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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 13

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1


This chapter is the subject of an incredible number of contradictory opinions that it has evoked from the scholars, translators and commentators who have written about it. There is hardly any firm opinion expressed by any writer which has not been vigorously denied and contradicted by another. The problem begins with 1 Samuel 13:1.

Before going into a detailed study of the chapter, however, we wish to point out that the big point in the chapter is crystal clear, i.e., the rejection of Saul’s dynasty because of his sin. That is the principal truth of the chapter; and all of the rest of it is of little or no importance whatever.

On 1 Samuel 13:1.

KJV … Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, etc.

ASV … Saul was forty years old when he began to reign; and when he had reigned two years over Israel, etc.

NIV … Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.

RSV … Saul was … years old when he began to reign… and two years over Israel. etc.

Douay Version of the Old Testament… Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.(F1)

Good News Bible … This version omits the verse altogether.

Some Greek manuscripts and other versions such as the Syriac, the Septuagint (LXX) and the Arabic even have other renditions of the passage.

Since the greatest scholars on earth do not know for sure what the passage means, we pray that this writer will be forgiven for making no comment whatever.

Only a few writers have expressed confidence in what is meant. Adam Clarke, for example, stated that, “The first clause in 1 Samuel 13:1 belongs to the preceding chapter and carries the meaning that what is related there took place in the first year of Saul’s reign; and that the second clause means that the events of 1 Samuel 13 took place in the second year of his reign.(F2) This appears to be an improbable solution.

However, it does not seem at all likely that the inspired author here was attempting to give the age of Saul at his accession to the throne and the number of years that he reigned, following the pattern in the records of numerous kings of Israel in 1 Kings, as most current scholars seem to believe.

One thing that makes such a view untenable is that, “The word for years in 1 Samuel 13:1 is that which is always used when the total number is less than ten,”(F3) thus practically forbidding its application to the length of Saul’s reign.

That Saul indeed reigned forty years is the conclusion from a very reasonable deduction. “2 Samuel 2:10 relates that Saul’s son Ishbosheth succeeded him on the throne at the age of forty; and since Ishbosheth is not mentioned at all among the sons of Saul as they are recorded in 1 Samuel 14:49 (with the conclusion that Ishbosheth was born after Saul came to the throne); therefore Saul reigned forty years. This writer accepts this as true because the Apostle Paul accepted this as the length of Saul’s reign (Acts 13:21), as did Josephus. “Saul reigned eighteen years while Samuel was alive and twenty-two years after Samuel’s death.”(F4) Our own conviction is that one statement from the Apostle Paul is of more value than a library of writings by uninspired men.

Verses 2-4


“Saul chose three thousand men of Israel; two thousand were with Saul in Michmash, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin; and the rest of the people he sent home, every man to his tent. Jonathan defeated the garrison of the Philistines which was at Geba; and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” And all Israel heard it said that Saul had defeated the garrison of the Philistines, and also that Israel had become odious to the Philistines. And the people were called out to meet Saul at Gilgal.”

We do not know what interval of time elapsed between this chapter and the preceding one. The scholars disagree, assigning the interval anywhere between a day or two and ten or fifteen years. A complicating factor is the appearance of Jonathan here as a competent military commander in charge of a thousand men.

“Michmash … and Bethel” “Michmash is the modern Mukhmas, located about seven miles northeast of Jerusalem; and Bethel is the modern Beitin four and one half miles northwest of Mukhmas.”(F5)

Jonathan defeated the garrison of the Philistines at Geba (1 Samuel 13:3). This poses a problem for some who point out that the garrison of the Philistines was actually at Gibeah (1 Samuel 10:2); but there is no problem at all. The Philistines had garrisons at both places and in all probability at a number of other places also.

We noted earlier that the word rendered “garrison” is the same word also translated as prefect, commander, pillar or governor. Some critics have used this to deny that Jonathan defeated a garrison, affirming that he assassinated the commander of the garrison. It is noteworthy that the RSV retains the rendition “garrison,” which was defeated by Jonathan and his one thousand soldiers.

“Let the Hebrews hear” Some have tried to make the appearance of this word here as evidence that some foreigner wrote Samuel, affirming that `Hebrews’ is a derogatory word applied to Israelites. Willis stated that, “There is no reason to regard `Hebrews’ as a derogatory term.”(F6) Abraham himself was called `a Hebrew’ (Genesis 14:13); and even the beloved Joseph referred to his native land as, “The land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15).

“Israel had become odious to the Philistines” The text here literally means, “They became stinking to the Philistines.”(F7)

Verses 5-7


“And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and troops like sand on the seashore in multitude; they came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Bethaven. When the men of Israel saw that they were in straits (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, or crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.”

Most of the scholars dispute the figure of 30,000 chariots, giving the number as either 3,000 or even 300. It makes no difference at all. Whatever the number, it was large enough to frighten all Israel into the most abject terror and flight. The Philistines had the great advantage over Israel because they controlled the iron industry.

“Saul was still at Gilgal” The meaning is that Saul had not withdrawn his troops east of the Jordan, for the Gilgal here was evidently the one just west of the Jordan river near Jericho. This gave Saul a comfortable distance from the Philistine forces at Michmash and also afforded him the option of fleeing across the Jordan if necessary.

The hiding of the Israelites in caves, holes, rocks, tombs and cisterns was similar to that of the people in the days of the Judges (Judges 6:2; Judges 6:11) and in the times of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 40:11-12). The situation looked bleak indeed for Israel at the time indicated here.

Verses 8-14


“He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and Salute him. Samuel said, “What have you done”? And Saul said, “When I saw the people scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, `Now the Philistines will come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord’; so I forced myself and offered the burnt offering.” And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you; for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” And Samuel arose, and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin.”

“He waited seven days” (1 Samuel 13:8). There is no reference here to a similar command given to Saul in 1 Samuel 10:8.

“Although not mentioned again in this connection, the commandment to wait seven days had been lately repeated with reference to this particular occasion. It is clear enough that Saul himself understood it as a commandment from God Himself that he should wait until Samuel came; otherwise he would not have made so many excuses for his disobeying the divine commandment.”(F8)

“Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offering” The text here definitely leaves the impression that Saul himself offered the sacrifices, but the great majority of scholars accept the view advocated by Keil that, “The cooperation of the priests in performing the duties belonging to them is taken for granted, just as in the case of the sacrifices offered by David and Solomon (2 Samuel 24:25; 1 Kings 3:4; 1 Kings 8:63).”(F9) That this view is probably correct appears in the rebuke of Samuel which made no mention of Saul’s usurping any prerogative belonging to the priesthood.

“As soon as he had finished … Samuel came” Thus Samuel came on the day appointed, arriving just as the burnt offering had been offered and before the peace offering had been offered. Saul had not waited seven days, because the seventh day was not over when he decided to take matters into his own hands. “It is evident that Samuel came on the seventh day, and that Saul in his impetuosity could not stay the whole day out.”(F10) “Saul lost his kingdom for want of two or three hours patience.”(F11)

“And Saul went out to meet him, and salute him” Saul’s interruption of the proceedings here (the peace offering had not yet been offered) in order to honor Samuel with a special greeting indicates a guilty conscience on Saul’s part. He evidently hoped that by special politeness to Samuel, he might avoid the condemnation that he deserved.

“When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come” Here begins the list of Saul’s excuses for disobedience. There are a number of these.

(1) His army was dwindling because of the people’s leaving him, and he felt he must do something to stop it.

(2) Samuel did not come as soon as Saul expected him.

(3) The mustering of the Philistines at Michmash was a threat.

(4) He did not wish to go into battle without entreating the Lord.

(5) “I forced myself and offered the burnt offering.” The meaning of this is that Saul acted reluctantly. This last excuse, especially, indicates that Saul’s conscience opposed his rash and presumptuous action.


Sinners of all generations have sought to justify their disobedience of God’s commandments by making excuses similar to the ones enumerated here. That threatening, inconvenient, dangerous, uncomfortable or perplexing situations confront the child of God cannot justify disobedience of God’s plain commandments. The fact of one’s violating God’s law reluctantly, or even sorrowfully, does not endow the violation with any acceptability. The final word that must be written over every man’s record is, “Which one of them did the will of the Father”? (Matt. 21;31).

“You have done foolishly” This is the ultimate verdict that appears against all sinful deeds. The virgins who provided no oil for their lamps were foolish. The rich farmer who had nowhere to store his goods was foolish. The man who says in his heart, `There is no God,’ is called a fool. The man who built on the sand was foolish. Unbelievers professing to be wise are fools (Romans 1:22). The Galatians who turned back to Judaism are called “foolish Galatians.” … The list is endless.

“But now your kingdom shall not continue” This did not mean that Saul would be removed at once from his throne. The reference is to his dynasty.

“The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” These words are a prophecy and not a report of what had already happened.

What a terrible penalty for such a tiny little sin! That human reaction to what God did here, while perfectly natural, from the human standpoint, is totally in error. No deliberate violation of the word of God is “a tiny little sin.” On the contrary, every sin is a soul-killing destruction. Can anyone think of a smaller sin than that of Adam and Eve in their sampling of the fruit of the forbidden tree? Yet all the wretched sorrows, miseries, diseases, bloodshed, violence, starvation and death which have dogged the steps of mankind ever since that “tiny little sin” should warn every man that there is no such thing as a `little sin.’

Another problem that surfaces here is that of that man “after God’s own heart,” who appears prophetically in this passage and who must, of course, be identified as King David. Was not his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband a lot worse than what Saul did here? Where is God’s sense of justice? In reply to such sinful allegations as these, we should remember that God is eternally true and righteous and that, “God can choose David and reject Saul for his own reasons without any obligation to explain his actions to men.”(F12)

It is also evident that in the character of David, despite his weakness and sins, there was an invariable purpose of honoring God as the true king of Israel. He submitted in penitence to the rebuke of Nathan; he acknowledged the justice and lovingkindness of God in all of the shameful punishments heaped upon him as a consequence of his sins. Even in the rape and incest that fell upon members of his family and in the rebellion of Absalom - in all those `divine punishments,’ (and that is what they were), David acknowledged the justice, mercy and lovingkindness of God. In the light of all the facts, any thoughtful person can easily understand why God chose David and rejected Saul.

Verses 15-18


“And Saul numbered the people that were with him, about six hundred men. And Saul, and Jonathan his son, and the people who were present with them, stayed in Geba of Benjamin; but the Philistines encamped in Michmash. And raiders came out of the camp of the Philistines in three companies; one company turned to Ophrah, to the land of Shual, another company turned toward Beth-horon, and another company turned toward the border that looks down upon the valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness.”

These three raiding parties, in the order mentioned here, went north, east and west throughout Israel; but they did not go south, because Saul and Jonathan with their troops lay in that direction. The purpose of those raiding companies will be explained in the next paragraph.

Verses 19-23


“Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make for themselves swords or spears”; but every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle; and the charge was a pym for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. So on the day of the battle, there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan; but Saul and Jonathan his son had them. And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.”

The word “now” at the head of this paragraph means that, after the raiders had completed their mission, the situation prevailed as outlined here. The raiders either murdered or captured all of the smiths in Israel and instituted a schedule of very high prices for sharpening the agricultural tools of the Israelites.

“There was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people” After making due allowance for the hyperbolic nature of this statement, it is still clear enough that one could hardly imagine a worse situation, from the military standpoint, than that which confronted Israel at this time. The inspired writer is here evidently preparing us to see the truly miraculous nature of the great victory that soon developed.

“The garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash” This maneuver was supposed by the Philistines to cut off all avenues of attack by the men of Saul and Jonathan.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 13". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-13.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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