Around the turn of the 20th century two Minnesota minor league baseball teams played one another in a game that would be remembered for quite a while. Being tied after 9 innings, they went into extras, and in the top of the 10th inning the away team scored a run. When it was time for the home team to bat in the bottom of the 10th, their pitcher got a single. The next batter, the lead off hitter, crushed the ball deep into a gap in the outfield. The crowd roared, and both players began running around the bases to score. The pitcher rounded second base and headed for third, while his teammate was quickly catching up to him. However when the pitcher arrived at third base he collapsed, and when the lead off guy caught up to him he didn’t think of passing him (that’s illegal). So he picked up his pitcher and dragged him to home plate, and to everyone’s surprise the umpire counted both runs and the home team won the game! The roar of the crowd went even greater as they rejoiced at such a surprising turn of events. But the great victory was shortly overshadowed by a greater event – the pitcher was dead. He had a heart attack and died at third base. Few people remembered how the game was won or even who won that day, for the death of the pitcher overshadowed the victory.
Just as there were clouds over winning the baseball game from the pitcher’s untimely death, so too there were clouds over Jonathan’s victory in 1 Samuel 14 as well. v23 ended the account of the battle they had won saying ‘The Lord saved Israel that day’ and then in typical Paul Harvey fashion in v24 we read ‘the rest of the story.’ ‘And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day’ due to an oath Saul laid on them.
4 points to see today:
a) The Rash Vow (14:24)
The Philistines had just been defeated and they were fleeing away from the Israelites, who were doing the hard/tiring work of chasing them down. In the midst of their weariness comes v24, ‘And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people saying ‘Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.’ So none of the people had tasted food.’ Before you jump to the correct conclusion that this oath was a bad idea, be reminded, Saul is king. As king Saul has the ability to put his army under an oath and has the ability to bind the oath to them with the threat of severe consequence. On the one hand Saul made this oath with good intentions because as his weary and hungry troops were chasing down the enemy they would’ve no doubt ran right through the deserted camps of the Philistines which would’ve had plenty to eat in it. Saul didn’t want the men stopping to eat and losing the physical ability to chase simply because they had full bellies. But on the other hand this oath was foolish. Sure his troops would’ve gained time in their pursuit by not eating but they were also losing strength for the pursuit by not eating. It would’ve been right and wise to forbid his troops from feasting, but to forbid them from even tasting was cruel and unusual. This was a rash vow, an impulsive vow, and an overly harsh vow.
b) The Exasperated People (14:25-46)
The army obeyed Saul’s command, but it would end up exasperating the people far more than encouraging them. How so? The text gives us 3 ways:
1) Military exhaustion – In v25-31 we see Saul’s troops (still chasing) come into a forest and in this forest we see honey dripping from the trees and all over the ground. This is strange at first, perhaps the Philistine soldiers broken open honeycombs in their flight back home, we can’t really know if they did or not. But we do know that Canaan is a land flowing with (remember?) milk and honey. We see evidence of this in this passage. This is a good land, a land that provides for those dwelling in it. So when the soldiers pass into the forest they see the honey, but are afraid to eat it because they feared Saul’s oath. But guess who wasn’t with the army when Saul rashly made this oath? Jonathan and his armor bearer. So, v27 tells us that Jonathan ate some of the honey and from doing so, ‘his eyes became bright.’ This Hebrew word used here translated into English as ‘bright’ is a word meant to convey a type of relief or peace from trouble. Thus Jonathan, being famished reached out and ate some of the God-given honey that Saul forbid, and he found relief. Then a conversation breaks out among the troops. Someone told Jonathan in v28, ‘Your father said ‘Cursed be the man who eats food this day.’ You gotta love Jonathan’s response right? v29, ‘Can’t you see how this little honey has strengthened me? All of us should eat of this spoil, but my father has troubled the land, and now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great.’ Saul’s rash vow has not only hard pressed the troops in their hunger, it has spoiled and overshadowed Jonathan’s great victory.
We’ve all seen examples of this. We all know people, and perhaps at times we have all been those people who add all sorts of rules and regulations to religion. These rules have the appearance of a holy devotion or righteousness, but they really only serve the purpose of self-righteousness. This person says, ‘If you’re really a Christian you’ll only listen to Christian music, you’ll only wear Christian clothing, you’ll only have Christian haircuts, you’ll only have Christian stickers on your car…’ In effect this person is really saying ‘Don’t dance, drink, or chew, do only the things that I do.’ It’s the definition of self-righteous to take matters of personal conviction and turn them into matters of religious observance for all. In this way Jonathan says Saul his father has troubled the land. God has graciously given a land full of milk and honey to strengthen and relieve His people, yet while God freely gives it Saul wrongly prohibits it, asking his army to do their daily work without God’s daily bread. This is not true religion. This is tyranny. Rather than Saul saying to the people ‘Rest in what God has done for you’ he was saying ‘Rest in what you can do for God.’ By doing this, Jonathan now feels what many of you have felt: the mess and misery brought on by the rashness of an inconsiderate father.
2) Mealtime transgression – In v32-35 the men are still chasing the enemy, they have struck them back all the way to Aijalon (15 miles away from Michmash) and due to the emptiness in their bellies they are thinking more of food than of their work. When it turns to evening and they’re finally free to eat, they throw off all restraint and in v32 it says they pounced on sheep and oxen and calves, slaughtering them on the ground, and devouring them blood and all. Saul hears of this, rebuked them for breaking God’s Law (Gen. 9:4, Lev. 7:26, Deut. 12:16), had them bring a sacrifice to be forgiven, and built his first altar to God afterwards. Great right? Good king right? Wrong. Two reasons why this is wrong: first, Saul had been king for a while and this is the first time he builds an altar? Other kings and the godly leaders in Scripture built altars to God every time God showed up and rescued His people. Saul is behind the curve here. Second and mainly, Saul failed to acknowledge that their sin (of eating with the blood) was his fault. If he hadn’t pressed his troops so hard by prohibiting them from eating what God had given, they wouldn’t have eaten in such frenzy that evening. Here Saul further shows that he is zealous for the forms of godliness while denying its power. He loves to look the part of a godly king but doesn’t do squat to show reverence and obedience to the true King.
In this manner Saul is a great example of what we are like. It’s too easy to come down hard on Saul while we give ourselves a pass. So think, in what ways are you zealous to look like a Christian while you have no real interest in living like a Christian? Let’s just take one example from the many we could choose from: communion, the Lord’s Supper. Each time we do it I give a hearty warning. It’s called fencing the table. The fence is meant to encourage reverence because there is the real presence of God at His table. This means non-Christians should be warned to stay away from the table, but it also means that Christians should be warned as well, for there are times when we should stay away from the table too. If you’re unrepentantly sinning, angry toward another, or are hiding in rebellion the Bible tells you to not come to the table, but to deal with these things first and then come. Yet, what happens when the plates are passed around, or it’s time to come forward to take the elements from the elders? So many say to themselves, ‘If I don’t take communion people will know that I’m sinning, so I’ll just go ahead and take it so I don’t have to face any awkward questions later.’ In that moment you care more about looking religious than actually having a true religion.
This is at its core…a lack of reverence. It’s caring more about how others may speak of you than what God has already spoken to you. If Saul had truly been reverent in heart his outward actions would’ve shown it by humbly confessing his own sin as the cause of his troops’ sin. But no, Saul played the part well, and offered the people religious ceremony and even built an altar. For Saul, God was useful not beautiful. The same is true of those who come to the Lord’s table when they know they shouldn’t – for at that moment, you’re treating God as useful, not as beautiful. If a true reverence exists in your heart it would show itself in your outward actions and demeanor as you deal with your sin. Be honest now, in this passage Saul is more an example of what you and I are like rather than an example of what not to do. If that’s true, where is our hope? We’ll get there.
3) Jonathan’s near destruction – In v36-46 we see what is by far the most disastrous effect of Saul’s rash vow, the near death of his son. After building his altar he thought he would continue chasing the Philistines and the troops even agreed. But notice that the priest reminds him to ask for God’s guidance first? Again he shows his utter lack of concern for God and his wholehearted regard for his own desires. In v37 he prays, and God doesn’t answer. So Saul guesses that someone has sinned so he makes another rash vow saying in v39 that whoever is found out, ‘even if it Jonathan my son, he shall die.’ So he gathered the men and used two things to find out God’s will – Urim and Thummim. These were two stone like objects of different color the priest carried with him to cast lots to discern God’s will. The lot was cast, and behold, Jonathan was found out, he confessed to having eaten some honey, and submitted himself to the death sentence of his father saying ‘Here I am, I will die.’ Saul really was going to kill his son but in v45 the exasperated people said this, ‘Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.’ So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die.’ It’s surprising to see the people save Jonathan from death, it’s more surprising to see Saul accept their plea.
Military exhaustion, mealtime transgression, and Jonathan’s near destruction: these troops were exasperated for sure, so in v46 they stopped chasing the Philistines and went home. Saul’s actions show us that he has, as Matthew Henry says, ‘a strange ability to turn deliverance into distress.’
c) The Surprising Ending (14:47-52)
On the surface of things this looks like a favorable summary of Saul’s military conquests. It’s not. The author of 1 Samuel also wrote another volume of the story, 2 Samuel. And in 2 Samuel the author gives us a summary of David’s military conquests, but in David’s summary one phrase stands out above all else, ‘The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went’ (2 Samuel 8:14). This oh so important phrase present in David’s summary is missing from Saul’s summary. Lesson? Saul was a man about his own agenda, David was a man about God’s agenda.
So we’ve seen here in this passage the warning of living with only the appearance of religious reverence rather than having a true reverence for God. We saw this through the foolishness of Saul’s rash vow that 1) overshadowed the great victory Jonathan and his armor bearer had won in the beginning of chapter 14, and 2) exasperated the people. The original audience of Israelites would’ve been warned and encouraged in reading this chapter; the warning primarily being found in Saul’s self-righteous example, and the encouragement primarily being found in Jonathan’s self-less example. Saul’s life teaches them what faithlessness looks like, while Jonathan’s life teaches them what faithfulness looks like. When this chapter hits our ears today we learn similar things: the sins of Saul teach us much, as does the faith of Jonathan. But remember we also saw that we can too quickly jump to the conclusion that Saul is bad and Jonathan is good. Honesty would tell us we’re far more like Saul than we’d care to admit. We too often find ourselves playing with religion, caring more about looking religious than actually having true religion. Deep down we really do have a problem. Earlier I said, ‘Saul is more of an example of what you and I are like rather than an example of what not to do…and since that’s true where is our hope?’ Let’s look into this now.
d) Our Hope
The hope in our own Saul-esque sins comes in the almost execution of Jonathan in v45. Note the following: 1) Jonathan’s father wrongly desired to put him to death, while Jesus’ Father (God the Father) was pleased to put Him to death. 2) Jonathan really had sinned against his father’s rash oath and deserved to die, while Jesus perfectly obeyed His Father’s commands and didn’t deserve to die. 3) The people pled for Jonathan’s life and saved him, while the mob around Christ pled for the death of Jesus and did not save Him. 4) Saul accepted the pleading of the people and did not kill his son, while God the Father also accepted the pleading of the people and killed His Son.
Here we have two sons: Jonathan, who deserves to die and doesn’t – and Jesus, who doesn’t deserve to die and does.
Here we have two fathers: Saul, who exasperates his army and attempts to put his son to death – and God the Father, who loves His people and sends His Son into the world to die for them.
Here we have two crowds of people: the troops, who save Jonathan’s life from wrongful death – and the angry mob, who calls out for the wrongful death of Jesus.
See this: we are far too much like Saul, rash, inconsiderate, self-righteous, irreverent, and more wicked than we can imagine, yet in and because of the finished work of Christ God loves us far more than we could ever dare hope. Herein lies our hope: a true reverence, a true life of obedience, a true and authentic religion will only be ours if we understand that we can’t be religious enough to save ourselves. Church attendance will not save you, severe and unbiblical rules and regulations will not save you, giving loads of money to the church will not save you, being baptized will not save you, acting religious will not save you. Salvation by religious actions has as much ability to save you as eating chocolate cake has the ability to clean out your arteries.
In comes Jesus. Very God of very God, becoming man, to show us two massive things: that we cannot do enough, and that He can and has done enough.
Once you embrace His work on our behalf religion loses its usefulness and it becomes beautiful. Then it will no longer seem like a long list of things ‘I have to do’ but will become what it is meant to be, a never ending list of things ‘I get to do.’
David Crowder said it well, ‘This is the glory of it all, that He came here, with redemption from the fall, so that we may live for the glory it all!’
Derek Thomas said it well too, ‘Grateful law-keeping is the saved sinners response to received grace. The rest of our life is a way of saying to God, ‘Thank you.’