1 Samuel 14
Have you ever said something that you wished you could take back?
Something rash, something in haste, and not fully thought through.
Have you ever made a promise or vow to do something that was ill-advised?
Something you immediately knew you’d regret having to deliver? Something that ended up making your current situation worse and not better?
In saying something you wished you could take back, in making that ill-advised promise or vow, have you ever – for the sake of being emphatic, to underscore you’re serious and mean business, ever invoked the name of the Lord.
Adding or ending with a statement like “I swear to God!”
Today as we return to the book of 1 Samuel, there’s going to be some serious swearing going on – not the bad kind we’re thinking of – but then again, not the kind that’s really any better.
When we last left our story, Israel’s new and first king named Saul got the people tangled up in a war with their rival, the Philistines.
Outnumbered and outgunned, Saul was not without the promise of the Lord’s intervention – in 7 days’ time.
But as King Saul’s fear increased even as the size of his army gradually decreased, impatience got the better of him and he took matters – what belonged to God – into his own hands.
Confronted with his premature actions, Saul didn’t own his mistakes, his failure.
He just made excuses. Saul blamed his circumstances and other people.
Instead of choosing to be repentant and forgiven, Saul insisted he was right in doing wrong.
The net result of his defiance is that his family’s dynasty will end before it even really got started.
When Saul’s reign concludes, the crown of Israel will go to someone else – not related to him.
More immediately however, a massive Philistine army remains poised to attack and to demolish Israel.
Saul, who has disconnected himself from his direct line to God – the prophet named Samuel, retreats back home unsure of what to do next.
King Saul’s son, Jonathan, however, isn’t prepared to throw the towel in just yet.
Unlike his father, Jonathan isn’t prepared to let go of the Lord’s direction.
Instead of retreating, Jonathan is about to move Israel forward by faith.
And as we’re about to hear, Jonathan’s daring plan might just work – that is, if all King Saul’s needless swearing doesn’t end up ruining everything.
There’s a lot going on in this part of the story, so keep your Bibles open after we hear a few of the highlights from 1 Samuel, chapter 14.
We caught a few glimpses of what proved to be an eventful day in the life of Israel.
Now let’s get the whole story of what took place – of what almost happened but thankfully didn’t.
And as we’re listening, let’s pay particular attention as to why.
We have something of a time jump as our story resumes with the phrase “one day”…
“One day Jonathan son of Saul said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the Philistine outpost on the other side.” -1 Samuel 14:1
Prior to this one day, Israel’s army has retreated to the Gibeah.
In the meantime, the Philistines have been raiding the neighboring villages.
A deep ravine about a mile-wide stands between the two encampments.
Israel’s military camp is on the south side while the much larger forces of the Philistines occupy the north side.
King Saul, who previously acted out of his impatience, now appears more than willing to wait – not on the Lord – but for the Philistines to make the next move.
Jonathan, his son, has other ideas – a seemingly crazy plan to go up to the Philistine camp with his armor bearer – just the two of them – and to pick a fight.
One might think the heat is getting to Jonathan, that he has some sort of death wish or suicide mission, but we soon learn there is indeed a method to his madness.
Jonathan’s plan is for he and his armor bearer to show themselves to the Philistines and see how the Lord directs him.
If the Philistines ask for a fight and tell them to come up, then this will be the sign God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory.
To be clear, Jonathan doesn’t know for sure what God will do. As he declares, “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.” – 1 Samuel 14:6
Jonathan doesn’t presume what will happen next; he merely creates room for the Lord to give him some direction.
Despite an uncertain outcome, two men who are clearly outmatched willing to step forward not foolishly but out of great faith in the Lord’s promise to save Israel.
Jonathan acts out of hope believing, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” – 1 Samuel 14:6
Climbing out of the ravine and making both their presence visible, Jonathan and his armor bearer are taunted by the Philistines to come up and fight.
Receiving the sign from God for which they asked, Jonathan and his armor bearer together answer this challenge by the Philistines and take out 20 soldiers.
Soon after this, the Lord, affirming Jonathan’s faith, makes His presence known in a powerful way – putting fear into the hearts of the Philistines as He unleashes a mild earthquake that sends their forces running in all kinds of different directions.
“Then panic struck the whole army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God.” – 1 Samuel 14:15
In all the confusion, the Philistines start turning on each other. Some Israelite deserters or mercenaries who were fighting for the Philistines even changed their allegiance and took sides with Jonathan. The tide of battle is turning.
Meanwhile back at the Israelite camp in Gibeah, the watchmen of the Israelite outpost start to notice all the confusion and chaos about a mile or so away in the Philistines camp.
Once King Saul gets word about this, he realizes someone from his forces has initiated this attack upon the Philistines.
He immediately does a roll call and sure enough, Jonathan and his armor bearer are found to be missing.
Despite the report he’s received, King Saul does not mobilize his forces – at first.
Saul’s initial instinct is to consult the Lord before he takes action but as the total disarray in the Philistine camp keep increasing, once again, King Saul loses his patience.
Circumstances are moving too fast. And so, Saul abruptly decides he can’t wait – literally interrupting and plugging the plug right in the middle of seeking to discern God’s will.
While Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the Philistine camp increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.”
Then Saul and all his men assembled and went to the battle.
– 1 Samuel 14:19 – 20
Saul and his troops join the battle against the Philistines – who in their confusion are pretty much taking out themselves.
Israel’s inferior army both in size and technology soon has the once larger and superior Philistine forces on the run – but everyone in Israel knows who saved them that day – the Lord God.
Everyone that is – except King Saul.
In the midst of this miraculous turn around on the battlefield, as Israel is in hot pursuit of the remaining Philistine troops, Saul makes it pretty clear – he perceives this to be his battle, his victory.
This becomes obvious as King Saul orders his soldiers not to eat anything until evening comes – not before, and these are Saul’s own words: “before I have avenged myself on my enemies!”
Not Israel’s enemies. Not God’s enemies. But Saul’s enemies. This battle and its victory belong not to the Lord but to Saul.
Saul not only orders his men to continue without any food for the rest of the day, he binds them by a solemn oath – a vow before the Lord.
“Cursed be anyone who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” -1 Samuel 14:24
King Saul swears to God if anyone in his army eats anything before nightfall, that person will be cursed and put under the Lord’s judgment.
Now vows made onto God were not to be taken lightly and they weren’t supposed to be uttered lightly either.
So, why does Saul do this? There’s no indication God instructed him to make such a vow. This is all Saul’s doing. But again, why?
To exercise a little authority and show who’s boss?
To put the fear of God in his soldiers in order to keep them focused?
To look pious, impress the Lord, and perhaps curry some divine favor?
To sound like he’s in closer communication with God than he actually is?
We don’t know why Saul did it.
All we know is by taking such oath, Saul not invoked a curse upon his men if they disobeyed him, he also cursed his men to suffer in the throes of the victory the Lord had gift-wrapped and put into their hands.
Onward through the heat of the day they would fight getting exhausted, dehydrated and losing their stamina, but being denied the means to regain their physical strength – even when there is precious, sweet honey oozing before them as they are in the forest. And yet no one ate of it.
In our modern, Western culture, nobody takes oaths seriously anymore unless they are in a courtroom.
But in the ancient world, swearing to God, making a vow in the name of the Lord, was serious business – a binding matter.
There was no just kidding. There were no take backs. If you broke your oath, if you didn’t keep your words, there were serious consequences.
That’s why we’re told no one ate of the honey in the forest – “because they feared the oath.”
“When they went into the woods, they saw the honey oozing out; yet no one put his hand to his mouth, because they feared the oath.” – 1 Samuel 14:26
But not everyone was there when King Saul bound the people to this oath.
Jonathan, who has been fighting longer than anyone else, Jonathan, who, because he took the initiative to start this battle, and wasn’t present when Saul swore to God, apparently misses the memo.
Completely unaware, Jonathan, when he sees some delicious honey, has himself a taste and “his eyes brightened” (1 Samuel 14:27)
– meaning he got some light, some life, some energy back in his countenance.
Only after it’s too late does Jonathan find out from a fellow soldier about his father’s vow and its consequences.
Jonathan, in response, doesn’t hesitate to call out the foolishness of what his father, the king, has done – not in terms of what’s going to happen to him, Jonathan, – but in regard to what’s already happening – the weakened condition of all the king’s men from not eating any food.
“How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the victory over the Philistines have been even greater?” – 1 Samuel 14:30
Jonathan points out if the soldiers could have eaten, just a little – the defeat of the Philistines would have been greater.
Perhaps they would have broken the back of their rule once and for all.
But since the soldiers are faint, depleted from hunger, their victory against the Philistines is less than it might have been.
When the long day finally comes to an end, King Saul’s troops are so exhausted, so consumed with hunger that as the sun goes down, they begin to slaughter the domestic animals they captured from the Philistines.
They ravenously cut up the livestock and began the meat with the blood.
In other words, they didn’t take the time to properly and reasonably draining the blood from their choice cuts – not very sanitary. More specifically, it’s a violation of the Lord’s repeated command in Genesis, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy about the proper – the healthy way to prepare a steak and to honor the blood, the life that only God can give.
When this is pointed out to King Saul, he accuses his men of breaking faith, as he has a large stone set up as a makeshift altar that can be used to properly drain all the blood from the meat.
Saul takes no responsibility when he accuses his men of breaking faith, when it was his foolish oath that has caused them to stumble.
Once his army has eaten and is refreshed, Saul wants to continue the pursuit of the Philistines under the cover of night.
He’s all raring to go. He’s about to give the order. When the priest traveling with them, not the king, puts on the brakes and asks, “Shouldn’t we ask the Lord about this?”
So, King Saul prays to God. But then, he receives no answer from heaven. There’s just silence on the other end of the line.
Sometimes no answer from God IS an answer from God – to wait for the Lord’s timing in getting some direction.
But as we’ve seen, patience isn’t Saul’s strong suit. Instead, the king interprets God’s silence as a sign of judgment. Something is wrong. Someone has sinned.
“Saul therefore said, “Come here, all you who are leaders of the army, and let us find out what sin has been committed today.” -1 Samuel 14:38
The “sin” Saul specifically means is breaking the oath he bound everyone under – eating food when they weren’t supposed to.
Then, even though, King Saul just witnessed how his first oath backfired and caused trouble for this troops, he doubles down and swears to God again – vowing to kill the person who broke the oath – even if it’s his own son.
“As surely as the Lord who rescues Israel lives, even if the guilt lies with my son Jonathan, he must die.” -1 Samuel 14:39
At this point, we know, everyone in Israel knows, that Saul has said something he shouldn’t have, something he’s going to want to take back.
This is not a good decision. This is foolishness on top of foolishness.
Moments ago, the Lord was silent when the king asked a question. Now, that silence thickens – things get awkward – as in response to Saul’s interrogation, “…not one of them said a word.” -1 Samuel 14:39
When no one steps forward, the king looks to heaven and questions God as to His silence.
Continuing to press for an answer, Saul uses the other standard religious method of his day for advancing towards the truth: casting lots.
And surprise, surprise, the lot finally falls on Jonathan.
Jonathan is technically guilty of breaking the oath even though he didn’t know anything about it.
If we call it a sin; it’s what’s known as a sin of omission rather than a sin of commission.
An accident. A mistake. Not a willful, rebellious choice.
Frustratingly, none of this process addresses King Saul’s own knowing sin. After all, it was his foolishness of swearing to God that created this whole mess in the first place.
It was King Saul’s doubling down on that foolishness – swearing to God again – that made the punishment for this mistake a death sentence for his own son.
Jonathan’s response highlights both the tension and the ridiculous of this situation when he says,
“I tasted a little honey . . . and now I must die.” – 1 Samuel 14:43b
Most Bible translations have an exclamation point at the end of this sentence but there were no such punctation marks in the original language. Jonathan’s statement here may well be in the form of a question, “I tasted a little honey . . . and now I must die?”
With the king’s judgment way out of proportion to the offense, Jonathan has to ask whether eating a little honey was really something for which he should be executed.
Once again, King Saul finds himself in a bind of his own making.
It was wrong to make the first and the second oaths.
It would be wrong to break both oaths as they were supposed to be binding.
It also would be wrong to follow through if they were both bad oaths to begin with.
No matter what Saul does, he is going to be wrong. So then, what can the king do?
The only thing we have left, the only right way to move forward, when we confront our total failure, our brokenness as human beings – is to admit we’re wrong.
To confess, repent, and fall on the mercy and grace of God.
But shockingly, absurdly, the king triple dog dares – as he swears to God a third time – binding himself with another oath:
“May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.”
– 1 Samuel 14:44
Saul is willing to let Jonathan die – to take his own son’s life – rather than to own up to his mistakes, rather than lose face and admit he was wrong.
But ironically, losing face, losing the confidence of his men is exactly what does end up happening in this moment for the king.
All his soldiers who had gone along, who had been bound under Saul’s foolish vows this far, draw a line in the sand here and now.
They refuse to follow the orders of their king. They will not allow Saul to execute Jonathan. They recognize what Saul cannot or will not see – despite all the vows taken in His name, the Lord is not behind Saul’s proclamations and judgments.
On the other hand, the Lord has revealed Himself – His presence, His favor – through the miraculous victory He has given Israel through Jonathan.
In what is surely not a coincidental move, King Saul’s men counter his foolish oaths with a righteous one of their own.
“But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.” -1 Samuel 14:45
The people of Israel swear to God that Jonathan is NOT going to be executed.
And just like that, a day which held such promise with a miraculous victory over the Philistines ends rather darkly with Israel giving up the pursuit and the Philistines simply withdrawing “to their own land.”
“Then Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land.” – 1 Samuel 14:46
A father puts himself at odds with this son. A king finds himself alienated from his own people. Saul is left even more isolated than when Samuel left his side in chapter 13.
And it all happened, things got worse not better because King Saul despite all his swearing to God was attempting to use the Lord rather than allowing the Lord to use him.
Consider the stark contrast in this story between Jonathan and Saul in their approach, in their relationship with the Lord.
Jonathan seeks God’s guidance. He doesn’t presume to know what the Lord is doing.
Jonathan believes and trust the Lord will act on behalf of His people.
But he doesn’t attempt to force or manipulate God to act the way he, Jonathan, wants.
Instead, he seeks an indication – some direction from the Lord.
Jonathan, as he stresses God’s sovereign freedom in verse 6, leaves room for God to speak for Himself and then listens.
When the Lord speaks, then Jonathan acts accordingly – and a miraculous victory is the result.
While Jonathan seeks God’s guidance; King Saul tries to force God’s silence.
First, Saul can’t be bothered to wait for the Lord to answer and cuts short the prayers of discernment that have been initiated.
Ponder that for a moment.
Saul asks God a question and then decides he doesn’t want to wait for an answer, so he basically silences God.
Later, when it is God who is silent, Saul first, decides to put words in the Lord’s mouth – Saul’s own words – assuming God’s silence is a form of judgment against whoever violated the oath Saul invoked not from the Lord’s direction but simply in the Lord’s name.
Ironically, the king doesn’t even think to look at himself – to consider the sin that needs to be dealt with is his own – his foolish oath, that God’s silence might be because Saul, with all his swearing, never leaves any room for the Lord to speak.
Instead Saul assumes somebody else – someone with his ranks – either personally sinned or knew of sin within their ranks and so, he doubles down on swearing in God’s name and turns one small, innocent act of eating honey into a capital offense.
When the silence continues to remain unbroken, Saul purposes to force the Lord to say something through the casting of lots.
And when God finally reveals King Saul is about to execute the one man of faith through whom He the Lord has given victory to Israel, Saul refuses to admit he was wrong as he swears a third time in God’s name.
Three foolish oaths that reveal three-fold how King Saul’s primary motivation in invoking the name of the Lord was not for God’s glory but for Saul’s benefit.
In swearing to God the first time, Saul is less interested in Israel’s protection than in exacting his own personal revenge on his enemies.
In swearing to God the second time, Saul purposes to get some answers to his questions rather than stepping back in listening to what the Lord is trying to reveal to him.
In swearing to God the third and final time, Saul tries to look like a man of his word – someone who means business – rather than yielding to the word of God and acknowledging he was wrong.
King Saul projects the appearance of a devout and religious person – who is earnestly seeking to follow the Lord; but in the end it takes his own men to show Saul how wrong he is, that he as king is not only about to wrongly execute his own son, but the very person whom the Lord is revealing His presence through.
All of Saul’s swearing didn’t make things better; they only made things worse.
The king’s vow didn’t rally the troops; it just created an exhausted army.
The king’s vow didn’t win the battle, it actually Israel’s enemies to survive and fight again another day.
The king’s vow didn’t demonstrate Saul’s strength; it exposed his weakness – his attempts to manipulate God for his, Saul’s own ends rather than to serve the Lord.
Beloved, we tend to throw the Lord’s name around quite a bit – invoking the character and will of God as the justification for lots of our claims and many of our decisions.
There’s certainly been a lot of that in the last 12 months, hasn’t there?
We swear to God all the time – presuming the Lord’s endorsement of whatever it is we are promising; whatever it is we are asserting.
I wonder though how often we end up trying to put words in God’s mouth like Saul rather than leaving room and listening like Jonathan for the Lord to speak.
Over this last year, I’ve had lots of conversations with all kinds of Christians – and most followers of Jesus have had no problem telling me in the view of the pandemic, the political landscape, the election, all the marches and the protests – most followers of Jesus have had no problem telling me the right and the wrong way to look at what’s going on and how to react – the correct decisions to be made and the acceptable actions to take in response to all of it.
The telling thing is, most Christians I’ve talked to suddenly get silent and blank-faced when I ask just one question. It’s a question, by the way, that started with me – in my own quiet time with Jesus, in the midst of my own proclivity for swearing and invoking the Lord’s name over this last year.
Here’s the question.
What do I think, what is my understanding of how Jesus has been seeking to direct and guide us to speak and to act over these last 12 months?
Have we ever even bothered to ask?
In the silence, in the waiting for answer, have we like Saul, just assumed we know what Jesus is up to, how Jesus has been speaking and moving?
Is it possible, all the stuff we’ve been claiming in Christ’s name, all the actions we’ve taken that we assert have been for the sake of God’s glory, have actually been to serve our own personal agenda and ambitions– what we’ve wanted for ourselves rather than what the Lord wanted from us?
And in the midst of some questionable things we’ve said and done as Christians, in the aftermath of what have proved to be foolish assertions we’ve made, as our children and our grandchildren continue to call us out for speaking and acting in ways that are clearly contrary to Christ, that don’t line up with actually following Jesus…
Are we willing to admit we’re wrong – to demonstrate that asking for forgiveness and making repentance isn’t just something we tell others they need to do but is part of our daily submission to Christ?
Or are we like King Saul – doubling or tripling down in swearing in God’s name and only making things worse – and trying to get somebody killed?
Beloved, pious language and religious acts in the name of Jesus are not the same thing as speaking and acting in reflection of the character of Christ.
When God speaks, the Lord not only means what He says; the Lord does what He says. There is no idle speech, there is no cheap language, there is no empty talk when it comes to God speaking. The integrity of God’s word is backed by that word always doing what it says – being true to promises given and creating new possibilities in the midst of what seems impossible.
Therefore, whenever we dare speak for God, whenever, we swear in the Lord’s name, let’s be careful, let’s be sure whatever we are saying is what God means, what the Lord has promised and purposed to do.
Before we attach God’s name to anything or anyone, let’s take care to make sure whatever or whoever it is – embodies the way Jesus lovingly and truthfully served others, the way Jesus sacrificially and forgivingly lived and died not just for those in power, not just for the majority, but for all the whole.
Let us then stop swearing to God all the time and instead give pause and reflect on the good news of the Gospel that despite all our foolish speech, vain talk, and empty promises, the Lord in Christ has sworn Himself to us – forever.
Let us stop trying through our assertions and edicts to bind Jesus to our will – to our subjective notions of what is good or bad, right or wrong, false or true, and instead realize we are bound by the love and grace of God, we are compelled to follow Jesus. Only in submission, only in continually listening and learning from Jesus is our victory to be found – each day and eventually in eternity. Amen.