Then came the messengers to Gibeah of Saul, and told the tidings in the ears of the people. . .
And the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard these things, and his anger was kindled greatly.
And he took a yoke of oxen, and hewed them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the coasts of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, So shall it be done unto his oxen. And the fear of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.
There was something strange about the meeting of Israel at Mizpeh where Saul was selected and appointed to be king. It somehow didn’t end right. The people had come to the meeting with eager anticipation; the casting of the lot until Saul was chosen went smoothly enough, the shout that went up, “God save the king,” was with enthusiasm; Samuel carefully and thoroughly admonished and instructed both Saul and the people as to what would be expected of them now. But that was all. The people returned to their homes, and Saul returned to his. Nothing was really changed, and one could hardly know that now Israel had a king.
In a large part, the fault for this was with Saul. Although for a long time he had been preoccupied with the dream of becoming king, once this dream was realized, he was at a loss as to what he should do. He had felt this coming now for some time. That was why he had sat hidden among the baggage while the casting of lots was going on. For all of his thinking, he had not even one idea as to how he should begin to take over the rule of this great nation. When at last he was found and summoned to stand before the admiring gaze of all the people, he had indeed enjoyed the acclaim, but he had only stood there shyly, not knowing what to say. Perhaps, after Samuel had finished admonishing them, the people had waited anxiously for him to say something about future plans for himself and for the nation; but Saul had had nothing to say. It was then that the people turned, somewhat discomfited, almost embarrassed, to go to their homes. And Saul, inwardly relieved, hurried to return to his, and to the work of the field. That was what he understood best in spite of all his dreams. Saul was not a leader at heart.
But neither was the difficulty completely with him. There were other elements too. After all, Saul was not the only one who had been cherishing dreams of kingship in his heart. There were others too, many belonging to much larger and more important tribes, men of much wider and greater reputation than Saul had ever known. Many of them had come to Mizpeh determined to do all in their power to take over the control of the nation there. And, had not Samuel kept a firm hand over all of the proceedings, undoubtedly they would have tried. But the opportunity had not availed itself, and Saul was selected the king. But we may be sure that the others were not happy at this. There was opportunity enough to complain in the mere fact that Saul was a relatively unknown man in the smallest of the tribes; and when he failed so completely to show any signs of leadership, they felt a free field before them. From the very start, they openly refused to give any recognition to Saul as king; and it wasn’t long before the plots began to take shape as to how they might displace him from the throne. These were ambitious and ruthless men, children of Belial, we are told.
The political situation in Israel might well have reached a crisis had not the matter of Jabesh-gilead arose.
Jabesh, beyond the river in the land of Gilead, was a city used to dealing with the enemies of Israel. Separated as they were from the rest of the nation by the Jordan, the land of Gilead was often considered an easy mark by the heathen nations; and this only too often was so, for during the period of the judges the various sections of Israel drifted apart and no longer felt responsible for each other’s defense. Besides this, the people of Gilead and of Jabesh, as so many others in Israel, had long left behind their first and foremost line of defense—faith and trust in Jehovah their God. It was this more than anything else that left them quite defenseless before the inroads of their enemies. Moreover, God turned them over into the hands of their enemies frequently in punishment for their faithlessness and sin.
This time it was the Ammonites. The Ammonites were the descendants of Lot, and thus related through Abraham to Israel; Because of this, Israel had always been commanded to show to them special consideration. But the Ammonites were a godless people, and they hated the children of Israel with a passion. The kindnesses of Israel they answered with bitter cruelty whenever they could. And so it was now, Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had come and set siege about the city of Jabesh. It was a one-sided battle, the nation of Ammon against the lone city of Jabesh. They held on for a time. The men of Jabesh were able to keep the Ammonites from invading the walls of their city; but it was impossible to break the siege as such. Ordinarily it was to be expected that their fellow countrymen would come to the aid of such a besieged city; but everyone knew in that day that this was not true in Israel. Everyone was concerned only with his own affairs. Their fellow Israelites may have sympathized with the people of Jabesh; but no one was about to get himself involved in a messy battle of any kind.
The men of Jabesh knew this, and felt dependent upon their own wiles to save themselves. They could submit unconditionally, they could resist until they died of starvation, or they could try to negotiate a covenant, an agreement of friendship with the Ammonites. (What they forgot, of course, was that they could and should call upon Jehovah who was sure to save them.) To them it seemed the way of wisdom to try the way of a covenant even though such covenants were strictly forbidden by the law of God. (Ex. 23:32) They were in no mood to quibble over legalities. The situation was desperate; and into the camp of Nahash their emissaries were sent. Their suggestion was the usual one in such a situation, “Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.” They would pay to Nahash a yearly tribute until such a time that they felt themselves strong enough to withstand them. Then they would scrap their covenant and declare themselves free. It happened all the time.
To their surprise, perhaps, the emissaries of Jabesh found Nahash to be quite agreeable. He was willing to make a covenant with them and accept their tribute. Only then he added one more thing, “On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that I may thrust out all your right eyes, and lay it for a reproach upon all Israel.”
Here was the hatred of Ammon. Nahash didn’t want tribute. He didn’t primarily want territories and cities. He wanted to disgrace the nation of Israel. Let the men of Jabesh go about from that time, each with a limp eyelid hanging over an empty socket; it would be a demonstration to all of how the children of Israel had forsaken their own brethren, of how Ammon had been left free to humiliate them. It gave to Nahash an inner glee just to contemplate the thought of it.
Utterly aghast, the emissaries of Jabesh stood conferring together. What should they do? Where should they turn? How were they to answer? At last they turned to Nahas h and said, “Give us seven days’ respite, that we may send messengers unto all the coasts of Israel, and then, if there be no man to save us, we will come out to thee.” Nahash had no objections; in fact, this played right into his plans. He was fully confident that no Israelite was going to endanger his life just to help these men of Jabesh. It would only add to Israel’s reproach.
So it was that the messengers went out all through Israel pleading for help. They were met with many willing listeners, with sympathy, with anguished cries wherever they went; but that was all. So they came finally all the way to Gibeah were Saul lived. They either knew nothing of Saul or else just never thought of going directly to him. The messengers only stood in the streets of the city trying to convince someone to come and help them. There was shock and much weeping, for the people understood well what Nahash was trying to do; but that was about the extent of it. It looked to all like an inevitable humiliation. In complete despair the cries grew louder and louder until at last they were heard by Saul, busy as usual in the fields, and he came to inquire. Once again the messengers of Jabesh recounted their tale.
It was then that a strange and new thing happened in Saul. It was something which he had felt only once before—during that brief journey home from Ramah when he had met with Samuel. Suddenly all of his ambitions and fears and worries seemed to disappear from his mind. He felt like the sting of a whip the disgrace that Ammon was seeking to bring upon Israel and it filled him with righteous indignation. In a moment he knew what was the only thing that could save them—the power of the God of Samuel who had anointed him to be king. For the moment his old character of doubt and pride and indecision seemed to disappear, and in its place was a new person, a man of authority and determination. Quickly he stepped up to the oxen which he had been using in the field and cut them into pieces. Then, drafting men for messengers, he sent them throughout the nation with the warning, “Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen. This was the leadership which Israel so badly needed. Soon some 330,000 men were gathered behind Saul for battle.
It was a wonderful campaign by every measure. With unwavering assurance, Saul sent the message to Jabesh, “To morrow, by that time the sun be hot, ye shall have help.” Then, gathering his army behind him, he marched. All through the night they labored, dividing their forces into three different fronts so that by morning’s dawn they were ready to attack the unsuspecting forces of Ammon. It was no battle, only a rout as the army of Ammon was scattered far and wide so that by the heat of the day no two of them were left together. It was a victory such as Israel had not seen for many and many a year. Now they knew that in Israel there was a king and shouting with joy they gathered behind him.
And for a time it looked as though Saul was going to be a good and capable king. With discretion he refused to punish those who had refused their support to him at the beginning. There were too many of them, and to have slain them would have left an unhealing scar across the heart of the nation. Even more, at the suggestion of Samuel, he led the people from Jabesh to Gilgal. Here was the place where Israel had first camped and sacrificed and commended themselves to God after coming through the Jordan into the land of Canaan. Thus to this same place Samuel returned the people, that the original dedication of the kingdom might be renewed. There once again Saul was acknowledged to be king, this time by all the people. And there they offered sacrifice to God, acknowledging Him to be the source of their strength and every victory.