There are a number of elements in the story of Saul and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 13-14, which seem to echo episodes from Judges.
1 Samuel 12 ends with Samuel's farewell address, which has as its main theme the the potential obedience/disobedience of the people and their king, and the consequences thereof:
14 If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well. 15 But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king.
This is the topic foregrounded for the reader going into chapter 13, especially given Samuel's ominous final words: "But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king. (12:25)" The outcome is revealed swiftly: Saul disobeys and is decisively rejected by God in 13:14. This is confirmed in chapter 15 in a similar clear disobedience/rejection story.
However, in between the two disobedience/rejection accounts there is a more subtle evaluation of Saul's kingship by way of a two-fold contrast. Saul is contrasted with his son Jonathan, and both Saul and Jonathan are contrasted (Saul unfavourably and Jonathan favourably) with figures from the book of Judges. Given that 1 Samuel revolves around the establishment of Israel's monarchy, and Judges ended with the plaintive "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes," it's not surprising to find echoes and comparisons between the judges and kings. The question at hand is: will the king(s) of Israel be the 'better judge' for which the people longed?
Jonathan: Gideon but better
Consider Jonathan's actions in 1 Samuel 14:
v7 takes a loyal servant
v8 goes over to the enemy camp
v9-12 he receives a sign that "the Lord has given them into our hand"
v13-14 they fall before him
v15 panic strikes the whole army everywhere "a panic sent by God"
Now compare the account of Gideon in Judges 7:
v11 takes a loyal servant
v11 goes over to the enemy camp
v13-15 receives a sign that "the Lord has given [them] into your hand"
v21 they flee before him
v22 "the Lord set every man's sword against his comrade"
Jonathan's triumph echoes Gideon's closely. And yet when set against Gideon, Jonathan is a clear improvement. God has to prompt Gideon to go to the enemy camp, whereas Jonathan spontaneously charges. Gideon required cajoling into his role of rescuer, asking for and needing dramatic signs to confirm God's backing. While Jonathan does seem to ask for a sign, on closer inspection he is hardly asking much:
8 Jonathan said, ‘Come on, then; we will cross over towards them and let them see us. 9 If they say to us, “Wait there until we come to you,” we will stay where we are and not go up to them. 10 But if they say, “Come up to us,” we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.’
In other words: "if the enemy say 'Stand still there while we leave our tactically-superior-high-ground' then we'll not go, but if they say 'Come on then, let's have you' then God is with us"!
(I'm reminded of Homer Simpson's approach to decision making and the will of God: "Lord, if you want me to do this, please give me absolutely no sign." [pause] "Thy will be done"!)
Jonathan needs little encouragement to fight, because he acts out of the conviction expressed in 14:6:
Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.
Arguably, Gideon was the most successful judge (in terms of numbers of enemies defeated and length of time Israel had peace). And Jonathan is clearly superior to Gideon. Jonathan is the king Israel need.
Only he isn't the king.
Saul: Jephthah but worse
Saul is the king, but from 13:1 onwards Saul stands in marked contrast to Jonathan.
It's Jonathan in 13:3 who defeats the Philistine garrison (despite the press release in v4). Why did Jonathan attack and not Saul? Saul seems concerned not to provoke the Philistines: he had sent home most of the Israelites (v2), only to have to call them back in v3 (presumably not what he was expecting). In 14:1, Jonathan deliberately doesn't tell his father (who's "sitting under the pomegranate tree" 14:2) he's going to attack, we assume because he would disapprove.
Saul's main concern is the numbers game: his downfall in v8 is when he sees the army scattering and decides not to wait for Saul; after this disaster, the first thing he does is (v15) "he numbered the people." All this contrasts sharply with Jonathan's dictum: Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few. While Jonathan is saving Israel (14:15), the king is faffing around (when he's not counting! 14:17) with the ark (14:18-19).
And the kick in the teeth is v24: Now the Israelites were in distress that day, because Saul...
Israel are being saved, but far from the one doing the saving, the king is causing distress. The greatest hindrance to the Lord saving is the one who should have been the greatest agent of the Lord saving.
And the distress is because of Saul's 'rash vow' (an instance of the NIV heading being quite helpful). It takes little effort to prove that denying your troops sustenance is a bad idea in terms of maximising their effectiveness. But the account labours the point: (v25-26) when you're in hot pursuit of the enemy, exhausted, and there before you the ground is oozing with high energy good tasting food, you're probably going to take that as a miraculous provision. But no one can touch it! When he does, the effect on Jonathan is dramatic (v27): his eyes brightened! Which demonstrates just how useful this miraculous ocean of honey would have been if they could only eat it. His verdict is obvious: v29-30, the king is making trouble for Israel. Saul’s foolishness is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This episode should be the end of the Philistines, but it won't be because of Saul.
When Saul becomes aware of some kind of problem, his response is telling (v39).
39 As surely as the Lord who rescues Israel lives, even if the guilt lies with my son Jonathan, he must die.’
Why does he start talking about someone dying? His original curse about not eating wasn’t a death threat. Why now threaten death? And why single out Jonathan? We may notice that Saul doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that the sin might be his. But then that makes a mockery of his little choosing game in v40. A choice is to be made between "everyone in Israel" and "Jonathan and Saul". This is hardly a scientific process of bisection. If "all Israel" are chosen, where do you go next? One by one? This is in fact a witchhunt and the target is Jonathan, who is duly selected.
The leader of Israel makes a rash vow, during a victory against God’s enemies, which involves a threat of death to their child.
We're back in the story of Jephthah in Judges 11.
Saul is like Jephthah, but worse. Jephthah mourned his daughter and recognised his folly. Saul actually actively looks to prove that Jonathan was the offender. And where Jephthah couldn’t see any way out of his original vow to put to death, Saul seems to add the penalty of death after the fact. After his vow has been shown to be a disastrous idea and it looks like Jonathan might be endangered by it, he adds the threat of death to it!
And in a bitter irony the faithful Israelite needs saving from Israel’s king.
What does picking up on these (proposed) echoes from Judges add to our appreciation of these chapters?
What's the difference between Saul and Jonathan? In Luther's terminology, Jonathan is a theologian of the cross, and Saul is a theologian of glory. One is looking at the world through the lens of God’s Word and one is not. And that is the difference between faith and sin.
When Adam reached out his hand to take the fruit from the tree he had already refused to see the world the way God’s word said it was.
He looked at the fruit and “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom.” That’s how it looked on the surface: good food, pleasing to the eye, desirable for wisdom. God’s word said, “Eat it and you will die”.
What could Saul see? A huge Philistine army with all the swords, him with his two swords (13:22) and an ever-shrinking army. But God’s word says “nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” And that is what Jonathan saw.
A theologian of glory will look at the cross and see sin, shame, blood, nakedness and defeat – something that God would be nowhere near. And a theologian of the cross looks at the cross and sees the deepest revelation of God in his beauty. A theologian of glory looks at the cross and calls it like they see it – the blood and the shame. A theologian of the cross looks at the cross and calls it what God’s word calls it – the victory of God.
So Saul bad example, Jonathan good example: so far, the Judges echoes haven't played into this reading.
The two contrasts again:
Jonathan is like Gideon in his finest hour: bringing hope to God’s people, only better.
Saul is like Jephthah in his worst hour: bringing death to God’s people, only worse.
But here's the twist: neither of them will be king.
Despite Jonathan being the heir to the throne.
Saul's failings could simply be the set-up for Jonathan, his son and heir, to replace him as a more faithful version from the same royal house. Yet we know that 1 Samuel is journeying towards the installation of David as the faithful king.
Why David not Jonathan? On the classic reading that David is fit to be king as the "man after God's heart" (1 Sam 13:14), this is hard to say. If a man after God's heart means a man whose character reflects God's, Jonathan seems to fit the bill perfectly.
I count this a factor in favour of John Woodhouse's reading of 1 Sam 13:14 over against the classic one: he understands "a man after God's heart" to mean "a man chosen according to God's will" (rather than a man whose heart reflects God's).
David over Saul, sure, we can see an improvement there. But what is the difference between Jonathan and David? Why should David supplant the faithful heir Jonathan?
Nothing but God's sovereign choice.
Maybe the echoes with the two judges underline the point that the leader Israel needs is not primarily a matter of character (though simultaneously reminding that the leader's character makes the greatest difference!), but of divine election.