We are not told wherein it was that the people of Israel offended God, so as to forfeit his presence and turn his hand against them, as Samuel had threatened (1 Sam. 12:15); but doubtless they left God, else he would not have left them, as here it appears he did; for,
I. Saul was very weak and impolitic, and did not order his affairs with discretion. Saul was the son of one year (so the first words are in the original), a phrase which we make to signify the date of his reign, but ordinarily it signifies the date of one’s birth, and therefore some understand it figuratively—he was as innocent and good as a child of a year old; so the Chaldee paraphrase: he was without fault, like the son of a year. But, if we admit a figurative sense, it may as well intimate that he was ignorant and imprudent, and as unfit for business as a child of a year old: and the subsequent particulars make this more accordant with his character than the former. But we take it rather, as our own translation has it, Saul reigned one year, and nothing happened that was considerable, it was a year of no action; but in his second year he did as follows:—1. he chose a band of 3000 men, of whom he himself commanded 2000, and his son Jonathan 1000, 1 Sam. 13:2. The rest of the people he dismissed to their tents. If he intended these only for the guard of his person and his honorary attendants, it was impolitic to have so many, if for a standing army, in apprehension of danger from the Philistines, it was no less impolitic to have so few; and perhaps the confidence he put in this select number, and his disbanding the rest of that brave army with which he had lately beaten the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11:8-11), was looked upon as an affront to the kingdom, excited general disgust, and was the reason he had so few at his call when he had occasion for them. The prince that relies on a particular party weakens his own interest in the whole community. 2. He ordered his son Jonathan to surprise and destroy the garrison of the Philistines that lay near him in Geba, 1 Sam. 13:3. I wish there were no ground for supposing that this was a violation or infraction of some articles with the Philistines, and that it was done treacherously and perfidiously. The reason why I suspect it is because it is said that, for doing it, Israel was had in abomination, or, as the word is, did stink with the Philistines (1 Sam. 13:4), as men void of common honesty and whose word could not be relied on. If it was so, we will lay the blame, not on Jonathan who did it, but on Saul, his prince and father, who ordered him to do it, and perhaps kept him in ignorance of the truth of the matter. Nothing makes the name of Israel odious to those that are without so much as the fraud and dishonesty of those that are called by that worthy name. If professors of religion cheat and over-reach, break their word and betray their trust, religion suffers by it, and is had in abomination with the Philistines. Whom may one trust if not an Israelite, one that, it is expected, should be without guile? 3. When he had thus exasperated the Philistines, then he began to raise forces, which, if he had acted wisely, he would have done before. When the Philistines had a vast army ready to pour in upon him, to avenge the wrong he had done them, then was he blowing the trumpet through the land, among a careless, if not a disaffected people, saying, Let the Hebrews hear (1 Sam. 13:3), and so as many as thought fit came to Saul to Gilgal, 1 Sam. 13:4. But now the generality, we may suppose, drew back (either in dislike of Saul’s politics or in dread of the Philistines’ power), who, if he had summoned them sooner, would have been as ready at his beck as they were when he marched against the Ammonites. We often find that after-wit would have done much better before and have prevented much inconvenience.
II. Never did the Philistines appear in such a formidable body as they did now, upon this provocation which Saul gave them. We may suppose they had great assistance from their allies, for (1 Sam. 13:5), besides 6000 horse, which in those times, when horses were not so much used in war as they are now, was a great body, they had an incredible number of chariots, 30,000 in all: most of them, we may suppose, were carriages for the bag and baggage of so vast an army, not chariots of war. But their foot was innumerable as the sand of the sea-shore, so jealous were they for the honour of their nation and so much enraged at the baseness of the Israelites in destroying their garrison. If Saul had asked counsel of God before he had given the Philistines this provocation, he and his people might the better have borne this threatening trouble which they had now brought on themselves by their own folly.
III. Never were the people of Israel so faint-hearted, so sneaking, so very cowardly, as they were now. Some considerable numbers, it may be, came to Saul to Gilgal; but, hearing of the Philistines’ numbers and preparations, their spirits sunk within them, some think because they did not find Samuel there with Saul. Those that, awhile ago, were weary of him, and wished for a king, now had small joy of their king unless they could see him under Samuel’s direction. Sooner or later, men will be made to see that God and his prophets are their best friends. Now that they saw the Philistines making war upon them, and Samuel not coming in to help them, they knew not what to do; men’s hearts failed them for fear. And. 1. Some absconded. Rather than run upon death among the Philistines, they buried themselves alive in caves and thickets, 1 Sam. 13:6. See what work sin makes; it exposes men to perils, and then robs them of their courage and dispirits them. A single person, by faith, can say, I will not be afraid of 10,000 (Ps. 3:6); but here thousands of degenerate Israelites tremble at the approach of a great crowd of Philistines. Guilt makes men cowards. 2. Others fled (1 Sam. 13:7): They went over Jordan to the land of Gilead, as far as they could from the danger, and to a place where they had lately been victorious over the Ammonites. Where they had triumphed they hoped to be sheltered. 3. Those that staid with Saul followed him trembling, expecting no other than to be cut off, and having their hands and hearts very much weakened by the desertion of so many of their troops. And perhaps Saul himself, though he had so much honour as to stand his ground, yet had no courage to spare wherewith to inspire his trembling soldiers.