“And the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening that I may be avenged on mine enemies. So none of the people tasted any food. . .
Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land; see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey.”
The battle of Jonathan with the Philistines at Michmash was by every measure a miracle. He knew this himself, for he had said to his armor-bearer beforehand, “Come, and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised: it may be that the LORD will work for us: for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few.” And so, precisely, it had happened. Two men by themselves plunged into the heart of the Philistine garrison. With their own hands twenty men of the enemy were slain; but not a sword touched them. Rather the swords of the Philistines were turned in confusion against their own ranks. Their numbers melted like snow before the rays of the sun. God was on Jonathan’s side.
Moreover, there were in the camp of the Philistines a good number of Israelites. Some of them were captives who had been taken by the forces of the enemy to be held as hostages. And there were others who were deserters. They had become so discouraged under the aimless leadership of Saul that they had given themselves over to the enemy to be their slaves, figuring that would be the eventual outcome anyway. Quickly they observed something that they had never seen before, the hand of God reaching down to work confusion in the ranks of Israel’s enemy, and they recognized it for what it was. With hardly a hesitation, they stepped forth to take up swords from the bodies of the slain and to join themselves to the cause to which they really belonged. With them was none of the confusion which the Philistines felt, and by their hands many more of the enemy were slain. The power of God was with them.
Meanwhile, a few miles away at Gibeah, there were still a few faithful watchmen keeping a wary eye on the hill of Michmash and the garrison of the Philistines encamped there. They were quick to recognize the very earliest signs of the battle. Although they were too far away to discern the details of what was happening, it was evident enough that a battle was raging and that the camp of the Philistines was being wiped out in utter confusion. Here was something they had never expected, and the joyful news they brought to their king just as soon as they could locate him.
But to Saul this news was not so altogether wonderful as might have been expected. Not that he didn’t want the Philistines defeated and driven out of his land. He wanted that badly enough. It was just that he didn’t like those unexpected turns of events which he had not anticipated, and for which he very evidently could claim no credit. He wanted to know what was happening, and it irritated him to think that someone might have gone off to start something without first having consulted with him, the king. Before he did anything, he wanted some answers. And the first thing he wanted to know was who was behind this all. And so once again he called for a numbering of the troops. And besides, this would give him some time to decide if it was-really safe now to move against the enemy.
But there were only about 600 men left, and it didn’t take long to number them. The results were almost as Saul had anticipated, Jonathan and his armor bearer were missing, and they were the only ones. But even that didn’t relieve Saul completely. It was true that Jonathan was his own son, and so the credit for this battle too would remain within the family. But this was now the second time this had happened. After all, he, Saul was king; and it wasn’t nice always to have someone else stealing the glory even if it was his own child. And these things troubled Saul. It wasn’t easy to be king. And he still wasn’t sure that it would be safe to go himself into battle.
But then maybe all was not lost yet either. The ceremonial calling on Jehovah for this battle had not yet taken place. If he would do that, that was always worth something in Israel. And that would give him a little more time too.
So Saul called for Ahiah the priest and said, “Bring hither the ephod of God.” (Not the “ark of God” as in the A.V.) But the attention of the people was not with Saul any longer. Everyone had their eyes on Michmash where the signs of battle and destruction were becoming ever more widespread. Even Saul’s inexperienced and skeptical eye could now see that the destruction of the Philistine garrison was all but complete, and he would have to hurry if he was going to play any part in the battle at all. Suddenly, his mind was made up. They had to move and move fast. There was no time now to wait for an answer from Ahiah. Quickly Saul called his men together and headed across the valley between Gibeah and Michmash. But still, before they went, there was one more element which Saul suddenly decided to interject. He told his men, “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged of mine enemies,” At last Saul had tasted the exhilarating promise of a complete victory, and immediately he was determined to push it all of the way. He was not going to have his men lingering over the booty and stuffing themselves with drink and good food. To prevent it, he would proclaim a complete fast; and besides that ought to be a nice gesture adapted to please the jealousy of Jehovah.
Saul was a pagan at heart. Fasting did have a place and a practice in the Old Testament church, it was a very rich and moving evidence of repentance and sorrow before the sight of God. But this Saul could not understand. He had come to the point where he thought it would be well for him to cultivate the favor of Jehovah; but as far as repentance and sorrow for sin was concerned, these had no place in his heart or mind. All he could ever see in any religious ceremony was a sort of ritualistic gesture which was sure to please the gods and gain for himself thereby a magical power that would cause things to work in his favor. Behind whatever he did was the scheming of his own self-centered ambition. And himself lacking in common sense, the fast which Saul now called was completely without consideration for the needs of his men. It had value neither before God nor before men.
By the time Saul and his troops arrived at Michmash, however, the battle itself was all but over. Countless Philistines had already died, and not even a token force remained united to fight against Saul and his men. Moreover, the news had already spread throughout the area, and Israelite men were closing in on Michmash from all directions. All that remained to be done was to find and chase down the scattered individuals who had once constituted the army of the Philistines. But this in itself, although not especially dangerous, was hard and exhausting work. The terrain was difficult with hills and woods and rocky gullies and slopes. Every possible hiding place had to be searched for fleeing Philistines, while the whole forceof Israel pressed on as swiftly as possible so as to try to overtake those Philistines which were still running and prevent them from regrouping somewhere before nightfall.
It was hard and exhausting work, and soon the men of Israel, no matter how fresh they had been at the beginning, were tired, sore and hungry. But the word had gotten around. With a curse, the king had forbidden that anyone should take anything to eat before nightfall. And so the forces of Israel pressed on until the feet of the men lagged from exhaustion and hunger. Of them all, Jonathan alone had not heard of his father’s command, and he was hungry too. Thus it was that, as they passed through a wood in which many swarms of bees had made their hives, Jonathan thrust his rod into one of the honeycombs and ate the honey which he extracted in this way. It was good and satisfying, and it revived his lagging spirit. Only then did one of the men approach him and say, “Thy father straitly charged the people with an oath, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food this day.”
Now suddenly Jonathan saw the reason why, during the afternoon hours, the press of the Israelites upon the heels of the fleeing Philistines had lagged. The men were weak from hunger. In dismay at the folly of his father Jonathan answered, “My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”
It was not until evening, however, that the most serious consequences became evident. For, as the sun approached its setting, the famished men stopped their pursuing completely. By now all they could think of was food, and their whole attention was taken up in locating some to eat. Then, at the moment when the sun was set and the curse of Saul no longer applied, they fell upon the spoil. Sheep, oxen, calves, whatever they could find, were slain and eaten while they still ran red with blood. And this was a terrible thing; for, from its beginning as a nation, Israel had been strictly commanded never to eat meat without draining first the blood. (See Lev. 19:26)
Immediately, Saul, in his new consciousness of ceremonial observances, was disturbed, and he commanded that an altar should be built before which the people could slay the animals properly. But at the same time Saul was preoccupied with the desire to press on. The enemy was scattered and he wanted to prevent them from regrouping even if it meant they should pursue through the night. So he called for the priest to ask the will of God for him.
But Saul had done foolishly, even wickedly, and God would not allow it to rest. Thus to the inquiry of the priest God did not answer, an indication that a sin had corrupted the nation. Saul was troubled and angered. Immediately he demanded a casting of the lot to locate the Pin and root it out. And, as is so characteristic of a weak and unstable character, the first thing he demanded was that he and his son should be justified. One can well imagine, therefore, the painful embarrassment of Saul when on the first lot he and his son were found. to be guilty. Neither did it help a great deal when the second lot revealed Jonathan to be the guilty one and not himself. Saul was humiliated and angry to the point where nothing else seemed to matter. Only then, as he might better have done at the beginning, did he think to ask what the trouble was. Without hesitation, Jonathan answered, “I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and lo, I must die.”
It was a sad day when Israel asked of Samuel a king like those which the other nations had. God heard their request and answered it. Saul was now that king; and he was altogether like the heathen. He observed the form of religion but had no feeling for the greatness of God and His forgiving love. So here, even Saul’s natural love for his own child could not restrain him from the determination to have his will obeyed and himself justified. Had he had a whit of understanding, Saul at this point might well have understood that the trouble was not in the deed of Jonathan but in the indiscretion of having threatened his men with a curse in the first place. But this was not Saul. His only answer was, “God do so and more also; for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan.”
It was only the greater discernment of the people which prevented that day from ending in complete disaster. With righteous indignation, they answered Saul, “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.” And as the words left their lips, their hearts must surely have felt some of the foolishness which was theirs for having asked for a king like Saul in the first place.