What do you do if your king is not a good king?
1 Samuel 14:24-52
24 Now the Israelites were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be anyone who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food.
25 The entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground. 26 When they went into the woods, they saw the honey oozing out; yet no one put his hand to his mouth, because they feared the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb. He raised his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened. 28 Then one of the soldiers told him, “Your father bound the army under a strict oath, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food today!’ That is why the men are faint.”
29 Jonathan said, “My father has made trouble for the country. See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?”
31 That day, after the Israelites had struck down the Philistines from Mikmash to Aijalon, they were exhausted. 32 They pounced on the plunder and, taking sheep, cattle and calves, they butchered them on the ground and ate them, together with the blood. 33 Then someone said to Saul, “Look, the men are sinning against the Lord by eating meat that has blood in it.”
“You have broken faith,” he said. “Roll a large stone over here at once.”34 Then he said, “Go out among the men and tell them, ‘Each of you bring me your cattle and sheep, and slaughter them here and eat them. Do not sin against the Lord by eating meat with blood still in it.’”
So everyone brought his ox that night and slaughtered it there. 35 Then Saul built an altar to the Lord; it was the first time he had done this.
36 Saul said, “Let us go down and pursue the Philistines by night and plunder them till dawn, and let us not leave one of them alive.”
“Do whatever seems best to you,” they replied.
But the priest said, “Let us inquire of God here.”
37 So Saul asked God, “Shall I go down and pursue the Philistines? Will you give them into Israel’s hand?” But God did not answer him that day.
38 Saul therefore said, “Come here, all you who are leaders of the army, and let us find out what sin has been committed today. 39 As surely as the Lord who rescues Israel lives, even if the guilt lies with my son Jonathan, he must die.” But not one of them said a word.
40 Saul then said to all the Israelites, “You stand over there; I and Jonathan my son will stand over here.”
“Do what seems best to you,” they replied.
41 Then Saul prayed to the Lord, the God of Israel, “Why have you not answered your servant today? If the fault is in me or my son Jonathan, respond with Urim, but if the men of Israel are at fault, respond with Thummim.” Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men were cleared. 42 Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and Jonathan my son.” And Jonathan was taken.
43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.”
So Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the end of my staff. And now I must die!”
44 Saul said, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.”
45 But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.
46 Then Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land.
47 After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. 48 He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.
49 Saul’s sons were Jonathan, Ishvi and Malki-Shua. The name of his older daughter was Merab, and that of the younger was Michal. 50 His wife’s name was Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaaz. The name of the commander of Saul’s army was Abner son of Ner, and Ner was Saul’s uncle. 51 Saul’s father Kish and Abner’s father Ner were sons of Abiel.
52 All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.
This is one of those stories where we have a million questions, and very few answers. There’s a strange oath, and some honey, and some blood and an altar and Urim and Thummin… but in the absence of answers, let’s see how far we can get with our gut instinct.
Saul made an oath that he didn’t have to make. That oath would curse his running, fighting soldiers unless they did all of their hard work without any food. Gut instinct? That sounds like a terrible idea.
Did he at least make that oath for a good, godly reason? His sole aim is to ‘avenge himself on his enemies’. Hmmm. Sounds pretty self-centred.
Jonathan doesn’t know about the oath, so he eats some honey that he finds. When the soldiers tell him about the oath, he says it’s a terrible oath. And this gets backed up again when we see that it tempts the men to eat meat with the blood in it, something God explicitly told Israel not to do in Genesis 9 and Leviticus 17.
Then we see Saul swear that the person who sinned must die, and when he discovers that Jonathan ate the honey, Saul is willing to go through with the consequences of his oath… and Jonathan is prepared to honour the oath, even though it would cost him his life… but when the soldiers point out that Jonathan won the victory because God was with him, Saul doesn’t kill Jonathan.
Some parts of this story are difficult to understand. But one thing seems very clear.
A king who wants revenge so badly that he threatens to curse his soldiers if they eat? That’s not a good king.
A king whose commands drive his people to break God’s law? That’s not a good king.
A king whose impulsiveness and self-centredness would lead to the death of his son? That’s not a good king.
And while we’re glad to see Jonathan remain alive, it’s wrapped up in Saul not keeping his oath, and letting people talk him out of keeping his word. That’s not a good king.
When it comes to being king, Saul’s a bit of a train wreck. He seems to have no idea what God wants, and he doesn’t try very hard to find out. He does things his way, for his own purposes, and it keeps going terribly wrong.
I’d hate to have Saul as my king.
But a king who values justice and mercy over revenge? A king who blesses his people, rather than curses them? A king whose commands help his people to follow God? A king who is so patient and selfless that he would give his own life for his people? A king who keeps his word, and leads his people well?
That’s exactly the sort of king I would want. And that’s exactly the sort of king Jesus is.
Head: There are plenty of bad leaders in this world. What difference does it make that we have a perfect king in Jesus?
Heart: How do you feel when you see leaders making bad decisions, or not leading very well? How do you feel when you see leaders being selfless, and patient, and keeping their word?
Hands: In light of what Jesus has done, how can you respond to bad leaders? How does your life look different when you have a perfect king?
Prayer: Father, thank you that Jesus is the king who leads his people well. Thank you for his blessings and his good commands, for his patience and his mercy. Thank you that he is the king who laid down his life for us. Please help us to follow him always. In his name we pray, Amen.
A song to listen to: All Creatures of Our God and King
Mick Wust- Creek Road Presbyterian Church- South Bank