Faithfulness Inverted (1 Sam 14:24-46)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached November 6th, 2022*

What makes a good leader? Who do you want to follow? Someone with vision, grit, conviction, someone who isn’t afraid to break the rules and push out into the unknown? Is it creativity, or courage, or charisma? Is it the ability to draw a crowd, to excite them, to push them towards a higher goal? There is an ocean of books, talks, and resources on the issue, with a legion of different pictures of what leadership looks like. There are many things needed for good leadership, but let me suggest one that is so mundane, so prosaic, that it likely won’t have any books written on it: time. Not flash, not dazzle, but consistent, plodding over time. Or, to use a Biblical word, faithfulness.

Back in chapter 8, Samuel warned Israel that a king would exploit the people, burden them, and take from them. But, thus far, their king has not done that. Saul has led the people, won victories, and established the kingdom of Israel. Sure, Samuel has continued to warn them all along, even prophetically announcing that Saul’s dynasty has been ended by God. But he certainly hasn’t turned into the tyrant that Samuel warned of. What’s Samuel so worried about?

What lust and charisma and first impressions may hide, time will reveal. You may be able to fake it for a moment, but faithfulness cannot be faked. And in our story today, we see the mask of Saul slip for the first time.

24 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. 25 Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground. 26 And when the people entered the forest, behold, the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. 28 Then one of the people said, “Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food this day.’” And the people were faint. 29 Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great.”

31 They struck down the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. And the people were very faint. 32 The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood. 33 Then they told Saul, “Behold, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.” 34 And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, ‘Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.’” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. 35 And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD.

36 Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” But the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” 37 And Saul inquired of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?” But he did not answer him that day. 38 And Saul said, “Come here, all you leaders of the people, and know and see how this sin has arisen today. 39 For as the LORD lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But there was not a man among all the people who answered him. 40 Then he said to all Israel, “You shall be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.” 41 Therefore Saul said, “O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. 42 Then Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.” And Jonathan was taken.

43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.” 44 And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.” 45 Then the people said to Saul, “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. 46 Then Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place. – 1 Sam 14:24-46

Previously in our story, Jonathan had courageously challenged the entire Philistine army alongside his armor bearer, confident that God can save His people with many or few. God not only preserves Jonathan’s life, but honors his courage by routing the Philistine army entirely. This helps the rest of Israel—including king Saul—find their courage and join in the battle. If you remember, in 1 Sam 13:14 Saul was told that his kingdom would no longer continue and that God would be looking for another man who was “after God’s own heart” to be king. And then along comes Saul’s son, Jonathan, who exhibits incredible faith—faith like a man after God’s own heart–and who demonstrates the leadership, decisiveness, and courage of a king. Jonathan’s character serves as a stark contrast with Saul, hiding in a cave with his army.

We cannot read Saul’s mind, but one has to wonder what Saul is thinking. He has just been bested by his son directly after being deposed by God. Time will reveal that Saul ultimately is controlled by what people think of him, so he is very insecure. So what does someone like that do in a situation like this?

Bad Leaders Use People  (24-30)

“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.” – 1 Sam 14:24

Here, we get our first picture of the cruelty of Saul. The soldiers are exhausted from the battle, weary from the fight, and Saul walks through the ranks and sees the men tired. So what does he do? “The men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people…” He sees their exhaustion SO he pronounces a curse on the soldiers forbidding them from eating any food until the evening. He isn’t moved to compassion or mercy or affection for his soldiers who have been expending themselves and risking their lives. Like an overbearing father who refuses to give a glass of water to his child till the yardwork is done, Saul withholds what the soldiers rightly deserve and turns it into an earned incentive.

And, notice the pronouns here, “…until am avenged on my enemies.” Not only this a depiction of extremely poor leadership and exploitation, but it also reveals what Saul thinks this battle is about: himself. The battle isn’t about the Lord, but about his reputation. So, the men who are under his charge now are no longer deserving of normal care and compassion. They are treated inhumanely which will, in time, lead to them acting inhumanely. 

Saul’s rash vow here is a great picture of what can go wrong when leadership and power are centered on self, rather than others. Saul’s main aim is his glory and his reputation (which likely isn’t looking so great given his cowardice previously), so he acts like a cruel king, overcompensating for his own insecurities with a harsh and unyielding oath that really tries to convey: Look at how serious I am about fighting the Philistines, but winds up conveying instead: Look at how vain and foolish I have become.

People tend to be suspicious of authority today because of abuses they have seen. Perhaps you have witnessed this yourself. But we must be able to delineate between good authority and bad authority. Certainly, Jonathan’s daring escapade in the episode before this is a picture of what one does to lead that results in the good of many. Jonathan doesn’t exploit or dehumanize anyone under him, but risks his own life to deliver and save his countrymen. Saul pushes difficulty and hardship needlessly onto his soldiers out of vanity; Jonathan takes on difficulty and hardship onto himself to save his soldiers out of a love for them and confidence in God. That’s what good leaders do. This is what our Savior, Jesus Christ, does. While His disciples are arguing with each other about which one of them is the greatest, Jesus is busy washing their feet.

I have always been fond of King Lune’s definition of what a king must be from The Horse and his Boy: “This is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.” 

So, the kitchen is a mess. What does a good leader do? He is the first one to step in to start cleaning up, the last one to leave after everything is cleaned, and whistling while he works. Parents of boys, if you are looking for a good definition of what manhood looks like to train your sons in, consider this one: first one in, last one out, rejoicing the most.

Now, the exhausted soldiers are marching through a forest and notice wild honey and honeycombs dropping around them, but they do not reach out for fear of the oath king Saul had placed them under. 

But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. – 1 Sam 14:27

Now, since Jonathan had not heard the oath then he is not bound by the oath. So, with a clean conscience he enjoys the honey and finds his strength revived. But those around him quickly inform him of the curse that Saul had pronounced (14:28)

Then Jonathan said “My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great,” (1 Sam 14:29-30).

Jonathan laments that the victory over the Philistines has now been blunted by Saul’s foolish vow—the army is less effective and capable at fully routing the enemy. This is a bold statement for Jonathan to make, openly criticizing his father, the king.

Here, there may be an allusion to the story of Achan in Joshua 7 whose sin led to Israel’s defeat at Ai, and the death of three dozen men. Lots are cast, and God reveals to Joshua that Achan is the one who had stolen devoted things leading to the death of the men (Josh 7:16-18). Achan’s name sounds like the Hebrew word for “trouble” (achor). Before Achan is executed, Joshua asks him, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today,” (Josh 7:25). And then we are told that the place of Achan’s execution is forever named “the Valley of Achor” (Josh 7:26). This story of Achan becomes an important symbol to Israel of how sin never stays hidden and always costs others. Here, Jonathan says that Saul has brought “achor” on the land–the only time this word is used in 1-2 Samuel. Further, casting lots will play a key role later in our story. Only, in our story, it is an inverse of Achan’s. The lots will fall on Jonathan, but Saul is the one who is troubling the land. He is the one whose sin is leading to the demise of the people.

Jonathan is the faithful leader who serves the people; Saul is the faithless leader who is using the people.

Bad Leaders Tempt People  (31-35)

They struck down the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. And the people were very faint. – 1 Sam 14:31

The distance between Michmash and Aijalon is approximately 15 miles as the bird flies, but would have been even longer on foot. That is an incredible distance to cover while in active combat, and forbidden from taking in sustenance. Thus, the people are now very faint. Their physical deprivation leads them to serious sin.

The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood. – 1 Sam 14:32

The people are described here in animal-like terms. They “pounce” on the sheep and oxen like a beast and begin to eat the meat with the blood in it, something that God had explicitly forbidden in the Law (Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17; 7:26; 17:10-14; Deut 12:16). The soldiers had been treated inhumanely and so they acted inhumanely. 

Then they told Saul, “Behold, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.” 34 And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, ‘Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.’” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. 35 And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD. – 1 Sam 14:33-35

Saul hears of what the people are doing and is shocked, calling their acts “treacherous” or “faithless.” He then sets up a stone for the soldiers to properly slaughter their animals and drain their blood. Interestingly, Saul then constructs an altar to the Lord, but we are told it is “the first altar that the built to the Lord.” Why are we told that? Perhaps the author of Samuel is wanting to show you that, despite being king for several years, Saul only constructs an altar to the Lord in response to the gross sin of the people—meaning, worship isn’t a very high priority to Saul. 

Now, the people of Israel are responsible for their own sin. They can’t be excused because of Saul, yet it is astonishing that Saul does not draw the connection between his oath and the people’s sin. He has aggravated and inflamed the appetite of his men to the degree that they feel like the only option they have is to sin. He did not cause his soldiers to sin, but he did tempt them. 

There is a kind of austerity and asceticism that is so rigorous in self-denial that it, for all its force, only pulls the bowstring of appetite back even more, sending the arrow of depravity even further. Maybe Saul thought his oath was what “serious” faithfulness looked like, but it resulted in serious sin. 

It might be prudentially wise for you to deny yourself of some things that may be fine for others to participate in—maybe you cannot drink alcohol, or have unrestricted access to the internet, or follow the news too closely. Maybe you have a personal weakness that doesn’t permit you to participate in those things without sinning. But when we take those restrictions and then require others to adopt them—regardless of what theirweaknesses might be–we run into the danger of binding people’s consciences where they shouldn’t be. Saul could have just bound himself to an oath. But he didn’t—he required it of his whole army. Maybe Saul thought this is what it looked like to take the Philistines seriously, but his constricting vision actually led to greater sin. Speaking of this, Paul warns of this censoriousness:

“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh,” (Col 2:23). 

Self-denial is critical in the Christian life. But what do we deny ourselves of? We deny ourselves what God has told us to deny. If we don’t, we become like the Pharisees who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matt 23:4). So, we must have enough wisdom to know where our own weaknesses are—and practice self-denial there, even if it is something that is not inherently sinful, but becomes sinful by your abuse or excesses. But we need the awareness to know that it is we who are weak, and we ought not assume that in those matters those around us are similarly weak. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of acting like Saul and exasperating those around us by make the vision of what we define “godliness” as look so burdensome and constricting that they eventually snap and decide to abandon all restrictions and boundaries, and then plunge themselves into real, actual, serious sin.

Scene 3 (36-46) Bad Leaders Blame People

Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” But the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” – 1 Sam 14:36

It’s the end of a long day and Saul now wants to do something very unusual—he wants to go down at night and plunder the Philistines. The people acquiesce, but the priest Ahijah says, “Wait, shouldn’t we ask God first?” Oh yea, good idea, I guess we should ask God.

But when Saul prays, God doesn’t respond (1 Sam 14:37). Saul immediately assumes, Aha, you wicked, treacherous people! This is your fault! Saul is totally blind to his own sin here. He isn’t reflecting on how his vanity has turned this battle into a narrative of his own glory; he isn’t convicted of his cruel exploitation of his soldiers; he isn’t convicted that God has been an afterthought throughout this entire campaign. He doesn’t even connect the dots with Samuel’s pronouncement that God has rejected him from being king. No, he is certain that if there is a reason why God isn’t answering his prayers, it is because of the soldiers’ sin. He is so certain that he performs another rash vow: “For as the LORD lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But there was not a man among all the people who answered him,” (1 Sam 14:39).

What on earth is Saul doing? He just bound himself to execute his son? Not only that, in his oath Saul uses the language of Genesis 2:17 when he says that his son “shall surely die.” God warned Adam, “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Actually, the Genesis connection is pretty convincing—what is Jonathan in trouble for? Something sweet that has dropped from a tree that he has eaten, and for that Saul has just pronounced his son’s death. But, similar to the use of Joshua earlier, we have here another interesting inversion. Saul thinks he is reflecting God, but he is closer to reflecting something else. When the serpent tempts Eve he depicts God like a stingy killjoy who is only in the business of forbidding. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:2). God never said that. He gave Adam and Eve all the trees to eat from and forbid just one. God is holding out on you, He isn’t interested in your joy, if you want true life you need to break His command and eat the fruit. Here, Saul, who has just called to mind the death-penalty of Genesis 2:17, has unwittingly actually fulfilled what Satan describes God as. Saul is cruel, he is uncaring, he has needlessly forbidden eating not just from any tree, but anything, so the only way that people under his rule can literally survive is by transgressing his command. Saul is a satanic PR campaign of what Hell wants you to think God is like.

He gathers the people of Israel together and casts lots using two different colored stones called the “Urim” and “Thummim” that were kept in the breast pocket of the ephod of the priest. Through this process the lot eventually falls on Jonathan. I don’t think this means that God believes that Jonathan is guilty of sin—at the most he would be guilty of an unintentional sin, which would have been remedied by a transgression offering (Num 15:22-31). I think instead that God is providentially judging Saul by letting him expose his own depravity, which will become clear soon.

Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.” And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan,” (1 Sam 14:43-44).

Jonathan plainly tells his father what he did, and amazingly, doesn’t defend himself or explain that he was not aware of the oath. The Hebrew is a little tricky here. Jonathan could be asking a question, “must I die?” or an exclamation, “I have to die for this?!” Or, he could simply be prepared to accept an unfair death penalty from a cruel father and king. And here we see Saul perform his third rash vow, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.” Saul now requests God to do to himself (and more) what he is going to do to his son, if he fails to do it. May God kill me and worse, if I don’t kill you. Saul keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper. Here he should have admitted that his oath was wrong, it was stupid. But he doesn’t, he doubles down at the expense of his own son’s life.

But we find out quickly that this is all a show. Saul is just doing this with an eye to the camera, because as soon as popular sentiment turns, Saul turns. 

Then the people said to Saul, “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. – 1 Sam 14:45

The people are outraged at Saul’s decision—they love Jonathan and see how God has used him to save Israel. So, they speak an oath of their own: As the Lord lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground. Saul had just made an oath, asked God to kill him and worse if he didn’t execute his son. But once Saul realizes that this is an unpopular decision, he drops it. He obviously doesn’t feel bound to follow through on his oath. Which is a funny irony. What started this whole debacle? Saul’s foolish and unfair oath that he bound others to which they broke. And here, Saul immediately breaks his own oath—the rules apply to everyone else, but not to him. Saul’s eye is always to the crowd, always. They are his real god, his real authority—so he can dispense of an oath made Yahweh in a second, because He is second fiddle to the approval of other people. Saul, the king sent to the lead the people is, in reality, led by the people.

Jonathan is ransomed by the shouts of a crowd, so that he did not die. Which makes us think of another Bible story that is being inverted here. Many years in the future, there will be another son who stands before a crowd under the sentence of death for something He did not deserve. But when the crowd is given the choice, they don’t ransom Him, but choose to release a murderer, Barabbas, instead. The crowd here ransoms Jonathan by sparing him from death; Jesus ransoms the crowd by His death. The crowd chooses Jonathan because He has worked a great salvation; Jesus is condemned by the crowd in order to work an even greater salvation.

Jonathan is a great leader and a great picture of faithfulness. He works with God and saves Israel. But Jesus is the best leader. He is the first one in, and the last one out, rejoicing the most.

Bad leaders use people, treat them like things. Jesus doesn’t use you. Jesus doesn’t even need you. He just loves you and cares about you as a person, regardless of what utility you bring.

Bad leaders tempt people, burden them with restrictions that choke the life of out of them. Jesus restores people, gives rest and abundant life to people. He points them down the path of obedience and gives them His Spirit to empower them and uphold them.

Bad leaders blame people, are blind to their own faults and are never willing to own up to their own sin. Jesus, who never sinned himself, is willing and ready to take your blame upon Himself, to take responsibility for what you deserve. You stand under the “you shall surely die” sentence of Genesis 2:17. But Jesus steps in and says, “I will surely die; and you, brother and sister, shall surely live.”

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