I Samuel 14: Jonathan the Bold

I Samuel 14: Jonathan the Bold – The Adult Bible Class of Home Church,

originally broadcast May 11, 2008 by Craig Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Happy Mothers Day and Happy Pentecost! It is rare that Pentecost falls on Mothers’ Day, but Easter was very early this year. Pentecost is a day in the church calendar when we especially worship the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. You may wonder if there is any connection between the two observances, and believe it or not, there is. 250 years ago, Moravians around the world observed Pentecost as a special time to honor the Holy Spirit as the Mother of the Church. The Holy Spirit cares for us, provides spiritual food for us, comforts us, and teaches us much like an earthly mother. Moravian missionaries found it was much easier to teach tribal peoples about the Trinity by telling them about God as the Father, God as the Savior, and God as the Mother. According to John’s Gospel, people must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God, and Count Zinzendorf pointed out that we are born from a mother. It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of rebirth. So, the old Moravians wrote lots of liturgies and hymns to worship the Holy Spirit as the true mother of Christians, and Pentecost was a particularly important day to celebrate the maternal aspects of God. From this perspective, it is appropriate that Mothers Day and Pentecost fall on the same day this year.

It was a tough week in the world. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the thousands who lost loved ones in Burma and the millions without homes. Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists are united in their effort to help the survivors. Disaster on this scale is almost unimaginable, but if the predictions are accurate, the coming century will see more and more severe storms as the earth’s temperature rises. We need to deal with the immediate crisis, but we also need to address global warming. I heard someone recently proclaim that he does not believe in global warming, but it does not matter if you believe or not. The earth is getting hotter and we must do something about. As for me, I believe in God, and I believe God expects us to be stewards of creation.

Closer to home, I spent most of the week grading papers for a course I taught on Moravian theology, which was very interesting for me. I think the Baptists in the class understood Moravian theology better than the Moravians, but don’t tell anyone I said that. Congratulations to the students from North Carolina who graduated from Moravian Seminary yesterday. Graduation at Wake is next week, and I will be the speaker for the hooding ceremony at the Divinity School on Saturday. I hope the Comenius patrons will join us. 

Jonathan            In our lesson for this week from I Samuel we meet Jonathan for the first time. Jonathan was the son of Saul, and he is one of the most attractive figures in the Old Testament. He was young and bold, and could inspire great loyalty in his men. The first time we meet Jonathan is during the insurgency against the Philistines. The Israelites had established their military camp on one side of a deep gulley, the wadi es-swenit, in the region of Geba. The enemy was on the other side, with their headquarters at Michmash. Last week we read how the Israelites hid from the superior Philistine force. This week we’ll read how Jonathan decided to take the battle to the enemy, much like George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. Instead of crossing the Delaware River, though, Jonathan crossed the treacherous wadi es-swenit.

Read: I Samuel 14:1-17

Saul and the Priest                        The story opens with Saul sitting under a pomegranate tree with his elite forces. He is not being portrayed as lazy here. He is doing what generals have done for centuries. He is biding his time, waiting to see what the enemy is planning. No doubt he has sent out scouts to reconnoiter for him. Most of all, he is thinking. We don’t know what he is planning, but we do know that he has brought spiritual leaders into the camp with him. There is a priest named Ahijah who was the son of the brother of Ichabod, the grandson of Eli. If you have been following the story so far, you know that Eli was the priest who raised Samuel at the shrine in Shiloh. It seemed like the priestly line of Eli had ended when his sons were killed in the great battle of Mizpah, but it continued through the brother of the unfortunate Ichabod who was born an orphan. I doubt anyone has ever given a sermon on Ahijah and his uncle Ichabod, but it is worth pausing to reflect on the mercy of God. Ichabod lost his mother, father, and grandfather on the day he was born, but he is remembered here because his nephew became a priest serving the first king of Israel. We know that Ahijah was a priest because he carried the ephod, which was the sacred apron worn only by priests. It is interesting that Samuel is not there. Based on the previous chapter, we would expect that Samuel would be in the camp with Saul, but he is not mentioned at all. This is further evidence that the story of the sacrifice we read last week was out of place chronologically.

Later in chapter 14, it is Ahijah who consults the Urim and Thummin stones in an attempt to divine God’s will. According to some of the ancient manuscripts, Ahijah was also in charge of the sacred Ark of the Covenant that had been brought into the Israelite camp. The ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, omits the ark. We read stories about the ark earlier in the book, and it appeared that it had passed out of the possession of the Israelites so its presence here with Saul is confusing. Modern translators disagree over whether the Hebrew version or the Greek version is accurate. In any case, it is clear that Saul had a priest from the shrine of Shiloh with him in Migron. People often assume that the problem with Saul was that he was not religious enough, that he rejected the advice of the priests, but that is not the case. Here he shown as being very concerned that God is on his side in the battle to come.

Jonathan goes up                        While Saul is waiting in camp and consulting with his priests and officers, Jonathan acts with the boldness of youth. He and his most trusted soldier decide to test the Philistine defense. Rather than consulting with priests, Jonathan simply decides to see if the LORD will show him a way. He says that the LORD can use a few to defeat many. This claim of Jonathan is repeated throughout the Old Testament, and it has inspired many Christian groups through the centuries. A small group that is faithful to God and courageous can overcome tremendous odds. It is not just soldiers who have been comforted by this thought; these words have inspired social reformers in their seemingly hopeless crusades to end slavery, reform prisons, establish decent working conditions, and give people their human rights. So often we think that we cannot act until we have built a large organization, raised large sums of money, and been endorsed by the wealthy and powerful. So often we are like Saul sitting under the pomegranate tree plotting and consulting while our enemies grow stronger.

But Jonathan decided to see if the LORD was with him. He would show himself to the enemy, boldly risking his life. The sign he asked for was this. If the Philistines said, “we’re coming to get you,” Jonathan and his armor bearer would stay where they were in safety. If they taunted the young men and called for them to come up, they would attack. 3000 years later it is hard for us to know the significance of these possible responses. Perhaps Jonathan had decided that if the Philistines were confident, they would seize the opportunity to attack a couple of Israelites who had ventured into the “no man’s land” between the armies. Perhaps Jonathan hoped to lure them out of their protected positions. Or, it could be that Jonathan was trying to trick the Philistines into thinking that he was deserting and joining them so that their defenses would be down. We do not know for sure what was going on, but clearly Jonathan was not being foolish. He was bold, but he had a cunning plan.

As it happened, the Philistines did call for him to come over to their side. Whether they were taunting him or tempting him, we do not know. We do know that the terrain was steep and rocky. The two Israelites had to climb up on their hands and feet to reach the sentries. No doubt the Philistines did not even see them coming because of all the rocks. They had had their joke with the natives without thinking about the fact that the natives knew the landscape. Jonathan had probably climbed this cliff as a boy. By stealth, he approached the sentries and took them by surprise.

In war as in sports, one of the worst things you can do is lose your footing. Unlike the Iliad, the Old Testament does not give us graphic descriptions of how the Philistines fell when Jonathan leaped on them. We do not know if they fell to his spear and sword or if they tripped on the rocks as they fled. All we are told is that the armor bearer killed those who had fallen. Two men killed twenty in a small field of battle. It is no wonder that the Philistines were panicked, but to add to the drama of the account, there was an earthquake. The author does not tell us that God caused the earth to shake, but that is the implication. The LORD was fighting with Jonathan. His boldness and shrewdness were rewarded.

Meanwhile, back at the pomegranate                        The sounds of battle alerted Saul’s look-outs. They reported that there was a panic in the enemy camp and that a battle was being waged without Saul’s order. The king did not know what to do or even who was fighting. He knew that the Philistines had not attacked since the battle was on the other side of the gulley. Rather than seizing the moment, Saul wanted to know who was missing from his post. He wanted to know who had assaulted the enemy without his orders, but we do not know why he wanted to know this. Was he trying to decide if it was worthwhile rescuing this intrepid soul? Was it someone expendable? When he heard the news that it was his own son who had thrown himself on a superior force, he knew he had to do something. He called for the ark to be brought up and prepared for battle.

What Saul was doing was rational and cautious. Most leaders like to know as much information about a situation before they act, but there are times when caution is the wrong response. Rather than taking advantage of the situation, Saul turned to the priest and the trappings of religion. One of the most surprising things about the Bible is that there are so many stories that warn us against relying two much on religion and ritual. Sometimes religion becomes a way to avoid acting responsibly and ethically in the world. Sometimes religion leads us away from faith by allowing us to focus on rituals and sacred objects instead of stepping forth in faith. Too often, we leave things up to God to fix instead of acting boldly like Jonathan.

A Movement                        This was a time when Saul needed to act rather than to pray. Finally, the tumult grew so loud, Saul knew something must be done. He rallied the troops and crossed the gulley to join the battle begun by his son. Leaders today need to learn from Saul here. Even though he was not as bold as Jonathan, he recognized that something important was taking place, and he took advantage of the situation. It was like the Civil Rights movement. Black and white Christians had been planning and preparing and discussing what to do to address racial segregation in America, but it took Rosa Parks to get things rolling. It took a few bold Jonathans who decided to eat together in a Woolworths in Greensboro. Their boldness encouraged the big leaders to act and join the fray. When they said “yes, we can,” thousands more acted.

Saul thought he only had 600 men to attack the mighty Philistine army, but once he went into battle, his numbers swelled. Those who had been hiding in safety came out to fight. Even those Israelites who had become mercenaries joined in the rebellion. Saul was wise enough not to reject their help just because they had served with the enemy. The deserters joined the insurgents, and the battle spread all over the hills. In a few hours, Saul’s army had grown to ten thousand rebels. Keep this in mind when you are struggling for justice in our time. You may think that you are alone, but when the time is right thousands will rally to a good cause. When people see that victory is possible, they will risk everything to do what is right. The Berlin Wall fell in a few days because thousands of good people came out of hiding when they realized victory was possible. Do not lose hope.

Conclusion                        We are running out of time this morning, but will continue with discussing this battle next week. Before we go off the air, I want to highlight what we have learned from I Samuel 14. There come times in life when someone needs to take the risk and boldly confront oppression. We need Jonathans who recognize when the LORD is calling for boldness. But we also need the power brokers like King Saul to jump into the fray. And all of us need to recognize when it is time to come out of safety, when it is time to stop serving the oppressors, and join the fight for justice, to proclaim the truth, and to change the world. 

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