It must have been generally known in Damascus that Saul had been blinded by an extraordinary brightness on his approach to the city, and had thus been incapacitated, for the time at least, for the work of persecution for which he had been sent. Further than this nothing could be known, unless Saul had himself disclosed the great change which his spirit had undergone. And this is not likely, and seems to be disproved by the fact that, at the end of three days, Ananias knew nothing of it. We may, however, suppose that the Christians, from what they did know, would be likely to infer that their Lord had interposed in a special and signal manner for their protection, by the sudden prostration of the intended oppressor. Great must have been their surprise and adoring thankfulness when the result appeared. For no sooner had Saul recovered his sight and been baptized, by which he joined their body and became known to them as a convert, than any distrust which may have lurked in their minds for a moment was speedily removed, by the bold and decided measure he took of proceeding at once to the Jewish synagogues, and publicly declaring in them the conviction he had so marvellously realized, that “Jesus was the Son of God.” He doubtless stated, as he was apt to do, what had brought him to this conviction, and he was now able to employ his rabbinical and pharisaical learning in upholding the cause he had once labored to destroy, and in confuting the arguments which had once satisfied his own mind. Blank amazement at the first intimation of this astounding change in such a man, whose doings at Jerusalem were well known, as well as the object of his presence in Damascus, seems to have been followed by some curiosity to hear how he would account for it. This gained him attention; and not the less as they saw he was not a man to be put down by idle clamor. But when that curiosity was satisfied and they saw him prepared to gainsay the whole course of his previous life, and to discard with abhorrence and grief the commission with which he had been entrusted, he became the object of intense hatred, rising into rage with the increasing energy and boldness with which he went on arguing and proving, in the synagogues, with irresistible force, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
This could not last long. It is evident that the excitement raised among the Jews of Damascus, who must have regarded him as the most faithless of apostates, would place his life in much danger; and nothing could be more likely than the speedy arrival of a new delegate from Jerusalem, empowered to supersede him, and to bring him back for condign punishment. We know from his own account in Gal_1:17, that he left Damascus; and these considerations render it probable that his first stay was not of long duration. He had put in his testimony for Christ, and left it to its work.
But where was he to go?
At the first look one might think that he would be anxious to go to Jerusalem to put himself into communication with the apostles, and advise with them as to his future course, if not to receive their instructions. But we seem to see prudential reasons why he should not go to Jerusalem just at that time, when the exasperation there must have been so strong against him; and as we find he did not proceed thither, we might suppose that he was prevented by this consideration. But again, we may hesitate to think that one who had confronted the Jews so boldly in the synagogues of Damascus, would be prevented by his apprehensions from going to Jerusalem; and it may be urged that if he left Damascus to prevent the needless surrender of his life, the same consideration should prevent his going to Jerusalem, where the danger was at least equal, and probably greater.
If any duty had called Saul to Jerusalem, if his Lord had commanded him to go there, we may be sure that no prospect of danger to himself would have deterred him. But he had really no need to go thither; and his going at that time might have been injurious to his future usefulness and influence, by bringing the original and underived authority of his apostleship into question. From what afterwards happened at Corinth, we can see that advantage would have been taken of this circumstance to insinuate that he had sought, at Jerusalem, from the apostles instruction in doctrine, and the confirmation of his mission. But the Lord, by the whole course of his action towards him, and probably indeed by direct instruction, had made him to understand that it was of most essential importance that it should be manifest that he derived his gospel directly from Jesus Christ—that He had made him a minister—that He had directly and immediately invested him with plenary apostolic authority, so that he was no whit behind the very chiefest of the apostles. Note: This matter may be seen fully developed in Dr. John Brown’s Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians—a most valuable recent addition to the series of exegetical works with which, within these few years, the author has, far beyond any writer of this age, enriched the theological literature of this country. The more strongly we are enabled, from the Epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians, to realize the importance of these considerations, the more clearly Saul’s reasons for not going to Jerusalem may appear; and as the Lord knew future results which might not then be apparent to Saul’s understanding, it may reasonably be presumed that He directed his movements on this as on other occasions, and forbade his proceeding to Jerusalem.
It is even possible that our knowledge of the circumstances which led to his quitting the same city on a later occasion, may have too readily induced us to assign the same cause to his previous departure. We certainly do not read that the violence of the Jews compelled him to go away. There may have been other reasons. Some have suggested a possible regard for his health—which does not seem to have been ever very strong, and may have been much shaken by all he had lately gone through. This may at least have been added to other reasons; for a man is as much bound to consider his health as his life, so that his care for neither takes him away from the path of duty. Although we should not like to rest much upon this, we can produce facts which would make it appear still more probable to those by whom it has been advanced.
The great bane of the delicious environs of Damascus is the insalubrity of the climate. In the summer and autumn, attacks of ophthalmia are frequent; and the intermittent Damascus fever is a terrible disease; and when it has once made its attack it pays annual visits, reducing the patient to a skeleton. This fever and ophthalmia are entirely owing to the extensive irrigation, and consequent exhalation, from the ground. Wherever there is water, there are generally no inhabitants. Hence, such of the inhabitants as can possibly manage to do so, leave the city for a time, and retire into the neighboring dry and healthy districts. Saul did this—that is, he went into “Arabia;” but whether from the same, or partly from the same reason, is open to conjecture. It has been thought that certain intimations in the Epistles are best explained by supposing that it was the Lord’s pleasure that, although he recovered his sight, his eyes should remain weak and tender, as a standing memorial of the circumstances under which he had been made blind. If this were the case, it may be conjectured that some indication of an attack of ophthalmia, on the arrival of the unwholesome season at Damascus, may have contributed to the reasons he had for retiring from the city at that time. It may also be conceived, that at this early period of his new career, he desired to withdraw for a season into comparative retirement for the purpose of giving himself up to solemn meditation and communion with his Divine Master. Such retirement he could realize in Arabia, but not in Damascus, nor in Jerusalem, nor in Tarsus. It is commonly stated, that he preached the Gospel in Arabia, and some ingenious comment has been founded upon that conclusion. It may have been so to the extent that a man like Saul would not be likely to neglect any opportunity of usefulness which circumstances might present; but there is no proof of the fact in the passage in Galatians, where this visit is mentioned, nor any trace of it in the Acts of the Apostles.
And here it may be desirable to remind the reader that the name Arabia is doubtless here employed in a sense different to that which it has borne since the second century, when the geographer Ptolemy gave that definition of the limits of Arabia in its three divisions which has been generally adopted. Before that the name was very vaguely applied, and in the times of Saul was extended far northward, encroaching largely upon the borders of Syria and Palestine. Towns lying in the region immediately south of Damascus, that is, in the Hauran (Auranitis) are reckoned by the Roman writers as belonging to Arabia. Early Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian, assign even Damascus itself to Arabia; and Pliny the elder extends Arabia in this direction over the mountains of Lebanon to the borders of Cilicia. It is not therefore needful to suppose that Saul buried himself in the deserts of Arabia, or sought the dread solitudes of Sinai. It is sufficient to assume that he withdrew to the same quarters to which the Damascenes themselves retreat from the fever and the ophthalmia which in summer afflict their city.