Sermon for Sunday, January 21st, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Jdg 11:29-33 ESV] 29 Then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. 33 And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
New Testament reading:
[Jas 1:19-27 ESV] 19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. 26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
[Mar 3:1-6 ESV] 1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
[1Sa 11:1-15 ESV] 1 Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” 2 But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” 3 The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” 4 When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud. 5 Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. 6 And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. 7 He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. 8 When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. 9 And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.'” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad. 10 Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.” 11 And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together. 12 Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.” 13 But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.” 14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.
I. Ammonite History
There is, all admit, a sudden break here in the text. Suddenly the Ammonites are threatening a town in Israel. Jabesh-Gilead. With their leader Nahash, they have it besieged.
While the break in our text is sudden, there is a history here that may help us to better understand what is going on.
The Ammonites are a people group on the other side of the Jordan river, opposite Israel. Today that country is called Jordan, and its capital is Amman. Amman is the capital city of the Ammonites.
It is thought that these people spoke a Semitic language similar to Hebrew, but it is known that they did not worship the God of Israel. They had their own (false gods), Milcom and Molech, and perhaps others.
The Ammonites have been mentioned in earlier Biblical history.
In Genesis chapter 19, the daughters of Lot, living with him in a remote cave and concerned that there is no other man to father children for them, get Lot drunk and sleep with him. The elder daughter has a son named Moab, the father of the Moabites. And the younger daughter has a son Ben-ammi, the father of the Ammonites. This is not a good beginning for the Ammonites, beginning with an incestuous relationship.
The Ammonites appear again the Book of Judges, where Jepthah (the savior-judge of Israel) defeats them in battle.
And so it is thought that one reason Nahash now attacks Israel is to avenge the shame of defeat the Ammonites had in the time of Jepthah. And Nahash wants to the turn the tables, bringing shame upon his enemies (Israel, or at least one town in Israel) by having them all lose an eye; even their dominant right eye, bringing disgrace upon the nation of Israel.
Or, another explanation is that Nahash might have just been an opportunist, seeing the chance to besiege the town of Jabesh-Gilead and extract money from them if a treaty were to be made. And perhaps the timing is notable: perhaps the Ammonites are taking advantage of the fact that Israel has a new king. They think “maybe this king isn’t tough and won’t come fight us.”
II. Saul to Prove Himself.
This all presents an opportunity for Saul to prove himself. Interestingly, we find Saul having gone back to the farm. He’s not reigning from a palace, but is working on his father’s farm when he hears of the situation in Jabesh-Gilead. He is found “coming from the field behind the oxen.”
Back in Jabesh-Gilead the elders are savvy. They must know that a new (and tall) king has been chosen by Israel, and that if they ask for help they will now have Saul to lead an army for Israel. Samuel is then doing exactly what the people had been requesting – he is a king going out to “fight our battles” (8:20)
The elders say to Nahash: “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” And maybe they would have surrendered had not Saul brought an Army. We don’t know.
But word gets to Saul that these Ammonites who worship an abomination are besieging Jabesh-Gilead. And I think that is an important element to understand. The Ammonites do not just worship any foreign god, but one of the worst sort; Molech, a god who required child sacrifice. So the Ammonites are tainted with that abominable practice. And they are bordering rivals with Israel. It is far worse than this, but to give an example – it is one thing for your sports team to lose, and it is another thing for them to lose against their rival. So when Saul hear’s of trouble with the Ammonites, it is very troubling, and, the situation cannot stand; it is unacceptable.
We then have the Spirit of God rushing upon Saul. This is the second time that such has happened. When the prophecies were being fulfilled in front of Saul to prove that he is chosen as king, then “the spirit of God” rushed upon him and he prophesied with the band of prophets. Now the Spirit of God rushes upon Saul and his anger is greatly kindled.
And I heat with wood in a woodstove at our house. If I “greatly kindle” a fire, it is going to be blasting in a few minutes. That is Saul’s situation. Red hot with anger. While most anger is sinful, this appears to be a righteous anger, stirring Saul up to oppose the enemies of Israel and their God.
Here we have an opportunity to delve into a theological truth. Anger in itself is not sinful. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26 – “Be angry and do not sin.” And Jesus in Mark 3, when he went into the synagogue and healed a man with a withered hand on the sabbath … he asked the people “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” And the text says “They were silent.” And then it says “And he looked around at them with ANGER, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch our your hand.” Christ was angry that the people did not speak up and say that good deeds are good even on the Sabbath. So not all anger is sinful.
Righteous anger however, is rare. And we should never use the fact that there is righteous anger to cover for our sinful anger. [REPEAT: “we should never use the fact that there is righteous anger to cover for our sinful anger.”] Rather, as James tells us (1:19-20) “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Righteous anger is zeal for God, sinful anger is zeal for man’s own desires. We should head Proverbs 29:11 – “A fool gives full vent to his spirit (of anger) but a wise man quietly holds is back.” So let us refrain from sinful anger.
Well the Spirit of God rushes upon Saul and his (righteous) anger is greatly kindled.
Well, the Spirt of God rushing upon Saul here again does not equate with the Holy Spirit changing the heart of Saul. There is a “subtle change” in the language. In other places in the Old Testament, the “Spirit of Yawheh” comes upon a man of God. That is, using God’s personal name, Yawheh. But with Saul it is the impersonal “Spirit of God.” This seems to indicate a differing sort of relationship. God is using, even empowering Saul for a purpose – the defeat of the Ammonites – but is not forming a personal saving relationship with Saul, who always remains an unbeliever.
Yet the Spirit of God empowerS Saul through his anger to devise a powerful plan to stir up the people of Israel to the defense of the town of Jabesh-Gilead.
7 He (Saul) took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!”
Here we have “Saul and Samuel” together. Saul is not yet proven, so the previous leader, the judge Samuel is tied in with him to give Saul legitimacy and support.
A pair, a yoke, of oxen is cut in pieces and sent through all the land. And the threat is that this will be done to your oxen! And without oxen you won’t have a harvest, and without a harvest you won’t eat.
So you have to think, not only is the threat that this will this be done to your oxen, but it will be done to you! If you don’t join in the battle, you are at risk of destruction, if not by the Ammonites then by Saul and the rest of Israel. Now is the time to join together for the fight.
The British once had a similar way of reminding the people. It was called “hanged, drawn, and quartered.” Not a pleasant thing. But the severed head of a criminal who had been convicted of treason would be displayed in a prominent place like London Bridge and each of the four limbs (hence “quartered”) would be sent to four other places in the country so all could know “If you commit the crime of treason, the same will happen to you.” It is a visual that is unmistakeable.
Well, Saul’s act of sending the pieces of Oxen around the land certainly stirred up the people. The “dread of the Lord fell upon them.” And 300,000 of Israel came out for battle. And 30,000 of Judah. This is a division that seems almost anachronistic here. It will not be until a later period that Israel and Judah separate as two nations. But perhaps the separate counts of soldiers here indicates a separation already under way; early signs of a later division. For now they fight on the same side, but are counted separately. And this number – a total of 330,000 – is said to be the 2nd largest army Israel ever puts out in to battle. The only larger army Israel ever raised was in Judges 20 when 400,000 troops came out to punish the injustice of the tribe of Benjamin.
This army – with the Lord on its side – then surprises and defeats the Ammonites, saving the very grateful people of Jabesh-Gilead. The strategy is to split up into three armies (so as to come from various angles and make escape impossible) and to arrive early in the morning. And the Ammonites have been lulled into thinking they are safe by the words of the elders of Jabesh-Gilead, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.” It isn’t exactly clear in our text (the ESV) who these elders are talking to. But from the context (the idea of “giving themselves up” it is clear they are speaking to the Ammonites. So the NIV translates it that way: They said to the Ammonites, “Tomorrow we will surrender to you, and you can do to us whatever you like.” And that gets the Ammonites thinking “Tomorrow is our victory, let’s sleep tonight.” And they fall right into the hand of the armies of Israel.
After this victory the people of Israel desire to put to death those who previously questioned Saul’s kingship. You remember then from the last chapter – “Some worthless fellows” who said “How can this man save us?” So now there is a call to put these worthless fellows to death. [Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.”] But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.” There is mercy. Saul seeks to win over these enemies by showing them mercy, rather than eliminating them. He seeks no division, but unity. Here, Saul has control of his anger. He was angry, but did not sin, did not take vengeance upon his opposition in Israel.
III. The Lord has Rescued Us
So Saul remains the central character (besides God) in this drama and he is “made king before the Lord in Gilgal.” But also to be considered in our text are the people of Jabesh-Gilead who say “we will give ourselves up to the Ammonites” “if there is no one to save us.” It is translated various ways. I’ve titled the sermon based on a translation used in the NIV: “If no one comes to rescue us.”
That is really a terrifying thought. Helplessness. What if no one comes to rescue us? We are going to be at the mercy of the Ammonites “if no one comes to rescue us.” If no one comes to save us. We, us today, will be at the mercy of our enemies; and they are three: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The force against the people of Jabesh-Gilead is too great. They need to be rescued. They need an outside force to come save them. That which is arrayed against us is to great. WE need an outside force to rescue us.
And when that force comes,(for Israel as for us) it is not just a “barely” successful force, it is an overwhelming force, a complete victory because of the Spirit of God empowers the for victory.
So we have 3 groups of people in our text.
1: Those outside of the family of God. The Ammonites. They oppose God, worshipping Molech, and are destroyed.
2: Then 2, there are the people of God whom follow the Lord whom He uses for victory over the Ammonites.
3: But third, there is a third group. People who are within the covenant community of Israel, but sin against God’s chosen king, Saul, and yet there is mercy upon them.
Where are we? Where are you?
Are you opposed to God? An Ammonite. Maybe you don’t worship Molech, but if support this nation’s crusade against the unborn, you support the policies of Molech. And that is an abomination to the Lord. … Judgment is coming. If you worship the foreign gods of Molech or of money or of might and power, then the call to you is to Repent and Believe is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then, let me suggest that the second group doesn’t really exist. No one follows God as they should. All have sngned and fall short of the glory of God.
So the remaining group, the third group, is the one I believe we probably all fit into. You are in the covenant community of God, but you yet have sinned against him and so need his continual mercy and his grace. Those who oppose God are to Repent and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And those of us who do trust in the Lord Jesus for our salvation are to know that HE has come to rescue you.
As we can be likened to the opponents of God in Israel, so we can be likened to the people of Jabesh-Gilead. In either case, we are helpless if not for the help of the Lord.
If no one comes to rescue us, we shall die in our sin.
If no one comes to rescue us, then our eternal fate is weeping and gnashing of teeth in the fires of hell.
If no one comes to rescue us, we are pitiful and pitiable people, hopeless and helpless.
But the Good New of the Gospel is that the Lord himself has rescued us. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved son.
The people of Jabesh-Gilead who were surrounded by the armies of the Ammonites, are now surrounded by the army of the Lord. An army that seeks not to plunder them but to defend them.
And we, praise God, are surrounded by the arms of our savior who has rescued us, and God (who is greater than all) holds us in his mighty hand so that “no one is able to snatch us out” (John 10:29).
The cry for the rescue of a besieged people is heard, and the call is answered.
Your cry and mine, for a Lord who can rescue us from our sin, from this world and all its evil, and from the devil himself, this cry has been answered in the person of Jesus Christ. We HAVE BEEN RESCUED. Praise the Lord. Let us pray.