1 Samuel 14

1 Samuel 14

SERIES: Leadership in Hard Times

When a Leader Misuses His Authority

SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus

Introduction:  We are in the middle of a trilogy of sermons on the failed leadership of Saul, the first king of Israel, as we set the stage for his successor David, a leader worth emulating.  Leadership is a topic of great relevance to all of us, for we are all leaders, and we are all followers.  We may be leaders in church or in industry or at school or at home.  We may be leaders in one area and followers in another.  It is very important, therefore, to know how to lead well and whom to follow. Fortunately, the Bible gives us a lot of insight into leadership, and one of the very best sources, from which we can learn both negatively and positively, is the early leaders of Israel–Samuel, Saul, and David.

Last Lord’s Day we saw the difference integrity makes in a leader:  Samuel had it, Saul did not.  Therefore, God tells Saul He will not allow his kingdom to endure but will seek “a man after his own heart” to be king.  In chapter 14 Saul continues in his rebellious ways by misusing his authority as king, with the result that a great act of bravery on the part of his son Jonathan fails to achieve its enormous potential for delivering the Israelites from the scourge of the Philistines once and for all.

Please follow in your Bible as I read beginning with the last verse of 1 Samuel 13, then 14:1-17 and 24-30:

         Now a detachment of Philistines had gone out to the pass at Micmash.  One day Jonathan son of Saul said to the young man bearing his armor, “Come, let’s go over to the Philistine outpost on the other side.”  But he did not tell his father.

         Saul was staying on the outskirts of Gibeah under a pomegranate tree in Migron. With him were about six hundred men, among whom was Ahijah, who was wearing an ephod.  He was a son of Ichabod’s brother Ahitub son of Phinehas, the son of Eli, the LORD’s priest in Shiloh.  No one was aware that Jonathan had left.

         On each side of the pass that Jonathan intended to cross to reach the Philistine outpost was a cliff; one was called Bozez, and the other Seneh.  One cliff stood to the north toward Micmash, the other to the south toward Geba.

         Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows.  Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf.  Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”

         “Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said.  “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

         Jonathan said, “Come, then; we will cross over toward the men and let them see us.  If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them.  But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the LORD has given them into our hands.”

         So both of them showed themselves to the Philistine outpost.  “Look!” said the Philistines.  “The Hebrews are crawling out of the holes they were in.”  The men of the outpost shouted to Jonathan and his armor-bearer, “Come up to us and we’ll teach you a lesson.”             

         So Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Climb up after me; the LORD has given them into the hand of Israel.”

         Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him.  The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him.  In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre.

         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.

         Saul’s lookouts at Gibeah in Benjamin saw the army melting away in all directions. Then Saul said to the men who were with him, “Muster the forces and see who has left us.”  When they did, it was Jonathan and his armor-bearer who were not there.  (Skip down now to verse 24).

         Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!”  So none of the troops tasted food.

         The entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground.  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.  But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb.  He raised his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened.  Then one of the soldiers told him, “Your father bound the army under a strict oath, saying, ‘Cursed be any man who eats food today!’  That is why the men are faint.”

         Jonathan said, “My father has made trouble for the country.  See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey.  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 slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?” 

Background and setting (1-5)                            

         Here is the situation: a probable military disaster.  The Philistines, the constant enemy of Israel, have a detachment of soldiers blocking the pass at Micmash.  Saul’s troops are quaking with fear, and many of them have gone AWOL, according to 13:7-8.  He is down to 600 soldiers.  Furthermore, according to the end of chapter 13, Israel has no weapons because the Philistines have eliminated all the blacksmiths.  In the entire Israelite army, only Saul and Jonathan have either a sword or a spear.  Meanwhile the Philistines are fully armed and have 3,000 chariots, 6,000 charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore (13:5).  No doubt the writer is using a little literary license here, but even allowing for a little exaggeration, the situation is about as hopeless as it can get.

         Here is the plan:  Jonathan’s secret.  Saul’s son Jonathan suggests to his young armor-bearer that the two of them cross over the demilitarized zone and stir things up a little.  Jonathan is a man of action, and he can’t stand to just watch the situation slowly deteriorate, as each day more soldiers are deserting.  But Jonathan chooses not to tell his father about his plan, probably because he knows his father would not allow it.  Saul might send one of his other soldiers on this suicide mission, but not his own son.

         Here are Israel’s leaders:  rejected by God.  King Saul is the political leader, and we find him camping on the outskirts of Gibeah under a pomegranate tree.  That is such a minute detail that it must be intended to communicate something, and I suggest it communicates inaction, fear, and lack of leadership.  As his nation faces probable defeat and possible extinction, Saul sits under a tree, picking seeds out of a pomegranate and getting red juice on his shirt (those extra details are discernible only in the Hebrew text!).  Of course, Saul has already been rejected by God as the long-term leader of Israel.  As you will recall, in chapter 13 Samuel delivered God’s judgment on him: “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.  But now your kingdom will not endure.”  (13:13-14).

The spiritual leader of Israel is Ahijah; his ephod, or sacred vest, reveals that he is a man of the cloth.  At first it might seem reassuring that Saul has a chaplain with him, but then we are given Ahijah’s pedigree, which is not so encouraging: “He was a son of Ichabod’s brother Ahitub son of Phinehas, the son of Eli, the Lord’s priest in Shiloh.”  Let me take you back mentally to chapter 2, where Eli was confronted by a God regarding the wicked behavior of his two sons, whom he had appointed priests at Shiloh: 

Why do you honor your sons more than me…?  Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.  The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line… and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.  (1 Sam. 2:29-31).

That curse includes Ahijah, Eli’s grandson.  So, both Israel’s political and spiritual leaders stand rejected by God.

         Here is the place:  impassable.  In verse 4 we are given some topographical information that is important.  There are two cliffs separating Jonathan from the Philistine outpost, called Bozez, and Seneh.  Bozez means “slippery” and Seneh means “thorny.”  These are not the kind of pleasant slopes you might find in the Flint Hills; these are not mountains that invite hikers.  Most sane folk consider Slippery and Thorny to be impassable.  Yet that fact is going to prove an advantage to Jonathan and his armor-bearer.[1]

A profile in faith (6)

Jonathan the son of Saul is a remarkable person, especially in view of who his father was.  He is truly one of the great heroes of the Bible–a man of integrity, of loyalty, of courage, and of faith.  In this story it is his faith that is highlighted.  Look again at verse 6: “Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, ‘Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows.  Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf.  Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many of by few.’”[2]  

Now as we look at Jonathan’s faith, it is important for us to consider …

         The difference between optimism and faith: circumstances.  Some people are naturally optimistic–they can find something positive in almost anything.  My little brother is that way, and always has been.  I’ll never forget a time when he was about 6 years old.  It had been an unusually cold, windy, and rainy April, and we hadn’t seen the sun in Kansas City where we lived for several weeks.  Then one morning the sky was clear, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and my little brother was eating in the breakfast room.  Looking out the window he breathed deeply and said, “Wow!  This is the first nice day in a row.”  That’s an optimist–always expecting the best.[3]      

The optimistic person always finds something in the circumstances to be hopeful about–whether there’s any rational basis for it or not.  But that is not the same as faith.  Faith doesn’t focus on the circumstances at all, but on God.  There was no basis for optimism for Jonathan–nothing to generate hope or confidence other than the fact that God was his God. 

I see in this account another valuable distinction:

         The difference between faith and arrogance: “perhaps.”  Notice Jonathan’s use of the little word “perhaps” in verse 6: Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf.”  It’s as if Jonathan says, “God can do mighty works with very small resources, and God may choose to do so in this case; and how can we know, friend, unless we place ourselves at his disposal?”[4]  That is faith.  

But many in our day fail to understand the distinction between humble faith and arrogance.  You hear them name it and claim it.  You hear them pray, “Thank you, Father, that you have already healed so-and-so,” when He has done no such thing. They think faith must always be dogmatic, certain, and positive. They think it’s a sign of doubt to add to a request, “but Thy will be done.”  They think saying “perhaps” cuts the nerve of faith.  But it doesn’t.  Jonathan rightly sees that God is all-powerful but also free to do what He wants.  Faith never dictates to God, as if the Lord is our errand boy. 

So, there’s a difference between faith and optimism, and there’s a difference between faith and arrogance.  The essence of faith, friends, is the confidence that God is without limits.

         The essence of faith: God is without limits.  The issue is stated clearly by Jonathan: “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”  God has no limits.  “He is infinite in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms.  That’s where our faith must be grounded.  That’s where our confidence must come from.                                                      

Now beginning in verse 7 we see that this great profile in faith is followed by …

A profile in courage (7-23)

         Jonathan and his armor-bearer put hands and feet to their faith.  It’s one thing to make a bold statement of courage; it’s another to follow through and put one’s life on the line.  But that’s exactly what Jonathan and his armor-bearer do.  They decide to expose themselves to the enemy in the canyon below the two cliffs, Slippery and Thorny.  In my own imagination I see an outpost of Philistines on the top of this mountain pass.  They’re drinking beer and playing cards when suddenly a sentry shouts that there’s someone down below  They all run over to the cliff and hundreds of feet below they see two lone figures who have dared come up the canyon.  They begin to heap scorn on them: “Look, the Hebrews are crawling out of their holes.  Come up here and we’ll teach you a lesson.”  As the two disappear they assume they have scared them away, so they go back to partying. 

But Jonathan and his armor-bearer haven’t gone away.  The sarcastic invitation to “come up” is the sign they are looking for, and they start climbing up Slippery and Thorny.  The text tells us they must use their hands and feet–this is some serious rock climbing.  Last summer Jan and I were out in Zion National Park in southern Utah, and we were stunned to see rock climbers going up some of the most forbidding cliffs imaginable.  I like adventure, but I can’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would want to scale some of those cliffs!  They don’t just go straight up for a thousand or more feet; in places they jut out over the climber!  If you were on the top of one of those cliffs, you would have no idea someone was coming up until they were there.  

I think that’s probably how Jonathan and his armor-bearer are able to surprise the Philistines.  They quietly emerge over the top, thrust a sword into the lone sentry, and then take on the soldiers who are by now well plastered.  It still took incredible courage and stamina, considering the hard climb they have just made.  When all is said and done at least 20 Philistine soldiers are dispensed with.  Jonathan kills some and his armor-bearer cleans up behind him.  

As great a victory as that is, it’s only twenty enemy soldiers out of perhaps tens of thousands of Philistines who are threatening Israel.  But God often specializes in taking small things and enlarging them by his own power.  And here He does exactly that.

         God creates a panic among the whole Philistine army.  News that 20 of their men had been killed at one little outpost is soon exaggerated by the press into a huge slaughter, and before long the entire army is in panic–a panic specifically sent by God, according to verse 15.  There is an opportunity here for Saul and his people to wipe out their historic enemy once and for all.  But that doesn’t happen.  Why not?  Well, for one thing …

         Saul pretends to seek God while checking the wind.  When the Israelite lookouts see the Philistine army melting away in every direction, they report the strange circumstances to Saul, who surmises that someone among his forces must have taken some action on his own.  He orders a roll call and discovers that the only ones missing are Jonathan and his armor-bearer.  He orders Ahijah the army chaplain to bring the Ark of the Covenant–it’s time to check in with the God in the Box.  You’ll recall from chapter 4 Israel’s sad tendency to use the ark as a magical thing, a genie to rescue them in a time of trouble or to give them direction in a time of confusion.  Saul is still doing that here. 

But I notice something interesting in verse 19: “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.’”  Before God answers him, the confusion in the Philistine army grows to the point Saul decides he doesn’t need any direction from the Lord.  The answer is obvious–it’s time to head into battle.  

Saul’s behavior here is the ancient equivalent of looking to focus groups for direction.  Some politicians are famous for taking polls to determine what their policies should be.  I think Saul would have been very comfortable with that approach to governing.  Isn’t it ironic that Saul is first found doing nothing (except sitting under a pomegranate tree) when he should have been attacking the enemy, but now he attacks the enemy when he should have been waiting for God’s answer.

But maybe Saul isn’t alone in his unwillingness to wait for God’s response.  How often, may I ask, do we seek God’s will when we are facing confusing circumstances, but then we fail to wait for His answer.  As soon as we see a shift in the circumstances, we’re off running in another direction and making decisions based on conventional wisdom!

         Fair-weather friends join in the rout.  Verse 21 mentions some Hebrew deserters who had joined the Philistines.  Seeing the confusion in the Philistine camp they change sides again and start fighting with their fellow Israelites.  Verse 22 adds that those who had been hiding in the hills also join in the pursuit.  

Fair-weather friends have always been a reality we have to deal with.  Some people just don’t have the courage to face the heat of battle.  They’re kind of like Philly fans–they cheer when the team is winning but boo whenever they’re losing.  Such people are also found in the church.  At the first sight of trouble, they’re out of here!  Which leads me to say that I am really very proud of this church.  You’ve been through some difficult times in recent years, but the vast majority have hung in there and trusted God to bring order and value out of trouble and trial.  I believe God will honor that.

Well, we’ve seen an amazing profile in faith and another in courage–both in Jonathan and his armor-bearer; now we see a profile in foolishness in his father Saul.  

A profile in foolishness (24-46)

Saul puts his entire army under an oath to fast: “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!”  Now he has the authority to do this, for he is Commander in Chief.  But I suggest to you that it is a gross misuse of his authority because it is motivated by personal vengeance.  Notice the three-fold use of the first person pronoun: “before Ihave avenged myself on my enemies!”  His concern is not God’s vengeance or even Israel’s vengeance.  His focus is completely on himself.

It is also possible that he thinks he can gain the Lord’s favor by requiring abstinence from food.  That is a sad mistake many ascetics have made down through the centuries.  We need to realize that God doesn’t specialize in deprivation.[5]   

         Saul’s misuse of his authority leads to:

1.  Military exhaustion.  The story tells us that Saul’s soldiers are faint and exhausted because of the oath imposed on them to abstain all day from food.  The pursuit of the enemy involved an exhausting, unremitting journey over steep hills for hours on end, and as a result they are famished and unable to fight as effectively as they might have otherwise.

2.  An unwitting violation by Jonathan.  He has not heard about his father’s oath, since he left camp without telling anyone where he was going.  So when he finds some honey in the woods, he naturally reaches out the end of his staff and dips it into the honeycomb.  It is only after he has eaten that one of the soldiers tells him about the curse.  Jonathan responds with blunt honesty, 

         My father has made trouble for the country.  See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey.  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 slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?  

The ultimate effect of Saul’s foolishness is that the victory obtained did not nearly reach its potential. 

3.  Ritual transgression by the troops.  When evening finally arrives, the desperately hungry Israelite soldiers, no longer under Saul’s foolish oath, pounce on the sheep, cattle, and calves of the Philistines, they butcher them, and they devour them without any concern that the meat is not kosher, that is, the blood had not been properly drained.  This constitutes a violation of prohibitions found in the book of Leviticus, and someone reports it to Saul: “The men are sinning against the LORD by eating meat that has blood in it.”  This is true, but whose fault is that?  Saul says to the troops, You have broken faith,” but really it is his own selfish behavior that has led to the violation.  

Then we discover something that doesn’t surprise us, considering what we have learned about Saul already–he compounds his mistake.

         He compounds his mistake by: 

1.  Presumption.  He builds an altar, the very first time he has done so.  And he makes a great show of piety, requiring every soldier to bring animals for sacrifice.  But the emptiness of it all is seen in what he does next.  He says to his troops, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them till dawn, and let us not leave one of them alive.”  The priest, presumably Ahijah again, dares to ask, “Shouldn’t we ask God about it first?”  This should have been Saul’s instinct.  He’s the leader of the people; it should have come naturally to him that he needs to ask God about his next move, especially since he has so recently put his soldiers in jeopardy with his foolish oath.  

Saul reluctantly agrees (after all, what can he say?).  He asks God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines?  Will you give them into Israel’s hands?”  But God refuses to answer him that day.  So, Saul acts presumptively again–he concludes that someone has sinned and needs to be punished.  That wouldn’t have been a bad idea if he had been willing to look at himself first.  But he’s after a culprit other than himself, and in the process he makes another foolish oath in verse 39: “As surely as the LORD who rescues Israel lives, even if it lies with my son Jonathan, he must die.”  

They cast lots and the lot reveals that Jonathan is the guilty party.  “Then Saul said to Jonathan, ‘Tell me what you have done.’  So Jonathan told him, ‘I merely tasted a little honey with the end of my staff.  And now must I die?’”  And Saul’s answer is, “Yes, absolutely.”  I think this response reveals a second compounded error on Saul’s part:

2.  Pride.  The wise thing for him to have done at this point would have been to repent of his misuse of authority and to ask for God’s forgiveness and even the army’s forgiveness for his foolish oath.  But he can’t do that because it would mean losing face in front of his men.  He’d rather put his own son to death than to lose face.  The men will have none of it, however.  In a rare demonstration of the power of the people against a despotic ruler, they rescue Jonathan from Saul’s death penalty.     

3.  Pouting.  Notice verse 46: “Then Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land.”  Saul feels humiliated, so he’s not about to lead these disloyal troops into battle. Verse 52 summarizes the results: “All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines.”  

Conclusion: Leaders, by virtue of their God-given position, have enormous authority, which they can exercise wisely or unwisely, for the good or harm of those they are leading.  This is true of parents as leaders of their children, it is true of business leaders, and it is true of leaders in the church.  That is why the Scriptural pattern is always servant leadership.  There is no place for autocratic leaders, for leaders who seek their own agenda, for leaders who respond to “Why?” with, “Because I said so.”  Leaders, of course, are not perfect, nor are they omniscient.  They will make mistakes.  Nevertheless, there are two things they can do that will go a long way to preventing the kind of damage that Saul’s behavior produced:

1.  When challenges arise, leaders must ask God for wisdom and wait for His response.  “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”  Of course, God doesn’t always answer audibly; in fact, that may be rather rare.  We must be discerning of His answer–whether it comes through His Word or through other counselors or through circumstances.  Haste is the frequent enemy of leaders.

2.  When failure is recognized, leaders must ask God and others for forgiveness.  It doesn’t help to blame others; it doesn’t help to put on a show of piety; it doesn’t help to pout.  I was struck this past week with an incident in Ronald Reagan’s presidency that stands out as unique for a politician.  In respect to the Iran contra affair, he had testified before Congress that his administration had never traded arms for hostages.  But then later he went before the nation and said, “I testified that we never traded arms for hostages, and in my heart I believed we had not done that, but the facts and evidence say otherwise.  I am sorry for misleading the American people.”[6]   Wow, that was refreshing!  And rare!

Sadly, most leaders find it next to impossible to admit wrong or say they’re sorry.  They’re afraid that will lower their respect in the eyes of their followers.  But they’re wrong; it would increase the respect.  Most people hate “spin,” and they feel loved and affirmed when servant leaders tell them the truth.  What matters to the people far more than the mistake is the condition of their leaders’ hearts.  Remember that–at home, at school, at work, and at church.

DATE: June 13, 2004








[1].  Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel, 112.  

[2].  And while we’re focusing on the faith of Jonathan, let’s not forget the incredible courage of this young armor-bearer, whose name we do not even know.  He responds, “Do all that you have in mind.  Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”  Sometime I’m going to preach a series of sermons on unnamed heroes of the Bible, and when I do, this armor-bearer will be included

[3].  The other day I found a story about a father who had twin sons, one of whom was an inveterate optimist while the other was always pessimistic.  On their birthday, while the boys were at school, the father decided to try an experiment to see if he could bring some balance into their lives.  He filled the pessimist’s room with every imaginable toy and game, and he loaded the optimist’s room with horse manure. 

            That night the father passed by the pessimistic boy’s room and found him sitting in the middle of his new gifts whimpering.  “Why are you crying?” the father asked.  “Because my friends will all be jealous, and I’ll have to read all these instructions, and I’ll constantly need batteries, and my toys will get broken, and I don’t know which one to play with first, and ….”

            Passing the optimistic boy’s room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure.  “What are you so happy about?”  asked the father.  To which his son replied, “With all this manure, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

[4].  Davis, 113. 

[5].  By the way, this is only one of many examples in Scripture of rash vows and oaths that are better avoided altogether: Judges 11:31-40, Ecclesiastes 5:4, 5; Matthew 5:33-37

[6].  I am citing this from memory, not verbatim.