1 Samuel 11:1 Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh Gilead.
This was Saul’s first test of leadership, and it would be decisive. His government was not established yet, and he was plowing his field when he heard the news. Nahash the Ammonite was planning to gouge out the right eye of everyone who lived in Jabesh Gilead, even if they surrendered.
Immediately, the Spirit of God came on Saul, and he marshaled an army. [T]hey broke into the camp of the Ammonites and slaughtered them until the heat of the day. Those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together (1 Samuel 11:11).
Saul’s reign was off to a great start. This victory established him as king in the hearts of God’s people. He was thirty years old, and would lead Israel for the next forty-two years (1 Samuel 13:1). With the help of God’s Spirit, the future seemed bright.
1 Samuel 13:5 The Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore.
This was a serious challenge. God had given the land to Israel, but the Philistines would not give it up, and they often had the advantage. This challenge was so great that Saul’s army was quaking with fear (1 Samuel 13:7), and many were deserting.
The prophet Samuel had instructed Saul to wait for his arrival, so he could offer a sacrifice before the battle. Since the prophet spoke for God, this was not a suggestion—it was God’s command. But Samuel did not arrive on time, and Saul felt compelled to act. Perhaps the prophet was sick, or was delayed for some other reason. Saul thought he would lose the battle if he waited any longer, so he offered the sacrifice himself.
1 Samuel 13:10-11 Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him. What have you done? asked Samuel.
Saul explained his actions, but Samuel was not pleased. You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure (1 Samuel 13:13-14), he said.
At first reading, the consequences seem disproportionate to Saul’s failure. Saul was under pressure to act because the prophet was late. There would not have been a problem if Samuel had simply arrived on time. It was because of Samuel’s delay that Saul took action. And for this he would not have a dynasty. He would not be deposed, but his sons would not rule after him.
This was a test of Saul’s faith, and Saul failed badly. The word of the prophet was the word of God to Saul—and the word of God was wait. If Saul had waited on God, his future would have been different.
Taking action ahead of God is always counterproductive. [God] acts on behalf of those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4), wrote Isaiah. We like to take matters into our own hands, but there are times when God wants us to wait. Whoever waits on God never waits too long.
1 Samuel 14:1 One day Jonathan son of Saul said to his young armor-bearer, Come, let’s go over to the Philistine outpost.
By this time Saul’s son Jonathan was a grown man and an excellent warrior. He was also a man of faith. Unafraid of battle, he went with his armor-bearer into enemy territory, to see what could be done. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few (1 Samuel 14:6), he said. Jonathan’s confidence was not in himself, but in the Lord. Even if they were outnumbered, God could give them victory.
1 Samuel 14:7 Do all that you have in mind, his armor-bearer said. Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.
This would have encouraged Jonathan greatly. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves (Ecclesiastes 4:12), wrote Solomon. And, if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven (Matthew 18:19), said Jesus. Two people with God are a mighty force, even if they are outnumbered.
The odds against them were great, however, so Jonathan and his armor-bearer sought further assurance. They planned to reveal themselves to the Philistines, and if the Philistines said, Come up to us, that would be a sign that God would give them victory. That is exactly what happened, and they defeated twenty enemy soldiers.
1 Samuel 14:15 Then panic struck the whole army . . . and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God.
The Philistine army sensed that God was against them and began to flee. Saul saw what was happening and led his army into battle. With God’s help, they thoroughly defeated the Philistines.
None of this would have happened apart from the courageous faith of Jonathan and his armor-bearer. Mighty works of God often start with just one or two people. It is not the number that matters, but the courage and faith of those involved. Even one person with God makes a majority.
1 Samuel 14:24 Now the Israelites were in distress that day.
They should have been rejoicing, because of the victory, but they were in distress because Saul had bound them with an oath. Cursed be anyone who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies (1 Samuel 14:24), he said.
In an effort to get God’s support, Saul required his men to abstain from food throughout the day. But this was not God’s idea, nor was it very wise. Fighting is hard work, and even harder on an empty stomach. Saul put his men at a disadvantage by commanding a fast. His lack of good judgment was becoming a liability.
To make matters worse, Jonathan did not hear his father’s command. So when he found some honey in the forest, he ate it. When Saul learned of this, he determined to have Jonathan killed because of the oath. But the soldiers came to Jonathan’s defense, and Saul backed down. His reputation for leadership was hurt, however, and the future was no longer bright for Saul.
Reflection and Review
Do you tend to act too quickly, or slowly?
Who has encouraged your faith the most?
What was wrong with Saul’s leadership?