Do What Seems Good to You

Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 14:24-52 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/12/2015 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Samuel 14:24-52

“Do What Seems Good To You”

We continue our sermon series through the book of Samuel, after taking a couple Sundays off. Let me refresh your memory of where we left off. We had seen Saul attack the Philistines in the previous chapter, chapter 13. That sparked a strong response from them. The Philistines gathered a humungous army and set out to attack the dwindling Israelite army. But in our last passage, which was the first part of chapter 14, we saw that God used Jonathan to save the day. Jonathan, fueled by great faith in God, saw past the large size differences between the two armies. Jonathan and his armor bearer went up and began an initial successful raid on some of the Philistine troops. It caused great confusion among the Philistine army. At the same time, God brought an earthquake to them, that only further confused them. In the confusion, the Philistine army started turning against each other. Saul with the rest of the Israelite army then saw this confusion and seized the opportunity to attack. In their success, some Israelites who had previously joined up with the Philistines, and others who had fled into hiding, returned to rejoin the Israelite army. The result was a great victory that day by the Israelites. God saved them, and he used Jonathan particularly as the hero that day. Our passage last time ended in verse 23 noting this victory.

Well, as we come now to verse 24, we see the narrator slows down and backs up a little in the story. We come now to learn a little bit more of what went on that day in the battle when they had this great victory against the Philistines. We learn about how Saul had put a rash oath on the people. We see how foolish this was, and how detrimental it was. Today’s passage deals with the fallout from this rash oath. And so today we’ll be looking at this oath. Actually, we’ll be looking at four oaths. Yes, that’s right. There are actually four oaths mentioned in this passage. But only one of them should have been made. And so we’ll consider all four oaths and see how they contribute to the developing plot in the book of Samuel.

Before we talk about the oaths in this passage, let me begin with a side word about oaths in general. First, a definition. An oath is when you make some promise or give some testimony and confirm it in some formal way, typically by invoking the name of God, and/or by calling for some divine curse if you violate the oath. It’s a way to strengthen what you are saying. Oaths are serious. Jesus says you ought not to make oaths that you don’t intend to keep. On the other hand, you ought not to make oaths that would bind you to do something that is evil or just simply foolish. The term for such is known as a “rash oath.” There are a number of places in the Bible that shows us that we ought not to keep a rash oath. Yes, even though oaths aren’t normally to be broken, that is only true if the oath was a righteous oath in the first place. If you made some unrighteous rash oath, then you only further add to your guilt by demanding that it be kept, simply because of the oath. Think about if from the perspective of not taking God’s name in vain. If you take an oath in God’s name for some unrighteous thing, then when you make that oath you’ve sinned against God. He doesn’t want his name attached to that kind of an oath. But then if you still go ahead and keep that unrighteous oath, because you made it in God’s name, then you again sin against God. He would certainly not want you to further advance this wickedness that you should have never pledged to do in the first place. Make sense?

Okay then, with that background on oaths, let’s dig into our first point. Let’s look at the first oath in this passage and see how it was rash and foolish. It’s found in verse 24. It says there that Saul put the people under this oath, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.” In other words, this is an oath that Saul imposes on his small army that is going up against this huge Philistine force. At the start of the day he imposes some fast upon them for the day before they go into battle. Well, as we see in this passage, this was an oath that Saul should not have put upon the people.

You know, on the one hand, it almost sounds like a good idea. Saul is the leader of the people. It’s certainly within the rights of a civil magistrate, faced with some national dilemma, to call the people to prayer and fasting. And so on the one hand, this might almost sound like some religious act of holy fasting. Though, as we dig deeper, we see the problems with this. First off, we can note that God is not even mentioned in this. There is no call for prayer. Rather, who is mentioned, is Saul. Saul says in the oath until “I have taken vengeance.” That sounds like Saul is more interested in his own personal vengeance on the Philistines than this being some call to urgent appeal to God for help.

Secondly, this is just seems completely unwise. Does it make any sense to call your soldiers to fasting as they head into what is presumably going to be their most difficult war battle of their lives? Doesn’t wisdom say that they need to eat a good meal before the battle, and whenever they have a break in the fighting to quickly replenish their strength with some physical nourishment? That would certainly seem to be the wise course of action. Well, this is exactly Jonathan’s point in verse 29. You see, the main conflict that arises in this passage is that Jonathan hadn’t heard about his father’s oath; maybe the oath was made after Jonathan and his armor bearer had set out on their covert mission to attack the Philistines. Well now, later in the day, after the initial victory, Jonathan has rejoined the rest of the Israelite army. They are passing through the forest during a break in the fighting. They run into a source of honey, and Jonathan grabs just a little with the end of his rod and eats it. Again, Jonathan didn’t know about the oath. Someone then tells Jonathan about the oath. And Jonathan gives us his assessment of his father’s oath. He thinks it is foolish, and that it has brought trouble to the Israelite army, verse 29. Jonathan goes on to show how just that little bit of honey was a great physical help to him. Then in verse 30, Jonathan explains how their victory would have been much greater if Saul hadn’t put this foolish demand upon the people. Jonathan shows that common sense wisdom is not opposed to faith in God and our religious practice.

Well, we see the bad outcome of Saul’s oath that he imposed on the people. Twice, the passage says that the people were faint. Verses 28 and 31, the people were faint; very faint. And then finally, at the end of the day, after the great victory, when presumably the timeframe of the oath had expired, there then becomes a mad rush among the soldiers to get some food in their systems. We see this starting in verse 32. The problem is that the people, in their rush for food, began to eat the meat from the spoil without first draining the blood. Leviticus 17 specifically required the Israelites to drain the blood of meat before they ate it. That’s why this passage has people, including Saul, calling this a sinful action by the soldiers who were doing it. Now, yes, every man needs to ultimately answer for his own sins; that’s true. But you can’t help but see how Saul’s rash oath encouraged this sin on the part of the people. It’s just part of the fallout of this original foolish oath that should have never been made.

A final bad outcome of this rash oath by Saul, is the simple reality that the Philistine army is not fully defeated that day. Now, we don’t know that if they had eaten, that they would have been able to fully destroy the Philistines. But we did see Jonathan point to the fact that the victory was not as big as it could have been. And in verse 36, we see that Saul himself wanted to continue the fight into the night against the Philistines. And the chapter ends with a reference in the final verse that the Philistines continue to bring fierce warfare to the Israelites all the days of Saul. Maybe if this rash oath wasn’t made, they could have so further weakened the Philistines forces so as to prevent that. But that did not happen, at least in part because of this rash and foolish oath.

So, that’s the first oath. We see Saul then make two more oaths, in verses 39 and 44. Let’s turn to look at that next in our second point for today. Basically, after Saul wants to go back into battle that evening (after the people have eaten dinner), the priest gets him to inquire of the Lord first. They seek the Lord’s counsel if they should resume the attack that night, and God does not give an answer. Saul believes that this lack of an answer must be due to some sin in the camp, and so we see him calls the chiefs of the people together, to figure it out, verse 38. The idea is that Saul is going to cast lots to see who was the person at fault. And so in verse 39, in light of that plan, that’s when Saul makes his second oath saying, “For as the LORD lives, who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” In other words, Saul’s plan is to cast lots and find out who has sinned, and then put that person to death. Well, after they cast the lots, Jonathan is ultimately selected. When Saul asks what he’s done, Jonathan acknowledges that he had eaten a taste of honey earlier that day. After this, Saul again reaffirms that oath in verse 44, saying, “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan.” You’ll note that in both of these oaths, Saul does explicitly invoke the name of God in the oath. This is typical oath making language, where Saul’s promising to do something by oath in the name of the LORD.

Well, these two new oaths, were also rash and foolish. Why were they rash and foolish? Well, again, a few things can be said to make this case. First, when Saul makes the oath before the casting of the lots, he’s declaring the punishment before he even knows the crime. But that is not justice. As the king, he’s supposed to enforce justice among the people. That’s why Deuteronomy 17 says that the king is to make a personal copy for himself of the law, so he can study it daily. The idea is that the king is supposed to be an expert in God’s law so he can lead and judge the people according to it. And a principle of justice that we see in the law is the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In legal terms, we call this the lex talionis principle. In other words, the punishment must fit the crime. It must not be harsher than deserved, nor more lenient that deserved. So then, how could it be just for Saul to declare by oath a punishment in verse 39, when he doesn’t even yet know the crime? This was a rash oath by Saul.

Furthermore, look at the justice and judgment he gives in the surrounding passages. Just before this, the people are clearly sinning against God by eating the meat with the blood. Saul even acknowledges this. Now yes, Saul makes an altar to try to remedy that. But the law actually says that the people who eat the blood with the meat should be cut off from the community. Yet, he seems to overlook that law altogether. And then in the next chapter, God will specifically tell him to completely wipe out the Amalekites. And yet after the battle we see that he had spared their king, king Agag. Samuel will rebuke Saul for that, and Samuel will kill Agag himself. And when Samuel executes King Agag, Samuel notes how Agag had wickedly killed many children. But my point here is that Saul was willing then to not kill the evil King Agag, but is so willing to put to death Jonathan, his own son, even before he knew what the crime even was!

The poor judgment of Saul is brought out here even further in verse 43, when Jonathan explains how he took of a little honey. The sense you get is that Jonathan himself doesn’t seem to think that death was warranted for this. And yet, even after hearing this explanation from Jonathan, Saul yet further reconfirms his sentence with this other rash oath in verse 44. In other words, Saul seems to affirm that he thinks this is what justice demands for Jonathan at this point. But again, clearly, the punishment does not fit the crime.

And so in these two last oaths here by Saul, his poor judgment stands out. I think of what Jesus told the religious leaders in John 7:24 who made bad judgments. He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” The people had told Saul in verse 40 to do what seemed good in his eyes, and sadly as he does that Saul shows how bad his spiritual insight is.

Well, this brings us now to a final oath in this passage. And thankfully it is a good oath. Look at verse 45. Up to this point, the people had gone along with Saul’s bad oaths. When the put upon them this unwise fasting, they in fear obeyed, verse 26. And when Saul made the second oath in verse 39, they kept quiet. Along the way, they twice told Saul to do what seemed good in his eyes (vss 36 and 40). They had also obeyed him when he built the altar and told them to stop eating the meat with the blood. So, the people were generally submissive to Saul, in the face of both good commands and unwise commands. And yet when we get to this third oath of Saul, and when he is finally going to put his son Jonathan to death, they can submit no longer. In an act of righteous rebellion, they make their own oath in verse 45. The people say this to Saul in the middle of verse 45, “As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” And so they take an oath that Jonathan is not to be harmed by Saul. This was a good and righteous oath of the people.

Let me ask the same sort of question that I did before. What makes this oath right and good, even though it stood in rebellion against their king? Well, we see their grounds at the start of verse 45. They ask, “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great deliverance in Israel? Certainly not!” There’s an interesting rebuke of sorts, here, of course, to King Saul. At the start of this passage, we see Saul concerned with how he himself will avenge himself on his enemies. But after the great victory, it was Jonathan used by God whom the people credit. And so after God used Jonathan in such a wonderful way, it seems incredible to think how this punishment upon him would be just. Jonathan, if anything, is to be rewarded and honored, not punished and killed.

And so the people are said in verse 45 to have rescued Jonathan. I love the idea here. Jonathan had before essentially worked with God to rescue the people. Now, the people had worked with God to rescue Jonathan. And so not only do the people rightly explain the righteousness of their oath, but the outcome is a good outcome too. The righteous prince and hero of Israel is delivered from an unjust execution.

So, we’ve looked at these four oaths in our passage. What can we learn from all this? What’s the relevance and application to us? Much could be said, but let me try to bring it all together with those words by which I titled our sermon. The people had told Saul twice in this passage, to do what seemed good to him. Literally, “do what is good in your eyes”. Saul seems to have tried to do this. That, was of course, the problem. You see, at the end of the day, the people should want to do what is good in God’s eyes. When you have good, godly, leadership, then theoretically those two things would coincide. If you have a king after God’s own heart, who has learned through the Word to love what God loves, then what is right in God’s eyes, will be the same as what is right in the king’s eyes. In fact, if you recall from the book of Judges, this is exactly what that booked hope a king could bring to Israel. The problem during the time of the Judges is that since there was no king, everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The hope was that if you get a king, then he will lead the people in what is right in God’s eyes. But that only works if the king himself knows and loves and affirms the laws of God. To say it another way, this is why that Deuteronomy 17 passage said the king needs to make a copy of the law for himself and study it daily. So, that he will be trained to think about things the way God thinks about them.

And so the take home point here is that getting a king didn’t necessarily solve their problem. King Saul did what was right in his eyes, but he shows himself repeatedly as not getting it right. He didn’t have a heart after God’s own heart, and so what he did fell short of God’s standards. The result is failed leadership.
And so in this book of Samuel, we are continued to be driven to look for a new leader. We are continued, at least initially, to be driven to look for the coming leadership of King David. But David wasn’t perfect in this regard either. Take the subject even of oaths and we’ll see in chapter 25 how David makes a rash oath too, to wipe out the house of Nabal, but thankfully there Abigail intervenes and convinces David to not keep that rash oath. And so in the larger story, we are driven to look for yet an even better leader, the coming leadership of King Jesus. He, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, will be a man who does what is good in his eyes, and that always matches up with what is good in God’s eyes. Because Jesus would say to the Father, not my will, but thy will, be done. That’s the kind of leadership God’s people need. And we have it, in Jesus Christ.

And it’s in this good leadership of Jesus, that we see our need for salvation. For unlike Saul, Jesus himself judges with a right judgment. And he has declared to each of us our sin. He’s revealed to us how we have each rebelled against God and do in fact justly deserve a sentence of death and damnation. We’ve all done far worse that take a bite of honey at the wrong time. Rather, we’ve all acted treacherously against God in so many ways and deserve to be cut off forever from God’s people. Jesus’ leadership and teachings reveal our guilt before a holy God. But this leader who judges perfectly, was not sent at his first coming into the world for judgment, but for salvation. That through him, the world might be saved. And so we are renewed again today in the gospel hope. As this passage drives us to Jesus, we are thankful for his good leadership. But we are also thankful how he brings atonement for our sins, to rescue us from eternal damnation. Put your faith in him, call upon him, and be saved!

Stepping back now, in a final point of application from this passage, let me ask this. How ought we to handle bad leadership? Or how do we handle the reality of fallible leaders, leaders that might normally do a decent job, but yet because they are fallible, do make mistakes or less than wise decisions? The people of Israel had to deal with both bad and good leadership in this passage (comparing Saul versus Jonathan, for example). We saw that they were willing to submit to Saul’s failing leadership and bear it, even despite multiple foolish oaths on his part. They had to bear the consequences of many of those decisions by Saul. And yet there did come a point where they felt they could not follow him, when Saul tried to put Jonathan to death. And so then they felt compelled to resist Saul’s leadership. To be clear, they still continued to submit to Saul overall, but on that point, they could not follow him, and made an oath to that effect.

This seems to be a helpful example for us as we deal with less than perfect leadership. The Bible clearly tells us to submit to the appropriate authorities over us. And there are authority structures in place throughout society: civil government, the elders in the church, husbands in their marriages, parents in their families, bosses at the workplace, etc. Many authorities that we are called by God to submit to. None of these leaders will be perfect. But we are literally commanded to obey them. Yes, there may come a time where they command something that we ought not to obey. But in today’s passage, we see how much the people were willing to bear up with before they got to that point. I think the temptation can be for us in our post-modern enlightenment society to do quite the opposite. Instead of submission, we scrutinize every decision an authority makes and say we’ll do it only if it seems right in our eyes. We justify that because we’ve become convinced that we have come to know with perfect clarity what is right in God’s eyes, and so we feel right to do such scrutiny. The effective result is that we then tend to only submit to the authority when they are asking us to do something that we already agree with. And yet it’s this same God that calls us to submit to these authorities. Let us not fall into a similar trap as Saul’s rash oaths by being quick to disobey an authority. Let us bear up under even much bad leadership, even when it affects us negatively, because our Lord has commanded us to honor and submit to such authorities. Let us reserve any disobedience to such authorities for when the evil is abundantly clear that an authority would demand of us. And may our strength in all this, in our general submission, or in the extraordinary case of disobedience, may our strength be in Christ. In the face of bad or simply fallible leadership, remember first that your ultimate leader is King Jesus.

Let us pray then for the wisdom of Christ when dealing with lacking leadership. It ever you find yourself in a place to consider if you ought to disobey an authority, you’ll need much wisdom. Pray for the leadership and wisdom of Christ to aid you in such circumstances. Praise God that Jesus has already rescued us from our sin; and he will, one way or another, ultimately rescue us from all the troubling circumstances we may find ourselves in. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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