Now Saul committed a very rash act on that day. He had laid an oath on the troops, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.’ So none of the troops tasted food. All the troops came upon a honeycomb; and there was honey on the ground. When the troops came upon the honeycomb, the honey was dripping out; but they did not put their hands to their mouths, for they feared the oath. But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the troops with the oath; so he extended the staff that was in his hand, and dipped the tip of it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes brightened. Then one of the soldiers said, ‘Your father strictly charged the troops with an oath, saying, “Cursed be anyone who eats food this day.” And so the troops are faint.’ Then Jonathan said, ‘My father has troubled the land; see how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if today the troops had eaten freely of the spoil taken from their enemies; for now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great.’
… Then Saul said, ‘Let us go down after the Philistines by night and despoil them until the morning light; let us not leave one of them.’ They said, ‘Do whatever seems good to you.’ But the priest said, ‘Let us draw near to God here.’ So 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. Saul said, ‘Come here, all you leaders of the people; and let us find out how this sin has arisen today. For as the Lord lives who saves Israel, even if it is in my son Jonathan, he shall surely die!’ But there was no one among all the people who answered him. He said to all Israel, ‘You shall be on one side, and I and my son Jonathan will be on the other side.’ The people said to Saul, ‘Do what seems good to you.’ Then Saul said, ‘O Lord God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant today? If this guilt is in me or in my son Jonathan, O Lord God of Israel, give Urim; but if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.’ And Jonathan and Saul were indicated by the lot, but the people were cleared. 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 have done.’ 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.’ 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 accomplished this great victory in Israel? Perish the thought! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.’ So the people ransomed Jonathan, and he did not die. Then Saul withdrew from pursuing the Philistines; and the Philistines went to their own place.
For Saul, not putting God as his first priority was a major error. Like many of today’s leaders, he was more concerned about his own image rather than following God’s guidance. We are told that he was of striking appearance which in the long term only served to enhance his vanity. Not only that, he was impulsive and perhaps opened his mouth before he had put his brain into gear. As a consequence, his whole approach to leading Israel was based on momentary instincts. For him, his priority was the defeat of the Philistines at all cost. As part of his ill thought plan, he orders his army to take an oath not to eat before the conflict with their enemy. In verse 27 we are told that Jonathan had not heard the order to take his father’s oath, so did that make any difference?
The most common usage of oaths today relates to legal matters, usually in the form of “telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” By today’s standards, had Johnathan been asked whether or not he had heard his father’s order at the outset, then by answering in the negative he had no case to answer.
Oaths are promises of varying kinds, often made with good intention, although for some an oath has little or no real significance, it appears to be yet another hoop to jump through. Historically, in this country, a gentleman’s word was his bond. But on occasions even this was open to question. Unlike Saul we need to ask ourselves “What would God want us to do in respect of the circumstances we find ourselves in? Do we listen for His call, or do we carry on doing our own thing?
Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways! Reclothe us in our rightful mind; in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence praise.
Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still, small voice of calm!
J. G Whitter (1807 – 92) R&S 492
The Rev’d Colin Hunt is a retired Minister worshipping at Hutton & Shenfield Union Church, Essex