There is a story about a newly arrived Scottish immigrant to the New World who spotted what looked to him like an unusually large deer. When told that it was a moose, he replied, “Man, if that’s a moose, I would’nae want tae see a rat!” ¶ Now, Scots can tell the difference between a moose and a mouse, even if they pronounce the words the same way. The point is that everything is bigger in America. There is also more of everything—from hamburgers by the billions to economic indicators in the trillions. Numbers spell success in these United States. Small may be beautiful, but bigger always seems better.
In such a culture, it is easy to assume that God is on the side with the big battalions. God may say, “No king is saved by the multitude of an army” (Ps. 33:16), but does “the world’s only superpower” need to rely on God when it already has the best “smart-bomb” technology and the most powerful military the world has ever seen? Compare King Saul’s Israel, which not only was vastly outnumbered by the Philistines (1 Sam. 13:2, 5), but was kept hundreds of years behind in the Bronze Age by their Iron Age oppressors (13:19–22). Saul was sure he could not be saved by his outnumbered and ill-equipped army, but that did not mean he had a lively faith in the Lord of Hosts to win his battles. He just sat under his pomegranate tree at Migron, with his six hundred men, in a hopeless and defeatist spirit (14:2).
Taking on the Philistines
Jonathan, his son, was of a different stamp altogether. He not only had a doctrine of God’s sovereignty and covenant faithfulness, he really believed it and was ready to act on it with spiritual discernment, good military judgment, remarkable physical courage, and utter dependence upon God. He was persuaded, against all odds, that “ ‘nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few’ ” (14:6). This was not a blind faith. Having sought God’s leading, he took account of Philistine morale (14:10–12) and attacked an outpost small enough to handle and large enough to demoralize the rest of the enemy (14:13). The resultant confusion (14:16) saw Israel on the way to a victory, of which even Saul’s incompetence and small-mindedness could not deprive them (14:24ff.). The Lord was vindicated, but even though Saul went on to fight “all his enemies on every side” (14:47), he clearly was out of step with God’s plan, for when he defeated the Amalekites, he explicitly countermanded God’s commands and spared Agag and the livestock from destruction (15:11). As a result, he was rejected by God as king and “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him’ (16:14).
It was in this context that a courageous, multi-talented, and, above all, godly young man named David became God’s choice to succeed to Saul’s throne (16:1–13; cf. 18). David would emerge to public prominence in his fight with that incredible hulk of a Philistine, Goliath of Gath, thereby reasserting Jonathan’s maxim that the Lord can save by few—in this case one young fellow with a simple sling against the mightiest armored infantryman of the day (17:49)!
Taking on a Mission to the World
The drama of Jonathan’s victory at Michmash and David’s later defeat of Goliath should not be locked up in Bible stories for children or reduced to moral lessons about being courageous in the face of life’s challenges. The heart of the matter involves a foundational principle and a unique person, and these undergird the whole flow of Biblical history and divine revelation, from Genesis to Revelation.
The principle is the absolute sovereignty of God. He really rules. He declares the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). He has a plan of salvation, as well as the power to save His world and preserve His people. Human resistance is futile. Numbers will not determine the outcome. He will save, by many or few. This was Jonathan’s operating principle; in war. It is God’s principle in spiritual warfare, in redeeming His people, in advancing His kingdom and Gospel in the world. “The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save” (Isa. 59:1).
The person is the Son of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. He is the permanent King. Saul was the false start. David was the true foreshadowing. Jesus is both David’s son and David’s Lord (Luke 20:41–44). He loves us before we love Him. He seeks and saves the lost. When He changes a human heart, it takes no more than a zephyr of the Holy Spirit—like that little breath of wind on a summer day—to remake a heart of stone into a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). He then goes on to use the “foolishness” of preaching to bring forth repentance and faith in Him as Savior (John 3:7–8, 16; 1 Cor. 1:21).
There is also a missionary principle here. Jesus was crucified alone to be the ransom for many. The apostles went out as sheep among wolves to preach the Gospel to lost people. And Christians today are called to be the few reaching the many in a world that needs the Savior. Mission presupposes that the “big battalions” are the opposition. Mission promises that Christ will save a “great multitude” that no one can number (Rev. 7:9). Is not the very spread of the Christian faith the history of the Lord saving the many by the faithful ministry of the few?