The context of the war story in 1 Samuel 13-14 between Israel and the Philistines, and especially the role of Jonathan and his armor-bearer, provide interesting food-for-thought regarding the mission task today.
The context of the war story in 1 Samuel 13-14 between Israel and the Philistines, and especially the role of Jonathan and his armor-bearer, provide interesting food-for-thought regarding the mission task today. But first, it is crucial to become acquainted with how desperate the context really was.
Chapter 13 reveals a grim picture as measured in several crucial dimensions. First, the army of Israel numbered about six hundred soldiers, while the army of their enemy is described “as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” Second, the weapons of their enemy included thousands of chariots in addition to their well-armed infantry, while only Saul and Jonathan among the army of Israel had swords. As a result, the morale of the army of Israel was extremely low and fear was the dominant emotion in the ranks.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, Saul, Israel’s king and commander-in-chief, foolishly disobeyed the Lord by offering sacrifices that were the sole purview of the priesthood. By thus provoking the judgment of the Lord upon himself, he also raised the question of whether or not the Lord would still fight for the nation.
In the midst of this tragic circumstance, Jonathan, second in command, took initiative that changed everything. The implications for the mission enterprise today reveal both his actions and at least part of their meaning for us today:
1. The more impossible the circumstances and challenge, the more glorious is the Lord’s victory. Israel was outmanned and outgunned, making it clear to all that a victory could only be the work of the Lord. William Carey’s counsel to “expect great things from God, attempt great things for God,” is still sage advice for us today.
2. Even unfaithful leadership does not rule out the possibility of a breakthrough resulting from the initiative of a faithful remnant (13:7-14 and overall context). This was true for the army of Israel, it’s true for our organizations today, and it’s even true for us in spite of the kind of family from which we have come. Jonathan was not doomed by the failings of his father; neither are we.
3. Marinating in the scriptures sets the table for possibility thinking and doing (14:6, cf. Gideon). When Jonathan said, “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few,” he revealed his knowledge of both the Lord’s workings in the past, and his trust in the changeless faithfulness of the same Lord to do great things in his generation as well.
4. Consistent modeling of a Godward life gives others the confidence to follow their mentor’s lead, even in pursuing the impossible (14:7). Jonathan did not order his young armor-bearer to join him; essentially, he invited him. And the young man’s enthusiastic response, “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul,” revealed a confidence in Jonathan and his relationship to God that seems highly unlikely apart from seeing consistent living over time.
5. Bold prayer, even including conditional elements related to understanding God’s will, is often an important prerequisite to bold action (14:8-12). It is interesting that Jonathan frames his conclusion of what the Lord would be saying under different scenarios so that the more difficult one (climbing the cliff and then fighting an enemy who has the advantage of high ground) is the one he refers to as indicating “the Lord has given them into our hands.” This is a bold conclusion that only makes sense if it is premised on a prayer relationship with God.
6. That which in itself may be a significant personal achievement, but is only a minor accomplishment in the grand scale of things, can still be the catalyst God uses to accomplish far greater things (14:13-23). Two men killing twenty men in an area of about half an acre is no small accomplishment, but it is insignificant when compared with the enormity of the task of defeating an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore. And yet, it started a chain reaction orchestrated by God that gave the victory.
7. Courageous initiative (within the bounds of honoring God-given authority) can mobilize backsliders and the fearful to engage in the task (14:21-22). Notice the impact of this small initiative on those who, prior to this time, were useless to the endeavor. Courageous commitment and initiative, not done with arrogant disregard to authority, but within the bounds of delegated authority, can rekindle a fire for the Lord even among the most unlikely.
8. When all is said and done, it is always the Lord’s victory, not our own (14:23). The final verse of the section makes it clear, “So the Lord rescued Israel that day….” Luke’s Gospel takes the thought one step further in terms of how God’s people ought, therefore, to respond: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty’” (17:10).
By God’s grace, may we, like Jonathan and his armor-bearer, continue to attempt great things for God, but recognize that the victory is his.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of SIM.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 392-393. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.