In chapter 10 we read of how the Lord gave Israel a king yet placed limitations on him (v. 25). However, not everyone was pleased with this arrangement or with the Lord’s choice of a king (v. 27). Indeed, hesitant Saul appeared to be an unlikely candidate for the job; his apparent qualifications were only superficial. The chapter ends in tension. Would Saul be an effective leader and deliver Israel from their enemies? Would Israel support Saul, or would troublemakers create problems within the nation? Chapter 11 appears to resolve the tension positively: the Lord energizes Saul and enables him to lead Israel to victory. The people wholeheartedly support their new king and renew their allegiance to him. But this initial success proves to be short lived and eventually becomes a tragic reminder of what could have been.
Historical and Cultural Background
The Philistines, who lived along the Mediterranean coast to the west, were certainly a major threat to Israel’s security at this time, as chapters 4–7 illustrate (see also 9:16). But there were other threats as well, including the Ammonites, who lived east of the Jordan River. The Ammonites were descendants of Lot by his incestuous relationship with one of his daughters (Gen. 19:38). When Israel approached the promised land, the Lord did not allow them to invade or conquer Ammon; he expected Israel to respect Ammon’s territorial boundaries (Deut. 2:19). However, during the judges’ period the Ammonites did make war with Israel on occasion. They allied with the Moabite king Eglon (Judg. 3:13) and later crossed the Jordan and threatened the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim (10:9). They also claimed territory east of the Jordan that Israel had taken from the Amorites, arguing that it originally belonged to them (11:13). Now in Saul’s time the Ammonites are again creating problems as their king, Nahash (cf. 1 Sam. 12:12), besieges the Israelite Transjordanian town of Jabesh Gilead.
In the scroll of Samuel found in cave 4 at Qumran, an entire additional verse is included at the beginning of 1 Samuel 11. It reads: “Nahash, king of the Ammonites, was oppressing the Gadites and Reubenites severely, and he was boring out every right eye, allowing no one to save Israel. There was no one left among the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not bored out. Seven thousand men had escaped from the power of the Ammonites, however, and had come to Jabesh Gilead.” Josephus was also aware of this tradition (Antiquities 6.68–71). The verse may have been omitted from the original text by accidental scribal error. If it is a reliable historical tradition, then Nahash is engaging in an aggressive imperialistic campaign in Transjordan, designed to bring the entire region under his rule. Indeed, Samuel’s speech in chapter 12 declares that it is specifically the military threat posed by Nahash that has prompted Israel to ask for a king in the first place (1 Sam. 12:12).
In this chapter the Lord once more displays his ability to deliver his people (see esp. v. 13), just as he has done throughout the judges’ period (see 1 Sam. 12:11). Despite Saul’s flaws, God empowers him for battle by granting him the enablement of his Spirit, just as he has done for Samson. Though the chapter ends with Saul’s being reaffirmed as king, it is apparent that Israel really does not need a king like other nations in order to be secure from their enemies. The threat of Nahash has prompted the people to ask for such a king, but the Lord proves he is capable of protecting them apart from a standing army. He is Israel’s true Savior and King, and the people must remember that, no matter how impressive or successful his human instruments may be. For the exiles, this account is yet another reminder that the Lord is fully capable of delivering them and making them secure, even when they have no human king. Victory and security are accomplished “not by might nor by power,” but by the Lord’s Spirit (Zech. 4:6).
Teaching the Text
- The Lord is fully capable of delivering his people from their enemies and must be the sole object of his people’s trust. We human beings have a tendency to walk by sight rather than faith. When faced with imposing, tangible enemies, we are inclined to seek tangible, flesh-and-blood solutions and look to human leaders for deliverance and security. But Israel’s history shows that this is foolish. Beginning at the Red Sea, Israel was almost always militarily inferior to the nations who threatened them. Yet the Lord repeatedly delivered them from their enemies, proving his infinite superiority to kings and their armies. He is a mighty warrior King who devastates human rulers and armaments (Exod. 15:3–4; Judg. 5:19–21; Pss. 48:4–7; 68:12; 76:6; 136:17–18; Prov. 21:31). When Israel faces the threat of Nahash the Ammonite, they think they need a human king with a standing army to protect them, but the Lord proves he can defeat the enemy, working through a Spirit-empowered farmer (1 Sam. 11:5–6, 13). The principle is clear: the Lord alone is the Savior of his people (Ps. 20:7), and he is able and willing to deliver his faithful servants (Ps. 33:10–22). Israel needs to remember this in the time of Samuel and later when they find themselves in exile. But the principle is timeless, and God’s covenant community in the present era will also do well to appropriate it.
- God’s supernatural enablement is the key to effective spiritual leadership. While the Lord is always the true King and Savior of his people, he often uses human instruments to accomplish his purposes and protect his people. Like ancient Israel, we are prone to focus on the human instrument and choose leaders according to our superficial, human standards. As Saul’s example illustrates, the key to effective leadership is not one’s outward appearance or some other quality that impresses or attracts us. Rather, it is God’s supernatural enablement. Saul has been acclaimed king (10:24), but he hardly seems up to the task. He has failed to initiate military action against the Philistines, and he tries to avoid being publicly selected as king. When the messengers arrive from Jabesh Gilead, we find him doing the work of a farmer, not a king, much like Gideon of old (Judg. 6:11). But once God’s Spirit energizes him, he acts decisively, uniting the people and displaying impressive military strategy. The key to his success is God’s supernatural enablement, not his physical attributes or his status as the newly acclaimed king. Unfortunately, Saul will soon get out of step with the divine Spirit and forfeit God’s enabling power (1 Sam. 16:14). That power will be transferred to another, whose inner character is predisposed to obey God (13:14).