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1 Samuel xiv. 1–23.

It has sometimes been objected to the representation occurring at the end of the thirteenth chapter of the utter want of arms among the Hebrews at this time that it is inconsistent with the narrative of the eleventh. If it be true, as stated there, that the Israelites gained a great victory over the Ammonites, they must have had arms to accomplish that; and, moreover, the victory itself must have put them in possession of the arms of the Ammonites. The answer to this is, that the invasion of the Philistines subsequent to this in such overwhelming numbers seems to have been the cause of the miserable plight to which the Hebrews were reduced, and of the loss of their arms.

Whether we are to take the statement as quite literal that in the day of battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people save Saul or Jonathan, or whether we are to regard this as just an Oriental way of saying that these were the only two who had a thorough equipment of arms, it is plain enough that the condition of the Hebrew troops was very wretched. That in their circumstances a feeling of despondency should have fallen on all save the few who walked by faith, need not excite any surprise.

218 The position of the two armies is not difficult to understand. Several miles to the north of Jerusalem, a valley, now named Wady Suweinet, runs from west to east, from the central plateau of Palestine down towards the valley of the Jordan. The name Mûkmas, still preserved, shows the situation of the place which was then occupied by the garrison of the Philistines. Near to that place, Captain Conder11“Tent Work in Palestine.” believes that he has found the very rocks where the exploit of Jonathan occurred. On either side of the valley there rises a perpendicular crag, the northern one, called in Scripture Bozez, being extremely steep and difficult of ascent. “It seems just possible that Jonathan, with immense labour, might have climbed up on his hands and his feet, and his armour-bearer after him.”

It is evident that Saul had no thought at this time of making any attack on the Philistines. How could he, with soldiers so poorly armed and so little to encourage them? Samuel does not appear to have been with him. But in his company was a priest, Ahiah, the son of Ahitub, grandson of Eli, perhaps the same as Ahimelech, afterwards introduced. Saul still adhered to the forms of religion; but he had too much resemblance to the Church of Sardis—“Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”

The position of the army of Israel with reference to the Philistines seems to have been very similar to what it was afterwards when Goliath defied the army of the living God. The Israelites could only look on, in helpless inactivity. But just as the youthful spirit of David was afterwards roused in these circumstances to exertion, so on the present occasion was the youthful 219 spirit of Jonathan. It was not the first time that he had attacked the garrison of the Philistines. (See xiii. 3.) But what he did on the former occasion seems to have been under more equal conditions than the seemingly desperate enterprise to which he betook himself now. A project of unprecedented daring came into his mind. He took counsel with no one about it. He breathed nothing of it to his father. A single confidant and companion was all that he thought of—his armour-bearer, or aide-de-camp. And even him he did not so much consult as attach. “Come,” said he, “and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will work for us; for there is no restraint by the Lord to save by many or by few.” No words are needed to show the daring character of this project. The physical effort to climb on hands and feet up a precipitous rock was itself most difficult and perilous, possible only to boys, light and lithe of form, and well accustomed to it; and if the garrison observed them and chose to oppose them, a single stone hurled from above would stretch them, crushed and helpless, on the valley below. But suppose they succeeded, what were a couple of young men to do when confronted with a whole garrison? Or even if the garrison should be overpowered, how were they to deal with the Philistine host, that lay encamped at no great distance, or at most were scattered here and there over the country, and would soon assemble? In every point of view save one, the enterprise seemed utterly desperate. But that exception was a very important one. The one point of view in which there was the faintest possibility of success was, that the Lord God might favour the enterprise. The God of their fathers might work for them, and if He did so, there was no restraint with Him 220 to work by many or by few. Had He not worked by Ehud alone to deliver their fathers from the Moabites? Had he not worked by Shamgar alone, when with his ox goad he slew six hundred Philistines? Had he not worked by Samson alone in all his wonderful exploits? Might he not work that day by Jonathan and his armour-bearer, and, after all, only produce a new chapter in that history which had already shown so many wonderful interpositions? Jonathan’s mind was possessed by the idea. After all, if he failed, he could but lose his life. And was not that worth risking when success, if it were vouchsafed, might rescue his country from degradation and destruction, and fill the despairing hearts of his countrymen with emotions of joy and triumph like those which animated their fathers when on the shores of Sinai they beheld the horse and his rider cast into the sea?

It is this working of faith that must be regarded as the most characteristic feature of the attempt of Jonathan. He showed himself one of the noble heroes of faith, not unworthy to be enrolled in the glorious record of the eleventh chapter of the Hebrews. He showed himself pre-eminent for the very quality in which his father had proved deficient. Though the earnest lessons of Samuel had been lost on the father, they had been blessed to the son. The seed that in the one case fell on stony places fell in the other on good ground. While Samuel was doubtless disconsolate at the failure of his work with Saul, he was succeeding right well, unknown perhaps to himself, with the youth that said little but thought much. While in spirit perhaps he was uttering words like Isaiah’s, “Then said I, I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nought and in vain,” God was using him in a way that might 221 well have led him to add, “Yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.” And what encouragement is here for every Christian worker! Don’t despond when you seem to fail in your first and most direct endeavour. In some quiet but thinking little boy or girl in that family circle, your words are greatly regarded. And just because that young mind sees, and seeing wonders, that father or mother is so little moved by what you say, it is the more impressed. If the father or the mother were manifestly to take the matter up, the child might dismiss it, as no concern of his. But just because father or mother is not taking it up, the child cannot get rid of it. “Yes, there is an eternity, and we ought all to be preparing for it. Sin is the soul’s ruin, and unless we get a Saviour, we are lost, Jesus did come into the world to save sinners; must we not go to Him? Yes, we must be born again. Lord Jesus, forgive us, help us, save us!” Thus it is that things hid from the wise and prudent are often revealed to babes; and thus it is that out of the mouth of babes and sucklings God perfects praise.

But Jonathan’s faith in God was called to manifest itself in a way very different from that in which the faith of most young persons has to be exercised now. Faith led Jonathan to seize sword and spear, and hurry out to an enterprise in which he could only succeed by risking his own life and destroying the lives of others. We are thus brought face to face with a strange but fascinating development of the religious spirit—military faith. The subject has received a new and wonderful illustration in our day in the character and career of that great Christian hero General Gordon. In the career of Gordon, we see faith contributing an element of power, an element of daring, and an element of 222 security and success to a soldier, which can come from no other source. No one imagines that without his faith Gordon would have been what he was or could have done what he did. It is little to say that faith raised him high above all ordinary fears, or that it made him ready at any moment to risk, and if need be, to sacrifice his life. It did a great deal more. It gave him a conviction that he was an instrument in God’s hands, and that when he was moved to undertake anything as being God’s will, he would be carried through all difficulties, enabled to surmount all opposition, and to carry the point in face of the most tremendous odds. And to a great extent the result verified the belief. If Gordon could not be said to work miracles, he achieved results that even miracles could hardly have surpassed. If he failed in the last and greatest hazard of his life, he only showed that after much success one may come to believe too readily in one’s inspiration; one may mistake the voice of one’s own feeling for the unfailing assurance of God. But that there is a great amount of reality in that faith which hears God calling one as if with audible voice, and goes forth to the most difficult enterprises in the full trust of Divine protection and aid, is surely a lesson which lies on the very surface of the life of Gordon, and such other lives of the same kind as Scripture shows us, as well as the lives of those military heroes of whom we will speak afterwards, whose battle has been not with flesh and blood, but with the ignorance and the vice and the disorder of the world.

One is almost disposed to envy Jonathan, with his whole powers of mind and body knit up to the pitch of firmest and most dauntless resolution, under the inspiration that moved him to this apparently desperate 223 enterprise. All the world would have rushed to stop him, insanely throwing away his life, without the faintest chance of escape. But a voice spoke firmly in his bosom,—I am not throwing away my life. And Jonathan did not want certain tokens of encouragement. It was something that his armour-bearer neither flinched nor remonstrated. But that was not all. To encourage himself and to encourage his companion, he fixed on what might be considered a token for them to persevere in one alternative, and desist in another. The token was, that if, on observing their attempt, the Philistines in the garrison should defy them, should bid them tarry till they came to them, that would be a sign that they ought to return. But if they should say, “Come up to us,” that would be a proof that they ought to persevere. Was this a mere arbitrary token, without anything reasonable underlying it? It does not seem to have been so. In the one case, the words of the Philistines would bear a hostile meaning, denoting that violence would be used against them; in the other case they would denote that the Philistines were prepared to treat them peaceably, under the idea perhaps that they were tired of skulking and, like other Hebrews (ver. 21), wishing to surrender to the enemy. In this latter case, they would be able to make good their position on the rock, and the enemy would not suspect their real errand till they were ready to begin their work. It turned out that their reception was in the latter fashion. Whether in the way of friendly banter or otherwise, the garrison, on perceiving them, invited them to come up, and they would “show them a thing.” Greatly encouraged by the sign, they clambered up on hands and feet till they gained the top of the rock. Then, when nothing of the kind was expected, they fell on 224 the garrison and began to kill. So sudden and unexpected an onslaught threw the garrison into a panic. Their arms perhaps were not at hand, and for anything they knew, a whole host of Hebrews might be hastening after their leaders to complete the work of slaughter. In this way, nearly twenty Philistines fell in half an acre of ground. The rest of the garrison taking to flight seems to have spread a panic among the host. Confusion and terror prevailed on every side. Every man’s sword was against his fellow. “There was trembling in the host, in the field, and among the people; the spoilers and the garrison, they also trembled, and the earth quaked; so it was a very great trembling.” Whether this implies that the terror and discomfiture of the Philistines was increased by an earthquake, or whether it means that there was so much motion and commotion that the very earth seemed to quake, it is not very easy to decide; but it shows how complete was the discomfiture of the Philistines. Thus wonderfully was Jonathan’s faith rewarded, and thus wonderfully, too, was the unbelief of Saul rebuked.

Seen from the watch-tower at Gibeah, the affair was shrouded in mystery. It seemed as if the Philistine troops were retreating, while no force was there to make them retreat. When inquiry was made as to who were absent, Jonathan and his armour-bearer alone were missed. So perplexed was Saul, that, to understand the position of affairs, he had called for Ahiah, who had charge of the ark (the Septuagint reads, “the ephod”), to consult the oracle. But before this could be done, the condition of things became more plain. The noise in the host of the Philistines went on increasing, and when Saul and his soldiers came on the spot, they found the Philistines, in their confusion, 225 slaughtering one another, amid all the signs of wild discomfiture. Nothing loath, they joined in harassing the retreating foe. And as the situation revealed itself others hastened to take part in the fray. Those Hebrews that had come for protection within the Philistine lines now turned against them, all the more heartily perhaps because, before that, they had had to place their feelings so much under restraint. And the Hebrews that lay hid in caves and thickets and pits, when they saw what was going on, rushed forth to join in the discomfiture of the Philistines. What a contrast to the state of things that very morning—the Israelites in helpless feebleness, looking with despair on the Philistines as they lay in their stronghold in all the pride of security, and scattered defiant looks and scornful words among their foes; now the Philistine garrison surprised, their camp forsaken, their army scattered, and the only desire or purpose animating the remnant being to escape at the top of their speed from the land of Israel, and find shelter and security in their native country. “So the Lord saved Israel that day; and the battle passed over unto Beth-aven.”

And thus the faith of Jonathan had a glorious reward. The inspiration of faith vindicated itself, and the noble self-devotion that had plunged into this otherwise desperate enterprise, because there was no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few, led thus to a triumph more speedy and more complete than even Jonathan could have ventured to dream of. None of the judges had wrought a more complete or satisfactory deliverance; and even the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses had not afforded a more glorious evidence than this achievement of Jonathan’s of the power of 226 faith, or given more ample testimony to that principle of the kingdom of God, which our Lord afterwards enunciated, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence unto yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”

This incident is full of lessons for modern times. First, it shows what wide and important results may come from individual conviction. When an individual heart is moved by a strong conviction of duty, it may be that God means through that one man’s conviction to move the world. Modesty might lead a man to say, I am but a unit; I have no influence; it will make very little difference what I do with my conviction, whether I cherish it or stifle it. Yet it may be of just worldwide importance that you be faithful to it, and stand by it steadfastly to the end. Did not the Reformation begin through the steadfastness of Luther, the miner’s son of Eisleben, to the voice that spoke out so loudly to himself? Did not Carey lay the foundation of the modern mission in India, because he could not get rid of that verse of Scripture, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature”? Did not Livingstone persevere in the most dangerous, the most desperate enterprise of our time, because he could not quench the voice that called him to open up Africa or perish? Or to go back to Scripture times. A Jewish maiden at the court of the great king of Persia becomes the saviour of her whole nation, because she feels that, at the risk of her life, she must speak a word for them to the king. Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion, becomes impressed with the conviction that he must preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and through his faithfulness to that conviction, he lays the foundation 227 of the whole European Church. Learn, my friends, every one, from this, never to be faithless to any conviction given to you, though, as far as you know, it is given to you alone. Make very sure that it comes from the God of truth. But don’t stifle it, under the notion that you are too weak to bring anything out of it. Don’t reason that if it were really from God, it would be given to others too. Test it in every way you can, to determine whether it be right. And if it stands these tests, manfully give effect to it, for it may bear seed that will spread over the globe.

Second, this narrative shows what large results may flow from individual effort. The idea may not have occurred for the first time to some one; it may have been derived by him from another; but it has commended itself to him, it has been taken up by him, and worked out by him to results of great magnitude and importance. Pay a visit to the massive buildings and well-ordered institutions of Kaiserswerth, learn its ramifications all over the globe, and see what has come of the individual efforts of Fliedner. Think how many children have been rescued by Dr. Barnardo, how many have been emigrated by Miss Macpherson, how many souls have been impressed by Mr. Moody, how many orphans have been cared for by Mr. Müller, how many stricken ones have been relieved in the institutions of John Bost. It is true, we are not promised that every instance of individual effort will bring any such harvest. It may be that we are to be content with very limited results, and with the encomium bestowed on the woman in the Gospel, “She hath done what she could.” But it is also true that none of us can tell what possibilities there are in individual effort. We cannot tell but in our case the emblem of the 228 seventy-second Psalm may be verified, “There shall be an handful of corn in the earth on the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon, and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.”

Lastly, we may learn from this narrative that the true secret of all spiritual success lies in our seeking to be instruments in God’s hands, and in our lending ourselves to Him, to do in us and by us whatever is good in His sight. Thus it was eminently with Jonathan. “It may be that the Lord will work for us; for there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few.” It was not Jonathan that was to work with some help from God; it was the Lord that was to work by Jonathan. It was not Jonathan’s project that was to be carried out; it was the Lord’s cause that was to be advanced. Jonathan had no personal ends in this matter. He was willing to give up his life, if the Lord should require it. It is a like consecration in all spiritual service that brings most blessing and success. Men that have nothing of their own to gain are the men who gain most. Men who sacrifice all desire for personal honour are the men who are most highly honoured. Men who make themselves of no reputation are the men who gain the highest reputation. Because Christ emptied Himself, and took on Him the form of a servant, God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name above every name. And those who are like Christ in the mortifying of self become like Christ also in the enjoyment of the reward. Such are the rules of the kingdom of heaven. “He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”

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