“The Lord Saved Israel”
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“The Lord Saved Israel”

1 Samuel 14:1–23  (ID: 3379)

With God’s help, we can scale a wall! Such faith empowered Jonathan, accompanied only by his armor-bearer, to face the Philistines. His confidence lay not in his own strength and talent but in the Lord’s ability to save—and the Lord did not disappoint. God is not a bystander, teaches Alistair Begg; He continues to intervene and overrule amid the world’s panic. In Jonathan we see a hint of Jesus, the great King, only Savior, and our one true hope.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 and 2 Samuel, Volume 2

Saul, Israel’s First King 1 Samuel 8:1–15:35 Series ID: 109012

Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re going to read from the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel and in chapter 14. As we continue our studies in 1 Samuel, we’ve been making it through a chapter every study. But now we have some fifty-two verses in this chapter, and so I think discretion is the better part of valor. So we will only read now as far as verse 23.

First Samuel 14:1:

“One day Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.’ But he did not tell his father. Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave at Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men, including Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the Lord in Shiloh, wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone. Within the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison, there was a rocky crag on the one side and a rocky crag on the other …. The name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. The one crag rose on the north in [the] front of Michmash, and the other on the south in front of Geba.

“Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.’ And his armor-bearer said to him, ‘Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.’ Then Jonathan said, ‘Behold, we will cross over to the men, and we will show ourselves to them. If they say to us, “Wait until we come to you,” then we will stand still in our place, and we will not go up to them. But if they say, “Come up to us,” then we will go up, for the Lord has given them into our hand. And this shall be the sign to us.’ So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines. And the Philistines said, ‘Look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they[’ve] hidden themselves.’ And the men of the garrison hailed Jonathan and his armor-bearer and said, ‘Come up to us, and we will show you a thing.’ And Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, ‘Come up after me, for the Lord has given them into the hand of Israel.’ Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him. And that first strike, which Jonathan and his armor-bearer made, killed about twenty men within as it were half a furrow’s length in an acre of land. And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, [and] the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic.

“And the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and behold, the multitude was dispersing here and there. Then Saul said to the people who were with him, ‘Count and see who has gone from us.’ And when they had counted, behold, Jonathan and his armor-bearer were not there. So Saul said to Ahijah, ‘Bring the ark of God here.’ For the ark of God went at that time with the people of Israel. Now while Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, ‘Withdraw your hand.’ Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle. And behold, every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow, and there was … great confusion. Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle. So the Lord saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-aven.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Gracious God, we need your help to both speak, listen, understand, believe, and obey your Word. And so, this we seek. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

I think most of you would be surprised if I were to tell you what my treasures really are. Singularly unimpressed you would be with most of them, one of which I brought with me this morning. And it’s right here. You see, I can hear the gasps coming from you already. It’s correct. It’s a small piece of wood. On the front, it says, “Made by Byron Nelson.” It’s his signature that he carved into the front of it. And on the back of it is a reference from the Psalms: Psalm 18:29.

Now, you say, “Well, what are you doing with it?” Well, he sent it to me. It was one of a number that he produced to give to the United States Ryder Cup team when, under the captaincy of Tom Lehman, they played in Ireland against Europe. You should know that the reference reads as follows: “With your help”—that is, God—“I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.”[1] And Byron thought that would be a tremendous help to the US Ryder Cup team—which, of course, it is. Didn’t help them with their golf, but it is a very useful and important help. They lost to Europe on that occasion.

Any time we are confronted by the clear command of God and decide on whatever basis that we would be better off taking another path altogether, we will eventually rue the day.

But I was sitting studying last night underneath this, because it sits up above me, and I was thinking a lot of things. And I thought, you know, although Jonathan was not privy to the psalmist’s words here, Jonathan, to whom we are introduced in this particular chapter, acts in such a way that this particular verse provides, if you like, an apt summary of the confidence that he displays when he faces the troop of soldiers, when he advances against this great phalanx of opposition, this great wall that is his.

And as we come to this at the beginning of 14, we do so in the awareness of the fact—those of us who’ve been around—that chapter 13 has left the people of God in disarray. Saul and his forces are in a sorry state. Saul is tall, he’s handsome, he’s the king, he’s full of potential, and yet, in chapter 13, we have discovered that he has been disqualified, and he has been disqualified by his disobedience.

It was, as we saw last time, on account of a failure of faith. The circumstances, which we agreed together were undeniably daunting—his own numbers diminishing; the advancing forces very, very large; a loss of confidence; so on—but even in the face of that, he made a fateful decision, and it was a fatal decision. And that was to trust his own judgment over against the command of God. And we said at the time, and it’s worth resaying it, that any time that we are confronted by the clear command of God and decide on whatever basis that we would be better off taking another path altogether, we will eventually rue the day.

And so chapter 13 ends with a great pall hanging over it, with a sense of futility. And it’s very clear that if futility is going to give way to victory at all, then it is gonna have to come from another source other than Saul himself. And what we discover, really, is that here in chapter 14—which is sandwiched, obviously, in between 13 and 15—both chapter 13 and both chapter 15 speak of the failure of Saul; and sandwiched in between, the triumph of Jonathan. Jonathan would have become king, we learned in chapter 13, if his father had done what he was told. And now, in the absence of his father, he steps into the gap. And I say to you again that I think this verse he would have been very happy to have inscribed, if you like, on his armor-bearer’s shield: “I can advance against a troop; … I can scale a wall.”

For those of you who are just coming, you may be immediately saying to yourselves, “But this seems so long ago and so far away.” And, of course, it is. We’re dealing with material that is eleven and a half centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ. And the reason that we are prepared to study the Bible in this way is because it is the Bible, because it is the Word of God. And Paul tells us—and we’ve referred to this with frequency in the course of these studies—that whatever was written in the past, “in former days,” “was written for our instruction, [so] that through endurance and … the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”[2] We’ve sung already a lot about hope in these opening songs. Our pastor has prayed in the early part of the service about how by nature we find ourselves without hope. And so, as we study this, we have that in mind.

Now, in order to try and trace a line for myself through the text, I have gathered my thoughts in such a way that will make really not much sense to you at all. Doesn’t stop me from sharing it with you. But what I have ended up with is basically a potential password for the internet. In other words, there are no—I don’t have any—I’ve no vowels. So here’s the password for guiding me through the text, all right? It goes like this: “ASIPCLSV14124.” Okay? It’s immediately clicking, isn’t it? You say to yourself, “But that makes perfect sense.” The bright people, which diminishes the number significantly, would recognize the “14124” as, of course, 14:1–24. And I’m going to fill in these letters for you. All right?


A for audacity. A for audacity. The audacity that is displayed in verse 1 and in verse 6, where Jonathan, the son of Saul, says to his armor-bearer, “What we will do is we will go over and get amongst these Philistines.”

It doesn’t just seem as straightforward, and indeed, it isn’t straightforward. In verse 6, he reiterates this. And in between, we’re given details that are themselves significant. For example, we’re given some geographical details, or even more specifically, we’re given topographical details. And that is why we have recorded for us here that the ravine went in through “a rocky crag on … one side,” “a rocky crag on the other side.” They’re actually named for us. The name of one means “shining,” so that this rocky outcrop, when the sun was on it, would have shone, and the name for the other, Seneh, means “thorny.”

Now, when you have material like this in the Bible, it is not there extraneously. It is there purposefully, so that when we say, “Was it just an easy thing for them to make this journey?”—“No,” we say, “it was an expression of audacity to do so.” Joyce Baldwin says, “The ravine which Jonathan and [the armor-bearer] had to negotiate was precipitous and involved skilful rock climbing.”[3] In other words, in making this approach to the enemy, they took what would be regarded really as the last route that anyone in their right mind would choose. Audacity.


Secondly, secrecy. Secrecy. You will notice there at the end of verse 1 that Jonathan “did not tell his father.” In verse 3, we also discover that “the people did[n’t] know that Jonathan had gone.”

Now, what are we to make of this? I think just one thing, and straightforwardly—namely, that from Jonathan’s perspective, secrecy was essential to success. There was no sense in which he was going to make a great fuss and bother about it. He had previously, in chapter 13, slipped off and made a raid on his own, taking the initiative that his father didn’t take and, I think, incurring a little bit of animosity on the part of Saul. You will remember that the initiative was Jonathan’s, but the credit for success went to his father, Saul. Saul sounded the trumpets, said, “Let [all] the Hebrews hear,”[4] and the word went out that Saul had accomplished a great victory. Well, of course, it was his son that did it. And it’s his son now that’s going into action. Fathers and sons don’t always see eye to eye. And it seems that they don’t on this matter.


I for inactivity. For inactivity. The inactivity of Saul himself. Because you will notice, verse 2 tells us, that “Saul was staying.” Or it actually might be “Saul was sitting.”

So immediately you get this picture of him being sort of inert. And where was he sitting? Well, he was on “the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave.” Sounds like a really nice coffee shop, doesn’t it? And Saul was sitting there ordering cappuccino in the pomegranate cave; meanwhile, his son was out foraging against the Philistines. That’s the point I think the narrator is causing us to ponder. This is a dramatic display of the activity of one and the inertness of the other.

And his companions are recorded for us. We’re not going to delay on this; it won’t mean much to many of us. But he had the “six hundred men,” we’re told, and he had Ahijah, who was the priest, the one who was “wearing an ephod”; he was “the son of Ahitub,” who was “Ichabod’s brother,” who was the “son of Phinehas, [the] son of Eli.” Those of you who know the story so far say, “This is an interesting group.” Because remember, Phinehas and Hophni, they were not good. They were the bad boys. Eli wasn’t exactly spectacular in certain instances himself. And, of course, Ichabod, he just said—when you said “Ichabod,” you say, “The glory of God has departed.”[5]

So again, we’re processing this, and we’re saying to ourselves now, “We’re about to see Jonathan launching out. And we’ve got Saul, who has been disqualified by disobedience, in the cave. And the group that he’s brought around him is an interesting group.”

We’ll just say in passing that, you know, birds of a feather flock together. The people that you draw around you—the people that I draw around me say something about me as well. And if you draw around you a bunch of malcontents and discontented people and critical people and criticizing people and fearful people and so on, then you just become like all of that. And there’s a sense in which Saul here has gathered to himself, I think we would have to say, a not very surprising group, given where he is. The loss of Saul’s kingdom is somehow tied to the departing of God’s glory.


And then in verse 6, P for possibility. Possibility. “Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘… Let[’s] go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised.’” Using that word, he’s pointing out that “they are not us.” They are not the covenant people of God. And then here’s the possibility: “It may be that the Lord will work for us.” “It may be.” I like that: “It may be.” I hope you like it too. Because what it immediately points out is there is no dogmatism here on his part. There’s no presumption on his part. What he is actually saying is, “God may do this, but God doesn’t have to do this. It is a possibility.”

Now, this is not unique to this context. Even from our own studies in the Bible, we would be able to dig up one or two similar illustrations. For example, we remember in Esther. In Esther, Mordecai says to Esther not “The reason that you are here is because of what you are going to do,” but he says to her, “Who knows [but that] you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”[6] “Who knows?” If you remember when we studied Philemon, when Paul writes to Philemon concerning Onesimus, the runaway slave, who has become a Christian, and Paul is now sending him back, Paul says to him, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you is in order that you might have him back better than he was when he left.”[7] But Paul doesn’t say, “This is it.” He says, “Perhaps this is it.” Mordecai says similarly. And once again, we find it here.

You say, “Well, that’s very interesting, but does it really work with Jesus?” I think so: “Abba, Father, all things are possibilities for you. All things are possible. Yet not my will but yours be done.”[8] Some of us are unsettled by that. I get a little weary of those of you who come to tell me all of these things you know absolutely, definitely about the will of God. I say to myself, “Why don’t I know these things about the will of God? Why don’t I know what I’m supposed to do all the time?” You come and tell me, “I’m supposed to do this, and I know to do that.” I guess you’re moving in a realm of spiritual geography that I have not been able to enter. “Perhaps” is part of our theology.


The next word is C for certainty. Certainty. We’re still in the same verse. “It may be”—that’s possibility—“that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” That is certainty. That is certainty.

Although “perhaps” is part of the equation, of this one thing Jonathan is absolutely certain—namely, that nothing can hinder God from saving. And what he’s pointing out is it’s not about the numbers. It’s not about whether it’s three thousand or six hundred or thirty thousand or two or half a dozen. That’s the point that he’s making. He’s reminding himself of that.

And he would have been able to reach back into history and bring up incidents that reinforce that truth again and again—not least of all, Gideon, and how God reduced the numbers that Gideon would take against the foe. Not, as it were, getting them down to, you know, 300 special-ops people, as if—and that’s how it’s often spoken about, you know: “He started off with 10,000, but he got rid of 9,700, all these useless people that wouldn’t volunteer for children’s ministry. And he got it down”—I told you I’d use guilt if necessary!—“and he got it down to the 300 you could really count on.” That’s not the point at all. It wasn’t that the 300 were particularly useful or special. He was getting it down to a number that was so small that anybody would say, “God must have done this.”[9] Yes, he did, because “nothing can hinder [God] from saving by many or by few.” “He may choose to do this. That’s in the realm of possibility. But we do know in the realm of certainty that God is able and capable of this.”

What an amazing contrast, you see, then, between the people who have scattered to hide in the holes and Jonathan, who has stepped forward, essentially, to say, “With God I can walk through a troop; I can leap over a wall.”


And then in verse 7, loyalty. Loyalty. “And his armor-bearer said to him, ‘Do all [this] that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.’” The armor-bearer was a very, very important piece of the puzzle, always. The armor-bearer’s role was a vital role, and it was a vulnerable role, because in committing himself to be with the leader, when the leader led him somewhere, then he shared in all of the potentiality either for triumph or for defeat—all of the possibility of the Lord actually fulfilling this possibility or of them actually not doing that. He is, if you like, in the company of this crazy Jonathan man, who’s crazy enough to say, “It may be… We’re going, because we’re certain of this.”

It’s a reminder in passing, isn’t it, of the importance of others around us, not least of all those in leadership? I mean, when you read the history of things, you realize just how important, for example, Melanchthon was to Luther. That’s why when you go to the museum there in Florence—its name I forget—but when you go there, the one thing you want to go and see, the only thing I wanted to see, was the picture, the painting, of Luther and Melanchthon together, side by side. ’Cause I said, “Luther would never have been the person he was without Melanchthon.”

None of us are any good, ultimately, on our own. What a blessing it is when you’ve got somebody at your side, the equivalent of an armor-bearer, who writes to you as he does—and I speak now autobiographically—and he signs off, “I am with you heart and soul.”

T. S. Mooney, who’s one of my heroes, who died in ’86—a little bank manager from Londonderry, Northern Ireland—one of the roles that he fulfilled was not only the teacher of a boys Bible class for fifty years, but he was also the equivalent of the chairman of the elder board, the clerk of session in the Presbyterian church which he attended. And in the material that was written subsequent to his death, one of the chapters simply is entitled “The Minister’s Man.” “The Minister’s Man.” And his minister wrote concerning him, and he said, you know, when he was out and about, he often heard horror stories from other ministers who told about people who were around them in leadership and who made their lives more than a little challenging. And he said, “I never experienced that with T. S. It wasn’t because he had a lofty view of my role. I think it came from his gracious attitude towards everyone. There was no trace of naiveté. His ministry was one of positive encouragement rather than negative criticism.” It’s a wonderful little section. We don’t have time on it now. But he says, “He was more than the minister’s man. He was the minister’s pastor.”


Strategy, in verse 8 and following. You say, “Pick it up. We’ve got to get to verse 23.” I hear you.

Here’s the strategy. You can read it for yourself. What he says is, “We’re going to step out and let them see us. We’ll let the Philistines know that we’re here.” They’ll presumably think that they are representative, perhaps, of another group that’s along with them. Little will they know. “On the basis of their reaction, we’ll decide what we’re going to do. If they say, ‘Wait down there, and we’ll come to you,’ we will stay; we will not go up. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we’re gonna take that as a sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” I look forward to meeting Jonathan and asking him just exactly how it was that he was going to make that deduction from that event.

Nevertheless, verse 11, the plan is implemented. So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of Philistines. And they were singularly unimpressed, as you might expect. And the response is derision. And they said to one another, “Look,” verse 11, “[the] Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden themselves.” “The cavemen are out.” Of course, there was another caveman still back, whom we know about, but some of the rest apparently were deciding to come out. And so they said—I think quite brazenly—“Come up, and we’ll show you a thing or two.” In other words, “We’d love you to come up here. The sight is amazing from up here. You come up.”

And Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Well, let’s think about this for a minute. I mean, the circumstances do not look good. I mean, there’s only you and me. There’s a whole crowd of them. The journey is desperately difficult. The ravine is almost impassable. No one in their right mind would attempt this kind of—” No, he didn’t say any of that at all. If he’d said that, he would have sounded a lot like his dad, wouldn’t he? He’s not like his dad. No. He says, “This is what we’re gonna do: come up after me, for the Lord has given them into the hand of Israel.” I would have said, “Go up ahead of me.” That’s what I said to my armor-bearer just yesterday at our elders’ meeting. I said, “No, I think that’s a good thing for you to do. Yes. No, you go ahead. I’ll be right behind you.” No, so here’s true leadership: “Come up after me.”

The real question is, when the ground beneath me begins to shake, to whom or to what do I turn?

And so “Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet.” You can just see them scrambling up: no trumpets, no drums, just the two of them, up this high, steep bank. And as you read the text, as I read it, it says, “[And they went up] hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell.” But you have to realize that the “they” is the Philistines; it’s not them. The first time I read it, I said, “No wonder they fell! Why would they go up that way?” No! “And [the Philistines] fell.” The first strike. Take the first… They gotta hit the first punch. And then, within a very short distance, they were able to take out twenty of the enemy.

And as a result of that, we’re told, “panic in the camp,” verse 15, “in the field … among … the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled.” You didn’t know that they were mentioned in the Bible, did you? They clearly were not playing the Browns on this occasion. So, “the garrison and even the raiders trembled,” and “the earth quaked.”

Now, we won’t delay on this, but time and again in the Bible, when we hear of the earth quaking, it’s a signal and indication of the fact that God himself is actually administrating and overruling and intervening in these things. Think of the occasion of the death and resurrection of Jesus.[10] Think of the time when the Philippian jailer was unsettled first by the singing of Paul and Silas, and then by the earthquake, and as the whole substructure under him began to shake, he cried out, “What am I supposed to do to be saved?”[11]

It’s a reminder, you see, that God is not a bystander in the confusion that is described here, nor is he a bystander in the shaking and in the panic and in the confusion of our world, and nor is he a bystander when your own personal world and when my own personal world begins to shake. God does not look on and say, “Oh, that’s a surprise!” Some of us are here this morning, and we would say to ourselves, “You know, I am in one of the shakiest periods of my life,” whatever it may be. How can we know in one another’s life? The real question is, when the ground beneath me begins to shake, to whom or to what do I turn? You see, these Philistines had nowhere to go except their own foreign god, Dagon. And we’ve seen already that he was of no use to them at all. He had collapsed again and again.[12] Where are you going to go?

“The Lord Saved Israel”

Well, we’ll finish in that way in just a moment. But in case you’ve forgotten, Saul is back in the pomegranate cave. He has watchmen who are looking out, verse 16. They’re looking out. I can see him sitting there. He says, “Do you have a report for me this morning, captain?” Captain says, “Yes, it would appear that the army is diminishing. It would seem to be diluting. In fact, it seems like it’s absolute chaos.” Saul says, “Well then, why don’t we have a roll call again?” It’s almost like, “I have to do something, so why don’t we just count? So let’s have a count. See if we’ve still got the 600.” He counts, and they don’t have the 600. They may have less than 598, but they’re certainly missing Jonathan and his armor-bearer. That must have unsettled him just a little bit. So, I imagine him saying as the father, “Oh, here he goes again. Jonathan’s out there doing these things.” Yes, Saul, he is, because you’re in the pomegranate cave. You’re the king; he’s the prince.

And so he calls for the ark, which ought to cause us to say, “Wait a minute. We remember that in 1 Samuel 4. The last time they tried that, it was a disaster.” Exactly. And he calls for the guidance that is to be provided by the priest. When he has launched into this little venture, the tumult, we’re told, is getting more and more noisy, and so he says, “Hold that thought for a moment. Don’t worry about that. We’re not going to do that. What we’ll do is we’ll all go down and join the battle.” And so, in verse 20, “all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle.” And when they got down there, what did they discover? Well, they discover that “every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow, and there was … great confusion.”

Now, you remember that the predicament in chapter 13 was in part on account of the fact that the Hebrews, that Israel, had no weapons.[13] And we read that, and we said, “Well, that is an absolute hopeless situation.” Clearly, how could they ever go up to battle with no weapons? Can you imagine them when they go up there? Somebody says to his friend, “We don’t even need weapons. They’re killing each other!” Which is exactly what was happening. As soon as they got up there, they found weapons lying on the ground. They were able to pick them up and use them. God knows the end from the beginning. “All the way [he] leads me. What have I to ask besides?” Can you imagine the soldiers singing, “‘Can I doubt his tender mercy?’[14] The covenant God who has purposes for his people? Would he allow us to be defeated in this way?”

And we’re told that those who had slipped away over the river in chapter 13, now they decide they’ll get in on the action. Others, who were fearful and had been hiding away, they get involved. And the story concludes in verse 23: “So the Lord saved Israel that day.”

And then that’s the end. And you say to yourself, “Well, what are we to make of this?” Because, after all, as we’ve acknowledged, this is a long way away from here. This is a long way from the twenty-first century.

Now, some people in teaching this passage would then say something like this: “What you see here is the inactivity of Saul and the activity of Jonathan. Saul is not very good. Jonathan is really good. Therefore, this morning, what I’d like to say to you is don’t be like Saul; be like Jonathan.” In other words, it’s a sort of form of moralistic teaching. “Well,” you say to yourself, “surely that can’t be the point.” And that’s right. It isn’t the point!

The point is there: “The Lord saved Israel.” Jonathan didn’t save Israel. The picture at the end of chapter 13 was hopelessness. But what was God doing in that? He was bringing them, as he chooses to do, bringing them to see that what Jonathan had said could happen would actually happen and has happened, so that they would realize that Jonathan’s declaration of certainty they have now lived: “It is impossible to hinder God, who can save by many or by a few.” And he’d saved by a few.

Now, remember, as I’ve said in relationship to Gideon, this is a recurring theme. Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles, when they say that “the army that is coming against you is a vast multitude that no one can count,” [Jehoshaphat] doesn’t say, “That’s not a problem. We’re very strong.” No, Jehoshaphat says, “God, we are powerless against this vast number.”[15]

The disciples come to Jesus, and they say, “Jesus, these people are starving. We’ve got five thousand men. They oughta go home, or we’ve got to get them something to eat.” Jesus says, “Well, does anyone have anything to eat?” They say, “Well, there’s a boy here with a lunch. I mean, a few loaves and fish.” And then remember what they say? “But what are these among so many? You’re not gonna be able to do anything with this.”[16] No, but you see, God is able to save by many or by few. And the story, then, is not the example of a little boy who saved Jesus by giving him his lunch—which is the way the story’s often told: “He helped Jesus. He gave him his lunch.” And you go out going, “That’s what I’m going to be.” That’s not the story. Jesus did not need the little boy’s lunch. He created the universe ex nihilo. Do you think he needs the loaves and the fish? The amazing thing is that he chooses to use this wee boy and gives him a piece in the program.

Here’s the mystery: he chooses to use Jonathan, no matter who he is, to make the point that he and his armor-bearer, in their absolute abject poverty, become the vehicle of God’s triumph.

Now, there’s no doubt that Jonathan is a good example of courage and of faith. But he’s not in the Scriptures, I don’t think, so that we can copy him. I’d rather like to find him in Hebrews chapter 12, where in Hebrews chapter 12, remember, the writer says, “Being surrounded, therefore, by a great cloud of witnesses…”[17] And what he’s picturing there are all the people from the past, who have lived, like the hall of fame, in Hebrews chapter 11, the people who “were still living by faith when they died.”[18] I imagine that if we were able to look into that, we could find Jonathan somewhere in that group. And what were they all doing? Well, the writer goes on to say, what they were doing was they were standing there as signposts, enabling us to say, “Now, let us look to Jesus, who is the founder and the perfecter of our faith”[19]—so that what you have in Jonathan is, if you like, just a little hint, that makes you say, “This makes me think of someone else.” And the someone else to whom it points is Jesus, who is the great King; Jesus, who is the only Savior; Jesus, who is the one who saves us from our hopelessness.

The Problem of Being Powerful

Now, I find it interesting—and I draw to a close—but I find it interesting that there’s no record of any of these Philistines saying, “You know, maybe I should give up this useless Dagon god and trust the true and living God.” We’ll find out one day whether they did. But what about you this morning? On what basis do you have hope? Hope. Not hope that it doesn’t rain, but the biblical hope, which is the certainty of that yet to be enjoyed which has not yet been experienced, grounded in the love of God, revealed in the person of his Son, Jesus.

But here’s the problem. It’s the problem of being powerful. It’s the problem that comes as a result of saying, “I think I can handle this myself.” And one of the reasons that the Bible brings us to the place where the ground shakes under our feet is in order that we might then reach out and lay hold of the only refuge and be secure in that. I mean, the real question is, in terms of Beatles lyrics, you know, what do you want to go with? You want to go with “We can work it out,”[20] or do you want to be honest and say “Help”?[21] That’s the question. Saul, by his disobedience, says, “You know, I think I can work this out,” disobeyed the command of God.

We live in a world that is marked by hopelessness as much as any other thing. We live in a nation that is the focus of media attention throughout the entire world for the utter hopelessness that is represented in the ongoing destruction of life in such needless, horrific, senseless ways. And if you’re in any doubt about how hopeless it is, just go to a secular funeral. Just go to a funeral, and sit there, and realize that what the Bible says about the condition of man fits—namely, that we are by nature “without hope and without God in the world.”[22] And the only way in which hopelessness is to be replaced with hope is not as a result of our reaching into ourselves to make sure that we can take care of it but is as a result of God reaching down into our shaking, hopeless world to do what only God can do.

One of the reasons that the Bible brings us to the place where the ground shakes under our feet is in order that we might then reach out and lay hold of the only refuge and be secure in that.

Do you remember in the story of the prodigal son, it was “when he came to himself”[23] he said, “This is ridiculous”?[24] Until he came to himself, he thought it was okay. Henri Nouwen, commenting on that, says of his own experience, “Something ha[d] to happen that I myself [could not] cause to happen. I [could not] be reborn from below; that is, [by] my own strength, … my own mind, … my own psychological insights. There[’s] no doubt in my mind about this because I ha[d] tried so hard in the past to [save] myself …. [But] I can only be [saved] from above, from where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible for God.”[25]

Jonathan understood that. “I am absolutely certain,” he says, “that God can save, whether by many or by few.” And the purpose of God is to send Jesus “to seek and to save”[26] those who are prepared to admit, “I’m lost, I’m hopeless, I’m sinful, I’m stuck.” And the reason that some of us have never become followers of Jesus is because we believe that we are powerful, that we are secure, that we are religious, and we are good. So, either we allow the adjudication of the Bible to diagnose the condition, or we diagnose the condition for ourselves. I could think, in physical terms, how that might lead to a very sorry end.

Well, let us pray:

O gracious God, thank you that although by nature we are like these hopeless people at the end of 13, that you are the God who reaches down and who saves. And you give us a hope that doesn’t just last for a few minutes, but it actually stands the test of time. You give us a hope which is able to deal with the greatest issue of our lives—namely, that one out of one dies, that we will eventually stand before you. Lord, save us from ourselves, from saying, “I can work it out.” So shine into our hearts today that we might like children say, “O God, in the same way that you saved your people on that occasion, save me.” For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] Psalm 18:29 (NIV).

[2] Romans 15:4 (ESV).

[3] Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 107.

[4] 1 Samuel 13:3 (ESV).

[5] See 1 Samuel 4:21.

[6] Esther 4:14 (ESV).

[7] Philemon 15–16 (paraphrased).

[8] Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42 (paraphrased).

[9] See Judges 7:2–8.

[10] See Matthew 27:51; 28:2.

[11] See Acts 16:25–26, 30.

[12] See 1 Samuel 5:2–4.

[13] See 1 Samuel 13:19–22.

[14] Fanny Crosby, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” (1875).

[15] 2 Chronicles 20:2, 12 (paraphrased).

[16] John 6:5–13 (paraphrased).

[17] Hebrews 12:1 (paraphrased).

[18] Hebrews 11:13 (NIV).

[19] Hebrews 12:2 (paraphrased).

[20] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “We Can Work It Out” (1965).

[21] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).

[22] Ephesians 2:12 (NIV).

[23] Luke 15:17 (ESV).

[24] Luke 15:17 (paraphrased).

[25] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Image, 1994), 76.

[26] Luke 19:10 (ESV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.