The secular world would view the first king of Israel as regal in appearance, popular with the people, and even successful in his military leadership. However, Saul, was a spiritual rebel that disobeyed God.
First Samuel 13 is the chapter that exposes Saul as a self-centered man who was not a man after God’s own heart.
Now, before we even get into chapter 13, we are confronted with a textual difficulty. It concerns the length of Saul’s reign as noted in 13:1. Various translations have that Saul reigned 40 years, or that he reigned 30 years, or that he reigned 42 years. Commentators have stated that the Hebrew comes across as garbled in verse 1 and it is unsure what the text states. Thus, they turn to Paul’s words in Acts 13:21 where he says that Saul reigned for 40 years as king in order to find a bit of clarity.
The Hebrew literally says Saul was the son of a year and he reigned two years.
There are a number of solutions. The number “40” could have dropped out during the transmission of the book of Samuel. Most commentators go with that option.
The more plausible solution, and one that attempts to maintain the integrity of the biblical record as it is recorded in 13:1 is suggested by Eugene Merrill who says chapter 12 was the first anniversary of Saul’s coronation that took place in chapter 10. Thus, the events described in chapter 13 took place two years after his coronation, or perhaps his second year as king. Leon Wood thinks along these lines as well. In other words, 2 years or so after Saul was anointed king, these events in chapter 13 took place.
It is also possible that during these two years Saul began training a regular army to fight Israel’s battles. That is what is meant by 13:2 that Saul chose for himself 3,000 men of Israel. He had them stationed on the north and south side of a Philistine garrison in Geba. This strategy was meant to prevent the Philistines from raiding in the land of Israel as well as keep this location protected from other military incursions.
Jonathan, Saul’s son, led an attack on the garrison at Geba. His attack was successful, but it also stirred up the Philistines against Israel. The Israelites became “an abomination to the Philistines.” It was clear they were now going on the offensive, so Saul calls in reinforcements to meet the Philistine retaliation.
The Israelites seemed to have expected a response, but were utterly unprepared with what happened. 1 Samuel 13:5 says the Philistines “gathered together to fight with Israel 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen.”
Here again with have a second “difficulty.” This time it isn’t so much with the text itself as it is with what the text records. The idea of 30,000 chariots is just way too many chariots. Classic Puritan commentator, Matthew Henry, suggests the 30,000 represents not only the fighting vehicles, but supply vehicles that would be used to carry additional weapons, food, and baggage. Possibly, but I am not convinced.
I’ve written up a longer post on this difficulty that goes into more detail, but in short, I believe the word rekeb, translated as “chariot,” can have a wide range of meaning, including the vehicle, the driver, and the fighting force with the vehicle. In other words, the “30,000” represents the total number of chariots, chariot drivers, and fighters who fought along side the vehicles.
Whatever the case, it was at this point that Saul’s character comes unraveled. His army basically goes into a panic at the sight of the Philistines and run for the hills. The troops go into mass desertions hiding in caves, in holes and among the rocks. Verse 7 says that a number of them crossed the Jordan into the land of Gad and Gilead. In other words, they basically left the promised land.
Saul did what Samuel established at his coronation in 10:8 regarding what he was to do during crisis situations. That being, go to Gilgal the appointed meeting place, wait for Samuel to come within seven days and offer burnt offerings before the Lord, and trust that God is with the king and Israel. This ritual was a means to teach the people to trust God, not the king.
But being the spiritual rebel that he is, Saul takes the situation into his own hands. When Samuel doesn’t appear as though he is going to show during the designated time period of 7 days, Saul makes the burnt offerings himself.
However, the moment after the sacrifices were made, Samuel arrives and immediately asks Saul what had happened. Saul becomes an excuse maker. He was compelled to make the offering he says (13:12), because 1) his army was scattering, 2) Samuel had dawdled getting to Gilgal, and 3) the Philistines were growing as a threat.
As a result, Saul is rebuked by Samuel. He is shown that he does not have a heart to obey God. His kingdom, as it were, would be removed from him and given to a man who is after God’s heart. In essence, Saul’s entire kingdom is judged within just a few years after he started as king.
Additionally, as chapter 13 closes, Israel loses a military advantage as the Philistines come into the area and occupy it. In Micmash, they were able to establish a base of operation from where they could send raiders into the land of Israel as well as place a strangle hold upon the movement of Saul’s troops. Moreover, the Jews were unable to make swords or any weapons for hand-to-hand combat.
The situation looks grim for Israel. A king who is exposed as a rebel by stirring up God’s judgment against him and the people, boxed in by their enemies, and with no way to attack them with functional weapons. However, Saul’s son, Jonathan, rises to the occasion to become a hero.