A Brief Overview of Israel’s Battles with the Philistines

One with God is a Majority

“Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand”
(Leviticus 26:8)

by Brent Hislop

One with God is a Majority

One of the greatest foes of ancient Israel was the Philistines, a warlike, idolatrous people who resided in the western coastal region of Israel. The name Philistine means immigrants, perhaps alluding to their likely being from Crete (Caphtor), Amos 9:7. Scripture records eight battles between the Philistines and Israel. Consider two of the more remarkable conflicts.

Jonathan and His Armor Bearer

In 1 Samuel 14, Israel and the Philistines were encamped apart from one another in preparation for battle. Things did not look good for Israel. The Philistines had largely subjugated Israel and refused to let Israel make battle instruments (1 Samuel 13:19-23). Against this backdrop, Saul’s son Jonathan made an extraordinary proposition to his armor-bearer. They two alone should approach the Philistine fore guard, call out to them, and, based on their reply, determine whether God wanted them to stop or overcome the sentinels, and ultimately, the entire Philistine army. As remarkable as Jonathan’s display of faith was, equally remarkable was the armor bearer’s hearty agreement (1 Samuel 14:7). Perhaps one of the most faith-affirming statements in scripture is given by Jonathan in his rationale for his course of action. He says, “it may be that the Lord will work for us: for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).

Summarizing, “The day came that Jonathan, the son of Saul, said to the young man who was carrying his armor, ‘Come and let us cross over to the Philistines’ garrison that is on the other side.’ But he did not tell his father. Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah under the pomegranate tree which is in Migron. And the people who were with him were about six hundred men. …

“Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armor, ‘Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the LORD will work for us, for the LORD is not restrained to save by many or by few.’ His armor bearer said to him, ‘Do all that is in your heart; turn yourself, and here I am with you according to your desire.’ Then Jonathan said … ‘If they say, “Come up to us,” then we will go up, for the LORD has given them into our hands; and this shall be the sign to us. …

“So the men of the garrison hailed Jonathan and his armor-bearer and said, ‘Come up to us and we will tell you something.’ And Jonathan said to his armor bearer, ‘Come up after me, for Jehovah has given them into the hands of Israel.’ Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer behind him; and they fell before Jonathan, and his armor bearer put some to death after him. That first slaughter which Jonathan and his armor bearer made was about 20 men. … And there was a trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. Even the garrison and the raiders trembled, and the earth quaked so that it became a great trembling” (1 Samuel 14:1-15 NAS).

While Saul sat under a pomegranate tree, with the army of Israel outnumbered and demoralized, Jonathan may have remembered God’s promise to Israel, that a few would put to flight the many
of Israel’s enemies (Leviticus 26:8). He was willing to be used as an instrument of God. Then, when Jonathan and the armor-bearer got the sign from the Lord, they attacked and overcame twenty Philistine guards. In the Philistine camp, this caused a great trembling. Then came an earthquake causing even greater panic, such that the Philistines began to attack one another and flee. It did not matter that the Philistines greatly outnumbered the Israelites, both in manpower and armaments. God was more than able to set the Philistines against one another. Jonathan did what he could, and
God rewarded his faith by doing what Jonathan could not do. Saul and the Israelites saw the
Philistines fleeing and joined the battle. God saved Israel that day, and the remaining Philistines went back to their own places.

A peculiar incident ensued. Determined to vanquish the Philistines, Saul told his exhausted troops to continue the pursuit. No man was to pause to eat. He foolishly said that any man doing so would be cursed and put to death. Jonathan, not aware of this, paused to eat some wild honey and was refreshed. Saul heard this and declared that Jonathan must die. But the men of Israel defended Jonathan, seeing how God dealt with Jonathan, and would not let Saul harm him.

We see the contrast: Saul at first cowed with inaction, yet later acted rashly, all the while trying to decree God’s direction. Jonathan, rather than sitting back, stepped forward as an instrument of God. His faith was richly rewarded, and by the grace of God, he delivered Israel against overwhelming odds.

David and Goliath

The second great battle, again between Israel and the Philistines, is the famous account of David and Goliath recorded in 1 Samuel 17. Here David, like Jonathan, displayed a profound faith in God. This account is a testament that there is no restraint with the Lord to save by many or few, or here perhaps better styled by large or small. The kindred spirit between David and Jonathan, in their mutual love of and faith in God, is beautifully expressed by David after Jonathan’s passing. David said Jonathan’s love “was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). The comparison is fascinating: with women David shared a union of the flesh, but with Jonathan, he shared a union of heart and mind, a unity of mutual devotion to God.

Like the previous situation, this account opens with the two armies camped apart, prepared for battle. This time Saul and Israel are cowed by fear of one Philistine giant, Goliath, mocking them. Goliath was about 9’ 9” tall and wore a coat of mail that weighed 220 lbs. Twice a day for forty days he challenged the army of Israel (1 Samuel 17:16).

Before all these events David, the shepherd boy, had been anointed by Samuel to be the king of Israel, for Saul had been rejected by God for his disobedience. Then an “evil spirit” overcame Saul, as the spirit of God departed from him. Perhaps he became profoundly depressed, though some have suggested that he began to suffer other serious mental disorders. Saul asked for a musician who could play soothing music to help him. One of his servants suggested David, the shepherd boy. He was sent for, and his music was loved by Saul and it greatly eased his mental anguish (1 Samuel 16). Then David returned to Bethlehem some 20 miles to the east of the Valley of Elah, where the armies were camped, only to be told by his father to return to the army with provisions for his brothers (1 Samuel 17:17-20). Upon arriving, David heard Goliath’s taunts, became righteously indignant, and declared that he would fight Goliath. Saul sent for David and tried to dissuade him, but David countered:

“Jehovah who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you” (1 Samuel 17:37 NAS).

Saul consented and then tried to arm David with his own armament, to no avail. David was but a youth, and Saul was a head taller than all of his countrymen (1 Samuel 9:1,2).

The army of Israel was camped on the northern slopes of the Valley of Elah, and the Philistines on the southern slopes. David approached Goliath in the valley and took five smooth stones from the small brook (which still exists to this day). Goliath saw this boy and mocked him, but David knew there was no restraint with God to save whether by many or few, or large or small. Trusting fully in Jehovah, David ran to the conflict.

“David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of Jehovah of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted.’ … When the Philistine rose and came and drew near to meet David … [he] ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand into his bag and took from it a stone and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead. And the stone sank into his forehead, so that he fell on his
face to the ground. Thus David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and he struck the Philistine and killed him; but there was no sword in David’s hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled” (1 Samuel 17:45-51 NAS).

David first slung a smooth stone at Goliath’s forehead (the “God spot”), knocking Goliath
unconscious. David then cut off Goliath’s head with Goliath’s own sword, striking terror in the
Philistine army. They fled as Israel attacked. It was a remarkable deliverance: God rewarded the faith of David, who became renowned throughout Israel, to the consternation of Saul.

“So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and prospered; and Saul set him over the men of war. … The women sang as they played, and said, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands.’ Then Saul became very angry … ‘Now what more can he have but the kingdom?’ … Saul looked at David with suspicion from that day on” (1 Samuel 18:5-9 NAS).

Finally, David took Goliath’s armor, and took the severed head of Goliath to Jerusalem (1 Samuel 17:54). We are not told why. Yet consider this: Jerusalem was then controlled by Jebusites, a Canaanite people whom the Israelites had so far failed to remove from the land. Surely the Jebusites, seeing the severed head of Goliath, saw the evidence of God’s remarkable deliverance for his people. It reminded them they were occupying a land promised to Israel.

Years Later

Years later David and his army conquered Jerusalem in an amazing manner (2 Samuel 5 and 1 Chronicles 11). David reigned over the tribe of Judah from Hebron, seven years and six months. Then he was anointed as king over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:4,5). David then determined to make Jerusalem the seat of his government. In Deuteronomy 12:5-7 God told the Israelites in the wilderness that He would choose a place in the promised land for a meeting place between Him and the people. A place for a temple to bring their offerings.

If David knew that this was to be Jerusalem, we are not told. But at the very least David’s desire to have a more centrally placed, fortified location from which to rule Judah and Israel was used of God to accomplish His own purposes.

Conclusion

In these accounts of Jehovah’s deliverance of Israel from the Philistines, both Jonathan and David made themselves instruments of God, proving that there is no restraint with God to save by many or few, or by large or small. Faith in God is able to move mountains.

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