A Taste of Honey
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A Taste of Honey

1 Samuel 14:24–52  (ID: 3386)

On the heels of victory against the Philistines, Saul found himself waging a new battle—a spiritual war within his own heart. His desire to vanquish enemies in his own strength led him to place a rash oath on the Israelites. This foolish decision led the people to obey manmade laws rather than God’s divine commands. As Alistair Begg teaches, Saul’s failed leadership reminds us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the one true King who never fails or disappoints His people.

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

I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel and to chapter 14, and we’ll begin reading at the twenty-fourth verse. First Samuel 14:24. We left off last time at verse 23, and so we pick things up from here:

“And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, [because] Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.’ So none of the people had tasted food. Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground. And when the people entered the forest, behold, the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. Then one of the people said, ‘Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food this day.”’ And the people were faint. Then Jonathan said, ‘My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great.’

“They struck down the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. And the people were very faint. The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood. Then they told Saul, ‘Behold, the people are sinning against the Lord by eating with the blood.’ And he said, ‘You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.’ And Saul said, ‘Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, “Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the Lord by eating with the blood.”’ So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. And Saul built an altar to the Lord; it was the first altar that he built to the Lord.

“Then Saul said, ‘Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.’ And they said, ‘Do whatever seems good to you.’ But the priest said, ‘Let us draw near to God here.’ And Saul inquired of God, ‘Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?’ But he did not answer him that day. And Saul said, ‘Come here, all you leaders of the people, and know and see how this sin has arisen today. For as the Lord lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.’ But there was not a man among all the people who answered him. Then he said to all Israel, ‘You shall be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.’ And the people said to Saul, ‘Do what seems good to you.’ Therefore Saul said, ‘O Lord God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.’ And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. Then Saul said, ‘Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.’ And Jonathan was taken.

“Then Saul said to Jonathan, ‘Tell me what you[’ve] done.’ And Jonathan told him, ‘I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.’ And Saul said, ‘God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.’ Then the people said to Saul, ‘Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.’ So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die. Then Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place.

“When Saul had taken the kingship over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, against the Ammonites, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines. Wherever he turned he routed them. And he did valiantly and struck the Amalekites and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them.

“Now the sons of Saul were Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchi-shua. And the names of his two daughters were these: the name of the firstborn was Merab, and the name of the younger Michal. And the name of Saul’s wife was Ahinoam the daughter of Ahimaaz. And the name of the commander of his army was Abner the son of Ner, Saul’s uncle. Kish was the father of Saul, and Ner the father of Abner was the son of Abiel.

“There was hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul. And when Saul saw any strong man, or any valiant man, he attached him to himself.”


Well, let me encourage you to turn again to this chapter. I think it will be helpful for you to have it open in front of you. I don’t want to set your expectations too high this morning, but you may have seen some people wearing stickers who were coming out of the first service this morning. The sticker simply says, “I survived the second half of 1 Samuel 14.” I was quite amazed that they were able to put them together so quickly, but not surprised that they wore them so proudly. I was tempted just to wear one myself on my lapel, but then it may appear to be presumptuous.

First Samuel 14—we stopped at verse 23, to give us time to get prepared for verse 24 and following. And I would just say to you that one of the things that struck me this week in preparing was the fact that when I prepare and write things that just come to my mind as I’m working in preparation, almost inevitably I write hymn lines down, or I write hymns down, or songs down, definitely. And not one single hymn came to my mind in 1 Samuel 14. So that was a warning to me there. And also, I could not think of a proper way to outline the passage. I want you to know that, because it will become very obvious as we follow the narrative.

A couple of things by way of observation before we actually settle to the text. One is to be aware of the fact that on a day in the future, Saul and Jonathan and his brother will actually die on the field of battle together. But here, in this particular passage, we discover that were it not for the intervention of the people, Jonathan would have died, would have been executed, as a result of this very rash oath which was taken by his father. He was going to be potentially executed not because of some dreadful, heinous, horrible crime but simply, as we saw in the text, as a result of him seizing the opportunity to refresh himself with a taste of honey. Actually, that was the only song lyric that came to mind as I think about it now. Yeah.

And what it gives rise to is at least the passing observation that the relationship between Jonathan and his father Saul is increasingly strained as we follow the text. And I don’t think it is too difficult to imagine how jealousy could have begun to embitter Saul, even against his own boy. After all, when he was sort of sitting on his hands, it was Jonathan who was taking the initiative; Jonathan who’s going up against the Philistine garrisons; Jonathan and his armor-bearer, in the first half of this chapter, who are making this very, very demanding advance in order that they might invade the enemy forces. And it just seems that somehow or another Saul is playing catch-up to his own son. And it caused me just to ponder what a sad thing it is when fathers are unable to rejoice in the progress and success of their children. That might not happen very often, but I do see it happen. It’s not unusual for fathers or mothers to bemoan the lack of success in their children, but it is a rather ugly thing when it happens in reverse.

It’s characterized in an old movie, at least for me; it was called The Great Santini. Why it was called “great”—because it wasn’t really very great—but the part that was played by Robert Duvall was the part of Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, who was so consumed with himself that when he played basketball one-on-one with his son, he could not stand the possibility of losing to him. And so he used every angle available to him. He abused his son verbally. He humiliated him. And in one classic scene, a very ugly scene, he takes the basketball, and he smacks his son with it very forcibly from close up. And I watched that with great pain. And then, as his son finally defeats him in one of these games, Bull cannot applaud him. He merely berates him and insults him.

In Saul’s case, it is his pride that has given rise to this rash vow. And extending that image just a little, it is a reminder to all of us in leadership that one of the marks of our ability to lead must surely be in the awareness that the time will come, sooner rather than later, when those who, if you like, run behind us now run faster than us, always get their first serve in while we struggle, hit the ball longer than we are able to do. And one of the questions of significant leadership is when, in that transition, the person is able to stand aside, if you like, and say, “Here he is.” Or, as in Saul’s case, when they can’t.

Along with that, and by way of observation, I think it is worth recognizing that when we study the specifics of this confrontation, or series of confrontations, what we have is a microcosm of the fact that relationships are broken in the world—in fact, that our world is broken. So that when we come to focus simply on these verses, and then we move ourselves back, as it were, to take the whole picture of things, it will be helpful for us to remind ourselves that the story line of the Bible makes it clear that God has made us to know him, to love him, to enjoy him; he’s given us the world that he made in order to care for it. But the Bible makes clear to us that we have rebelled against his authority, and we have spoiled ourselves, and we’ve spoiled our world. The wonderful good news, of course, is that God, because he is gracious, because he is loving, has sent his Son Jesus. And he sends his Son Jesus as the King, as the true King.

Jesus, as King, is everything that Saul failed to be.

And so, when we come to the story of Saul, who is, if you like, an imperfect king, one of the things that ought to happen to us is to say, “Now, surely, if this king is unreliable, there must be a king somewhere.” And, of course, then that takes us forward and on, so that as we begin to see the failures of Saul, we discover that these failures point us to Jesus, who, as King, is everything that Saul failed to be. So when people say, “Well, how do you find Jesus in the passage?”—well, as you look at the passage, you say, “It is the very absence of him that makes us think about him and look for him.”

With all that said, to the text and verse 24, where we’re told that “the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day.” This is not the first time that we’ve encountered this phraseology. Back in chapter 13, the men of Israel were in trouble. They “were hard pressed” on account of the enemy,[1] and they went and hid themselves in all kinds of places. What is different here is that the people are now hard pressed on account of the foolishness of Saul—or, if you like, he has added to the difficulties that they face by coming up with this rash idea.

Where we have “Saul,” in between “day” and “Saul” in that verse, in the NIV we have “because”: “And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, [because] Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying…” I think that is probably right and helpful. Now, you say, “Well, why was he doing this?” Well, it was fairly common for troops to take a vow of abstinence in order that they might go into the field of battle lean and mean. So there is precedent to it, and it is understandable. Where the problem lies is in leadership motivated by something other than simply making sure his troops are ready. Because it would appear that what he’s actually done is made them less than ready. A couple of times in the text, as you noted, it says, “And the people were faint,” “and the people were … faint,” and the people were “hard pressed.”

You see that in this oath, which is there recorded for us in verse 24, you’ll see that I think there’s a little too much of Saul and not enough of Yahweh in it. Notice his terminology: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” It’s a touch of the “I, me, me, mine” here, as opposed to Jonathan’s approach in the earlier part of the chapter: “It may be that the Lord will work for us.”[2] Jonathan is an initiative taker and prepared to put himself on the line, but he does so in the awareness that it is the Lord who saves “by many or by few”;[3] it is he who works for us. He knows that God has given him a part. It would appear here that Saul has got that reversed: “These enemies are my enemies, and I want to do something so that I myself am avenged.”

Remember, I think there’s a hint of this before when, after the victory over the garrisons of the Philistines, Saul had the trumpets sounded so that all the people would hear the trumpet, and the word was reported that Saul had gained a great victory.[4] Well, he hadn’t gained a great victory. His boy did. He didn’t. Again, you see this great danger: “I have enemies, I will avenge my enemies,” and so on.

And so, he comes up with this plan. And “none of the people,” we’re told, “tasted food.” They’re marching on an empty stomach. And now, to make it worse, verse 25, as they come into this clearing in the forest, it’s a bit like arriving in Burton, when all the trees are producing the maple that falls into those little buckets, and that’s exactly what has happened to them. And into the forest they come, and the opportunity for a sugar fix is right there before them. And nobody “put his hand to his mouth,” because they were afraid on account of the oath, verse 26.

However, Jonathan, who hadn’t heard about that oath, he went ahead and dipped in. So, we notice that given that he hadn’t heard, he wasn’t acting in disregard for his father; he was not acting in disobedience to the oath the father had settled. In fact, when he’s told about the curse—and there’s always somebody who will come and say, “You know, you shouldn’t be doing this.” “‘Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food this day.”’ And the people were faint.” Now, notice the response of Jonathan: “My father has troubled the land.” He’s “troubled the land.” It’s reminiscent of what Samuel said to Saul, remember, back in chapter 13? He says to Saul, he says, “You’ve acted foolishly in this one. That wasn’t smart.”[5] And Jonathan is essentially saying the same thing: “This isn’t something that was a good plan.” He failed to obey the command of God—that is, Saul—and now he’s making commands of his own.

We’ll just let that settle. It’s very interesting, isn’t it, how some of us, in failing to obey the clear commands of God, come up with some very interesting commands for other people? Why not just obey God’s commands, instead of having to come up with your own? Very straightforward. And so he says, “That wasn’t a good plan that my father had. And you can actually see that my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey.” In other words, he says, “Cursed will be anyone who eats.” And Jonathan says, “Well, I’m eating, and look at me! Mr. Bright Eyes.”

And they must have looked at him and said, “Yeah, that would have been fantastic. I wish we’d done that as well.” And then he goes on in verse 30, he says, “[It would have been far] better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found[, because] now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great.” In other words, he says, “You know, this hasn’t really gone that well. The army needs sustenance. My father—my father—has troubled the land. And if you look at me, you can see that the honey is working for me,” the way a Snickers bar at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon works for us as well.

And so, the fighting continues, verse 31. And, no surprise, “the people were … faint.” Now, the evening must have come between 31 and 32, because, remember, it was until evening. The meter was only running until evening. No one was to eat until evening. So, presumably, because they were so concerned to obey this vow, this oath, they were not about to go against it at this point. But now that the evening has come, you will notice what the people do: they “pounced.” They “pounced on the spoil.” It seemed almost inevitable that desire and opportunity would coincide and create virtually a feeding frenzy.

And the way that this is described here is like a bunch of high-school boys who come on a gigantic pizza, you know, at nine o’clock in the evening. You look, and it’s there—and you look, and it’s gone. The evidence of it is all around, but the actual thing is gone. “I was just… Oh, okay. It’s gone.” So, this is what they’ve done. Nobody goes, “Would somebody like to say grace?” No. “We don’t do it. No, no, no, no. Look, we’re just doing what we’re doing.” They “slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood.” That’s the point. What point? Well, that is the one inviolable command that God had given. And so you have this peculiar situation where you have a group of people desperately keen to make sure they obey the command that is a man-made command while at the same time, then, unprepared to obey the command that is clearly a divine command. In fact, it was the man-made command which gave rise to their violation of the divine command.

Now, we could pause on this, but we won’t. Let me send you back to the book of Leviticus. Make a note in your notes, if you’re taking notes: Leviticus 17. And if you read there, the clear directive of God for his people and for those who sojourn in the land with his people is that when they sacrifice a creature, its blood is to be drained. They are not to eat it with the blood still in it. And the explanation that is given there in Leviticus 17 is that because animal blood atones for human sin, it is sacred and therefore ought not to be consumed by man—that the blood was the symbol of life itself, and life belongs to God.[6] And so God has established it very clearly that that should be the case. People always ask me now about certain foodstuffs that we eat in Scotland and if we’re violating the command of Leviticus 17. Well, the fact is that we do not have animals being sacrificed as a means of atonement. Jesus has been sacrificed as the means of atonement, and therefore, many of these ceremonial pieces of the Old Testament have been completely subsumed and wrapped up in Jesus. But that is for another time.

There’s a lesson though, I think, to be learned from this in passing. Again, I have in my notes, I just put little parentheses, and this would be in parentheses. But I want to bring it home for us: just this thought of being prepared to obey man-made rules and then finding ourselves violating clear commands of God. It’s not an uncommon situation to find congregations where they have decided that there are a number of man-made rules that are essential to them. They may be good, they may be bad; it doesn’t really matter. But when they begin to predominate on the lives and the lifestyle of the people and press them in certain ways, it is not uncommon for man-made rules, restrictions, and taboos to be suddenly overturned in such a fashion that the violation, then, is of God’s clear commands.

Paul writes about this in Galatians, doesn’t he? He refers to these taboos and regulations as “weak and miserable principles.”[7] In other words, he warns them about it. And when you find yourself caught up in that kind of thing, then you may well find that your life fits somewhere with the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke when he said to them, “You know, what I find interesting about you very religious individuals is that you hold on to the traditions of men while letting go of the commands of God.”[8] It is a peculiar subtlety, and it is a real danger.

Now, what is Saul’s response to all of this unfolding story? Well, he says, “What we’re going to do is we’re going to do it right. And you have dealt treacherously, so roll a great stone to me here.” So now he puts himself in the position, if you like, of the priest. He builds an altar in order that these things might be done properly: the sacrifices, the oxen and so forth, will be brought now, they’ll be sacrificed on this big rock, and then the blood will be able to flow from there and down onto the ground, and so, finally, that which will be consumed will not be in violation of the clear command. And what he’s going to do in this regard is consider just why this has taken place and what it is going to mean. Interestingly, he is concerned that things would be done properly. But there isn’t the slightest suggestion that he recognizes that he hasn’t done things properly.

Just, again, a passing thought in terms of leadership. C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, he says,

“Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than we[’ve] [actually] reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there,” and so fool both them and ourselves.[9]

And Saul is facing that.

He’s used a rock, and now, in verse 36, he’s on a roll. “Saul said, ‘Let us go down after the Philistines by night … plunder them [till] … morning light; let us not leave a man of them.’” And they said, “Okay, do whatever you want.” So he says, “Let’s go,” and then “the priest said, ‘Let us draw near to God.’” How embarrassing is that, when you’re just about to launch into something, and it’s your wife who says, “Don’t you think we ought to pray about this?” You say, “Oh, yes, of course. I was just going to mention that. I had a whole thing planned about that, yes.” Flat-out untruth. What a shame that Saul, who should be the one who’s inquiring of God, finds the priest is saying to him, “Excuse me? Don’t you think we should draw near to God?” And so Saul then “inquired of God.” He “inquired of God, ‘Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?’” But there was no answer.

Now, what you then have in this little section that follows is the kind of material that can so easily derail the average home Bible study group. And this is why I said that it is important to stand far enough back to say, “What we have here in the collapse of Saul should point us to the triumph of Jesus,” so that when we begin to lose our way in the passage—if we get caught up in the weeds, if you like—and we find ourselves delving into it in such a way that it generates more heat than it generates light.

The approbation of the crowds, whether the soldiers in the army or the congregation in the seats, is ultimately irrelevant before the searching gaze of God.

The background to this you can find in the earlier part of the Old Testament. And as you read again in Leviticus at your own leisure, you can fill in the blanks. These verses that unfold here about who’s done what are about all we know about this process of a sacred lot. Ironically, this is the same process that was used for setting apart Saul as king. Sometimes, when I get in a passage like this, I go to The Living Bible. And so, I want to read to you how The Living Bible translates this: “Then Saul said to the leaders, ‘Something’s wrong!’”[10] So, the fact that God has not answered him he attributes to a problem with sin. He’s good on that. What he’s not so good at is in recognizing that he’s the problem. That’s the reason I read from The Four Loves, in case you’re wondering. Often the problem is in the leader.

And so, he said, “Something’s wrong! We must find out what sin was committed today. I vow by the name of the God who saved Israel that though [even] the sinner be my own son Jonathan, he [must] surely die!”[11] Now, whether he introduces Jonathan as the most unlikely person or whether he actually is referencing him because of all that we’ve said already we can’t tell. Nevertheless, “even if it’s Jonathan, we’re going to go through with this.” “But no one would tell him what the trouble was.”[12] That’s actually the second lyric: “The sound of silence.” Sorry. But… So we got one Beatles lyric and one Paul Simon. It’s going much better now in the second service.

Not only was God silent, but all the people were silent, because none of the people would shop Jonathan. “No one would tell him what the trouble was.” So, “then Saul proposed, ‘Jonathan and I will stand over here, … all of you stand over there.’ And the people agreed.”[13] And this Urim and Thummim are like two discs that were held in the breastplate of the ephod of the priest—Leviticus chapter 8.[14] And they could give either a yes answer or a no answer, or no answer—not an answer. “And so, we’re gonna stand over there, you stand over here, and we’re gonna find out what the answer is.” “And the people agreed. [And] then Saul said, ‘O Lord God of Israel, why haven’t you answered my question? What[’s] wrong? Are Jonathan and I guilty, or is the sin among the others? O Lord God, show us who is guilty.’ And Jonathan and Saul were chosen by sacred lot as the guilty ones, and the people were declared innocent.”[15]

So now we’ve got it down to just two. We know that the problem with the sin is not in any of the people. After all, they kept that oath, even though the issue of the violation apparently is now not something that’s on his mind. And “Saul said, ‘Now draw lots between me and Jonathan.’ And Jonathan was chosen as the guilty one.” “Well,” you say to yourself as you read this, “this is not going in the way that we thought it should.” And so, he looks at his son, and he says, “Tell me what you have done.” “Tell me what you have done.”

Well, of course that is what Samuel had said to Saul, wasn’t it? “[Saul,] what have you done?”[16] And the answer comes from Jonathan: “[Well], I tasted a little honey …. It was only a little bit on the end of a stick; but now I must die.”[17] I think there’s sarcasm in that; I don’t know whether you agree. I think he’s probably saying, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I did something really bad. Yeah, I took… I had a little bit of honey. Yeah, I deserve to die.” It’s absurd.

And the absurdity of it is revealed in the fact that the people now speak up, and when the people speak up, they intervene on behalf of Jonathan. “Then the people said,” verse 45, “‘Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel?’” The people realize the role that Jonathan had played, unlike Saul himself. “Far from it! As the Lord lives, … not [a] hair of his head [will] fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” You see the inference: “He’s actually been doing what you as the king should be doing. All you’re doing is coming up with rash oaths that have made us very faint and, in terms of Jonathan’s assessment, have spoiled us. And the victory that we had against the Philistines was only a marginal victory. If we’d had food in our stomachs, we might have been able just to pound them into oblivion.” But it’s an ongoing issue. And “so the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die.”

Well, it’s quite amazing, isn’t it, that verse 46 then says, “[And] Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place”? This is a real crisis for Saul, and it is the end of his effective kingship. The people now realize that the king is foolish and the son is faithful. They essentially issue a vote of no confidence. His reign is over, and the Philistine problem remains.

But then you have verses 47–52. And when you read it during the week, you probably found yourself saying, “Well, how can it end in this way in 46, and then in 47 and as you read on, by down in 48, it’s describing Saul as doing ‘valiantly,’ and it is describing how militarily he’s a great success, and so on?”

Well, what you actually have here is akin to what you have in John chapter 20 and 21, where John, in writing his Gospel, says, “There are many more things that were done by Jesus, and they haven’t all been written down, because if they were all written down, there isn’t a book that is big enough to contain them.”[18] When you come to this summary statement, you ought to think of it in those terms: that what is being described here is a comprehensive description of the totality of what went on with Saul. And there is no question that militarily he often was able to step up. That’s the record of the victories. In other words, the real battle for Saul, his failure, did not actually happen on the field of battle against his enemies; the real failure for Saul, his failure, was in the battleground of his heart. It was “You have done a foolish thing. You didn’t trust me. You didn’t obey me.” That was where the battle failed.

Loved ones, don’t kid yourself. Neither will I. It is perfectly possible to succeed in the public forum, to enjoy the attributions that come with it, and to fail in the battleground of one’s own heart. God is the God who searches our hearts and knows us.[19] Nothing is hidden from his gaze.[20] That’s why the approbation of the crowds, whether the soldiers in the army or the congregation in the seats, is ultimately irrelevant before the searching gaze of God. Militarily, a success; personally, privately, a failure.

Then, in verse 49, a little reference to his family. You say to yourself, “Now, why do we get the fact that Abner was his cousin? The commander of his army was his cousin. Why do we have this?” Well, I don’t know—except everybody has a family. You know my love for the Queen. She has a family. When I think of her, in her early nineties, and I think about the stories about her family that are presently in the papers, I say, “You know, you can be the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, but you still are gonna deal with your family.” She has a husband. She has children. She has grandchildren. And I think that this is here at least to remind us of the simple yet obvious fact that the public life of King Saul—indeed, the public life of all leadership—is framed by the events of everyday family life; that, to quote a cliché that I’ve learned since living here, King Saul “puts his pants on the same way as everybody else.” So when I’m tempted to judge him for his lack of obedience, I have to say, “But I’m guilty of lack of obedience.” When I look at him and say, “But he surely should have trusted God,” I have to say, “But I surely should have trusted God so many times when I didn’t.”

Jesus comes as the one Priest to bear our sins, he comes as a Prophet to speak God’s word with absolute clarity, and he comes as a King to reign over our rebellion.

And the final observation is that this story is really a tragedy. It’s a tragedy. If we were setting much of it to music, it would inevitably be in the minor key. Because Saul is actually one of the great tragic figures not only of biblical history but of history in general. Because think about it. Think about how he ranks along with others in the story of the kingdoms of the world who got off to a great start but ended pretty miserably. I mean, think back to chapter 9 (Do you remember chapter 9, all those weeks ago?), when he emerges, and here he is, taller than anybody else and handsome beyond anybody’s expectations.[21] I mean, if his picture was in his yearbook, girls would be cutting it out and putting it on their noticeboard. That’s how handsome this guy was. His little paragraph about what he was going to do would have explained, you know, that he really had things under his control, and he was there in the top 5 percent of those most likely to succeed. But it’s a tragedy.

So, why would the tragedy be recorded in this way? Well, in order to lead us to the victory of Jesus. The tragedy of King Saul finds us saying, “Is there then a king who triumphs, who obeys the will of the Father, who always trusts?” And the answer is Jesus. And that kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom that has triumphed over sin, dying in our place; over death, which all of us face; he has triumphed over that, he has ascended to the Father, and he is reigning, and one day he will return.

So, I look in there, and I say, “Oh, I get it now. I’m supposed to learn from the history. I’m supposed to realize that all the things that were written in the past were written for my instruction, for our instruction, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”[22] But what kind of hope is there in this sad, tragic picture of Saul collapsing? Well, it’s supposed to take us from there to here. That’s why the Bible is written the way it is: so that we will look on, and we will meet Christ. And Jesus comes as the one Priest to bear our sins, he comes as a Prophet to speak God’s word with absolute clarity, and he comes as a King to reign over our rebellion.

Well, thank you. Let us pray:

Our God and our Father, we thank you for the Bible, and we thank you for Jesus. And we pray that in your kindness you will help us to navigate this difficult passage, that you’ll bring home to our hearts that which is beneficial to us, and that you will save us from tangential runs that would only lead to confusion and even error. So, we commend ourselves again to you. We thank you that you come to welcome us, that you come to put yourselves in the place that we deserve to be for our rebellion, and that you bid us come to you and rest in you.

So, may, then, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] 1 Samuel 13:6 (ESV).

[2] 1 Samuel 14:6 (ESV).

[3] 1 Samuel 14:6 (ESV).

[4] See 1 Samuel 13:3–4.

[5] 1 Samuel 13:13 (paraphrased).

[6] See Leviticus 17:10–16.

[7] Galatians 4:9 (NIV 1984).

[8] Matthew 15:3; Mark 7:8–9 (paraphrased).

[9] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, quoted in J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018), 14. The portion of the block quotation outside of the quotation marks belongs to Packer, not Lewis.

[10] 1 Samuel 14:38 (TLB).

[11] 1 Samuel 14:38–39 (TLB).

[12] 1 Samuel 14:39 (TLB).

[13] 1 Samuel 14:40 (TLB).

[14] See Leviticus 8:8.

[15] 1 Samuel 14:40–41 (TLB).

[16] 1 Samuel 13:11 (ESV).

[17] 1 Samuel 14:43 (TLB).

[18] John 20:30; 21:25 (paraphrased).

[19] See Psalm 139:1.

[20] See Hebrews 4:13.

[21] See 1 Samuel 9:2.

[22] See Romans 15:4.

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.