Discerning Church Learning to discern the movement of God's Spirit

Discernment Fail

I spend time each morning reading Scripture; I usually follow the given passages in my devotional. This week, I was directed to 1 Samuel 14. It has been a while since I read this text. The chapter opens with Jonathan sneaking off to wage an attack on the Philistines. He returns successful in this endeavor, but the work is not complete. The army must face another battle. Saul is determined and binds his army with an oath.

(1 Samuel 14:24 NIV) Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food.

Seems pretty crazy. The men would be weak; how would they be able to fight in battle? By verse 25, the men are walking in the woods and Jonathan (Saul’s son) finds a honeycomb.

(1 Samuel 14:27 NIV) But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb.

Oh no! He wasn’t supposed to do that. One of the soldiers fills him in. “Your dad has bound us in an oath, we are not supposed to eat,” he says. Jonathan questions such leadership and wonders why his dad would have done such a thing. The story continues to describe Saul attempting to communicate with God. He builds an alter (the author tells us that this the first time he has done this), but no response from God. He figures that someone in the army has broken his oath. He calls together the men and casts lots to determine what is going on. The lot lands on Jonathan. After some investigation, he figures out that Jonathan has eaten honey; he determines that his son must die. This is where the story gets interesting.

(1 Samuel 14:45 NIV) But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die — he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the LORD lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.

It doesn’t make sense that Jonathan should die. Clearly, God’s hand was on Jonathan as he defeated the enemy. Why should he be killed for breaking Saul’s silly oath? Saul allows the army’s wisdom to prevail and does not kill his son. You have to think that he was relieved.

This story could be entitled, Discernment: A Colossal Fail. It seems that Saul doesn’t have a clue. He is attempting to do the actions of discernment. He sacrifices (binds his men with an oath), builds an alter, casts lots and is willing to kill his son to preserve his army. Yet, none of these actions give him the needed clarity to lead his people. What is wrong with this picture? We can learn much from this text about what it means to discern.

First of all, Saul binds his men with an oath. He apparently did not seek God in this decision; he simply prescribes this prohibition. The result is distress; Saul is placing a hardship on his men without clear guidance from God. We may be tempted to offer sacrifices to God as we seek to discern His will. Yet if we hastily participate in rituals without authentically connecting with God in relationship, we are simply going through the motions. The offering is meaningless.

Secondly, Saul builds an alter. While this is not a bad idea, we see that this is a new practice for Saul.

(1 Samuel 14:35 NIV) it was the first time he had done this.

This gives us a clue that Saul was not in the practice of worshiping God. Worship is not something that we can throw together when we are in trouble. Worship is living every day in communion with God. Saul’s deficient lifestyle of worship is evident in God’s response.

(1 Samuel 14:37 NIV) But God did not answer him that day.

This is what prompts Saul’s investigation. Surely, someone must have offended God. He figures that he will find the offender, put him to death and all will be well. Instead of realizing his own inadequacies, he seeks to appease God by finding the offender. Remember, the oath was Saul’s idea, not God’s. It turns out that Jonathan was the one who ate. Saul is willing to sacrifice his son for the perceived purity of the army. But this notion is ridiculous. His men point out the obvious; Jonathan was victorious in battle. His being cursed doesn’t make sense. Again, Saul fails to see God’s hand on Jonathan. He is more concerned with following the logic of his deficient methods of appeasing God.

So what do we do with this? Again, we see failure after failure in this story. Saul is unable to discern the movement of God. Why? It seems that he is more concerned about creating his own religious system than living in relationship with God. He goes through meaningless motions to discern God, all the while missing the point. As we discern God in our midst, may we learn to live in relationship with Him. May we be less concerned with motions, more concerned with connecting with God. May we be careful not to manufacture systems void of meaning. We can easily busy ourselves working in these systems; all the while, we will miss God. May we learn the art of discerning as we are sensitive to the leading of His Spirit. May we learn from this failure in discernment.