1 Samuel 13 leaves off with Israel in a bad situation. King Saul has just disobeyed God and learned that he’s going to eventually lose the kingdom. The Israelite army has scattered in fear; Saul has only 600 men left at his side. And the Philistines are coming out in multiple parties against them.
Saul’s son Jonathan decides that someone needs to take drastic action. So he tells his armorbearer, “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” (1 Samuel 13:6).
The odds were already against Israel – I mean, there were only 600 Israelite soldiers who were prepared to fight, and the Philistines had thousands at their disposal. So maybe Jonathan figured that, at this point, it didn’t matter whether 2 people went out to battle, or whether 600 did. Either way, only a miracle would give them victory.
The LORD rewards Jonathan’s faith, and the Philistines are put to flight by only two men. When the Israelites get wind of the situation, they gather their courage and go out in pursuit of the enemy.
Things have suddenly gone from really bad to really good, and in a large part due to the zealous young Jonathan’s faith.
But then things start to go sour again.
Saul had issued a command that no one could eat anything until vengeance had been fully dealt on the Philistines. But Jonathan had been out saving the country when the command was issued, so he didn’t know anything about it. As the army was going through the woods, Jonathan tastes a bit of honey, unknowingly disobeying the king’s command.
When it’s brought to his knowledge, Jonathan scoffs at his father’s rule: why on earth did my dad say that? That was a stupid rule to make! “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?” (1 Sam. 13: 29-30, NKJV).
And it seems that perhaps as a result of Jonathan’s complaint, the people rush upon the spoil and begin to eat with such desperate ferocity that they don’t even cook the meat and are eating it with the blood – something expressly forbidden in God’s law.
Although Saul has disobeyed God in the past, he’s not all bad, and this chapter demonstrates that. As soon as he finds out what’s going on, he does what he can to restore order and keep the people from breaking God’s rules. Verse 35 also tells us that he builds his first altar to the LORD at that time, and inquires of God whether they should go down and finish off the Philistines once and for all.
But God does not answer Saul’s question.
So Saul figures there must be sin standing in the way that’s blocking the reception, and he calls for lots to be cast to determine whose fault it is.
It’s interesting, because when I read this narrative, I’m already biased for and against each character. Saul has already been rejected by God – so he’s the bad guy. Jonathan is the hero of the day who has demonstrated great faith in the LORD – so he’s the good guy. And the people were just sinning by eating blood, so they’re not in the greatest place right now.
But when the lots are cast, the lot falls on Jonathan. God demonstrates that He is not hearing Saul’s prayers because of Jonathan – because of the hero, the “good guy” in the story!
When I first realized this the other day, I paused and had to think on that for a while. It just didn’t seem right.
It didn’t seem right to Jonathan or the people, either. Jonathan confesses how he had eaten the honey, but with an edge of sarcasm in his voice, “I only tasted a little honey with the end of the rod that was in my hand. So now I must die!” (vs. 43)
And Saul says to his own son – the son who is supposed to inherit the crown from him someday (if the kingdom lasts that long) – “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan” (vs. 44).
Immediately the people cry out in protest, “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” (vs. 45). And so Jonathan’s life is spared.
My initial reaction is almost a sigh of relief. The hero’s life has been spared. The good guy has been rescued.
But when I read this the other day, I had to ask myself the question, “Was that a good thing?”
In spite of the fact that Jonathan was the hero that God had just used, Jonathan had sinned. The lots had spoken. Perhaps it wasn’t the actual eating of the honey that was so much a sin as it was Jonathan’s response that ridiculed King Saul’s command and possibly inspired the people to rush upon the spoils and sin as they did. And we have to remember that leaders have a stricter judgment because of the example they set for their followers.
Jonathan’s sin was “blocking the transmission” between Saul and God. And as far as we know, that barrier wasn’t removed. A sacrifice probably would have sufficed in place of an execution, but we don’t know if that happened.
Saul declared Jonathan guilty, but then he swayed to the public outcry and let him go free. There are some ironic similarities between this situation and the one in the New Testament in which Pilate declares Jesus to be innocent, but then sways to the public outcry and lets Him be executed.
The book of Judges talked a lot about everyone doing what was right in their own eyes. And we have seen that theme still present in the book of 1 Samuel. Now, with the establishment of the monarchy, we are starting to see a new twist on it, though. Now, the king is doing what is right in the people’s eyes. Which may sound good – but only if the people want to do what’s actually right.
- Do we trust God even when things seem hopeless, as Jonathan did?
- Are we quick to make rash decisions, as Saul did?
- Are we quick to ridicule the rules of those in authority over us, or do we respect them even when we disagree?
- Have we ever led someone else astray by our words or actions?
- When we realize we’ve sinned, do we humbly acknowledge it, or do we, like Jonathan, rush to justify ourselves?
- Do we cave to the “public opinion”, like Saul, or are we willing to stand up for what’s right even in the face of pressure from others?