Jonathan was not the king, but he showed himself to be truer to the kingly ideal for Israel than his father, King Saul. The Lord told Israel that her king was to fear Him, know His Word, and show this trust by keeping His law (Deut. 17:14–20). Saul showed his lack of this piety when he disobeyed God and did not wait for Samuel to come to Gilgal to offer sacrifices to the Lord (1 Sam. 13:8–15). Jonathan, however, was a man of faith who trusted in the Lord’s power and went up against the Philistines when Saul hesitated (14:1–15).
The raid that Jonathan made on the Philistine garrison prompted Saul to finally lead Israel into battle against their enemies (vv. 16–22). God saved Israel from the Philistines that day, but the battle was fierce, expanding beyond the area of Beth-aven (v. 23). The author of 1 Samuel tells us in today’s passage that “the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day” (v. 24). It was a long, arduous struggle, and Saul discovered a newfound willingness to fight the Philistines to the bitter end. But in his zeal to defeat the enemy, Saul acted foolishly. He placed a curse on any man in Israel who ate before the day was over and the final victory had been achieved (v. 24).
Depriving one’s army of the food it needs to provide strength for fighting certainly is not wise military strategy. In Saul’s case, however, the act was even more foolish because the person who was subject to the curse was his own son Jonathan, who, having not heard Saul’s rash vow, ate honey (vv. 25–27). So, not only did Saul’s curse alienate him from his troops, but it ended up alienating him from his son, as evident in Jonathan’s remark that Saul’s ban on eating was causing trouble for Israel and keeping them from fighting at full strength (vv. 28–30). What is more, Saul’s keeping food from his soldiers gave them such hunger that they began to eat whatever spoil they could find, sinning because they were so eager to fill themselves that they ate the blood of the animals as well (vv. 31–35; see Lev. 7:26).
After dealing with that sin, Saul decided to go against the Philistines by night, asking the Lord whether that was a good plan. Tragically, the Lord “did not answer him that day” (vv. 36–37). God was no longer directing Saul but was alienated from him; Samuel was not with Saul and the Lord would not talk to him. But Saul did not see that it was his own sin that stood between him and God. He wrongly thought Jonathan was to blame for the Lord’s silence, but Israel loved Jonathan so much that they kept Saul from killing him (vv. 38–46).