1 Samuel 13
Pulpit Commentary
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,
Verse 1. - Saul's age and length of reign. Saul reigned one year. This verse literally translated is, "Saul was one year old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel." In its form it exactly follows the usual statement prefixed to each king's reign, of his age at his accession, and the years of his kingdom (2 Samuel 2:10; 2 Samuel 5:4; 1 Kings 14:21; 1 Kings 22:42, etc.). The rendering of the A.V. is too forced and untenable to be worth discussing. As we have seen before, the numerals in the Books of Samuel are not trustworthy; but the difficulty here is an old one. The Vulgate translates the Hebrew literally, as we have given it; the Septuagint omits the verse, and the Syriac paraphrases as boldly as the A.V.: "When Saul had reigned one or two years." The Chaldee renders, "Saul was as innocent as a one-year-old child when he began to reign." In the Hexaplar version some anonymous writer has inserted the word thirty, rashly enough; for as Jonathan was old enough to have an important command (ver. 2), and was capable of the acts of a strong man (1 Samuel 14:14), his father's age must have been at least thirty-five, and perhaps was even more. As regards the length of Saul's reign, St. Paul makes it forty years (Acts 13:21), exactly the same as that of David (1 Kings 2:11) and of Solomon (1 Kings 11:42); and Josephus testifies that such was the traditional belief of the Jews ('Antiq.,' 6:14, 9). On the other hand, it is remarkable that the word here for years is that used where the whole number is less than ten. The events, however, recorded in the rest of the book seem to require a longer period than ten years for the duration of Saul's reign; thirty-two would be a more probable number, and, added to the seven and a half years' reign of Ishbosheth (see 2 Samuel 5:5), they would make up the whole sum of forty years ascribed by St. Paul to Saul's dynasty. It is quite possible, however, that these forty years may even include the fifteen or sixteen years of Samuel's judgeship. But the two facts, that all the three sons of Saul mentioned in 1 Samuel 14:49 were old enough to go with him to the battle of Mount Gilboa, where they were slain; and that Ishbosheth, his successor, was forty years of age when his father died, effectually dispose of the idea that Saul's was a very short reign. OCCASION OF THE FIRST WAR AGAINST THE PHILISTINES (vers. 2-7).
Saul chose him three thousand men of Israel; whereof two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and in mount Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin: and the rest of the people he sent every man to his tent.
Verse 2. - Saul chose him. Literally, "And Saul chose him," the usual way of commencing the narrative of a king's reign. He probably selected these 3000 men at the end of the war with the Ammonites, to strengthen the small bodyguard which he had gathered round him at Gibeah (1 Samuel 10:26). As being always in arms, they would become highly disciplined, and form the nucleus and centre of all future military operations (see on 1 Samuel 14:52). He stationed these on either side of the defile in the mountain range of Bethel, so exactly described in Isaiah 10:28, 29, where Sennacherib, as we read, leaves his carriage, i.e. his baggage, at Michmash, and after defiling through the pass, arrives at Geba. Gibeah, where Jonathan was posted with 1000 of these picked warriors, was Saul's home, and his son would have the benefit there of the aid of Kish and Abner, while Michmash was the more exposed place, situate about seven miles northeast of Jerusalem. Conder ('Tent Work,' 2:110) describes this defile as "a narrow gorge with vertical precipices some 800 feet high - a great crack or fissure in the country, which is peculiar in this respect, that you only become aware of its existence when close to the brink; for on the north the narrow spur of hills hides it, and on the south a flat plateau extends to the top of the crags. On the south side of this great chasm stands Geba of Benjamin, on a rocky knoll, with caverns beneath the houses, and arable land to the east; and on the opposite side, considerably lower than Geba, is the little village of Michmash, on a sort of saddle, backed by an open and fertile corn valley. This valley was famous for producing excellent barley. Every man to his tent. This with us would be a warlike phrase; but as the mass of the Israelites then dwelt in tents, it means simply their dispersion homewards; and so the Syriac translates, "He dismissed them each to his house" (see Psalm 69:25).
And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, Let the Hebrews hear.
Verse 3. - In Geba. By this garrison the Philistines commanded the further end of the defile, and they had also another outpost beyond it near Gibeah itself (1 Samuel 10:5). Probably neither of these garrisons was very strong, and Saul may have intended that Jonathan should attack them while he held the northern end of the pass, which would be the first place assailed by the Philistines in force. As regards the word translated garrison, attempts have been made to render it pillar, and to represent it as a token of Philistine supremacy which Jonathan threw down, while others, with the Septuagint, take it as a proper name; but the word smote is strongly in favour of the rendering of the A.V. Let the Hebrews hear. Saul must have intended war when he thus posted himself and Jonathan in such commanding spots, and probably all this had been sketched out by Samuel (see on 1 Samuel 10:8). He now summons all Israel to the war. It is strange that he should call the people "Hebrews," the Philistine title of contempt; but it is used again in ver. 7, and of course in ver. 19. The Septuagint reads, "Let the slaves revolt," but though followed by Josephus, the change of text is not probable.
And all Israel heard say that Saul had smitten a garrison of the Philistines, and that Israel also was had in abomination with the Philistines. And the people were called together after Saul to Gilgal.
Verse 4. - That Saul had smitten. Though the achievement was actually Jonathan's, yet it belonged to Saul as the commander-in-chief, and probably had been done under his instructions. Israel was had in abomination with the Philistines. They must have viewed with grave displeasure Israel's gathering together to choose a king, and Saul's subsequent defeat of the Ammonites, and retention with him of a large body of men, and so probably they had been for some time making preparations for war. Saul, therefore, knowing that they were collecting their forces, does the same, and the people were called together after Saul. Literally, "were cried after him," i.e. were summoned by proclamation (comp. Judges 7:23, 24; Judges 10:17, where see margin). For Gilgal see 1 Samuel 7:16; 1 Samuel 11:14. This place had been selected because, as the valley opens there into the plain of Jordan it was a fit spot for the assembling of a large host. For its identification see Conder, 'Tent Work,' 2:7-12.
And the Philistines gathered themselves together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the sea shore in multitude: and they came up, and pitched in Michmash, eastward from Bethaven.
Verse 5. - Long before Saul could gather Israel the Philistines had completed their preparations, and invaded the country in overwhelming numbers; but thirty thousand chariots compared with six thousand horsemen is out of all proportion. Possibly the final l in Israel has been taken by some copyists for a numeral, and as it signifies thirty, it his changed 1000 into 30,000. Or, simpler still, shin, the numeral for 300, has been read with two dots, and so changed into 30,000. They came up, and pitched in Michmash. Saul had withdrawn eastward to Gilgal, and the Philistines had thus placed themselves between him and Jonathan. There is a difficulty, however, in the words eastward from Beth-aven; for as this, again, was east of Bethel, it puts the Philistines' camp too much to the east. As it is not, however, the regular phrase for eastward, some commentators render, "in front of Beth-avon." "It means 'the house of naught,' and was the name originally given to the desert east of Bethel, because of its barren character" (Conder, 'Tent Work,' 2:108). The Philistines, however, had come in such numbers that their camp must have occupied a large extent of ground.
When the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait, (for the people were distressed,) then the people did hide themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in high places, and in pits.
Verse 6. - The people were distressed. Literally, were squeezed, pressed together, were in difficulties. The Philistines had so promptly answered Saul's challenge, that the Israelites, forgetting their victory over Nahash, whose men, however, had probably very inferior arms to those worn by the Philistines, lost courage; and even the picked band of 2000 men dwindled to 600. As for the mass of the people, they acted with the most abject cowardice, hiding themselves in caves, of which there are very many in the limestone ranges of Palestine. David subsequently found safety in them when hunted by Saul. Also in thickets. The word as spelt here occurs nowhere else, nor do the versions agree as to its meaning. Most probably it signifies clefts, rifts or fissures in the rocks. The next word, rocks, certainly means precipitous cliffs; and thickets or thorn bushes would scarcely be placed between caverns and cliffs, both of which belong to mountains. In high places. This word occurs elsewhere only in Judges 9:46, 49, where it is rendered hold. But this meaning is not supported by the ancient versions, and it more probably signifies a vault or crypt, which better suits the hiding place next mentioned, pits, i.e. tanks, artificial reservoirs for water, with which most districts were well supplied in Palestine, even before its conquest by Israel. They were absolutely necessary, as the rains fall only at stated periods, and the chalky soil will not hold water; when dry they would form fit places for concealment.
And some of the Hebrews went over Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. As for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
Verse 7. - Some of the Hebrews. A contemptuous name for Israel (see ver. 3). If the reading is correct, it must be used here of a cowardly portion of the people (as in 1 Samuel 14:21), for the insertion of some of in the A.V. is unjustifiable. But by a very slight change, simply lengthening the stalk of one letter, we get a very good sense: "And they went over the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead," i.e. to the mountainous district in which the Jordan rises. SAUL'S RASH SACRIFICE (Vers. 8-14).
And he tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him.
Verse 8. - Seven days, according, to the set time. See on 1 Samuel 10:8. The lapse of time between Samuel's appointment of the seven days during which Saul was to wait for him to inaugurate the war of independence, and the present occasion, was probably not so great as many commentators suppose; for 1 Samuel 13:1 is, as we have seen, wrongly translated, and everything else leads to the conclusion that the defeat of the Ammonites, the choice of the 3000, and Jonathan's attack on the garrison at Geba followed rapidly upon one another. As the Philistines would rightly regard Israel's choice of a king as an act of rebellion, we cannot suppose them to have been so supine and negligent as not at once to have prepared for war. Had appointed. The Hebrew word for this has been omitted by some accident. It is given in the Septuagint and Chaldee and some MSS. The whole importance of the occurence arose out of its having been appointed by Samuel on his selection of Saul as king.
And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings. And he offered the burnt offering.
Verse 9. - A burnt offering, etc. The Hebrew has the definite article, the burnt offering and the peace offerings, which were there ready for Samuel to offer. He offered. Not with his own hand, but by the hand of the attendant priest, Ahiah, who was, we know, with him. Possibly, nevertheless, the Levitical law was not at this period strictly observed.
And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might salute him.
Verse 10. - That he might salute him. Literally, "bless him," but the word is often used of a solemn salutation (2 Kings 4:29). It is evident that Samuel came on the seventh day, and that Saul in his impetuosity could not stay the whole day out.
And Samuel said, What hast thou done? And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash;
Verse 11. - What hast thou done? The question implies rebuke, which Saul answers by pleading his danger. Each day's delay made his small force dwindle rapidly away, and the Philistines might at any hour move down from Michmash upon him at Gilgal and destroy him. But it was the reality of the danger which put his faith and obedience to the trial.
Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering.
Verse 12. - I have not made supplication unto Jehovah. Literally, "I have not stroked the face of Jehovah," but used of making him propitious by prayer (Exodus 32:11; Jeremiah 26:19). I forced myself. Saul pleads in his justification the imminence of the danger, and perhaps there are few who have faith enough to "stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah" (Exodus 14:13).
And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.
Verse 13. - Thou hast done foolishly. Saul had not only received an express command to wait seven days, but it had been given him under special circumstances, and confirmed by the fulfilment of the appointed signs. He knew, moreover, how much depended upon his waiting, and that obedience to the prophet's command was an essential condition of his appointment. Nevertheless, in his impatience and distrust of Jehovah, he cannot bide the set time; not really because of any wish to propitiate God, but because of the effect to be produced upon the mind of the people. It was tedious to remain inactive; his position in the plains was. untenable; at any moment his retreat to the mountains might be cut off; and so he prefers the part of a prudent general to that of an obedient and trustful servant of God. And we may notice that there is no confession of wrong on his part. His mind rather seems entirely occupied with his duty as a king, without having regard to the higher King, whom it ought to have been his first duty to obey.
But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.
Verse 14. - Jehovah hath sought him a man after his own heart. The language of prophecy constantly describes that as already done which is but just determined upon. As David was but twenty-three years of age at Saul's death, he must now have been a mere child, even if he was born, (see ver. 1). But the Divine choice of Saul, which upon his obedience would that day have been confirmed, was now annulled, and the succession transferred elsewhere. Years might elapse before the first earthly step was taken to appoint his successor (1 Samuel 16:13); nay, had Saul repented, we gather from 1 Samuel 15:26 that he might have been forgiven: for God's threatenings, like his promises, are conditional. There is no fatalism in the Bible, but a loving discipline for man's recovery. But behind it stands the Divine foreknowledge and omnipotence; and so to the prophetic view Saul's refusal to repent, his repeated disobedience, and the succession of David were all revealed as accomplished facts. CONTINUANCE OF THE WAR (vers. 15-18).
And Samuel arose, and gat him up from Gilgal unto Gibeah of Benjamin. And Saul numbered the people that were present with him, about six hundred men.
Verse 15. - Samuel... gat him up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin. Samuel would pass by Gibeah on his way to his own home at Ramah; but he seems to have tarried there to encourage the people; and probably he carried instructions from Saul to Jonathan to unite his forces with him, as we next find the father and son there in company. Even if this be not so, yet friendly relations must have continued between Saul and Samuel, as the latter would otherwise certainly not have chosen Saul's home for his halting place; nor would he go thither without seeing Jonathan, and giving him aid and counsel. Saul numbered. See on 1 Samuel 11:8. After summoning the whole nation there did not remain with him even as many as a third of his selected band.
And Saul, and Jonathan his son, and the people that were present with them, abode in Gibeah of Benjamin: but the Philistines encamped in Michmash.
Verse 16. - In Gibeah of Benjamin. This is an arbitrary change of the A.V. (in company with the Septuagint and Vulgate) for Geba, which is the word in the Hebrew text. Our translators no doubt considered that as Gibeah of Benjamin occurs in the previous verse, this must be the same place. But our greater knowledge of the geography of the Holy Land enables us to say that Geba is right; for, as we have seen, it was at one end of the defile, at the other end of which was Michmash; and here alone could the small army of Saul have any chance of defending itself against the vast host of the Philistines. However much we may blame Saul's disobedience, he was a skilful soldier and a brave man, and his going with his little band to the end of the pass to make a last desperate stand was an act worthy of a king.
And the spoilers came out of the camp of the Philistines in three companies: one company turned unto the way that leadeth to Ophrah, unto the land of Shual:
Verses 17, 18 - The spoilers. The conduct of the Philistines is that of men over confident in their strength. They ought to have pounced at once upon Saul in the plain of Jordan, where their cavalry would have secured for them the victory, and then, following Samuel's and Saul's route, have seized the other end of the defile, and overpowered Jonathan. But they despised them both, and regarding the country as conquered, proceed to punish it, as probably they had cone on previous occasions, when no one had dared to make resistance. Leaving then the main army to guard the camp at Michmash, they sent out light armed troops to plunder the whole land. One company turned unto the way... to Ophrah, unto the land of Shual. This company went northward, towards Ophrah, a place five miles east of Bethel. The land of Shual, i.e. fox land, was probably the same as the land of Shalim in 1 Samuel 9:4. Another company, etc. This went eastward, towards Beth-heron, for which see Joshua 10:11. The third went to the south east, towards the wilderness of Judaea. Zeboim, and all the places mentioned, are in the tribe of Benjamin, which had committed the offence of making for itself a king. To the south Saul held the mountain fastnesses towards Jerusalem. DESCRIPTION OF ISRAEL'S EXTREME STATE OF OPPRESSION (vers. 19-23).
And another company turned the way to Bethhoron: and another company turned to the way of the border that looketh to the valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness.
Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears:
Verse 19. - There was no smith. This accounts for the contemptuous disregard of Saul by the Philistines. The people were disarmed, and resistance impossible. Apparently this policy had been long followed; but we need fuller information of what had happened between Samuel's victory at Mizpah and Saul's appointment as king, to enable us to understand the evident weakness of Israel at this time. But probably this description applies fully only to the districts of Benjamin, near the Philistines, The people further away had arms with which they defeated the Ammonites, and Saul and his men would have secured all the weapons which the enemy then threw away. But evidently no manufacture of weapons was allowed, and no one as far as possible permitted either to wear or possess arms.
But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock.
Verse 20. - The Israelites went down to the Philistines. I.e. to their land. This could only have applied to the districts near the Philistines, unless we suppose that they set up forges also at their garrisons. To sharpen. The verb chiefly refers to such work as required an anvil and hammer. As regards the implements, not only do the versions disagree in their renderings, but the Septuagint has a very curious different reading, to the effect that at harvest time the Israelites had to pay the Philistines three shekels for repairing and whetting their tools. The share is more probably a sickle. The coulter is certainly a ploughshare, as rendered in Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:10. Of the ax there is no doubt; and the mattock is a heavy hoe for turning up the ground, as spades for that purpose are scarcely anywhere used, except in our own country.
Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads.
Verse 21. - A file. Margin, a file with mouths. The word only occurs here, and is translated a file on the authority of Rashi. Almost all modern commentators agree that it means bluntness, and that this verse should be joined on to the preceding, and the two be translated, "But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his sickle, and his ploughshare, and his axe, and his mattock, whenever the edges of the mattocks, and the ploughshares, and the forks, and the axes were blunt, and also to set (so the margin rightly) the goads." The Israelites were thus in a state of complete dependence upon the Philistines, even for carrying on their agriculture, and probably retained only the hill country, while their enemies were masters of the plains.
So it came to pass in the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people that were with Saul and Jonathan: but with Saul and with Jonathan his son was there found.
Verse 22. - There was neither sword, etc. Armed only with clubs and their farming implements, it is no wonder that the people were afraid of fighting the Philistines, who, as we gather from the description of Goliath's armour, were clad in mail; nor is it surprising that they despised and neglected Saul and his few men, whom probably they regarded as an unarmed mob of rustics. The Ammonites probably were far less efficiently armed than the Philistines, who, as commanding the sea coast, could import weapons from Greece.
And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the passage of Michmash.
Verse 23. - And the garrison, etc. When the Philistines heard that Saul with his six hundred men had joined the small force already at Geba with Jonathan, they sent a body of men to occupy an eminence higher up in the defile which lay between Geba and Michmash (see on 1 Samuel 13:2). The purpose of this was to keep the route open, that so, when they pleased, they might send a larger body of troops up the defile in order to attack Saul. It would also keep a watch upon his movements, though they could have had no expectation that he would venture to attack them. It was this garrison which Jonathan so bravely attacked, and by his success prepared the way for the utter defeat of the enemy.

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