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1 Samuel 14:24-52 (Jonathan eats honey)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “The Rise and Fall of Saul,” and we are in the final stages of the “fall” part of Saul’s reign. Today’s incident revolves around such a silly, inconsequential matter, you might wonder how in the world could it ever contribute to Saul’s downfall? Basically you can sum up today’s passage in three words: Jonathan eats honey. Every pastor’s dream passage to preach on – Jonathan eats honey. That’s what this all comes down to, and yet Saul takes this small, innocent act of his own son and literally turns it into a capital offense. (Read 1 Samuel 14:25-27)

One thing we all struggle with in our lives is the problem of inconsistency. We all know the things we ought to be doing, and sometimes we can do real well for short periods of time, but then we fall back into old habits, and our new-found discipline falters. Sometimes inconsistency hits us in our decision making. At times we make great decisions with great consequences, and then other times we make foolish decisions with not so great consequences. Sometimes we waver back and forth in our decision making, and it’s just real hard to be consistent.

Consistency is especially important when it comes to leadership. Leaders need to earn and then keep the trust of their people, and nothing kills a leader’s influence more quickly than inconsistency.

Today we are going to look at the problem of inconsistency through this story of Saul, Jonathan and the honey. So far we have seen Saul acting foolishly out of fear, and next week we will see him rebel in disobedience against God. But this week his problem is inconsistency, wavering back and forth as a leader. And that holds a lesson for us. Because often it’s not outright rebellion but inconsistency that drags us down in our Christian life. We need to learn how to be consistent, faithful and reliable men and women of God.

I. Making foolish decisions (24-35)

One way that inconsistency can hurt us is in the area of making decisions. And that’s where Saul makes his first mistake in today’s passage. He begins by making a very foolish decision, and then follows that up with a very wise decision. His real problem here is inconsistency. Saul is not consistent in the way he goes about making decisions.

   A. Foolish – following your own instincts (24-30)
      – Proverbs 28:26

So how do you end up making foolish decisions in life? You make foolish decisions when you follow your own instincts instead of following God’s word. Look at verses 24-30 as we begin today’s passage:

Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food.

25 The entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground. 26 When they went into the woods, they saw the honey oozing out, yet no one put his hand to his mouth, because they feared the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb. He raised his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened. 28 Then one of the soldiers told him, “Your father bound the army under a strict oath, saying, ‘Cursed be any man who eats food today!’ That is why the men are faint.”

29 Jonathan said, “My father has made trouble for the country. See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?” (1 Samuel 14:24-30)

It’s interesting when you contrast the first verse of this passage with the last verse of the previous passage. Verse 23 tells us, “So the Lord rescued Israel that day” and then verse 24 tells us, “Now the men of Israel were in distress that day.” So what happened between verse 23 and verse 24? Saul happened! God brought the victory, but Saul brought the distress. As Dale Ralph Davis puts it: “Saul shows a strange ability to turn deliverance into distress.”

And how did Saul bring distress? By binding his men with an oath not to eat any food until after the battle was over. Now there is nothing in God’s word forbidding soldiers from eating on the day of battle. This was all Saul’s idea, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of military experience to realize that it’s a terrible idea. This was a foolish decision on Saul’s part. God did not require it. It was completely unnecessary, and even worse, it was damaging to the battle and to Saul’s men.

So why would Saul do such a thing? Some people believe Saul was trying to manipulate God into a victory, but all it accomplished was tiring out his own army on the day of battle. And, as we will see, it almost resulted in killing his own son who had won them this victory to begin with.

In verse 25 the battle moves from the hill country into the forest. There were a lot of ground bees in Israel, and so the soldiers come across some honey in the woods. Remember the earlier descriptions of the Promised Land as a land flowing with milk and honey. In God’s providence here was a divinely supplied source of some badly needed nourishment for Saul’s men, but none of them could partake because of Saul’s foolish oath.

Jonathan, however, doesn’t know about the oath, and so he eats some of the honey and is immediately strengthened. When the soldiers tell him about the oath, he is not impressed. He responds, “My father has made trouble for the country.” Jonathan realizes that because of his father’s foolish decision, the victory for Israel was not as great or as complete as it could have been.

Proverbs 28:26 says: “He who trusts in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe.” (Proverbs 28:26) When you follow your own instincts instead of following God’s word, you are going to end up making some foolish decisions in your life, and that inconsistency is going to drag you down.

   B. Wise – following God’s word (31-35)
      – Proverbs 3:5-6

Foolish decisions come from following your own instincts, but wise decisions come from following God’s word. Look at verses 31-35:

That day, after the Israelites had struck down the Philistines from Micmash to Aijalon, they were exhausted. 32 They pounced on the plunder and, taking sheep, cattle and calves, they butchered them on the ground and ate them, together with the blood. 33 Then someone said to Saul, “Look, the men are sinning against the LORD by eating meat that has blood in it.”

“You have broken faith,” he said. “Roll a large stone over here at once.” 34 Then he said, “Go out among the men and tell them, ‘Each of you bring me your cattle and sheep, and slaughter them here and eat them. Do not sin against the LORD by eating meat with blood still in it.’” So everyone brought his ox that night and slaughtered it there. 35 Then Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first time he had done this. (1 Samuel 14:31-35)

The troops had chased the Philistines all the way from Micmash to Aijalon, a distance of about twenty miles to the west. It was now evening, which meant the men were released from Saul’s oath, and they are so hungry they ignore God’s command not to eat meat with blood in it. God forbade the Israelites from eating meat with the blood still in it because the blood represented the life of the animal and was used in sacrifices. Notice the contrast here. Jonathan unknowingly broke Saul’s oath by eating the honey. But now Saul’s men are knowingly breaking God’s commandment by eating meat with the blood still in it.

Surprisingly, Saul handles this one well. He tells his men not to sin against the Lord. He sets up a large stone where they can slaughter the animals and drain the blood. And he builds an altar to the Lord for the first time, showing a sincere desire to worship God. What is the difference between his wise decisions now and his foolish decision earlier? Before he was following his own instincts; now he is following God’s word. It’s not that Saul never made right decisions. It’s just that he wasn’t consistent.

Proverbs 3:5-6 says this: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) Do you want to be consistent in making wise decisions instead of foolish decisions? Then trust in the Lord with all your heart, and follow his word instead of your own instincts. Consistency comes from following God’s word.

II. Wavering back and forth on decisions (36-46)

But Saul was not only struggling with consistency when it comes to making wise and foolish decisions. He was also having trouble wavering back and forth on decisions. And there are several Biblical principles we can learn from this next section of our passage that will help us to stand strong in our decisions and not to waver back and forth like Saul.

   A. Don’t make promises you can’t keep (36-39)
      – Genesis 2:17; Ecclesiastes 5:2,5

First of all, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Look at verses 36-39:

Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them till dawn, and let us not leave one of them alive.” “Do whatever seems best to you,” they replied. But the priest said, “Let us inquire of God here.” 37 So Saul asked God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into Israel’s hand?” But God did not answer him that day.

38 Saul therefore said, “Come here, all you who are leaders of the army, and let us find out what sin has been committed today. 39 As surely as the LORD who rescues Israel lives, even if it lies with my son Jonathan, he must die.” But not one of the men said a word. (1 Samuel 14:36-39)

Saul wants to continue the battle with a night raid on the Philistines. Now as the leader he should have been the one who suggested they pray about it first, but notice it is the priest who brings up the matter of prayer. However, when they inquire of God, they do not receive an answer. Saul reasons that one of his men has sinned, and so he makes an additional oath that whoever it is, even if it is his own son, Jonathan, he must die.

That phrase, “he must die,” is the same expression used in Genesis 2:17 when God told Adam, “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) The difference here is that when God warned Adam about the just punishment for his sin, God would not waver but follow through. Saul is just making it up as he goes, and he will not follow through on his vow. Notice the soldiers who knew what Jonathan did don’t say a word. This shows their loyalty and respect for Jonathan and their disapproval of Saul and his leadership.

Ecclesiastes 5:2,5 says this: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few … It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2,5) You need to be careful with vows and promises. If you want to be consistent in your life and not waver back and forth on decisions, a good way to start is don’t make promises you can’t keep.

   B. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong (40-44)
      – Proverbs 28:13

Secondly, be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Look at verses 40-44:

Saul then said to all the Israelites, “You stand over there; I and Jonathan my son will stand over here.” “Do what seems best to you,” the men replied. 41 Then Saul prayed to the LORD, the God of Israel, “Give me the right answer.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men were cleared. 42 Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and Jonathan my son.” And Jonathan was taken.

43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” So Jonathan told him, “I merely tasted a little honey with the end of my staff. And now must I die?” 44 Saul said, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.” (1 Samuel 14:40-44)

It was wrong for Saul to make the oath, and it would be wrong for him to break it, but it is also wrong for him to keep it if it was a wrong oath to begin with. In other words once you’ve made a foolish vow, you’re stuck. No matter what you do now you’re going to be wrong. There’s no right way forward except to confess your sin and admit that you are wrong.

But Saul doesn’t do that here, does he? Instead of admitting he was wrong, Saul only makes things worse. Previously he bound his men with an oath. Now he binds himself with an oath. He says, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely if Jonathan does not die.” Well, guess what? Jonathan will not die, and God will deal with Saul ever so severely. And remember this is all about Jonathan eating a little bit of honey! Talk about escalating a situation! (“Well, that escalated quickly!”)

Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13) When you’re in a hole, you don’t keep digging. And when you’ve messed up, instead of digging yourself in further, you’re so much better off admitting that you were wrong. That’s not wavering back and forth. That’s called taking responsibility for your actions.

   C. Don’t lose your trust with people (45)
      – 1 Corinthians 4:2

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong. And then thirdly, don’t lose your trust with people. Look at verse 45:

But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die – he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the LORD lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death. (1 Samuel 14:45)

Saul made an oath to take Jonathan’s life. Now Saul’s men issue a counter-oath to save Jonathan’s life. They are no longer listening to Saul on this matter. Saul in his foolishness and stubbornness had lost the trust of his men.

1 Corinthians 4:2 says: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4:2) That word faithful means reliable, consistent. Trust is a valuable commodity, and when you are inconsistent in your life, you are going to lose people’s trust.

   D. Don’t become weary and give up (46)
      – Galatians 6:9

And then finally the fourth principle from this section is simply this: Don’t become weary and give up. Look at verse 46:

Then Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land. (1 Samuel 14:46)

Saul and his men had the advantage. They were pressing the enemy, but they didn’t finish the job. Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land where they could regroup, rebuild and strengthen themselves for the next attack.

So this is another way we can be inconsistent in our lives – when we do not finish the tasks that we have started. Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) We all grow weary at times, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Has God given you a good task to do? Then don’t give up. Stick with it, and you will reap a good harvest in due time.

III. Man’s estimate vs. God’s estimate (47-52)

I want to close this message by just making a comment on man’s estimate of your life versus God’s estimate. Look at the final verses in our passage this morning:

After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. 48 He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.

49 Saul’s sons were Jonathan, Ishvi and Malki-Shua. The name of his older daughter was Merab, and that of the younger was Michal. 50 His wife’s name was Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaaz. The name of the commander of Saul’s army was Abner son of Ner, and Ner was Saul’s uncle. 51 Saul’s father Kish and Abner’s father Ner were sons of Abiel.

52 All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service. (1 Samuel 14:47-52)

This is a summary statement of Saul’s job as king, similar to other summary statements we get about other kings in the Old Testament. The difference is this: we usually get the king’s summary statement at the end of his life. Saul still has many years to reign, but we get his summary statement right now. Why is that? Because as far as God is concerned, Saul is finished. He has fallen out of leadership. He is still the Lord’s anointed, and he will still serve as king for years to come, but his days are numbered, and God has already chosen his replacement. In fact Saul’s final rejection will take place in the very next chapter.

Now if all you ever read about Saul was this summary statement, you would think Saul had been a great king. He drove back Israel’s enemies to the north, south east and west. He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites. He delivered Israel from those who had plundered them.

It all sounds pretty good. But do you know what’s missing from this summary of Saul’s reign? There is not a single mention of God. It is simply a human assessment. From a human standpoint Saul was a great success. But from God’s standpoint he was a dismal failure. God looks to your obedience and faith to measure your life, not your worldly successes.

The passage ends with a final reminder that Saul never finished his job with the Philistines. Saul fought against the Philistines all the days of his life. If only he had finished them off when he had the chance!

   A. How will people measure your life?
      – Luke 9:25

So that leaves us with two questions for ourselves this morning. First of all, how will people measure your life? When someone gives the obituary at your funeral, will God be a part of the story? Will he be the central part of the story? Will it be impossible to tell the story of your life without talking about your love for God, your faith in God, your service to God? Or will God be conspicuously absent as he was in Saul’s life summary? Luke 9:25 says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25) How will people measure your life?

   B. How will God measure your life?
      – 1 Corinthians 4:4-5

And then more importantly, how will God measure your life? The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:4-5) Ultimately, it is not what other people think or even what I think about my life that counts, but what God thinks.

CONCLUSION: You are building a life one day at a time, and God is looking for consistency. Are you consistent in Bible reading, consistent in prayer, consistent in church attendance, consistent in Christian fellowship, consistent in giving and consistent in sharing your faith?

God is looking for reliable men and women who will serve him faithfully all the days of their life. Too often we settle for on-again-off-again commitment to the Lord, but God deserves so much better. Yes, through Christ’s death for us on the cross, there is forgiveness for us when we fall. And yes, God’s grace covers all of our failures and all of our sins. But let us strive for consistency in our walk with God all the rest of our days.

© Ray Fowler

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