“Daddy, the sign says 30 miles an hour, and you’re going 45.”
“Oh, I didn’t see the sign. Besides, this is a good road. There’s no traffic on it, and no houses near it. The only reason the speed limit is so slow here is because it’s near the edge of town, and the local officials like to exert their authority. It’s silly! Anyway, we don’t want to be late to church (and there aren’t any policemen around).”
Perhaps you haven’t voiced these words, but have not similar thoughts gone through your mind? We are quick and right to condemn the criminal or the rebel who chooses to disregard the great laws of our land. Yet, if we are honest, most of us must confess that we, too, consider obedience to some laws to be optional. If a law is meaningful or sensible to us, we may obey it; but if it does not make sense to us, we judge that law a violation of our rights and ignore it.
Today when authority is being rejected in nearly every area of life, the believer should consider the teaching of the Word of God. Happily, the Scripture is not silent in this important area of life. It does speak of our responsibility to authorities, and to the laws and rules laid down by them—even when the laws don’t make sense to us. A number of interesting principles can be found in 1 Samuel 14.
The Perusal of the Account
The Philistines had just invaded Israel. Saul had recently become king. Israel was greatly outnumbered (13:2, 5) and completely unequipped for warfare (13:22; cf. 13:5). Saul’s already small army was rapidly dwindling because of deserters (13:6). Of the original 2,000 men (13:2), only 600 remained (13:15). The scene darkened further when Saul sinned by not waiting for Samuel to offer the sacrifice (13:8–12) and he was told the kingdom was to be taken from him (13:13, 14). Chapter 13 is truly one of the black pages of Israel’s history. But there is a ray of hope, a glimmer of light in chapter 14. Jonathan, with his armor-bearer, trusted God (14:6) and took on a Philistine garrison single-handedly (14:8–14). With the aid of God, he brought total panic to the garrison (14:15, 16, 19, 20). When this was known, the rest of the Israelites joined in battle and routed the enemy (14:21–23). At this point, Saul did a foolish thing. He issued an unwise order.
The order delivered. Saul ordered his men, by placing them under oath, to refrain from eating. “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies” (14:24). This order was unwise for two reasons. First, it was a selfish order. Saul was concerned with being avenged of his enemies. He did not speak of God’s enemies, nor of Israel’s enemies, but of “mine” enemies. Indeed, Saul was attempting to take credit for a victory which rightly belonged to Jonathan (14:45) and to God. Secondly, it was a senseless order. If the men were to fight effectively, they would need strength. An army moves on its stomach, we have been told. In his zeal to speed the victory, Saul pressed his men into action, not giving them time to eat. In so doing, he defeated his very purpose. Properly fed people are more effective in their work. Jonathan recognized the senselessness of the order when he said:
My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely to day of the spoil of their enemies which they found? for had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines? (14:29, 30).
The point of this last question was that there would have been a greater victory if this people had eaten to maintain their strength during the chase.
The offense described. Saul’s order was soon broken, by none other than his own son. While pursuing the enemy, Jonathan found some honey and ate it. Two points should be noted concerning his action. First, what he did was unwitting. “But Jonathan heard not when his father charged the people with the oath” (14:27). He was ignorant of the law. The order had been given when Jonathan was away from the others battling the Philistines (14:17). However, it must be observed, secondly, that although Jonathan was unaware of the order, what he did was unlawful. As soon as Jonathan ate the honey he was told, “Thy father straitly charged the people with an oath, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food this day” (14:28). Jonathan was cursed because he had broken the king’s order by unwittingly eating of the honey.
The offender discovered. Jonathan’s offense was not discovered immediately. He did not tell. None of the soldiers told. Hence, Saul had no way of knowing his order had been violated. However, God knew. Saul learned of the offense in an interesting manner. First, there was the silence of Jehovah. As night fell, Saul sought to learn from God whether he should continue the pursuit of the Philistines. “But he answered him not that day” (14:37). Saul surmised that the silence of God on this occasion was due to some sin within his army. He ordered, “Draw ye near hither, all the chief of the people: and know and see wherein this sin hath been this day” (14:38). We must conclude that Saul was correct in calling this sin, both because of the silence of God and also because of the events which followed leading to the exposure of Jonathan.
Secondly, there was the selection of Jonathan. Saul determined to learn who had committed the sin, although he did not know what the sin was (14:43). In due process, lots were cast and Jonathan was taken. Apparently this was done in the same manner in which Achan was discovered after Israel’s defeat at Ai. The same Hebrew word “taken” occurs both in Joshua 7:16–18 and in verses 41, 42 of our text. At the first casting of lots, “Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped” (14:41). One might wonder if perhaps the sin lay in Saul and not Jonathan, because of his foolish order. Yet the text explicitly says that “Jonathan was taken” (14:42) when the lot was cast between Saul and Jonathan. Clearly, it was Jonathan who was at fault. He sinned in violating Saul’s order. His discovery was in keeping with Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”
In summary, the text teaches that Saul issued a foolish order, Jonathan unwittingly violated it, and God held Jonathan guilty of sin.
The Principle of Authority
The key to understanding this problem text lies in the Biblical principle of authority.
The position of Saul. Saul was a king. Indeed, he was king by the people’s choice. Earlier, the people had demanded that Samuel give them a king. “Now make us a king . . .” (8:5; cf. 8:19, 20). When Samuel presented Saul to the people he said, “Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen, and whom ye have desired!” (12:13). Saul represented what the people demanded and desired. Furthermore, not only was he the people’s choice, but the Scripture clearly indicates that he was king by the Lord’s choice. Knowing of Saul’s many sins and knowing that David was soon to be anointed king, we tend to overlook this truth. Yet Samuel said, “See ye him whom the Lord hath chosen” (10:24). And again, “Behold, the Lord hath set a king over you” (12:13). David also recognized this fact, and refused to harm “the Lord’s anointed” (cf. 24:6; 26:9, 11, 23). Saul was God’s choice for Israel at this time.
Unlike politicians of our day who often rise to office amid a power struggle, and as a result of the cunning and drive of the candidate, Saul’s appointment to kingship was more comparable to a local church finding a pastor. The people elect and accept him, but God gives him to them. Hence, there is additional reason why Saul’s order was to be obeyed.
The power of a sovereign. By the very nature of his office, a king has certain powers. As a sovereign, he has power to exercise leadership over his people. That’s what kingship is all about. Israel wanted a king who would be “over” them and lead them (8:19, 20). Apart from the authority to lead and to issue orders, kingship would be meaningless. Also, a sovereign has power to expect loyalty from his people. If a king is over his people, they must be under him. If he is to lead, they are to follow. If he is to give orders, they are to obey them.
This principle of authority is not limited to kings and civil authorities. It is extended in other areas of life as well. It includes the home (1 Pet. 3:1; Eph. 5:22, 23; 6:1; Col. 3:18, 20), the place of employment (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Pet. 2:18), and the church (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12). In fact, this principle holds true in any institution of society. It is a God-given principle, and it is sinful to resist it.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God (Rom. 13:1, 2a).
The Point of Application
Application of these principles, and particularly of our text, may be made relative to those governed and also to those who govern. Those who are governed are to exercise conscientious obedience to the laws and regulations set before them. On the other hand, those who govern are to enact just orders for the citizens.
The responsibility toward legislation. The responsibility of the Christian citizen may be centered around three principles. First, informed citizens are to be obedient. Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 leave no doubts concerning this. But, as suggested above, this principle is applicable in areas other than civil. For example, because the husband is the head of the wife, he should expect her to follow his leading (Eph. 5:22, 23). Since children are to obey their parents, a parent has a right to set the time when a child will return home from a date (Eph. 6:1). Since servants are to obey their masters (Col. 3:22), an employer has a right to expect a proper output in return for a stipulated pay. Because Hebrews 13:17 admonishes “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves,” it is proper for church leaders to establish requirements for Sunday school teachers. Likewise, school administrators may properly set dress codes and other standards of behavior. All these standards or requirements will go beyond the express statements of Scripture, but they are nonetheless obligatory on the part of the believer. This is a principle established by God Himself.
Furthermore, irrational commands are to be obeyed. This principle is difficult for us to accept, but the passage teaches it. Saul’s order was irrational. It was downright foolish. Yet it was to be obeyed, and Jonathan’s violation was a sin. “Therefore lie who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Rom. 13:2, NASV). Citizens do not have the prerogative to obey only those laws which make sense to them.
Finally, 1 Samuel 14 teaches that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Jonathan was not excused because he was unaware of his father’s order. Neither is your failure to see a speed sign a valid defense if you are caught speeding. Failure to know the rules and regulations of any organization to which you belong does not give you license to break them. It is your responsibility to know those regulations which affect you.
The responsibility of legislators. Lest we think we may be abused by those in authority because we are to obey them or think those who legislate to us may do so with impunity, let us note another aspect of Scripture. Legislators have a God-given responsibility of enacting reasonable, sound orders. Laws should be just.
Observe first the outcome of proper legislation. Proper legislation causes respect for the legislator. “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Rom. 13 :7). Good leaders are appreciated. Proper legislation also leads to righteousness among citizens. “For he is the minister of God to thee for good . . . : for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). Good laws will lead to an orderly society. When those in authority enact reasonable orders and citizens exercise conscientious obedience, both parties will greatly benefit.
Secondly, let us consider the outcome of poor legislation. Saul’s unwise order had three immediate effects: (1) It weakened the advantage Israel had over the Philistines. Jonathan correctly observed that there would have been a greater slaughter over the enemy (14:30) were the people not faint from hunger (14:28). In his haste to win a great victory, Saul actually slowed down the battle by weakening the troops and the battle was never consummated (14:46). (2) Saul’s foolish order led to outright sin. When the order finally expired, the hungry army did not take time to kill the animals properly. “The people did eat them with the blood” (14:32), which was a direct violation of the Mosaic Law (cf. Lev. 3:17). (3) Saul’s foolish order actually weakened his own authority, for the people sided with Jonathan and rescued him (14 :45). He had said, “Though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die” (14 :39), yet he was not able to carry out his word. Those in authority are not a law unto themselves. They are answerable to those who put them there. Indirectly, they are answerable to the people (as Saul was in 14:45). Ultimately, however, those in authority are accountable to God, for “he removeth kings, and setteth up kings” (Dan. 2:21). Spiritual leaders are also held responsible by God. “. . . Them that have the rule over you . . . must give account” (Heb. 13:17). In the chain of command which God has established, He is at the top.
Let us, therefore, rest in the assurance that a sovereign God controls not only the universe in which we live, but even the society of which we are a part. As we submit ourselves to those in authority, we are actually submitting ourselves to God. In cases of unwise rules and rulers, let us exercise properly the rights given us, and then prayerfully and patiently leave the outcome to God.
Dr. Walton was chairman of the Department of Bible at Faith Baptist Bible College, Ankeny, Iowa, when this was published in the July/August 1977 Baptist Bulletin.