Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Let the Hebrews make them swords or spears.
After the victory at Jabesh-Gilead, Saul was at last established as king in Israel. Now, he was recognized as king by all of the people; and now he began in the capacity of a leader as was expected of a king. Samuel had taken advantage of the enthusiasm of the people to call them again to Gilgal and to remind them there of the responsibility which was theirs as a peculiar people before Jehovah; and, when his words were punctuated by a miraculous storm in the heavens, the people were ready to acknowledge the correctness of what he said. Moreover, Saul, still struck with awe by the wonderful way in which God had given him a great victory, forgot for a time his personal ambitions and allowed wisdom to guide him. Not only did he forgive those who had hesitated in supporting him, but he began to work toward the establishing of an army, as he should have at the very beginning.
It was part of the wisdom of Saul that also in this latter move he kept his ambitions within reasonable bounds. He sent forth a call throughout Israel for men to come and form a force behind him. Many came, even thousands, but he was satisfied to select only three thousand of the most capable and to send the rest back to their homes. This was a force small enough for him to control while he himself was still learning the principles of battle. Besides, although he was not perhaps so conscious of it himself, this was quite in accord with the assurances of God from the day of Moses that Israel need not rely upon the strength of numbers; He would be their defense.
Still, the army which Saul gathered behind him could only have been at best a motley force, for there was no smith in Israel. It was the Philistines’ doings. From the early days of Samson on, they had dominated the land of Israel, and they had been quite clever in the way that they did it. Rather than ravaging the land and laying it waste with unnecessary tyranny, they had been satisfied to bleed it slowly. In fact, for a time they had even convinced most of the people that they were really the friends of Israel and not their enemies—that is, until Samson succeeded in demonstrating to the children of Israel how wicked and unjust the Philistines really were. And now the people knew. Time and again the Philistines had swept through the land, taking the best of their products for themselves and leaving the children of Israel only enough for them to subsist, but nothing more. At the same time they had taken good care to prevent the children of Israel from doing anything about it. From them they had taken every sword and spear and weapon of every kind that could be used for war. Even more, they had carried away or murdered every man who was practiced in the smith’s trade and who might be able to fashion new weapons to replace the old. All that was left the children of Israel was the tools which they needed in house and field if they were to raise more goods that the Philistines could come again and take. The result was that when Saul gathered his first three thousand men together they may well have been a fine looking group of men, but their weapons were at best scythes, kitchen knives, sticks and staves, and the like of that. In all the land of Israel spears and swords were found only for Saul and Jonathan his son, no more. The rest could only carry the tools they had.
Surprisingly, this had been sufficient at the battle of Jabesh. Saul and his men had attacked the Ammonites in the morning’s dusk and had routed them before they had been able to see how poorly armed the Israelites were. But now Saul knew as did all of the Israelites that if they were going to proceed with the establishing of a real kingdom, they would have to meet the Philistines next, and no such surprise tactics were going to work on them. In fact, the more they thought about it the more hopeless the whole situation seemed to become. Slowly and patiently Saul began to train his army. He placed one thousand men under his young son Jonathan, and two thousand he kept under himself. They trained, but morale was not high, and as time went on it fell lower. Saul just did not see how they could do anything against the Philistines, and his men knew it.
It was Jonathan who disrupted the situation. As yet he was still a very young man, hardly more than a boy; but he was basically different than his father. Saul had never been a religious man; Jonathan was. Somehow, in spite of the indifference of his father, Jonathan had learned about the great victories won by Israel in the past under Moses and Joshua and men like Gideon. He understood, moreover, that those victories had not been due to the greatness of Israel’s armies but to the power of Israel’s God. Thus he was not dismayed as the rest were by the fewness of their present numbers nor by the paucity of their weaponry. He was quite convinced that they had more than enough to overcome the forces of the Philistines if only the blessing of God would go with them. Thus on a certain occasion, while he was alone with his thousand men at Gibeah, he took them and marched directly against a whole garrison of the Philistines meeting them in battle at Geba. It surely must have appeared a rash and foolish move, one before which many older and more experienced men shudder, but Jonathan went in faith and in the strength of Jehovah he received a great victory.
For Saul, this was at last the opportunity he needed. Although his victory at Jabesh had been great, this one was much more significant, for the Philistines, much more than the Ammonites, were the real enemy of Israel. Now it had been proved that even against them the army of Israel could be effective. Quickly messengers were sent throughout the land to tell everyone what had happened. Honesty should have compelled Saul to give to. Jonathan the credit for the battle; but he felt that he needed bolstering in his position as king, and so the message as it went out was, “That Saul had smitten a garrison of the Philistines.” Already again the inner pride and ambition of Saul was beginning to speak.
Neither, however, was this the end of the matter. Before this time, the Philistines had refused to take Saul seriously. They had not particularly cared when Israel had made themselves a king, nor even when Saul had gathered a force of men behind him. They were quite sure that he would be pretty much helpless before their overwhelming strength. But now suddenly the situation had become quite different. They had lost a whole garrison of men at Geba, and that was not something which they could ignore. They saw Saul to be an enemy, an abomination which had to be taken care of immediately. Quickly they gathered their forces, 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and a multitude of foot-soldiers without number. So they moved into the land.
Saul, too, felt the seriousness of the situation. He had taken the credit for Jonathan’s victory, but now there remained also the responsibility of the consequences. Once again the call went out to all Israel, for it was evident that now a mere three thousand men would never suffice. From all corners of the land the people came to join the forces of Saul. The time had come when they would have to do battle or the kingdom would be lost.
But to actually go out to battle was another thing. The fact remained that the forces of Israel, no matter how great, were nothing compared to the army of the Philistines. Besides, the Philistines were seasoned fighters and their weapons were of the best, while the children of Israel had not fought for years and their weapons were only the tools of the field. But what troubled them more than anything else was the fact that Saul was still no real leader. Once the people had come, he hardly knew what to do with them. He was not even a true Israelite at heart and could not as much as encourage them to trust in the Lord. He could only walk among them and say that something had to be done but never coming to the point of telling them what. It brought them to the point of despair, and without anyone to encourage them and guide them aright, the people began to fear for their own lives. Gradually the numbers began to disappear as one by on e the people searched out for themselves hiding places in caves and thickets, among rocks and bushes, in pits and on mountain tops, anywhere where they could be safe from the Philistines. By waves of fear the army of Israel was washed aside.
No one knew this better than Saul. It was a situation with which he could not cope. Oh, somehow he knew that the only answer to it lay with Jehovah, Israel’s God. He had even searched out Samuel and talked to him. Samuel’s directions were very explicit. Saul should wait seven days, and then he would come and sacrifice to God for him; after that they could go on to battle. At first for Saul, this was a relief. It meant that he had a whole week in which he would not have to act. But the interim he only wasted. Instead of using it to assure the people that Samuel was coming to sacrifice for them and so insure their victory, he only walked about silently, moodily waiting, and the people continued to disappear. When at last the week drew toward its close, he was at his wits end. He could wait no longer. Something had to be done, and quickly.
To the mind of Saul, this whole matter of God and sacrifice and prayer had begun to seem like some sort of magic. In his earlier days he would have dismissed the whole thing as foolishness; but now he was really beginning to think there must be something to it. He was quite sure that at the moment the sacrifice was offered some sort of miracle was sure to happen, dissolving the power of the Philistines and driving them all away. Early on the seventh day he was up looking for Samuel, waiting for the miracle to take place. Minute by minute, he waited until morning stretched on till noon and then into mid-afternoon. But by then his patience was exhausted. If all that it would take was a sacrifice, why couldn’t he offer it himself? Why should he have to wait for that old prophet who maybe wouldn’t show up anyway? He was sure that there was nothing so complicated about this matter of offering a sacrifice, although he had never done it before. Besides, if he did it, then there would be no doubt that the victory was completely his; he wouldn’t have to share the glory. Quickly the orders were given, and Saul the unbelieving king was found sacrificing to God.
No sooner was this finished than Samuel was there. Boldly Saul went to meet him. Underneath he knew that what he had done was not going to set well, but no matter, his words would make amends. To Samuel he said, “Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash, therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering.”
But Samuel was not one to waste his time with shallow excuses. The words fell from his lips like a knell of death, “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.” Those were words that Saul would never be able to forget, his fondest dream, so long cherished and so very close to realization, would never be fulfilled. He would never be Israel’s real and enduring king.