We must here take notice,
I. Of the goodness of God in restraining the Philistines, who had a vast army of valiant men in the field, from falling upon that little handful of timorous trembling people that Saul had with him, whom they would easily have swallowed up at once. It is an invisible power that sets bounds to the malice of the church’s enemies, and suffers them not to do that which we should think there is nothing to hinder them from.
II. Of the weakness of Saul, who seems here to have been quite at a loss, and unable to help himself. 1. He pitched his tent under a tree, and had but 600 men with him, 1 Sam. 14:2. Where were now the 3000 men he had chosen, and put such a confidence in? 1 Sam. 13:2. Those whom he trusted too much to failed him when he most needed them. He durst not stay in Gibeah, but got into some obscure place, in the uttermost part of the city, under a pomegranate-tree, under Rimmon (so the word is), Ha-Rimmon, that Rimmon near Gibeah, in the caves of which those 600 Benjamites that escaped his themselves, Jdg. 20:47. Some think that there Saul took shelter, so mean and abject was his spirit, now that he had fallen under God’s displeasure, every hour expecting the Philistines upon him, and thereby the accomplishment of Samuel’s threatening, 1 Sam. 13:14. Those can never think themselves safe that see themselves cast out of God’s protection. 2. Now he sent for a priest, and the ark, a priest from Shiloh, and the ark from Kirjath-jearim, 1 Sam. 14:3, 18. Saul had once offended by offering sacrifice himself, 1 Sam. 13:9. Now he resolves never to fall into that error again, and therefore sends for a priest, and hopes to compromise the matter with God Almighty by a particular reformation, as many do whose hearts are unhumbled and unchanged. Samuel, the Lord’s prophet, had forsaken him, but he thinks he can make up that loss by commanding Ahiah, the Lord’s priest, to attend him, and he will not make him stay for him nor reprove him, as Samuel had done, but will do just as he bids him, 1 Sam. 14:18, 19. Many love to have such ministers as will be what they would have them to be, and prophesy smooth things to them; and their caressing them because they are priests, they hope, will atone for their enmity to those ministers that deal faithfully and plainly with them. He will also have the ark brought, perhaps to upbraid Samuel, who in the days of his government, for aught that appears, had not made any public use of it; or in hopes that this would make up the deficiency of his forces; one would have supposed that they would never bring the ark into the camp again, since, the last time, it not only did not save them, but did itself fall into the Philistines’ hands. But it is common for those that have lost the substance of religion to be most fond of the shadows of it, as here is a deserted prince courting a deserted priest.
III. Of the bravery and piety of Jonathan, the son of Saul, who was much fitter than the father to wear the crown. “A sweet imp (says bishop Hall) out of a crab-stock.”
1. He resolved to go incognito—unknown to any one, into the camp of the Philistines; he did not acquaint his father with his design, for he knew he would forbid him; nor the people, for he knew they would all discourage him, and, because he resolved not to heed their objections, he resolved not to hear them, nor ask their advice, 1 Sam. 14:1, 3. Nor had he so great an opinion of the priest as to consult him, but, being conscious of a divine impulse putting him upon it, he threw himself into the mouth of danger, in hope of doing service to his country. The way of access to the enemies’ camp is described (1 Sam. 14:4, 5) as being peculiarly difficult, and their natural entrenchments impregnable, yet this does not discourage him; the strength and sharpness of the rocks do but harden and whet his resolutions. Great and generous souls are animated by opposition and take a pleasure in breaking through it.
2. He encouraged his armour-bearer, a young man that attended him, to go along with him in the daring enterprise, (1 Sam. 14:6): “Come, and let us put our lives in our hands, and go over to the enemies’ garrison, and try what we can do to put them into confusion.” See whence he draws his encouragements. (1.) “They are uncircumcised, and have not the seal of the covenant in their flesh, as we have. Fear not, we shall do well enough with them, for they are not under the protection of God’s covenant as we are, cannot call him theirs as we can, by the sign of circumcision.” If such as are enemies to us are also strangers to God, we need not fear them. (2.) “God is able to make us two victorious over their unnumbered regiments. There is no restraint in the Lord, no limitation to the holy One of Israel, but it is all one to him to save by many or by few.” This is a true easily granted in general, that it is all alike to Omnipotence what the instruments are by which it works; and yet it is not so easy to apply it to a particular case; when we are but few and feeble then to believe that God can not only save us, but save by us, this is an instance of faith, which, wherever it is, shall obtain a good report. Let this strengthen the weak and encourage the timid: let it be pleaded with God for the enforcing of our petitions and with ourselves for the silencing of our fears: It is nothing with God to help, whether with many or with those that have no power, 2 Chron. 14:11. (3.) “Who knows but he that can use us for his glory will do it? It may be the Lord will work for us, work with us, work a sign or miracle for us.” So the Chaldee. We may encourage ourselves with hope that God will appear for us, though we have not ground on which to build an assurance. An active faith will venture far in God’s cause upon an it may be. Jonathan’s armour-bearer, or esquire, as if he had learned to carry, not his arms only, but his heart, promised to stand by him and to follow him whithersoever he went, 1 Sam. 14:7. We have reason to think that Jonathan felt a divine impulse and impression putting him upon this bold adventure, in which he was encouraged by his servant’s concurrence, otherwise the danger was so great which he ran upon that he would have tempted God rather than trusted him. And perhaps he had an actual regard to that word of Joshua (Josh. 23:10), One man of you shall chase a thousand, borrowed from Moses, Deut. 32:30.
3. How bold soever his resolution was, he resolved to follow Providence in the execution of it, which, he believed, would guide him with its eye (Ps. 32:8), and which therefore he would carefully attend and take hints of direction from. See how he put himself upon Providence, and resolved to be determined by it. “Come” (says he to his confidant), “we will discover ourselves to the enemy, as those that are not afraid to look them in the face (1 Sam. 14:8), and then, if they be so cautious as to bid us stand, we will advance no further, taking it for an intimation of Providence that God would have us act defensively, and we will prepare as well as we can to give them a warm reception (1 Sam. 14:9); but if they be so presumptuous as to challenge us, and the first sentinel we meet with bid us march on, we will push forward, and make as brisk an onset, assuredly gathering thence that it is the will of God we should act offensively, and then not doubting but he will stand by us,” 1 Sam. 14:10. And upon this issue he puts it, firmly believing, as we all should, (1.) That God has the governing of the hearts and tongues of all men, even of those that know him not, nor have any regard to him, and serves his own purposes by them, though they mean not so, neither do their hearts think so. Jonathan knew God could discover his mind to him if he pleased, and would do it, since he depended upon him, as surely by the mouth of a Philistine as by the mouth of a priest. (2.) That God will, some way or other, direct the steps of those that acknowledge him in all their ways, and seek unto him for direction, with full purpose of heart to follow it. Sometimes we find most comfort in that which is least our own doing, and into which we have been led by the unexpected, but well observed, turns of Providence.
4. Providence gave him the sign he expected, and he answered the signal. He and his armour-bearer did not surprise the Philistines when they were asleep, but discovered themselves to them by day-light, 1 Sam. 14:11. The guards of the Philistines, (1.) Disdained them, upbraided them with the cowardice of many of their people, and looked upon them to be of the regiment of sneakers: Behold, the Hebrews come forth out of their holes. If some of Christ’s soldiers play the coward, others that play the man may perhaps be upbraided with it. (2.) They defied them (1 Sam. 14:12): Come, and we will show you a thing, as if they came like children to gaze about them; but meaning, as Goliath (1 Sam. 17:44), that they would give them as meat to the fowls of the air. They bantered them, not doubting but to make a prey of them. This greatly emboldened Jonathan. With it he encouraged his servant; he had spoken with uncertainty (1 Sam. 14:6): It may be the Lord will work for us; but now he speaks with assurance (1 Sam. 14:12): The Lord has delivered them, not into our hands (he sought not his own glory), but into the hand of Israel, for he aimed at nothing but the advantage of the public. His faith being thus strengthened, no difficulty can stand before him; he climbs up the rock upon all four (1 Sam. 14:13), though he has nothing to cover him, nor any but his own servant to second him, nor any human probability of any thing but death before him.
5. The wonderful success of this daring enterprise. The Philistines, instead of falling upon Jonathan, to slay him, or take him prisoner, fell before him (1 Sam. 14:13) unaccountably, upon the first blows he gave. They fell, that is, (1.) They were many of them slain by him and his armour-bearer, 1 Sam. 14:14. Twenty Philistines fell presently. It was not so much the name of Jonathan that made them yield so tamely (though some think that this had become terrible to them, since he smote one of their garrisons, 1 Sam. 13:3), but it was God’s right hand and his arm that got him this victory. (2.) The rest were put to flight, and fell foul upon one another (1 Sam. 14:15): There was trembling in the host. There was no visible cause for fear; they were so numerous, bold, and advantageously posted; the Israelites had fled before them; not an enemy made head against them, but one gentleman and his man; and yet they shook like an aspen-leaf. The consternation was general: they all trembled; even the spoilers, those that had been most bold and forward, shared in the common fright, the joints of their loins were loosed, and their knees smote one against another, and yet none of them could tell why or wherefore. It is called a trembling of God (so the original phrase is), signifying not only, as we render it, a very great trembling, which they could not resist nor reason themselves clear of, but that it was supernatural, and came immediately from the hand of God. He that made the heart knows how to make it tremble. To complete the confusion, even the earth quaked, and made them ready to fear that it would sink under them. Those that will not fear the eternal God, he can make afraid of a shadow. See Prov. 21:1; Isa. 33:14.