Courage and Cowardice (1 Sam 14:1-23)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached October 30th, 2022*

When was the last time you required courage? Maybe you heard a noise in the middle of the night that you had to go investigate; maybe you had to confront a friend steeped in unrepentant sin; maybe you had to confess something that was terribly embarassing. Courage implies two things: a danger, fear, or uncertainty in front of you and a responsibility that binds you to face it anyways. You don’t find out who is brave in Disneyland; you find out who is brave on the battleline. 

But that begs the question: Why does God let us live in such a dangerous world? Why have a world of risk, uncertainties, fear, death, sickness, or anxiety? Of course, you could say that these are the consequences of sin (which they are). But still, why make the consequences of sin take this particular shape? We know that we all live in sinful, fallen world—but there are pockets of it that is much safer than others. Why permit wars, stock market crashes, and head on collisions? Why let pockets of peace be punctured with pain? 

One of the reasons may be that moments of danger and uncertainty reveal what we really believe, who we really are. When it is scary, will I still do my duty? Be faithful? When it is intimidating, will I be honest and tell the truth? In seasons of ease and comfort, sitting in your computer chair with lots of money in your bank account and a clean bill of health, it is easy to be deluded about our own virtue. But bring on the pressure of danger, and your real allegiances will suddenly come out. Lewis explains,

“This, indeed, is probably one of [God’s] motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point…courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.” (CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).

In our text today we see a moment of great danger, and we see two very different responses. One of courage and one of cowardice.

One day Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not tell his father. 2 Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave at Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men, 3 including Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh, wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone. 4 Within the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison, there was a rocky crag on the one side and a rocky crag on the other side. The name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. 5 The one crag rose on the north in front of Michmash, and the other on the south in front of Geba.

6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” 7 And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” 8 Then Jonathan said, “Behold, we will cross over to the men, and we will show ourselves to them. 9 If they say to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place, and we will not go up to them. 10 But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the LORD has given them into our hand. And this shall be the sign to us.” 11 So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines. And the Philistines said, “Look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden themselves.” 12 And the men of the garrison hailed Jonathan and his armor-bearer and said, “Come up to us, and we will show you a thing.” And Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Come up after me, for the LORD has given them into the hand of Israel.” 13 Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him. 14 And that first strike, which Jonathan and his armor-bearer made, killed about twenty men within as it were half a furrow’s length in an acre of land. 15 And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic.

16 And the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and behold, the multitude was dispersing here and there. 17 Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Count and see who has gone from us.” And when they had counted, behold, Jonathan and his armor-bearer were not there. 18 So Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here.” For the ark of God went at that time with the people of Israel. 19 Now while Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” 20 Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle. And behold, every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion. 21 Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. 22 Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle. 23 So the LORD saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-aven. – 1 Sam 14:1-23

The previous chapter (13) reveals that Israel is in a dire situation. The enormous Philistine army has caused the majority of the Israelite forces to flee or hide (1 Sam 13:5-7); Saul has just prophetically been defrocked as king for his unlawful sacrifice (1 Sam 13:8-14); the Philistine army encamped at Michmash has begun to send raiding parties into Israel (1 Sam 13:16-18); and, just to make matters even more impossible for Israel, we are told that none of the Israelite army has a sword or spear, except for Jonathan and his father, Saul (1 Sam 13:19-23). There are two swords in all of Israel to repel the innumerable Philistine army. Chapter fourteen of 1 Samuel opens with a contrasting picture of what these two swords are doing.

Courage

6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” 7 And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” – 1 Sam 14:6-7

The camp of the Israelites is on one side of a large ravine, and the camp of the Philistines stands opposite of them on the other side. Jonathan turns to his comrade in arms with a daring and totally ridiculous idea: Let’s go take ‘em. Back in chapter thirteen, the thousands of Israelite soldiers who saw the army of the Philistines led them to flee till the army was reduced down to just a couple of hundred men left trembling. But Jonathan sees the same army and with a force of two, he goes forward. That seems crazy. What gives Jonathan such silly confidence?

Jonathan’s name means “Yahweh has given,” and here we see Jonathan live up to his name’s sake. He exhibits a faith that Yahweh can give victory, despite overwhelming odds. God can save by many or by few; you may have the largest army, or just an armor bearer; you may have every resource at your disposal, or have nothing at all; you may feel like you are on top of the world, or under the boot—it matters not, nothing can hinder the Lord. You remember the story of Elisha surrounded by the Syrian army in the city of Dothan? Elisha’s servant panics, but Elisha is unphased because he knows, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them,” (2 Kings 6:16), and he prays for his servant to have his eyes opened and suddenly, the servant sees that they are surrounded by heavenly horses and chariots of fire. Jonathan knows that there are more with him than with the Philistines, so he is very bold. 

The Lord is happy to include us in His providence, to fold our efforts and energies into His plan. God used Jonathan’s skill with a sword and physical strength here, but His plan is not dependent on those things. God is no more dependent on our strength and abilities than a boat is dependent on the life-vests aboard to stay afloat. Jonathan knows that God doesn’t even need him, Jonathan knows how Yahweh has worked in the past to deliver His people with many or (more often) with few. And this makes him very bold, very brave, and willing to take unthinkable risk. 

But notice, Jonathan has no fool-proof guarantee that this will work: he says that God may work for them here. Jonathan is risking his life, knowing that God could deliver, but He may choose not to. He doesn’t presume that God must grant him military success, but he nevertheless straps on his sword and walks towards danger confident that if God wills, He will preserve his life.

Jonathan and the armor bearer decide that they will reveal themselves to the Philistines and if the Philistines call them up to the encampment, they will know that the Lord has given them into their hands. And they do so, and the Philistines mockingly laugh that some of the Israelites have decided to weasel their way out of their holes, so they call on the two to come up and be taught a lesson (1 Sam 14:8-12).

13 Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him. 14 And that first strike, which Jonathan and his armor-bearer made, killed about twenty men within as it were half a furrow’s length in an acre of land. 15 And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic. – 1 Sam 14:13-15

Think of how dangerous this mission is—two men taking on an entire garrison; they are seen as they approach, so they don’t even have the element of surprise; and they are so exposed as they approach that they must climb up a cliffside (see 1 Sam 14:4-5) on their hands and feet towards their enemy. And yet, the Philistines fall before Jonathan and his armor bearer. The two fight in tandem and in the span of “half a furrow’s length in an acre of land” (approximately half the length of what a team of oxen would plow in a day’s work), “some twenty men” lay dead at their feet. This is like a scene from an action movie where the hero takes on wave after wave of henchmen, easily dispatching them one at a time. In fact, Jonathan is moving toward them. Eventually, the rest of the Philistines see that this is no ordinary Israelite and they begin to flee in panic. The panic creates chaos and confusion in the camp, and right then, the very ground under their feet heaves and rocks. Now, utter pandemonium breaks out. The earthquake makes it clear that this is no ordinary battle maneuver, but there is a divine intervention taking place. The enormous Philistine army crumbles in fear.

One small stone pushed over the edge can create a great rockslide. One faith-filled individual who takes initiative and risks what others are not willing to risk, trusting the promises of God, can result in God’s mighty hand being revealed. This was Jonathan’s confidence from the beginning: nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.

This is how God works: He leads His people into really difficult situations so that when He shows up to save them, it is patently obvious that it is His power that did the salvation. Over and over again, this is what God does, so that we would know that it is God who saves.

What is Christian courage? It is a confidence in God’s promises that leads to obedience to God’s commands, even if it is very difficult.

Cowardice

We see a contrast between Saul and Jonathan from the very beginning of the chapter. What is the other sword of Israel doing?

One day Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not tell his father. 2 Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave at Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men, 3 including Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh, wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone. – 1 Sam 14:1-3

Jonathan is acting, Saul is sitting. Jonathan is risking, while Saul is hiding. Jonathan goes with one other soldier, while Saul plays it safe with six hundred men. And notice that subtle comment the author gives us about who else is with Saul: “Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli.” Why give us that little genealogy there? I think this is just the way the author is trying to clue the reader in to how we should interpret Saul—who is around him? A descendant of wicked the Phinehas and spiritually blind Eli. 

Towards the end of the story, the camera moves away from Jonathan and back to Saul, and we see a few other details that are intended to tether Saul back to other faithless practices of Israel we saw earlier in 1 Samuel. Saul hears reports that the Philistine army is beginning to disband, and he finds out that Jonathan is missing (1 Sam 14:16-17).

18 So Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here.” For the ark of God went at that time with the people of Israel. – 1 Sam 14:18

If you remember, the ark of God, or the ark of the covenant, is a small box that was a symbol of God’s presence to Old Testament Israel. Now, is there any other place in 1 Samuel where the Israelites have brought the ark of God out into a battle with the Philistines? If you remember, back in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are licked in battle, so they attempted to bring the ark of the covenant into battle like a lucky rabbit’s foot to help them, but they lost even more severely and the ark is captured for a time, which leads to the death of Eli, the death of Phinehas, and the birth of Ichabod. Perhaps here Saul is exhibiting the same kind of superstition. Either way, literarily the narrative similarities—especially the connection with Eli/Phinehas/Ichabod that the author makes explicit in 14:3—invite the reader to draw a line from what Israel did then to what Saul is doing now. But notice:

19 Now while Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” – 1 Sam 14:19

Saul, ostensibly, summons the ark and the priest in order to seek God’s favor. But once Saul hears that the battle is growing very intense, he drops all pretense, and rushes into battle. Perhaps Saul doesn’t really think he needs God’s blessing, doesn’t need to hear from God.

20 Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle. And behold, every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion. 21 Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. 22 Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle. 23 So the LORD saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-aven. – 1 Sam 14:20-23

Who won the battle that day? It wasn’t Saul. It wasn’t the army of Hebrews. It wasn’t even Jonathan and his armor bearer. It was the Lord. By the time Saul arrives with the army they find that the Philistine army is taking care of itself; they have now turned on themselves and are slaying one another in a “very great confusion.” It is like the Tower of Babel all over again. 

Cowardice is contagious. Despite having superior numbers, the Philistines flee and fall. You are on the battle line and you begin to see soldiers ahead of you turning around and running, what are you going to do? There must be something up there that is really bad, I should run too. We also see the contagion of cowardice in king Saul. His reticence to boldly lead the army into battle leads to the fear of the other soldiers. I wonder if you have ever thought about cowardice as a sin to be repented of? Revelation 21:8 includes “cowardice” as a hallmark of the Lake of Fire, not the New Jerusalem. Cowardice may seem like too strong of a word to apply to Saul here because what he was doing seems totally reasonable. He was hedging his bets, playing it safe, not doing anything foolish or rash. He doesn’t enter the battle till the outcome already looks pretty secure. And that safetyism spreads, is contagious. 

But courage is contagious too. Jonathan and his armor bearer’s act of bravery dislodged the Israelite’s out of their holes and onto the battlefield. You see an individual stand resolute in the face of great danger and opposition and you think, Maybe I could do that too. 

Application:

Risk is Right:

At times, our world can give us the sense that safety is the highest good, and risk and danger is the worst of all evils. We want to be safe, we want our families to be safe, we want our communities to be safe. And those are good things! There is a reason every description of the New Heavens and New Earth includes the promise that war will be no more—war, violence, and death is not a good thing. But, nevertheless, we live in a world of war, violence, death, sin, Satan, and destruction. We live in a world where we are surrounded by people who do not know Jesus and Jesus has commanded us to share the gospel with them. We live in a world that has a mindset that is hostile to Christ and requires you to embrace that mindset or pay penalties. And that world requires Christians to take risks.

What is Christian courage? It is a confidence in God’s promises that leads to obedience to God’s commands, even if it is very difficult.

What are you doing right now that requires risky faith? What commands of God seem most scary to you? Is it trusting God that He will provide for you financially? Is it obeying God’s commands to exercise hospitality and so you have to overcome your fears and go strike up a conversation with someone? Is it a fear of telling your parents the truth about what really happened? 

Maybe to put the question in a more provocative way: if were a non-Christian, how much of your life would change? 

This has implications for how we parent our children. If we view our job as parents as eliminating all risk from our children’s lives, does that not then undermine this worldview?

We should, in the words of William Carey, “Expect great things, attempt great things.”

How can we tell the difference between courage and foolishness?

What is Christian courage? It is a confidence in God’s promises that leads to obedience to God’s commands, even if it is very difficult.

I recently saw someone share a quote that said, “Courage is knowing that its going to hurt, but doing it anyways. And so is stupidity. And that is why life is hard.” How do we know the difference between Christian courage and foolishness? Here are five questions to ask to determine:

1.     Is there a clear command of the Bible telling me to do this?

2.     What do others around me think? Parents? Church?

3.     What does my conscience tell me?

4.     Why do I want to do this?

5.     What will be the end result?

Where does Christian courage come from?

All of the details of the story of Jonathan here are meant to show you just how improbable victory is, how impossible. But let’s see if we can hypothetically make it more difficult. What if Jonathan had no sword? Victory would be harder, but God could still show up, right? Jonathan could still succeed with God’s help. And what if once he scaled the cliff, it turned out that his armor bearer was actually a traitor who had been bought by the Philistines, and he helped the Philistines capture Jonathan and bind him? What are Jonathan’s odds now? That is much more dire. And what if they tortured Jonathan and publicly humiliated him in front of everyone? And what if they nailed him to a cross? And then rammed a spear through his chest? What are Jonathan’s chances now?

Jesus came to secure victory, to destroy the works of Satan, and to rescue His people from their sins, but He didn’t land in Jerusalem like a Spartan, He didn’t slay the Philistines like Jonathan. He was arrested, flogged, humiliated, and crucified. He risked everything and lost. But this is how God works. In the most important revelation of who God is—the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ—He demonstrates His power to rescue, save, work, and redeem in the most impossible of all situations. 

This is our God, who can rescue in the most impossible of situations. And, even more importantly, this is our hope. If you are in Christ, then you have the hope of the resurrection ahead of you. So, this should make us very bold. 

Paul tells us:

19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Cor 15:19

If Jesus has not been resurrected from the dead, our faith is pointless (1 Cor 15:17), and we should be pitied—this life is our only shot at happiness, so if we follow the hard path of obedience to Jesus we will lose out on so much of the pleasures of this world. The fragile, fickle, flame of joy that this world offers will be swallowed by the ocean waves of difficulty and danger that obedience to Jesus brings. But if Jesus has resurrected from the dead? Then we have hope beyond this life. When the dark wave of difficulty towers over us to extinguish our joy, the small flame blasts through into life everlasting. You have joy beyond this world, you have a resurrection hope, so you can risk, you need not be subject a life of fear of death.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2:14-15

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s