By Samuel Ridout
Tested and Found Wanting
1 Samuel 12, 13: 14.
We come now to that which manifests the character of the new king in a far more searching way than was possible in the matter of the children of Ammon, and this for two reasons. The enemy, the Philistines, were nearer at hand and had had a longer and more complete hold upon Israel than the enemy on the east. Saul also was to be tested as to his dependence upon God, and patient waiting brings out the inherent unbelief of the heart more quickly than activity. The nature of the Philistine oppression has already been dwelt upon, and therefore there is little need to enlarge upon it again. We need only remark how natural such a state of bondage is where such a man as Saul is reigning. He exemplifies the condition of the people at large, and this is, after all, in a spiritual sense, Philistinism itself. The flesh can be religious. We shall find this as we go on with Saul. Philistinism stands for the religiousness of the flesh, and therefore is fittingly that which oppresses those who are walking according to the flesh. On the other hand, there is an apparent resistance of this enemy, with but little power, however.
After the scene at Gilgal, which we have dwelt upon, there was an apparent season of quiet, as suggested in the first verse of the thirteenth chapter. All Israel have returned to their various homes, save 3,000 men, chosen to be the personal guard about Saul; 2,000 of these are with himself, and 1,000 with Jonathan. We have here the first mention of that beautiful character whose presence relieves the gloom of Saul's history, and the pride and self-righteousness which developed apace. Jonathan was altogether a lovely character, a man of genuine faith and devotedness to God; as unlike his father as it is possible to conceive. It will be a pleasure to trace his course, which is brought into clearer relief by contrast with his father's.
Jonathan is really the forerunner of David, and in a marked way he is merged into the man after God's own heart. We will doubtless have occasion to speak of him in other respects at the proper time, but unquestionably the main lessons of his life are most profitable and attractive. From the very beginning, he takes the initiative against the proud enemy, and smites their garrison in Geba the fortified hill.
Of course this was most audacious on the part of a subject people, as evidently the Israelites had become, even so soon after the deliverance effected by Samuel. The Philistines hear of it, and naturally begin at once to move against the people who were even in such little measure as this bestirring themselves. Faith does not fear to strike, no matter how absolute the oppression. Formalism may have laid its deadly hand upon the saints of God so completely that none dare lift his voice in protest; but faith will smite wherever there is an opportunity. It does not coldly calculate the effect, nor count up the numbers the enemy will be able to bring into the field to crush it. It counts rather upon God alone. Here is that which is not according to Him, — it must be denounced — it must be smitten. Such faith was that exhibited on many a page of Church history, where some genuine soul has seen and smitten abuses which had become so entrenched that it seemed an impossibility that God's people could ever be delivered from them, and what results have followed!
As we said, it is Jonathan who does this, and not Saul; but he will be at least a second in such work. His own pride, perhaps also a real interest on his part, would lead him not to be behindhand. He blows the trumpet, therefore, to assemble all Israel, saying: "Let the Hebrews hear." He does not use the familiar name "Israel," which had so many blessed suggestions in it; but rather the natural name of the people, going back to their descent from Abraham, the Hebrew. Of course there is a spiritual use of the word "Hebrew" which suggests pilgrim character, but this evidently is not in Saul's mind. He simply arrayed the nation of Hebrews against the Philistines. But there does not seem the same energy and decision that marked him in the case of Ammon. There, he would take no refusal of the people, but urged them with threats to go out with him and Samuel against the enemy. He is evidently on even lower ground here than there. Israel also hears the report of this preliminary victory of Jonathan, only ascribing it to Saul, as the prowess of many a subordinate has been ascribed to his commanding general.
The state of the people, however, is sadly brought out by the manner of their reception of the news, So far from it thrilling them with vigor and arming them as one man now to make an end of this proud enemy, they are filled with terror. They realize that they are now held in abomination by the Philistines, and are more occupied with that than the possibility of their deliverance from them. How like unbelief in all time is this! It fears the consequences of any measure of faithfulness. "Knowest Thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?" said the disciples to our Lord when He had been boldly denouncing the formalism of the leaders of the people. They were afraid of the consequences of such faithfulness; and while perhaps acknowledging the truth of what our Lord had said, shrank from stirring up opposition. Alas, we know much of this timidity in view of opposition. What will men say? What will our friends say? Oh, how often has this deterred many an one whose conscience has been awakened as to his path, from going on in simple obedience to God, regardless of what men say! Truly, "the fear of man bringeth a snare;" and to be occupied with the effect of our action upon the enemies of God, rather than with Himself, is indeed to invite defeat.
Truly the Philistines had gathered together in enormous numbers to fight with Israel; chariots and horsemen and people as the sand on the seashore, a most formidable host: and if they have only conferred with flesh and blood, no wonder the children of Israel are terror-stricken. This is too sadly the case: and the people, instead of boldly confronting this host, remembering that it was against the Lord that they had come forth and not against His feeble people, they flee to the caves, and hide in the thickets and rocks, in high places and pits. Some of them also flee further yet, over to the east side of Jordan and the land of Gad and Gilead, and there is apparently utter nervelessness in the whole nation.
Poor material indeed is this, and yet doubtless many amongst this terror stricken people were groaning with the sense of the dishonor done to God by their subjection to this enemy.
Saul, at least, does not follow the people in their hiding. In fact, he abides at Gilgal, the place which Samuel had appointed for the meeting with himself, which was soon to take place. During all the time that had intervened between his anointing and the present, there had not been the real opportunity to manifest his true obedience to the prophet's directions (1 Sam. 10: 8).
Saul is at Gilgal, where, had he truly entered into the spirit of the place, he would have found an impregnable position, and from which he could have gone forth victoriously to triumph over all the host of the enemy. A few follow him also, so tremblingly that evidently their eye is upon their human leader, and they have forgotten the living God. This wretched remnant of an army is really a mockery of any true resistance, and would have been found so, had it been tested. Even this little handful, Saul is not able to hold together. He must, according to the prophet's directions, remain seven days, or until Samuel appears to offer the appointed sacrifices. Surely without these, it would be madness to attempt to meet the enemy. It must be ever on the basis of a sacrifice that we dwell with God, and from the strength of His presence go out to meet the enemy. Saul recognizes this in his way, and evidently waits with impatience the coming of the prophet. Meanwhile, the people are melting away and he will be left alone, and this the flesh cannot endure. It has not God before it, and therefore must look upon apparent resources. With his army gone, what could the king do? Surely, God would not have this: therefore he must take some steps to inspire confidence in the people, and be prepared to go forth to fight.
Alas, we know something, doubtless, in our own experience, of this restlessness of the flesh, which recognizes that something must be done, but never does the only thing that is suitable, — wait upon God for His time.
So, Saul offers the sacrifices, intruding himself in this way into the priest's office and practically ignoring all need of that which was at the basis of sacrifice, a mediator. The flesh, with all its religiousness and punctiliousness, never grasps the fact that it has no standing before God. It would intrude into the holiest things, and, as we have already said, this is the very essence of Philistinism, which would thrust nature into the presence of God, and, according to its own thoughts, build up a system of approach to Him which would at the same time quiet natural conscience and foster the pride of the unregenerate heart.
This was an awful fall for the king. It was the very thing against which the prophet had guarded him in the beginning; the very thing, too, which was the peril of the people, — acting without God. Their choice of a king had really been this, and therefore all is in fitting keeping with that act of independence. Saul had had ample warning, abundant opportunity to manifest his faith and obedience if he had any. The very place where he was had but lately witnessed the solemn testimony of Samuel, and heard the voice of Jehovah in thunder at the time of harvest. Had the fear of God really filled his soul, it would have eclipsed all other fear, and the king would have waited patiently, though he waited alone, for the word from the Lord. But he is tested and fails. So soon as the failure occurs, in divine mercy on the one hand, and justice on the other, Samuel appears on the scene.
What unavailing regrets doubtless filled Saul's bosom as he saw the prophet! Oh, had he only waited but a few moments longer! But this is not the point. God would test him to see whether he would wait. He had not almost held out, but he had simply manifested the state of his soul. There is no such thing as almost obeying the Lord. The heart that is truly His, will obey; and testing, no matter how far carried, will never bring out disobedience from a heart that is truly subject to God. How perfectly this was brought out in the life of our blessed Lord, who was constantly subjected to pressure in one form or another to depart from the path of simple obedience to God. There was no danger of waiting too long in His case. All the testing would only bring out the reality of that obedience which controlled His whole spirit, and He is the only true King of men, the only Man after God's heart to lead His people; and it is only as His Spirit fills our souls, that we will walk in His steps, having the mind in us which was in Christ.
Saul runs out officiously to greet the prophet, as he does in a more marked way after a still deeper failure a little later on; but there is no responsive greeting from the dear faithful servant of God whose soul burned with indignation at the king's palpable unbelief and disobedience. Sternly he asks, "What hast thou done?" He need not go further with his question, nor can Saul pretend to be ignorant of what is meant. What he had done was in known violation of the prophet's word. Therefore he had practically forfeited all claim upon the prophet's service or the approval of God. He, however, puts up a feeble defence; and notice the character of that defence. "I saw that the people were scattered from me." In other words, his eye was on the people, who were as full of unbelief as himself, instead of upon God. Then, Samuel had not come during the appointed days. This, as we have already seen, was simply to test the genuineness of his faith.
And lastly, the Philistines were gathering together in great numbers. Not a word, we notice, of the Lord. Now, however, he says the enemy will come down to attack him (a most unlikely thing for an enemy to do in such a place as Gilgal) and he must make supplication unto the Lord. At last the Lord is brought in, but we notice that it is only in this feeble way. Really what filled the foreground of the king's vision was the melting of the people, the menace of the enemy's attack, and the absence of the human prop in Samuel. So he says: "I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt-offering." How many have fallen in the same way! His words are a confession that he knew he had disobeyed God in offering the sacrifices. It was contrary, he would have Samuel believe, to his own inclinations. He had to do it in spite of his convictions and desires. All the more, then, did it fully manifest the unbelief which will not cling to God, at all costs, in obedience. How much is excused in the same way! Human expedients are condoned, fleshly activity is encouraged, fellowship with the world is allowed, all under the plea of expediency. The reluctant conscience has to be forced, for it knows that these things are contrary to God; but force itself it will, if not subject to God in living faith.
In a minor way, how saints of God may dishonor Him in the assembly of His people by allowing the flesh to dictate what shall be done. It knows that what is being done is not according to God, and yet, for fear of man, forces itself to fall in with what others are doing. Thus, the Spirit is quenched and grieved. This will ever be the case where the flesh is allowed to dictate.
Samuel's reply is startlingly frank. Saul has done foolishly. He does not attempt to take up his reasons in detail. The people may have been scattered. He does not refer to that. The enemy may be threatening. He does not even explain his own tarrying, though its purpose was manifest. One thing he has to say to the king: "Thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God which He commanded thee." How all his paltry excuses are scattered to the winds by that solemn arraignment! What excuse can there be for disobedience? Then, too, as to the consequences of this they were not temporary, nor would they be immediately manifested, but this act had shown him to be utterly incapable of rule, to be certainly not the man after God's heart. If indeed he had stood this test, his kingdom would have been established, for it would have been seen that he was a man of genuine faith. One thing he lacked, and that one thing was absolutely needful. It was really everything. It was faith in God. Everything else may be present, but where this is wanting, one cannot be used of Him.
His kingdom, therefore, shall not continue. God must have a man after His own heart; one who knows Him and His goodness and love, and who, spite of many shortcomings, still has a true spirit of obedience to God, which springs from confidence in Him. A little later on will see poor Saul with wonderful zeal and rigidness of external obedience; but we will notice always that wherever the will of God. came in conflict with the wishes of man or the desires of his own heart, Saul was wanting. How unspeakably sad and solemn is this, yea, how searching to our hearts! God grant that it may search out every vestige of self-confidence in us, every particle of unbelief which would turn us from obeying God rather than man!
Having delivered his faithful witness to the king, nothing further holds Samuel at Gilgal. The place had lost, for the time being at least, its spiritual significance — the state of the king little answering to it. We hear of the prophet no more, for Samuel though, as we know, his heart was sorely grieved at the development of evil — cannot go on with it. He apparently withdraws to the same place, Gibeah of Benjamin, whither Saul comes; but as no mention is made of any intercourse between them there, it is probable that the prophet did not tarry long.
The people have dwindled down to a paltry 600; enough surely, if they were with God, to do all the works which David with a like number did later on; but the one thing needful is lacking. They abide in Gibeah of Benjamin, near Saul's native place, and with painful suggestions of the past associated with it. The Philistines encamp in all their power at Michmash — as Young gives it, "the place of Chemosh," or, translating the latter name, "a fire," answering to the desolation which marked their occupation of the land — a burnt-over territory with no verdure or fruit.
From this centre they devastate the entire land. One company goes to Ophrah, the city of Gideon, to the land of Shual, "the jackal;" very significant in this connection, for surely wild beasts were devouring the heritage of Israel.
Another goes to Beth-horon, "the house of destruction;" and still another passes on across the land until they can look down into the valley of Zeboim, where all fertility had been quenched with the fire from heaven, at the time of the destruction of Sodom. Thus, fittingly, from Michmash, "the place of fire," radiates that which consumes all the fair heritage which God had given them. How true it is that religious formalism burns up every Christian thing, every sign of real life to God!
How are the people to meet this devastating horde? Their pitiable condition is seen in the fact that there was no smith found throughout all the land. The Philistines had taken them away to prevent them from manufacturing weapons of war for the Israelites. Even for the peaceful pursuits of agriculture they were dependent upon their masters, and were obliged to go down to them to have their plowshares sharpened, or the ax, or even the mattock. Nothing remained for them but a file for the mattocks and plows, which could put but a poor and temporary edge upon their implements. We are reminded of the lament of Deborah over the condition of the people in her day: "Was there a shield or spear seen among 40,000 in Israel?"
Can it be possible that these are the people who have, but a short time ago, gone so valiantly against their enemies? Their condition is pitiable. They have been reduced to a worse condition than servitude, being dependent upon their masters even for the means of tilling the soil. But more pitiable is the spiritual condition of the people of God when under similar circumstances. Wherever the power of formalism prevails, as seen in its completeness in Rome, not only are all spiritual weapons taken out of the hands of God's people, but even the needful spiritual implements for cultivating the peaceful means of satisfying our soul's hunger are removed. Our inheritance is a spiritual one. We are "blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ," and this answers, as we know, to Israel's position in Canaan; but the soil, though fruitful and drinking of the water of the rain of heaven, needed to be cultivated if it were to yield its increase. So, too, in spiritual things. There is no lack in what is ours in Christ. As far as the eye of faith can reach, north, south, east and west, all is ours, and every part that the foot of faith treads upon practically belongs to the saints; but if the soil is not cultivated, of what use is it? We might say that our inheritance is contained in the precious word of God, and that our cultivation of this, the diligent digging beneath the surface for its precious things, the turning it over with the plow of conscience, applying it thus to ourselves, answers to the various agricultural pursuits indicated here. The domination of religious formalism would rob us of the means of doing this. Need we ask, With how many of us does our portion lie fallow because we are apparently without implements for its cultivation? The Bible, in other words, is a closed book; or, if read, seems to be but barren because there is no searching into its wondrous depths; or, if there is this, alas, how the dullness of our spiritual implements, our diligence, our faith, our spiritual judgment, prevents anything like a full yielding of an abundant harvest! To be sure, there is the rubbing of the file, as iron sharpeneth iron through mutual intercourse, which even formalism cannot completely destroy; but the fire is needed also, and the beating down of that which even in proper use becomes dulled, so that its keen edge may be again restored to it.
These smiths might well answer to what we have later in Israel's history — the schools of the prophets, places where the fire and the hammer of God's word and truth are applied under the direction of the Holy Spirit. They would thus correspond to all proper and scriptural means for developing activity among God's saints. Might we not say that, in their place, institutions of learning would answer to these smiths' shops, where furnishing in the knowledge of the languages in which the word of God is written, and other truths, would equip one to be a diligent seeker in the Word? Thus, schools and colleges, when in proper hands and used in faith, are most helpful in developing an ability to dig into the word of God. The same is true of all assembly fellowship. Where the Spirit of God is ungrieved, how much spiritual furnishing do we get from association together! We can see, then, what it is for all this to be in the hands of the Philistines. And has not that been the case all too often in the history of God's saints? Nay, may we not say that it is that which particularly characterizes them at the present day, religious formalism having charge of all education, both elementary and advanced, and even, in great measure, of the people of God?
A Christian parent puts his child to school and what is the character of the influence exerted over the little one there? How often is it Philistine — that which is often in open enmity against God, or so formal in character that no genuine faith is inculcated! This is seen in still greater measure when the youth passes on to college, where infidelity is taught and if his intellectual implements have a keen edge upon them, he is taught rather to turn them against the truth of God than to explore its wondrous depths.
Institutions of theological education only bring this out still more glaringly, for here the things of God are professedly the objects. Alas, higher criticism, evolution, and various forms of infidelity, are taught in the very places where one should be thoroughly furnished to cultivate the inheritance of the Lord.
We have been speaking merely of the implements used in times of peace; but when we think of the necessary weapons of warfare with which to meet the manifold enemies who are constantly threatening our heritage, here the lack is even more glaring, for not even are there dull weapons. The enemy knows too well that it will never do to leave spear and sword in the hands of those who may be nerved to use them. As we look abroad today, how many of God's people are able to meet the attacks of evil on all hands? Infidelity presses in one direction, worldliness in another, the Philistine formalism in another; and what power is there to meet it with those weapons of warfare which the apostle says are "not carnal, but mighty through God"? Surely, we can never expect Philistia to furnish weapons against itself.
In God's mercy, however, faith can triumph even here. We remember it was with an ox goad, a weapon which could be pointed up with a file, that Shamgar wrought deliverance from these very Philistines. The goad would seem to answer to those words of the wise which are as goads; a word of simple exhortation, admonition, appealing to the conscience, which true faith will ever make use of. Even Philistines cannot deprive God's people of that; and what is an ordinary and needful implement in times of peace can, in the hands of faith, be turned against the enemy with terrible effectiveness.