When seeking a comparison for King Saul, the Bible reader most naturally lands on King David. Nothing wrong with that: it has impeccable scriptural backing. An overlooked contrast I’d like to consider is that between Saul and his firstborn son Jonathan.
We first meet Jonathan (whose name means ‘given by Yahweh’) in a military context. He attacks a Philistine outpost in Geba (1 Samuel 13:3) and is apparently successful for Saul and the rest of the Israelite army camp there a few verses later (13:16). The Philistines move to Micmash, and Jonathan and his armour-bearer secretly go to pick a fight with them (1 Samuel 13:23-14:14). The narrator of 1 Samuel quotes Jonathan as saying, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.” Together, they killed some twenty men in “half the area ploughed by a yoke of oxen in a day” (14:14).
What was King Saul, leader of Israel’s army, one of the two people in Israel with iron weapons (13:22) doing while his son was engaging with Israel’s enemies? Quite a bit, actually. He sent a message throughout Israel claiming credit for Jonathan’s first victory and summoned the fighting men to join him. He also actively disobeyed God, giving as one of his excuses the scattering soldiers. Jonathan, on the other hand, placed his confidence in God, not in the number of men. He understood that the outcome of a battle depended on God, and his faith moved him to action.
On seeing the fleeing Philistines, Saul and the rest of the army belatedly join Jonathan and his armour-bearer to pursue the enemy. Jonathan, unaware of a fast imposed on the army by his father, eats some honey. Later in the day, his father comes to find out and is ready to kill him. On his part, Jonathan is ready to die (1 Samuel 14:43). Recognising that Yahweh had worked through him that day, the men with Saul took an oath and redeemed Jonathan so that he did not die (14:45). That they were willing to stand up to the king over such a serious matter on Jonathan’s behalf must say something of the respect and love the people had for him.
In the next post: Jonathan as son and covenant friend.