heart. He was humble enough to know his heart might be wrong on this day, so Jonathan asked God to guide him.
ii. This was not the same as Gideon’s setting of a fleece (Judges 6:36-40). Gideon had a confirmed word of God to guide him, and he doubted God’s word. Jonathan did not doubt a word from God; he doubted his own heart and mind.
iii. Jonathan was prompted by faith. Significantly, he did not demand to know the whole battle plan from God in advance. He was willing to take it one step at a time, and let God plan it out. Faith is willing to let God know the whole plan, and to know our part one step at a time.
5. (11-14) Jonathan and his armor bearer attack the Philistines.
So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines. And the Philistines said, “Look, the Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden.” Then the men of the garrison called to Jonathan and his armor bearer, and said, “Come up to us, and we will show you something.” Jonathan said to his armor bearer, “Come up after me, for the LORD has delivered them into the hand of Israel.” And Jonathan climbed up on his hands and knees with his armor bearer after him; and they fell before Jonathan. And as he came after him, his armor bearer killed them. That first slaughter which Jonathan and his armor bearer made was about twenty men within about half an acre of land.
a. Look, the Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden: At this time of crisis the Israelites hid anywhere they could (1 Samuel 13:6). It was reasonable for the Philistines to think these were Hebrew deserters surrendering to the Philistines because they thought it was better than hiding in a hole.
b. Come up after me, for the LORD has delivered them into the hand of Israel: At this exciting moment God confirmed Jonathan’s bold trust with this sign, and he knew God would do something great.
c. Jonathan climbed up on his hands and knees with his armor bearer after him: This was a difficult climb. Jonathan was not the kind to say, “Well, it would be nice to do this. But the rocks are steep and there are a lot of Philistines up there. Let’s just pray instead.” If we only want victory or only want to be used by God when it is easy, we won’t see many victories and we won’t be used much.
d. And they fell before Jonathan: Jonathan knew that the battle was the LORD’s, yet he knew God would use him to fight. When Jonathan saw God’s confirming sign, he didn’t lay down his sword and start praying that God would strike them all down. He prayed, made sure his sword was sharp, and trusted God would use him to strike them all down.
6. (15) God attacks the Philistines.
And there was trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and the raiders also trembled; and the earth quaked, so that it was a very great trembling.
a. There was trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people: It seems that the Philistines were under a divine confusion and they woke that morning thinking “We are attacked by enemies in our midst!” They rushed about thinking their fellow Philistines might be the enemy and began to fight and kill one another.
i. It didn’t matter if the Philistines greatly outnumbered the Israelites and had far better weapons. God was more than able to set the Philistines against each other. If the Israelites had no swords, the LORD would use the swords of the Philistines against the Philistines.
b. The earth quaked, so that it was a very great trembling: Jonathan used his heart and sword, but God did what Jonathan could not do – send a great earthquake to terrify the Philistines. Often, we wait around for God to do what we can do. But God will often do miracles – that He alone can do – if we will do what we can do.
7. (16-19) Saul learns of the battle.
Now the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and there was the multitude, melting away; and they went here and there. Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Now call the roll and see who has gone from us.” And when they had called the roll, surprisingly, Jonathan and his armor bearer were not there. And Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here” (for at that time the ark of God was with the children of Israel). Now it happened, while Saul talked to the priest, that the noise which was in the camp of the Philistines continued to increase; so Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.”
a. There was the multitude, melting away: As the watchmen of Israel kept an eye on the huge army of the Philistines, the army started to melt away as they watched.
b. Call the roll: This was useless at the moment. Saul should go and fight the Philistines at this strategic moment. Instead, he was probably worried about who was leading the battle and who would get the credit.
c. Bring the ark of God here: This was useless at the moment. Saul is probably trying to look spiritual here, but there was nothing to seek God about. There is a time to go aside and pray, and there is a time to get your sword out and fight. Saul didn’t know what time this was.
d. While Saul talked to the priest…the noise which was in the camp of the Philistines continued to increase; so Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” Eventually, the noise of God and Jonathan fighting against the Philistines became so loud that Saul knew he had to also fight. So, he told the priest “Withdraw your hand.” This meant, “Stop seeking an answer from God with the Urim and Thummin,” which were held in a pouch in the priest’s breastplate.
8. (20-23) Saul fights in the battle and a great victory is won.
Then Saul and all the people who were with him assembled, and they went to the battle; and indeed every man’s sword was against his neighbor, and there was very great confusion. Moreover the Hebrews who were with the Philistines before that time, who went up with them into the camp from the surrounding country, they also joined the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. Likewise all the men of Israel who had hidden in the mountains of Ephraim, when they heard that the Philistines fled, they also followed hard after them in the battle. So the LORD saved Israel that day, and the battle shifted to Beth Aven.
a. They went to the battle: Saul was the leader of Israel, but it took him a long time to start leading. Now he follows God and Jonathan into battle.
b. Moreover the Hebrews who were with the Philistines before that time…also joined the Israelites: It seems that many in Israel had the insecure heart of Saul. These Hebrew servants of the Philistines probably hated their masters but were afraid to stand free in the LORD. They only came out for Israel when victory was assured.
c. So the LORD saved Israel that day: God really used Jonathan, but it wasn’t Jonathan’s victory. It was the LORD’s victory. God was just waiting for someone with the bold trust of Jonathan.
B. Saul’s foolish oath and its consequences.
1. (24) Saul compels the army of Israel under an oath.
And the men of Israel were distressed that day, for Saul had placed the people under oath, saying, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food.
a. Saul had placed the people under oath: Jonathan, in his bold trust in the LORD, had just struck a mighty blow against the Philistines. Now it was the job of the army of Israel, under King Saul, to finish the job by striking down the fleeing Philistine army. On this day of battle against the Philistines Saul declared a curse: “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.”
i. On the surface, this sounds so spiritual. “Let’s set today aside as a special day of fasting to the LORD. We want God to do a great work, so we should fast today. I will enforce this among the whole army with a curse.”
b. Before I have taken vengeance on my enemies: This shows that Saul’s focus was wrong. Saul put the army of Israel under an oath, so he could take vengeance on his enemies. If he regarded it as his battle, he should simply fast himself. Saul showed that even in doing something spiritual like fasting his focus is on himself, not the LORD.
i. Through this curse, Saul put the focus back on himself. That day, no one would be thinking much about Jonathan because their hunger would always remind them of Saul’s curse.
c. Cursed is the man: This shows that Saul’s sense of authority was wrong. He did not have the authority to proclaim such a curse and he was not the spiritual leader of the nation. If any such fast was to be declared and a curse attached to it, Samuel had the spiritual authority to do it, not Saul.
i. This also shows that Saul’s promised punishment was wrong. It was certainly heavy-handed to say, “Cursed is the man.” If Saul wanted to call for a voluntary fast, that was one thing. He might have said, “I’m fasting today before the LORD. If anyone wants to join me, they are welcome.” But instead of leading by example and inviting the army of Israel to follow, he placed the people under oath.
d. The men of Israel were distressed that day: This shows that the result among the army of Israel was wrong. No matter what Saul’s motive was, this was foolish. When the morale and the physical energy of Israel should have been the strongest, the army was weak and discouraged.
i. There is nothing wrong with fasting itself, but this wasn’t the right day. It was Saul’s day to fast, not the LORD’s day to fast.
2. (25-30) Jonathan unknowingly breaks the oath and is told of his offense.
Now all the people of the land came to a forest; and there was honey on the ground. And when the people had come into the woods, there was the honey, dripping; but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath; therefore he stretched out the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his countenance brightened. Then one of the people said, “Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed is the man who eats food this day.’” And the people were faint. But Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. Look now, how my countenance has brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now would there not have been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”
a. There was honey on the ground: This was provision from God. The Israelite army was hot in the pursuit of the fleeing Philistines. They were all tired and hungry. They needed energy to continue the pursuit and finish the battle. And God provided honey on the ground.
i. “The mopping-up operations after a rout were all-important if the maximum benefit from the victory was to be reaped, but pursuit of the enemy involved an exhausting, unremitting journey over steep hills for hours on end.” (Baldwin)
b. No one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath: This group of soldiers saw the honey dripping right in front of their eyes. Yet Saul’s foolish oath prevented them from receiving what God put right in front of them.
c. But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath: Because of this, Jonathan ate some of that honey and immediately, it did the weary soldier good: his countenance brightened. He needed the energy to fight, and here it was, provided by God.
d. My father has troubled the land: Perhaps Jonathan should not have said this. There was a sense in which he was undercutting his father’s authority before the troops. If there were anything to say, it would have been best to say it to his father directly. Despite all that, Jonathan was exactly right!
i. King Saul had indeed troubled the land with his pseudo-spiritual command to fast. Because of his command, the people were faint on a day when they should have been strong. They were weak and distracted and the victory was diminished.
3. (31-35) The soldiers of Israel sin because of Saul’s foolish command.
Now they had driven back the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. So the people were very faint. And the people rushed on the spoil, and took sheep, oxen, and calves, and slaughtered them on the ground; and the people ate them with the blood. Then they told Saul, saying, “Look, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood!” So he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a large stone to me this day.” Then Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people, and say to them, ‘Bring me here every man’s ox and every man’s sheep, slaughter them here, and eat; and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.’” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night, and slaughtered it there. Then Saul built an altar to the LORD. This was the first altar that he built to the LORD.
a. The people rushed on the spoil…and the people ate them with the blood: God specifically commanded Israel that they should always properly drain the blood from an animal as they prepared it for eating (Deuteronomy 12:23-25). On this day of battle, because of Saul’s foolish command, the people were so hungry they broke this command. Their obedience to Saul’s foolish command led them to disobey God’s clearly declared command. This is always the result of legalism.
i. We often think that legalistic rules will keep people from sin. Actually, the opposite is true. Legalistic rules lead us into sin because they either provoke our rebellion or they lead us into legalistic pride.
b. You have dealt treacherously: Saul blamed the people for what was really his own fault. He should have never made such a foolish commandment, and his commandment provoked the people into sin.
c. Slaughter them here, and eat; and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood: Saul set up a stone to properly butcher the animals, and also built an altar to the LORD. At least Saul did some of what was right after he did what was wrong.
4. (36-39) In response to God’s silence, Saul makes another foolish oath.
Now Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night, and plunder them until the morning light; and let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” Then the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” So Saul asked counsel of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will You deliver them into the hand of Israel?” But He did not answer him that day. And Saul said, “Come over here, all you chiefs of the people, and know and see what this sin was today. For as the LORD lives, who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But not a man among all the people answered him.
a. So Saul asked counsel of God: This was good. Saul should have sought the counsel of God. We shouldn’t think that everything Saul did was bad before the LORD.
b. He did not answer him that day: Saul inquired of the LORD through the priest. It is likely that the priest used the Urim and Thummim to inquire of the LORD.
i. The use of the discerning tools of Urim and Thummim is described on a few occasions (Exodus 28:30, Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63, Nehemiah 7:65) and their use may be implied in other passages where Israel sought God (Judges 1:1 and Judges 20:18, 23).
ii. The names Urim and Thummim mean “Lights and Perfections.” We aren’t sure what they were or how they were used. Many authors think they were a pair of stones, one light and another dark, and each stone indicated a “yes” or “no” from God. The high priest would ask God a question, reach into the breastplate, and pull out either a “yes” or a “no.”
iii. On this occasion, the priest probably started inquiring of the LORD with this question: “LORD, do you want to speak to us today?” Because we are told He did not answer him that day, the stone that indicated “no” kept being drawn out.
c. For as the LORD lives, who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die: This shows how sure Saul was that he was right. He was so sure that he pronounced another oath.
i. Of course, if Saul knew that it was Jonathan who violated his oath, he would never have said this. But he was so caught up in being “right” that he added this foolish vow to his previous foolish commandment.
ii. Saul was very good at making religious oaths and promises. But that didn’t mean very much because he was not good at having a heart after God and he was not good at keeping the oaths he made.
iii. “Strange perverseness! He who was so indulgent as to spare wicked Agag, chapter 15, is now so severe as to destroy his own worthy son.” (Poole)
d. Not a man among all the people answered him: The people knew Jonathan ate the honey, and Saul’s sentence of death on anyone who had eaten must have sent a chill up their backs. All the people loved and respected Jonathan and they knew that Saul was in the wrong.
5. (40-44) Jonathan is implicated by the casting of lots.
Then he said to all Israel, “You be on one side, and my son Jonathan and I will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.” Therefore Saul said to the LORD God of Israel, “Give a perfect lot.” So Saul and Jonathan were taken, but the people escaped. And Saul said, “Cast lots between my son Jonathan and me.” So Jonathan was taken. Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, and said, “I only tasted a little honey with the end of the rod that was in my hand. So now I must die!” Saul answered, “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan.”
a. Saul and Jonathan were taken, but the people escaped: Saul wanted to find the wrongdoer by the casting of lots. They separated the people into two groups, and then selected one group by a “low” or “high” roll of something like dice. They continued to narrow the selected group until they found the one. Saul wanted everyone to know that he and his son Jonathan were innocent, so that was the first division. Imagine Saul’s shock when the lot indicated that he and Jonathan were the guilty group!
i. “Perfect lot” in the Hebrew is very close to the word for Thummim. They probably used the Urim and Thummim as the way to cast the lot.
b. So Jonathan was taken: Saul was shaken. He pronounced a death sentence on whoever ate in violation of his stubborn vow. Instead of admitting that the commandment and death sentence were foolish, Saul hardened his foolishness and declared “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan.”
i. Saul was willing to kill his son rather than to humbly admit that he was really at fault. Saul started out as a humble man (1 Samuel 10:21), but his once impressive humility was overtaken by pride.
6. (45-46) The people rescue Jonathan from execution.
But the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great deliverance in Israel? Certainly not! As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people rescued Jonathan, and he did not die. Then Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place.
a. Certainly not! As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day: Happily, the people finally stood up to Saul’s foolishness. They simply would not allow Jonathan to be executed. They knew that Jonathan worked with the LORD that day, not against the LORD.
i. There are at least three reasons why it was right to spare Jonathan, even though he broke the oath. First, the oath itself and the penalty on the oath-breaker were simply bad and foolish laws and should not have been enforced. Second, Jonathan broke the oath in ignorance. Finally, God’s approval was evident from His great blessing on Jonathan (he has worked with God this day).
ii. Jonathan’s bold faith in God had much more to do with the victory on that day than Saul’s foolish oath.
b. And the Philistines went to their own place: The implication in this phrase is that the victory might have been greater if not for Saul’s foolish oath.
7. (47-52) Saul’s many wars and his family.
So Saul established his sovereignty over Israel, and fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, against the people of Ammon, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he harassed them. And he gathered an army and attacked the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them. The sons of Saul were Jonathan, Jishui and Malchishua. And the names of his two daughters were these: the name of the firstborn Merab, and the name of the younger Michal. The name of Saul’s wife was Ahinoam the daughter of Ahimaaz. And the name of the commander of his army was Abner the son of Ner, Saul’s uncle. Kish was the father of Saul, and Ner the father of Abner was the son of Abiel. Now there was fierce war with the Philistines all the days of Saul. And when Saul saw any strong man or any valiant man, he took him for himself.
a. So Saul established his sovereignty over Israel: This last passage in the chapter is all about Saul’s strength, and Saul was strong. He established his sovereignty over Israel. He fought many successful wars. He had a large and influential family. The strength of Saul’s army grew (when Saul saw any strong man or any valiant man, he took him for himself). Saul’s strength was broad over many areas.
i. “Ishbosheth, Saul’s other son, is here omitted, because he intended to mention only those of his sons who went with him into the battles here mentioned, and who were afterwards slain with him.” (Poole)
b. Wherever he turned, he harassed them: Saul’s strength was broad but shallow. Because Saul was not a man after God’s own heart and because his own relationship with God was more about image than substance, his kingdom cannot last. The next chapter will fully expose the weakness of Saul.