1 SAMUEL#11. SAUL’S LEGALISM. Saul let’s his insecurity drive him to impose a vow upon the Israelites. How did that work out?
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Last time we looked at how Jonathan single-handedly attacked the Philistines. He acted out of faith, not fear, and God used that to create a huge victory for the people of Israel. The Israelites pushed the Philistines back to the edge of the hill country. But nothing spoils God’s work like false religion and religious pretenses. Saul again showed his lack of real relationship with God. He was worried about the outcome of the battle, so he made an oath and imposed it upon all the army that no one should eat until the sun went down. It sounds very religious and impressive. It was supposed to motivate people. It was supposed to impress God, so that God would help them even more.
It backfired because it was a stupid idea that again came not from faith, but fear, selfishness and pride. By the way, I want to point out the fact that Saul was not content to make the vow for himself. Instead, he imposed his fake religion (which sounded holy) on everyone else. This is typical of people who do not live by relationship. Precisely because they do not have their own relationship with God, they feel that everything they experience must be a rule that everyone should follow. They don’t recognize the give and take and unique life experiences that go along with walking with God in faith. They can’t go it alone with God. They live only by rules.
Saul’s oath is actually much more like a curse. He says: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” This doesn’t sound like the voice of the Lord. It sounds more like the devil. There is an Old Testament tradition of making vows that are associated with curses. However, such vows are also associated with blessings and promises from the Lord. Saul does not include any blessings in his vow. Neither is it associated with any promises from the Lord. To put it simply, there is nothing positive about it.
Notice too, how Saul sees this as his own battle, with the Philistines as his own personal enemies. This is in contrast to Jonathan, who clearly saw the battle as the Lord’s fight, with himself simply a tool in God’s hands.
Three negative things came out of Saul’s religious pretenses.
First, the victory was not as great as it could have been. In other words, the vow had the opposite effect of the one he wanted. The men were weakened by hunger, so they could not sustain their offensive against the Philistines. Saul’s vow preceded not from faith, but from the flesh. It was all about self-effort. Because of that, it was as weak as the flesh. Flesh without food is weak. So the vow flopped. Jonathan’s act of faith energized and sustained the troops. Saul’s rash vow, based in self effort and the flesh, drained them, and robbed them of strength. Jonathan himself realized this. After he himself had eaten in ignorance of the vow, one of the soldiers told him of his father’s words. Jonathan said:
“My father has brought trouble to the land. Just look at how I have renewed energy because I tasted a little honey. 30 How much better if the troops had eaten freely today from the plunder they took from their enemies! Then the slaughter of the Philistines would have been much greater.”
Second, because they were so hungry, when sundown arrived, the troops began to slaughter the captured livestock of the Philistines and eat without regard to the laws of Moses. Specifically, they were eating meat that had not been properly drained of blood.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Leviticus 17:11-12)
The idea expressed in the Old Testament is that the life of an animal (or person) is carried in the blood. The life belongs to God, and so the blood must be given to him, not consumed by people. It is a way of saying, “Even as I take this food, I recognize that the life of this animal belongs to God, not to me. I receive it as a gift, and I give its life into God’s hands.” But Saul’s vow weakened the resolve of the people who had been running, fighting and marching all day long, and when sundown finally came, they were tempted to sin. They were in such a hurry to eat that they did not properly bleed out the animals. To look at it another way, Saul’s vow did not protect people from sin, but rather made them more vulnerable to it.
Third, Saul’s foolish vow led to strife when it came to Jonathan. Saul had bound everyone to his vow – even those who didn’t know about it. Jonathan, unaware of his father’s oath, ate some of the wild honey that was in the forest where they were passing through in pursuit of the Philistines. The Hebrew says that as a result his eyes became bright. This is one of those Hebrew expressions that is very obscure. The HCSB says, “he had renewed energy” which is probably pretty close to the meaning, though not the exact words. You might say, “brightened up” or “perked up.”
After the men have eaten and regained some strength, Saul decides to pursue the Philistines further – as he could have done, if he had not subjected his troops to hunger. Once again, Saul is simply doing something, moving ahead, without regard to what God may want to do. He is acting not out of faith or his relationship with God, but rather out of a rash desire to make up for the time lost that he himself had caused.
In the earlier part of chapter 14 we saw that Saul was indecisive. He wasn’t sure whether or not he was going to win the battle, and so he sent for the priest to inquire of the Lord. However, before the priest had finished asking God, Saul saw how things were going and told the priest to stop and charged ahead. In other words, he wasn’t asking God because he really wanted to hear from God, he just wanted to know whether or not he would win. Now, he makes a decision to continue the attack without even considering if it is God’s will or not.
The priest is the one who stops him and says, “Let’s ask God first.” Grudgingly, Saul agrees. But there is no clear answer from the Lord. We know that the Israelites cast lots, trusting that the Lord would determine the result. However, we don’t know exactly how this worked. Obviously, there was some possibility that the Lord would not answer at all. In this case that’s what happened.
Sometimes – not always, but certainly at times – we can’t hear God because we are separated from Him by our own sin. If your heart is turned away from God, if there is un-repented sin in you, it will be difficult for you to hear what he wants to say to you. This was a physical demonstration of that fact. Again, I’m not saying that every time you fail to hear from God, it is because of sin. However, if you are asking God to speak and you are not hearing, the very first thing to do is to ask Him to show you if there is any sin standing in the way. We can at least credit Saul for recognizing this.
Now, a straightforward reading shows that Jonathan was one who caused God not to answer. He was the one chosen by lot. And yet, we know that eating honey is not a sinful act. In addition, Jonathan was totally unaware of the curse Saul had called down on the army concerning food, so he did not deliberately or knowingly violate any oath. I don’t think the Lord chose Jonathan by lot to show that Jonathan was sinful. I think he did it to expose Saul – to impress upon Saul his own arrogance and foolishness and show him the results of it. Look at it this way. God did not withhold his answer because Jonathan ate honey. He withheld it because of Saul’s oath. Without the oath, Jonathan’s eating would have had no significance.
So Saul’s oath weakened the army both physically and spiritually, it prevented them from hearing the Lord, and now it led to the condemnation of their greatest warrior. Let’s say it plainly: the result of Saul’s rashness was to condemn his own son to death for simply eating when he was hungry, even after that very son had achieved a great victory.
Even when his arrogance and insecurity is so exposed, Saul will not repent. He doesn’t say, “I am so sorry, that was a foolish vow to make, let us ask the Lord for forgiveness and mercy.” No, he would rather kill his own son than admit that he was wrong. He continues his rashness and says, ““May God punish me and do so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan! ”
Remember those words. Nothing bad ever happened to Saul that he did not bring upon himself.
The people protest. Jonathan is the one that achieved the great victory that day. He was ignorant of the curse. He doesn’t deserve to die. Notice that Saul backs up. We can hope that he did so because he had a tender heart toward Jonathan, and really didn’t want him to die. But truthfully, that tender heart wasn’t enough. He didn’t back up until the people protested. What really changed his mind was popular opinion. Again he shows his insecurity.
It is quite likely that during all these proceedings, which probably took several hours, the Philistines made their escape. In other words, again, it is Saul’s rashness, harshness and foolishness that makes the victory less than it could have been.
Most people don’t make vows like Saul’s anymore. Maybe we’re too fond of our food. But the truth is, we do sometimes make internal promises to ourselves. Sometimes we let our negative emotions control us, and we act or speak rashly, or make quick, impulsive decisions that somehow bind us. We might say something like “I’ll never do something nice for that person again.” Or maybe we decide because of a certain incident, we hate and distrust all men or all Asians or something like that. We may not think of it like a harsh or rash vow, but it is basically the same thing that Saul did. I think we should expect the same types of results.
It seems obvious now what Saul should have done. He ought to have repented and asked the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. It would have involved humbling himself in front of his people. But everything might have been different for him if he had done those things. If there is some way in which we have taken Saul’s course, we can still correct that by doing what Saul was too proud to do. If we humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness and mercy, if we repent of our ungodly internal commitments, I am confident that the Lord will forgive us and help us.
A thousand years later, Saul’s namesake, who became known by his Roman name, Paul, wrote this:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
King Saul’s oath, imposed on the entire army, did indeed have an appearance of wisdom. It promoted self-made religion and severity to the body. But it was of no value. Unfortunately, even today there are people try to impose their false sense of religion upon others. I’m not talking about people who speak the truth about what the bible says. I’m talking about people like Saul, who don’t really operate out of a faith-based relationship with the Lord. These are the folks who tell you, you cannot eat meat on Fridays, or wear blue jeans in church, or that you are not holy unless you pray like they do.
There are certain core things that all Christians believe and agree upon. I’m not talking about things like these. But apart from those core beliefs, when another Christian insists your faith must look and sound and feel exactly like her faith, she is operating out of a sense of law, not a sense of relationship.
I have fasted many times in my life. Often, fasting is a spiritually rewarding time for me. However, a few times, I’ve been in the middle of a fast and I realized it wasn’t doing me any good. At those times, I simply quit. This is because I’m walking in relationship, not by law. The whole point of fasting is to bless the relationship that I have with the Lord. When it doesn’t accomplish that, there is no point in doing it. Once or twice, I have fasted because others told me they wanted me to fast with them. Those times were counterproductive, spiritually speaking.
Let the Lord speak to you right now. Maybe you need to give up an internal commitment or vow that you have made. Maybe you need to realize that you are free from the expectations of others, so long as you continue to walk and true faith and in relationship with the Lord. Let him talk to you about this right now.