T HE people of Israel had asked for a king to rule over them, and now they had their wish. "Long live the king!" they shouted, as Saul stood before them, and again, "Long live the king!"
He was such a splendid king, this tall, handsome soldier. He stood head and shoulders higher than any one else, and he looked a veritable leader of men. He was wise, too, and the people felt sure that he would govern as well in times of peace as he would lead them to victory in battle.
Only Samuel, the old priest, looked on at that cheering crowd with sorrowful eyes. He too loved the man whom God had bidden him anoint king; but, after all, he was but an earthly monarch, and it had been God Himself who, up till now, had been the people's king.
Still the shouting went on: "Long live the king!" and there was no doubt but that the people were ready to honour and obey him in everything. They were even willing that a standing army of trained soldiers should be raised and kept ever in readiness to defend their country, instead of the old way of calling up men when they were needed.
Now the army which the king raised was divided into two parts, the greater part of which he kept under his own command, and the smaller half he put under the command of his son Jonathan.
Of all the many good gifts which God had given King Saul, perhaps the greatest of all was this son Jonathan, "the gift of Jehovah," as the name means. He was a son to be proud of, a prince whom any people might love. Like his father, he was tall and handsome, and as brave as a lion, and, best of all, he had a heart as true as steel. The soldiers under his command were proud to think they were led by the king's son, but they did not know at first what sort of a soldier he would prove to be. He was young, and had still to show what was in him. But very soon the test came, and this is the story of his first great adventure, and how he made a name for himself.
War had been declared between the Philistines and the people of Israel. Indeed, there were few days of peace in those times, for the fierce and mighty Philistines constantly attacked the weaker Israelites, and held them in bondage. For them might was right; the strong should naturally illtreat the weak. All about the country they built garrison strongholds, that they might keep a watchful eye upon Saul's people, and whenever there was a sign of a rising they were at hand to punish those who rebelled. The poor Israelites were not even allowed to have blacksmiths who could make swords and other weapons. If they wanted any of their ploughshares or tools sharpened or mended, they were obliged to go humbly and beg a Philistine smith to do the work.
This was all very bitter to Jonathan, and as soon as he was put in command of his part of the army he determined to strike a blow for his country's freedom. Quite suddenly he appeared with his men before one of the Philistines' garrisons, and attacked it so swiftly and with such skill that the Philistines were beaten.
The news spread like wildfire through the land. A victory had been gained; the war of independence had begun. Wild with delight, the people rallied round the king; but their delight was very short-lived. It was rumoured that a vast army was gathered against them to punish them. Thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, besides a countless number of soldiers, were ready for battle, so the rumour ran. How could their little army, numbering at most only three thousand, stand against such a foe? Their courage began to ebb away, and their hearts failed them. Instead of making a brave stand, the men began to desert, and to hide themselves among the rocks and caves of the mountains. It was a pitiful display of fear and cowardice.
A few men remained loyal and steadfast; but it was a very small army that encamped upon the edge of the valley facing the Philistine armies, where the garrison strongholds towered high on the rocky fastness above. Jonathan looked across at the fortress in front of him, and longed to strike a blow at it. If only that garrison could be conquered there might still be hope, for then the frightened Israelites would return and give battle to the enemy. But how was it to be taken? A strong, watchful enemy kept guard day and night, and it would be impossible to rush his handful of men up that steep, rocky hillside to the attack. No, it could not be done openly. If the place was to be taken at all, it must be done by strategy and not by force. So in his heart he planned a plan.
Saul, the king, sat in the camp under the shadow of a pomegranate tree. He was despondent and sorrowful, as were all the men who still followed him. No one noticed the two figures that stole quietly away, or knew that Jonathan, the king's son, and his armour-bearer had left the camp.
It was no easy task to climb those steep high rocks; but as Jonathan looked upwards at the stronghold of the Philistine garrison he was quite undaunted. It was time now to explain to his armour-bearer what he meant to do, and the lad listened eagerly. It was a splendid adventure. The idea of taking the enemy's fortress single-handed thrilled him, and he was ready to follow his master anywhere. Jonathan had said truly that God could save by many or by few, and was not God on their side?
"Do all that is in thine heart," he answered at once. "Behold, I am with thee, according to thy heart."
Jonathan had chosen his companion well; the boy was afraid of nothing. But the thing must not be done rashly. The soldier prince had thought the plan out well, and he meant to make sure beforehand by a sign that he was doing right.
Now the sign he looked for was this. Together he and his armour-bearer would climb up the rocks until they were within hail of the garrison, and then they would show themselves openly to the men who were guarding the walls. If the enemy should shout out and warn them to come no nearer, then they would give up the adventure, and return. But if they cried out to them to come on, then they would go forward, knowing that their plan would succeed, and that God would help them.
Surefooted as the wild goats, and accustomed to climbing, Jonathan and the boy crept higher and higher between the great rocks; and as they at last came in full view of the garrison they stood out and showed themselves.
Jonathan and His Armour-Bearer
"Behold, the Hebrews come forth out of the holes where they had hid themselves," scoffed the guard, as they looked down and saw the two figures standing there. "Come up," they shouted gleefully, "and we will show you a thing."
The sign was given.
"Come up after me," said Jonathan to his armour-bearer triumphantly, as he heard the call: "for the Lord hath delivered them into the hand of Israel."
The last climb was the stiffest bit of all, and Jonathan had to use both hands and feet in clinging to the rocks, while above the scoffing garrison waited, ready to teach these bold rebels the lesson they had promised them.
Perhaps they waited too long, or had not calculated what two determined men could do; but almost before they realized their danger, Jonathan had sprung upon them, and was mowing them down with his sword as a sickle mows the grass. Twenty men fell under that terrible sword before they could put up any fight, while the rest of the guard were seized with panic, and turned to flee. This must be but the advance portion of a great attack, they thought; only by flight could they save themselves.
The panic spread throughout the whole army. No one knew quite what had happened. There was a stampede of bewildered soldiers, and, to add to their terror, the earth began to shake with a terrible earthquake.
Those signs of terror could be seen a long way off. The watchers at Saul's camp were startled as they looked. The whole Philistine army was melting away, like snow before the sunshine. They were flying as fast as they could, beating down each other in their terror as they ran.
Then the word went round that Jonathan was missing from the camp, and his men were sure that this was the work of their soldier prince. They would follow now, and help to chase the flying enemy. From far and near the men who had been in hiding came hurrying back to the ranks and joined in the great pursuit. It was a glorious day of victory and triumph, and only one thing cast a shadow over its joy.
Saul, the king, was afraid that his hungry soldiers might stop to eat food, and so allow the enemy to escape; and therefore he gave a strict order that no one should taste any food until evening, on pain of death. Only it so happened that Jonathan did not hear the order, and when he passed through a wood and saw a honeycomb dripping with golden honey which the wild bees had gathered, he stopped and ate some, for he was faint with hunger. It was not until the evening that he heard of his father's command.
He was sure that the command had been both hard and unwise; but he was a true soldier, absolutely obedient, and ready to submit to authority and take his punishment.
"Tell me what thou hast done," demanded the king, when he and his son stood face to face, after the pursuit of the Philistines was over.
"I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and, lo, I must die," answered Jonathan calmly.
And his father answered, "God do so, and more also: for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan."
Was this to be the end of the great adventure, the reward of that fearful climb and desperate single-handed fight? Was the young leader who had brought deliverance to Israel to be punished by death? No, a hundred times no! The soldiers gathered round him, and stood between him and the king, their eyes flashing, their hands grasping their weapons.
"Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great deliverance in Israel?" they demanded. "God forbid: as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground." The king himself should not dare to touch their hero prince. He had proved himself a commander fit to command; he had won not only a great battle, but the love and loyalty of his soldiers' hearts.