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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 13

Carroll's Interpretation of the English BibleCarroll's Biblical Interpretation

Verses 1-46



1 Samuel 13:1-14:46

There are real difficulties, puzzling to a Bible student, in 1 Samuel 13-14. These difficulties are of three kinds: first, in the text; second, in the order of events; third, in determining the length of Saul’s reign. The first difficulty of the text is the first sentence, 1 Samuel 13:1. According to the historian’s formula elsewhere, introducing the account of a reign, we would naturally expect this initial sentence to tell us two facts: Saul’s age when he began to reign, and the duration of his reign, somewhat thus: "Saul was thirty years old when be began to reign, and he reigned over Israel forty years," but our present Hebrew text cannot be so rendered, nor can we satisfactorily make out the text from a comparison with the versions. The Hebrews designated numbers by letters, hence it is quite easy in the matter of numbers for a mistake to creep in. In the Hebrew of 1 Samuel 13:1 Saul’s age is not stated. When the versions attempt to supply the number from internal evidence, it amounts only to conjecture. The unrevised Septuagint omits that first verse altogether, but a revision of that version gives it, and makes it read that Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign. The American Standard Version fills the blank with forty years as his age when he began to reign, and connects 1 Samuel 13:1-2. The Jew, Isaac Leeser, in his English version, renders that first verse thus: "When Saul had reigned one year – and two years he reigned over Israel," which leaves here the whole verse "up in the air," with two gaps in it. Other Jews render it thus: "Saul was the son of a year when he began to reign, and when he had reigned two years he chose for himself, . . . " This rendering could be made to mean that Saul was as inexperienced, or as simple, as a year old child when he commenced to reign, but after he had reigned two years he began to assume the air of royalty by organizing a small standing army as a bodyguard, or as a nucleus around which militia levies could be assembled in time of war. In the judgment of the author, there is no direct connection between 1 Samuel 13:1-2, nor is he able to remove the difficulty. It seems probable that the first sentence should follow the usual formula of the historian, and that if we had the true text, it would so appear.

The second text difficulty is in 1 Samuel 13:5, which gives the Philistines "thirty thousand chariots," a number which seems to be incredible, so unnecessary, and so wholly out of proportion to other departments of their army, that one is disposed to imagine that some copyist erred in writing the Hebrew letters by which they express the number of chariots. Probably the number was 1000.

The third text difficulty is the word, "ark," in 1 Samuel 14:18. We would naturally conclude from 1 Samuel 7:1-2, and from 1 Chronicles 13:1-14 that the ark remained at Kirjathjearim until its removal to Jerusalem by David. Moreover, David says expressly, "We sought not unto the ark in the days of Saul." The best explanation of this difficulty is that the Septuagint, with a better Hebrew text before it, renders the verse thus: "And Saul said to Ahijah, Bring hither the Ephod. For he wore the Ephod at that time before Israel."

In determining the order of events we find that the paragraph, 1 Samuel 14:47-52, gives a summary of Saul’s wars and of his family, and inasmuch as the historian gives no details of at least three of these wars, to wit: the war with Ammon, with Edom, and with the kings of Zobah, i.e., Syria, the difficulty is to know just where these wars should be placed. Evidently there is no place for them after the beginning of this section, and if they be put before this section, then time must be allowed for them, as well as for the arrival to mature age of Saul’s sons and daughters.

In determining the duration of Saul’s reign, the difficulty in the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 13:1 forces us to rely upon one statement only, that by the apostle Paul (Acts 13:21) who says: "Saul reigned by the space of forty years." In an edited edition of Josephus’ "Antiquity of the Jews," Book VI, last sentence of that book, the reading is: "Now Saul, when he had reigned eighteen years while Samuel was alive, and after his death 2 [and 20], ended his life in this manner." The words "and 20" in brackets must be regarded as an interpolation, being out of harmony with the author’s heading of the sixth book which assigns only thirty-two years from the death of Eli to the death of Saul. Leaving out the bracketed words, Josephus says that Saul reigned eighteen years while Samuel lived, and two years after he died. The author stands by Paul’s statement that he reigned by the space of forty years, and contends that this harmonizes best with all of the elements of the history. The history unquestionably makes Saul a young man when he began to reign. There must be time for all of the wars mentioned in the summary, 1 Samuel 14:47-52, and for Saul’s children, sons and daughters, to become grown. 1 Samuel 13 presents Jonathan a grown man and avalorous captain. Therefore the author assumes that between 1 Samuel 12, when Saul’s reign properly commenced) and 1 Samuel 13, we must allow an interval of perhaps twenty years, and we must conclude, from the success of Saul in waging victorious war with Ammon, Edom, and the kings of Zobah, or Syria (1 Samuel 14:47) that such an interval must be provided for in the order.

It is easy to understand why the historian gives no details of these wars. His object is to bring us quickly to that part of Saul’s reign in which, by two great decisive acts, he violates the kingdom charter. For years, then, we presume that Saul was faithful to that charter, prosperous and successful in every direction, but this period of prosperity is followed by a triumph of the Philistines, who so dominated the land as to bring about the conditions as described in our text, 1 Samuel 13:6-7; 1 Samuel 13:19-23, and it is at this period of national disaster that 1 Samuel 13 commences the story. Indeed by this disaster God providentially prepares the way for an account of Saul’s first great test, which could not come except under hard conditions. We may count it a difficulty to give the proper rendering of 1 Samuel 13:3, which says that "Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines that was in Geba." Very able scholars contend that this word should not be rendered "garrison" but "monument," the Philistines having erected a monument there as a memorial of their domination over the land. Another scholar contends that it means an officer who at that point collected the tribute from the subjugated Hebrews, but none of the versions so renders the word, so we will count that word to mean garrison.

Another line of interpretation, as to the order of events is advocated by mighty minds, including Edersheim, for whose wide range of learning, splendid scholarship, pity, reverence, and especially the gift of spiritual interpretation, the author has a profound respect. According to Edersheim, whose arguments sustaining his contention are so weighty, the boldest might well hesitate to claim dogmatically the rightfulness of the order we have just considered, and according to others, including the American Standard revisers, Saul was forty years old when he began to reign; was a man of family, his oldest son, Jonathan, being a grown man, and there is no interval between the history in 1 Samuel 12 and the history in 1 Samuel 13, but it is continuous; therefore the wars (1 Samuel 14:47) with Ammon, Edom, and Syria, follow the victory over the Philistines recorded in 1 Samuel 13, and the hard conditions under the domination of the Philistines recorded in chapter 1 Samuel 13:6-7; 1 Samuel 13:19-23 were the conditions at the beginning of Saul’s reign. This would place the test which decided the dynasty at the beginning of his reign, and with propriety place later the second test in the case with Amalek, resulting in his personal rejection. With this order, Josephus agrees. The serious objections to this theory of order are thus met by its advocates. They admit that the record in 1 Samuel 9 declares Saul to be a young man when he met Samuel, and that it is a part of a young man’s duty to be sent off to find the stray stock of his father, but argue that among Hebrews even a middle-aged man with a family is called a young man and is under the direction of his father, and that the preceding record nowhere gives Saul’s age, and that the only place where we would expect to find it (1 Samuel 13:1) the numeral expressed in a Hebrew letter is wanting, and must be supplied by conjecture based on the context. In meeting Paul’s express statement that Saul reigned by the space of forty years, they say that it is not in the line of Paul’s thought to be exact, and that his forty years is expressed in round numbers. These replies to the objections are not satisfactory, but are here given for what they are worth.

The hero of this war with the Philistines was Jonathan, Saul’s brilliant son. He it is that brings on the war by smiting the Philistines’ garrison at Gibeah, and he it is that decided the war in the great battle of Michmash. Saul’s part of the whole story is an undignified one. The following are the events, in order, leading up to his failure under the first test to which he was subjected: It will be remembered that Saul was made king with the special view of delivering Israel from the Philistines, and that having only 3,000 men they were divided into two small corps, occupying strategically the best positions of defense against the Philistines. Then when Jonathan’s exploit brought on the war by making Israel odious to the Philistines, they assembled the largest and best appointed army they ever sent to the field, and took post at Michmash. Saul sounded the trumpet alarm designed to bring all of the able-bodied men of Israel to his side. The place of assembly was Gilgal, which Samuel had appointed with the express command that when assembled they were to remain seven full days until he himself arrived, and when he had offered appropriate sacrifices, the war would be undertaken under Jehovah’s direction.

But the people having no arms, and frightened at the vast and well-equipped army of the Philistines, failed to respond. Some of them went into the caves in the sides of the mountains. Multitudes of them fled across the Jordan into Gilead. Saul’s own bodyguard did not all assemble, and in the days of waiting began to desert, so that he was left with a handful of men, liable at any time to be cut off and destroyed by the mighty army of the Philistines. In this case it tried his patience sorely to wait seven days, his army melting, the panic increasing, the Philistine army near and threatening.

This was the condition of a test of his character. It is certain that unless there could be assurance from Jehovah that he would lead and manifest his power, the panic would increase. Samuel designedly delayed his coming until the last hour of the appointed seven days. Saul had waited until late in the seventh day; Samuel had not come. It seemed to him that he must, by sacrifices, invoke the help of Jehovah. As he puts it himself, under these conditions: "I forced myself to make the offerings to Jehovah." Before the offerings were completed, Samuel appeared, but Saul had already sinned. It was an express stipulation of the charter of the kingdom that the king must wait upon Jehovah’s will as expressed through his prophet. Only in this way could the kingdom endure. If the king acted on his own wisdom, as the kings of other nations, then it was certain he would fail. His only hope was to abide absolutely with that provision of the charter which acknowledged the theocratic idea that the earthly king was subordinate to the divine King. The penalty of his failure in this test was not his personal rejection as king, but it was the rejection of his dynasty. He himself remained king, but the monarchy could not be transmitted to his children. The kingly authority was to be removed from Saul’s family, and given to another family.

The events after this failure of Saul were as follows: First, the word of Jehovah through his prophet having been despised, Samuel leaves Saul, the panic increases, his followers decrease in number, he is left with a handful of men to take the most defensive position; then, as has been stated, it was Jonathan who delivered the people from this threatening condition. The prophet being gone, Jonathan asked Jehovah to designate by a sign whether he should attack the Philistine host. The sign was a very simple one. Jonathan having reconnoitered the enemy’s position, taking with him only his armor-bearer, found that they could be approached from the mountainside, and the test was, when he came within sight and hearing of the Philistines if they said, "Come up to us," instead of "Remain where you are and we will come up to you," that was to be God’s sign that he should make the fight. Hence he and his armor bearer alone commenced to fight, killing twenty of the enemy. They fell into a panic, supposing a mighty army to be behind these two men, and as their army was composed of troops from several nations, these in the confusion began to fight each other. Moreover, a large number of Hebrews, who had hidden in the caves of the mountain, came out and joined in the attack on the Philistines, so that their whole army was in inextricable confusion.

Saul, from his lockout, perceiving the confusion in the Philistine army and hearing the sound of battle, and still wishing to be guided by Jehovah, turned to the high priest present with his men, saying, "Bring hither the Ephod and enquire of Jehovah what we shall do." The tumult continuing, he then restrained the priest before he had time to give Jehovah’s answer through the Urim and Thummim, and rushed headlong to the battle. So, in no respect acting under divine orders, but on his own wisdom, he enjoins that none shall stop to taste food until the Philistine army is entirely destroyed.

Two evil results come from this rash order. First, Jonathan being in the front of the battle and not having heard it, under the fatigue and hunger of a hard day’s work, sees a honeycomb in the rock. He delays only to touch the honeycomb with the rod in his hand and put it to his mouth, and somewhat refreshed goes on in pursuit, thus unwittingly bringing himself under the curse of his father’s vow. The second evil was that the people who had heard the command, at the end of the day, famished with hunger, took from the spoils of the battle and butchered the animals for meat, without complying with the law, which forbids an Israelite to eat blood. This second wrong being reported to Saul, he seems to be convinced that somebody had sinned, and after stopping the unlawful method of eating food, he appeals to the high priest to determine for him who had disobeyed his order. The lot disclosed that it was Jonathan, who frankly avowed it. Saul announced his death j warrant, but the people refused to permit the death of the hero : who had gained them the battle.

The radical critics of the Bible story consider it a light offense, that a man with authority as king, under Saul’s hard conditions, after waiting till the seventh day was nearly ended for Samuel to come, should proceed to inquire the divine will, apart from the prophet of God. To this we reply, that, while all of these hard conditions are admitted, and while the natural effect of these conditions upon any man placed under the responsibility of a leader is also admitted, these very conditions were essential to the test, if the theocratic idea of the charter is to be preserved. It made no difference how hard the conditions) nor how many should desert, nor how few remained, nor how strong the enemy, nor how formidable their equipments, if only Jehovah be with them; and it made no difference how strong an army ’Saul might have, nor how few in comparison with the enemy, nor how much superior his own equipment to that of the foe, he was doomed to failure if Jehovah was against him. Therefore, when, through fear and impatience, he deliberately violated the central thought in the charter of the kingdom, it was well that the kingdom should pass to another family, and not be perpetuated in his house.

It is an interesting fact that while God had withdrawn his prophet from Saul, there yet remained two methods of ascertaining the divine will: the one employed by Jonathan by asking a sign from God, the other through the high priest and the Ephod. In a wavering kind of way, Saul clings to the second method. He still on occasion seeks the mind of Jehovah through the high priest, but never unless he is in extremity. You must distinguish between the two tests of Saul. The first test which we have considered, settled the question of the dynasty alone; the next test to be considered in the next chapter, settles the question personally for Saul, as to whether he is to remain king.

The last paragraph of chapter 1 Samuel 14:47-52 is a generic account of Saul’s reign, naming his various wars waged victoriously, his family relations, and reciting two facts characteristic of his reign, namely, (1) that sore war with the Philistines prevailed all his days; (2) all through his reign he was accustomed to add valiant men of whatever nation, to his bodyguard. But this custom of Saul’s was not peculiar to him. David followed his example, and hundreds of monarchs since his time, some of them limiting altogether to foreigners, as the Janizaries of the Sultan of Turkey; the Scottish Archers, the Swiss Guard, and the Irish Brigade of French Kings; the Italian Corps of Charles of Burgundy; the famous Potsdam giants of the king of Prussia; and many others.

This summary of Saul’s family omits the mention of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, his two children by her, and his grandchildren, sons of Jonathan and Michal. By way of anticipation of the history, and to show that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, and further to show that in a great man’s downfall many are dragged down with him, let us notice the tragic fate of the various members of Saul’s family. Abner, Saul’s cousin and general, was murdered by Joab. Saul himself, with three of the four sons by his wife, including the heroic Jonathan, perished in battle with the Philistines. His fourth son by his wife was assassinated; his two sons by his concubine Rizpah, and the five sons of his daughter Michal born after she was taken from David, were all hanged to appease one of Saul’s sins; Jonathan’s son was crippled by his nurse, and afterward defrauded of half his inheritance. Note the text for a’ practical sermon in this section, Saul’s words, “I forced myself” (1 Samuel 13:12).


1. What real difficulties, puzzling to a Bible student, do we find in 1 Samuel 13-14?

2. State the principal text difficulties, with an explanation of each.

3. What is the difficulty in determining the order of events?

4. What is the difficulty in determining the duration of Saul’s reign?

5. What other line of interpretation, as to order of events, is advocated by mighty minds, including Edersheim?

6. Who was the hero of this war with the Philistines?

7. State in order the events, leading up to Saul’s failure under the first test to which he was subjected.

8. What was the penalty of Saul’s failure in this test?

9. State the events after this failure of Saul.

10. What was Saul’s part in the battle?

11. What have radical critics of the Bible story to say against the Divine procedure in this part of the history?

12. What is your reply to this?

13. What interesting fact must yet be noted in this connection?

14. What is the nature of the last paragraph of 1 Samuel 14:47-52?

15. Was this custom of Saul’s peculiar to him?

16. Is this summary a full account of Saul’s family?

17. By the way of anticipation of the history, and to show that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, and further to show that in a great man’s downfall many are drawn down with him, state the tragic fate of the various members of Saul’s family.

18. What is the text for a practical sermon in this section?

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Samuel 13". "Carroll's Interpretation of the English Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bhc/1-samuel-13.html.
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