1. Then Nahash the Ammonite came up and encamped against Jabesh Gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a covenant with us, and we will serve you.”
Now we read of the invasion of Nahash the Ammonite. The Ammonites were descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Ammon was the son of his younger daughter’s incest. The first Ammonite was Ben-Ammi, whose name means “Son of My People.” He was a result of Lot’s youngest daughter’s incest with Lot himself while he was drunk. Thus Ben-Ammi was Lot’s son and grandson both. The name Ammon means simply “Tribe.” The land Ammon dwelt in bordered Israel on the northeast, above Moab, the nation descended from Lot and his older daughter.
Even though the Ammonites were related to Israel, they were seldom friends and often enemies with them. Nahash, whose name means “Serpent,” was their young king at this time. We will learn that it was actually a threat from him that caused Israel to want a king in the first place, according to I Samuel 12:12.
12. And when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the LORD your God was your king.
Now Nahash comes against the city of Jabesh. Jabesh, which means “Dry,” was a city in Gilead, which means “Rocky Region,” and was a district on the east side of Jordan. Remember that Israel were initially going to be given land only on the west side of Jordan, but after they defeated the kings on the east side of the river, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh asked to receive their inheritance in this eastern land, since it was land good for flocks and cattle. Thus, this part of Israel neighbored on Ammon. The Jordan River formed a kind of nature barrier between this part of Israel and the main portion of it, and so this part of Israel was often more vulnerable to invasion. Apparently, Nahash looked with desire on this portion of Israel, and wanted to annex at least some of it to his own lands.
The men of Jabesh are not willing to fight Nahash, so they offer to make an agreement to serve him. We see in this certainly a lack of courage, but we will see far more in it when we consider that really all of Israel were meant to be servants of the LORD their God. They were not free to offer their services to anyone else who came along. They already had a Master. This cowardly response of the men of Jabesh also indicates the fact that they did not take their responsibility to serve the LORD seriously. This was far worse than just their cowardice.
This is not the first time in Scripture we read of bad behavior on the part of Jabesh. Jabesh was the only town that failed to send any representatives to the great assembly of Israel in Judges 20, for which they were wiped out. The city has recovered in the hundreds of years that have passed since that time, but the spirit of the inhabitants does not appear to have improved. Yet the last time we see the men of Jabesh, we note great courage, for their valiant men, upon hearing of the death of Saul and the desecration of his body by the Philistines, venture into Philistine territory at great risk to retrieve his body and bury it in honor. This may well have been in memory of his effort in saving them that we read of here, but it certainly was an act of valor, and speaks of an improvement in the men of the city, at least.
2. And Nahash the Ammonite answered them, “On this condition I will make a covenant with you, that I may put out all your right eyes, and bring reproach on all Israel.”
Nahash, it seems, will not be satisfied with the abject submission of the men of Jabesh. He wants to prove how tough he is, and so he will only accept their surrender if they will make an agreement with him that he will put out all their right eyes. It seems that the way they held their shields at the time they would cover their left eyes, so that only the right eye was exposed to see with. To have the right eye put out would make it almost impossible to fight in the standard way. This would have removed the men of Jabesh as any kind of threat in any war to come.
It seems that Nahash does not just intend this for Jabesh, however. He wants to bring a reproach on all Israel this way. This will show that Israel was unable or unwilling to help the men of Jabesh when they were in need. Ammon has perhaps not forgotten their humiliating defeat at the hands of the judge Jephthah back in Judges 11 some years before this. Now, they want revenge, and Nahash feels this putting out of the eyes of the men of Jabesh will humiliate Israel, as he feels they were humiliated before Jephthah.
3. Then the elders of Jabesh said to him, “Hold off for seven days, that we may send messengers to all the territory of Israel. And then, if there is no one to save us, we will come out to you.”
The elders, which would be the representative men of the city, give him their reply. Jabesh wants time to send messengers throughout the territory of Israel to see if a savior for them might be found. After seven days, they say, if no one has come to save them, then they will surrender to this disfigurement. It might seem strange that Nahash allows this, but remember his object. He wants to humiliate Israel. If they did not know about it and he puts out the eyes of the men of Jabesh, that is one thing. Yet if all Israel knows about it in advance and they still fail to do anything to save the men of Jabesh, the humiliation is even worse. So Nahash in his confidence, first of all in the strength of his army, and secondly in the cowardice of the men of Israel, allows this.
4. So the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and told the news in the hearing of the people. And all the people lifted up their voices and wept.
The messengers spread throughout all Israel, and they come to Gibeah, the hometown of Saul. Benjamin, where Saul lived, was west of Gilead and the Jordan River in the main part of Israel, so the messengers were indeed going far and wide. The people of Gibeah weep at the news, because they know the blow this would be to the whole nation. Yet it is clear that without some strong hand to guide them, they will do nothing to help their brothers in Jabesh, nor will anyone else in Israel.
5. Now there was Saul, coming behind the herd from the field; and Saul said, “What troubles the people, that they weep?” And they told him the words of the men of Jabesh.
It seems that when the messengers first arrived, Saul was taking care of the herd in the field, and so he did not hear the first report. As he is returning and coming close to the city, he hears the sound of weeping, and wonders what it means. He asks the first people he comes upon, it seems, and they give him the report from the men of Jabesh.
6. Then the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard this news, and his anger was greatly aroused.
Now God’s Spirit comes upon Saul, and he does not respond in the cowardly way the rest of his people responded. Instead, the Spirit causes him to become greatly angry. He knows this is no time for weeping, but a time for courageous action!
7. So he took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, “Whoever does not go out with Saul and Samuel to battle, so it shall be done to his oxen.”
And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.
The Spirit prompts Saul to send a grim warning to all the people. He cuts up a yoke of oxen, and sends the pieces throughout all the territory of Israel by messengers of his own. The pieces come with a warning: this will be done to every man’s oxen who fails to go out with Saul and Samuel to battle in Israel’s army. Saul had little authority as of yet, so this warning could have been ignored, but once again the Spirit works on Saul’s behalf. He causes those who hear this message to fear Saul, and they all come out as he commanded. So in this way God supports His king!
Notice that Saul has Samuel with him. Here, in the early part of his reign, the faithful prophet of God is always with him. If only he would have continued as he began!
8. When he numbered them in Bezek, the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.
The Israelites gather in Bezek. This city is seen elsewhere in Judges 1:4-5, wherein the people of Judah defeat the Canaanites dwelling there, along with their king Adoni-Bezek or “Lord of Bezek.” The name Bezek means “Lightning.” Now, in this city where formerly Judah had had a great victory, Saul gathers his army, and finds them 330,000 strong.
Notice how the people of Judah are counted separately and significantly here. Even now, when the tribe of Benjamin has the ascendancy over the people in the form of Saul, the tribe of Judah is marked out. Of course, Samuel (assuming he is the author of this portion) is probably writing after David has been anointed as the future king from Judah.
9. And they said to the messengers who came, “Thus you shall say to the men of Jabesh Gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have help.’” Then the messengers came and reported it to the men of Jabesh, and they were glad.
The army of Saul gives an answer to the messengers of Jabesh in Gilead who had come to them for help. They are to tell the men of their city that the next day, by the time the sun is hot, they will have the help they need. The messengers dutifully carry this report back to their people, who are glad to hear it. Needless to say the fact that they could expect help must have come as a great relief to these men, who would have received such great humiliation and mutilation had no help arrived.
10. Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will come out to you, and you may do with us whatever seems good to you.”
The men of Jabesh rely on Saul, promising Nahash they will come out the next day and subject themselves to him. They know that if that time comes and the promised help from Saul does not materialize, they will have no choice but to comply with their enemy’s demands.
11. So it was, on the next day, that Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch, and killed Ammonites until the heat of the day. And it happened that those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
On the next day, true to his word, Saul arrives. He divides his army into three companies, probably to come at the Ammonites from three fronts. In the morning watch, which would be from sunrise or about 6:00AM to about 9:00AM, they arrive and attack the enemies’ camp. This was as Saul said, for this would have been before the sun was hot. As we know, the Ammonites were expecting no resistance. This attack therefore takes them completely by surprise, and the battle quickly turns into a route and a slaughter. The Ammonites are slaughtered until the heat of the day, and they are so scattered that no two of them are left together even to fight back-to-back.
12. Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is he who said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.”
The result is that Saul is greatly exalted in the eyes of the people. In their new enthusiasm over their king, the people think back to those men who had objected to the choice of Saul when Samuel first announced it. They suggest to Samuel that these men should be executed. This bloody suggestion was probably made to curry favor with the new king, as well as to remove any possible future opposition to his rule. It was made in the heat of the moment, but was certainly unworthy of the people of God.
13. But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has accomplished salvation in Israel.”
Saul opposes the bloody plan of the people. He proves to be a gracious king, preferring to forgive his former detractors rather than darken this day of victory from the LORD with such a grim punishment. It would have been good if such a spirit had always actuated Saul. Alas, we know that this was not the case. At first here though, at least, he realizes that it is the LORD Who has given them their victory, and is unwilling to consent to such a merciless plan.
14. Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and renew the kingdom there.”
Samuel suggests a better plan than taking vengeance on those who had scoffed at the choice of Saul before. He wants all the people to re-pledge loyalty to Saul at Gilgal. This will give the former naysayers a chance to submit to his rule.
Gilgal was one of the three cities where Samuel judged, as we have seen back in I Samuel 7:16. It was just west of Jordan, and so would be on the way back home for most of them as they crossed back over the Jordan from where they had fought in Gilead.
15. So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they made sacrifices of peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.
They take Samuel’s suggestion and assemble in Gilgal. Now they anoint him much more enthusiastically and universally. They also sacrifice to the LORD peace offerings, acknowledging His will and aid in all this. The result is great rejoicing on the part both of Saul and of the men of Israel. They have their king, and God’s blessing. If only things had stayed this good in the days to come!