By Samuel Ridout
Saul and Jonathan Contrasted
1 Samuel 13: 15 — 14: 46.
Wherever there is a living faith that lays hold upon God, no apparent helplessness will prevent His manifesting His power, and we have now a refreshing contrast to the timidity and helplessness of Saul and the people with him, in the energy of faith on the part of two. Jonathan, Saul's son, and his armor-bearer, act in independence of the king. Apparently seeing the uselessness of waiting for his father to take any initiative, the soul of Jonathan is stirred, and he proposes to his armor-bearer to go out alone. Saul still tarries at Gibeah, with his 600 men and with the priests, who would seem to speak of the presence of God, but whose names and connections remind us of the period of priestly ruin at the time of Eli. It is Ahiah, the son of Ahitub, Ichabod's brother, who is there. The glory had departed from Israel, and so far as these priests were concerned it had not returned. Neither Saul nor the people with him know anything of Jonathan's determination, and the priests are apparently as ignorant as the rest. How truly must faith not confer with flesh and blood, nor count upon the slightest assistance from those who have but the name without the reality of priestly communion!
Things are as discouraging as possible for Jonathan. The garrison of the Philistines is strongly entrenched upon an almost inaccessible height, separated by a deep ravine from where Jonathan was. A sharp rock on either side of this ravine would prevent his approach to the enemy, except as he had strength and courage to surmount almost impassable obstacles. The names of these two rocks are given — Bozez, which means "shining," and would dazzle the eyes and prevent any rapid climbing, while its white, bare surface would most effectually prevent any concealment needed in an ambuscade. Seneh, the sharp declivity down which he must descend before he can ascend Bozez, means "a thorn," which might easily pierce, and evidently suggests the extreme difficulty of his undertaking.
The spiritual meaning of all this seems quite clear. The enemy is strongly entrenched on its rock, surrounded by brilliant, shining heights, both intellectual and material. It would seem like madness to attempt to scale these shining heights in the hope of dislodging the proud enemy. All that can be associated with the side which is to make the attack is the barrenness, and even the apparent curse, suggested by the thorn. Is not God's hand that which has permitted all this oppression, and does it not seem like resisting Him to resist the authority of those who have gained ascendency over us under His chastening hand? But faith does not reason in this way, nor does it look at either thorns or brightness. The way of the slothful is as a hedge of thorns, but the way of faith is with God, and neither thorns nor heights are aught to Him.
Jonathan confers with his armor-bearer, who is but a young man, even nameless. He proposes to him to go over unto the camp of the Philistines. Notice how they are designated — uncircumcised, people who are without the mark of covenant relationship with God, that covenant which had been made with Abraham, and the sign given to him which was ever the mark upon the Israelite. Spiritually, we know that circumcision answers to that sentence of death upon ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in the living God. It is that which was renewed at Gilgal, at which we have already looked, and speaks thus of "no confidence in the flesh." Circumcision does not trust the flesh, knows its helplessness, its hopeless enmity against God. Uncircumcision would in like manner answer to confidence in the flesh; and, after all, what are the Philistines, with all their greatness, with all their entrenchment on the shining heights of power and position? What, indeed, are they in the eyes of faith, but those who have confidence in the flesh? They trust in human power, human wisdom, human forms, everything of man, and God is left out.
What is this, after all, for faith? Does not faith know that these things cannot be trusted in, that there is no spiritual power in them whatever? So Jonathan, as he looks at them, sees only those whose confidence is false, in the arm of flesh. On the other hand, looking at God, while not absolutely sure that He will do so, he knows His ability. "There is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few." He sees that the battle is not his, but the Lord's. What difference does it make whether the Lord uses a host, or uses his own feeble arm? Nay, if He please, can He not act without any means? What victory already is in the air as we listen to such brave words as these, coming from a heart that is fed upon the strength of God! Is not every word true? Is there any restraint with the Lord? Can He not save by the few, as well as by the many? Has He become reconciled to His bitter enemies? Has He come under the oppression of the Philistines? To ask such questions is to answer them, and one would fain feel the quickening pulsations of a courage that partakes of Jonathan's faith.
How noble is the response of the nameless armor-bearer! "Do all that is in thy heart: turn thee; behold, I am with thee, according to thy heart." "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" And here is the faith which responds to faith, and is developed by it.
But courage does not mean rashness, though it may often seem like that. Jonathan is really working with God, as the people say later on, and therefore he must be sure that he is in God's path. He proposes, therefore, that the sign shall come from God Himself, even as Gideon in his day had his faith fortified by various signs in confirmation. Jonathan and his armor-bearer will show themselves to the Philistines. They will attract their attention. If this excites them sufficiently to come down to their position, they will stand and wait the attack. If, on the other hand, they invite them to come up to them, they will go forward in the confidence that God is leading them on to victory.
We notice, however, that no provision is made for retreating, and apparently there is nothing in his mind but a conflict and victory. It is simply a question whether he or the Philistines shall be the aggressors. Faith has its armor on the right hand and the left, has its breastplate, shield and helmet, but never any armor for the back. No provision is made for the cowardice which runs away. Jonathan will either go forward or stand his ground. He will not retreat. Neither, by God's grace, will we.
How graciously God responds to the faith that lays hold upon Him in this bold way! The two show themselves to their enemies, and are invited to come up. We can well imagine the supercilious smile of contempt with which the Philistines say, "The Hebrews come forth out of the holes where they had hid themselves." What a reproach, beloved, it is when we are afraid to say that we are the Lord's, and hide in secret places — when we are afraid to let our neighbors know that we are Christ's, and that the word of God is our sufficient guide, which we are seeking to obey! Is not such a reproach merited by the mass of the Lord's people at this time — hidden, so that even those in closest contact with them would not suspect that they are genuinely for Christ? Of course there may be, as there is, a morality and outward walk of rectitude — even to a certain extent religious observances in which Philistines themselves can join; but where is that bold confession of loyalty to Christ our Lord? doing what we do because we belong to Christ, and not merely because it is right, or expected, or the habit of others? And when one, in the boldness and simplicity of faith, does thus show himself, speaking out frankly for his Lord's honor, how the reproach may well fall upon all the rest of the people of God if even a few are coming out of their holes and showing themselves!
But this very showing is the presage of victory, The Philistines will amuse themselves with this little morsel of opposition, and have no hesitation in inviting the bold climbers to come up to them. This they do, and a sorry day it was for the Philistines that they ever invited them up! Jonathan speaks out. The Lord has already delivered the enemy, not into his hands, mark, but into the hand of Israel; for Jonathan realizes that the victory is not for himself individually, but for all the people of God. How important it is, for all our spiritual conflicts, to realize that we are first of all fighting with God; secondly, for God; and thirdly, for all His people!
They climb up, as has been said, upon their hands and feet, suggesting both work and prayer. It is neither idleness nor vain confidence, but the toil of those who realize that in themselves is no strength. We read very little of the details of this conflict. The victory has already been won in Jonathan's heart, and further details might detract us from the real lesson involved. Faith that has conquered our own coward heart can conquer any Philistines that oppose. The slaughter does not seem to be very great, judged from human standpoint, and yet what mighty results flow from it! There is a trembling everywhere. It is as though God were laying His mighty hand upon all, and causing proud oppressors and the camp of Israel, yea, the land itself, to feel the weight of that arm which will shake not only earth, but heaven too. There is a trembling of God.
Saul and his company soon learn of the commotion among the Philistines, and of an apparent conflict and victory with which they had had nothing to do. But there does not seem to be any thought with them that God is at work — surely it must be that some of his own little company have gone to fight the enemy. "Number now, and see who has gone from us," seems to indicate that he had some idea that human power had been at work. He finds only Jonathan and his armor-bearer are absent, and this would not be sufficient to explain the commotion.
Have we not more than a hint here that the man of flesh never rises to the thoughts of faith? Could we imagine such noble words coming from Saul as we have heard from Jonathan? The flesh never rises beyond itself, its circumstances. God is left out, for in His presence it cannot exalt itself, and must be eclipsed. Even in the measure in which Saul succeeded, this was the case.
But he is now compelled to ask counsel of God, though with apparent reluctance. It is significant that the ark of God was present, as mentioned here. The camp and field was no place for it. A resting-place had been provided for it at Shiloh, where the tabernacle had been set up when Joshua brought Israel into Canaan. It had been brought out against these very Philistines in the days of Eli, with what disastrous results we know. God will never link His holy name with an unjudged state of His people. The ark went into captivity, and had never found an abiding-place since. In fact, it never did till David brought it to Zion.
Perhaps Saul was not far at this time from the hiding-place of the ark, and had had it brought as a sort of rallying-centre for his dwindling band, as well as a witness that God was with him. Such expedients are not unknown to the flesh, which will make use of visible forms from which the power has departed, and seek to rally men around the names of what have become mere pretension. Rome's extreme claims are an illustration of this, though by no means the only one.
While Saul is talking with the priest, and apparently while the latter is beginning to ask counsel of God, the rout of the Philistines becomes more manifest, and the king considers this sufficient reason for discontinuing what was not his first impulse. The flesh loves not to ask counsel of God, and gladly withdraws from His presence. It looks merely at what is seen; and if victory is already assured, there is no need for dependence upon God. Alas, how common is this! We turn to God in our times of perplexity, and when all other means have failed; how readily do we dispense with His aid when there seems to be no further occasion for it! The flesh in us is as hopelessly independent of God as was this man who is a type of it. It is ever going to extremes. The man who a while ago said, "I forced myself," when intruding into what God forbade, now says, "withdraw thy hand," and turns from God, because he thinks he can get on without Him.
And yet how utterly foolish is this! Had the lesson of Al been utterly forgotten? The feeblest enemy can conquer a people who are relying upon an arm of flesh, though flushed with past victory.
Let us remember that we need God as much in victory as in conflict — perhaps more; for, while the issue is uncertain we naturally turn to Him, but our temptation is to forget Him when the battle is won. We must ever return to the camp at Gilgal; but as we have seen, this had no significance for poor Saul.
But God is at work, through Jonathan, and the enemy is thoroughly routed. Indeed, they turn their weapons against one another, as is so often seen in Israel's conflicts. Whenever they were with God, it was scarcely necessary for them to fight. They could "stand still," and see the enemy fighting among themselves. So it was in the days of Gideon and when Jehoshaphat faced a countless host.
Saul and his little band rush up to have a share in the battle, and join in the rout. But victory was already assured. Saul was not needed; indeed, later we find what a hindrance he was.
How good it is to see the results of a work of God like this! Not merely is the enemy overthrown, but the poor scattered sheep of Israel are called back. Many of them were captives, or willing bondsmen, to the Philistines. Many had also hidden themselves in the mountains, fearing to face the enemy. But they know a victory, and rally to the Lord's standard.
Surely it would have been faith to have needed no such recall as this, but the Lord's people are weak, "prone to wander," and easily lose sight of Him. How responsible is every one to see that his example does not encourage defection from the Lord! What a terrible thing it is to be a stumbling-block! May the Lord keep us lowly, in all self-distrust, that we do not by our example, or unbelief, scatter the feeblest of His own from Him.
But if the saints are easily scattered, they quickly rally when the Lord's hand is seen. Even in Asa's time, when division was consummated, they fell to him in great numbers out of Ephraim, when they saw that the Lord was with him.
How refreshing it is to think of these two men of faith, alone with God at the beginning, now reinforced by these scattered ones! But were they any stronger? Were not these as liable to drop off again in time of danger? Ah yes; the strength was in the Lord alone, and two with Him are infinitely stronger than the undivided host of Israel without Him. The joy is in the recovery of the wanderers; not for the help afforded by them, but rather for their own sakes, and because of the glory to the Lord's name through His people's recovery.
We must not despise numbers. Pride may lurk in the hearts of a few, as well as among the many. The strength of Jonathan and his armor-bearer was not in themselves. Their faith laid hold upon God. Apart from that they were as feeble as any of these fugitives. And these latter can in their turn be Jonathans if they but lay hold of the same One who wrought on that day.
We long to see recovery and unity among the people of God. Let us not seek to secure it in any other way than Jonathan did. It was not the ark with Saul that effected the victory, but the living faith of Jonathan which brought God in. The saints will be united, recovered from wherever they may have wandered, not by fleshly efforts to bring them together, but by turning to Him who still is the God of victory. Let us see to it that we are in all lowliness and self-distrust before Him, and the desire of our hearts for the recovery and unity of His beloved people may yet in some measure be seen.