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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 13

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-23

1 Samuel 13:1. A literal rendering of the Hebrew text in this verse would stand thus—Saul was years old when he began to reign, and he reigned, and two years over Israel. The Hebrew numerals have evidently fallen out, and nearly all commentators agree that this verse, according to the custom in the history of the kings (2 Samuel 2:10; 2 Samuel 5:4; 1 Kings 14:21; 1 Kings 22:42; 2 Kings 8:26) originally gave the age at which Saul began to reign and the number of years that his reign lasted. Some, however, understand that Saul had been publicly made king by Samuel one year before the events recorded in the preceding chapter, and that when he had reigned two years, he did what is recorded in this chapter. Bishop Hervey, who agrees with Keil and Erdmann in adopting the first-named view, says, in the Biblical Commentary, “There is no certain clue to the exact numbers to be supplied; but Saul may have been about thirty at his accession, as a scholion to the Sept. has it, and have reigned some thirty-two years, since we know that his grandson Mephibosheth was five years old at Saul’s death (2 Samuel 4:4): and thirty-two added to the seven and a half years between the death of Saul and that of Ishbosheth, makes up the forty years assigned to Saul’s dynasty in Acts 13:21. Neither is there any clue to the interval of time between the events recorded in the preceding chapter and those which follow in this and succeeding chapters. But the appearance of Jonathan as a warrior (1 Samuel 13:2) compared with the mention of Saul as a young man at 1 Samuel 9:2 implies an interval of not less than ten or fifteen years, perhaps more.” Keil and Erdmann, however, agree in placing the acts of Saul recorded in 1 Samuel 13:2 immediately after the events narrated in the last chapter. As no other summoning of the people is mentioned before except that for the Ammonite war, and as a gathering of all the fighting population is implied in the last clause of 1 Samuel 13:2, they assume as probable that it was at Gilgal, immediately after a renewal of the monarchy, that Saul resolved at once to make war upon the Philistines.

1 Samuel 13:2. “Michmash.” “This town has been identified with great probability with a village which still bears the name of Muhkmas, about seven miles north of Jerusalem, on the northern edge of the great Wady Suweinit, which forms the main pass of communication between the central highlands on which the village stands, and the Jordan valley at Jericho.” (Biblical Dictionary.) “Mount Bethel.” The ancient town of Bethel was situated on very high ground, about 10 miles west of Jerusalem, in the same direction as Michmash. Mount Bethel was probably the mountain range upon which the city was situated.” “Jonathan.” Here mentioned for the first time. “A name which means, gift of Jehovah. In name and character he is the Nathaniel of this history.” (Wordsworth.) “Gibeah of Benjamin.” The residence of Saul, probably the present Tuliel-el-Ful, “a conspicuous eminence just four miles north of Jerusalem to the right of the road.” (Biblical Dictionary.)

1 Samuel 13:3, “Geba.” “Identified by most writers with the modern Jeba, standing on the south side of the Wady Suweinit, exactly opposite to Michmash. “Let the Hebrews hear,” etc. “Not only as a joyful message, but also as an indirect summons to the whole nation to rise.” (Keil.)

1 Samuel 13:5. “Thirty thousand chariots.” The immense disproportion which this number bears to the people, and the fact that the Syriac and Arabic versions read three thousand, has led most critics to suppose that there is here an error in the Hebrew manuscripts. “Solomon had only fourteen hundred chariots, which are mentioned as a large number (2 Chronicles 1:14). Some suppose the baggage waggons are included in the number. Probably the Philistines may have engaged other nations, the enemies of Israel, to fight with them, and this supposition is confirmed by the mention of the number of the people ‘as the sand,’ etc., and also by the confusion of the army, which is mentioned in 1 Samuel 14:20, and which was due in part to the fact that it was composed of various nations.” (Wordsworth,).

1 Samuel 13:6. “When the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait,” etc. “The position of matters seems to have been this: The Philistines were in possession of the village of Geba, on the south side of the Wady Suweinit. In their front across the Wady, which is here about a mile wide, and divided by several swells lower than the side eminences, was Saul in the town of Michmash, and holding also Mount Bethel—the heights on the north of the great Wady—as far as Beitin (Bethel) itself. South of the Philistine camp, and about three miles in its rear, was Jonathan, in Gibeah-of-Benjamin, with a thousand chosen warriors. The first step was taken by Jonathan, who drove out the Philistines from Geba by a feat of arms which at once procured for him immense reputation. But in the meantime it increased the difficulties of Israel, for the Philistines hearing of their reverse, and advancing with an enormous armament, pushed Saul’s little force before them out of Bethel and Michmash and down the eastern passes to Gilgal, near Jericho, in the Jordan valley. They then established themselves at Michmash, formerly the head-quarters of Saul, and from thence sent out their bands of plunderers north, west, and east (1 Samuel 13:17-18). But nothing could dislodge Jonathan from his main stronghold in the south. As far as we can disentangle the complexities of the story, he soon relinquished Geba and consolidated his little force in Gibeah, where he was joined by his father, with Samuel the prophet and Ahiah the priest, who, perhaps, remembering the former fate of the ark, had brought down the sacred ephod from Shiloh (1 Samuel 14:3). These three had made their way up from Gilgal with a force sorely diminished from desertion to the Philistine camp and flight (1 Samuel 13:7 and 1 Samuel 14:21)—a mere remnant of the people following in the rear of the little band (1 Samuel 13:15). Then occurred the feat of the hero and his armour-bearer (chap. 14) (Biblical Dictionary). “The people did hide themselves,” etc. “The broken ridges of the neighbourhood would afford abundant hiding-places. The rocks are perforated in every direction with crevices and fissures, sunk deep in the rocky soil, subterranean granaries or dry wells in the adjoining fields.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 13:8. “And he tarried seven days,” etc. See note on 1 Samuel 10:8. “This appointment seems to have been for a trial of faith and obedience.” (Biblical Commentary.) Samuel came on the seventh day, but not until towards its close. “And he offered,” etc. The words do not necessarily imply that Saul did this with his own hand; it is quite possible that he merely commanded the priest to do it. If so, his sin was simply that of disobedience to the command of God, as given by Samuel. Dean Stanley, Dr. Kitto, and others, think that he was guilty of the double offence of usurping the office of the priest and of disobedience to the Divine word. Wordsworth observes that “Samuel does not animadvert to any such intrusion on Saul’s part.”

1 Samuel 13:14. “The Lord hath sought him a man.” “It is natural to infer from this that David, who of course is indicated, was already grown to man’s estate, as we know his friend Jonathan was. But as David was only thirty years old when he began to reign, the incident here related must have occurred during the last ten or fifteen years of Saul’s reign.” (Biblical Commentary.)

1 Samuel 13:15. “Six hundred men.” “Saul had therefore, by his hasty, disobedient conduct, not attained his purpose of holding the people together. The declaration,’ Thou hast done foolishly,’ is thus confirmed.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 13:16-23. “The following account is no doubt connected with the foregoing, so far as facts are concerned, inasmuch as Jonathan’s brave, heroic deed terminated the war for which Saul had entreated the help of God by his sacrifice at Gilgal; but it is not formally connected with it, so as to form a compact and complete account of the successive stages of the war.” (Keil.)

1 Samuel 13:17. “The spoilers came out,” etc. The places here mentioned, so far as they can be identified, lay respectively on the north, west, and east—that is to say, the predatory bands sallying from Michmash ravaged through the valleys which radiate from it in those directions.

1 Samuel 13:19. “There was no smith,” etc. This policy of disarming the natives has often been followed. “So Porsenna allowed the Romans iron implements for agriculture only.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 13:20. “Share, coulter,” etc. “In Isaiah 2:4, and Joel 3:10, the word here rendered coulter is rendered ploughshare, and the word here rendered share, from its etymology, must have that meaning; we must therefore suppose there was some difference in the two implements which cannot now be ascertained. The worn signifying mattock, or some such cutting instrument, is nearly identical with that rendered share.” (Biblical Dictionary.)

1 Samuel 13:21. The meaning of this verse is obscure, and the renderings of it very diverse. Gesenius and many Hebrew scholars read “And so there was dulness or notching of the edge.” “The parenthesis indicates that the result of the burdensome necessity of going to the Philistines was that many tools became useless by dulness, so that even this poorer sort of arms did the Israelites not much service at the breaking out of the war.” (Bunsen.)

1 Samuel 13:22. “So … there was neither sword nor spear found” “They had no weapons of defence but their rude implements of husbandry. But by means of these a bold energetic militia could do great execution; and in the well-known instances of the royalist peasantry of La Vendee or the Hays of Cramond, in Scotland, we have examples of the alert and effective manner in which a pastoral or agricultural people can arm themselves at a moment’s notice.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 13:23 “The passage of Michmash.” The open valley between Geba and Michmash (see note on 1 Samuel 13:6). “It is about a mile broad at this point, but contracts in its descent eastward to the Jordan into a narrow, precipitous defile.” (Jamieson.)



I. Humiliation of a nation following distrust of God. Saul “chose him three thousand men,” etc. This band of men seems to have been intended to act as a body-guard to Saul and his son, and to form a kind of standing army for the defence of the nation. In this act Saul was only following the general custom of human monarchs, who need the arms and strength of their subjects to protect themselves and to help them to defend their country. But this was quite a new thing in Israel, and it was a humiliation for the nation. It had hitherto been their glory that their king needed no arm of flesh to protect his person, nor any standing army to defend them from their enemies. He who had legions of angels to do His bidding could well dispense with the service of a human body-guard, and so long as they continued obedient to His word there was no need of a standing army in their midst to defend them from their enemies. Even when they had through disobedience been given over for a season into the hands of the heathen, their mighty and invisible King had always raised up deliverers so soon as they had by confession and promises of amendment returned to Him. This act of Saul must have forcibly reminded the Hebrew nation that they had now indeed got what they desired—a “king like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:4), and if they had reflected they would have felt humiliated in contrasting the comparative weakness of even the brave and warlike Saul with the omnipotent strength which they had rejected. But an act of distrust in Divine power is always followed by humiliation.

II. Humiliation of a monarch following disobedience to God. God is a ruler who demands and deserves unconditional obedience. An absolute monarch ought to be so wise that all the wisdom of all his subjects put together is not equal to that which he possesses. And His goodness ought so to exceed the goodness of the best and most benevolent subjects of his realm that all his plans and purposes, and hence all his commands, will be more adapted to the welfare of every citizen than any plans which their united wisdom and benevolence could form. Unless a ruler can establish beyond doubt that he is thus immeasurably superior to all whom he desires to obey him, he has no right to demand from them unconditional obedience. But if such an one can be found, it is surely to the interest of all whom he commands to render it. God is such a King—the “King who can do no wrong,”—and as such He demands and deserves obedience to all His commands although his subjects may not always see why He so commands them. This absolute obedience was the condition upon which alone He had promised to continue to be with Israel and with Israel’s king (1 Samuel 12:14-15). His past dealings with the nation, as Samuel had reminded them at Gilgal, fully justified this demand upon their loyalty, and Saul’s individual experience ought to have made him deeply sensible that nothing less would be accepted by that Absolute Ruler who had placed him on the throne. That the command came to Saul through the word of Samuel made no difference—the command of a king is none the less binding because it is delivered through the mouth of a subject, and Saul knew full well that God spoke through the mouth of His prophet. Consider—

1. The root of this act of disobedience It was distrust. It is quite evident that Saul had been commanded to remain at Gilgal until Samuel should arrive, and to postpone the sacrifices which were to precede any action against the Philistines until the prophet’s arrival. There is no doubt that Saul would then have received Divine direction as to his future movements, and that the expedition against the national enemies would have been followed by signs of the Divine approval. But Samuel’s arrival was delayed until the last day of the appointed time without doubt to test Saul’s faith in the Divine word. Help on all occasions and in all extremities had been most certainly promised him on condition that he, the king, as well as his people, followed after the Lord (1 Samuel 12:14); and an opportunity was now afforded him of proving whether he believed the promise. By his own confession he doubted it. “Thou comest not within the days appointed, and the Philistines gathered themselves together to Michmash, therefore said I, the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal.” This was saying, in effect, that he doubted whether God and God’s prophet would be as good as their word. The dishonour offered to Samuel was in reality a dishonour offered to God, inasmuch as he was doubtless acting under Divine direction—a fact of which it was impossible that Saul could be ignorant. The step from distrust to disobedience is easily taken—indeed the one is almost certain to lead to the other. While there is an unshaken confidence in the character of another there will be a loyal adherence to his commands, for confidence in his character and wisdom will beget an assurance that he will only command what is just and right. And this is especially true of man in his attitude towards God; hence it is the great aim of the tempter of men to beget in them distrust of God, in order to lead them to disobedience to God. He did this with our first parents. All the questions which he put to Eve evidently had for their object the infusion into her mind of a suspicion whether, after all, God was the benevolent Being she had hitherto believed Him to be. If Saul’s confidence in God had been firm, we should have never had this record upon the page of Bible history.

2. The punishment which it brought upon Saul. At first sight it may appear a very severe one. That Saul should be rejected by God from being the founder of a kingly dynasty for a single act of disobedience may seem upon the surface to be a sentence out of proportion to the gravity of the act. But it must be remembered that disobedience to a plain command is a very great sin. Saul could not plead as an excuse that he had misunderstood what he was required to do, or that the will of God had been implied rather than expressed; he does, in fact, put in neither of these excuses. He admits that he knew what his directions were, and that he had knowingly and deliberately acted in opposition to them. As in the disobedience of the first man, the plainness of the command, “Thou shalt not eat of it” (Genesis 2:17), made the eating an act of open defiance of the sovereignty of Jehovah, so it was in this case. The man who had been raised from herding cattle to be God’s vicegerent in Israel, here lifts the standard of open rebellion against his Sovereign. Then, again, an act of disobedience is aggravated by the high position of the offender. A common soldier who disobeys martial law is punished for his crime; but if the commander of the army violates it, he meets with a much more severe sentence. Men recognise the fact that the transgression of such a man deserves a heavier penalty, because his high and representative position makes his observance of law doubly obligatory. Such a man ought to be a living embodiment of obedience; he ought to show to those who are socially beneath him a life in perfect accordance with every jot and tittle of the law by which his very position implies that he is governed. Saul as king of Israel was bound by obligations above all his subjects to observe every Divine command with the strictest fidelity. Upon his acts depended to a very great extent the moral tone of the entire nation—if he treated the word of the Lord as a word to be regarded or set aside as his humour dictated, many of his subjects would surely do the same. The welfare of the Hebrew commonwealth demanded therefore that so open and glaring act of defiance should be visited with a public and severe penalty. The spirit in which Saul met Samuel’s question, “What hast thou done?” shows also that there was no repentance after the deed. The words of the prophet seem framed to beget some acknowledgment of guilt—the very sight of the man who had been the channel by which all the favours of Jehovah had come to him, and from whose mouth he had received so many messages from the Most High God was calculated to beget in him some sense of his guilt. But there is no parallel to David’s—“I have sinned against the Lord”

(2. Sam. 1 Samuel 12:13)—he meets Samuel’s question with words which have no ring of repentance about them—which show no sense of the greatness of the sin he had committed. When we consider all the circumstances which surround this act we can see that the sentence was not heavier than the sin.

3. Its woeful miscarriage in the immediate future. Saul’s excuse for the act was the urgency of the situation—the danger which threatened the people at the hand of the Philistines. He pleads that he had disobeyed God in order to obtain from Him a fulfilment of His promises—that he hoped by breaking His law to bring that success to his arms which had been promised only on condition of obedience. Well might Samuel say, “Thou hast done foolishly,” and the foolishness of sin was soon afterwards the bitter experience of both king and people. In nature God has certain laws, or established methods of working, by which good things come into the hand of men. But men must work in harmony with them and not in opposition to them if they would be partakers of the good. If a man expected to obtain the same results by acts which were in direct opposition to the known and established laws of the universe, he would be accounted nothing less than a madman. And there are physical laws the defiance of which all men know will not only be followed by no gain but with physical loss. No rational man thinks that he can throw himself over a precipice, for instance, and escape bodily injury and pain. Disobedience to the laws which govern matter can never bring the same results as obedience, and men never expect that it will do so. They know that if they “break” this hedge, “a serpent will bite them” (Ecclesiastes 10:8). But many a man, besides the first king of Israel, has acted as if he expected that observance and non-observance of moral law would be followed by the same results. Saul desired to defeat the Philistines, and God had promised to stand by him and his army so long as they clave to Him. But Saul here acts as though he expected to obtain the same blessing by forsaking God as by following Him! He offers a burnt offering to the Being whom he is defying, and looks for the same results as if he were walking in obedience to His word. But God’s moral laws, like his physical ones, go as straight forward as the mighty wheels in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:17). Yea, they are far more fixed and unalterable, and the penalty of breaking them far more certain. God has suspended the laws of His physical universe, but never one of the laws of His moral kingdom. It is a law as firm as the throne of God, that “whatsoever a man soweth,” in moral acts, “that he shall also reap” (Galatians 6:7), and men only make manifest their exceeding foolishness by expecting otherwise. When Saul found his two thousand men diminish to six hundred, and when the whole land was devastated by incursions of the heathen spoilers, both king and people knew from bitter experience that he does wisely who keeps the commandments of the Lord, and that there is no folly to compare with the foolishness of sin.


1 Samuel 13:8; 1 Samuel 13:13. The first test of faith, which Saul had to submit to, was a theocratic necessity; for Saul must first prove to the Lord by deeds that he wished to be unconditionally subject to the Lord’s will, to yield obedience to His word which was to be revealed to him by prophets, and to trust alone to His help. Such tests as Saul had to stand, are, in the life of princes and peoples, and of individuals, in the church as in every member of God’s people, a divine significance; failure to stand them leads many from the Lord, brings to naught God’s purposes, results in misfortune and destruction. The individual elements of Saul’s probation, the typical significance of which elements for all times and circumstances of the kingdom of God is obvious, are found partly in his outward position, partly in his inner life. The external position of Saul, as to time and place, was one of extreme distress.… This distressing and dangerous position gave occasion in his heart to the temptation to act contrary to God’s will and command. In the first place fear of the threatening danger seized on his heart; to fear joined itself impatience, which prevented him from waiting out the time appointed by Samuel; this produced unquiet in his mind, which drove him to take self-willed measures to help himself, and dissipated more and more his trust in God; then came sophistical calculation by his carnally obscured understanding; his heart frame towards God of immovable trust and unconditional obedience was given up. It was the root of unbelief from which all this sprang.—Lange’s Commentary.

I. Sin is not estimated by God according to its outward form, but according to the amount and extent of the principle of evil embodied in that form. There may be as much of downright rebellion against God in what men would call a little sin, as in a series of what men would call flagrant offences. And when we say of a requirement of God that it was so small a matter as to render it marvellous that God should visit its violation with a penalty, we should remember that the smaller it was the more readily ought obedience to have been rendered, and the greater the proof of a wrong disposition, when obedience was refused, even in a little thing. II. The first wrong step is always marked by a peculiarity of evil which does not attach to any subsequent offences. Men are accustomed to palliate the first offence, because it is the first; a more accurate estimate would show that this habit of judging is thoroughly erroneous and fallacious. There is more to keep a man from committing a first offence, than there is to keep him from committing a second or any other criminal act. The impression of the command is at least one degree deeper than it can possibly be after it has been trifled with. The first sin involves the taking up of a new position, and this is harder work than to maintain it. It is assuming a character of disobedience, and this requires more hardihood than to wear it when it has once been put on. It is breaking through consistency, which is a strong barrier so long as it remans unbroken; but if once broken through sin becomes easy. All these things call on us, in fairness, to reverse our judgments on first offences; they suggest that these have an aggravation about them which belong not to other sins; and we thus are the less surprised that God, whose every judgment is right, should have visited Saul’s first offence with peculiar displeasure.—Miller.

Our faith is most commendable in the last act; it is no praise to hold out until we be hard driven; then, when we are forsaken of means, to live by faith in our God is worthy of a crown.—Bp. Hall.

I. This portion of Scripture history teaches us the danger of infringing or trifling with the Divine commandments on the plea of necessity.… There are many who would hesitate at the employment of dishonest, or even questionable means for the advancement of their interests generally, who would nevertheless occasionally, and under difficult and trying circumstances, dispense with the Divine law, and plead the peculiar necessity of the case for their justification. They are too apt to suppose that such a deviation from their known duty is rendered necessary, and excusable, from the urgency of their peculiar situation.… Could there be any case of greater urgency than Saul’s? Who can pretend to show a greater or more plausible necessity for deviating from a command of God? Yet his plea was utterly vain. II. The infatuation of supposing that, while disregarding the essentials of religion, faith and obedience, he could satisfy God with its forms.… All external rites and forms are only valuable as means conducive to internal and practical piety; and, consequently, are so far from compensating for the want of this, that, without it, they become an unmeaning and unavailing service.—Lindsay.

1 Samuel 13:13. It may probably strike many readers that foolishness is not exactly the term they would have employed in characterising the conduct of the king. They would have thought of “presumption,” of “self-will,” of “distrust,” and other like terms, but scarcely of foolishness. But the prophet’s word is the right one after all. It goes to the root of the matter.… In his view and in that of all sacred writers, the lowest depths of human foolishness—its most astonishing and incredible manifestation—was in disobedience to the Lord’s commandment. There are two kinds of fools prominently noticed in Scripture—the fool who denies that there is any God—and the fool who does not obey God, though he does not deny His existence.… And yet, if we probe the matter closely, we shall find that there is scarcely more than an impalpable film of real difference between them.… One may as well believe there is no God as not obey Him.—Kitto.

1 Samuel 13:14. The phrase “a man after God’s own heart,” has no reference to the piety or virtues of private and personal character; for no mere man in that respect has come up to the standard of the Divine law. It is used solely with regard to official fidelity in the service of Jehovah in Israel (chap, 1 Samuel 2:35); and David was certainly entitled to be characterised as “a man after God’s own heart,” from his ardent zeal and undeviating exertions for the interests of the true religion, in opposition to idolatry.—Jamieson.

1. A man devout, not merely by fits and starts, but profoundly and habitually.
2. A man not self-willed, who would rule according to the command of God through the prophets.
3. A man who, when he had done wrong, would penitently submit to God’s chastenings, invincibly trust in God’s goodness, and faithfully strive to live more according to God’s will. (In these and similar points Saul and David might be contrasted).—Translator of Lange’s Commentary.

1 Samuel 13:15. Saul’s sinful act in offering sacrifice lest the people should be scattered from him, failed of its purpose. Wordly policy does not attain even its own temporal ends (See John 11:48). “If we let this man thus alone, the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” They did not let Jesus alone; and therefore the Romans did come, and destroyed them.—Wordsworth.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 13". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-13.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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