By Samuel Ridout
Saul's Foolish Oath
1 Samuel 14: 23-46.
Saul, having taken charge, soon turns a glorious victory into a very limited one, and, instead of the joy of conflict in God's cause, gives the people heavy hearts. He occupies them with himself rather than God, and pronounces a curse upon any who may taste food until his enemies are overthrown. He does not see God and His honor, and accordingly all takes color from this. He makes the hearts of the people sad at the very moment when they should be experiencing "the joy of the Lord."
Poor Saul! Even his religion is a gloomy, selfish thing. Like the elder brother in the parable, his service to his Father is unaccompanied even by the joy of a kid, and his friends are confessedly not his Father's. All legality is like this; self is the centre and not God; and where this is the case, what can there be but depression? And its misery and discomfort is all that such a soul has to share with others. What a libel upon God's love! what a misrepresentation of Him in whose presence there is fulness of joy!
But let us again remember that Saul stands not merely for individuals, but for that principle of the flesh which is present even in the true children of God. The flesh is legal and selfish. When it intrudes into the things of God, it can only mar them. It turns the grace of God into legal claims, and even in hours of spiritual triumph would occupy the soul with itself. It has no discrimination, and would put into one common class things essentially evil and those harmless or helpful. But a little while before Saul had been glaringly disobedient to God he now goes to the other extreme, and would command "to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth."
Fasting has its place in the realm of grace as in law, but not the place given to it by legalism. Where abstinence from food is the unstudied, undemanded act of a soul absorbed with the things of God, it has a place. One might abstain from food to avoid distraction, or, in fact, because his mind is controlled by other things. But to make fasting a merit, or even to regard it as a means of grace, is to put it in somewhat the position in which Saul put it here.
See the disaster that results from this legalism. The people are passing through a wood loaded with honey. It is at their hands, just lying in their path. Jonathan, without taking his eye off the enemy, dips his staff in the honey, tastes, and is refreshed. With renewed vigor he can speed after the flying foe. When told of his father's oath, Jonathan truly characterizes the folly of it: "My father hath troubled the land." For nothing is so distracting as the legalism of the flesh.
Let us remember, too, that under plea of conscience, a morbid self-righteousness may impose its claims upon oneself and others till liberty and joy give place to groans and bondage. As we have already said, this principle is inherent in the flesh wherever found. It flourishes under the ascetic rule of the monastery, and equally so in the bosom of one who is still seeking to coerce the flesh into subjection to God, though his creed be the opposite of that of Rome. The flesh is always selfish — always; when religious — rigid and morbid. It can know nothing of the liberty of the children of God.
Jonathan takes a little honey, which speaks of the sweetness of natural things, not in themselves evil. These things must surely be approached guardedly, and taken, as it were, on the end of a rod. If we kneel down and gorge ourselves with them, as the mass of Gideon's army did, they incapacitate us for warfare. But there is much in nature that can be enjoyed by the freeborn soul without spiritual detriment. After all, "only man is vile" in the pleasing prospect about us; and scenery, the beauties of nature, needed bodily relaxation, and much else, can be a true refreshing to the Lord's wearied people. "Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee." This is the divine rule. The world, among the "all things," is ours. But we are to use it and not to abuse it, or to be brought under its power. Here grace and the Holy Spirit alone can guide and check. Needed relaxation may degenerate into the engirded loins; cheerful intercourse into unholy levity which blights true spiritual growth. We are absolutely dependent upon the Spirit of God, but He is ever sufficient.
The positive evil of Saul's fleshly restriction is soon seen. The people, faint from long abstinence rather than arduous conflict, reach historic Ajalon, scene of Joshua's long day of conflict. But, unlike him, they have been bound by mere human fetters, and have lost heart. The fear of God has left them, and they fall upon the prey and violate the first principle of sacrificial law — that all blood belonged to God. This brings in genuine defilement. The pouring out of blood (Deut. 12: 23, 24) was ever a sort of foreshadow of that Sacrifice of "richer blood" one day to be shed. To ignore all this is defilement indeed; and this is what carnal asceticism will, by reaction, produce.
Saul here, at least outwardly, would preserve divine order, and recalls the people to the sacredness of blood. In this connection too he builds his first altar.
But the end of self-righteousness has not been reached. God has yet to put His finger upon the folly of this oath of Saul. The king proposes, and the people agree, to go down by night and spoil their enemies. But the priest suggests turning to God and seeking His mind. "Let us draw near hither to God" — a good word surely for us at all times.
And now God speaks — first, indeed, by silence, showing that it is of more importance to Him that His people should be right in their hearts than that they should pursue their enemies. This silence meant, as they knew, that some offense had been committed, and Saul rightly connects it with the oath he had imposed upon the people. But he did not yet know who the guilty person was, nor how. Like Jephthah of old, he is ready to sacrifice his child, and persuade himself he is pleasing God.
God permits all to be brought about as though Jonathan were the guilty one. The machinery, if we may so say, of the lot works out for Saul, and points at his son, And in the madness of his folly the poor king would go to the last extreme, and cut off the only man of independent faith among them.
How beautifully Jonathan shows here! He does not accuse his father, nor speak of the harshness of the oath. He frankly acknowledges his act, though he does not confess a sin. Indeed, his words imply the reverse: "I did but taste a little honey . . . and I must die!" How manifestly at variance with God's thoughts was such an ending to this bright life! And yet Saul is still blind. With another oath he declares Jonathan has spoken his own doom: "God do so, and more also; for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan." What can be done for a man who brings in God to carry out his own self-will, and thinks the deliverer of Israel is a malefactor? Is it not like the fatuity of the Jews at a later day, and that other Saul, of Tarsus, who invoked God's approval upon the murder of His Son, and of His people?
Saul is beyond reach, and God must interpose in another way. The people, who had so lately been demanding a king, must now withstand him. Poor Saul's authority vanishes before the hot words of a justly outraged sentiment: "Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he hath wrought with God this day." Saul is incorrigible. We do not even hear of acquiescence, nor of resistance. In sullen silence all conflict with the Philistines is abandoned, and they are permitted to return to their own territory. It has been only Jonathan's victory, and Saul has done all he could to spoil it.
We need hardly draw the evident lessons as to the flesh here. It has neither discernment of God's will, nor mercy upon those manifestly with Him. It will turn victory into defeat, put divinely-given authority to public shame by its extravagance, and turn joy into mourning and indignation. We need not go back to Israel's history for examples of this: our own hearts will furnish us with these. Oh, in how many homes has this harsh legalism broken divinely-given authority! and in how many cases has the very name of discipline become a stench because of this fleshly pretension! Need we be surprised if in such cases "the people" rise and speak?