(1 Samuel 14:1-52) Saul’s War with the Philistines—Jonathan becomes the Divinely appointed Hero for the People’s Deliverance from their restless Foes—The Battle of Michmash—Saul’s Rash Oath—The House of Saul.
The young prince’s heart burned within him at the degradation which the Philistine occupation brought upon the people. His father was too prudent to engage in battle with his own feeble and disorganised forces, so Jonathan determined, with the help of the Divine Friend of Israel, to strike a blow at these insolent foes. Under any other circumstances—without the consciousness of supernatural help—to attempt such a feat of arms would have been madness; but Jonathan had an inward conviction that an unseen Arm would hold a shield before him. It is noticeable that he never communicated his desperate purpose to his father, Saul.
Wearing an ephod.—The ephod here alluded to is not the ordinary priestly vestment of white linen, but that official garment worn alone by the high priest, in which was the breast-plate of gems with the mysterious Urim and Thummim, by which inquiry used to be made of the Lord.
Come, and let us go over.—Although in this history of the great deed of Jonathan there is no mention of the “Spirit of the Lord” having come upon him, as in the case of Gideon (Judges 6:34), Othniel (Judges 3:10), Samson, and others—who, in order to enable them to accomplish a particular act, were temporarily endowed with superhuman strength and courage and wisdom—there is no shadow of doubt but that in this case the “Spirit of the Lord” descended on the heroic son of Saul. All the circumstances connected with this event, which had so marked an influence on the fortunes of Israel, are evidently supernatural. The brave though desperate thought which suggested the attack, the courage and strength needful to carry it out, the strange panic which seized the Philistine garrison, the utter dismay which spread over the whole of the Philistine forces, and which caused them to fly in utter confusion before the small bands of Israelites, all belong to the same class of incidents so common in the earlier Hebrew story, when it is clear that the Glorious Arm of the Eternal helped them in a way it helped no other peoples.
The term “uncircumcised” is commonly applied to the Philistines, and to other of the enemies of Israel. It is used as a special term of reproach. The enmity between Philistia and Israel lasted over a long period, and was very bitter.
It may be that the Lord will work for us.—These words explain the apparent recklessness of Jonathan’s attempt. It was Another who would fight the armed garrison on those tall peaks opposite, and bring him safely back to his people again.
For there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few.—“O Divine power of faith, which makes a man more than men. The question is not what Jonathan can do, but what God can do, whose power is not in the means, but in Himself. There is no restraint in the Lord to save by many or by few. O admirable faith in Jonathan, whom neither the steepness of the rocks nor multitude of enemies can dissuade from such an assault.”—Bishop Hall.
(8) Behold, we will pass over.—The steep crag upon which the Philistine outpost was entrenched was across a deep ravine, or chasm, which separated the hostile armies.
(9) If they say thus unto us.—He longed for a supernatural sign which should confirm him in his conviction, that the prompting which urged him to this deed of extreme daring was indeed a voice from heaven.
And the earth quaked . . .—To add to the dire confusion, an earthquake was felt, which completed the discomfiture of the Philistines; they perceived that some Divine power was fighting against them, and all the stories of the unseen Helper of the Hebrews would flash across their minds. Some would explain the earthquake as a poetical description of the extreme terror and confusion which prevailed far and near, but the literal meaning is far the best. The Eternal fought for Jonathan and Israel that day, and the powers of nature were summoned to the young hero’s aid, as they had been before, when Pharaoh pursued the people at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:26-27), as when Joshua fought the Canaanites at Beth-horon (Joshua 10:11), and as when Barak smote Sisera at Kishon (Judges 5:21).
The Hebrew words, vayēleh vahălom, in the last clause of the verse, have been variously rendered; the Rabbinical interpretation is the best: “magis magisque pangebatur”—“were more and more broken up.” This takes hălom as an infinitive absolute. The LXX. considers this word an adverb, and translates enthen hai enthen, hither and thither, and does not attempt to give any rendering for vayēleh.
But the Hebrew and all the versions read as in our English Version, “Bring hither the Ark of God” What does this mean? Was the Ark, then, with that little band of Saul? We never before, or after, find the slightest hint that the sacred coffer ever left the “city of woods” (Kiriath-yearim) until David bore it to Zion. Then, again, the word preceding “Bring hither” is never used in connection with the Ark. No question or oracle could be asked of the Ark or by the Ark. The Urim and Thummim, whatever these mysterious objects were alone were used to give answers to questions solemnly asked by king and people, and this Urim and Thummim were connected, not with the Ark, but with the high-priestly ephod. On the whole, the reading of the LXX. probably represents the original Hebrew. The present Hebrew text, with the word “Ark,” is, however, clearly of extreme antiquity; the second part of the verse is most likely an explanatory gloss of some ancient scribe. Josephus’ account of this transaction shows us that he had before him a text corresponding to the LXX. His words are, “He bid the priest take the garment of his high priesthood and prophesy” (Antiq., 6 § 3). Maurer prefers the present Hebrew text, for he says, At that supreme moment of danger Saul wanted not the advice of an oracle, but rather the help and encouragement which the presence of the sacred Ark would give to his handful of soldiers. But this would rather degrade Saul to the level of the superstitious Hophni and Phinehas, the wicked sons of Eli. who, it will be remembered, exposed and lost the sacred Ark in the fatal battle in which they perished. Saul, with all his faults, was a far nobler type of man than those profligate, though brave, priests.
Every man’s sword was against his fellow.—The statement in the next verse (21) explains this. Profiting by the wild confusion which reigned now throughout the Philistine host, a portion of their own auxiliaries—unwilling allies, doubtless—turned their arms against their employers or masters. From this moment no one in the panic-stricken army could rightly distinguish friend from foe. In such a scene of confusion the charge of Saul, at the head of his small but well-trained soldierly band, must have done terrible execution. Shouting the well-known war-cry of Benjamin, it penetrated wedge-like into the heart of the broken Philistine host.
For Saul had adjured the people.—Better, And Saul, &c.; that is, the king was so intent upon his vengeance—so bent upon pursuing to the uttermost these Philistines who so long had defied his power, and who had brought him so low—that he grudged his soldiers the necessary rest and refreshment, and, with a terrible vow, devoted to death any one who should on that day of blood slack his hand for a moment, even to take food.
And there was honey . . .—The wild bees, as has been often seen in the American forests, fill the hollow trees with honey, till the combs, breaking with the weight, let the honey run down upon the ground.
And his eyes were enlightened.—This simply means that the natural dimness caused by extreme exhaustion passed away when his long fast was broken; literally, his eyes became bright. Hence the Talmud comments: “Whoever suffers from the effects of intense hunger, let him eat honey and other sweet things, for such eatables are efficacious in restoring the light of one’s eyes . . . Thus we read of Jonathan, “See, I pray you, how my eyes have been enlightened because I tasted a little of this honey” (1 Samuel 14:27).—Treatise Yoma, fol. 83, Colossians 2.
But he answered him not . . .—When the mysterious gems refused to shine, or in any way to signify the Divine approbation or disapproval, the high-priestly questioner seems, as in this instance, to have concluded that some public transgression had been committed, and that special atonement must be made before the desired answer could be expected. The sacred gems probably remained dull and lightless the night was wearing on, and Saul chafed at the unexpected delay, and in his impetuous anger uttered the wild words on which we are about to comment.
He would ask God’s help in the casting of lots, to discover who of these was the transgressor, whose sin made dumb the Divine Oracle.
In the forty-first and in the following verse the LXX. version is lengthened out with a long paraphrase, which, however, contains no fact of additional interest.
“Take then no vow at random: ta’en in faith,
Preserve it; yet not bent, as Jephthah once,
Blindly to execute a rash resolve,
Whom better it had suited to exclaim,
‘I have done ill than to redeem his pledge
By doing worse.”—Dante, Paradise, 5:63-68.
On every side . . . Moab . . . Ammon . . . Edom . . . Zobah . . . Philistines.—This enumeration of the nations with whom he fought literally included the countries on every side of the Land of Promise. Moab and Ammon bounded the Israelites on the east; Edom on the south; the Philistines on the west, along the coast of the Mediterranean; while Zobah was a district of Syria on the north-east of the territory of the twelve tribes, lying between the Euphrates and the Syrian Orontes.
He vexed them.—The exact sense of the Hebrew word yar’shia, rendered in our version “he vexed,” has puzzled all commentators. The LXX. evidently read another word here, as they translate it by esōzeto, “he was preserved.” The majority of the versions and Gesenius, however, give the real sense: “Whithersoever he (Saul) turned himself lie was victorious.” Luther’s rendering is scholarly: “Whithersoever he turned he inflicted punishment,” and is adopted by Keil.
The captain of his host was Abner.—This “cousin”—or, as some have understood the sentence, the uncle—of King Saul was evidently a man of rare powers and ability. The brilliant campaigns of this reign were, no doubt, in no small measure owing to the military skill of this great commander. After the terrible disaster on Mount Gilboa, Abner was the mainstay of the house of the dead King Saul, and when he died the generous David followed the bier, and lamented over him with a lamentation which has come down to us in words ever memorable: “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel.” His son Jaasiel was subsequently allowed the first place in the tribe of Benjamin. (See 1 Chronicles 27:21.)