At the Mercy of the Nations 

Israel was envious. The nations around them had flesh-and-blood kings, while their ruler was only the eternal spirit-without-a-body Creator of the universe, Yahweh. The people obstinately demanded that God give them a king like all the other nations—and God, in a display of His immense patience, condescended to hear them. But He also warned them that their king would be intolerable and oppressive, waging war and levying heavy taxes on the people. And to all this the people simply said again, “We want a king.”

The man who would be king was Saul, the son of Kish the Benjaminite. As he went to the prophet Samuel to find his father’s lost donkeys, little did Saul know that he would be anointed king. Samuel was instructed by the Lord regarding who Saul was and what must be done when he arrived. After Samuel stretched his arms to pour the oil on Saul, who stood head and shoulders above other men, he said, “the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel” (10:1). Things began well for Saul because after the glorious defeat of the Ammonites at Jabesh-Gilead, the people accepted him as king and presented peace offerings before the Lord at Gilgal. It was a good time because “Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly” (11:15). 

The Philistines

When the Lord told Samuel to anoint Saul, he also mentioned the new king would deliver Israel from its enemies. One adversary specifically mentioned were the Philistines (9:17), who had been in the region since the era of the Patriarchs and were reoccurring opponents of Israel. Yigael Yadin’s The Art of Warfare said of the Philistine military that “Their force was based on the chariot…and on the infantry, who were equipped with weapons of a very high standard” (265). The men of Israel were not so advanced with their weaponry but were able to defeat them over the years. A vivid account of one defeat is recounted in Judges as blind Samson pulled down the temple of Dagon crushing the Philistines (16:23-31). But then at the time of Saul, the Philistines recently humiliated Israel at Aphek and captured the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord sent seven months of plagues upon the Philistines until the Ark was returned to Israel at Kiriath-Jearim.

Saul’s success with the Ammonites would not be repeated in his battlefield encounter with the Philistines. The Philistines gathered a massive force of chariots along with both mounted and infantry soldiers that numbered “like the sand on the seashore in multitude” (13:5). Saul took command while in Gilgal, nevertheless he and the people were intimidated by such a mighty and technologically advanced army. Before engaging the enemy, it was necessary for the army of Israel to make a sacrifice, so, as he had been instructed by Samuel, Saul waited seven days for the prophet to come and lead worship as the sacrifice was made by the priest. Samuel did not make it on time, so Saul took it upon himself to fill Samuel’s role. When Samuel arrived, he rebuked Saul telling him the kingdom would be taken from him for his grave disobedience and given to “a man after His own heart” (13:14). Why was Saul’s action sufficient to bring such a severe judgment from God? The seven days of waiting had been a test of Saul’s willingness to obey the Lord. The battle was in fact the Lord’s and without consecration of the army for battle, it became merely Saul’s war. The Israelites had wanted a king just like all the other nations and Saul acted like any other king as he took the sons of Israel to war for himself. Saul’s good times were coming to an end, and the victory against the Ammonites was obscured by his disobedience concerning war with Philistia.

Regardless of Saul’s failure, the army of Israel was still to engage the Philistines. Saul, his son Jonathan, and about six hundred men were camped in Gibeah of Benjamin, while the Philistines were camped in Michmash. As the days passed the Philistines sent raiding parties to Ophrah, Shual, Beth-Horon, and the Valley of Zeboim, possibly to draw some Israeli troops from Gibeah to weaken the defenses for conquest and occupation (13:15-18).

A Curious Passage

Given that Israel was ready for battle even though Saul had sinned grievously, it might be expected that the next verses would relate Saul’s engagement with the Philistines or vice versa, but instead verses 19-22 appear to be a parenthetical comment, or out of place:

Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.” But every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle, and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. So on the day of the battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them. 

When the Bible is read and apparent discrepancies or unusual texts arise the interpreter is to respect the integrity of the inspired Word and seek resolution of the issues while maintaining the importance and context of each word, verse, chapter, and book. This is not the way Henry Preserved Smith handled the verses. Smith was a higher-critical academic who concluded the verses were unnecessary because they “can be cut out without injuring the connection, we are safe in assuming that they are an interpolation” (101). He may believe his assumption could be safely assumed, but it is unacceptable for those who know Scripture is the written word of God. With Smith and his critical school aside, there is a better way to handle the text.

Philistine Ferrous Finesse

The date of the events recounted in the passage is about 1050 BC. In the region where Israel and the Philistines lived it was the Iron Age. The Philistines were skilled at smelting and working iron. Opinions as to why their metallurgy was superior include: they could carburize iron for durability (add carbon as charcoal to molten iron); their furnace technology was sufficiently advanced that iron ore could be heated to a higher temperature for greater purity and improved properties; and/or they had the ability to process iron for better workability through annealing. The ability to anneal could explain why the Israelites had to have their agricultural tools sharpened by the Philistines, because annealing provides an iron that is more durable and easier to work.

Other than satisfying the curiosity of certain readers, the level of their technology is unimportant. God’s point is that His people had to go to the Philistines for any blacksmith needs. Israel had a significant weaponry disadvantage compared to the Philistines because they could not obtain swords and spears. Saul and Jonathan are the only exceptions, perhaps because they were able to hide their weapons, or perhaps because the Philistines did not take the personal weapons of defeated commanders. As has been said, the point of this passage that Smith thought was extraneous is the army of Israel had a considerable weaponry disadvantage when they faced the Philistines in battle. Because of their limited arms, it looked as though Israel could not fight the Philistines and win. 

It has been said that a considerable portion of war involves waiting for something to happen. As chapter 14 opens, Jonathan grew tired of waiting. Saul was in Gibeah with six-hundred men waiting for something to happen, but he instead should have taken the lead. Saul had disregarded the order of worship for entering holy war and is in effect a lame-duck king. Jonathan said to his armor-bearer:

Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or few (14:6).

Much is made, justifiably so, of David and Goliath, but here are two men going up against a Philistine garrison (i.e. a body of soldiers that had the high ground). Jonathan shows faith in the covenant Lord and his armor bearer agrees with him saying, “I am with you heart and soul” (7). The Philistines taunted the two as they approached the garrison saying they had decided to come out of their holes and then dared them to fight. Once the two men made their way to the high ground they were able to kill twenty Philistines quickly and continued to slay them while the remainder fled in all directions. The Lord brought fear to the enemy with an earthquake contributing towards victory. In Gibeah, Saul was informed by his watchmen that the multitude of Philistines was dispersing, so he and the men with him joined the battle. Notice what the final verse says about the rout of the Philistines:

So the Lord saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-Aven (23).

The Philistine’s superior military with chariots and weapons of iron did not cause the inevitable defeat of Israel, but instead, Jonathan with one sword and an armor bearer challenged the enemy and was victorious as God’s covenant warrior. If Jonathan had in fact been allowed to keep his sword as a matter of military courtesy to the conquered, the Philistines surely regretted it. Smith’s willingness to simply remove the passage instead of understanding it in context shows failure to comprehend its redemptive-historical purpose as God delivered His people with inferior weaponry. The greater significance of 1 Samuel 13:19-22 as a Bible text is simple: Israel’s war against the Philistines was in fact the Lord’s war, a war won by His grace.

A Closing Thought

It is remarkable to observe God’s redemptive purpose displayed in 1 Samuel 13:19-22. Yet the passage also exemplifies a general principle that all people would do well to acknowledge: It is perilous for a nation to depend on the materials and goods of another that is (or could soon be) their enemy. Granted, it is not always clear which nations could be aggressive, and in some cases, nations have little or no choice about doing business with potential aggressors. The ancient Israelites, after all, had their material disadvantage imposed upon them by the Philistines. Nevertheless, Christians in every nation should pray that their national leaders note and apply this principle, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2).

The pandemic and international unrest continue to disrupt the manufacturing and shipping of raw materials. Our digitalized, globalized world is easily affected when microprocessors, electronics, and other crucial goods are in short supply. And what happens when a foreign supplier refuses to supply, or a buyer refuses to buy? Unlike Israel, some nations today have the means to avoid “source servitude,” yet willfully impose it upon themselves. It is unsettling to think about how many nations, in the pursuit of wealth, have compromised their security and strategic supply lines.

We pray for our leaders to make wise decisions. Yet all the while we know that God protects the apple of His eye, the Church, whether in Uganda, the United States, or Malaysia. He saved Israel by the hand of Jonathan from the Philistines, and He is able to save to the uttermost all those who draw near to Him by faith (Heb. 7:25).

Barry Waugh (PhD, WTS) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributed to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (2007) and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (2012).

Related Links

"Such a Time as This" by Barry Waugh

"If I Could Preach Only One Sermon" by Tim Bertolet

The God Who Hears by Sarah Ivill

The Book of Ruth by Philip Ryken

Esther & Ruth by Iain Duguid


The information on Yadin’s book is, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Discovery, translated from Hebrew and published in London by Weeidenfeld and Nicholson, 1963; I believe it has been reprinted, but I did not check; Yadin was Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, 1949-1952, and has other academic, military, and political credits. For an explanation of the metallurgy of the era see Neal Bierling, Giving Goliath his Due: New Archaeological Light on the Philistines, forward by Paul L. Maier, Baker, 1992, pages 140-46. Henry Preserved Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, The International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1899; my copy is the 1977 impression. Other and better commentaries consulted are by Joyce Baldwin, Robert P. Gordon, Keil and Delitzsch, Richard D. Phillips, Ralph W. Klein, Gordon J. Keddie, and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (often helpful but should be used with careful judgement). Another title is, Edward E. Hindson, The Philistines and the Old Testament, Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology, 1971.

Image: "Wars of Israel and Judah" by Hugo Ballin (in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple)