When Saul mustered them at Bezek, those from Israel were three hundred thousand, and those from Judah seventy thousand. They said to the messengers who had come, ‘Thus shall you say to the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead: “Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have deliverance.”’ When the messengers came and told the inhabitants of Jabesh, they rejoiced. So the inhabitants of Jabesh said, ‘Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.’ The next day Saul put the people in three companies. At the morning watch they came into the camp and cut down the Ammonites until the heat of the day; and those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
The people said to Samuel, ‘Who is it that said, “Shall Saul reign over us?” Give them to us so that we may put them to death.’ But Saul said, ‘No one shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has brought deliverance to Israel.’
Samuel said to the people, ‘Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.’ So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.
Here we have what seems to be the beginning of a glorious new era for God’s people. The people had wanted a king and the one chosen by Samuel was Saul – a tall, handsome brave young man who, when we first meet him, is searching for missing donkeys, not the most glorious of missions.
There are those who don’t think much of him but by the end of the day he has proven himself worthy to be their king. Our view of Saul tends to be coloured by what we know of the end of his reign when he is bitter that David is the up and coming man. Here, however he is filled with, to use an old fashioned word, the zeal of the Lord. He organises his men into three companies and, by superior leadership, he defeats the Ammonites, those who were not killed wisely running for their lives.
Now nobody denies his rights to be king and his supporters are all for killing those who had thought he was not the right man for the job. Saul refuses this; there has been enough killing. His reason for waging war was justified- the king of the Ammonites using atrocities against those he considered interlopers on his land- and now he is showing mercy. What a good choice for king! What can go wrong?
I often have problems with the Old Testament and its use of extreme violence. Some of the Psalms make me shudder. However, this was how the world was with its struggles between different tribes and nations for the same land and power. Unfortunately it still is. We cover it with a veneer of diplomacy but it remains the same.
The God revealed in Jesus has no time for this. If we follow the God of love, we must do all we can to make our world different and never glorify violence.
Dear Lord, We start with such ideals and fail so easily. Help us be your people of peace and show your love to all we meet. Amen
Chris Eddowes Lay preacher and elder, St George’s URC, Hartlepool.