Expositor's Bible Commentary
Then Nahash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against Jabeshgilead: and all the men of Jabesh said unto Nahash, Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.CHAPTER XV.
THE RELIEF OF JABESH-GILEAD.
1 Samuel 11:1-15.
PRIMITIVE though the state of society was in those days in Israel, we are hardly prepared to find Saul following the herd in the field after his election as king of Israel. We are compelled to conclude that the opposition to him was far from contemptible in number and in influence, and that he found it expedient in the meantime to make no demonstration of royalty, but continue his old way of life. If we go back to the days of Abimelech, the son of Gideon, we get a vivid view of the awful crimes which even an Israelite could commit, under the influence of jealousy, when other persons stood in the way of his ambitious designs. It is quite conceivable that had Saul at once assumed the style and title of royalty, those children of Belial who were so contemptuous at his election would have made away with him. Human life was of so little value in those Eastern countries, and the crime of destroying it was so little thought of, that if Saul had in any way provoked hostility, he would have been almost certain to fall by some assassin's hand. It was therefore wise of him to continue for a time his old way of living, and wait for some opportunity which should arise providentially, to vindicate his title to the sceptre of Israel.
Apparently he had not to wait long - according to Josephus, only a month. The opportunity arose in a somewhat out-of-the-way part of the country, where disturbance had been brewing previous to his election (comp. 1 Samuel 12:12). It was not the first time that the inhabitants of Gilead and other dwellers on the east side of Jordan came to feel that in settling there they had to pay dear for their well-watered and well-sheltered pastures. They were exposed in an especial degree to the assaults of enemies, and pre-eminent among these were their cousins, the Ammonites. Very probably the Ammonites had never forgotten the humiliation inflicted on them by Jephthah, when he smote them "from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and till thou come to the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter." Naturally the Ammonites would be desirous both to avenge these defeats and to regain their cities, or at least to get other cities in lieu of what they had lost. We do not know with certainty the site of Jabesh-Gilead, or the reasons why it was the special object of attack by King Nahash at this time. But so it was; and as the people of Jabesh-Gilead either knew not or cared not for their real defense, the God of Israel, they found themselves too hard bestead by the Ammonites, and, exhausted probably by the weary siege, proposed terms of capitulation.
This is the first scene in the chapter before us. "The men of Jabesh said to Nahash, king of the Ammonites, Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee." The history of the Israelites in time of danger commonly presents one or other of two extremes: either pusillanimous submission, or daring defiance to the hostile power. In this case it was pusillanimous submission, as indeed it commonly was when the people followed the motions of their own hearts, and were not electrified into opposition by some great hero, full of faith in God. But it was not mere cowardice they displayed in offering to become the servants of the Ammonites; there was impiety in it likewise. For of their relation to God they made no account whatever. By covenant with their fathers, ratified from generation to generation, they were God's servants, and they had no right voluntarily to transfer to another master the allegiance which was due to God alone. The proposal they made was virtually a breach of the first commandment. And it was not a case of necessity. Instead of humbling themselves before God and confessing the sins that had brought them into trouble, they put God altogether aside, and basely offered to become the servants of the Ammonites. Even the remembrance of the glorious victories of their own Jephthah, when he went to war with the Ammonites, in dependence on the God of Israel, seems to have had no effect in turning them from the inglorious proposal. We see here the sad effect of sin and careless living in lowering men's spirits, sapping courage, and discouraging noble effort. Oh, it is pitiable to see men tamely submitting to a vile master! Yet how often is the sight repeated! How often do men virtually say to the devil, "Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee"! Not indeed in the open way in which it used to be believed that one of the popes, before his elevation to the papal chair, formally sold his soul to the devil in exchange for that dignity. Yet how often do men virtually give themselves over to serve a vile master, to lead evil or at least careless lives, to indulge in sinful habits which they know they should overcome, but which they are too indolent and self-indulged to resist! Men and women, with strong proclivities to sin, may for a time resist, but they get tired of the battle; they long for an easier life, and they say in their hearts, "We will resist no longer; we will become your servants." They are willing to make peace with the Ammonites, because they are wearied of fighting. "Anything for a quiet life!" They surrender to the enemy, they are willing to serve sin, because they will not surrender the ease and the pleasures of sin. But sin is a bad master; his wages are terrible to think of. The terms which Nahash offered to the men of Jabesh-Gilead combined insult and injury. "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 unto all Israel." "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." There is nothing in which the pernicious influence of paganism was more notorious in ancient times - and indeed, we may say, is more notorious in all times - than in the horrible cruelties to which it led. Barbarity was the very element in which it lived. And that barbarity was often exemplified in cruelly depriving enemies of those members and organs of the body which are most needful for the comfort of life. The hands and the eyes were especially the victims of this diabolical feeling. Just as you may see at this day in certain African villages miserable creatures without hands or eyes who have fallen under the displeasure of their chief and received this revolting treatment, so it was in those early times. But Nahash was comparatively merciful. He was willing to let the men of Jabesh off with the loss of one eye only. But as if to compensate for this forbearance, he declared that he would regard the transaction as a reproach upon all Israel. The mutilated condition of that poor one-eyed community would be a ground for despising the whole nation; it would be a token of the "humiliation and degradation of the whole Israelite community. These were the terms of Nahash. His favour could be purchased only by a cruel injury to every man's body and a stinging insult to their whole nation. But these terms were just too humiliating. Whether the men of Jabesh would have been willing to lose their eyes as the price of peace we do not know; but the proposed humiliation of the nation was something to which they were not prepared at once to submit. The nation itself should look to that. The nation should consider whether it was prepared to be thus insulted by the humiliation of one of its cities. Consequently they asked for a week's respite, that it might be seen whether the nation would not bestir itself to maintain its honour.
If we regard Nahash as a type of another tyrant, as representing the tyranny of sin, we may derive from his conditions an illustration of the hard terms which sin usually imposes. "The way of transgressors is hard." Oh, what untold misery does one act of sin often bring! One act of drunkenness, in which one is led to commit some crime of violence that would never have been dreamt of otherwise; one act of dishonesty, followed up by a course of deceit and double-dealing, that at last culminates in disgrace and ruin; one act of unchastity, leading to loss of character and to a downward career ending in utter darkness, how frightful is the retribution! But happy is the young person, when under temptation to the service of sin, if there comes to him at the very threshold some frightful experience of the hardness of the service, if, like the men of Jabesh-Gilead, he is made to feel that the loss and humiliation are beyond endurance, and to betake himself to the service of another Master, whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light, and whose rewards are more precious than silver and geld!
With the activity of despair, the men of Jabesh now publish throughout all Israel the terms that Nahash has offered them. At Gibeah of Saul a deep impression is made. But it is not the kind of impression that gives much hope. "All the people lifted up their voices and wept." It was just the way in which their forefathers had acted at the Red Sea, when, shut in between the mountains and the sea, they saw the chariots of Pharaoh advancing in battle array against them; and again, it was the way in which they spent that night in the wilderness after the spies brought back their report of the land. It was a sorrowful sight - a whole mass of people crying like babies, panic-stricken, and utterly helpless. But, as in the two earlier cases, there was a man of faith to roll back the wave of panic. As Moses at the Red Sea got courage to go forward, as Caleb, the faithful spy, was able to resist all the clamour of his colleagues and the people, so on this occasion the spirit that rises above the storm, and flings defiance even on the strongest enemies, came mightily on one man - on Saul. His conduct at this time is another evidence how well he conducted himself in the opening period of his reign. "The Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul when he heard the tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly." The Spirit of the Lord evidently means here that spirit of courage, of noble energy, of dauntless resolution, which was needed to meet the emergency that had arisen. His first act was a symbolical one, very rough in its nature, but an act of the kind that was best fitted to make an impression on an Eastern people. A yoke of oxen was hewn in pieces, and the bloody fragments were sent by messengers throughout all Israel, with a thundering announcement that any one failing to follow Saul would have his own oxen dealt with in a similar fashion! It was a bold proclamation for a man to make who himself had just been following his herd in the field. But boldness, even audacity, is often the best policy. The thundering proclamation of Saul brought an immense muster of people to him. A sufficient portion of them would set out with the king, hastening down the passes to the Jordan valley, and having crossed the river, would bivouac for the night in some of the ravines that led up towards the city of Jabesh- Gilead. Messengers had been previously pushed forward to announce to the people there the approach of the relieving force. Long before daybreak, Saul had divided his force into three, who were to approach the beleaguered city by different roads and surprise the Ammonites by break of day. The plan was successfully carried out. The assault on the Ammonite army was made in the morning watch, and continued till midday. It was now the turn for the Ammonites to fall under panic. Their assailants seem to have found them entirely unprepared. There is nothing with which the undisciplined ranks of an Eastern horde are less able to cope than an unexpected attack. The defeat was complete, and the slaughter must have been terrific; and "it came to pass that they which remained of them were scattered, so that two of them were not left together." The men of Jabesh-Gilead, who had expected to spend that night in humiliation and anguish, would be sure to spend it in a very tumult of joy, perhaps rather in a wild excitement than in the calm but intensely relieved condition of men of whom the sorrows of death had taken hold, but whom the Lord had delivered out of all their distresses.
It is no wonder though the people were delighted with their king. From first to last he had conducted himself admirably. He had not delayed an hour in taking the proper steps. Though wearied probably with his day's work among the herd, he set about the necessary arrangements with the utmost promptitude. It was a serious undertaking: first, to rouse to the necessary pitch a people who were more disposed to weep and wring their hands, than to keep their heads and devise a way of escape in the hour of danger; second, to gather a sufficient army to his standard; third, to march across the Jordan, attack the foe, confident and well equipped, and deliver the beleaguered city. But dangers and difficulties only roused Saul to higher exertions. And now, when in one short week he has completed an enterprise worthy to rank among the highest in the history of the nation, it is no wonder that the satisfaction of the people reaches an enthusiastic pitch. It would have been unaccountable had it been otherwise. And it is no wonder that their thoughts revert to the men who had stood in the way of his occupying the throne. Here is another proof that the opposition was more serious and more deadly than at first appears. These men were far from contemptible. Even now they might be a serious trouble to the nation. Would it not be good policy to get rid of them at once? Did they not deserve to die, and ought they not at once to be put to death? It is not likely that if this question had been mooted in the like circumstances in any of the neighbouring kingdoms, there would have been a moment's hesitation in answering it. But Saul was full of a magnanimous spirit - nay, it seemed at the time a godly spirit. His mind was impressed with the fact that the deliverance of that day had come from God. And it was impressed at the same time with the grandeur and sublimity of the Divine power that had been brought into operation on behalf of Israel. Saul perceived a tremendous reality in the fact that "the Lord was their defense; the Holy One of Israel was their King." If Israel was encircled by such a garrison, if Israel's king was under such a Protector, what need he fear from a gang of miscreants like these children of Belial? Why dim the glory of the day by an act of needless massacre? Let forbearance to these misguided villains be another proof of the respect the nation had to the God of Jacob, as the Defender of Israel and Israel's King, and the certainty of their trust that He would defend them. And so "Saul said, There shall not a man be put to death, this day; for to-day the Lord hath wrought salvation in Israel."
O Saul, Saul, how well for thee it would have been hadst thou maintained this spirit! For then God would not have had to reject thee from being king, and to seek among the sheepfolds of Bethlehem a man after His own heart to be the leader of His people! And then thou wouldest have had no fear for the security of thy throne; thou wouldest not have hunted thy rival like a partridge on the mountains; and never, never wouldest thou have been tempted, in thy difficulties, to seek counsel from a woman with a familiar spirit, on the plea that God was departed from thee!
As we are thinking how well Saul has acted on this occasion, we perceive that an old friend has come on the scene who helps us materially to understand the situation. Yes, he is all the better of Samuel's guidance and prayers. The good old prophet has no jealousy of the man who took his place as head of the nation. But knowing well the fickleness of the people, he is anxious to turn the occasion to account for confirming their feelings and their aims. Seeing how the king has acknowledged God as the Author of the victory, he desires to strike while the iron is hot. "Come," he says, "let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there." Gilgal was the first place where the people had encamped under Joshua on crossing the Jordan. It was the place where the twelve stones taken from the empty bed of the river had been set up, as a testimony to the reality of the Divine presence in the midst of them. In some aspects, one might have thought that Samuel would invite them to Ebenezer, where he had set up the stone of help, and that he would add another testimony to the record that hitherto the Lord had helped them. But Gilgal was nearer to Jabesh-Gilead, and it was memorable for still higher traditions. To Gilgal accordingly they went, to renew the kingdom. "And there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal, and there they sacrificed sacrifices of peace-offerings before the Lord, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly."
The first election of Saul had been effected without any ceremonial, as if the people had been somewhat afraid to have a public coronation when it was obvious they had carried their point only by Divine sufferance, not by Divine command. But now, unequivocal testimony has been borne that, so long as Saul pays becoming regard to the heavenly King, the blessing and countenance of the Almighty will be his. Let him then be set apart with all due enthusiasm for his exalted office. Let his consecration take place in the most solemn circumstances - let it be "before the Lord in Gilgal;" let it be accompanied with those sacrifices of peace-offerings which shall indicate respect for God's appointed method of reconciliation; and let it be conducted with such devout regard to Him and to His law, that when it is over, the Divine blessing shall seem to fall on Saul in the old form of benediction, "The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make His face to shine on thee and be gracious to thee; the Lord lift up His countenance on thee and give thee peace." Let the impression be deepened that "the God of Israel is He that giveth strength and power unto His people." Saul himself will not be the worse for having these feelings confirmed, and it will be of the highest benefit to the people.
And thus, under Samuel's guidance, the kingdom was renewed. Thus did both Saul and the people give unto the Lord the glory due to His name. And engaging in the ceremonial as they all did in this spirit, "both Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly." It was, perhaps, the happiest occasion in all the reign of Saul. What contributed the chief element of brightness to the occasion was - the sunshine of Heaven. God was there, smiling on His children. There were other elements too. Samuel was there, happy that Saul had conquered, that he had established himself upon the throne, and, above all, that he had, in a right noble way, acknowledged God as the Author of the victory at Jabesh-Gilead. Saul was there, reaping the reward of his humility, his forbearance, his courage, and his activity. The people were there, proud of their king, proud of his magnificent appearance, but prouder of the super-eminent qualities that had marked the commencement of his reign. Nor was the pleasure of any one marred by any ugly blot or unworthy deed throwing a gloom over the transaction.
For one moment, let us compare the joy of this company with the feelings of men reveling in the pleasures of sin and sensuality, or even of men storing a pile of gold, the result of some successful venture or the legacy of some deceased relative. How poor the quality of the one joy compared to that of the other! For what is there outside themselves that can make men so happy as the smile of God? Or what condition of the soul can be so full, so overflowing with healthy gladness, as when the heart is ordered in accordance with God's law, and men are really disposed and enabled to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and to love their neighbours as themselves?
Is there not something of heaven in this joy? Is it not joy unspeakable and full of glory?
One other question: Is it yours?