1 Samuel 14: Saul’s battle within


In the last chapter, we saw the moral decline of king Saul begin with his unlawful sacrifice. We continue to see this decline but from a new angle. Saul makes a rash oath which results in pride, distress, sin of the people, and a damaged relationship between Saul and his son Jonathan.

Jonathan Defeats the Philistines

This chapter begins with Jonathan leaving his father, king Saul and the Israelite army to initiate an attack on the Philistine garrison with only himself and his amor-bearer. By doing so, Jonathon demonstrates great faith and leadership. He acknowledges that the battle ultimately belongs to Yahweh. This is evident in his statement, “…It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few” (v.6).

His armor-bearer realizes the sincerity of his heart and by his own words, makes it clear that he is eager to follow Jonathan alone into battle: “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul” (v.7).

The victory gained by this two-man army had sort of a snowball effect to it. Initially, Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed about twenty Philistine men (v.14). This sets off a panic within the camp, followed by an earthquake, which caused even more panic. Saul notices the increasing tumult of the Philistines and rallies the Israelites to join the battle but when they got there, the Philistines were in such confusion that they were fighting each other. Meanwhile, there were Hebrews who resided with the Philistines in that region and they turned to fight with the Saul and Jonathan’s army. Other Israelites who were hiding in the hill country of Ephraim heard of the victory being won against the Philistines and they too joined the battle. And so this two man attack started by Jonathan snowballed into a great victory for Israel. God was at work in all this as seen in the concluding statement: “So the LORD saved Israel that day…” (v.23).

Discussion Question:

Jonathan’s faith and leadership qualities wins over the “heart and soul” of his servant and inspires him to fight with Jonathan against an enemy who is greater in number. We fight a different enemy today. What can we take from Jonathan’s character as a means of encouraging one another in our spiritual battles?

Through Jonathan’s great faith and leadership, the Israelites experienced a great victory. However, the battle is not completely over, just moved which brings us to the next section of this chapter.

Saul’s Rash Vow and dropping honey

“And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people … “

(1 Sam 14:24)

This story begins with two clauses which must be placed in proper order so that we can understand what’s going on. Clause 1 is that the men were distressed. Clause two is that Saul made an oath. The debate is: which one comes first? The ESV says “so Saul had laid an oath” implying that the oath proceeds the distress. In contrast, the KJV, NIV, NLT, NET and CSB reads, “for” or “because Saul had bound the people under an oath” implying that the distress proceeds the oath.

Either way, Saul’s oath is rash because it’s requirements are only in the LORD’s hands. He pronounces a vow: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” This places him alongside others who also made equally foolish vows and oaths (Josh 9:15; Judg 11:30-31; 21:1,5, 18).

“I am avenged on my enemies”

(1 Sam 14:24)

The emphasis on personal vengeance stands in contrast to the perspectives of Jonathan (v.10) and the narrator (v.23), both whom view this as Yahweh’s battle. It seems as if Saul’s pride is coming out. He is willing to afflict his own men in order to motivate them to appease his personal vendetta.

Determined to keep Saul’s oath, the people refrained from eating. They found honey on the ground of a forest they came to. unaware of Saul’s oath, Jonathan eats the honey and his “eyes became bright” (v.27).

The people warns him of the curse Saul pronounces on anyone who eats before evening, but Jonathan seems to think this oath was a bad idea (vv.29-30).

“And the people ate them with the blood”

1 Sam 14:32

The Israelites win a victory over the Philistines and replenish themselves with the spoils. But being faint from not having any food all day, they pounce on the livestock they slaughtered without having drained the blood. This is in violation of the commandment from God not to eat the blood of animals (see Lev 19:26; Deut 12:23-27; also Gen 9:4; Lev 17:11). Saul’s rash vow has led his people to sin against the LORD.

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.

1 Sam 14:37

Saul is hesitant to execute the next attack on the Philistines, presumably because the people have sinned by eating blood and which might have stirred questions in Saul as to whether or not the LORD will continue to be with them.

So Saul asks God: “Will you give them into the hand of Israel?” Again, we see a contrast with Jonathan. God through the sign (i.e. the enemy’s statement: “come up to us”) showed Jonathan that he had, indeed, given the Philistines into Israel’s hand (vv.10, 12).

When Saul receives no answer from the LORD, he must have suspected that God’s silence is due to either the guilt of the people’s sin (the blood eating) or Jonathan (breaking the oath). To decide the matter, Saul performs a sort of coin toss. If the guilt is in Saul or Jonathan, then Urim. If the guilt is on the people, then Thummin. For more information on these stones click here. The lot falls on Saul and Jonathan, so Saul casts the lot once more to find out which one of them is the guilty one. The lot falls on Jonathan.

Jonathan admits that he broke the oath to which Saul replies, “you shall surely die, Jonathan” (v.44). But the people were not willing to see Jonathan die so they ransomed him. Saul’s rash vow could have necessarily resulted in his own son’s death. We can imagine that this sort of recklessness may have fractured the relationship between Saul and Jonathan’s father-son relationship.

“Wherever he turned he routed them.”

1 Sam 14:47

Much to the readers surprise, this chapter comes to a close with a record of Saul’s military triumphs over Israel’s enemies. In previous chapters disobedience and pride are followed by defeat (e.g. chapter 4). Why does God allow Saul to be victorious after his rash vow? There are at least two possible reasons for this:

(1) Only Saul was, in a way, the initiator of sin, not the Israelites. So God, in his grace, allowed the Israelites to be victorious, even though Saul was not in right standing before the LORD.

(2) Saul’s victory over the surrounding enemies shows that his ultimate struggle is not on the battlefield but in his own heart. If we can credit Saul for one thing, it would be his gift for military strategy. There is no problem with Saul in this regard. His real problem is his own inability to overcome the pride within his own heart. He doesn’t think of the Philistines as rebels against the sovereign LORD of all the universe, but rather rebels against Saul. He is willing to but his men in distress over a selfish vow. And he is willing to execute his own son for breaking this foolish oath.

Discussion Question:

From a outward perspective, we see only success for Israel in this chapter. They win fight after fight in their conquest over the Philistines. However, we see Saul decline as a faithful king of Israel. His pride is really beginning to take hold of him which only gets worse from here on. How can external success be a dangerous situation for internal sins?

Historical-Redemptive Perspective

Jesus had something to say about oaths. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:36-37). In context, Jesus is not forbidding oath making across the board. Some oaths are good and beneficial (e.g. the oath of marriage). What Jesus is forbidding is making oaths where the outcome cannot be guaranteed by the oath maker. This is why Saul’s oath was rash and foolish.

Finding Jesus in 1 Sam 14 is difficult at first because we don’t see plainly anything that can be associated with Christ’s work, teaching, or character. Instead, we see in Saul a careless oath which results in pride, distress in the people, and a broken relationship between father and son. But maybe it is in these fallen conditions where Christ is exulted. Consider Hebrews 6:13-20. In this passage, we see God as the ultimate oath keeper. who swears by himself, and keeps his oath by the priestly work of Christ.

Published by Ben Moore

Ben is a Christian worldview writer who holds a BA in Economics and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Biblical studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his beloved wife live and serve to see the Gospel permeate throughout all areas of life.

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

%d bloggers like this: