When Jonathan overran a Philistine garrison, king Saul called for men to come to Gilgal to get ready for war with the Philistines. Thousands of Israelites obeyed the summons (I Sam. 13:1-4).But when they learned that a huge fighting force of enemy foot soldiers, horsemen and charioteers was approaching from the west, panic overcame them.
A great part of the would-be troops fled out of Gilgal to hide in groves, bushes, pits, gullies, on hilltops and anywhere they thought they could conceal themselves from the enemy. Some scattered across the Jordan River into the territory of Gad.
A small part of the Israelite men mustered enough courage to stay with Saul in Gilgal, but the king was discouraged at such a display of cowardice by so many (I Sam. 13:5-7). He had already sent a message to Samuel for help, and again he was discouraged to receive word from Samuel that he would arrive from Ramah a few day later. Saul was supposed to wait in Gilgal a week after sending for Samuel during any time of trouble (I Sam. 10:8).
What with the enemy approaching, a week was a long time to Saul. He had almost decided that all was lost when he received a report that the Philistines had stopped their advance to set up a camp at Michmash, a few miles north of Gibeah. This was only about fifteen or twenty miles from Gilgal (I Sam. 13:5). This meant that the Philistines were only a day or two away if they should move on. Lookouts and messengers were stationed to let Saul know immediately what the enemy would do next.
Six days of painful suspense dragged by. The Philistines continued at Michmash. Saul knew that they knew he was in Gilgal, and that they probably were aware that he wasn’t prepared to confront them. He spent most of his time wondering why they didn’t attack. When the seventh day dawned since Saul had sent his request to Samuel Saul was becoming more worried every hour. By late afternoon he was so worried that he decided to wait no longer for the elderly prophet and his advice in prayers and offerings. Saul decided that he would personally make burnt offerings and peace offerings so that God might be moved to step in and somehow save Israel (I Sam. 13:8-9). He should have been patient. The seventh day was not yet over.
Just as he finished making a burnt offering, it was reported that Samuel was riding into Gilgal. Saul stopped what he was doing and hurried to meet him.
“I have been told that you are making offerings to God,” Samuel said to Saul. “I hope that the report isn’t true.”
“Why – yes, it is,” Saul replied hesitantly.
‘But why?” inquired Samuel. “You know that it isn’t for the king to direct spiritual matters. That is a responsibility of God’s ministers.”
“I did it because I hoped God would be pleased and not allow the Philistines to come on us”, Saul replied. “I did it against my better judgement, since you didn’t show up to advise me. My army is scattered and the Philistines are ready to attack. I was fearful of waiting any longer.”
“You have been most unwise in your conduct!” Samuel bluntly told the king. “I did show up in time. The seventh day is not yet over and the Philistines have not yet attacked. If you had obeyed God, He would have established your family as perpetual kings.
“But you have overstepped your authority, which does have definite limits. God has made it known to me that your days are numbered as the king of Israel!”
Saul’s self-willed expression faded. He knew that the elderly prophet always spoke the truth, and he was shaken by his words.
“Are you saying that Israel will fall merely because of me?” Saul asked anxiously.
“Israel will survive for a time in spite of you! “Samuel replied. “God will produce another man to become king who is more inclined to be obedient to Him” (I Sam. 13:10-14).
Leaving Saul in a thoughtful state, Samuel left for Gibeah. Saul was confused – bewildered. Samuel hadn’t told him when he would lose his throne. Hoping to gain God’s favor by staying close to Samuel, Saul summoned his men and his son, and all of them followed Samuel to Gibeah. Only about six hundred soldiers had remained with the king. Saul moved with them to Gibeah by night, hoping that the Philistines wouldn’t learn where the Israelites had gone.
The vast Philistine forces remained for a time at Michmash, obviously aware that their presence was keeping the Israelites in a state of constant fear (I Sam. 13:15-16).Then one day they showed signs of moving. Excited Israelite lookouts hoped they would be able to report that the enemy was on its way back to Philistia. But instead of retreating, the Philistines moved a short distance to the southeast to camp at a more advantageous spot near the edge of a deep valley (I Sam. 13:23). From there they sent out three companies – one to the northeast, one to the east and one to the west. They moved slowly, pitifully plundering and ravaging the Israelite homes and farms and villages in their paths. For some reason they chose not to move south toward Gibeah. Very likely they considered Saul’s little army not worth the bother. The Israelites were powerless, since the Philistines had taken away their swords, spears and blacksmith’s tools (I Sam. 13:17-22).
Saul’s son Jonathan had lost his little army when so many soldiers had fled for their lives. His only remaining helper was a young and loyal armorbearer – who carried Jonathan’s shield and extra weapon until they were needed in battle. But Jonathan and his courageous companion were about to accomplish more, with God’s help, than a thousand soldiers could accomplish under ordinary circumstances.
“Many of the Philistines are gone from their camp,” Jonathan observed. “Let’s sneak over there and see what’s going on! God can do anything. And if he chooses to give us protection, perhaps we can do something worthwhile for Israel. God can work through two men as easily as through a whole army.”
“If that’s what you want to do, then I’m for it,” his companion agreed.
“Good!” Jonathan exclaimed. “Now here’s my plan. From where we are here at Gibeah, it’s over two miles across the valley and up to the camp of the enemy. If we’re careful, probably we won’t be seen till we’re very close to the base of the cliff where one edge of the camp is. If the Philistines discover us and threaten to come down against us if we come any closer, then we’ll give up and return here. But if they ask us to come up to them, then we’ll do so.We’ll consider it a sign from God that He will help us” (I Sam. 14:1, 4-10).
Saul and his six hundred men, together with the high priest Ahiah, were at that hour concealed in a high, rocky area, possibly the same place where the six hundred escaped Benjamites had taken refuge when there was war between the Benjamites and the other tribes of Israel. From there, without Saul’s knowledge, the two young men quietly crept away and down the valley (I Sam. 14:2-3).
As they neared the other side, they saw enemy sentries appearing at the edge of the cliff. They heard them loudly laughingly remark that at last Israelites were beginning to come out of their hiding places to surrender.
“Come up here!” the sentries called down. “We won’t harm you! We want to show you how well we’re stocked with arms to use against your people! We’ll even let you return to tell them how wise it would be for all of them to surrender now instead of being killed later!”
“That’s the sign I told you about, “Jonathan said in a low voice to his armorbearer. “I really believe it means that God will help and protect us. Follow me up the cliff” (I Sam. 14:11-12)!
At that point there was a steep, rough rock jutting up from the slopping cliff. Jonathan clambered up the rock on the side opposite the garrison, with his companion close behind. After reaching the top, he suddenly leaped onto the edge of the cliff to face the grinning men who thought they were about to take two prisoners. Before they realized what was happening, Jonathan’s sword was slashing into the nearest of them, killing or maiming all within reach. His armorbearer, with Jonathan’s spear, followed behind, finishing off all who were not killed by Jonathan.
Within that vital minute about twenty of the enemy lost their lives at the hands of only two young Israelites whom God had inspired to start something that turned out to be more than a great battle (I Sam. 14:13-14).
Having slain all the guards who had come into sight, Jonathan and his companion hid themselves behind a rock to wait for more men to appear. When more rushed into sight and saw the bodies sprawled near the edge of the cliff, they stopped in their tracks.
“The Israelites must be gathered behind that rock and down under the edge of the cliff!” someone shouted. “Get back before they attack again!”
This was enough to trigger the imaginations of the Philistines, who fancied that Israelites were about to swarm up over the ledge in great numbers. They rushed back through the camp, shouting that they were being attacked. Startled by the running and shouting, thousands of other troops assumed that something terrible must be happening, and joined the mad retreat.
Some of the Philistine officers weren’t so easily frightened. Realizing that the sudden confusion had probably stemmed from some kind of misunderstanding, they ordered men to leap in and halt the running troops. The result was dreadful. Some soldiers were hired troops of different nationalities. In the confusion they couldn’t tell friends from enemies. Soon all the soldiers were fighting among themselves with such violence that the Philistine army was well on its way to self-destruction!
Frantic officers sent messengers out to the three companies of soldiers that had spread out on plundering missions, ordering them to return as quickly as possible to camp to help quell the disorder.
To add to the confusion, the ground suddenly began to shake – first, in the area of Michmash and the new campsite – then throughout the land of the Philistines. Men weren’t the only beings to panic when the earthquake began. The Philistines’ horses frantically lunged free of their tethers and charged in all directions. Some trampled the battling men to death as they bucked and galloped through the throng.
When excited lookouts during the immense earthquake reported to Saul that the Philistines were fighting among themselves, the king could scarcely believe it (I Sam. 14:15-16).
“Probably they are staging a show to make us believe that they are destroying each other,” Saul observed. “Then if we should go over to investigate, they would fall on us.”
“That can’t be,” the lookouts explained. “Some of us were close enough to see men and horses falling over the cliff!”
“Then some of our men must have gone over there and started some kind of trouble,” Saul surmised. “Count my soldiers to see if any are missing. If any are not here, find out who they are.”
A little later the news was brought to Saul that Jonathan and his armorbearer were missing and hadn’t been seen for several hours. Saul was fearful and puzzled. He knew that his son was ambitious to trouble the Philistines. He could only guess that Jonathan and his companion had gone across the valley and might have started the furor among the Philistines. Not knowing just what to do, he asked Ahiah the high priest to ask God for wisdom and the meaning of the terrible earthquake.
Ahiah lifted his arms skyward and started praying. At the same time the noise of battle – screams, shouts, groans, and the clash of metal and the whinnying of horses – wafted across the valley in increasing volume. These dread sounds of war were accented by a rumble like that of thunder and a continual shaking of the ground. A huge cloud of dust billowed up from the place of conflict. Perhaps Saul wasn’t wise in interrupting the priest’s prayers, but he put a restraining hand on one of Ahiah’s arms.
“I think God has already shown us what to do,” He said to the priest. “There is indeed confusion among the Philistines and now is the time to go against them” (I Sam. 14:17-19).
Saul and his men set out at once across the valley. Within an hour they crawled up the steep bank on the opposite side. They could scarcely believe their eyes when they came up on the ledge. Dead and dying soldiers lay in heaps, but clusters of Philistines were still savagely fighting among themselves. Saul and his soldiers downed the nearest group with arrows and slings, and began to arm themselves with Philistine swords and spears. Then they moved on to eliminate many more of the enemy. The Philistines at first seemed too occupied in self-destruction to pay much attention to the Israelites. The Israelites who had joined the Philistines and those hiding in nearby mountains came out quickly to join Saul’s little army.
By that time the three companies of Philistines who had been sent out to pillage the land had received orders to return. They were in three widely separated areas. So, as soon as they reversed their directions, the Israelites who saw them decided they were retreating. Emboldened by this turn of events, and fighting angry because of the manner in which the Philistines had ransacked their homes, fields, vineyards, barns and corrals, the Israelites swiftly grouped together and set upon the Philistines with their farm implements, axes, pitchforks, mattocks, hoes, ox goads and anything else they could use as weapons.
The Philistines had been ordered to get back to camp on the double. Now they had to choose between disobeying orders by stopping to fight on the one hand, and fleeing shamefully on the other, while being attacked from both sides of their columns and from the rear. In trying to take both courses, the Philistines fell by the thousands and thousands at the hands of irate Israelites – who collected a very great number of badly needed weapons in that battle. Those Philistine troops who reached camp unharmed were set upon either by their own soldiers or by Saul’s men. Through God’s control of nature and circumstances, Israel had been saved by the destruction of the Philistines army (I Sam. 14:20-23).
The battle finally was over, but not all the Philistines had been killed or wounded. Many fled toward homeland that day. Saul was certain that a great number of enemy troops had escaped. But he finally stopped chasing them because of an unexpected event that happened during the day.
Earlier in the day king Saul had bound the people with an oath not to eat any food until evening (I Sam.14:24). His little army was so outnumbered that Saul felt they need to spend every minute fighting so as to avenge themselves for all the trouble the Philistines had brought upon them. As the Philistines fled westward, Saul and his growing army battled them all the way to Aijalon (I Sam 14:31). Early in the battle Jonathan and his armorbearer had rejoined Saul’s little army – but too late to hear Saul’s edict that the men shouldn’t eat till evening.
As Saul’s army trudged through the forest, the men saw that during the battle a honeycomb had been knocked from a tree to the ground. Sometimes bees build their honeycombs out in the open on the underside of the limbs of tree, where it is easily dislodged. Seeing honey on the ground was a great temptation to the tired and hungry soldiers, but fearing that something terrible would happen to them if they ate any, they marched staunchly by.
All, that is, except Jonathan. He knew of no reason not to eat it, and so stopped to scoop up some of the honey on a stick he was carrying and transfer it to his mouth. Just then a soldier looked back and saw what Jonathan was doing. He turned and hurried to Saul’s son.
“You – you’re Jonathan!” exclaimed the soldier, surprised as suddenly realizing who he was. “Your father had been greatly upset because he didn’t know where you were. He would be even more upset if he knew you ate that honey” (I Sam. 14:25-28)!
“But why?” Jonathan asked. “What’s wrong with honey?”
“Nothing,” the soldier explained, “but your father pronounced a curse of death on any of us who would eat anything before sundown!”
What will happen to Jonathan? Will Saul kill his own son? Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.