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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 13

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



(1 Samuel 13:1-21) Saul’s Reign—The Gallantry of Saul and Jonathan—The new King’s attempt to Rule as an Absolute Sovereign—His Disregard of the Most High—He and his House are Rejected as Kings of Israel—The Philistine War.


On the south-west bank of the River Jordan, a little to the north-east of the old famous Canaanitish fortress-city of Jericho, was pitched the fortified camp of Joshua at the time of the Israelitish invasion. From this place of arms his armies went forth to the conquest of the cities of Ai and Jericho, in the immediate neighbourhood, the first important captures in the promised land.

Gilgal then seems to have been the first spot where the conquering Israelites established themselves. Out of the fortified camp of Gilgal grew the city bearing the same name. During the whole period of the conquest of the land under Joshua, it seems to have been the regular place of assembly for the chiefs of the tribes, and to have been a kind of head-quarters for the host of Israel. There, too, the festival and sacred meetings appear at first certainly to have been held. (Comp. Joshua 5:10; Joshua 9:6; Joshua 10:6-7; Joshua 10:9; Joshua 10:15; Joshua 10:43; Joshua 14:6; Judges 2:1.)

Ewald considers that, from the notices preserved in the Books of Samuel, in the days of that famous judge-seer it was one of the most sacred places in Israel, and the town centre of the whole people, and that its importance dates from the days of the conquest under Joshua. Although after the establishment of the monarchy, and the permanent fixing the seat of government and the residence of the sovereign at Jerusalem, where was also erected the Temple, Gilgal declined in importance, still, centuries later, in the times of Amos and Hosea, it appears to have been a sacred place, held in high regard by the people. (See Amos 5:5; Hosea 4:15; Hosea 9:15.)


The conduct of Samuel in the matter of his separation from Saul has been often called into question. The old prophet, in his dealings with the king, has been accused of harshness and precipitancy, and even Saul’s punishment by the Most High has been looked upon as severe and disproportioned to the offence. Instead of conceding or denying these hasty conclusions, it will be well to consider what this offence was which alienated the prophet, and brought so terrible a judgment on the great first king of Israel and his royal house.
The existence of Israel, and their prosperity as a people, was based alone on the peculiar favour and protection of the Eternal God. Out of the peoples of the globe, He chose them for a special purpose. They were to keep burning the lamp of the knowledge of the Most High amid the darkness of the idolatry and sin of the world. As long as they were faithful the Lord sustained them against all their adversaries. He enabled them to win a beautiful land; He maintained them securely there; to use the language of their own records, they dwelt safe under the shadow of the Almighty wings. God would have led them higher, and ever higher, had they for their part remained true and loyal. In a great crisis of their history the Eternal chose out Saul from among them, and made him ruler and His own vice-gerent on earth of His chosen people.
Now, as we have said, the conditions of the existence and prosperity of Israel were the favour and help of the invisible King. With these they prospered, and went on from strength to strength; without these their power withered away at once; the moment the Glorious Arm was removed Israel at once sank to the level, or even below the level, of the other peoples of the earth.

King Saul possessed many rare and noble qualities. He was brave to a fault, simple, modest, even deeply religious. He was gifted, too, with prudence and moderation, and was undoubtedly a wise and able general, but when raised to the throne, and in possession of supreme power, he totally mistook the position of Israel. He thought it had won its own way to freedom, and the possession of the rich and fruitful land in which they dwelt, and that it could, by the exercise of prudence and valour, maintain itself in its conquests, and even rise to be one of the powerful monarchies of the world. In other words, without despising or making light of the true King who had in truth raised up Israel from slavery, and made it an independent nation, Saul considered that the people over whom he had been called to rule could, if necessary, do without this supernatural assistance.
Acting upon this false conception of the true position of Israel, he reserved to himself the right to act in certain emergencies without the advice of the Eternal, communicated through that great prophet, who in those days was the mouth-piece of the Most High, or if he judged it better for the interest of the people, even in direct opposition to this supernatural advice or even positive commands. In other words, when King Saul failed to see the wisdom or policy of the “word of the Lord,” communicated to him by the accredited seer of the Eternal, he declined to follow its dictates.
The Inspired compiler of this book has chosen out of the records of the first king’s reign two memorable instances of this strange and obstinate self-will on the part of the king: the first, the declining to wait for the prophet at Gilgal till the specified time for his coming had expired; the second, the refusal to destroy the Amalekite king and the rich plunder taken from him.
To the superficial reader the special acts of Saul which are cited in these books as the immediate occasion of the separation of the prophet and the king, and of the doom pronounced upon Saul and his house, may seem trivial—quite incommensurate with the fatal consequences; they were, no doubt, as the great German commentator Ewald suggests, isolated cases, which received their true significance from a long series of connected events—instances which were selected as perhaps the best known of Saul’s permanent disposition towards the invisible Guardian of Israel. [May not such considerations, applied to other events chronicled in Holy Writ, assist us in understanding much that is now dark and difficult—for instance, the terrible woe which followed on the plucking and eating of the forbidden fruit in Eden? It is likely that, owing to their rebellious and self-willed spirit, the father and mother of our race were banished from a life for which their self-will rendered them utterly unfit. The sin, of which we possess such ample details in the early Genesis story, was probably a solitary instance of the self-will and disobedience of our first parents to a loving and generous Creator. Many difficulties in the Bible story are capable of explanation, if we adopt some such considerations as these which we have lightly sketched out here.]

King Saul was fully and fairly tested. No doubt, the want of faith and implicit trust—the first requisite for a true child of Israel—which led to the disobedience of Gilgal, had been manifested before, on other and less conspicuous occasions. This was in the face of the people, and the long-suffering of the Eternal could not pass over so glaring and public a manifestation of the king’s intention to loosen the links which bound together in Israel the visible and the invisible. It was a fatal example, which might only too quickly have been followed by many. So the prophet and friend of Saul at once pronounced the doom; but even then, Saul might have repented, and, had he chosen, might again have won the old favour and love of the Eternal King; but we know he did not choose, alas for Saul! The heart grieves over the fatal blindness of the gallant and patriotic king. Gilgal taught him nothing. We feel that the alienation between Israel’s visible and invisible Kings grew with each succeeding year, till again, in the matter of the Amalekite booty, a still more public manifestation of Saul’s determination never to submit his will to God’s will drove the reluctant Samuel to pronounce in still more fateful words the doom of the disobedient, and to close for ever his friendship with the unhappy sovereign. The words of the great seer—the friend of God—uttered under the influence of the Spirit of the Lord, when he finally determined to bid farewell to Saul, sum up the sin and its punishment. (See 1 Samuel 15:22-23.)

Verse 1

(1) Saul reigned one year.—The only possible literal translation of the Hebrew of this verse is, “Saul was the son of one year (i.e., one year old); he began to reign, &c.” In several places in the Books of Samuel the numbers are quite untrustworthy (we have another instance of this in the 5th verse of this chapter). The present verse, however, is an old difficulty, the corruption or gap in the text dating from a far back period. The English translation is simply a probable, but conjectural, paraphrase. The Chaldee and some of the Rabbis thus strangely interpret it: “Saul was an innocent child when he began to reign”—that is, was as innocent as a one year old child, &c. The Syriac and others paraphrase much as our English Version. The LXX. omit the verse altogether. The Speaker’s Commentary thus literally translates the Hebrew, marking with a—where a number probably originally stood: “Saul was—years old when he began to reign, and he reigned—and two years over Israel.” On the whole, the usually accepted meaning is that Saul had reigned one year when the events related in the last chapter took place, and after he had reigned two years he chose out the 3,000 men, and did what is related in this chapter.

Verse 2

(2) Saul chose him three thousand men of Israel.—This is a very important statement, as it tells us of the first beginning of a standing army in Israel. This was the first step towards the development of Israel into a great military power. It was Saul’s military genius and foresight which enabled David and Solomon to make those great conquests which raised Israel for a time to the position of one of the greatest Eastern Powers. The really great life of Saul was frittered away in repelling what may be termed Israel’s domestic enemies. such as the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites; but he left behind him a powerful and disciplined army, and a nation carefully trained to war. It has been asked, how was it, considering the position of Israel and the Philistines at that juncture—the latter people possessing evidently not a few strong places in the territories of the tribes, from whence they were in the habit of sallying forth, and harassing and pillaging the people—that Saul, instead of at once declaring war, dismissed the people gathered at Gilgal, only retaining so few? The probability is that Saul, with true military instinct, saw that Israel was at this period by no means trained or armed to undertake a regular war with such an enemy. He therefore adopted the wise course here related.

Whereof two thousand were with Saul in Michmash.—Michmash was a position strongly situated at the head of a pass some nine miles north-east of Jerusalem. The “one thousand” he placed under the command of his son Jonathan, and stationed them in the neighbourhood of his old home, where he would have the benefit of the aid of his family and kinsfolk. This is the first mention of the gallant and chivalrous prince, the story of whose unbroken and romantic friendship with David is one of the most touching episodes of these books. “If the substance of this narrative was written in David’s reign, we may perhaps see the effect of David’s generous and loving nature in the care taken to give Jonathan his due place of honour in the history.”—Speaker’s Commentary.

Verse 3

(3) And Jonathan smote the garrison.—Jonathan throughout this history appears as the perfect type of a warrior, according to the requirements of his age; he is everywhere the first in courage and activity and speed, slender also, and of well-made figure. This personal beauty and swiftness of foot in attack or retreat gained for him among the troops the name of “gazelle.” (The first lines of the song, 2 Samuel 1:19, can only be explained on the supposition that Jonathan was well known by this name in the army.) “In all this, as in his uprightness and fidelity, he showed himself the right worthy son of a king.”—Ewald. Some translate the word rightly rendered “garrison” as “pillar,” a sign of the authority of the Philistines; others—e.g., Ewald—as a proper name, supposing that the officer appointed to collect tribute from Israel in that part of the country is meant.

And Saul blew the trumpet.—This was evidently more than a communication of good news to the people. Saul intended it as a summons to Israel to prepare at once for war.

Verse 4

(4) And all Israel heard.—Saul is put for “Jonathan,” though the bold deed had been performed by the young prince, Saul being the general-in-chief. The expression “smitten” implies that the garrison in question had been utterly routed, probably put to the sword. The intense hatred with which the Philistines hated the Hebrews is often brought forward. From the first conquest by Joshua they regarded them as interlopers and intruders; between the two peoples there was ceaseless warfare, until the Philistines were completely subdued by the greater Hebrew kings. Naturally, such a deed as that of Jonathan’s would at once arouse Philistia.

And the people were called together.—Gradually round the King of Israel the fighting men of the nation in great numbers were gathered. This seems to have been by no means a “levée en masse” of all the people; they seem to have come together very slowly, and very quickly again to have dispersed. The hour for a decisive blow was not yet come. Something, as we shall soon see, prevented Saul, with all his gallantry and splendid military skill, from winning popular confidence. (On Gilgal, the place where Saul was trying to assemble the people at this juncture, see Note on 1 Samuel 13:8 and Excursus E at the end of this Book.)

Verse 5

(5) And the Philistines gathered themselves together to fight with Israel.—The figures here, again, of the numbers of this vast army are perfectly untrustworthy. In the rolls of ancient armies (and we possess many a one in the sacred records) the number of war chariots is always smaller than that of the horsemen; here the chariots are represented as four times as numerous. In the rolls of the most famous armies there never appear anything like this number. For instance, Jabin (Judges 4:3) had 900 chariots. Pharaoh pursued Israel with 600. When David defeated Syria, the great Syrian army had 40,000 horsemen and 700 chariots. King Solomon is only reported (1 Kings 10:26) to have possessed 1,400 chariots. Zerah the Ethiopian had but 300 in his vast army, and the Pharaoh Shishak 1,200. Here the more probable reading would be “300” not 30,000. Bishop Wordsworth endeavours to explain the vast array by a reference to Josephus, who relates that this Philistine force was composed of various nations; but this would never account for the incredible number of chariots. The Philistines evidently lost no time. While Saul was endeavouring to rally at Gilgal a Hebrew army, Philistia at once, with the aid of foreign allies, took the field, and with a large army—for it is clear their host on this occasion was very large—encamped no great distance from Gilgal, evidently determined once and for all to crush their enemies and their recently-elected daring king.

Verse 6

(6) Saw that they were in a strait.—It was evidently no ordinary Philistine foray or invasion which the Israelites had to make head against. The tradition preserved by Josephus tells us that a host of foreign allies had joined the Phœnician armies in this war. This accounts for the great numbers alluded to in the text: “People as the sand which is on the sea shore in multitude” (1 Samuel 13:5). The hearts of the as yet undisciplined Hebrews sank at the tidings of such an invasion. And in high places.—The word in the original Hebrew is not the same as the one usually rendered “high places” for prayer and sacrifice. The word here signifies towers. It is the same word which in Judges 9:46; Judges 9:49 is translated “a hold.” In the Speaker’s Commentary it is suggested that it was applied to a particular kind of tower which was the work of the old Canaanite inhabitants, and which remained as ruins in the time of Saul.

Verse 8

(8) And he tarried seven days.—When was this “set time” appointed? It seems difficult at first to refer back to the day of Saul’s mysterious prophetic consecration (1 Samuel 10:8), which took place at least some three or four years—perhaps much longer—before the event here related, especially as we know that Saul and Samuel had been together on one occasion certainly at Gilgal in the meantime (1 Samuel 11:14-15); and yet the extraordinary solemnity of the warning of the seer at the time of the anointing at Ramah evidently pointed to some event which should in the future happen at Gilgal, and which would be a most important epoch in King Saul’s career. All these conditions are satisfied in the meeting between the prophet and the king, here related. It is best, then, to understand this event as the one alluded to on the day of anointing at Ramah, and to conclude that this grave warning and positive direction had been repeated, probably more than once, since then by the seer to the king. (On the place Gilgal, and on the nature of the “sin of Saul,” which was so terribly punished, see Excursus E and F at end of this Book.) Saul, we read, waited seven days, but before the seventh expired, gave up waiting, and offered the sacrifice without the seer, and thus, as Josephus says, “he did not fully obey the command.” His faith failed him under pressure at the last, and he acted on his own responsibility, quite irrespective of the positive command of God.

The people were scattered from him.--This trial of the king’s faith was doubtless a severe one. The panic which pervaded all Israel was every hour thinning the host Saul had gathered round him at Gilgal. The martial king longed for a chance of joining battle: and this he was forbidden to do until the seer had offered sacrifice, and publicly inquired of the Lord; and the day passed by, and Samuel came not. An attack on the part of the Philistine army, encamped at no great distance, seemed imminent, and Saul’s forces were rapidly melting away.

Verse 9

(9) Bring hither a burnt offering to me.—It has been supposed by many that the greatness of the sin of Saul consisted in his offering sacrifice with his own hand, but not a hint of this is anywhere given us. It is more than probable that the sacrifice which was offered so prematurely in the absence of the seer of God was performed by the hand of Ahiah the priest, who, no doubt, was in attendance on the king. No unlawful assumption of priestly functions, as in the case of King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:18), is anywhere charged on Saul.

Verse 10

(10) Behold, Samuel came.—Scarcely does the sacrificial ceremony appear to have been completed when the seer appeared on the scene.

It was the seventh day, according to the solemn injunction given to the king, but Saul, in his impatience, had not waited till the end of the day.

Saul went out to meet him.—The reverence which the king, in spite of his disobedience, felt for Samuel is displayed in his going out to meet him thus publicly. This deep feeling of the king for the great prophet to whom he felt he owed so much existed on Saul’s part all the days of Samuel’s life, and, as we shall see, even after Samuel’s death.

Verse 11

(11) What hast thou done?—The deeper aspects of King Saul’s sin are discussed in Excursus F. On this memorable occasion the king plainly told Samuel that though he would gratefully receive any help which the prophet of the Most High could and would bring him, still, in an emergency like the present, sooner than run any risk, he preferred to act alone, and, if necessary, to go into battle without Divine consecration and blessing. The danger at this juncture was imminent; to ward it off, he considered that the direct Divine intimation which he allowed he had received through Samuel must be disregarded. Acting upon this persuasion, he set it aside, acting according to the ordinary dictates of worldly prudence. He must in his action at Gilgal either have forgotten or disbelieved the story of the Joshua conquest, and of the signal deliverances under the hero Judges, when the Glorious Arm fought by the people, and splendid successes were won in the face of enormous odds through the intervention of no mortal aid.

Saul might have been, and was, a valiant and skilful general, but was no fitting Viceroy of the invisible King in heaven, who required from him before all things the most ardent unquestioning faith.
Saul and his house, it is too clear, would only rule the Israel of God according to the dictates of their own haughty will.

The twice-repeated assertion of Samuel, “Thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord” (1 Samuel 13:13-14)—an assertion uncontradicted by Saul—shows us that this whole transaction was an act of overt rebellion against the will of the Eternal.

Verse 14

(14) Now thy kingdom shall not continue.—The succession was thus formally transferred elsewhere; still, when the words of doom were spoken by the prophet, David, the son of Jesse, the man after God’s own heart, could at that time have been but a mere child. Had King Saul repented what he had done, he might have been forgiven, “for God’s threatenings, like His promises, are conditional. There is no fatalism in the Bible, but a loving discipline for man’s recovery. But behind it stands the Divine foreknowledge and omnipotence, and so to the prophetic view Saul’s refusal to repent, his repeated disobedience, and the succession of David were all revealed as accomplished facts.”—Dean Payne Smith.

Verse 15

(15) And Samuel arose.—Although the close union between the prophet and the king was thus disturbed by the unhappy self-willed conduct of Saul, by which he virtually threw away the power which had been conferred on him, still Samuel does not as yet break off friendly relations with Saul. Perhaps the noble old man still hoped that the brilliant and gallant king would recognise his fatal error.

From Gilgal, we read, Samuel passed to Gibeah of Benjamin, the home of Saul: there, no doubt, he took counsel with and encouraged Jonathan, who was stationed there, and whose splendid gallantry was soon after to be called into action again.

And Saul numbered the people.—The disobedience of Saul had availed nothing. Instead of being able to lead a host against the Philistine army, the camp of Israel became deserted. Even his small division of regulars seems to have melted away; only six hundred answered to the despairing king’s roll-call. It would seem as though the Divine punishment had begun already.

Verse 16

(16) Gibeah of Benjamin.—Saul and his son, uniting their sadly diminished forces, entrench themselves at Geba, in a strong position at the end of a pass, whence they could watch the movements of the Philistines. Their small number forbade any idea of an attack on the enemy.

The English translators wrongly here substitute “Gibeah of Benjamin” for “Geba of Benjamin,” probably led astray by the mention of Gibeah in the preceding verse.

Verse 17

(17) And the spoilers came out.—The compiler of these Books of Samuel does not profess to give a detailed account of this or any of the wars of Saul It would seem that the Philistines, with their great armed demonstration (1 Samuel 13:5), had completely cowed the Israelites, certainly in the southern part of Canaan. Probably the allied forces were now suffered to leave the Philistine host, and we next hear of the old raids re-commencing. The three companies spoken of in this and the next verse were directed to ravage districts in the tribe of Benjamin, for in that locality are situated all the places mentioned. Unchecked, they seem to have carried out their plans. These armed companies swept away all the smithies in the south part of the land. The fortunes of Saul now reached their lowest ebb. “The heights of his own tribe . . . and the passes of his own tribe were occupied by hostile garrisons. We see him leaning on his gigantic spear, whether it be on the summit of the Rock Rimmon . . . or under the tamarisk of Ramah . . . or on the heights of Gibeah. There he stood with his small band, the faithful six hundred, and as he wept aloud over the misfortunes of his country . . . another voice swelled the wild, indignant lament—the voice of Jonathan, his son.”—Dean Stanley: Lectures on the Jewish Church.

Verse 19

(19) Now there was no smith found.—We must allow a year, perhaps two or three, to have elapsed while “Saul and Jonathan . . . abode in Gibeah,” during which period the Philistine raids went on unchecked, the Israelitish forces being too weak to venture with any hope of success into the open country. The statement respecting the destruction of the smithies probably only specially refers to the southern districts of Canaan—especially the territory of Benjamin, whence Saul and Jonathan, in the earlier years of the former’s reign, drew, no doubt, the majority of their men of war. These devastating forays are alluded to in 1 Samuel 13:17-18.

Verse 20

(20) To sharpen every man his share, and his coulter.—Porsenna, we read, in the time of the wars of the Republic, allowed the Romans iron implements for agriculture only. Coulter.—In Isaiah 2:4, Joel 3:10, this word is rendered “ploughshares “; so most of the older versions. We cannot now with any precision distinguish between these two implements of tillage.

And his mattock.—Jerome renders the Hebrew word here by “hoe” (sarculum). It was probably a kind of heavy hoe, used for turning up the ground.

Verse 21

(21) Yet they had a file for the mattocks . . .—This translation, the sense of which is not very clear, is supported by the Targum and by many of the great Hebrew commentators—Rashi, for instance. Gesenius and the majority of modern scholars, however, render the word in the original translated “file” (p’tsirah) by “bluntness.” The passage then would run: “And there was bluntness (or dulness) of edge to the mattocks; “or,” so that bluntness of the edges occurred to the mattocks.” “The forks” were probably an instrument with three prongs, like our trident.

And to sharpen the goads.—The words from “and there was bluntness,” &c. (English Version, “they had a file”), down to “axes,” form a parenthesis.

“This parenthesis indicates that the result of the burthensome necessity of going to the Philistines was that many tools became useless by dulness, so that even these poorer sort of arms did the Israelites not much service at the breaking out of the war.”—Bunsen.
The LXX. read this 21st verse with considerable changes: “And the vintage was ready to be gathered, and the tools were three shekels to the tooth to sharpen], and to the axe and to the scythe there was the same rate” (or, as the Greek has been rendered,” tools cost three shekels apiece [to sharpen]”).

Verse 22

(22) There was neither sword nor spear.—These words must not be pressed too literally. The general result of the raids alluded to in 1 Samuel 13:16-17 was that in the open valleys of Southern Canaan, especially in the Benjamite territory, the districts whence Saul and Jonathan could most easily recruit their thinned and dispirited forces, there was an absence of arms. This fact is especially dwelt upon, for the Philistines appear to have armed their fighting men to the teeth. (Compare the description of their champion, Goliath, who is described as “clad in armour.”)

But with Saul.—These words probably signify that the companies of regulars, who throughout this disastrous period were always with the king and prince, were—in contrast to the country people around—fully armed. (See allusion, for instance, to Jonathan and his armour-bearer in the next chapter.)

Verse 23

(23) The garrison of the Philistines went out.—These words form an introduction to the recital of the heroic deed of Jonathan related in the following chapter. The Philistines are represented as sending forward an armed detachment, or out-post detachment, beyond the camp of Michmash, as a protection against a surprise on the part of the Israelitic force under the king and his son.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 13". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-13.html. 1905.
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