1. Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,
This verse sounds a little strange as it reads, as of course if he reigned two years, he also reigned one year. Yet things become even stranger if we go into the Hebrew behind this translation. The original Hebrew, if it were accurately translated, reads, “Saul was one year old when he became king, and he reigned two years over Israel.” This is what it reads, and yet none of the translators are brave enough to translate the verse this way. For one thing, we simply know this was not true. As near as we can tell, Saul was about thirty years old when he became king, about the same age as David, his successor, when he took the throne. Moreover, we have read of Saul’s actions leading up to being king, and they are certainly not the actions of a one-year-old, nor even of a child. Yet the problem is that there is no Hebrew manuscript evidence for any reading but this. If this was an error, we would expect that the original reading would have made it through somewhere, and yet that is not the case. As far as the evidence goes, it is all for this reading. Yet how could this reading possibly be right?
I believe that the key to what this is talking about is the “new Saul.” We read that God had produced a new Saul back in I Samuel 10:6.
6. Then the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.
In the words of the LORD through Samuel here, we learn that the Spirit of the LORD came upon Saul, and a new man was produced. That new man was a new Saul, and he lived for a while after that time. Since Saul did not immediately become king at the time of this experience, the new Saul had been around for one year when he became king, and therefore can be described as being one year old at that point. After this, the new Saul lasted two years of being king. Yet sadly, at this point the old Saul resurfaced, and the new Saul, the one that had been produced by the Spirit of the LORD, died. The old Saul, the son of Kish, finished out the reign of Saul, and was over Israel for the last thirty-eight years of Saul’s reign. Therefore, we see that this statement as it appears in Hebrew is entirely true from this point of view.
2. Saul chose for himself three thousand men of Israel. Two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in the mountains of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin. The rest of the people he sent away, every man to his tent.
In chapter 11, Saul defeated Nahash and the Ammonites. Yet he and Israel still have enemies. Israel was surrounded by nations that were usually hostile to them. Therefore, Saul sets up a standing army of three thousand men, and sends the rest home. Two thousand of these Saul retains with himself in the city of Michmash, which means “Hidden,” and in the mountains of Bethel. Michmash was in the territory of Benjamin about ten miles north of Jerusalem, whereas Bethel was in Ephraim just north of the territory of Benjamin.
Now we meet another figure who is going to be very significant in the history of the book of Samuel: Jonathan, Saul’s oldest son. His name means “Jehovah has given,” and he indeed seems to have been a gift to his nation, for he was a loyal man of God, as we will see. The remaining thousand troops of Saul’s standing army are given into his command. These troops are stationed at Gibeah of Benjamin, called “Gibeah of Saul” back in I Samuel 11:4. Saul assigns these troops, it seems, to a place near his own home.
The rest of Israel’s army is sent home for now, for that is the meaning of “every man to his tent.” We know that Israel at one time were a nomadic people, living in tents, in the days of Abraham. Yet this had long since ceased to be the case since they had made permanent homes in the land of Israel. Yet the word “tent” came to mean the place where a man lives out his life and work, in other words, his base of operations. This may have been more permanent buildings at this time, and yet they are stilled called “tents” here.
3. And Jonathan attacked the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. Then Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear!”
It seems that Jonathan, Saul’s son, is eager for Israel to make further moves to free themselves from their oppressors. Therefore, he takes his thousand men and attacks the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba. Geba means “Hill,” and was a Benjamite city about three miles from Gibeah that the Philistines had captured, and where they had raised a garrison. Jonathan seeks to liberate this town for Israel, and apparently is successful. Yet this action will surely start a war with the Philistines, for they will brook no opposition to their oppressive rule over Israel. Saul knows this, and so calls out the army again, using the blowing of a trumpet to call people to the army.
4. Now all Israel heard it said that Saul had attacked a garrison of the Philistines, and that Israel had also become an abomination to the Philistines. And the people were called together to Saul at Gilgal.
Israel hears not only Saul’s summons to the army, but also that he had attacked a Philistine garrison, which made them look darkly upon Israel. The people are called together to the city of Gilgal. We have already seen this city of Gilgal in this book, as it was one of the cities Samuel judged in, and where Saul was made king. More importantly, Samuel gave Saul a prophecy about this place back in I Samuel 10:8.
8. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”
Samuel had predicted that at some point Saul would go down to Gilgal before Samuel. He was to wait seven days for Samuel’s arrival, at which time he would make sacrifices and peace offerings. After the wait is over, Samuel will come, and will show him what his future course is to be. Now, it is this city in which the Israelites gather for war against the Philistines. This was an interesting place to choose, as it was a long way east of Philistia. Yet the prophecy of Samuel is now coming true. Now, he only has to wait the seven days in order to receive Jehovah’s instructions.
5. Then the Philistines gathered together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude. And they came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth Aven.
As Israel knew would happen, the Philistines come out to fight with Israel. They come with a huge and powerful cavalry, constituting 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen. Using horses in battle was the big military advantage of the time, yet Israel was never able to enjoy this advantage, for Yahweh had forbidden them from having a multitude of horses.
Deuteronomy 17:16. But he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall not return that way again.’
It might seem strange that Yahweh would tie the hands of His Own people this way. Yet the fact was that He was to be Israel’s military advantage. He tells them this in Deuteronomy 20:1.
1. “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
Therefore, they were not to be concerned with their lack of horses, for the advantage of having Yahweh on their side would ensure their victory if they would wait upon Him.
Besides this cavalry, the foot soldiers of the Philistines are as the sand which is on the seashore for multitude. Of course, this is an exaggeration, for we can hardly fathom how many grains of sand are on a typical seashore. The expression seems to refer to the fact that the grains of sand on a seashore cannot be counted, so that this phrase indicates a number beyond counting. Of course, we might well have numbered them if we were going to battle against them in our day, but at this time Israel did not have the technology nor the desire to count up the exact number of this opposing army. It is enough that they are here, and that they are ready to destroy Israel if they can.
So the Philistines come and pitch their camp in Michmash, the very place where Saul had had his two thousand troops. He had just left this place to call all Israel to Gilgal, and the Philistines move right in and make their camp here.
6. When the men of Israel saw that they were in danger (for the people were distressed), then the people hid in caves, in thickets, in rocks, in holes, and in pits.
The Israelites see this Philistine army, and realize how outnumbered, overpowered, and outmatched they are by this invading army. They are so frightened of this huge Philistine force that they all start to desert the army, running to hide wherever they can find a place. They must figure that the Philistines will sack the cities, and so they hide out in the country wherever they can find a place. Some hole up in caves, others try to hide themselves in dense thickets, others under rocks, in holes, or in pits. Surely these would be miserable places to spend any length of time, and so we can see what utter terror must have struck these people to act like this! They are utterly certain that they are doomed to lose to this huge force.
7. And some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead.
As for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
Some of the Israelites are so afraid that they leave the main land mass of Israel altogether and cross over into the lands east of Jordan, where were the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. Very few there are who dare to remain with Saul, even of those who had been part of his standing army. Those who are loyal enough to stay with Saul in Gilgal do not demonstrate much courage beyond this brave act, but are trembling from fear even as they follow him.
8. Then he waited seven days, according to the time set by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him.
Now Saul clearly recognizes that the very time spoken of by Samuel as we had it recorded in I Samuel 10:8 has come to pass. He remembers Samuel’s command that he is to wait for him to come to him for seven days. Yet the longer he waits the more his army melts away from fear. As day follows day and his army continues to dwindle away to almost nothing, Saul must be greatly worried that by the time Samuel arrives none will be left. We can only imagine as the time goes by how much Saul’s anxiety grows, along with his frustration and distraction at the narrow place he is in. Why does not Samuel realize his desperate situation and come to him sooner? Surely he meant that Saul must be willing to wait seven days if need be, yet that did not mean that Samuel could not come before the seven days were over, did it? Why did Samuel not arrive and rescue him from this terrible anticipation?
Samuel’s instructions had included the fact that when he came, he would make sacrifices of burnt offerings and peace offerings. No doubt Saul had these ready to go on day one, set for the prophet’s use when he arrived. At any time, Samuel could come and Saul would be ready for the sacrifice. Yet Samuel does not come, and day seven comes at last and passes by, and Samuel still has not come. We can only imagine how Saul worked himself up more and more into distraction by the fact that still the expected prophet had not arrived. Seeing his army melt away from him would surely be enough to try the faith of any army commander! And that is exactly what Saul sees day by day, and undoubtedly the most on day seven, the final day of his agonizing wait.
9. So Saul said, “Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me.” And he offered the burnt offering.
As day seven draws to a close, Saul finally decides he can wait no longer. Perhaps the time of the evening sacrifice arrives, and Saul decides finally to start the sacrifices without Samuel. Perhaps he even waits past the time of the evening sacrifice, and as the sun sets on day seven decides he has done his duty. He has waited the seven days, and the prophet has not yet come. Well, so be it. Saul will begin the sacrifices without him, and if the prophet finally arrives late, he can take over what Saul has already begun.
Many would suggest that Saul’s error here was that he performed the sacrifices himself, rather than waiting for the priest Samuel to arrive. If so, that would have been a most egregious error, for only one of the tribe of Levi could offer sacrifices, and Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. Yet we have no reason to think that Saul did not have Levites or even members of Aaron’s family available to him. Many times in Scripture when a king causes a sacrifice to be offered, it is spoken of as if he offered the sacrifices himself. For example, it says this of David in I Chronicles 21:28.
28. At that time, when David saw that the LORD had answered him on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, he sacrificed there.
Was David guilty of the same egregious error as Saul? If so, why was he not removed as king, as Saul was? No, Saul surely knew better than this, and did not make such a foolish mistake. He had Levites available to him, and he doubtless used them. The problem was not that Saul acted as a priest himself and performed the sacrifices. That would have been very wrong, but I don’t think he did it, and even if he did, that was not the real problem. The fact was that Saul had a specific word from God. He was to wait seven days. Then Samuel would come to him. Samuel would offer burnt offerings and sacrifice peace offerings. Then, he would tell him what he was to do next. This was God’s clear message to Saul, and Saul knew it. Yet he allowed the circumstances he was in to so work upon his fear and to so distract him from the God Who had raised him to the throne and Who was well able to care for him in any and every circumstance, that he disobeyed his instructions. He stopped waiting for Samuel, and he offered the burnt offerings and sacrificed the peace offerings without him. The problem was not how he did the sacrifices, for even the strictest adherence to the law here would still have been a sin. The problem was that he did the sacrifices at all, contrary to the command God had given him. His stumbling was in faith, not in religious observance.
10. Now it happened, as soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, that Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might greet him.
No sooner has Saul finished the burnt offering than Samuel arrives, perhaps as the sun finishes setting on day seven. Saul goes out to greet him as if he has done nothing wrong. Yet we can imagine, in Saul’s distracted state, that while he would have greeted Samuel formally, he must still have been fuming at what he viewed as Samuel’s lateness, and at the hard place he feels this has put him in. He is probably blaming this whole thing on Samuel, since in his mind he did not show up when he was supposed to arrive.
11. And Samuel said, “What have you done?”
Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash,
It is apparently clear to Samuel that Saul has not done all as he should have done, and so he calls Saul to account for his actions. Saul is ready with an instant excuse. He lists all the circumstances that he had allowed to drive him to distraction. He speaks of the scattering of the people, he casts recrimination upon Samuel for not arriving on time, he frets over the Philistines in their gathering at Michmash. No consideration does Saul seem to give to the fact that the Philistines had not attacked in seven days, but that for some reason they had held back until the LORD’s word could be fulfilled. He only sees the seemingly impossible situation, and insists that the instructions he was given could not be followed. And yet he had followed them for seven days! How then could he argue that he could not have followed them for the few minutes longer it took to offer the burnt offering? The reality is that he had no excuse. His actions were nothing but lack of faith.
12. then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.”
Saul now tries to make his disobedience sound holy and religious, as if he did not want to go to battle without making supplication to Jehovah. That, he claims, is why he felt that he was forced to offer the burnt offering ahead of Samuel’s arrival and against Jehovah’s expressed command. Many people similarly try to cover their disobedience by a put-on religion, as if outward acts of piety can hide a heart that holds no faith. So Saul acts like he did this disobedient act reluctantly and out of a religious zeal, instead of out of his own impatience and fear.
13. And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.
Saul’s excuses do not fool God. Samuel accuses Saul of what he has truly done. He has acted most foolishly, and has disobeyed the commandment of Yahweh his God. Notice that this is what he is accused of. It is not that he disobeyed the law and offered a sacrifice himself, though he was not a Levite. That was not God’s command to him, but God’s command to all Israel. No, what he had done was disobey God’s command to him to wait for Samuel and then Samuel would be the one to offer burnt offerings. He was not just to wait most of the seven days, or else to obey for exactly seven days, and then the instant the last second ticked off the seventh day to immediately disobey.
This brings up the issue of the timeliness of Samuel. Was Samuel actually late, as Saul claims he was, and many follow him in that claim? I do not believe that he was any later than he needed to be to test the faith of Saul. If Saul had the attitude that he would only obey as far as he was forced to obey, and then would disobey the moment he had an excuse for doing so, then he surely did not have the kind of character that God requires in His people. Imagine what a faithful man like David might have done! He might well have waited in his tent, pouring out his anxieties and problems to Yahweh in song. Then, when the seventh day was finally over, he would have prepared himself to calmly receive Samuel, knowing that the prophet would come even as he said he would, and that he would then receive his further instructions from his Shepherd. Even if he had prepared sometime before Samuel came and had to wait, this would not have distracted him in those times when his focus was fully on Yahweh and His faithfulness to him. Yet Saul does not wait, he does not obey, and Samuel arrives just in time to show that he does not have faith.
Samuel now reveals to Saul that this was Yahweh’s last test of him before blessing him. If he had obeyed and shown the spirit of faith in these desperate circumstances, then Yahweh would have recognized in him a man of worth, and so would have made his kingdom permanent over Israel. Yet I do not believe that this phrase “forever,” in Hebrew ‘ad olam, refers only to Saul’s throne over Israel in its kingdom in the past. Rather, I believe that this refers to God’s great olam to come, the eon during which He will reign over all nations on the earth. Yahweh was ready to give Saul and his house the rule over Israel in the kingdom of God to come, the very blessing He would later give to David, his faithful servant. But not now! Any blessing Yahweh might have given Saul before has been canceled at this time by his lack of faith.
14. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”
Now, however, Saul’s government will not be allowed to continue. The LORD has instead already looked out for and found a man who will please Him, unlike Saul. This man is a man of faith, a man after the LORD’s own heart, unlike Saul. This man will not obey the LORD only as long as he feels he is required to obey, and then instantly disobey Him the moment he feels he has an excuse. This man will obey sincerely, and from the heart. The LORD will therefore take him and will make him commander of His people in place of Saul, since Saul has not kept His commands.
15. Then Samuel arose and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin. And Saul numbered the people present with him, about six hundred men.
Remember that, if all had gone well, this is the time when Samuel would have given Saul Jehovah’s next instructions for him. That is what he had been promised back in I Samuel 10:8b, “Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.” Yet Saul did not wait, and so Samuel gives him no instructions. Instead, he merely leaves, going to Gibeah. Behind him, he leaves Saul, still in the same situation, yet now without the help of God. Before, he was not truly in a desperate situation, for Jehovah was still with him, and was ready to act to deliver him. Yet now God leaves him in this situation, and now he really is as desperate as he seems. What is Saul to do now?
Saul, it seems, first decides to number his army, as if knowing the actual numbers will change the situation he is in. When he does the numbering, he finds that he has only six hundred men left! With these, he must face off with the numberless host of the Philistines, and this without God on his side! If it were not for God’s grace and the faith of another man in his host, his own son Jonathan, this might well have been the end of Saul right here. Yet God was gracious, and saved him out of the jam he himself had gotten himself into by his lack of faith.
16. Saul, Jonathan his son, and the people present with them remained in Gibeah of Benjamin. But the Philistines encamped in Michmash.
It seems that Saul, along with his son Jonathan and the people with him, follows Samuel from Gilgal and camps at Gibeah. Of course, this did him little good for the LORD had nothing else to say to him, and following Samuel will not change that. As for the Philistines, they are still encamped in the same place at Michmash.
17. Then raiders came out of the camp of the Philistines in three companies. One company turned onto the road to Ophrah, to the land of Shual,
The Philistines, rather than engaging Saul’s forces in battle, instead start to send out raiders. It could be that they were aware of how small Saul’s forces were, and figured they did not even have to wait to fight them before beginning the profitable task of plundering Israel. That is just what these raiders were: plunderers, ready to go through Israel sacking, pillaging, and spoiling the land. Saul with his reduced army had little power to stop them.
The Philistines, to do things more efficiently, send out three raiding parties. The first heads down the road to Ophrah in Shual. Ophrah means “Fawn,” and Shual means “Jackal.” This city was probably in the territory of Benjamin north of Michmash.
18. another company turned to the road to Beth Horon, and another company turned to the road of the border that overlooks the Valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness.
The second company turns to the road leading to the city of Beth Horon. Beth Horon means “House of Hollowness,” and was in the hill country of Ephraim. It was located near the place where the borders of Benjamin, Dan, and Ephraim all come together, so it was west of Mahanaim. Beth Horon was built in two parts, called “Beth Horon the Upper” and “Beth Horon the Nether.” Being in the mountains, though these parts were close together, the Upper was about 800 feet above the Nether!
The Valley of Zeboim (Speckled) was between Jerusalem and Jericho east of Mahanaim, again in Benjamin. Therefore, these raiding parties went north, west, and east from the Philistine camp. None went south, however, toward the powerful tribe of Judah.
19. Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears.”
Now we learn yet more of the difficulties of the Israelites. They not only had a small army, but the Philistines had deprived them of weapons! They had done this in a most ingenious way, by removing all the blacksmiths from the land of Israel. How they had done this we are not told. Had they killed all the blacksmiths, or carried them all captive into Philistia? Whatever their method, the result was that the Israelites had no one capable of making good swords or spears for their army. They were in a bad situation indeed!
20. But all the Israelites would go down to the Philistines to sharpen each man’s plowshare, his mattock, his ax, and his sickle;
The Philistines knew the Israelites needed good farming equipment or they wouldn’t have been able to work their land to get goods to give the Philistines as tribute. Therefore, they let them come down to them to get their farming instruments sharpened. They were under the heel of the Philistines indeed!
21. and the charge for a sharpening was a pim for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to set the points of the goads.
The “pim,” only mentioned here, seems to refer to a weight equal to a third of a shekel. The King James Version translation, that they had a file for sharpening these things, does not seem to make sense, for why then would they have needed to go down to the Philistines to get them sharpened? It seems the point is that the Philistines charged an exorbitant price for the sharpening of these farm instruments.
22. So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan. But they were found with Saul and Jonathan his son.
So it seems that on the day this great clash with the Philistines came about, the only ones armed with swords and spears in Saul’s whole army were Saul himself and Jonathan his son. The rest of their army were probably equipped with clubs and farm instruments to fight with. They were not only badly outnumbered, but they were badly underequipped to fight a battle. Without the help of their God, the Israelites indeed had no chance!
23. And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.
The Philistines, it seems, are preparing for their next move, whatever that might be. They move out from the city of Michmash to the pass leading away from it. They probably do not figure that the cowed Israelites will put up anything like a fight, but they are ready to move out against them. Probably these remaining troops are ready to head south, take out Saul and his army, and then head into the southern portion of the land to plunder, just as their other bands have done.