Here is, I. Saul’s boasting against the Philistines. He proposed, as soon as his soldiers had got their suppers, to pursue them all night, and not leave a man of them, 1 Sam. 14:36. Here he showed much zeal, but little discretion; for his army, thus fatigued, could as ill spare a night’s sleep as a meal’s meat. But it is common for rash and foolish men to consider nobody but themselves, and, so that they might but have their humour, not to care what hardships they put upon those that are under them. However, the people were so obsequious to their king that they would by no means oppose the motion, but resolved to make the best of it, and, if he will go on, they will follow him: Do whatsoever seemeth good to thee. Only the priest thought it convenient to go on with the devotions that were broken off abruptly (1 Sam. 14:19), and to consult the oracle: Let us draw near hither unto God. Princes and great men have need of such about them as will thus be their remembrancers, wherever they go, to take God along with them. And, when the priest proposed it, Saul could not for shame reject the proposal, but asked counsel of God (1 Sam. 14:37): “Shall I go down after the Philistines? And shall I speed?”
II. His falling foul on his son Jonathan: and the rest of this paragraph is wholly concerning him: for, while he is prosecuted, the Philistines make their escape. We know not what mischief may ensue upon on rash resolve.
1. God, by giving an intimation of his displeasure, put Saul upon searching for an accursed thing. When, by the priest, he consulted the oracle, God answered him not, 1 Sam. 14:37. Note, When God denies our prayers it concerns us to enquire what the sin is that has provoked him to do so. Let us see where the sin is, 1 Sam. 14:38. For God’s ear is not heavy that it cannot hear, but it is sin that separates between us and him. If God turns away our prayer, we have reason to suspect it is for some iniquity regarding our hearts, which we are concerned to find out, that we may put it away, may mortify it, and put it to death. Saul swears by his Maker that whoever was the Achan that troubled the camp, by eating the forbidden fruit, should certainly die, though it were Jonathan himself, that is, though ever so dear to himself and the people, little thinking that Jonathan was the man (1 Sam. 14:39): He shall surely die, the curse shall be executed upon him. But none of the people answered him, that is, none of those who knew Jonathan had broken the order would inform against him.
2. Jonathan was discovered by lot to be the offender. Saul would have lots cast between himself and Jonathan on the one side, and the people on the other, perhaps because he was as confident of Jonathan’s innocency in this matter as of his own, 1 Sam. 14:40. The people, seeing him in a heat, durst not gainsay any thing he proposed, but acquiesced: Do as seemeth good unto thee. Before he cast lots, he prayed that God would give a perfect lot (1 Sam. 14:41), that is, make a full discovery of this matter, or, as it is in the margin, that he would show the innocent. This was with an air of impartial justice. Judges should desire that truth may come out, whoever may suffer by it. Lots should be cast with prayer, because they are a solemn appeal to Providence, and by them we beg of God to direct and determine us (Acts 1:24), for which reason some have condemned games that depend purely upon lot or chance as making too bold with a sacred thing. Jonathan at length was taken (1 Sam. 14:42), Providence designing hereby to countenance and support a lawful authority, and to put an honour upon the administration of public justice in general, reserving another way to bring off one that had done nothing worthy of death.
3. Jonathan ingenuously confesses the fact, and Saul, with an angry curse, passes sentence upon him. Jonathan denies not the truth, nor goes about to conceal it, only he thinks it hard that he must die for it, 1 Sam. 14:43. He might very fairly have pleaded his invincible ignorance of the law, or have insisted upon his merit, but he submitted to the necessity with a great and generous mind: “God’s and my father’s will be done:” thus he showed as much valour in receiving the messengers of death himself as in sending them among the Philistines. It is as brave to yield in some cases as it is in other cases to fight. Saul is not mollified by his filial submission nor the hardness of his case; but as one that affected to be thought firm to his word, and much more to his oath; even when it bound him hardest, with another imprecation he gives judgment upon Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:44): “God do so and more also to me if I do not execute the law upon thee, for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan.” (1.) He passed this sentence too hastily, without consulting the oracle. Jonathan had a very good plea in arrest of the judgment. What he had done was not malum in se—bad in itself; and, as for the prohibition of it, he was ignorant of that, so that he could not be charged with rebellion or disobedience. (2.) He did it in fury. Had Jonathan been worthy to die, yet it would have become a judge, much more a father, to pass sentence with tenderness and compassion, and not with such an air of triumph, like a man perfectly divested of all humanity and natural affection. Justice is debased when it is administered with wrath and bitterness. (3.) He backed it with a curse upon himself if he did not see the sentence executed; and this curse did return upon his own head. Jonathan escaped, but God did so to Saul, and more also; for he was rejected of God and made anathema. Let none upon any occasion dare to use such imprecations as these, lest God say Amen to them, and make their own tongues to fall upon them, Ps. 64:8. This stone will return upon him that rolleth it. Yet we have reason to think that Saul’s bowels yearned toward Jonathan, so that he really punished himself, and very justly, when he seemed so severe upon Jonathan. God made him feel the smart of his own rash edict, which might make him fear being again guilty of the like. By all these vexatious accidents God did likewise correct him for his presumption in offering sacrifice without Samuel. An expedition so ill begun could not end without some rebukes.
4. The people rescued Jonathan out of his father’s hands, 1 Sam. 14:45. Hitherto they had expressed themselves very observant of Saul. What seemed good to him they acquiesced in, 1 Sam. 14:36, 40. But, when Jonathan is in danger, Saul’s word is no longer a law to them, but with the utmost zeal they oppose the execution of his sentence: “Shall Jonathan die—that blessing, that darling, of his country? Shall that life be sacrificed to a punctilio of law and honour which was so bravely exposed for the public service, and to which we owe our lives and triumphs? No, we will never stand by and see him thus treated whom God delights to honour.” It is good to see Israelites zealous for the protection of those whom God has made instruments of public good. Saul had sworn that Jonathan should die, but they oppose their oath to his, and swear he shall not die: “As the Lord liveth there shall not only not his head, but not a hair of his head fall to the ground;” they did not rescue him by violence, but by reason and resolution; and Josephus says they made their prayer to God that he might be loosed from the curse. They pleaded for him that he has wrought with God this day; that is, “he has owned God’s cause, and God has owned his endeavours, and therefore his life is too precious to be thrown away upon a nicety.” We may suppose Saul had not so perfectly forgotten the relation of a father but that he was willing enough to have Jonathan rescued, and well pleased to have that done which yet he would not do himself: and he that knows the heart of a father knows not how to blame him.
5. The design against the Philistines is quashed by this incident (1 Sam. 14:46): Saul went up from following them, and so an opportunity was lost of completing the victory. When Israel’s shields are clashing with one another the public safety and service suffer by it.