At the Mercy of the Nations
It is remarkable to observe God’s redemptive purpose displayed in 1 Samuel 13:19-22. Yet the passage also exemplifies a general principle that all people would do well to acknowledge: It is perilous for a nation to depend on the materials and goods of another that is (or could soon be) their enemy. Granted, it is not always clear which nations could be aggressive, and in some cases, nations have little or no choice about doing business with potential aggressors. The ancient Israelites, after all, had their material disadvantage imposed upon them by the Philistines. Nevertheless, Christians in every nation should pray that their national leaders note and apply this principle, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2).
Israel was envious. The nations around them had flesh-and-blood kings, while their ruler was only the eternal spirit-without-a-body Creator of the universe, Yahweh. The people obstinately demanded that God give them a king like all the other nations—and God, in a display of His immense patience, condescended to hear them. But He also warned them that their king would be intolerable and oppressive, waging war and levying heavy taxes on the people. And to all this the people simply said again, “We want a king.”
The man who would be king was Saul, the son of Kish the Benjaminite. As he went to the prophet Samuel to find his father’s lost donkeys, little did Saul know that he would be anointed king. Samuel was instructed by the Lord regarding who Saul was and what must be done when he arrived. After Samuel stretched his arms to pour the oil on Saul, who stood head and shoulders above other men, he said, “the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel” (10:1). Things began well for Saul because after the glorious defeat of the Ammonites at Jabesh-Gilead, the people accepted him as king and presented peace offerings before the Lord at Gilgal. It was a good time because “Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly” (11:15).
When the Lord told Samuel to anoint Saul, he also mentioned the new king would deliver Israel from its enemies. One adversary specifically mentioned were the Philistines (9:17), who had been in the region since the era of the Patriarchs and were reoccurring opponents of Israel. Yigael Yadin’s The Art of Warfare said of the Philistine military that “Their force was based on the chariot…and on the infantry, who were equipped with weapons of a very high standard” (265). The men of Israel were not so advanced with their weaponry but were able to defeat them over the years. A vivid account of one defeat is recounted in Judges as blind Samson pulled down the temple of Dagon crushing the Philistines (16:23-31). But then at the time of Saul, the Philistines recently humiliated Israel at Aphek and captured the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord sent seven months of plagues upon the Philistines until the Ark was returned to Israel at Kiriath-Jearim.
Saul’s success with the Ammonites would not be repeated in his battlefield encounter with the Philistines. The Philistines gathered a massive force of chariots along with both mounted and infantry soldiers that numbered “like the sand on the seashore in multitude” (13:5). Saul took command while in Gilgal, nevertheless he and the people were intimidated by such a mighty and technologically advanced army. Before engaging the enemy, it was necessary for the army of Israel to make a sacrifice, so, as he had been instructed by Samuel, Saul waited seven days for the prophet to come and lead worship as the sacrifice was made by the priest. Samuel did not make it on time, so Saul took it upon himself to fill Samuel’s role. When Samuel arrived, he rebuked Saul telling him the kingdom would be taken from him for his grave disobedience and given to “a man after His own heart” (13:14). Why was Saul’s action sufficient to bring such a severe judgment from God? The seven days of waiting had been a test of Saul’s willingness to obey the Lord. The battle was in fact the Lord’s and without consecration of the army for battle, it became merely Saul’s war. The Israelites had wanted a king just like all the other nations and Saul acted like any other king as he took the sons of Israel to war for himself. Saul’s good times were coming to an end, and the victory against the Ammonites was obscured by his disobedience concerning war with Philistia.
Regardless of Saul’s failure, the army of Israel was still to engage the Philistines. Saul, his son Jonathan, and about six hundred men were camped in Gibeah of Benjamin, while the Philistines were camped in Michmash. As the days passed the Philistines sent raiding parties to Ophrah, Shual, Beth-Horon, and the Valley of Zeboim, possibly to draw some Israeli troops from Gibeah to weaken the defenses for conquest and occupation (13:15-18).
A Curious Passage
Given that Israel was ready for battle even though Saul had sinned grievously, it might be expected that the next verses would relate Saul’s engagement with the Philistines or vice versa, but instead verses 19-22 appear to be a parenthetical comment, or out of place.