Friday, March 30, 2007

By Many or By Few

When you were a kid, who was your hero? I mean, who was the superhero you were fascinated by? Was it comic book heroes like Batman? Superman? Spiderman? X-men? Maybe you were more into science fiction fantasy: Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon, or someone like that.

If you really want to find the hero prototype: go to the Bible. Especially the Old Testament where the men are really men and the women can be pretty tough themselves. (How many women do you know personally who would, without a second thought, nail some guy’s head to the floor with a tent peg?)

In 1 Samuel 13:1-14:46 we are introduced to a hero to beat heroes. We’ve already seen king Saul—you know, the dandruff man? Head and Shoulders taller than everyone else? (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Saul is no slouch to be certain. But in this section of scripture we begin to notice Saul is slipping—and someone else is rising. It’s not whom you might think, either.

King Saul did what was expected of a king: conscripted an army of three divisions—a thousand men in each division. He controlled two of the divisions and the third division he placed his son, Jonathan as the commander. This is the first mention we have of Jonathan, and he jumps into the story head first. He draws the first blood against the Philistines by attacking a garrison at Gibeah and killing the Philistine governor. Immediately Saul had the trumpet blown throughout the land with the message: Saul has attacked the Philistine garrison—now Israel is a stench to Philistia. The Philistines gather at Micmash in full force—three thousand chariots (the tanks of the ancient near eastern world), a huge cavalry and matching infantry. Saul’s force quickly begins to scatter hiding in caves, thickets and wells.

We don’t have the full story. All we know was that Samuel was supposed to meet Saul in seven days to offer sacrifices. While there is no indication in the Old Testament that Kings were forbidden to offer sacrifices (David and Solomon both offered sacrifices)—evidently there was direct instructions from Samuel to wait until he was there to offer the burnt offering. Samuel seemed to be delayed and Saul, concerned the men were deserting decided to take matters into his own hands and went ahead with the offering. Samuel immediately shows up before Saul can offer the fellowship offerings and asks: What have you done? Saul replied,

"When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Micmash, I thought, 'Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD's favor.' So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering."

"You acted foolishly," Samuel said. "You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command."

Then Samuel left Gilgal and went up to Gibeah in Benjamin, and Saul counted the men who were with him. They numbered about six hundred.

Oh great. Not only has he completely messed up—but he only has six hundred men. The sacrifice did not produce the desired effect. Add to this: the Philistines had banned blacksmiths from Israel, so no one had any metal weaponry except for Saul and Jonathan.

The Philistines had set up three patrols. One patrol was at Micmash. Saul stationed his headquarters on the outskirts of Gibeah nearby. He was staying under a pomegranate tree. (This is either a symbol of his wealth—or he was taking it easy enjoying what was considered a delicacy in the ancient world.) With him is Ahijah, the great-nephew of Ichabod the grandson of Eli. You remember Ichabod, don’t you? He was born on the day his dad, granddad and uncle were killed by the Philistines. Ichabod means “Glory's Gone.” Why? Because Israel carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle with the Philistines and they captured it. Ichabod’s great nephew is now serving as priest. Remember this—the writer makes it a point to mention “Glory’s Gone.”

Jonathan, in the mean time, turns to his armor bearer and says: "Hey, let’s go pay a little visit to the Philistine garrison." But he did not tell his father. No one notices Jonathan has slipped out.

As they are making their way up to the cliff where the Philistine garrison is, Jonathan turns to his armor bearer and says: "Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf today. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving whether by many or by few."

His armor bearer replies. “I’m with you—my heart beats with your heart.”

Ok,” Jonathan says, “here’s the plan: If they say to us ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we’ll stay put. If they say 'Come up to us' we’ll go because we’ll know the LORD has delivered them into our hands.”

O-O-O-O-Ka-a-a-a-ay. Does something seem wrong, here? I don’t know about you, but there’s something missing with that line of reasoning. It sounds like a set up. Either way you’re going to be fighting Philistines!

When the Philistines see them they say: “Look, it’s the Hebrews crawling out of their holes!" They shout out: “Hey wimps! Come up here and we’ll teach you a thing or two about fighting!” That’s the sign! Both men scramble up the cliff and they jump into the fight. Twenty Philistines are killed by Jonathan and his armor bearer! Talk about material for a great action movie! The camp is thrown into such confusion with people running around and swinging their swords blindly—actually killing themselves.

Saul hears the noise and after some deliberation attacks! The Philistines are routed! Those Israelites who had been hiding in fear came out of the wood work and joined in the pursuit of the Philistines (reminds you of a Dallas Cowboy season that started off losing but ends up winning. Suddenly everyone is a Cowboy fan!).

It may take a while to get Saul moving, but once he gets going he has something of a one track mind. He puts everyone under an oath while they are pursuing the Philistines: "Cursed is anyone who eats food before evening comes, before I avenge myself on my enemies!"

One person doesn’t get the bulletin. You guessed it: Jonathan.

On the march, everyone is weak, worn-out, hungry—and they notice hives of honey on the ground. Now they’re wanting it something bad, but no one is willing to risk the curse. Jonathan, unaware, sticks his staff in some honey and eats some of it. Suddenly he gets a bit of a sugar rush—his eyes light up and he gets some energy back.

Naturally, the guys wait until then to tell him—“uh, Jonathan, you’re in trouble now!” They then explain to him Saul's ban on food. Jonathan replies: "My father did a foolish thing: look how much energy I received from a little honey. Think how we could have really nailed these guys if we had been allowed to eat!"

The men fight Philistines all day long. At the end of the day they are exhausted from fasting and fighting. So they grab anything available: cattle, sheep and start slaughtering the animals and eating them—without draining the blood properly —so they are eating un-kosher food. This is a huge no-no in Mosaic legislation. When Saul finds out he quickly sets up a large stone and commands his men to slaughter the animals on the stone, allowing the blood to run off.

Now the moment of truth comes. Saul wants to continue to pursue the Philistines, but when he inquires of God—he receives no response. Obviously someone has sinned! Saul proclaims: "Whoever has sinned will die—even if it is my own son Jonathan!" (Never make those kinds of promises! They get you in trouble every time!)

After the casting of lots it turns out to be Jonathan! He is guilty of eating when Saul had placed a ban on eating. Scholars I’ve read do not like the NIV’s rendering of Jonathan’s response. It is presented as a protest. But the statement is actually a humble acceptance of his fate. "I’m guilty. I’m ready to die."

The only people with any sense turn out to be the soldiers whose en masse protest convinces Saul to spare Jonathan’s life. After all, God had obviously been working through Jonathan to save the day! He did not even know about the ban! How could you even think about taking his life?!

Notice the contrast being made in these stories between Saul and his son Jonathan. Saul sees nothing but challenges. Unlike his first days as king, he seems to have become timid and fearful, seeing danger everywhere. When the Philistines gather at Micmash and his men start deserting, Saul desperately grasps at anything to try to rally his men—even to directly disobey the word of the Prophet Samuel. In Gibeah he seems to be hiding, either relaxing under the pomegranate tree or trying to muster a large force. Jonathan, by contrast, demonstrates an incredible trust in God! "God said fight the Philistines—let’s go fight! He doesn’t have to have a huge army to beat these guys! He just wants us to trust in him!"

Notice how the writer ties Ichabod (“glory’s gone”) with Saul through the presence of Ichabod’s great-nephew—the priest Ahijah. Saul has even brought the Ark of the Covenant with him—just like Phineas and Hophni did in 1 Samuel 3. Remember that story? That’s when Israel was routed and the Philistines captured the Ark. Is Saul reverting back to a magical view of God? Saul appears to be very concerned with religion, proper ritual, and obeying God. Yet, it becomes obvious he is hiding behind his orthodoxy. Religion is used as a mask for his lack of faith.

Take note of this: evil likes nothing better than God’s people to be preoccupied with religion. Religion and ritual are safe. It doesn’t threaten evil. There is only one thing threatening to Satan and his forces of darkness: someone who is single-mindedly focused on God’s mission and trusts God enough to actually do something. He or she may not be a super hero—but God will defeat the enemy and deliver people through such a person.

Don’t you want to be a Jonathan? You don’t have to ask permission! You don’t have to have a budget. You don’t even have to have a huge team—just a partner who will march with you. Just look around you and find someone who is trapped by Satan. There are people all around us captivated by depression, despair and hopelessness. There are people who have no friends- who need someone to give them a reason for hope. There are people in need of the resources we take for granted. Seek them out. Is the task impossible, you say? Great! That’s where God works best! If you could do it on your own, how would God get any credit?

The Christian Chronicle this week reported on church in rural Arkansas—the Remmel Church of Christ. In 2003 that church had 30 members and was clearly dying. But suddenly they started looking for ways to serve their rural community where poverty and drug abuse was rampant. Rather than preaching and handing out tracts, they began offering practical assistance and care. After 3 ½ years and 85 baptisms later—the church is almost the size of our church. One lady in the community was quoted as saying: "Well any old sinner can go to Remmel Church!" They smile and say “thanks for the compliment!”

The church is full of super heroes: people who have what it takes, people who are tired of excuses, people who aren’t content to sit under a pomegranate tree and worry about the state of "the church." All you have to do is drink deep of the words of Jonathan: “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.” And then go out and take on the enemy!

May we learn to embrace the spirit of Jonathan. May we experience a heart of fearless trust in God. And may we find a stronghold of Satan and storm it with God’s incredible power!

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