Jonathan and the Philistines

By Don

August 5, 2021


Reading Time: 9 minutes

The Bible is full of incredible stories. It tells tales of battles, wars, romances, broken families, conquests, kingdoms, coups, famines, earthquakes, heroes, and more.
These stories would have been told orally, and when a skillful storyteller picks up a Bible and reads one of its stories with passion, it is a captivating experience. I had one of those experiences a few years ago when we lived in Ohio and attended Parkside Church, pastored by Alistair Begg.
Alistair taught a series covering 1 Samuel, and when he preached on 1 Samuel 14, I got goosebumps in the pew listening to the story of Jonathan and the Philistines. While Alistair’s Scottish accent and skill as an orator added to this story’s effect, the story which he told is completely enthralling. There’s adventure, bravery, inspiring faith, rocky terrain, unlikely odds, camaraderie, a secret plot, a bloody battle, and an impressive physical feat.
In fact, the physical feat was so impressive that I wrote a workout to commemorate the action (which is at the end of the post, but can be downloaded here).
Here’s the story.

God Shows the Philistines a Thing

The Israelites were in dire straits in 1 Samuel Chapter 13.
After Jonathan, King Saul’s son, defeats the garrison of the Philistines at Geba (1 Samuel 13:3), the Philistines respond by summoning an army “like the sand on the seashore in multitude” (1 Samuel 13:5). The Israelites react to this response by fretfully hiding themselves in caves, holes, rocks, tombs, and cisterns (1 Samuel 13:6), while their newly-appointed King Saul transgresses the command of the Lord and disqualifies himself and his family from future leadership in the kingdom (1 Samuel 13:6-15).
If that wasn’t bad enough, King Saul’s military numbers were a measly 600, while the Philistines had an innumerable multitude (1 Samuel 13:15). The Philistines then sent raiding bands into Israel (1 Samuel 13:17-18), and the Israelite army was undersupplied in the weapons department, having to rely on farmers’ tools for battle (1 Samuel 13:19-23).
It’s in these circumstances that one day, Jonathan decided to approach the Philistine garrison in Michmash with his armor bearer. He devised this plan without informing his father or the 600 other warriors (1 Samuel 14:1-3). His plan was to approach the Philistines with his armor bearer down a passage between two rocky cliffs. Regardless of the size of the opposing army, Jonathan maintained faith in God’s ability to save by many or by few (1 Samuel 14:6). It was by this faith and courage that he went into the passage and made himself visible to the enemy, and, once spotted, Jonathan waited on the Philistines’ response to act (1 Samuel 14:9-11).
When the Philistines saw Jonathan and his armor bearer, they mocked them and invited them up the cliff to “show them a thing” (1 Samuel 14:12). The great irony is that the Philistines were oblivious to the fact that they were inviting their own defeat by the hand of God. Jonathan and his armor bearer climbed the crag towards the Philistine camp, and to the Philistine’s shock, they delivered a one-two assault which resulted in twenty Philistine deaths and a terrific panic and confusion in the Philistine camp (1 Samuel 14: 13-15).
After seeing the Philistines’ panic, the Israelites on the sideline joined the battle that Jonathan had started, and when they arrived they found that the confusion in the camp was so great that the Philistines were slaughtering themselves (1 Samuel 14:16-22). The Lord delivered a great victory for Israel that day by a few, rather than by many (1 Samuel 14:23).

The Main Point

Before we look at the Hike, the Climb, and the Fight more closely, it’s important to emphasize that exercise and fitness are not the main points here in 1 Samuel 14. The key lesson is in what Jonathan says in 1 Samuel 14:6, and the fulfillment of Jonathan’s statement later in 1 Samuel 14:23.
| “It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).
| “So the LORD saved Israel that day” (1 Samuel 14:23).
God won the victory over the Philistines. God’s glory advanced through the faith and courage of Israel’s prince, but the writer does not want us to be confused about who ultimately deserves credit for that victory—Yahweh.
Given God’s sovereignty, no power in heaven or earth can stop Him from achieving victory, regardless of who He chooses or how many people He uses to attain the victory. His power is unbreakable, His purposes unstoppable, His victory entirely certain, and His determinations are governed only by Himself. Jonathan knew and believed these truths about God, and his faith moved him to action.

The Hike, the Climb, and the Fight

The text in 1 Samuel tells us about the topography of the battle scene. There were two cliffs, Bozez and Seneh, that rose on opposite sides of a passage that ran between the rocky crags. One of the cliffs rose in front of Michmash, where the Philistines camped, and the other cliff rose in front of Geba, where the Israelites camped.
The picture below is on the Mountain Project website, which shows the Michmash valley that runs between two rocky crags. This is the general area where the Israelites and Philistines encamped against each other.

This picture helps us appreciate the setting of this story. The pathway between the cliffs is full of massive boulders. The cliffs are imposing with loose rocks, dry grass, and steep faces. A hike and a climb would have been dangerous. But instead of getting intimidated by the terrain, Jonathan surveys it and decides he wants to attack an army.
The Hike
While the text doesn’t say that Jonathan strapped on his hiking boots, Jonathan’s secretive approach to the Philistine camp started with a walk from Geba between the passage. 1 Samuel 14:4 says that Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison “within the passes,” which means that Jonathan would have had to leave the elevated Geba and find his way down to the passage that ran between the two crags. Once he and his armor bearer were in the passage, they walked between the rocky cliffs and made their way towards the Philistine garrison. In other words, after secretly leaving the Israelite camp, the two men made their way to passage between the rocky crags and hiked through the Michmash valley.
The Climb
Once Jonathan and his armor bearer were in the passage, they made themselves visible to the Philistine garrison. They determined that if the Philistines called them up to their camp, God would deliver the Philistines into their hands. The Philistines invited them up, and the text says that Jonathan “climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him” (1 Samuel 14:13).
Their ascent was not only an impressive physical feat, but it was also daring.
They free-soloed a cliff.
This was before climbing harnesses, nylon climbing ropes, hand chalk, metal carabiners, and rubber-toed climbing shoes. No one was standing beneath the men belaying them, providing climbing “beta” for them as they made their way up. And there certainly wasn’t a friendly face behind a video camera at the top, documenting every step and waiting to celebrate them at the summit. The two men made their ascent towards their malicious and taunting enemy, without climbing gear, and carried whatever armor and weapons they needed for the battle at the top.
The Fight
Once the ascent was finished, the two men met the Philistines at the top and went to battle. It’s hard not to picture the scene from The Princess Bride here, where Wesley duels Indigo after he finishes his ascent up the Cliffs of Insanity. Once Wesley summits the cliff, he draws his sword and prepares himself for battle, only to be told by Indigo to wait until he’s ready. Wesley rests, empties his boots, and listens as an animated Indigo describes his life mission to avenge the death of his father.
But here in 1 Samuel 14, Jonathan and his armor bearer probably were not met with the same respect and cordiality before battle. There probably was no break, no rest, and they probably moved right into combat.
If you have ever completed a climb, you know the feeling of exhausted forearms and a tired grip after an ascent. If Jonathan and his armor bearer were tired, they certainly didn’t show it. Without a reprieve, they gripped their weapons with tired hands and swung them with enough force to kill. The two men worked together in combat. Jonathan dealt the first strike that caused the Philistines to fall, and his armor bearer went behind with a secondary strike to deliver the death blow (1 Samuel 14:13b-14). And before long, the two men whom the Philistines invited up a cliff had slain twenty enemy soldiers, which caused a panic in Philistine camp.

Motivation for Fitness

Remember, Jonathan’s physical feat is not the main point of the text. But I think there are two observations we can make that can help the man in the pew think differently about exercise and fitness.
  1. God was glorified by physical activity.
Notice that God used Jonathan’s hike, climb, and fight as the means to bring glory to Himself. Jonathan’s faith in God’s omnipotence in this story was not demonstrated by him sitting alone in his room doing a quiet time, contemplating his spiritual navel. Quite the opposite. Jonathan’s faith, and God’s subsequent glory, was demonstrated by a brave man approaching a rocky cliff, scaling it with armor and weapons, and engaging in deadly warfare. Physical activity was the demonstration of Jonathan’s faith, and God used two people to defeat an army “like the sand on the seashore in multitude” (1 Samuel 13:5).
There is a tension in the modern church between physical activity and spiritual activity. I explored this relationship in one of my previous posts, but there is more to say about this dichotomy. This tension between the physical and spiritual finds its roots in Gnosticism, which is a worldview that believes that the body and physical matter are corrupt and wicked, while the spirit and the soul are good and more highly esteemed. The modern church often elevates the spirit over the body without appreciating that the two are inextricably linked. One goes with the other until death.
Men in the church can feel a type of tension when they exercise, because they believe that physical activity is not “spiritual.” But here in 1 Samuel 14, the Lord was glorified by physical activity! The Lord teaches us a spiritual lesson about Himself by the physical activity of two men.
  1. Jonathan and his armor bearer were in great shape.
Jonathan’s plan was spontaneous. One day he decided that he was going to hike over to the enemy camp, climb up a rocky cliff, and engage the Philistine stronghold with only his armor bearer to help. It’s not like he trained for this biblical triathlon for months. He just woke up and decided one day that he was going to do it, and top physical condition would have had to be a prerequisite for his plan to even be possible. His armor bearer would have also had to be in great shape, as he likely would have carried more weight during these activities than Jonathan did.
The glory of this story goes to God and His mighty victory, rather than to the athleticism of these two men. But again, their physical ability advanced God’s glory. If Jonathan was overweight, soft, and lazy, he wouldn’t have been in any condition to do what he did. The pudgy prince would have been winded on the hike, exhausted from the ascent, and overpowered in battle. It’s even more certain that the modern American man would have failed this conquest. 40% of American men aged 20-39 are obese, and the average man today would not have the stamina, strength, or even the interest to do what Jonathan did.

Even More Goosebumps

About 100 years ago, there was a battle fought in World War I, where British troops followed a general named Sir Edmund Allenby. As the story goes, General Allenby was stationed in Israel fighting against the Turkish army, and the Brits were planning an attack near the area of Michmash somewhere north of Jerusalem. Some of the British soldiers recalled the name Michmash from a story told thousands of years ago, and they opened their Bibles to read the story of Jonathan and the Philistines. Borrowing from Jonathan’s plan, General Allenby secretly led his troops down a rocky passage and up a cliff in order to surprise the Turkish army who encamped at Michmash, and the British won a victory that day. You can read the story in greater detail here.
Thousands of years ago, God used Jonathan’s courage, strength, and faith to achieve His purposes in winning a victory over the Philistines. In 1918, God’s victory through Jonathan inspired a WWI general to lead his own troops into victory. And here in the 21st century, we can praise God for His never-ending ability to win by many or by few.
As Christians, we rejoice in the fact that God defeated our ultimate, imposing, and malicious enemy—our sin—by just one Man. Jesus devised a plan to defeat that vicious enemy. He walked towards the enemy carrying His own weapon, the cross (His Hike). He ascended the hill to take on the enemy all by Himself (His Climb). Once on the hill, He defeated the enemy, but that victory required a death blow to Himself, which was the sacrifice of His own life for the sins of many (His Fight). By His resurrection, our enemy was defeated by just one Man. God can indeed save by many or by few.
For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall” – Psalm 18:29

The “Jonathan” Workout: 1 Samuel 14

Instructions: Complete this workout for time. Weight vest is optional but recommended (I would recommend 20lb vest), which functions as ‘armor’.

  • 1 Mile Run (the Hike)
    • Complete as fast as possible. For good measure, complete it as quietly as possible. 
  • 100 Pull-Ups: Leg Assisted (the Climb)
    • Place some weight on your feet, as Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet. 
  • 20 Spiderman Burpees (the Fight)
    • Complete as fast as possible with good form. 


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