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Saul’s Foolish Oath

We have been working our way through the book of 1 Samuel for the last few months and at this point, we’ve made it through the early years of Israel’s first King – King Saul. Last week we read the story about the incredible faith of Saul’s son Jonathan and his Armour-bearer. You’ll recall that as 1 Samuel chapter 14 begins, King Saul and the army of Israel are hopelessly outnumbered and hopelessly outgunned by the Philistines. 

    • The Philistines had thousands of chariots and thousands of charioteers – and the Israelites had two swords and bunch of pitchforks and pointy sticks. 
    • The Philistines had more warriors than sand on the seashore – the Israelites had 600 terrified farmers. 
    • The Philistines had three divisions of troops that were sent into Israelite territory as raiding parties – the Israelites had two guys who snuck out of camp to check out the Philistine outpost.

In this battle, the Philistines clearly had every possible advantage. Except for one thing. The Israelites had man named Jonathan who completely trusted God and his faith in the Lord made all the difference.

To make a long story short, as Jonathan and his armour bearer believed that God could win the battle whether He had many warriors or just a few, God enabled them to take out the entire Philistine garrison at Micmash – some 20 men in all. But that was only the beginning. Verse 15 tells us…

15 Suddenly, panic broke out in the Philistine army, both in the camp and in the field, including even the outposts and raiding parties. And just then an earthquake struck, and everyone was terrified. 16 Saul’s lookouts in Gibeah of Benjamin saw a strange sight—the vast army of Philistines began to melt away in every direction. 1 Samuel 14:15-16

As Jonathan acted on his faith in God, God acted to accomplish the impossible. God shook the ground and filled the hearts of the Philistines with tremendous fear! As a result, the Philistines fled from their camps in a panic – running away for no real reason – and as King Saul watched, the entire Philistine army melted away in every direction.

But as I said, that was only the beginning. Today we’re going to see what happens next in this battle and discover how Saul responds to God’s incredible and gracious act of intervention. 

We continue our passage today as the terrified Philistines are running around in a panic. Saul’s lookouts report to him that the Philistine army is melting away and so Saul quickly tries to figure out what in the world is going on. And we pick it up in 1 Samuel 14 verse 17. 

17 “Call the roll and find out who’s missing,” Saul ordered. And when they checked, they found that Jonathan and his armor bearer were gone.

18 Then Saul shouted to Ahijah, “Bring the ephod here!” For at that time Ahijah was wearing the ephod in front of the Israelites.

1 Samuel 14:17-18

And I’ll pause here just briefly to explain this whole ‘ephod’ thing. The ephod was a kind of special vest worn by the priest. The Bible doesn’t give us a lot of details on how it was used, but we do read that it was part of the priestly garments and that it was used to somehow determine the will of God. Some scholars believe it had special pouch that contained the sacred lots – called the Urim and the Thummim. And again, we don’t have much information about these sacred lots and how they were used, but scholars believe they could have been two stones – one black and one white – which would equate to a yes or no answer from God. And so the theory is the priest would ask a yes or no question of God, and then he would reach in and pull out one of the stones.

But of course, that’s just speculation. The Bible doesn’t give us those details. All we know is that the ephod was an important part of the process whenever the Israelites needed to know what God wanted them to do.

And so this is why Saul is calling for the priest Ahijah to quickly bring the ephod so that they could determined if God wanted them to chase after the Philistines or not.

But look what it says in verse 19.

19 But while Saul was talking to the priest, the confusion in the Philistine camp grew louder and louder. So Saul said to the priest, “Never mind; let’s get going!” 1 Samuel 14:19

That last sentence is actually a bit of an interpretation by the NLT translators. If you look in most other translations like the NIV or the ESV, you’ll see Saul’s actual statement is a bit different. For example, the NET says this:

While Saul spoke to the priest, the panic in the Philistines’ camp was becoming greater and greater. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” 1 Samuel 14:19 NET

And so the idea here is that, as Saul hears the panic in the Philistine camp growing ever louder, he decides not to wait for an answer from God and just get going! He tells the priest to withdraw his hand (presumable, withdraw it from the ephod’s pouch and stop looking for an answer from God), because in Saul’s mind, the answer is obvious! The growing commotion in the Philistine camp is all the direction from God they need.

And you know, the Bible never really comments on whether this was a right decision or a foolish one. It doesn’t condemn Saul for not waiting for an answer, nor does it commend him for just jumping into action. All it tells us is that this is what happened.

But I think a case could be made for both sides.

On one hand, of course we should pray and ask God for direction in everything! God is concerned with the big decisions in our life as well as the little ones. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6…

6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

So certainly, God wants us to bring all of our questions and all of our concerns and all of our worries to Him – And when we do that, He gives us a peace in our hearts that’s greater than anything we can understand!

But at the same time, I don’t think we need to ask God for direction for things that He’s already told us the answer. For example, we don’t need to pray and ask God, “Should I be kind to my wife today? Should I feed my children? Should I help this little old lady who just fell and broke her leg?”

God has already clearly answered all of those questions in his Word! We know the answer. I would even go so far to say that if we delay doing those things – stopping to pray for 20 minutes before helping that little old lady – we’re actually being disobedient. We’re sinning by praying instead of obeying.

And of course, I’m stretching this to the extreme to make the point. But I think it’s a good reminder for us. Praying for God’s direction is absolutely critical, but there comes a point when we know the answer and it’s time to stop praying and start obeying!

And perhaps that was the case for Saul. Again, the Bible doesn’t tell us, so we don’t really know. But we do know that Saul felt he had his answer from God and so he jumped into action. Verse 20.

20 Then Saul and all his men rushed out to the battle and found the Philistines killing each other. There was terrible confusion everywhere. 21 Even the Hebrews who had previously gone over to the Philistine army revolted and joined in with Saul, Jonathan, and the rest of the Israelites. 22 Likewise, the men of Israel who were hiding in the hill country of Ephraim joined the chase when they saw the Philistines running away. 23 So the Lord saved Israel that day, and the battle continued to rage even beyond Beth-aven.

1 Samuel 14:20-23

So this paragraph kinda wraps up the story. Saul and his men join in the battle – although the Philistines were doing most of the fighting. In all the confusion it seems they were fighting against each other – killing each other off. All the other Israelites that had earlier fled or were hiding or had surrendered to the Philistines – they joined in the battle as well. And then verse 23 kinda wraps it all up by saying “So the Lord saved Israel that day, and the battle continued to rage even beyond Beth-aven.”

And we could finish the story here, with God giving Saul & Jonathan the victory over the Philistines – saving the day once again as God always seems to do. But the next verse jumps back into the story again – almost like a flashback. It would appear that the writer of 1 Samuel wants to give us a little more insight into the life and leadership of Saul and so we get this additional story – this little subplot that plays out as the Israelites chase the Philistines. And it’s a bit long – there’s about 20-some verses in this part so instead of going through it verse-by-verse like we usually do, I think I’ll read through the entire passage and then see if we can draw a couple of lessons out at the end. So let me read this for you starting now at verse 24. It says:

24 Now the men of Israel were pressed to exhaustion that day, because Saul had placed them under an oath, saying, “Let a curse fall on anyone who eats before evening—before I have full revenge on my enemies.” So no one ate anything all day, 25 even though they had all found honeycomb on the ground in the forest. 26 They didn’t dare touch the honey because they all feared the oath they had taken.

27 But Jonathan had not heard his father’s command, and he dipped the end of his stick into a piece of honeycomb and ate the honey. After he had eaten it, he felt refreshed. 28 But one of the men saw him and said, “Your father made the army take a strict oath that anyone who eats food today will be cursed. That is why everyone is weary and faint.”

29 “My father has made trouble for us all!” Jonathan exclaimed. “A command like that only hurts us. See how refreshed I am now that I have eaten this little bit of honey. 30 If the men had been allowed to eat freely from the food they found among our enemies, think how many more Philistines we could have killed!”

31 They chased and killed the Philistines all day from Micmash to Aijalon, growing more and more faint. 32 That evening they rushed for the battle plunder and butchered the sheep, goats, cattle, and calves, but they ate them without draining the blood. 33 Someone reported to Saul, “Look, the men are sinning against the Lord by eating meat that still has blood in it.”

“That is very wrong,” Saul said. “Find a large stone and roll it over here. 34 Then go out among the troops and tell them, ‘Bring the cattle, sheep, and goats here to me. Kill them here, and drain the blood before you eat them. Do not sin against the Lord by eating meat with the blood still in it.’”

So that night all the troops brought their animals and slaughtered them there. 35 Then Saul built an altar to the Lord; it was the first of the altars he built to the Lord.

36 Then Saul said, “Let’s chase the Philistines all night and plunder them until sunrise. Let’s destroy every last one of them.”

His men replied, “We’ll do whatever you think is best.”

But the priest said, “Let’s ask God first.”

37 So Saul asked God, “Should we go after the Philistines? Will you help us defeat them?” But God made no reply that day.

38 Then Saul said to the leaders, “Something’s wrong! I want all my army commanders to come here. We must find out what sin was committed today. 39 I vow by the name of the Lord who rescued Israel that the sinner will surely die, even if it is my own son Jonathan!” But no one would tell him what the trouble was.

40 Then Saul said, “Jonathan and I will stand over here, and all of you stand over there.”

And the people responded to Saul, “Whatever you think is best.”

41 Then Saul prayed, “O Lord, God of Israel, please show us who is guilty and who is innocent.” Then they cast sacred lots, and Jonathan and Saul were chosen as the guilty ones, and the people were declared innocent.

42 Then Saul said, “Now cast lots again and choose between me and Jonathan.” And Jonathan was shown to be the guilty one.

43 “Tell me what you have done,” Saul demanded of Jonathan.

“I tasted a little honey,” Jonathan admitted. “It was only a little bit on the end of my stick. Does that deserve death?”

44 “Yes, Jonathan,” Saul said, “you must die! May God strike me and even kill me if you do not die for this.”

45 But the people broke in and said to Saul, “Jonathan has won this great victory for Israel. Should he die? Far from it! As surely as the Lord lives, not one hair on his head will be touched, for God helped him do a great deed today.” So the people rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.

46 Then Saul called back the army from chasing the Philistines, and the Philistines returned home.

1 Samuel 14:24-26

Now there is a lot of stuff going on in this passage – and we probably have more questions than I have time to address this morning. But in the time that we have, I’d like to just point out a couple of concerns that I have with Saul’s leadership. And you may have noticed these things yourself. There are some things that we can see in Saul’s life that we should not see in the life of a Godly leader.

First of all, in this passage we see that Saul seems more concerned about achieving his own personal agenda than he is of serving and honouring God. When Saul makes the army take the oath not to eat anything until evening, notice the language that he uses.

“Let a curse fall on anyone who eats before evening—before I have full revenge on my enemies.” 1 Samuel 14:24

Does it seem to you that Saul is primarily concerned about the glory of God? Or even, does he seem primarily concerned about the well-being of God’s people? Not really. Saul’s main concern here seems to be that he gets revenge on his enemies! In Saul’s mind this is all about him – it’s his battle, these are his enemies, and all he wants is to get his revenge.

Now, just for the sake of contrast, I want to read a little bit from 1 Samuel chapter 17 – I know we’re skipping ahead a little bit, but this is where David faces the Philistine giant Goliath. And I just want you to notice the different focus that David has. It says in 1 Samuel 17:45…

45 David replied to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies—the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 Today the Lord will conquer you, and I will kill you and cut off your head. And then I will give the dead bodies of your men to the birds and wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel! 47 And everyone assembled here will know that the Lord rescues his people, but not with sword and spear. This is the Lord’s battle, and he will give you to us!” 1 Samuel 17:45-47

Did you notice a difference between Saul’s focus and David’s focus? David was completely focused on honouring the God of Heaven. This was God’s battle, it was God’s honor that was at stake, and God was the one who would win the victory. David was just the instrument in the hands of God to accomplish God’s purposes!

What a complete contrast to the self-centered nature of Saul’s oath – where all he wants is his full revenge on his enemies! No where in Saul’s statement do we see any concern for God’s honor. No where in Saul’s statement do we see any concern for the well-being of God’s people. In fact, I would argue that we see the opposite. 

We see that Saul is willing to sacrifice the well-being of his men in order to get what he wants. He forces them to take an oath not to eat anything all day – until his enemies have been defeated – even though the chase and the battle with the Philistines would be gruelling!

I mean, how does it help his men to deprive them of the nourishment and energy they need to fight the enemy? It doesn’t make any sense. Even Jonathan points that out in verse 29. He says…

29 “My father has made trouble for us all!” Jonathan exclaimed. “A command like that only hurts us. See how refreshed I am now that I have eaten this little bit of honey. 30 If the men had been allowed to eat freely from the food they found among our enemies, think how many more Philistines we could have killed!” 1 Samuel 14:29-30

Saul’s foolish oath would actually hinder their efforts to defeat the enemy. It’s clear that this oath obviously wasn’t motivated by strategy, it wasn’t motivated by dedication to God – Saul’s oath was motivated by pride – plain and simple.

This becomes even more clear when Saul wouldn’t back down from his oath when he discovered that his own son Jonathan had inadvertently broken it. Look at verse 43.

43 “Tell me what you have done,” Saul demanded of Jonathan.

“I tasted a little honey,” Jonathan admitted. “It was only a little bit on the end of my stick. Does that deserve death?”

44 “Yes, Jonathan,” Saul said, “you must die! May God strike me and even kill me if you do not die for this.”

1 Samuel 14:43-44

Now keep in mind that Saul’s decision to force his men under this oath not a command from God. It was not a sin for Jonathan to eat that honey. Jonathan didn’t even know about the oath until after he had eaten it!

But yet, Saul is too proud to admit that both his oath and his prescribed punishment were utterly foolish! It’s crazy to think that Saul was about to kill his own son just to protect his pride. I think that’s a strong warning for us as to just how blinding and destructive pride can be! Thankfully, Saul’s men come to Jonathan’s rescue and finally convince Saul how foolish he was being! It says in verse 45…

45 But the people broke in and said to Saul, “Jonathan has won this great victory for Israel. Should he die? Far from it! As surely as the Lord lives, not one hair on his head will be touched, for God helped him do a great deed today.” So the people rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.

1 Samuel 14:45

It seems everyone could see how foolish Saul was being – except for Saul. Saul was blinded by his foolish pride. 

And it’s really this pride that led to Saul’s downfall. We saw glimpses of this last week when Saul took it upon himself to offer the sacrifice instead of waiting for the priest – blatantly disobeying God. We’ll see it again next week as Saul again blatantly disobeys God for a second time. And unfortunately, we’re going to see this throughout the rest of Saul’s lifetime. 

Even though it seemed in the beginning like Saul had such huge potential to be a great and godly king, sadly, it seems that his pride would keep him from that greatness. It seems that the longer Saul sat on the throne over Israel, the less willing he was to give God the throne of his own heart.

His desires, his ambitious, his self-image would always take priority over honouring and obeying God. And as we mentioned last week, because of that, God would eventually take the kingdom away from Saul and give it to another man – a man who truly desired to please and honor God.

And that’s probably a good point of reflection for us.

Does our pride or our own self-centredness keep us from fully surrendering our lives to God? Do our desires, our ambitions, our self-image take priority over honouring and obeying God?

I think we probably all struggle with that to some extent. We’re self-centred by nature. It can be a battle to consistently surrender our life to God.

But I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Mark 8 verse 34. He says:

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul?

Mark 8:34-37

I know it seems hard to give up control of your own life and to surrender your desires, your ambitions, and your self-image to God. But I assure you, it’s the best thing you can ever do. 

And you know what? It gets a lot easier when you realize the kind of God that you’re surrendering your life to.

The more you get to know God, the more you learn that you can trust Him with every area of your life. He’s faithful. He’s good. And He loves you more than you can imagine.

Can I just encourage you this morning to surrender every area of your life to God? Set aside your pride, entrust God with your desires and ambitions, give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow Him.

There’s an old hymn – ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus – and it really is! I love the chorus….

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er;

Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

That’s my prayer for me today – and that’s my prayer for you – that He would give us the grace to trust Jesus more and more. To give up our foolish pride and to surrender our lives completely to Him.

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