In the choice of representatives for our own senate, it is remarkable that not generally, nor perhaps in the majority of cases, is the impulse of popular excitement, as manifested by the show of hands at the nomination, sanctioned by the result of the election. We need not, therefore, be surprised to learn that, notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which the appearance of Saul had been hailed, there was so wide-spread a dissatisfaction at his appointment, that he was suffered to withdraw to his own house, and almost to return into private life. It had been quite so, but that a few kindly disposed and faithful men attached themselves to his person, and remained with him; and these he seems to have been able to maintain, by means of the “presents” which some of the people brought in testimony of their homage and respect. But a very considerable proportion of the people—a large minority, if not a majority—said, “How shall this man save us? And they despised him, and brought him no presents.” The source of their discontent is not difficult to trace to the obscurity of the person on whom the crown had fallen, with the absence of tried character and experience which they thought themselves entitled to look for in an elected king; and something of it may have been due to the sheepish and unregal deportment of Saul in hiding himself “among the stuff,” instead of meeting, with manly dignity, the call of God and the people.
It is emphatically remarked, that “Saul held his peace.” That was kingly. He was content to bide his time. He knew that the state of affairs around must soon afford him an opportunity of acquiring the personal consideration he yet lacked; and he felt that any show of resentment, and bald assertion of his authority till then, would only expose him to derision.
The opportunity he must have greatly desired, was very soon afforded. The Ammonites began to move beyond the Jordan. This people had ere this recovered the effects of the terrible overthrow they sustained in the time of Jephthah, and, feeling their own strength, and beholding the apparent weakness of Israel, they judged the time to be favorable for the sharp avengement of that never-forgotten blow and for the recovery of those territories east of the Jordan, which they still regarded as rightfully their own, notwithstanding the ability with which, first by arguments and next by blows, Jephthah had of old disposed of their claim.
They appeared suddenly in great force before the town of Jabesh-Gilead. The inhabitants were in no condition to make any effectual resistance, and therefore offered to surrender on terms. This the Ammonite king, whose name was Nahash, refused on any other conditions than that he should put out all their right eyes—not only that he might thereby disqualify them for the use of arms, but, avowedly, that the fact might remain as a brand of infamy upon the whole nation. Appalled by this barbarous stipulation, yet not seeing how to resist, they begged and obtained a truce of a week, at the expiry of which they would accept of these hard terms, unless some relief in the meantime arrived. Some surprise has been felt, that he who breathed nothing but disgrace and ruin against the Israelites, should have yielded to the Jabeshites even this short respite, and have thus subjected himself to the risks of delay. But here we may avail ourselves of the probable information of the Jewish historian, Note: Josephus, Antiq., vi. 5. that the besieged had already sent to implore the assistance of the two and half tribes beyond the Jordan, and that none had dared to stir a hand for their relief. So, there being little likelihood that the ten tribes west of the river, who were at a still greater distance, and less immediately affected than the nearer tribes, could bring any aid in so short a time, Nahash might in that confidence, and as a further manifestation of his scorn, the more easily grant the beleaguered Jabeshites the respite they required. But we may quite as well, or even better, suppose, that Divine Providence thus far restrained his hands, by a sort of infatuation, in order to give to the new monarch an opportunity of affording such signal proof of his capacity, decision, and military conduct, as might win for him the general admiration of his subjects, and secure his full possession of the royal power to which he had been appointed.
Saul had by this time returned to his old employment, which shows how little in fact was the support or attention he received as king. It may be doubtful indeed if the “band of men,” who had followed him in the first instance, had till now remained with him. The inattention to him is further indicated by the fact that the persons who brought the tidings of this affair to Gibeah did not seek him out as one who had any peculiar interest in the matter; and it was only when he came home from the field, following the herd, and in answer to his inquiries, when he witnessed the lamentations of the people, that he was apprized of the event. This news awoke all the patriot and the king within him. Like Samson aroused from slumber, he “shook his invincible locks,” and stood up in the fulness of his strength. The time was come to use, in behalf of the people, the office to which he had been chosen, and to make that office a truth in their eyes, and in the eyes of their enemies. He did not hesitate one moment to call the people to arms, and that not with uncertain voice, but commandingly as their king, whose summons it was their duty to obey. He took a yoke of oxen, and hewing them in parts, sent the pieces by swift messengers through the country, to declare the event, and say, “Whosoever cometh not after Saul, and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen.”
There has been occasion to refer to this custom in connection with the similar act of the Levite, Note: Twenty Sixth Week—Friday. and it therefore need not detain us here. There are, however, so many points of interest in this summoning of the tribes, and so much has been questioned as to some of the particulars, that it is well worth while to examine the circumstances with some attention. Most of the objections which have been felt or urged turn upon the difficulty of imagining how all the recorded operations could have been accomplished within the time specified. The case may be thus stated. The besieged city of Jabesh-Gilead was not much less than sixty miles from Gibeah, the place of Saul’s residence, by direct distance, and considerably more if we take into account the mountainous character of the country, and the windings and turnings of the roads. Thus allowing that the seven days’ respite had been granted to the besieged very early in the morning, the persons who brought the tidings could hardly have reached Gibeah till the evening of the next day. It was certainly the evening when Saul first heard the intelligence, as he was then bringing home his cattle from the field. There remained then but five days more to summon the tribes to arms, some of which were a hundred miles north from Gibeah, and as far south from Bezek, Note: Seventeen miles from Shechem, on the road to Bethshan on the Jordan. the place appointed for a general rendezvous; where, nevertheless, upon a review of the whole army, there were found to be 330,000 effective men. From Bezek they had still about eight miles to Bethshan, where they were to cross the Jordan, and from thence ten miles more to reach the camp of the Ammonites, which, considering the vastness of the army, and the mountainousness of Gilead, could hardly take less than one day more. If this be allowed, it will fellow that Saul’s summons must have reached the ten tribes, and these must have armed and assembled themselves under their respective standards within the short space of four days. We may even count it as less; for the text expressly says that the forces assembled at Bezek in time to be reviewed by the king, which must have taken some considerable time; after which he had still his messengers to send to Jabesh-Gilead with assurance of effectual relief by the next morning’s dawn, before he could decamp from Bezek to their assistance. All these things being duly weighed, and the distance considered between Gibeah, from which the message was dispatched, to the remotest tribes north and south, and from those again to Bezek, the place to which they were to repair, in some cases by a march of a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles, through wildernesses, over craggy mountains, and along narrow and difficult defiles, it is very hard to understand—some insist it is incredible—that it could have been performed in so short a space of time. For, allowing Saul’s messengers to have travelled night and day, with the utmost dispatch, not less than a day and a half must be allowed them to reach the more distant tribes; so that they could have but two days and a half more to equip themselves, to provide themselves with victuals, to assemble under their chiefs, and to reach the place of rendezvous over roads so difficult and retarding. This transmission of messages—this raising of an army (and not only simply calling into action troops standing ready for service)—this march of that large army by difficult roads—this reviewal of it and the final march to meet the enemy—and the complete and sudden victory within so short a time, far surpasses anything we find in modern warfare. An experienced general, with all the modern advantages of inter-communication and travel, would not be able to get together an army of 20,000 or 30,000 men in as many weeks as Saul—a raw and inexperienced monarch and commander—took days only to raise a force of ten times the number, from ten different tribes, several of them at a serious distance. Such are the difficulties and objections; and we have stated them, because the answering them tomorrow will enable us to throw some light upon sundry matters involved in these considerations.
A further and preliminary objection we may dispose of now. Was it at all likely that a people who so contemned their king as to leave him to resume his pastoral avocations—should all at once, and so professedly “as one man” have obeyed his call, and flocked in such immense numbers to his standard? But the news which accompanied this summons, was surely likely to animate the hearts of a brave people, with the same indignation and zeal as that which it had kindled in the bosom of Saul; and if they were to move at all for the relief of their brethren, and to save Israel from the threatened disgrace, Saul, whatever they might think of him, was the only person authorized to lead them against the enemy. Besides, if a similar mandate even from a Levite, formerly, was not to be neglected or despised, much less could it be so, when it came from their anointed king. It deserves notice that the very name of Jabesh-Gilead was enough to warn them of the peril of disobedience—for it was notorious that the people of that place had perished by the sword of Israel, for neglecting to appear in arms upon the like, but less authoritative, summons sent forth on that former occasion to which reference is made.