When Saul “blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying: Let the Hebrews hear,” he had a right to expect that they would hear. The alacrity which had been evinced by the tribes in following him to the relief of Jabesh-Gilead, evinced a degree of spirit and zeal on which he had reason to calculate. But he was mistaken. There was a sentiment in that affair, which was wanting in this. Then, the transaction to which their attention was called, was in the highest degree stimulating; and the people against whom they marched on that occasion, were those whom they had more than once signally defeated in battle. But in the present case the people generally were filled with terror when they heard that the Philistine garrison had been smitten. By the Philistines they had repeatedly been brought low in battle, and to them they had long and often been under subjection. As a dog which had dared in a moment of irritation to snap at the hand of his master, cowers in terror of, or flees from the look of punishment—so cowered, so fled, the Israelites when they heard that Saul had drawn his sword against the Philistines. Many of the people fled for safety to the land beyond the Jordan, which river the Philistines had never yet crossed. Others abandoned their houses, and hurried off to the mountains and rocky wildernesses. Some resorted to the caverns in which certain parts of the country abound; some retired to the woods, and many even sought shelter in pits, that is, in the capacious cisterns prepared to hold rain water for the use of the inhabitants, and which are often in a dry state, either from not having been filled in the last season of rain, or from the preserved waters having become exhausted. They may also have been subterranean granaries. In both the orifice was small, and may be easily closed. We have one instance of this in the cistern wherein the messengers sent to David from Jerusalem—when that city was in the power of Absalom—were hid from their pursuers by a friendly woman, who covered the mouth with corn, so that the existence of this refuge was unsuspected.
The rendezvous was at Gilgal, and to that place some men did repair, albeit with heavy hearts and misgiving spirits. In fact, the Philistines were already in the field with an immense army, the presence of which filled the Israelites with dismay; and even the stouter-hearted men who had come to Gilgal, began gradually to steal away from the camp. The king beheld this with dismay, and it seemed to him that all would be lost unless he took some decided steps before he was altogether deserted. This he was precluded from doing by the absence of Samuel, who had promised to be there within seven days, and had intimated that nothing was to be done before he had come and offered the proper sacrifices. As he could not but know that Samuel would be able to make known to him the will of the Divine King, whose viceroy he officially was, and as he had no reason to doubt that from that source counsels and aids equal to the most extreme emergency would be provided, it was the duty of Saul to have awaited patiently the arrival of the prophet; and although his men did leave him, it behooved him to evince the same noble and pious confidence which Gideon had manifested under the like circumstances, who was content that the Lord should have all the glory, by the inadequacy of the means employed, and who contentedly beheld his men go away from him by thousands, knowing that it was the same to the Lord to save by many or by few. He had his reward; and Saul would not have failed of his, had he profited by this great example. This was in fact a test of his obedience to the principles on which he had accepted the crown; and it was, doubtless, to render it such, that Samuel delayed his coming to the very close of the period he had appointed. Saul, however, looked at these matters merely in a human point of view. He looked at them as a king and a soldier, and not as “an Israelite indeed.” It must not be concealed, that he was a vain-glorious man, covetous of military renown, and impatient of restraint from autocratic power. There is reason to suspect that he was far more desirous that the power of his own arm, the success of his own combinations, should be evinced in this transaction, than the might of the Lord’s right hand; and there is cause for more than a surmise, that he was jealous that the Lord should possess, or too manifestly share, the glory of Israel’s deliverance. That he was a patriot king, after a certain blind fashion of his own, cannot be denied; and as little can it be doubted, that self was so mixed up with his patriotism, that Israel’s deliverance would scarcely have been a joy to him—certainly not an unmingled joy, unless he had the whole credit of its accomplishment. This view of his temper, which is derived from the whole of his career, may well be brought forward now to illustrate his position under the present circumstances.
To the faithful servant of Jehovah, which Saul was officially required to be, this trial ought not to have been a hard one. It would not have been so to David, who was great in that very reliance upon Jehovah wherein Saul so signally failed. It must be admitted, however, that the trial was a hard one to flesh and blood. It was hence hard to Saul. But it was most important that he should be subjected to it. He was the first king, and his acts would form precedents for his successors. The very nature of the kingdom depended upon his conduct. It was therefore essential that his way should be hedged about, and his steps determined, whether willingly or not, according to the conditions of the monarchy. He was either to be forced into the proper position belonging to him, or by refusing to fill it, subject himself to the high penalties of disobedience. The people would then know that his measures were not to be taken as the precedents of the Hebrew regal constitution, seeing that they were taken in known contrariety to the will of Jehovah, as declared by prophet and by priest. Saul might have done well enough (for he had fine heroic qualities), in a line of hereditary kings, under whom the principles of the government had been established; but he was unfit for the responsibilities attached to the founder of a kingdom, whose acts required to be weighed with regard to their influence on the political rights of unborn generations.
Samuel had promised to join the king in seven days. The seventh day had commenced, but he was not yet come. Seeing, probably, that many of his men had taken their departure over the night, and that not more than six hundred men remained to him, Saul determined not to lose another day in waiting for Samuel, who might not arrive till the evening. He himself offered the sacrifices; not only burnt-offerings but peace-offerings. This was a two-fold offence—it was not only disobedience to the word of the Lord, and the proceeding of an independent king, but the mode of action was in itself a crime. Among the nations, kings indeed offered sacrifice, combining the offices of priest and king, but it was not to be so in Israel. Priests only might offer sacrifice—the only exception being in the case of the prophets, who occasionally claimed that right for the honor of God, by whose spirit they were moved. This, therefore, was another assumption of autocratic power, of a nature most offensive and dangerous under the theocratic institutions. The priesthood formed the constitutional check, on behalf of Jehovah and the people, upon the power of the crown, and to assume the most important of their functions was nothing less than, with a high hand, to cast down the barrier which the wisdom of God had reared up to secure the safety of the chosen people against the encroachments of regal ambition. It has been said, indeed, that Saul did not himself offer the sacrifice, but ordered a priest to do so. It has, however, all the appearance of a personal act, and the character of Saul suggests that he would be likely to take the opportunity of indicating his possession of the same functions as belonged to other kings. “Bring hither a burnt-offering to me, and peace-offerings; and he offered the burnt-offerings.” There even seems to us an emphasis in the last clause, the burnt-offerings being, as wholly consumed on the altar, the holiest of all sacrifices—this, even this, he offered—leaving, perhaps, the peace-offerings to be offered by other hands.
Samuel came before the sacrifices were completed. He evinced the deepest concern and displeasure; and although received by the king with respect and attention, he plainly told him that by this deplorable failure of obedience, by this utter forgetfulness of his true position, he had placed his crown and dynasty in peril.