The Danger of Seeking One’s Own Glory
It is about the greatness of God, not the significance of man. God made man small and the universe big to say something about himself.
John Piper from Don’t Waste Your Life
Eric Liddell came to the 1924 Olympics in Paris as the overwhelming favorite to win the gold medal in the 100 meter race. In the previous year, Liddell won the event with a record time of 9.7 seconds. His competition in the Olympics struggled to break the ten second mark for that distance during the year leading up to the Olympics.
When Eric arrived in Paris, he discovered that in order to compete in the 100 meter race, he would have to run some of the qualifying races on Sunday. Believing strongly that Sunday was a day to be set aside to honor the Lord, he withdrew from that race and entered into competition for the 400 meter event for which he would not need to run on Sunday.
Liddell believed that putting God first outweighed the personal glory of winning the gold medal in the 100 meter race. Instead, he opted for another event that offered him little chance of winning any medal.
As time came for the medal race in the 400 meter event, the crowd, well aware of Liddell’s decision, fell silent in anticipation. When the gun sounded, Eric jumped to the lead running in what one reporter later described as “’a most lion-hearted manner.” He continued to run as fast as he could throughout the entire race.
Liddell won the gold medal finishing three yards ahead of his closest competitor. Many regard his victory as the greatest achievement of the 1924 Paris Olympics.
The press throughout the world praised Liddell’s amazing accomplishment.
Eric chose to honor God rather than obtain the personal glory of winning the 100 meter race. The Lord, however, used his decision to further his glory in a way Eric could not have imaged. With the world watching and well aware of his decision, Liddell won the 400 meter race causing the story of his decision to put God first to be broadcast worldwide.
The self-sacrificing nature of Eric Liddell stands in stark contrast to that of King Saul but bears a remarkable similarity to that of Jonathan, his son.
In response to the grave threat posed by the Philistines, Jonathan looked for a way to attack expecting God to do great things for Israel so he alone would be honored.
Jonathan’s Bold Attack
During World War I, as the British army prepared for what would be a successful attack against the Turks, General Allenby read the account of Jonathan’s surprise attack in I Samuel 14 to his men. Allenby, a believer who knew his Bible, used Jonathan’s victory as a means to inspire his men for their upcoming battle.
Jonathan’s raid against the Philistines displayed great faith, a true perspective of the situation, intelligence, and courage.
The account begins with Jonathan and his armor bearer leaving the Israelite camp without telling anyone, especially King Saul (I Sam. 14:1-3). Armor bearers played an important role in ancient times, especially at this time when weapons were so scarce among the Israelites. As such, they needed to be particularly brave and loyal to their masters. Jonathan’s armor bearer reflected all these characteristics as well as his master’s faith and courage.
Jonathan knew that a detachment from the Philistine army had gone to the pass at Micmash. He grew up near this pass; his family was from nearby Gibeon (1 Chron. 9:35-39). He likely knew all about the gorge with its tall cliffs on both sides. Perhaps he even climbed these bluffs earlier in his life and knew exactly how to reach the top of the bluff where the Philistines were camped. I think that is likely.
Jonathan used his knowledge of that location to devise a plan to surprise the enemy and gain an advantage for Israel’s army.
The faith of Jonathan shines in his appeal to his armor bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (I Sam. 14:6). Jonathan’s confidence rested in God, not himself.
He expected God to do great things for Israel rather than for himself.
Verse 6 shows Jonathan’s perspective on the battle ahead. He recognized the Philistines as God’s enemy (“uncircumcised fellows”). He saw the struggle as Israel, the people of God, versus the enemies of the Lord. The Philistines were not part of the covenant and therefore not entitled to the land they now occupied. God had given this land to Israel.
Jonathan believed the Lord’s promises regarding the land as well as the Lord’s promise to defeat the Philistines during his father’s reign (I Sam. 9:16).
Jonathan then proposed a way to determine God’s will. He and his armor bearer would show themselves to the enemy. If the Philistines invited them up, they would know God was giving them into their hand. If the enemy soldiers stated they would come down the cliff to meet the pair, however, that would be the Lord’s sign not to attack (I Samuel 14:8-10).
This approach exhibited much common sense. The unwillingness of the Philistines to come down and confront them would reveal overconfidence on their part as well as a lack of concern regarding the threat posed by Jonathan and his companion.
On the other hand, a decision by the Philistines to come down and confront the Israelites would display courage, demonstrate they were still on their guard, and eliminate Jonathan’s strategy of surprise.
When the Philistines saw the two Israelites, they mockingly invited them up to teach them a “lesson” (14:11, 12). They had likely heard the reports of fear among the Hebrew army resulting in such an overconfident attitude.
“Climb up after me; the Lord has given them into the hand of Israel,” Jonathan told his armor bearer (v. 12). The perspective of Jonathan illuminates his faith. He did not fight for himself or seek his own glory. The Lord was delivering them into the “hand of Israel,” not into his hand.
Jonathan properly recognized that victory rested with the Lord (Prov. 21:31) and willingly gave God the glory for all that would happen.
Once Jonathan and his armor bearer reached the top of the cliff and attacked, the startled Philistines ran for their lives. The pair killed twenty enemy soldiers as God struck fear in the hearts of the enemy (14:13, 14). God honored the faith of Jonathan by beginning an amazing rout of the Philistine army.
It helps to see the situation from the vantage point of the Philistines who had heard the reports of fear in the camp of Israel and likely knew most of the Israelite men had gone into hiding rather then join forces against them.
Imagine resting in such overconfidence when two Israelites suddenly appear in their camp and attack them. They never would have imagined that only two soldiers would have the courage to climb up the steep cliff by themselves to face a large number of enemy soldiers. They probably did not turn around long enough to see they were only being attacked by two men.
God used the incident to send a wave of panic throughout the entire Philistine army. As God did so often during the history of the Israelites, He threw the opposing army into disarray by striking fear into their hearts. I Samuel 14:15 says that “the ground shook” with the sound of the retreating Philistines as God caused hysteria throughout the entire Philistine army opening the door for a great victory.
Saul’s Calculated Response
As reports of the fleeing Philistines reached King Saul, he asked the high priest Ahijah for help in seeking direction from God (14:18, 19). As the tumult in the Philistine camp continued to grow, Saul gave up waiting for an answer from God and assembled his troops for battle. Saul’s delay in order to seek the Lord’s direction cost him valuable time in joining the fight against the fleeing enemy.
While it might seem strange to criticize someone for seeking the will of God, I believe Saul did it to draw attention back to him way from Jonathan. With God so clearly giving the Philistines into his hand, it was foolish to waste even a moment of time trying to discern the next step.
Who else but God could put tens of thousands of enemy soldiers into such panic with only two soldiers? Who else could make the Philistines forget about their huge advantage in weapons and men? And, why did Saul wait until victory was at hand to seek the Lord’s direction?
When Saul and his army arrived on the battlefield, they found the Philistines in disarray and striking each other. The Lord had brought “total confusion” upon the enemy. In a situation that had seemed utterly hopeless, God gave Israel a huge victory (14:20-23).
Israel’s success that day, however, was limited by a rash and seemingly calculated decision by the king. I Samuel 14:24 says, “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.”
The foolishness of Saul’s command soon became apparent. The soldiers needed food to keep up their strength during the long battle as they chased the fleeing Philistines. In his eagerness to gain control of the situation, Saul neglected common sense. How could he expect his troops to pursue the enemy all day without nourishment?
Saul’s intent was to focus the attention back to himself away from his son and more importantly away from the Lord. It was all about Saul being avenged of his enemies. The king wanted all the glory for himself.
Jonathan heard of the oath after he had eaten some honey (14:27, 28) and criticized his father’s action saying, “How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?” (14:30). Saul’s ridiculous decision restricted the soldiers’ ability to fight and limited the scope of their victory that day.
The contrast between Jonathan and King Saul provide us with much help in making decisions, especially in seemingly impossible situations. While the purposes of God certainly vary with each believer, Jonathan’s example helps us map out strategies for dealing with our dilemmas. Saul, on the other hand, warns of the dangers that can come when we seek to focus all the attention on ourselves rather than seek God’s purposes and glory.
All that can be rather religious sounding so let’s break it down into a specific lessons we can learn from the contrasting examples of King Saul and Jonathan.
Have Confidence in God’s Purposes
Jonathan believed God had an answer to the problems facing the Israelite army. His faith in the Lord led him to look for a way to confront the Philistines.
The king’s son trusted God to provide the opening that the Israelites needed. He knew God’s promises regarding Israel and based his confidence in God’s word. He was not seeking glory for himself, but for the Lord first of all and then for Israel, God’s people.
Saul, on the other hand, stationed himself under a pomegranate tree (or in a cave in some versions) with no real plan (1 Sam. 14:1-2). He did not seek the Lord’s direction until Jonathan’s attack turned the tide against the Philistines. He appeared listless without any confidence in what God might do next.
Jonathan, unlike his father, believed God’s promises regarding Israel and set out on his own to see what God might accomplish.
One verse that stood out for me during my years of waiting was Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” It’s so encouraging to rest in God’s sovereignty knowing that the events swirling about my life are never out of His control.
I realize the context of this unconditional promise is for Israel and pertains to her return to the land; this causes some not to claim this verse for their personal lives. However, I believe this verse can be applied to our lives because it speaks to God’s character, to His love for His people.
Psalm 139:17 says, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! We can trust the purposes of one who continually watches over us with unfailing love.
I remember calling my friend Denny on a Sunday morning several years ago. Knowing he had gone through major surgery on the previous day, I phoned to encourage him during his recovery. I was not prepared for his news that day.
Minutes before my call, the doctors had informed him there was nothing else they could do for the cancer that had started in his colon. They said he might have six months to live, but no more than that.
The news shocked me more than him. As he related the diagnosis to me, he did so with a confidence that could only come from God.
During his final months, Denny often said “I know where I am going” as he reached out to others telling them about Christ. Denny saw his impending death as an opportunity to further glorify Christ rather than draw attention to himself or to his suffering.
For Denny, the battle did not consist of staying alive, but of exalting Christ during his final days. He remained confident of God’s purposes to the very end of his life.
His favorite song, I Can Only Imagine, highlighted his funeral. He planned the service himself so the Gospel would be proclaimed and God would be honored, not him.
Seek God’s Glory, Not Your Own
No matter how many times I read I Samuel 14, I’m still amazed by Jonathan’s attitude. He saw himself as merely a player in the struggle between God and His adversaries. Jonathan saw the battle as being all about God and His glory. He desired for God to succeed, not himself.
Similar to the story of Eric Liddell, Jonathan honored God above personal fame. Both sought to honor the Lord above all other considerations.
And, the Lord brought the honor back on them. Today we remember them for their stories of faith and courage. Eric later died serving as a missionary in China rather than seek the safety offered to him. As Liddle gave up what he thought was his only hope for a gold medal, he could not have imagined that years later someone would produce a movie, Chariots of Fire, telling the story of his choice to honor the Lord above personal fame.
Saul, by way of contrast, sought to glorify himself in all that he did. As Saul announced his prohibition on eating in I Samuel 14:24 he closed with these words, “. . . and I am avenged on my enemies!” With the battle clearly going in Israel’s favor, Saul makes a proclamation to exalt himself rather than the one who was giving Israel the victory.
Saul sought a personal victory rather than one for God and His people. His vow was all about bringing the focus back to him, of reminding the soldiers of his authority. As he saw God defeat the enemy in spite of his lack of effort, he sought to steal back the glory for himself.
Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” While that is certainly true, Jonathan might have put it this way, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish for God when you are willing to give him all the glory.”
Ronald Reagan understood the self-seeking nature we all possess and recognized that when working together without thought of who would receive praise much could be accomplished.
Use Common Sense
Jonathan displayed much common sense in his approach to the crisis posed by the Philistine army. I believe he knew from past experience just how to climb the cliff and surprise the Philistines, who likely believed it impossible for anyone to scale the bluff.
Jonathan also showed wisdom in determining the readiness of the Philistines. He proposed a test to determine God’s will in the matter that also exposed the enemy’s lack of preparedness. Their mocking of the threat posed by Jonathan revealed they were not ready for the surprise attack he had planned for them.
Saul, on the other hand, was anything but practical. With God clearly giving the battle into the hands of the Israelites, he delayed sending his troops into fight in order to determine the will of God. Later, he imposed a vow on the troops to keep them from eating, which kept them from fully pursuing the Philistines as they fled from Israel.
When in difficult situations our first response is of course to trust the Lord and not rely on our own understanding (Prov. 3:3-4). This does not mean, however, that we ignore common sense. In the case of Saul, this led to foolish self-seeking decisions.
When waiting in the midst of trials, it helps to evaluate our experience and interests. What in the past might apply to your present crisis? What skills do you possess that might open doors?
After receiving my MBA degree with an emphasis in finance, I desired a job as a financial analyst to go along with my education. My financial needs at the time added to my sense of urgency for some type of advancement at work if not with another company.
After almost a year and a half of waiting, it was my writing experience that opened the door for a position as a technical writer. My new manager, aware of my degree in finance, decided to involve me in the finance side of the program in addition to my work as a technical writer. This opened the door for my career as a financial analyst.
When it comes making decisions, a desire for the spotlight often leads to unwelcome consequences.
If our ultimate goal is to honor ourselves, we will make foolish choices like Saul who hindered the Lord’s cause through the foolish vow he imposed on the soldiers. If like Jonathan, we prefer to see ourselves battling for God’s kingdom rather than own, our choices will enable the Lord to work through our lives to a much greater degree.
With Jonathan, not only did he put an entire army to flight, he still encourages people today who read of his faith and courage in the midst of impossible circumstances. Jonathan still speaks to the value of putting God’s kingdom above our own.
Ultimately, it comes down to this question: Am I seeking chances to promote myself or looking for opportunities to advance God’s kingdom?